Review of Patrick Gray on the History of Anti-Paulinism

Review of Patrick Gray on the History of Anti-Paulinism April 13, 2018

Patrick Gray, Paul as Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle Paul and His Critics through the Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), x + 262 pp, $21.05, ISBN 9780801048838.
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This is easily the best book I’ve read this year!

Patrick Gray’s volume is a documentation of the history of anti-Paulinism. Paul has been much maligned in theology, literature, cinema, and by political leaders. Gray is neither Paul’s advocate, nor his defender, but aims “to report on the participants and to take note of the attitudes and assumptions at work” (7).

Chapter 1 examines Paul according to the NT with Acts presenting Paul as a noble controversialist and the Pauline letters suggest that “Paul routinely faced skepticism about his Jewishness, his relationship to the Jerusalem church, and by extension his apostolic credentials” (18-19). Critiques of him combined personal behavior as well as religious practices. Complaints against Paul were for him being “domineering, dishonest, and too quick to set aside the requirements of Torah” (24).

Chapter 2 covers the pre-modern era, where Paul could be the “divine Apostle” for Clement of Alexandria and the only apostle for Marcion. Yet some Jewish Christians groups such as the Ebionites, Elchasites, and the Encratites rejected Paul and his writings. Plus he was also excoriated by pagan writers like Porphry and Julian the apostate. Interesting too is Gray’s survey of medieval Muslim rhetoric against Paul. Critiques of Paul could be a microcosm of critiques against Christianity as a whole.

Chapter 3 surveys Enlightenment responses beginning with the diminishing of Paul by John Locke, the Jewish polemics of Isaac of Troki, through to the rationalistic attacks by deists such as John Toland, Peer Annet, and Thomas Paine. Chief was the accusation of Paul as a corruptor of a natural religion and the religion of Jesus.

Chapter 4 narrates eighteenth-century response to Paul, including Thomas Jefferson for whom Paul was “the great Coryphaeus” (i.e. Greek chorus leader) of a “band of dupes and imposters” (65). English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Not Paul, but Jesus excoriated Paul praised Jesus as non-ascetic and sexually progressive who engaged in “eccentric pleasures” with the Beloved Disciple. The chapter also mentions Richard Carlile, F.C. Baur, and Leo Tolstoy. Nietzsche reviled Jesus and Paul as “the two most Jewish Jews who ever lived,” and Paul was “the eternal Wandering Jew par excellence” who united pathetic outcasts in his symbol of the crucified God, and he saw Christianity as an amplification of the worst elements of Judaism without its redeeming features (82-83). This was a titillating chapter by Gray, full of juicy quotes about raw animus against Paul.

Chapter 5 demonstrates how “anti-Paulinism achieves a bewildering diversity in the modern period” (113) with Paul accused of being everything from a Bolshevik by Adolf Hitler to a camp homosexual by Gore Vidal. Paul is the second founder of Christianity and its arch-perverter, sexually repressed and a sexual repressor. The 20th century is scathing of Paul in theology, literature, and arts.

Chapter 6 is a provocative summary of the Jewish reception of Paul in the twentieth-century, noting the standard trope of Jesus as a good guy and Paul as a bad goy. Strangely enough, even Nazi religious ideology followed a similar path, with Paul a perverter of the religion of the Aryan Jesus. Concerning attempts to rehabilitate Paul as more palatable to Jewish sensitivities in the post-holocaust era, Gray notes the tenuous nature of some claims that Paul did not believe in Jewish conversion, he did not think Jesus was the Messiah, or Jesus was only the Messiah for Gentiles. Gray thinks Paul did not so much quit Judaism so to speak as got good fired. Paul is not the founder of Christianity, rather, that role belongs to the Jews who believed that Paul warranted ostracism (131-32). He follows Rivkin in suggesting that Paul did not leave Judaism as much as introduce “a mutational Jewish identity” (141).

Chapter 7 examines antagonism against Paul in the not-so-modern trope of spiritual versus religious. Then, chapter 8 briefly entertains quaint counter-factuals as to what might have been if Paul didn’t exist, if he taught differently, or went east rather than west. While chapter 9 sees Paul as embodying many of the concerns and anxieties that would have plagued other potential founders of Christianity from John the Baptist to Mary Magdalene. Finally, chapter 10 notes how debates about founder versus successor and competition between rival schools is actually a feature found in other religions.

In the conclusion Gray proffers a taxonomy of anti-Paulinism as Paul the pagan, judaizer, libertine, moralize, propagandist, misogynist, teacher, and hypocrite. He says much of the criticism of Paul is “argued cogently” and “merits serious consideration” while some critics are simply “shrill,” “over the top” and “incoherent” (203-4). He notices a correlation between anti-Paulinism and regarding Paul as the founder of Christianity. The notion of Paul as “founder” flounders on Lucan narrative of Acts, the existence of Christianities outside the Roman empire, and how the Gospels can be correlated with Paulinism on various levels. Indeed, if Paul was no antithetical to Jesus, a bonafide anti-Christ of sorts, one is left wondering why Paul even tried to base a whole new “religion” on the person of Jesus.  In the end, Gray thinks we should envisage a “creative fidelity” (209) to Paul’s adoption, adaptation, and interpretation of Jesus traditions.

All in all, this is a brilliant volume, a luminous meta-critical study of the criticism of Paul, and compulsory reading for anyone engaging Pauline studies or interested in Christianity and culture.

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