Who Made Early Christianity?

The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
John G. Gager
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , June
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this small volume of five chapters, John G. Gager aims to show various understandings of Paul that have influenced ancient and not so ancient Christian attitudes vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism. The popular style of the book indicates that it addresses a general audience or targets second-to third-year undergraduate students in religion.

In the first chapter (“Was the Apostle to the Gentiles the Father of Christian Anti-Judaism?”), Gager analyzes the two sets of Pauline texts (anti-Israel/pro-Israel) that seem to be in contradiction with one another regarding the place of the Jewish people in God’s economy. For Gager, a close reading of the texts within their first-century contexts, including the audiences Paul was addressing, reveals that Paul was not an anti-Jewish interpreter, as he is oftentimes accused of being. This conclusion has been well argued and developed in Pauline scholarship over at least the last thirty years.

Chapter 2 (“The Apostle Paul in Jewish Eyes: Heretic or Hero?”) is a good chapter in the sense that it situates Paul, although very briefly, in conversation with some modern Jewish thinkers, including Joseph Klausner, Martin Buber, David Flusser, and Daniel Boyarin. In this endeavor, Paul appears as one who is an important interlocutor with these thinkers and other religious/cultural interpreters who discuss Paul’s place within contemporary Jewish thought.

Chapter 3 (“Let’s Meet Downtown in the Synagogue: Four Case Studies”) is a chapter replete with excellent information and beautiful images about ancient Jewish synagogues, but it is difficult, at least to this reviewer, to see the rationale for including this chapter in a book on Paul’s Jewish lives. There is only one cursory reference to Paul on page 65. In terms of writing style, the chapter is better suited to a scholarly audience, than to the more general audience that seems to be the target for the other chapters.

Chapter 4 (“Two Stories of How Early Christianity Came to Be”) is the least successful of all the chapters thus far. The problem of a clear audience still looms large, and the reason for including this chapter in the book, and how it advances a coherent argument in relation to the title of the book, is also present. The author does not quote E. P. Sanders properly. He states, “more recently, the distinguished American scholar, E. P. Sanders has written this: ‘Paul explicitly denies that the Jewish covenant can be effective of [sic] salvation, thus consciously denying the basis of Judaism’” (88). In fact, the quote, which is in italics in Sanders’s text, reads thus: “Paul in fact explicitly denies that the Jewish covenant can be effective for salvation,…”. Also, a text that is forty years old this year is hardly a “more recent” one. The author also states: “The setting of this verse in Mark is a dispute with the Pharisees (The Pharisees again, not “the Jews”) over washing hands before eating” (95). Were the Pharisees not Jews as well? And were they not likely the prime reference of the Gospels to “the Jews” with whom Jesus took exception? This chapter does contain some interesting material, but most of it is irrelevant to the topic of the “Jewish lives of the Apostle Paul.”

Chapter 5 (“Turning the World Upside Down: An Ancient Jewish Life of Jesus”) centers on the Toledot Yeshu (The Life of Jesus) in order to understand the complicated relations between Christians and Jews over the span of many centuries. The chapter’s goal, according to the author, is to “deal with another Jewish life of Jesus” (117). It becomes then very confusing to the reader interested in the Jewish lives of Paul to see its significance. The only connection to Paul in this chapter is found in its final sentence, where the author explains the place of the Toledot in some Jewish imaginaries that purport to help them navigate social and political circumstances that can be hostile to them: “Not only was Christianity a false religion, devoid of all truth, it was a Jewish creation, produced by two Jewish heroes, Peter and Paul” (138).

In the “Epilogue” the author returns to Paul and to the importance of studying Paul within his Jewish milieu. He concludes strongly by stating that “Paul was not a Christian or the maker of Christian anti-Judaism; he is a first-century Jew who makes sense only in that setting” (141). The author thinks that this way of reading and understanding Paul matters in the necessary and ongoing conversations between Jews and Christians today. And in spite of all its shortcomings, this book may help some readers understand some of the complexities between two similar, but different, religious traditions. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronald Charles is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at St. Francis Xavier Univeristy,Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Date of Review: 
December 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John G. Gager is William H. Danforth Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism; Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early ChristianityThe Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian AntiquityCurse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World; and Reinventing Paul.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.