Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Daniel Boyarin when he visited the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae at UC Irvine during the Winter academic quarter. He gave a guest lecture in the TLG for a “Jews in Theory” course that was being offered at the time. Boyarin is currently working on a project studying the use of the Greek word θρησκεία (thréskeia), which is typically translated as “religion.” Boyarin utilized the TLG database to track down all the attested uses of the word in antiquity, to challenge whether this is really the best translation. This current project is very similar to the work done by Brent Nongbri in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.
I also read a number of Boyarin’s earlier publications when taking seminars on the New Testament and Christian origins last Spring quarter. Among the books I read was A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. The apostle Paul is a rather enigmatic figure in early Christianity for a number of reasons. Not only was Paul from the Jewish Diaspora, making him a more Hellenized Jew, but he also joined the original apostles later in Christianity’s development, and likewise had an unusual drive to convert Gentiles. This background placed Paul at the intersection of a number of different cultures in the Mediterranean. Because of his blurred identity, reconstructing the historical Paul can be a rather challenging task.
It was for this reason that New Testament scholars started asking Daniel Boyarin to do more work on the historical Paul, as well as the historical Jesus and the Gospels. Boyarin is, by training, a Talmudic scholar. In fact, he is (literally) one of the leading Talmudic scholars in the world. Very, very few people have comparable credentials. Because of his training in ancient Judaism (though, Boyarin does not like to use the word “Judaism” when describing the ancient Jews, and prefers to call them “Judeans”), NT scholars were interested in his take on Paul’s identity. Could Paul become a Christian, take his mission to the Gentiles, even abandon the practice of circumcising Gentile converts and demanding kosher, and yet still be a fully practicing Jew? Boyarin’s answer is a definite “yes” and in this fascinating book he explains why.
First off, let me just say right off the bat that this book has extensive bibliographical notes, is steeped in theory, and is a highly erudite and challenging read. You can get a real sense of Boyarin’s Talmudic training, just in how he writes. Almost every sentence has some note of commentary.
One of the major themes that Boyarin stresses in the book is Paul’s “universalizing mission.” The Judaism of his day was highly insular, and practices like circumcision and kosher were even designed to differentiate Judeans from their Gentile neighbors. In Galilee, the Judean community was more isolated from the broader world. There were a couple Hellenized cities, such as Sepphoris and Tiberias, but the rural Judeans probably had little interaction with these areas (see Mark Chancey’s The Myth of a Gentile Galilee). Jesus and his earliest followers thus emerged in a highly Judean and Aramaic-speaking context.
Jerusalem was more of an international city, so the Judean community there was a little less insular, but as the capital of the Judeans it still had a strong native culture. Where Paul came from in Tarsus in Asia Minor, however, was quite a different story. Judean culture outside of Palestine was living alongside and competing with many other ethnicities and religions. Paul was a native Greek speaker. The Judeans in his part of the world relied on the Greek Septuagint translation of their scriptures. They were also more savvy in dealing with the Gentiles than their Palestinian cousins .
As Boyarin (pg. 14) argues:
“[T]here were tendencies which, while not sharply defined, already in the first century distinguished Greek-speakers, who were relatively more acculturated to Hellenism, and Hebrew- and Aramaic-speakers, who were less acculturated. These tendencies, on my hypothesis, became polarized as time went on, leading in the end to a sharp division between Hellenizers, who became absorbed into Christian groups, and anti-Hellenizers, who formed the nascent rabbinic movement … The congruence of Paul and Philo [of Alexandria] suggests a common background to their thought in the thought-world of eclectic middle-platonism of Greek-speaking Judaism in the first century.”
At the same time, Boyarin points out that in the Judean scriptures and theology there were implicit universalizing assumptions. The Judeans worshiped only one God (though, they may have been more of henotheists in antiquity than monotheists), who had created the earth and cosmos. They were this God’s chosen people, which was an immense privilege compared to their Gentile neighbors. There was only one Judean temple (the Samaritans were no longer considered Judeans for daring to build another). There was only one Torah and Law (though, this was before the Masoretic Text was formed, so the canon of sacred scriptures was a bit more flexible back then). All of these unitary features of Judean religion seemed to imply that it was the one, correct religion.
And yet the Judeans of Paul’s days, especially the Pharisees, wanted little interaction with the Gentiles. They wanted to retain their insular culture and to draw Judeans away from the outside world. How could there be only one God worthy of worship, and yet most of the world was excluded from his people? How could God create the whole earth and yet only favor a small fraction of its inhabitants? Paul appears to have been greatly troubled by this. We, of course, have no writings of Paul from before his conversion, but even his conflict with Peter and James about taking the gospel to the Gentiles implies that he had a problem with it within Christianity, as well.
As Boyarin (pg. 52) argues:
“I read Paul as a Jewish cultural critic, and I ask what it was in Jewish culture that led him to produce a discourse of radical reform of that culture. This question, moreover, raises two closely related but different points: What was wrong with Jewish culture in Paul’s eyes that necessitated a radical reform? And what in the culture provided the grounds for making that critique? The culture was in tension within itself, characterized both by narrow ethnocentrism and universalist monotheism. I thus contend that Paul’s motivations and theory was genuinely theological, but that his practice and preaching was directed toward radical change in Jewish society.”
What about Christianity was appealing to Paul then? Well, in many ways, it offered a fresh start to Judean culture, as well as an apocalyptic hope. If Christ had come to fulfill the Law (Rom. 10:4), and the time had come when he would rule over the Gentiles (Rom. 15:12), then Paul had a new vehicle to reform Judaism. Converting to Christianity, therefore, may have required little dramatic transformation in Paul at all. Christianity offered a natural step in his aspirations for Judean cultural reform.
How do we explain Paul’s conversion experience, therefore? A lot of Christian apologists like to act like Paul completely came out of nowhere and then had a 180. To begin with, Paul didn’t come out of nowhere. He came from the Diaspora, from a Hellenized Judean culture, and became interested in this new strain of Galilean Judaism. But why would he persecute this movement and then change? The motives for Paul’s persecution are harder to gleen, since he only writes about it after the experience, but Bart Ehrman (“Jesus as the Messiah”) has recently suggested that Paul was probably offended by the fact that Christians were worshipping a crucified Messiah figure. The Messiah was supposed to be a great king or judge, not a crucified criminal. This may have offended Paul, but then Paul changed.
How does Boyarin interpret Paul’s conversion? Would it have required nothing less than a miracle? Well, here is the take of a Talmudic scholar on this issue (pg. 39):
“An enthusiastic first-century Greek-speaking Jew, one Saul of Tarsus, is walking down a road, with a very troubled mind. The Torah, in which he so firmly believes, claims to be the text of the One True God of all the world, who created heaven and earth and all humanity, and yet its primary content is the history of one particular People—almost one family—and the practices that it prescribes are many of them practices which mark off the particularity of that tribe, his tribe. In his very commitment to the truth of the gospel of that Torah and its claim to universal validity lies the source of Saul’s trouble. Not only he but many Jews of the first century shared this sense that something was not right. Philo of Alexandria and the anonymous author of the Wisdom of Solomon seem troubled by the same thoughts. Why would a universal God desire and command that one people should circumcise male members of the tribe and command food taboos that make it impossible for one people to join in table fellowship with all the rest of his children?”
Is this the moment when nothing short of a miracle must have occurred? Well, Boyarin (pg. 39) continues:
“Now this Saul, as a loyal Jew, has in the past been among the most active persecutors of a strange messianic sect that has sprung up recently in Jerusalem. He knows something, therefore, of the claims and beliefs of the participants in that sect, little as they appeal to him. Walking, troubled and musing, all of a sudden Saul has a moment of blinding insight, so rich and revealing that he understands it to have been, in fact, an apocalypse: That very sect, far from being something worthy of persecution, provides the answer to the very dilemma that Saul is facing. The birth of Christ as a human being and a Jew, his death, and his resurrection as spiritual and universal was the model and the apocalypse of the transcendence of the physical and particular Torah for Jews alone by its spiritual and universal referent for all. At that moment Saul died and Paul was born.”
This is exactly the kind of analysis that Christian apologists like Mike Licona rebut is “psychoanalyzing” Paul. And yet here a Talmudic scholar (much above the credentials of apologists) is engaging in this kind of interpretation. To begin with, such an argument has a complete double standard. To say that Paul was entirely in his senses and saw nothing short of a genuine miracle is psychoanalyzing Paul. We don’t know what Paul’s psychological state was or what he saw. But furthermore, neither Boyarin nor other scholars who interpret Paul’s motives are imposing any definitive psychological portrait on Paul. Here is what Boyarin (pp. 39-40) states:
“By telling the story of the conversion of Paul in this way, I am hardly making a claim to know things about ‘what really happened’ … Still less am I claiming to know what was actually going on in the mind of Paul. Rather, I am using the narrative form to construct and communicate the ‘Paul’ that I will present in this book. The Paul that I am constructing here is a highly politicized intervention in biblical interpretation…”
And, indeed, I would never claim to know what really happened to Paul either. We can’t know, since we are thousands of years distanced from the event and only have a few scraps of ancient literature as evidence. But the evidence that needs to be explained is not, “Why did Paul have a vision of Jesus?,” rather than, “Why do we have a few letter references (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:15-16) and scenes in Acts (9:3-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18) that describe a visionary conversion?” Literature can be produced from a variety of causes. We will never know what exactly happened to Paul, but the point remains that there are a variety of psychological, political, and rhetorical causes that can produce such literary claims, and these causes have been demonstrated to genuinely exist with some frequency, while miracles have not.
To wrap up Boyarin’s view of Paul and his conversion to Christianity, I think the following statement from Boyarin (pg. 29) summarizes his view well (if not a bit jargony, but hey, Boyarin is a smart guy who writes that way):
“According to my understanding, ontology, hermeneutics, anthropology, and christology are so intimately related in Pauline thought that they cannot be separated from one another … [T]he fundamental insight of Paul’s apocalypse was the realization that the dual nature of Jesus provided a hermeneutic key to the resolution of that enormous tension that he experienced between the universalism of the Torah’s content and the particular ethnicity of its form.”
Now, for the last part of this review, I am going to depart from discussing Boyarin’s views and instead focus on my own. I don’t think that Boyarin likes to engage with Christian apologetics. But, for me personally, I think it is worthwhile to explain to a general audience why, as someone studying in academia, I do not find apologetic arguments centered around the conversion of Paul to be persuasive. What follows is my opinion, not Boyarin’s.
To begin with, I have already discussed above how Paul’s conversion did not require a complete 180. Paul did not come out of nowhere. He came out of a Hellenized Judean community that was living among Gentiles. When he adopted Christianity as his gospel, he had a perfect vehicle to convert Gentiles, just as his universalizing mission had been driving him. Paul was able to fulfill the cultural critique of Judaism that he had been aiming for.
Moreover, we do not need to psychoanalyze Paul to explain whatever vision or conversion experience he had outside of miraculous causes. As I also discussed above, to even say that Paul soberly saw a genuine miracle is to psychoanalyze him. All we have is ancient literature, and such literature can be produced from a variety of causes. The fact that psychological, political, and rhetorical causes for such claims are far more documented and attested, while miracles are not, provides sufficient justification for arguing that whatever Paul experienced was probably not a genuine miracle.
Likewise, Paul’s conversion is really not that extraordinary, when you really think about it. One guy who had been a former persecutor had a change of heart. It’s not like Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and Tiberius Caesar all converted to Christianity over night (though, I did discuss how later Christians lied and made up conversion stories about the latter two in my recent blog “Tiberius Caesar the Christian?”). Furthermore, Paul was already an odd guy who did not mesh well with much of his surrounding Judean culture. He was a cultural critic, and it is not really that unusual for such a person to join a new religious movement.
But, finally, I don’t think that Paul really converted to Christianity at all. Rather, I think that Paul converted Christianity. We do not have any surviving letters from the original apostles. As Bart Ehrman (Forged: Writing in the Name of God) explains, the letters attributed to Peter and James in the New Testament (not to mention a handful of apocryphal texts also attributed to them) were probably not written by Peter and James. We only have Paul’s letters (to be sure, only seven, since the other letters attributed to Paul are probably forgeries). We also know that Paul disagreed with Peter (Gal. 2:11-19), and yet we don’t have Peter’s side of the story.
Moreover, Paul took his gospel widely outside of Palestine, to cities all across the Eastern Mediterranean and even to Rome (the stories about Peter traveling to Rome are probably spurious). The original Judean Christian community was located more in Jerusalem and Galilee. And, when Jerusalem was destroyed in 7o CE, it began to diminish, and certainly did not spread as rapidly as Pauline Christianity. Pauline Christianity, therefore, was what survived and it is more from this tradition that modern Christianity draws its roots. We probably owe more to Paul in modern Christianity than to any other early Christian figure, including Jesus.
Paul, therefore, accomplished his mission of carrying out a cultural critique of Judaism. That doesn’t require a dramatic transformation at all, except perhaps a transformation of Christianity itself to Paul’s own ideas. He was a clever guy. A Hellenized Judean, living among the Gentiles, who was able to hijack a nascent Messianic movement to spread his own ideas across the Mediterranean. I’ve got to give him credit for that, but I don’t think that any of his story was miraculous.
 An interesting side note is that Boyarin points out that our most prolific Judean authors from the 1st century CE—Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Paul—were all, to varying extents and in different regions, Hellenized Judeans. As such, we actually have more of a literary record of the Hellenized Judeans from this period than the Aramaic-speaking Judeans, which is important to take into consideration when interpreting surviving evidence. It’s not that the Aramaic-speaking Judeans weren’t there, but we simply have a sample bias that, in some respects, sheds more light on Hellenized Judeans.