Alan F. Segal. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. xvi, 368 pages. $17.00, paper.
There was a time when those who opposed Jewish evangelism saw Jesus as the bad guy,” the deceiver, the one who led Israel astray. Today Jesus gets a much more favorable “review” among Jewish writers, while Paul the apostle now has the distinction of being the heavy, the villain, the one who took the good Jewish teaching of Jesus, paganized it and came up with a new religion. Jesus has undergone a “reclamation” among Jewish scholars. Perhaps Paul will too: Paul the Convert is not a bad example of a more favorable treatment of the apostle by a Jewish writer, though it still falls far short of a biblically and historically accurate picture. Alan Segal, professor of religion at Barnard College, has produced a scholarly volume which will be rough going for the general reader. But it is an important indication of a trend among Jewish writers and should be noticed for that reason alone.
Here is the key to Segal’s book: Paul’s conversion is not primarily theological, but sociological. Segal defines conversion as “a decision to change commitments from one religious community to another” (p. 117), a matter of switching one’s group. This is in fact a viewpoint often heard from Jewish people who are trying to fathom how a Jewish person could possibly believe in Jesus. In the case of Paul, what he switched from was participation in a Pharisaic Jewish community to participation in a largely Gentile Christian community.
There is much in Segal’s book that is positive. It is the work of a Jewish scholar who takes the Jewishness of Paul seriously. This is no small thing in a field in which Jewish scholars have almost uniformly relegated Paul to the shadowy borders between paganism and Judaism.
For instance, chapter two contains the remarkable argument that the Christian idea of the divinity of Christ was part of a larger Jewish tradition in which angels and even men are transformed into virtually divine status. Although a man attaining divine status clearly falls short of the Christian understanding of the Incarnation, it marks an important step in Jewish scholarship in showing that Paul’s doctrines do not have to be divorced from a Jewish frame of reference.
Again, Segal describes Paul’s conversion experience as a mystical visionary one similar to the experiences of Jewish mystics of early rabbinic times. That is certainly preferable to those who see Paul’s experience as epilepsy or as brought on by psychological trauma!
Along with the positive aspects of his book, Segal must also be criticized in the following areas:
1. His thesis that Paul gained his earliest Christian experience in a Gentile Christian community will certainly come as a surprise to many. For nowhere does he explain how a Gentile community came into existence before Paul began his apostolic ministry; and nowhere does he explain why a Pharisee like Saul would have been motivated to spend fourteen years in a Gentile community or allowed Gentiles to become his teachers. The scriptural record shows that it was his conversion and subsequent understanding that sent him to the Gentiles, not the Gentiles who provided him with understanding.
2. Related to this, Segal does not comprehend that becoming a Christian does not mean ceasing to be a member of the Jewish community. True enough, he states that the church was composed of both Jews and Gentiles. And also true, the church is a new, redeemed community. But surely Segal does not believe that one cannot be (for example) both Japanese and American simultaneously, that is, a member of two communities at the same time. Entering a community does not necessarily mean switching from another community.
3. In reducing conversion to a switch of social groups, Segal misses the scriptural necessity for all men to turn to God in repentance and faith. This is why he can write, “Therefore there are no second generation conversions but the children are ‘socialized into Christianity'” (p. 72). He writes that for Paul “the vocabulary of repentance was inapplicable to his [conversion] experience, though probably not to the experience of the Gentile community” (p. 134). The idea that a practicing Jew needs no repentance (see p. 20) not only sounds like it comes from the modern Jewish-Christian dialogue movement, but seems to forget that Yom Kippur exists on the Jewish calendar!
4. Segal’s interpretation of Scripture is questionable at crucial points. His views on Romans 2 are idiosyncratic. He claims that Paul is not dealing with the Mosaic Law but with human law courts. His conclusion is that Jewish courts are more corrupt than Gentile ones since they should know better! His exegesis of Romans 7 rests on an alleged Pauline distinction between the physical and the spiritual that cannot be maintained; and it equates keeping the ceremonial law with being “fleshly,” radically misunderstanding Paul’s remark about “knowing Jesus after the flesh.” Thus he interprets Romans 13:14, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh,” to mean that Paul is advising us not to observe Jewish practices, that is, the ceremonial law (p. 252).
There is a good deal in Segal’s work that helps us understand and advocate the Jewishness of Paul. He does a good job in showing that some elements generally held to be the most un-Jewish (the divinity of Christ; Paul’s visionary experiences) find a place within a Jewish milieu. But he falls short especially in his approach to conversion. There is still more “reclamation” of Paul that needs to take place in the Jewish community.
Rich Robinson is editor of The Messianic Review of Books.