Brian J. Dodd. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 180 pages. $12.99, paper.
Once upon a time, Jesus was a villain to many Jewish people. That is not as true today. The Jewish assessment of Jesus began to change with the Enlightenment and a full-fledged Jewish reclamation of Jesus” is now taking place. The average Jewish person is willing to offer generally positive opinions about Jesus: he was a prophet, he was a good teacher, he was a rabbi, he was a political martyr. Some even say he was the first Reform Jew.
These kudos come at a price: those who hold such views generally mean that Jesus was a good teacher—BUT. He was no more than that—not the son of God and not the Messiah. For many Jews, Christianity is thought to be the invention of the true villain, the Apostle Paul. When Jewish people say, “Christianity is against pleasure” or “Christians believe in pie in the sky” or “Christianity is anti-Semitic,” they are really referring to what they think Paul taught. He is the one who invented a new religion different from the religion of Jesus. He is the one who inflicted upon future generations his neuroses, his hatred of the Law, and countless other aberrations. When such sentiments are expressed by Jewish people (most of whom are free-thinkers when it comes to religion), they are following a prevailing liberal, secular view of what Christianity is all about. Jesus is okay; Christianity, understood as the offspring of Paul’s teaching, is not okay. It is life-denying, repressive, anti-sex, anti-women, and anti-Jewish.
Brian Dodd, pastor and scholar, has prepared a very readable volume to address these very misperceptions and caricatures. Though written to a general audience, it effectively responds as well to such Jewish books as Trude Weiss-Rosmarin’s Judaism and Christianity: The Differences, which was first published in 1943. Weiss-Rosmarin cites Galatians to show that Christianity allegedly “glorifies celibacy” and that it locates the source of all evil in “the flesh.” In discussing the Law, she names Paul as “the wizard of propaganda and organization who built the Church,” who engaged in “bitter attacks against the Law.” A more recent counter-missionary book, Judaism’s Truth Answers the Missionaries, includes the following disparaging descriptions in its index: “Paul and his Deceit,” “Paul Denied Law of Moses is Good, Contradicting Jesus.”1 Jewish author Hyam Maccoby of The Mythmaker,2 argued in his 1986 volume that Paul was the founder of Christianity, but unlike most other Jewish authors, he also concludes that Paul was really a Gentile!
A “Jewish reclamation of Paul” has yet to take place. And like so much in the modern Jewish argument against the gospel, the aversion to Paul is parasitic upon earlier liberal non-Jewish misunderstandings of the apostle. Therefore The Problem with Paul, even though addressed to a general readership, is a helpful book for anyone confronting Jewish responses to Christianity and to Paul. Dodd emphasizes understanding the cultural background to Paul, including of course the Jewish culture of his day.
In an introductory chapter, the author invites his readers into a conversation with the apostle. This conversation reveals Paul in terms of his own setting and his own culture, rather than approaching him from a 1990s vantage point. This understanding is seminal to Dodd’s chapters that follow.
Dodd presents six facets of Paul and his teaching that have regularly been either misunderstood or caricatured, often by failing to take account of the first-century context. “The Male Chauvinist and the Modern Woman” deals with charges of sexism in Paul’s letters. The delightfully titled “Paul on the Oprah Winfrey Show: The Apostle’s Views on Sex and Pleasure” debunks the idea of Paul as ascetic. “Single Paul and His Married Followers” deals with Paul and the charges that he was anti-marriage, while “The Slave of Christ and the Slaves of Antiquity” handles the charge that Paul was morally blind and a maintainer of an unethical status quo. “The Hebrew of Hebrews and Anti-Semitism” investigates the charge that Paul was anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, while “Paul’s Problem Personality” takes stock of the psychologized view of Paul, in which neurosis and the scars of trauma are said to be the true root of Paul’s teaching. A short concluding chapter, “Paul on His Best Day,” rounds out the book, which is supplied with ample endnotes though no index.
The strengths of the book are several. Dodd repeatedly seeks to place Paul in his own cultural setting, re-emphasizing that reading Paul through postmodern eyes is to misread him. For example, the charge of sexism is analyzed through the lens of first-century society. Dodd writes:
Paul lived in a time when women and children had a far lower status than they do today.…In our terms, Paul’s world was sexist and hierarchical. In light of this, it is not Paul’s “sexist” comments that would have struck the women and men of his day but his progressive comments about women. His statements that appear to place women hierarchically beneath men would not have been in any sense unique in a world of slavery and subjugation. But his comments that value women and place them front and center in the community leap off the page (pp. 22-23).
Dodd unpacks this from five of Paul’s letters, including such passages as Romans (which mentions a number of women leaders) and 1 Corinthians 7 (in which Paul applies the same sex and marriage ethic to men as to women, in contrast with the prevailing double standard of Paul’s day). He always concludes with an appropriate application to our modern life. From Paul’s context to ours is the flow of the argument. Only by starting with Paul’s situation before moving to our own can we avoid the caricatures that have become commonplace regarding Paul.
Similarly, Dodd deals with the issue of slavery from Paul’s cultural setting. Some liberal-minded Jews and Gentiles whose sentiments are anti-Christian charge Paul (and Christianity) with supporting inhumane institutions like slavery. However, the modern reader needs to know that ancient slavery was far different from pre–Civil War American slavery.
Among many points of comparison, helpfully condensed into a chart (pp. 87-89), we discover that whereas American slavery was “degrading and dehumanizing,” in the ancient world “slavery was viewed as an opportunity. Large numbers of persons sold themselves into slavery to find a better life than they had as free people and to secure special jobs and to climb socially” (p. 88). Certainly the quality of life as a slave “could vary dramatically, but in no way can Roman slavery be reduced to the subjugation and oppression experienced in America” (p. 85).
All this is not to exonerate the Roman slave system but to point out that we must look at Paul’s words on slaves through first-century and not twentieth-century eyes.
A second strength of the book (especially welcome for those dealing with Jewish responses to Paul) is the author’s appreciation of Paul’s Jewishness and attention to the Jewish as well as Greco-Roman cultural background. Dodd responds to Jewish critics such as Hyam Maccoby who sees Paul’s view of marriage as non-Jewish. “Nothing of this,” writes Maccoby, “is derived from Judaism. Unmarried people, in Jewish tradition, are regarded with pity, not admiration.” In reply, Dodd cites three pieces of Jewish evidence to the contrary: (1) Jesus’ singleness did not cause the Jewish crowds of his day to show him pity, but rather they saw him as superior to their own rabbis, (2) Jeremiah the Jewish prophet similarly shared a commitment to the single life, and (3) the Jewish community of Qumran, contemporary with Paul, practiced celibacy. Dodd devotes a full chapter to refuting the charge of anti-Semitism in Paul’s writings.
Paul was not anti-Semitic. This is an anachronistic reading of the text. His comments about Jews are those of intra-Jewish polemics rather than anti-Jewish rhetoric. Polemics were an expected element of effective ancient argumentation. Rather than reflecting Paul’s bigotry against fellow Jews, Paul’s attacking remarks indicate that he was an ancient communicator who was comfortable with the conventions of his culture (p. 114).
Dodd then explicates in detail counter-arguments to the charge. (1) Paul was proud of his Jewish background (see Romans 11:1 and Philippians chapter 3), (2) Paul counts Jews as equals with Gentiles. Far from being anti-Semitic, Paul labors to correct the reverse problem, namely first-century Jewish negative attitudes towards Gentiles against which Paul speaks in passages such as Romans 3:29.
Next, the author unpacks several passages said by some to be anti-Semitic: 2 Corinthians 11:24, Philippians 3:2-4, and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. As Dodd points out (the reviewer here condenses several pages’ worth of discussion): (1) “the Jews are not being vilified any more than the Gentiles who trouble the Thessalonian readers”; (2) “this passage sounds more like the correctives of Paul’s Old Testament precursors than the ravings of twentieth-century Nazis. For example, Elijah uses the same kind of language about his fellow Jews”; (3) “the sweeping nature of the condemnation of Jews who reject the Messiah Jesus…reflects the way argument and disagreement were conducted in Paul’s day.…Paul is evenhanded in his use of this technique, applying it to Gentiles…Christian Judaizers…and Cretans.” His conclusion: “Thus, Paul’s comments are at once those of intra-Jewish polemic and typical ancient rhetoric” (pp. 119-20).
Additional sections in the same chapter discuss the misuse of Paul’s words to further the cause of anti-Semitism down through the centuries; and the question of whether Paul was anti-Judaism, that is, how Paul related to the Jewish religion of his day. Following a lengthy discussion, Dodd concludes that “Paul demonstrates both continuity and discontinuity with Judaism.” This conclusion is refreshing when one considers the history of Jewish missions. There was a time when it was considered proper in Jewish evangelism to belittle rabbinic Judaism and argue for the “superiority” of Christianity. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and we find Jewish (and Gentile) believers who mistake glorification of rabbinic Judaism for a proper appreciation of the Jewishness of the gospel. If Dodd is right, neither side can count Paul as an ally. The final section in this chapter concludes with “Paul’s Abiding Passion for Israel.”
As far as Jewish evangelism is concerned, this book is quite helpful in providing a response to nonbelievers who have relegated Paul into the category of villain. It is also valuable in the discipling of new Jewish believers. Certainly, if this had been a book addressed exclusively to the Jewish mission situation, other material could have been brought in. For example, it can be shown that Paul’s becoming “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22) is not inconsistent or deceitful, but follows a rabbinic method of education.3 But the book was not intended for Jewish missions use only, and as a general response to Paul it accomplishes its purpose. Some Jewish believers may take issue with the author on matters such as the place of the Law or the nature of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the Church. But in true Jewish style, there is always room for differences of opinion on sticky issues.
In conclusion, this is a readable and useful volume, often giving a fresh perspective on problem passages. It is a book both for one’s own library and to which inquirers can be referred.
1 Moshe, Beth. Judaism’s Truth Answers the Missionaries. New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1987, p. 274.
2Maccoby, Hyam. The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.
3As shown by David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Ayer, 1992; ? 1956), pp. 336-41.