Bird, Michael F. An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. xii + 322 pages; Pb. $28. Link to Eerdmans
This new collection of essays from Michael Bird includes three chapters previously published and two lengthy chapters written for this volume. A lengthy thirty-page introduction explains what Bird means by “an anomalous Jew” (aside from the play on John Meier’s work on the Historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew or Daniel Boyarin’s Paul: A Radical Jew). Although it is commonplace in contemporary scholarship to acknowledge Paul’s Jewish roots, Bird points out Paul says things that no other Torah-affirming Jew would say and he was opposed violently by Torah-affirming Jews. Paul’s view of what God is doing in the present age through Jesus Christ led to his “decentering of the Torah” (7). So if Paul is a Jewish thinker, how should he be situated in what we know about Second Temple period Judaism?
Prior to the twentieth century, situating Paul within Judaism was not even considered since Paul was read as completely rejecting his Jewish (legalistic) religion and “converting” to Christianity. Aside from the historical anachronisms, the traditional view of Paul was at best anti-Semitic. But since the Holocaust Pauline scholarship had returned the idea Paul represents some form of early Judaism. Bird offers several contemporary scholarly opinions that Paul was a Former Jew (Martyn), a Transformed Jew (Sanders, Dunn and the New Perspective), a Faithful Jew (Mark Nanos), or even a Radical Jew (Daniel Boyarin). Bird picks up on a suggestion from John Barclay that Paul was an anomalous diaspora Jew, although he wants to include the “thoroughly Judean Paul” of W. D. Davies, E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective (27).
Having charted the course in his introduction, Bird then turns to “Salvation in Paul’s Judaism” (chapter 1, a shorter version appeared in Paul and Judaism, LNTS 463; T&T Clark 2012). He begins by surveying several recent attempts to describe Paul’s view of salvation as being either against Judaism or within it. If Paul was against the Judaism of his day, then he was necessarily supersessionist and conceived of Christianity as the replacement for Israel. But if Paul stayed in some sense within Judaism, then Paul viewed Jews and Gentiles as a “remnant within Israel who occupy a special place within an irrevocably elected Israel” (45). Bird concludes Paul was somewhere between these two poles since he seems intra-Judaism with respect to halakic discussions, but contra-Judaism in the sense he says things no Second Temple Jew would, such as the Torah leads to death.
Written specifically for this volume, the second essay in the collection asks if Paul was an Apostle to the Gentiles and Jews. Bird begins with the observation that Paul’s title of “apostle to the Gentiles” has obscured his continued mission to the Jews. Since the epistles of Paul may be used to argue Paul only went to the Gentiles after his conversion, the accuracy of Acts is questions (since Paul continues to reach out to Jews throughout his whole career). Bird therefore focuses this essay on the place of the Jews in Paul’s apostolate to the Gentiles (71). In order to achieve this goal, he begins with an overview of the vocabulary Paul used for non-believing non-Jews (ἔθνη, Ἕλλην, ἀκροβυστία, περιτομή, ἄνομος). This vocabulary is more “fuzzy” than often observed, especially when used to describe the target of Paul’s mission. Bird has a helpful chart on page 85 demonstrating that there are both lawless Gentiles and Jews, Greeks (Hellenes who may also be lawless) but Diaspora Jews (who might be Hellenistic but keep the Law).
Bird argues Paul did in fact target Jews in the Diaspora, but also that his mission evolved over the years. Although this is not controversial as far as I can see, Bird goes on to ask when Paul received his commission to go to the Gentiles. He argues the evidence from Acts is ambiguous. Acts 9:15 indicates he was to carry Jesus’ name to “Gentiles and Kings and the sons of Israel.” In fact, Paul does go to synagogues where he preaches that Jesus is the Messiah, and he does continue to go to synagogues in the book of Acts. One potential problem is Paul’s time in Arabia, but Bird argues Paul’s focus was on Jews living in the Nabatean kingdom, especially around Damascus. What may be controversial in this essay is Bird’s contention the commission to go to the Gentiles occurs after the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. It is only after this watershed moment that Paul begins to partition his Gentile churches from the synagogues (96). Bird thinks this may help understand Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 that he became a Jew in order to win the Jews, and a Gentile to win the Gentiles. Given the flexible vocabulary Paul uses to describe his mission, Paul’s target were those who were not in Christ, which may include some Jews. The door was opened to the Gentiles, but as Bid says, it was never closed to the Jews (104).
By the end of this chapter, Bird indicates Acts is a trustworthy guide, which raises a question for the thesis Paul’s Gentile mission developed more fully after the Jerusalem Council. Although he acknowledges the synagogue sermon in Acts 13 is paradigmatic for Lukan theology, he overlooks the important symbolic miracle earlier in that chapter. After “Barnabas and Saul” visit synagogues on Cyprus, Saul approaches a Roman official. This man is not a God-fearing Gentile (like Cornelius) and appears to be a pagan Roman. When Saul attempts to share the Gospel with him, a Jewish sorcerer attempts to stop him. At this point in the story Luke tells the readers Saul is also called Paul, and Paul delivers a judgment speech on the Jewish sorcerer and he is blinded for a time. After this dramatic incident, Luke only uses the name Paul and almost always places Paul first (“Paul and Barnabas,” the only exception is at the Jerusalem council). This symbolic blinding is explained in the synagogue sermon later in Acts 13, where Paul and Barnabas “turn to the Gentiles” for the first time in the book of Acts. Luke has used this story at a crucial turning point in his overall story, but the incident also seems to indicate Paul was targeting a Roman official before the Jerusalem council. I have no doubt Bird is correct that Paul’s missionary strategy developed and matured over the years and it is absolutely the case Paul continued to use the synagogue as a platform for preaching Jesus as Messiah. But perhaps he was engaged in Gentile mission such as approaching Romans such as Sergius Paulus from the beginning.
At a combined one hundred pages, chapters 3 and 4 are a kind of mini-commentary on Galatians. In chapter three Bird offers an assessment of recent apocalyptic readings of Galatians (“An Invasive Story: An Apocalyptic and Salvation-Historical Rereading of Galatians”). As his first two footnotes make clear, apocalyptic readings of Galatians are a hot topic for Pauline scholars in recent years. There are two ways of nuancing the issue. For many Pauline scholars such as Krister Stendahl, a salvation-history or covenantal approach is an adequate explanation for Paul’s theology. Paul’s theology is set within the larger story of Israel. But for others (Käsemann and Beker), apocalyptic is central to Paul’s thinking. By apocalyptic, these scholars focus on Jesus as the messiah and his death and resurrection as an apocalyptic event which creates a new world, perhaps a new “kingdom of God.” Louis Martyn and Douglas Campbell make a sharp distinction between these two approaches, although others (Wright, Dunn, for example) see a unity between salvation history and an apocalyptic reading of the Christ event. After surveying some of the literature, Bird engages with Martyn’s apocalyptic interpretation of Paul (especially in his Anchor Bible Galatians commentary) in order to show the dichotomy between salvation history and apocalyptic is not necessary. Bird says “there is no requirement we divorce Paul’s apocalyptic theology from its metanarrative of the Jewish Scriptures” (116) because apocalyptic properly understood is the climax of God’s saving purpose for his people, not a whole new start, and certainly not a repudiation of the past” (121). After examining several key texts in Galatians, Bird concludes “Paul’s apocalyptic gospel is necessarily salvation-historical by nature of the Jewish context of his eschatology and Christology” (167).
This conclusion helps unpack the title of the collection, Paul was truly anomalous in the sense that the Law was preparatory for salvation rather than necessary for salvation, a conclusion which was provocative and an affront to Paul’s Jewish opponents. I am reminded of F. F. Bruce’s comment in his Galatians commentary, the Law was a parenthesis between the promise to Abraham and the present age (NIGTC, 153-4). This view of the Law would certainly be anomalous in Second Temple Judaism.
In chapter four, Bird returns to Galatians 2:11-14 and argues the incident at Antioch represents “the beginnings of Paulinism.” An earlier version of this essay was published in Earliest Christian History (ed. Bird and Matson; WUNT 2.320; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012): 329-61. In this essay, Bird returns to one of the more tantalizing sections of Galatians, Paul’s confrontation of Peter in Antioch. In chapter 2 Bird has already suggested Paul’s mission to the Gentiles developed over time and that the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) played a significant role in targeting Paul’s missionary efforts at the Gentiles.
The final chapter in this collection (“The Apostle Paul and the Roman Empire”) is an expansion of Bird’s contribution to Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP Academic, 2013). Bird thinks “anyone vaguely familiar with the Roman imperium could see Paul articulating the vision of an alternative empire” (254). In the earlier essay, Bird made four points in favor of an anti-imperialism in the Pauline letters. Each are considerably expanded for this new essay, as are his “lingering doubts.” His literature survey is slightly expanded and now includes interaction with “Augustus guru” Karl Galinski and some account of the “scholarly melee: between John Barclay and N. T. Wright with respect to the importance of the imperial cult to this discussion. What is extremely valuable is the inclusion of all of the texts in Romans which may (or may not) be read as anti-imperial. In the shorter essay Bird was limited to only Romans 1:16-17; 13:1-7 and 15:5-13. In this longer form essay he is able to be more comprehensive as well as draw more scholarship into the dialogue. However, his conclusion remains the same: “Romans is not a political manifesto” (Jesus is Lord, 161; An Anomalous Jew, 253), both essays citing William Ramsay’s statement that “a universal Paulinism and a universal Empire must either coalesce or they one must destroy the other.”
Conclusion. As with any collection of essays drawn from various sources, there is potential for lack of cohesion between the chapters. Michael Bird has worked hard to draw previously printed essays back to the title of the book: why does Paul appear to be an anomalous Jew? Although this is achieved by editing the introductions and conclusions to each essay, each topic does in fact demonstrate Paul operated within the world of Judaism, but he certainly did not fit the pattern of other early Jewish Christ-believers or other Jewish groups from the Second Temple period.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.