Book Review: Brad H. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian

Young, Brad H. Paul the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee among Christians, Jews, and Gentiles (Peabody, Mass. Hendrickson, 1997). 164 p. $18, pb.

Despite the fact that this book is a few years old now, I am reviewing it now for several reasons. First, part of my dissertation touched on Jesus’ teaching style. Like most people writing on the topic, I argued that Jesus interacted with the Hebrew Bible in the same way his contemporaries did, using the same exegetical tools and methods to say something about his own mission. Frequently when chatting casually about this topic, someone would say, “have your read Brad Young? He does that sort of thing.” Second, I am revising some notes on Paul and Young’s book on Paul as Jewish theologian seemed like a good read to orient my thinking on Paul’s so-called “Jewish thinking.” Third, one of the criticisms I faced early on in my dissertation was a kind of reaction against Sanders, Dunn, and Wright who (I was told) tend to over emphasized Jesus as a Jew. I was told that they tend to use “Jewishness” as a criterion of authenticity, something this particular scholar thought was weak.  The same is true for Paul.  Thus I had high hopes when I dove into this book  on Paul as a “Jewish Theologian.”

Unfortunately, the book did not contain what the title promise. Young begins with a strong attack on the de-Judaizing tendency of the church from the second century until recently. I wholeheartedly agree that not taking the Jewish context of both Jesus and Paul into considerate skews our reading and most likely results in theology which is not drawn from the text of Scripture. However, I have a whole shelves of books on the Jewishness of Jesus, or the rabbinic heart of Paul. It seems to me he protests too much, claiming that the church says there is no Grace in the Old Testament. Jews work for salvation, Christians just believe. I am sure more than one preacher has said this sort of thing, but even the old-school Dispensationalists I heard growing up always emphasized that God is always gracious and merciful and that salvation is always my grace through faith.

Young tends to employ strawman arguments. For example, in his chapter on Paul and the Torah, he spends more time pitting Matthew 5:17 (“I have not come to destroy the Law”) against Marcion than treating the key texts in Paul on Law (Rom 3:31 is mentioned, but that is the only text he cites!) The reader does not learn how Paul can be described as a “Jewish theologian,” although it is fairly clear Marcion was completely wrong.  Not that I am in favor of Marcion, but it is fairly easy to vilify him and the suggest that the church has been “Marcionite.”

Another problem with Young’s style is his lack of support for rather important statements. For example, he states that there are “remarkable parallels” between Paul’s theology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (p. 17), but not a single example is given and it is another 60 pages before he finally treats 4QMMT, albeit briefly. What are these remarkable parallels?   I suppose I am asking too much to see a whole list of examples, but a single example, even in a footnote, would be enough to show that this is more than just an assertion.  Later in the book he states that the “Torah is spiritual,” and then draws the parallel to Romans 8:2, “the Law of the Spirit of Life” (p. 25). What “Torah is Spiritual” is left unexplained, nor is it clear what he means – is Paul claiming that the Torah is the “Spirit of Life”? That does not seem to be the case in Romans, but one is left puzzled.

Other times I was left wanting for data to support a statement I wanted to believe. For example, in dealing with “abolishing the Law” in Matt 5:17, he states that the Greek καταλύω is a Hebrew equivalent of batel, a word which means “to cancel,” but used in legal contexts means to misunderstand Torah. He provides no evidence, and when I look up καταλύω in the LXX, I find that 8 of the 66 times it is used are in the Torah, and all of them mean “to lodge” or “to camp.” None are in legal contexts at all. I then used Logos to check the Hebrew words used to translate καταλύω, batel is not ever translated with the word. In fact, I am not sure what Hebrew word he has in mind given that transliteration. I tried searching and reverse-searching HALOT, but I could not find the form he has in mind. His point is good, and I would love to be able to agree, but he asserts more than he proves.

I found a few things included in the book strange, given the topic. For example, he has a short chapter on Pentecost as a foundation for Pauline mission. I doubt this statement, but Young spends most of the chapter talking about the messianic implications of the feasts rather than showing how Pentecost is foundational for Paul’s (Gentile) mission. On page 39 he suggests that the inclusion of the Golden Rule in the letter to the Gentiles after the Jerusalem council found in Codex Bezae are “represent a more original form of the council’s decision.” I am not sure anyone would seriously argue in favor of that point.

While this review is negative, that is not to say that the book is without value. Young does approach Paul properly, in my view, arguing that he was a Pharisee and he remained a Pharisee throughout his career.  The book will appeal to the non-expert and perhaps lead them towards other, better studies of the “Jewishness” of Paul.  What is missing is an explanation how Paul’s theology reflects Pharisaical Judaism of the Second Temple Period. I find myself in agreement with the overall thesis of the book but because the book is written at the popular level, I am left wanting for the details.