Two Radical Jews

a review article of Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. [1]
(Originally published in Reviews in Religion and Theology 1995/3 (August), 15–23.  Reproduced by permission of the author)
by N. T. Wright
Lichfield Cathedral, England

This is an incredible book.  I can’t believe the range, the skill, the chutzpah of it.  I can’t believe the learning, the easy grasp of complex ideas, the integration of exegesis and politics, of culture and philosophy.  I can’t believe the daring, the readiness to go out on a limb and then make it work.  Unfortunately, I can’t quite believe the thesis itself, either; but we shall come to that presently.  Sometimes, when I read a book in the field of Pauline studies, I think ‘I wish I had written that.’ Sometimes I think ‘If I had had the time and the energy, I could have written that.’  But with this book I can only stand back and admire.  There is no way that I could have written this book.  I salute an astonishing achievement. Everything that I say from here on should have that as an implied running head above it.

Like Paul himself, Daniel Boyarin (Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley) shows himself master both of the big argument and of the fascinating detail; both of the polemical ‘aside’ and of the evocative, almost poetic, appeal; both of the passionate argument for a contentious position and of the re-reading of old texts in new and creative ways.  This suggests to me another parallel which Boyarin will find less congenial, but which at the level of style and stimulus, if not of content, is in my vocabulary a great compliment: I was several times reminded of reading Käsemann’s commentary on Romans.  It, too, is exciting, difficult, breathtaking, maddening, a tour de force of scholarship and passion, of head and heart.  It, too, makes the great majority of Pauline scholarship look pale, parochial and pedestrian by comparison.  It, too, creates its own genre as it goes along, so that working out how best to approach it, let alone respond to it, let alone critique it, is like working out how to respond to Mount Everest.  Trying to climb it, let alone to critique it, is a frightening business.

And yet the book cries out for critique.  It appeals to the community of Pauline scholars to engage with its central thesis.  It woos us by insisting, again and again, that it is not offered as a criticism of Paul.  It isn’t an attempt to put him down.  It is just as well we have these repeated assurances, otherwise we might have wondered.  Boyarin argues that Paul was a Platonist, three parts of the way to Philo; that his aim was to produce One Single Family, a Grand Universal Idea, out of the untidy multiplicity of the human race; and that to achieve this he embraced a nuanced dualism in which flesh and spirit, letter and spirit, body and soul, belonged in a dualistic relation – not in opposition, however, but in a strict hierarchy of signifiers and signifieds.  All this would, for many others, be a way of evaluating Paul as well as describing him.  For the Bultmann school, describing Paul in this thoroughly Hellenized way (Boyarin by no means follows Bultmann, but at the level ofReligionsgeschichte there are clear affinities) was a means of applauding him.  Paul broke (it was thought) with wicked Jewish legalism by drawing fresh inspiration from a different culture altogether.  Since the war, however, those who have made Paul a Hellenizer have done so to damn him.  Schoeps accused him of only knowing, and reacting to, a second-rate form of Judaism, the Hellenized version he would have met in the Diaspora rather than the pure Palestinian version.[2] Maccoby, more recently, has made Paul out to be more or less entirely non-Jewish, and has saddled him with responsibility for what Maccoby sees as the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism.[3]

It is to Boyarin’s great credit that he will have none of this.  He insists many times over that all first-century Judaisms are Hellenistic; that the Platonism he sees in Paul was common coinage throughout the Jewish world as well as the Greek; that Paul was a cultural critic of Judaism, emphatically a critic from within (do we hear a trace of autobiography at this point?); that he was guilty neither of anti-Judaism nor of anti-Semitism; that even where he is clearly ‘supercessionist’ in some sense or other, this cannot be taken in an anti-Jewish sense, since from Paul’s point of view he is being loyal to God’s intentions precisely for Israel herself. (We might compare the ‘supercessionism’ inherent in the Qumran scrolls: the sect undoubtedly believed that they and they alone were the ‘true Israel’, but nobody in their right mind would accuse them of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism.)  For all this, and much more, I am deeply grateful.[4]

Boyarin’s own preference emerges, of course (e.g. 260).  He prefers pluriformity and differentiation where Paul insists on the unity of all human beings in Christ.  He prefers an ontological monism of flesh and spirit, body and soul, where Paul (according to him) expresses a dualism.  He prefers a midrash, in which history and particularity are not devalued but rather celebrated, to what he sees as Paul’s allegorizing, which is fundamentally dehistoricizing.  (He does admit (264 n.7) that this analysis of midrash is a difficult case to make.)  In short, he prefers the Rabbis to the Christians, the Talmud to the Fathers.  But this clear preference does not lead him to caricature, nor to insist that his reading of the texts is the only possible one.  For this, too, I am profoundly grateful; though I am not sure what criteria Boyarin himself would approve of as fixed points for the discussion to proceed, which leaves one dangerously placed, wanting to argue but aware that, in the postmodern climate whose air the book breathes from first to last, all argument can be reduced to mere counter-assertion, and counter-assertion can be misread as ad hominem polemic.

What I would like to do, ideally, is to sit down for several hours with Boyarin, with the text of Paul between us, and work our way through the key passages – both the ones Boyarin builds his case upon, not least Galatians 3.28, and the ones he does not.  But, since I am committed to living in the real rather than the ideal world, I shall instead go for the big picture.  There are five issues that clamour for attention.

1. The first is a question of method. It seems to me that Boyarin has done to Paul precisely what he says Paul has done to Judaism.  He has abstracted certain sets of ideas out of their historical context, reading between the lines and producing an essentially allegorized Paul.  Paul’s own very specific and concrete mission, suffering, writing, preaching, plans, hopes – and his personal pre-history as a zealous Pharisee – are here treated as signifiers for the real thing, the signified – which is ‘Paul’, seen as a critical moment in an essentially Platonic scheme, a history of ideas.  In this history Paul, as a cousin of Philo, prepares the way not just for the fathers of the church but for a figure such as Plotinus; and, thence, for the history of an ‘idea’ in which the archetypal human being, the one who encapsulates the One, is a white, male, European person.  With great dexterity Boyarin manages to draw this history without implying that Paul is the responsible parent for this great symbol of political incorrectness; but clearly, when the tip of the argument is peeled back just a little, there is a firm protest against this line of thought which ‘has had the effect of depriving continued Jewish existence of any reality or significance in the Christian economies of history’ (32).

Boyarin then, I suggest, has himself produced (to use his own language) an allegorized and ahistorical reading of Paul, a Platonic or more precisely a Hegelian scheme in which the thesis of ‘Paul’ (ecclesiological monism and ontological dualism) is answered by the antithesis of ‘the Rabbis’ (human pluralism and ontological monism), producing the synthesis of Boyarin’s own bracing and daring contemporary cultural critique, with all its raw agony and brutally realistic assessments of current problems and possibilities, particularly vis-a-vis feminism and Zionism.  Ironically, I suggest that Boyarin himself, in his overall argument, has in principle done, with Paul at least, what he says Paul did with his traditions.  Like Boyarin, I do not make this a matter of praise or reproach; merely of interested comment.

2. This brings us to Paul’s attitude to three crucial topics: history, eschatology and allegory.(It might in some ways have been easier to separate these, but they form such a tight nexus in Boyarin’s exposition of Paul that I have concluded otherwise.)  For Boyarin’s Paul, history is the realm of signifiers which point to the Platonic realm of signifieds.  Boyarin’s Paul is, again, in several ways quite like Bultmann’s: Christ is the end of history as he is the end of the law.  Hence Paul’s reading of the Hebrew Bible is not historical, not even really typological, but allegorical.  Everything has been shifted onto the plane of the spirit, away from the letter.  This is, in many ways, a liberal protestant Paul, whose objection (for instance) to circumcision was that it was a physical ritual.  To that extent, though only to that extent, this portrait also belongs, despite Boyarin’s assertions to the contrary, in the pre-Sanders world of Pauline studies.

In reply, I grant of course that Paul uses the language and the form of allegory in Galatians 4.  I grant that he speaks of letter and spirit in three key passages which Boyarin unerringly picks out for extended treatment – 2 Corinthians 3, Romans 2.25-29, and Romans 7.[5]  I grant that there are passages, like 1 Corinthians 10, in which Paul uses the language of typology, of a spiritualized reading of an Old Testament narrative or theme.  But I submit that the major themes of the letters, in themselves and in their historical settings, offer a very different scheme, which forms the overarching context within which these and similar elements are to be held in place.  In this scheme, Paul, like many other Jews of his day, held in his mind the actual history of Israel, stretching from Abraham through Moses through David through the prophets to the exile; and then, from the exile, through the deeply ambiguous story of the second temple period and on into the future. Paul thought he belonged within that history.  And this, for him, was reality: the real, flesh-and-blood story of God and God’s people.  It was not a code, a mere signifier for something else, for a timeless, ahistorical or static scheme (of salvation, for instance[6]).  And, for Paul, this story is still in process.  It has not stopped.  It has reached its god-given and god-intended climax in Jesus Christ; but this has not prevented it continuing as real history.  Paul is engaged in the very concrete and specific tasks of the gentile mission precisely because he is living within the continuing history according to which (in some accounts at least) when Israel is redeemed the nations will come to share in the blessing.  For the same reason, he looks ahead not to the abandonment of the space-time universe, but to its Exodus, its transforming liberation (Romans 8.12–27).  This, I suggest, holds together Romans, Galatians, Philippians, both Corinthians letters, and a good deal besides, far better than the ahistorical scheme which Boyarin offers.  It is set out most fully in Romans 9 and 10, but emerges, I suggest, all through.  We would, of course, need to examine the passages in detail for the point to emerge properly.

3. The next point, though linked organically to all the others, is for me more of a puzzlement than an argument.It concerns the post-structuralist integration of sexual language, imagery and indeed practice with the wider scheme Boyarin is proposing.  I understand him to be saying that Paul’s desire for the One Single Family produces some kind of essentially phallic image; whereas the differentiatedness of Jews from the rest of humankind (and, in principle, the differentiatedness of all peoples from one another) is symbolized by the circumcised penis, the phallus having been cut.  Boyarin does not, in this book, argue in any detail for the appropriateness of this analysis; he assumes it, though of course it offers itself as a neat explanation (among other things) of Paul’s polemic against circumcision, especially in Galatians.  I don’t know if other theorists of social and psychological symbolism would support this kind of analysis.  To one who is a babe in such matters – a babe, moreover, of less than eight days – I admire the tour de force of the position, but I just wonder if it will really stand up.  After all, as Sigmund Freud himself said, a cigar is only a cigar – though I suspect he, too, still snipped the end off before smoking it.

4. We turn now to a serious matter of history. Boyarin offers a winsome and poignant revisionist account of Paul’s conversion.  I like it, but find it historically unfounded and completely implausible.  He thinks of Paul as already an ideas man, walking around trying to resolve in his own mind the puzzle of how the specialness of Israel and the oneness of God are to be reconciled.  The Damascus Road experience is then the ‘revelation’, the ‘apocalypse’, of an idea: ecclesiological monism, supported by ontological dualism.

Now I submit that all we know of Paul, and all we know of zealous pharisees in the early first century, militates against this.  I have argued elsewhere that Paul was a Shammaite pharisee; that the Shammaites’ zeal was not for theories, nor even for ritual or racial purity per se, but for liberation, for the great political and social change that the true God would righteously bring about within history.  (This Shammaite strain continues, in constant debate with its moderate Hillelite partners, through into the post-70 period, as witness the stand-off between Johanan ben Zakkai and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.)  Paul, I suggest, did not have an intellectual problem before his conversion, any more than, as C. H. Dodd and others used to imagine, he had a great moral problem.  (Boyarin’s analysis of Paul’s conversion strikes me as a somewhat Platonized and intellectualized version of Dodd’s position.)  What he had was a political and hence a theological problem: when and how would Israel be free, and (the other side of the same coin) how would the true God vindicate his great name and manifest his righteousness?

This fourth question, of course, integrates particularly with my first two, because I do not think that Paul’s conversion was the ahistorical, ideational thing that Boyarin suggests.  I think Paul saw it as an historical event; I think he would have insisted that it be understood as part of the history of the true God and his people, revealing, in fact, the divine answer to the social, political, cultural and above all theological problem faced not so much by speculative Platonists within first-century Judaism but by (among others) revolutionary Shammaites.

5. All of this leads to the final point. Boyarin warns us in the preface that his Paul, unlike that of Richard Hays, one of his constant discussion partners, has no very great place for the Jesus Christ of history, ‘the Rabbi from Nazareth’.  Boyarin does not, of course, simply leave a Christ-shaped blank in the book.  He knows as well as anyone that Christ is enormously important for Paul.  But, in line with the rest of his analysis, he dehistoricizes this ‘Christ’-figure fairly completely; we are once again reminded quite forcibly of Bultmann.  This shows up in Boyarin’s very rare mentions of the resurrection, which he regards as being, for Paul, the revelation of the heavenly Christ, the Christ ‘according to the Spirit’ rather than according to the flesh: the ‘allegorical, risen Christ’ (29).  This, I have to say, flies in the face of what I take to be the fairly standard meaning of resurrection-language in the first century.  Resurrection is not about someone’s truth going marching on while their body remains in the grave, but about bodies coming out of tombs.[7]  I suggest that at the heart of Paul’s theology, and of his Damascus Road experience, there lay not an idea, but a person; that the historical human being Jesus, not merely some abstract Christian idea, was what grasped the historical Paul and set him about an historical task; that this task was, as far as Paul was concerned, to establish and maintain not philosophical academies but historical communities in which love would be historically lived out, awaiting the historical moment when the world of space and time would be flooded with God’s presence as the fulfilment, not the abrogation, of history itself.

All of this points, of course, to the cross. Boyarin says sometimes (e.g. 76, 107, 116) that it was the crucified Christ that lay at the heart of Paul’s thought; yet he never attempts to elucidate what precisely the cross meant for Paul, or how it functioned within his whole theology, let alone his life.  This, for me, is the biggest single weakness in the book. It creates a vacuum which is then filled by other things.  For the Paul of history, the Paul of the letters, it was the love of Christ which ‘left him no choice’ (2 Corinthians 5.14); this, not a Grand Idea, was his ruling passion.  Again and again, when he draws his thoughts together, they focus on Jesus and the cross – not as an idea to excite the mind but as a fact to soften and kindle the heart.  ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’; ‘Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’[8]  Nor is this an incidental point, however large in itself, simply bolted on to the rest of Paul’s thought as an extra. It integrates with, and (I would say) gives rise to, all the others.  It is because of this love that Paul is impelled to declare the love of the one God to the nations; not to obliterate distinctions between different people, or different types of peoples, but to announce the good news that the ground is even at the foot of the cross.  That, I suggest, is what Galatians 3.28 is all about – the text which Boyarin makes so central to his presentation as to have it printed boldly on the front of the dust-jacket.  It is not about androgyny, nor about a Great Universal Idea in which all differences cease to exist altogether.  It is about the integration of differentiated persons and communities within a many-sided, mutually accepting, community.

Had we allowed Ephesians into the argument, we could have found a much better framework for unity and diversity.  ‘Through the church, the many-coloured wisdom of God [hJ polupoivkilo~ sofiva tou’ qeou’] might be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places’ (3.9) – the powers that, as Boyarin sees so clearly, use human differentiation, just as much as human identification, as a tool and means of oppression.  The One Family, called into existence by God’s love in the gospel message of Jesus Christ, is not, therefore, the potentially oppressive regime which Boyarin sees – though I can well understand why he sees it that way.  It is precisely the servant community.  I grant that church history shows this ideal more often ignored than pursued; though that may be partly due to the fact that historians, including church historians, find it easier to write about a few masters than about many servants.  But, just as in his conclusion Boyarin advocates a Diaspora of slaves as the only possible way forward for Judaism in the twentieth century, so Paul, I suggest, not only advocated but worked to create a Diaspora of servant communities in the first century.  And he created them in history, not in the mid-air of an ahistorical ‘true Israel’ or ‘Israel according to the spirit’, phrases which are vital to Boyarin’s case but which Paul himself, significantly, never uses.  I know as well as anyone, and I grieve as much as anyone, that Paul’s historical goal has often, and massively, been subverted by recrudescent paganism, using the idea of the One to crush the manifestations of the Many, using the rhetoric of ‘spirit’ to deny the god-givenness of ‘flesh’.  Paul, like so many, has had to

 . . .hear the truth [he’d] spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.[9]

But there is, none the less, a very much differentiated and yet still unified Christian family today.  The white European male is very much the exception, rather than the rule, among the millions of Christians in the contemporary world.  And, if I read Paul aright, he would rejoice in African Christians being African Christians, not European clones; in female Christians being female Christians, not pseudo-males; and, yes, in Jewish Christians being Jewish Christian, not in the sense that they form a group apart, a cut above all others, but because ‘if their casting away means reconciliation for the world, what will their acceptance mean if not life from the dead?’[10]

Paul, in short, would I believe approve totally of our having this discussion.  He would welcome the cut and thrust, the text and counter-text, the politics and the passion that we now have on the table, as a result of Boyarin’s daring and creative work.  And he would hope that in our dialogue, as well as in our theology and exegesis, the central place would be taken by love.  The love to which Paul refers seeks neither to absorb the beloved into itself (forming an artificial Oneness), nor so to affirm the differences between them as to remain at arm’s length.  It is a love which, modelled on the love of the true God, in whose image male and female were created, seeks differentiated union with the beloved, and therefore affirms and celebrates, as part of the very longing for union, that essential differentness through which union will be consummated.


[1] Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994. Page references otherwise unmarked are to this book.

[2] H.-J. Schoeps, Paul: the theology of the apostle in the light of Jewish religious history. London: Lutterworth, 1961.

[3] H. Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1986; idem, Paul and Hellenism. London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

[4] On these points, Boyarin’s Paul is far more credible than that of Gager and Gaston, who – rightly, in my view – come in for criticism, especially in ch. 2.

[5] On the last of these Boyarin offers the intriguing suggestion: the tension for which the chapter is notorious is between the Adamic command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and the Mosaic command against lust. On this my comment coincides with Boyarin’s on my own exegesis of the chapter, in my book The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology(Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992): ‘This is an exceedingly clever, even brilliant, [suggestion], but I am simply unconvinced by it’ (305, n.1).

[6] A word which Boyarin does not define, though to do so would be quite important for continuing debate.

[7] cf. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992) ch. 10.

[8] Gal. 2.20; Rom. 8.39.

[9] Kipling, ‘If –‘; in Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Inclusive Edition, 18851926. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927, p. 560.

[10] Rom. 11.15.

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