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Gerd Lüdemann, Paul the Founder of Christianity (Prometheus Books, 2002)

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Gerd Lüdemann has authored a number of fascinating and (in some circles) quite controversial books on the major New Testament writers, as well as their setting in early Christianity, inside and outside the official canon. This time around, Lüdemann's main goal is to explain Paul, to account for his origins and influences, and to summarize his message from the available sources. His judgment is keen, and he is wonderfully adept at isolating the issue at the heart of complex historical and theological situations in the text, where the biblical writer either assumed or obfuscated what was going on.

His title announces in advance the conclusion of the book: that it was Paul, not Jesus, who really started the Christian religion. (As Lüdemann himself notes, this is an old debate.) I must confess that he has left me unconvinced that Paul deserves either the blame or the honor. Agreed that Jesus is more a figurehead than a founder, but Paul seems a surfer on the wave of a Hellenistic Christ cult that had started before he tested the waters. Of course, Lüdemann acknowledges that there were Hellenistic Christians before Paul, from whom he learned of Christianity, and who bequeathed the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. But he makes Paul the founder of Christianity by virtue of a single incident: the dispute between Cephas (Peter) and Paul at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14), where Paul insisted that Jewish Christians had no right to force Gentile converts to keep kosher, implying the utter uselessness of the Torah in the Christian dispensation. Lüdemann infers that the mass of Antiochene Christians, who were Greek-speaking Hellenists, sided with Christian-Jewish Torah piety, against Paul, whose view however marked the historical way forward for Christianity. This was the turning point, the moment when Christianity parted ways with Judaism. I cannot accept so neat a cut. One cannot simply make Paul's fair-weather friends in a single congregation, on a single occasion, equivalent to the whole of pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity.

One of Lüdemann's greatest contributions to Pauline studies is to have rejected the chronological sequence for Paul's activities narrated in the Acts of the Apostles in favor of one induced solely from references in the Pauline letters themselves. He salutes F.C. Baur for demonstrating in the nineteenth century that Acts is sheer fiction, heavily propagandistic in nature. Lüdemann's own Early Christianity according to the Traditions in Acts (1989) only reinforces the same judgment, though he is willing to grant a historical kernel here and there in Acts, mainly when some Lukan episode finds a parallel in the Pauline epistles. Given that, it is astonishing the extent to which in the present work Lüdemann accepts the narrative of Acts at almost face value. He refers throughout to Paul's decisive "Damascus Road experience" from which he derived the germ of his whole theology. Yet in the epistles, Paul never speaks of such an incident. Acts provides three (contradictory) stories of Paul getting stopped in his unbelieving tracks on the roads to Damascus to go a-Christian hunting, then recruited against his will to the new faith by divine intervention. While the Pauline epistles do refer to a calling of Paul to be an apostle, a revelation of God's son to him, this is never dated or described. Luke's account seems to me plainly to derive from both Euripides' play The Bacchae (where the persecutor Pentheus is ironically converted despite himself to the faith of Dionysus by an unwelcome personal epiphany of that god) and 2 Maccabees 3 (where Heliodorus, agent of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, is prevented from robbing the Jerusalem temple by a vision of angels, whereupon he is blinded, miraculously cured, and converts to the true faith). 

Lüdemann, strangely, tries to delineate some cusp of overlap between Paul and Jesus, surprising given both his ascription of founder status to Paul and the scant amount of evidence used to build that crumbling bridge. Lüdemann quotes a couple of 1 Corinthians passages in which Paul says he has a "word from the Lord" to which his readers must defer (1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14), as if this meant Paul carried with him a prototype Q document, a list of dominical sayings, though Lüdemann admits there is no reference to "Jesus" here, and that even if they are intended as sayings of Jesus Christ, they are nonetheless secondary inventions by Christians! All other Pauline passages that scholars have occasionally suggested might be possible (uncredited) Pauline allusions to Jesus' sayings, Lüdemann rejects as unconvincing. On what basis then can he say the earthly ministry of Jesus was important in any way to Paul's gospel? He invokes Paul's use of the eucharistic words of institution "on the night he was delivered up" (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) as evidence that Paul knew the rudiments of the gospel Passion Narrative, but in the same context Paul claims to have received this knowledge (i.e., of the supper and the words said over the bread and cup) directly from the Lord, not by way of tradition from people who were there at the time. I think we must recognize that this eucharistic etiology is new in this very passage, provided as a replacement pedigree (such as we often find in the Old Testament) for a hitherto-pagan observance, namely Christian participation in Mystery Cult sacraments (discussed explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10:20-22). The table of demons has become the table of the Lord, just as Brumalia, the Nativity of Mithras (December 25), would later become the Nativity of Jesus.

Was Paul a Roman citizen? Acts, and only Acts (16:37-38; 22:25-29), says so, but Lüdemann accepts it. Worse yet, as Haenchen and others note, the two scenes in which Paul makes this claim are poorly written fiction, since Paul mentions his citizenship only at the last moment to get out of a flogging, or after one is over. Why wouldn't he have said anything before? And how could he have proven it? With such flies stinking up the ointment, Lüdemann should be reluctant to use it to perfume his portrait of Paul.

Was Paul the recipient of a Jewish, even Pharisaic education? Acts says so, and Lüdemann believes him, despite Hyam Maccoby's demonstration (Paul and Hellenism) that Paul's bizarre scriptural exegesis everywhere reeks of Gentile gnosticism, nowhere of rabbinical lore, except for common traditions shared by all Hellenistic Jews. It is this entire non-Jewish color of the Pauline texts that must make us wonder why Lüdemann so quickly dismisses the ancient anti-Pauline claim that the Apostle to the Gentiles was himself a Gentile who had grown disillusioned with an initial attempt to convert to Judaism. The truth underlying this polemic is that, whatever the case with the historical Paul, the texts that compose the "Paul" we know, the epistles ascribed to Paul, are not the work of a Jewish author! From the ubiquitous Gentile estimate of the Torah as a "law" that must be shouldered like Sisyphus' burden (only Gentile outsiders would see Jewish culture this way, as would any outsider contemplating the alienness to himself of any foreign culture) to the Jew-hating anathema of 1 Thessalonians 2:15, these documents just do not sound Jewish, a fact of which the universal use of the Greek Septuagint in "Paul" ought to have alerted us long ago.

But if Lüdemann were to embrace more radical positions, I suggest he would find many headaches alleviated. For instance, as to whether Paul dispensed with the Torah as a criterion for salvation (Romans 4:20) or upheld it (Romans 2:13), both views appearing in Romans 1-3, we need attribute no such schizophrenic zigzag to a single writer, when it seems beyond argument that Romans 1:18-2:29 is a Hellenistic Jewish synagogue sermon interpolated into Romans (see William O. Walker, Jr., Interpolations in the Pauline Letters, Sheffield/Continuum, 2002). He finds the author of Romans 9-11 winging it as he veers from one solution to the problem of Jewish unbelief to another, to still another. Why not admit the obvious: later Paulinists did not like what they read and corrected the text, one after the other? Lüdemann can see that a final judgment on unbelieving Jews is mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 2:16, "God's wrath has come upon them at last!" This and similar references in Romans 11 surely refer to the events of CE 70 or even of 136, but then they are anachronisms for Paul. 

Lüdemann is trying to make Paul the founder of Christianity in the same sense some would make Ezra, not Moses, the founder of Judaism as we know it. But I am not convinced. I will admit the propriety of the designation in one sense, however: Paul is a second Jesus in that he presents us with precisely the same historical challenge as Jesus does. We can never be sure we know anything about him. We are reduced to scrutinizing ancient composite scraps by unknown authors, sayings from anonymous holy men, and trying to pin some of it, any of it, convincingly on Paul. We used to think we had a haven safe from historical agnosticism in Paul, but we do not. It is time to put away such childish things.



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