Reviewed by Mark Baker
Anyone who tries to engage with Paul’s letters seriously must engage with the question that Michael Bird seeks to answer in An Anomalous Jew: How does Paul relate to Judaism? If, as some scholars claim, the answer is that Paul remained thoroughly Jewish even after his conversion, why did Paul stir up so much controversy among the Jews? Or if, as other scholars claim, the answer is that Paul totally rejected Judaism after his conversion, why was Paul’s gospel still so saturated with Jewish concepts? Bird’s answer to this question begins with the assertion that “Paul was clearly a Jewish person with a Jewish way of life and a very Jewish worldview” (vii). Bird qualifies this statement by saying that Paul “was an anomalous Jew, a strange figure with a blend of common and controversial Jewish beliefs that brought him into conflict with the socio-religious scene around him” (vii). An Anomalous Jew is a five-chapter exposition of this thesis.
Some of the chapters represent a selection of Bird’s previously published essays relevant to the topic; however, An Anomalous Jew is not your typical collection of essays. Two of the three previously published essays have been significantly expanded, and Bird also provided a lengthy introduction and two original chapters. By my count, over half of the volume contains new material. I am thankful that Eerdmans has compiled some of Bird’s harder-to-find essays in one place for a relatively inexpensive price.
Introduction: Paul the Jew … of Sorts
The introduction showcases one reason why I find Bird helpful: He provides a taxonomy that outlines the different interpretive positions concerning Paul’s relation to Judaism. Bird knows his way around the labyrinth of secondary literature and serves as a capable guide toward understanding this tricky question. Bird states that his history of scholarship section is “by no means exhaustive but is emblematic of attempts to situate Paul in relation to Jewish communities with their distinctive beliefs and practices” (10). He provides five categories: a former Jew, a transformed Jew, a faithful Jew, a radical Jew, and an anomalous Jew.
Paradigmatic for the Former Jew category are J. Louis Martyn and Francis Watson. Martyn’s focus on apocalyptic interpretation of Paul makes him a comfortable fit for this category. Likewise, in his Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), Watson says that Paul views “Judaism” as almost synonymous with “Pharisaism,” thus highlighting a stark contrast between Paul and his former Judaism (11). Bird also interacts with Love Sechrest, whose monograph might have provided the inspiration for this category: A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialectics of Race (LNTS 410; T&T Clark, 2009).
The next category, a Transformed Jew, contains typical representatives of the so-called New Perspective on Paul: E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. Bird also brings in Terence Donaldson, “a much-neglected luminary in the NPP constellation” (18). Bird capably summarizes the unique contribution of each scholar. In nine pages, Bird manages to provide an assessment of the NPP without overgeneralization and without portraying these four scholars as monolithic. He also includes a succinct summary of the various critiques that have been leveled toward the NPP. I am sure that most pastors and theology teachers have heard the question, “So what exactly is the New Perspective on Paul?” Pastors and teachers: Have pages 12–20 of this volume bookmarked to give an accessible yet informed answer.
Bird categorizes the work of Markus Barth, Mark Nanos, and Pamela Eisenbaum as representing Paul as “A Faithful Jew.” Bird remarks that these scholars tend to turn a blind eye to the differences between Paul and non-Christ-following Jews, often “as a catalyst for refreshing Jewish-Christian relations” (20). Similar but more extreme is Daniel Boyarin’s work which Bird classifies as “A Radical Jew.” Boyarin is a Talmudist and cultural critic who sees Paul through a postmodern, Hegelian lens. At the end of the day, Bird claims that Boyarin’s work “probably has little to do with what Paul himself actually thought he was doing” (25).
Bird’s final category is his own, “An Anomalous Jew.” Bird’s explanation of “anomaly” is well put: “What we call Paul’s ‘anomaly,’ he would probably call the ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ (Gal 1:12) that he received, which discloses how faith in Christ without Torah was the instrument that brings Jews and Gentiles into reconciliation with God and into the renewal of all things” (28). Here Bird is doing what he does best: bringing in multiple, competing voices and crafting a via media that attempts to put the pieces together in an illuminating way. He follows John M. G. Barclay’s observation that Paul “was a Diaspora Jew who was highly assimilated to Hellenistic culture yet also a self-identifying Jew with a thoroughly Jewish worldview.” Bird provides a slight modification away from Diaspora Judaism and toward Palestinian Judaism (25–6). Bird sees Paul as Barclay’s anomalous Jew with a little more of the Judean Paul from the likes of W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders (27). Yet, like the apocalyptic scholars, Bird also understands that Paul’s Judaism looks quite different from other Jews because of the revelation of Jesus that he received.
I am curious where Bird would place Simon Gathercole, Thomas Schreiner, or Mark Seifrid. Granted, Bird does not claim to be exhaustive, but his taxonomy would have been more satisfying had it found a place for these scholars as well.
The rest of the book is an attempt to “test this hypothesis of Paul as an anomalous Jew on the margins in a number of areas that will highlight the jarring nature of Paul’s thought and clarify the meaning and limits of Paul’s Jewishness” (29).
Chapter 1: Salvation in Paul’s Judaism
Chapter 1 is an expanded version of an essay first published in Paul and Judaism: Crosscurrents in Pauline Exegesis and the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. Reimund Bieringer and Didier Pollefeyt (LNTS 463; T&T Clark, 2012). By my count, Bird added thirteen pages of new material to this essay and interacted with many post-2012 works, most notably Preston Sprinkle’s Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation (IVP, 2013).
The goal of this chapter is twofold. First, it seeks to describe how Paul portrayed salvation in Judaism. Second, it seeks to delineate continuities and discontinuities between Paul and the Judaism he describes. Bird begins with a history of interpretation of Paul’s portrayal of Judaism, especially concerning the question of legalism. Although there is some slight overlap between this material and the introduction, Bird’s summary here is cogent and informative. One lacuna in this history (and in the book as a whole) is Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015), which, to my mind, requires thorough interaction in any history of scholarship on Jewish legalism.
Bird concludes this section with another helpful rubric for understanding the main issue: The two main positions are Paul contra Judaism (discontinuity) and Paul intra Judaism (continuity). Within these two camps, interpretive options can be subdivided into other focal points, namely nomism, supersessionism, and ethnocentrism (see the chart on p. 45). Bird lands squarely in the middle of these options: Paul’s religious experience after Damascus cannot be explained apart from his Judaism, nor could it remain a part of Paul’s former life in Judaism, namely, Pharisaic Judaism. For Bird, Paul’s rereading of the history of redemption in light of the risen Christ doesn’t remove his Judaism; it rather makes his Judaism an anomaly.
E. P. Sanders famously quipped that what Paul found wrong with Judaism was that it was “not Christianity.” Bird hits the nail on the head when he levels this critique: “This is what Paul finds wrong with Judaism: it looks to the Torah rather than to the Messiah for the revelation of God’s righteousness, for the reconciliation of the world, and for the renewal of creation … for Paul, salvation is of Judaism, but not the zealous Judaism of the Pharisees; rather, salvation is manifested in the Israelite religion, which climaxes in the story of Jesus Christ” (68). For this chapter, Bird’s thesis passes the test laid out in the introduction. By qualifying Paul’s Judaism as anomalous, Bird has managed to highlight the contours of Paul’s Jewish thought while (unlike Sanders) still appreciating the discontinuity between Paul and Judaism that is present in his theology.
Chapter 2: Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles and Jews?
Bird penned chapter 2 especially for the publication of the volume under review. Bird seeks to show that though Paul is primarily the “apostle to the Gentiles,” at an earlier point in his career he worked with Jews, and, even throughout his career, his call to the nations (a place, not a people) included some Jews (70). Bird substantiates this claim through both lexical and literary evidence.
The lexical data provides evidence for the latter half of this thesis, that Paul’s missionary efforts throughout his career included evangelism to Jews. Bird looks at the words Paul uses to designate non-Jews such as ἔθνη (ethnē, “nations”). Bird’s most convincing point comes from his evaluation of ἔθνη (ethnē) in Rom 15:15–20 where Paul uses it geographically instead of ethnically (see also the helpful venn diagram on p. 85). Bird observes that “Paul is sent to the provinces of the ἔθνη (ethnē) to herald the gospel of Christ, and the ethnic and tribal constitution of his audience does not seem to matter all that much. Perhaps the central figure of the ἔθνη (ethnē) is the ‘where,’ not the ‘who’” (72). Bird’s point is that Paul sought to herald the gospel to Greeks, barbarians, and Jews among the nations. This suggestion serves as a via media between scholars such as Bruce Malina and John Pilch (Paul saw himself as a missionary to the Jewish Diaspora) and E. P. Sanders (Paul had no missionary plan for the Jewish Diaspora at all; 74).
The literary data provides evidence for the former half of Bird’s thesis, that Paul worked with Jews at an earlier part of his career. Here Bird looks at the literature itself, primarily Galatians and Acts, to substantiate his conclusion. Most significantly, Bird points out that, according to Rom 15:19, Paul says he has preached the gospel fully “from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum.” While many commentators resort to exegetical gymnastics to show how Paul is still the “apostle to the Gentiles” even though he started his mission work in Jerusalem, Bird’s conclusion brings needed clarity here.
This point may be as far as some evangelical readers want to follow Bird in this chapter. Bird goes on to present a chronology of Acts that understands Luke to temporally “rearrange” events to emphasize Paul’s conversion. Bird concludes: “Luke does this in order to provide apostolic precedent to the Gentile mission, whereas the inclusion of non-Jews into the Jesus movement was probably more piecemeal, sporadic, and less controlled than what Luke depicts” (91). Bird also suggests that it was the conflict between Paul and the Judaizers at Antioch that caused him to “focus more fully on Gentile converts” (103) and that if he had won the debate, he would have said as much in Galatians 2 (95). The suggestion is appealing but is largely an argument from silence.
Chapter 3: An Invasive Story: An Apocalyptic and Salvation-Historical Rereading of Galatians
The third chapter is a 61-page essay written specifically for the volume under review. This essay alone is worth the price of the book. Bird devotes the first fifteen pages to a history of apocalyptic thought. This history is well documented, with the footnotes often covering over half the page (see, e.g., 120). I have previously directed people to pertinent sections of N. T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress, 2015) for a general introduction to apocalyptic thought but now I will direct them here first. Bird provides a fair assessment, especially in allowing the so-called apocalyptic school to provide a needed corrective to Wright’s covenantal approach.
Bird’s primary conversation partner is J. Louis Martyn, particularly his apocalyptic reading of Galatians. The goal is to provide a “fresh reading of Galatians” and thereby show that “the dichotomy between salvation history and apocalyptic is needless” (115–16). Bird’s efforts here prove successful. It has sometimes been stated that either Paul is an apocalyptic thinker or he is a storied thinker. Bird carefully and convincingly shows in this chapter that “de-storying” Paul by means of apocalyptic interpretation is a category mistake. Paul can respond to the revelation the Messiah and still hold to the stories of Israel, even if these stories are seen freshly through the lens of a crucified and resurrected Christ. Bird puts it well: “Undoubtedly, the sending of God’s Son is indeed dramatic and invasive, but it transpires in accordance with God’s will, a will announced an enacted in Israel’s covenant history” (167). Readers certainly will not need to agree with everything Bird says here to enjoy this rich feast of theological assessment and suggestion.
Chapter 4: The Incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11–14): The Beginnings of Paulinism
An earlier version of Chapter 4 can be found in Earliest Christian History, ed. Michael F. Bird and Jason Maston (WUNT 2/320; Mohr Siebeck, 2012). Of the three previously published chapters, this one has changed the least from its earlier publication. Its goal is to provide an in-depth study of the incident at Antioch in order to understand “Paulinism,” which Bird describes as “the essence of Paul’s thought concerning God, Messiah, Torah, and the salvation of the Gentiles” (171).
One highlight is Bird’s study of the four major characters in the incident: Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James. Bird has also made the right move in modifying his view of the identity of “those of the circumcision.” He had claimed in The Saving Righteousness of God (Paternoster: 2006) that they were a faction of Jewish Christians. He now sees the group as primarily representing “non-Christ-believing Jews” in Antioch (181).
Bird concludes that the problem at Antioch was not ultimately food (i.e. kosher laws) but fellowship (i.e. table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles). Therefore, the problem that the delegation from James had with Peter was “not that Peter ate with Gentiles but the way that he ate with Gentiles, i.e., as if they were covenantally faithful Jews” (194). This conclusion helps clarify Paul’s main problem with Peter’s compromise: Jews and Gentiles have both access to the God of Israel in Christ and equal status before God in Christ. Interestingly, this conclusion is similar to Thomas Schreiner’s conclusion on the matter in his commentary on Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), even though Schreiner arrives at the conclusion from a slightly different angle. Unfortunately, Bird does not interact with this important work here or anywhere else in the present volume.
By way of conclusion, Bird offers an important modification to one of Dunn’s points: The incident at Antioch does not represent “the parting of the ways” but rather “the parting in the ways,” meaning that “the break with the Jerusalem church was not absolute (202). Bird further suggests that this anomalous nature of Paul’s Judaism “does not mean that Jewish Christ-believers should cease observing the Torah, nor does it mean that the Torah has nothing relevant for ethical life of Gentile Christians” (204). This conclusion is certainly thought provoking. It would also have been helpful if Bird had parsed out more of the theological implications of such a statement. Regardless of this minor concern, this chapter serves as a significant contribution to the scholarly conversation regarding the incident at Antioch.
Chapter 5: The Apostle Paul and the Roman Empire
A much shorter version of chapter 5 first appeared in Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, ed. S. McKnight and J.B. Modica (IVP, 2013). The purpose of the chapter is to investigate the validity of the so-called “counter-imperial” movement with a special focus on Romans. The chapter includes an informative history of interpretation of counter-imperial scholarship and contains interaction with German scholarship that is often overlooked in the Anglophone world. Bird also issues wise caution against methodological pitfalls such as parallelomania and overemphasizing potential echoes and “hidden transcripts.” Bird exemplifies remarkable command of the Greco-Roman world as he surveys key words such as “righteousness” and “gospel.” Bird’s conclusion is that Paul’s letter to the Romans is not a political manifesto but neither is it divorced from the sociopolitical climate of the day (253). Of the five chapters in the book, this one seemed the least immediately relevant to the topic at hand, although I am sure those who are entrenched in the counter-imperial debate will be happy to receive Bird’s expanded contribution to the topic.
By way of conclusion, I want to again express my thankfulness for Michael Bird. If I am unfamiliar with a certain area of scholarship, particularly Pauline scholarship, Bird’s works are one of the first places I turn. He is well read and conversant with the literature, and his bibliographic material is reflective of that quality. While readers may not want to follow his lead in all his conclusions, he remains fair with his conversation partners and is always intriguing to read. While many might look at the current debates in Pauline scholarship and become frustrated at a potential stalemate, Bird’s creativity and penetrating insight provide fresh ways to move the conversation forward. Similarly, his penchant for finding a reasonable and satisfying via media between extremes is rare in scholarship—one might even say, anomalous.
Mark Baker is a Ph.D. candidate at Southeastern Theological Baptist Seminary. He is an elder at Christ Church Knoxville and serves as Teaching Fellow in the Humane Letters and Dean of Faculty at Paideia Academy. He currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Buy the books
An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans