Top critical review
7 people found this helpful
basic, descriptive introduction to the birth of Christianity
on 7 January 2014
This is a scholarly look at the role of Paul in the formulation of Christianity, which he carried out in accordance with a vision that he had of Jesus, as his spirit talked to Paul with detailed instructions. The book holds back from any kind of critical perspective, emphasizing instead a factual description of what Paul did. While there are advantages to such an approach - it neither assumes a believer's perspective nor adopts an agnostic distance - in the end it is a frustrating and unsatisfying read because it raises (or more accurately avoids) the many questions that arise in the reader's mind. This is stimulating, but in my reading, it also comes off as disingenuous. I wanted more opinion, more interpretation, and a deeper explanation of what it meant.
Tabor essentially argues that Paul, who never met Jesus, is responsible for the transformation of what was a Jewish messianic movement into something very different for gentiles, i.e. a Graeco-Roman audience, as it came to be enshrined in the New Testament. "Christ", after all, is a Greek word (for "anointed") and Jesus was not referred to in this way until many decades after his death.
There are 6 ideas in the book: 1) Paul viewed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as a new step for humanity, into a spiritual realm of "life-giving spirit." 2) Jesus was part of a heavenly kingdom, a new kind of family into which the righteous could expect to ascend on their own death. 3) Paul established, through ritual, a symbolic union with Jesus, a mystical bond through the Eucharist, Baptism, etc. 4) Paul offered an apocalyptic vision that he believed was imminent and that he would witness; the material world in this view was ephemeral and about to dissolve. 5) Paul reformulated the Torah of Moses into a new set of norms with a very different emphasis (rejecting kosher dietary restrictions, ending the necessity of circumcision, and calling for a more prudish attitude to sex), all of which made the new religion much more acceptable to Roman subjects. 6) He fought and won a difficult political battle with James and the remaining apostles, who persisted in their vision of Jesus as an integral part or natural extension within traditional Judaism, in order to establish his vision of what Jesus wanted.
These ideas are clearly explained in the introduction. The rest of the book is a long, occasionally turgid, proof and elucidation of what Paul accomplished in the new faith and institutions that arose. It is very interesting but rather heavily academic in tone, sifting texts for clues whether or not they are in the canon. Along the way, there are very fundamental new concepts, and I wanted much, much more on them. By moving the realm of the heavenly kingdom away from earth and material life, he created a new space to aspire to, with new behavioral requirements. In addition, he championed a new kind of reading of the Bible and other holy works, looking for allegorical meaning rather than laws to be literally obeyed, such as those that appeared in the Torah of Moses. But these and other concepts are sprinkled abruptly through the book, perhaps because he was assuming knowledge far greater than mine - they were alien to me and deeply fascinating, but I will have to look elsewhere for more.
Finally, there is a lot that doesn't come through in the book. Most important, there is almost nothing concrete on Jesus himself - whether he was more like Aslan's Zealot or like the perfect holy man that Paul portrayed - and that was the principal reason for why I read the book. Furthermore, though Tabor alludes to certain philosophical problems, such as Paul's blatantly misogynistic attitudes (which of course were common at the time), he refuses to say anything about them beyond the merest mention. This would have required far more historical and ethical context than he wanted to enter. Indeed, the historical explanations were frustratingly superficial for me, a classics enthusiast and atheist who wants to understand more about Christianity as a human construct and mythology.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Paul's role in the transformation of Judaism into Christianity. However, if you are looking for a more philosophical and historical work, this will disappoint you. It is a good read, but is far too descriptive.