Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.
Sometime in the 70’s people began to suspect that Paul was a Jew. Scholars like E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn have since championed a particular way of understanding what Paul has to say principally in reference to his Jewish upbringing, context, and interlocutors. The strange thing is that it does not appear that modern day Jews took this very seriously. If he was a Jew, then he was a very marginal and disloyal one. This silence is perhaps what makes Daniel Boyarin’s book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity such an interesting and fresh way of looking at Paul. For Boyarin, Paul is not a marginal Jew, he is a radical Jew.
Daniel Boyarin is not a biblical scholar, at least not by training. But he is a scholar of religions whose work centers around the ancient world that surrounded Paul. But Daniel Boyarin is a Jew who studies the Jewish parts of that world. So it is intriguing for someone of Boyarin’s position to “reclaim Pauline studies as an important, even integral part of the study of Judaism in the Roman period and late antiquity” (1-2). It is intriguing first because Boyarin is not committed to the canonicity of Paul, and therefore is perhaps able to critique him in ways that us pious Christians would not think of (or dare). It is intriguing second because Boyarin is a sympathetic scholar who does not privilege ancient or modern Judaism in his studies, and who considers Paul to be one of the more outstanding Jewish writers of his day.
The book itself centers around Paul’s famous slogan from Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Boyarin focuses on this text in particular and the book of Galatians in general, but gives attention to the broader accepted Pauline corpus as it becomes necessary or helpful. Thus this book in one sense functions as a kind of fragmentary commentary on Galatians, but also a unique commentary focusing, as it does, on this particular verse in Galatians as the Archimedean point of Pauline thought.
For Boyarin, Paul champions a progressively unfolding vision of equality and liberation whose premise is “sameness” rather than unity in diversity. This focus on sameness is both laudable in the way it equalizes and liberates, but also deeply flawed and ends up undermining the equality that Gal. 3:28 seems to idealize. Thus the later chapters on questions of gender and sexuality do not shy away from the conventional misogyny and prejudice of classic Pauline texts on gender (1 Tim 2; 1 Cor 14) and homosexuality (Romans 1). In fact, Boyarin tries to make the case that these texts fit comfortably in Paul’s broader thought with a text like Galatians 3:28. For Paul, Boyarin suggests, there are fundamental differences between the body (or the corporal world) and the spirit; and these two worlds operate on different functions of practical wisdom. Thus it consistent for Paul to maintain rigid, hierarchical distinctions between men’s and women’s “roles” precisely because he privileged the corporal world which these traditional roles upheld. Paul may have supposed that these relationships were temporary and “passing away,” but in the mean time they were important in a practical sense.
Jewish difference does not mean only permitting Jews to keep kosher or circumcise within Christian communities; it means recognizing the centrality and value of such practices for Jews as well as their “right” to remain unconvinced by the gospel. This does not, however, constitute an accusation of intolerance on the part of Paul. Paul’s gospel was one of tolerance. I claim rather that tolerance itself is flawed—in Paul, as it is today. Its opposite—by which I do not mean intolerance but insistence on the special value of particularity—is equally flawed. The theme of this book is that the claims of difference and the desire for universality are both—contradictorily—necessary; both are also equally problematic. (10)
Boyarin’s book is nothing if not fascinating and refreshing. It is hard to see how a Christian scholar of any stripe could come up with such a perspective. Where Boyarin is not wholly convincing he at the very least illuminates aspects of Paul’s writings and reveals perspectives and arguments that enhance the way we understand Paul and his thought. If you want to understand Paul as a Jew from the perspective of a Jewish scholar, or are just bored with Pauline studies and need something to break out of the traditional debates, then I recommend this book.