Book Review: Who Made Early Christianity? (Gager)

9780231174046Contemporary readers of the New Testament are often struck by the overwhelming influence of the Apostle Paul. After not appearing at all in the gospels and barely appearing in the first half of Acts, he comes to dominate most of the rest of the New Testament canon. Despite his popularity, however, Paul remains a controversial figure, the historical interpretations of his thought incredibly varied and the history of his influence remaining uneven across time. Nowhere is this contestation more evident than in current Pauline Studies, that field of New Testament and Biblical Studies which focuses on understanding the life and theology of the Apostle to the Gentiles. In contribution to this realm of inquiry comes John G. Gager’s latest monograph, Who Made Early Christianity? The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), which pushed back against conceptions of Paul and early Christianity which simultaneously sound the triumph of Christianity and the decimation of Judaism.

Dual arguments run throughout this volume. First, Gager argues that Paul did not pose a radical disjunction between “Judaism” and “Christianity,” instead remaining an orthodox Jew who was committed to a particular view of the relationship between Gentiles and the Jewish Torah. Second, Gager contends that, contrary to early Christian rhetoric, Judaism did not disappear as Christianity expanded and developed, but remained a source of engagement into the early medieval period. Throughout this engaging volume, Gager demonstrates a commanding knowledge of important conversations in Pauline Studies, offering readers much of value.

After introducing Paul’s early influence and how his writings were utilized to form distinct boundaries between Christianity and Judaism, in the first chapter, Gager examines the question of whether or not Paul was the progenitor of Christian anti-Judaism of the sort found in writers ranging from Marcion to Baur and Bultmann. Here he highlights the seemingly contradictory anti-Israel and pro-Israel statements in Paul’s letters, arguing that Paul’s anti-Jewish sounding statements should be understood as directed toward Judaizing Christians and not Judaism itself. In so doing, he effectively removes the “Father of Anti-Judaism” title from Paul, although Gager does not locate the origins of that movement anywhere other than in the reception and reapplication of Paul’s letters among amorphous “early Christian” writers.

Chapter two examines the effects of Paul’s “calling” to Christianity upon Jewish engagement with Pauline writings, pushing against claims that Judaism through the ages has not consistently, positively, or “Jewishly” conversed with Pauline thought. Consideration of Profiat Duran from the fourteenth century, Jacob Emden from the eighteenth century, and the late-antique/early medieval Toledot Yeshu serve as the backbone of Gager’s argument in this chapter. His excavation of these sources indicates that Paul never held that Jews should cease their observance of Torah nor that Gentile believers were obligated to follow Jewish law. He also considers more contemporary Jewish perspectives, finding in their presentations a tension surrounding Paul which reflects his liminal state between obvious religious boundaries.

Gager next examines several literary and archaeological case studies concerning the existence and influence of Judaism during the early centuries of the Common Era. After brief consideration of Diaspora Judaism, this volume looks at the Acts of the Apostles, John Chrysostom’s anti-Jewish sermons from Antioch, the Aphrodisias column, the Sardis synagogue, and Dura Europos synagogue artwork. Gager takes this evidence as demonstrative of the fact that Judaism continued to attract pagans and Christians alike long after Christian rhetoric had indicated its demise.

Chapter four reexamines the traditional narrative of how Christianity came to be, specifically the “parting of the ways” which Paul encouraged through his anti-Jewish writings. In contrast to this account, Gager proposes a counternarrative which indicates that Jewish Christians worshiped Jesus as Messiah in accordance with Mosaic law alongside more mainstream “Gentile” Christianity. Gager supports this theory through consideration of New Testament texts and non-canonical sources, including Justin Martyr, the Pseudo-Clementines, Muslim theologian Abd al-Jabbar, and Syrian’s Aphrahat and Ephrem. Through consideration of geography, the literary evidence of the heresiologists, and the boundaries of heresy and orthodoxy, Gager concludes that many early Christians viewed Judaism as an attractive religious option, a reality that Christian leaders continuously countered.

The final chapter looks at the anti-Christian Jewish Toledot Yeshu, which appears to have been composed quite early (possibly second century) and enjoyed a wide and long history of use to delegitimize Christian claims about Jesus. Here Gager notes the functionality of this writing as a Jewish apologetic counternarrative, which was likely employed in order to strengthen Jews living in contexts where their fellow Jews were being converted. This volume concludes with a summative epilogue, where Gager restates his arguments concerning the Apostle Paul—as not anti-Jewish—and the need to recognize the staying power of Judaism amid Christian rhetoric to the contrary. In the end Gager suggests that this recognition should encourage contemporary Christians to re-interpret Paul and oppose anti-Jewish and anti-Semitism tendencies in the world.

Overall, Who Made Early Christianity? offers much to its readers. Gager consciously places himself within the “New Perspective” on Paul, though at times his arguments seem to better fit the paradigm of the “Paul within Judaism” school. His focus on the history of Jewish interaction with Paul remains particularly useful, although his arguments lack focus at times. In all, this volume comes recommended for those newly initiated in the realm of Pauline Studies, especially those coming from more traditional Protestant readings of Paul and his relationship with Judaism. This book will also serve as a beneficial read for more established scholars in the fields of New Testament and Biblical Studies, including those concerned with the History of Jewish-Christian relations and receptions of Paul.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Who Made Early Christianity? (Gager)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: