Jesus and Paul Before Christianity: Their World and Work in Retrospect
V. George Shillington. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011. 244 pages.
Jesus and Paul Before Christianity reflects Shillington’s lifelong commitment to helping students of the Bible understand the New Testament’s two primary figures in their own place and time. While the book targets the educated layperson, there are enough footnoted references to satisfy the specialist interested in an overview of contemporary scholarship on Jesus and Paul as historical figures. One of the most exciting features of the book is the accompanying website, where a ten-part series of lectures linked to the book can be purchased. Discussion guides are included, making it an ideal resource for adult education classes, or small group study.
Part I lays out the groundwork for the book. It begins provocatively with Nietzsche’s famous line, “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on a cross.” Shillington protests, but his rationale may be unanticipated: Jesus, he writes, was not a Christian. This goes straight to the heart of the book: to understand Jesus and Paul, we must first understand their culture and their world, which knew nothing of what we now call Christianity. Shillington includes a brief summary chapter for those unfamiliar with the Jesus-Paul debate (Who is the “true” founder of Christianity?), but it serves mainly as a foil. The more productive question is: who were Jesus and Paul in their respective time and place and mission, before Christianity?
Part II focuses on Jesus, beginning with a summary of the literary, geographical, and archeological sources from which our picture of Jesus emerges (ch. 4). While the meaning of Jesus’ ministry is captured in many ways by the crucifixion (ch. 5), Shillington argues for the importance of understanding his pre-ministry context, growing up in a humble Jewish village (ch. 6), then deliberately placing himself within the already-established revolutionary movement of John the Baptist (ch. 7). The central concept of Jesus’ ministry itself is the Kingdom or Rule of God. Jesus not only announced this Kingdom, but also enacted it (ch. 8) through the call of disciples, healings and exorcisms, the drawing of crowds, and table fellowship with unsavory people—an enactment that appealed strongly to the “rank-and-file Jewish people [who] were weighed down under the yoke of taxation imposed on them by a foreign power” (88). The Kingdom sayings themselves were embedded in the social codes of Jesus’ listeners, and Shillington’s insight in deciphering the codes for contemporary readers is invaluable (ch. 9). For example, he offers an enlightening discussion of the “salt of the earth” parable, in which halas is interpreted not as salt that loses its taste, but as fertilizer that loses its potency—the same fertilizer, in fact, that is extracted from Dead Sea salt to this day. The section ends with Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem (ch. 10), including an intriguing interpretation of the nature of the resurrected Jesus.
In Part III, then, we turn to Paul. While some claim that Paul’s mission distorted that of Jesus, Shillington emphasizes continuity. He demonstrates that Paul’s faith-convictions were rooted in the early messianic communities of Jerusalem and Antioch (ch. 12); that Paul, like Jesus, was Jewish to the end (ch. 13); and that even the new inclusive Christ-communities, though they welcomed non-Jewish members, remained thoroughly Jewish in orientation and practice (ch. 14). Of course, Paul’s mission to the non-Jewish world also required some discontinuity, but here Shillington portrays Paul as primarily a liberator and equalizer for many, including women (ch. 14). The key here is that in Jesus Messiah all nations can participate in the righteousness of God. Following E. P. Sanders, Shillington describes that participation as being “righteoused” rather than “justified.” The final chapter on Paul (ch. 15) is an attempt to understand the “mystery” of universal restoration (Rom. 9–11), in light of the rest of Paul’s letter to the congregations in Rome. This compelling treatment of Romans includes a delightful interpretation of the usually jarring Romans 7, as a “rhetorical picture of the human predicament,” but “certainly not a description of Paul’s personal experience of faith in the faithful Jesus Christ” (205). A concluding chapter compares the two historical figures, whose life and work, though central to it, has so often been distorted by Christianity.
Shillington’s Anabaptist commitments are apparent throughout. However, Jesus’ and Paul’s more political statements are primarily interpreted vis-à-vis Judaism. Both figures also challenged Roman imperialism, and more commentary here would be valuable. Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, scholarly but accessible, and filled with tasty exegetical nuggets that will appeal to preachers, small group leaders, or anyone dissatisfied with shallow treatment of New Testament material.