Previous | Next

Spring 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 1 · pp. 109–111 

Book Review

Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters

Jeremy Gabrielson. Cambridge, UK; Eugene, OR: James Clarke & Co.; Pickwick, 2013. 204 pages.

Reviewed by Gordon Zerbe

This important and well-crafted monograph is Jeremy Gabrielson’s 2010 doctoral dissertation, completed under the direction of Bruce Longenecker at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. The author makes a significant contribution to the study of peace and nonviolence in Paul’s letters and in the rest of the New Testament. The work argues that the “adoption of a politics of non-violence was, for Paul and the communities he established, a constitutive part of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (2). Paul’s gospel, he concludes, has a “necessarily political nature,” albeit decisively different from that of Roman politics. Moreover, “peaceableness” is not to be relegated to an “ethical implication” of Paul’s gospel in continuity with the life and teachings of Jesus, but rather is “integral” to it, “part of the political order for Pauline communities” (139, 164).

After clarifying key premises (“violence” as overt physical violence, “politics” as communal practices generally, the close intersection of “religion” and “politics” in antiquity), Gabrielson undertakes an initial close examination of the Gospel of Matthew in “The End of Violence in the Gospel of Matthew” (chap. 2). His goal is to demonstrate that the early Christian commitment to nonviolence as based on the life and teaching of Jesus is both early and geographically widespread: “Jesus was remembered by his followers as a person who eschewed violence” (10).

His subsequent treatment of Paul is presented in three chapters. In “The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters” (chap. 3), Gabrielson revisits the classic question of how Jesus traditions are taken up in Paul’s letters (cf. Gerry Schoberg, Perspectives of Jesus in the Writings of Paul [2013], reviewed in Direction 45 [2016]: 97–99) by specific {110} reference to “the very particular theme of non-violence” (55). In what is perhaps the most important chapter, “Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians” (chap. 4), he follows the lead of Douglas Harink (Paul among the Postliberals, 2003), but also breaks new ground. Gabrielson ably demonstrates that Paul’s commitment to nonviolence was a crucial aspect of his radical embrace of Jesus Messianism (“Damascus road experience”) and a core aspect (though often implicit) of his subsequent life and thought. The counter-imperial “political” dimension of Paul’s nonviolent gospel is confirmed in chapter 5, “Supporting Evidence in 1 Thessalonians.”

While greatly sympathetic to Gabrielson’s work, I offer three areas of demurrer or clarification. First, the author does not spend sufficient time wrestling with the category of “nonviolence.” This specific term does not appear in Early Jewish and New Testament writings in the way that ahimsa (nonviolence) appears in Sanskrit texts by at least the fifth century BCE. The notion of nonviolence, therefore, is said to be implicit in ethical narratives or conflated with similar terms, such as nonretaliation. Thus, while considerable effort is made to show very specific verbal correspondences on the theme of “non-violence” between Paul’s writings and the Jesus tradition (chap. 3), the terms actually investigated are those like nonretaliation, blessing persecutors, and so on. A jump is made from nonviolence to nonretaliation, and an equation is thus established (55–56). But in Early Jewish texts outside the New Testament, themes of nonretaliation (including themes of blessing and doing good to persecutors) occur in wide-ranging settings and with diverse social meanings, requiring at least some exploration of the possible range of overlap between the notions of “non-violence” and “non-retaliation.” At the purely verbal level, Paul’s statements on nonretaliation more closely parallel Early Jewish texts than the Gospels (Zerbe, Non-Retaliation, 1993).

Second, the author is intent on demonstrating the “uniqueness” of the “Christian” tradition of nonviolence over against the “typically Jewish” approach to this theme (9, 11, 61). But the retrojection of the Jewish-versus-Christian binary at this stage in the emergence of the Jesus movement already poses a problem (e.g., George Shillington, Jesus and Paul before Christianity [2011], reviewed in Direction 41 [Fall 2012]: 309–11). Moreover, while the Jesus movement in its various multi-ethnic contexts displays a consistent and widespread commitment to the way of peace and nonviolence, and thus is “distinctive” to emerging “Christianity,” it cannot be said that this is unique unless one more modestly admits that the specific claim to Jesus is where the uniqueness lies. It is true that when Paul turns to Jesus as Messiah, a radically new {111} commitment to nonviolence follows integrally; but to say that this commitment means a break with Judaism, or that themes of nonviolence are absent in Judaism (and even in Paul’s prior upbringing), claims too much.

Finally, a grappling with images of divine and eschatological violence in Paul’s letters seems called for. Earlier, Gabrielson took up this problem in reference to the Gospel of Matthew, wrestling with “challenges to a portrait of a non-violent Jesus,” especially the theological tension between the pervasive divine violence projected into the future and the call for human nonviolence in the present order of time. He admits to a “notable tension between a non-violent messiah and a violent world judge” in Matthew (49). In that discussion, instead of claiming (or “privileging”) the nonviolent ministry and teaching of Jesus as the hallmark of Jesus and a way to “contest” the violent imagery of New Testament narratives (e.g., David Neville, A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives [2013]), Gabrielson rests content with claiming that the Christian scriptures suggest that “non-violence is a chosen politic, not something that is constitutive of (the triune) God’s character” (50). But a careful treatment of Paul’s radical theology of generosity (grace) might have led in a different direction. In Paul’s letters, a violent eschatology of domination (Messianic world conquest, associated with the theme of final retributive justice) stands side by side with an irenic vision of world reconciliation through a restorative justice integral to God’s character, in which divine mercy and grace ultimately trump alternative approaches to God’s universal salvation in Christ (Gordon Zerbe, “From Retributive to Restorative Justice in Romans,” Direction 44 [Spring 2015]: 43–58).

Gordon Zerbe
Professor of New Testament
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Previous | Next