Saturday, May 15, 2010

On "The Jew of Tarsus" by Hugh J. Schonfield **

This biography of the Apostle Paul provides some really useful background material on the times in which Paul lived. I learned much about some of the happenings in the Roman and Jewish worlds in the first century of the common era. Of particular note here is Schonfield's own Jewish background, which helps as he provides some interesting side points to various things that Paul says (many, for example, seem to be echoes of Jewish prayers). Schonfield makes a strong case for Paul's teachings being so controversial among the Jews because of his work being mistaken for that of Zealots. The Zealots were Jews who, like todays Islamic Jihad movement, used militaristic and terroristic means to achieve their ends. Paul (as were all early Christians), Schonfield contends, was mistaken for such because of his tie to Messianic beliefs, which the Zealots shared. But whereas the Zealots were trying to bring about the coming of the Messiah, the Christians largely only looked for the (second) coming of Messiah. The distinction to outsiders was not necessarily apparent. Mainstream Jews looking to keep peace with Rome had no desire to have such Zealots making trouble for them.

But while Schonfield's points are well taken in this regard--if not at times a bit of a stretch, but one that is arguable--he seems to throw in some other claims that go far beyond what the primary sources say. Paul, Schonfield proclaims, thought he himself was the Messiah, and that was his reason for persecuting Christians. The claim seems utterly ridiculous, and the only real evidence seems to be Schonfield's psychoanalysis of Paul. At times also, Schonfield makes dubious claims that exactly contradict the dubious claims made in another biography of Paul that I read, again without resource to the primary documents. Having read several books now make claims that go way beyond what evidence is presented, I'm left wondering if academic biblical scholarship can be trusted at all.

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