Off The Shelf: An Anomalous Jew

He is one of the most influential and controversial figures in history so it is little wonder that there is a wide proliferation of material on the apostle Paul. In the midst of this milieu it can be difficult to pinpoint where to start in engaging with Pauline thought. An anomalous Jew by  Michael Bird is a collection of essays which will certainly help in this task. Three of these essays have been published previously (Chapters 1, 4 & 5) but they have been updated for this book to bring them into line with the main argument; Paul was a Jew, of sorts.

It begins with a detailed introduction, mapping out the direction that Bird wishes to take in exploring Paul’s relationship with Judaism. He presents a variety of concepts which have been employed by scholars to describe this relationship such as Paul the former Jew, the transformed Jew, the faithful Jew, the radical Jew and the anomalous Jew. It is this final idea which Bird chooses as a lens for getting to grips with Paul’s relationship to Judaism. He argues, “the anomalous nature of Paul’s thought consists of his apocalyptic interpretation of the Messiah’s death and resurrection” (p.28). For Bird, the revelation of Jesus Christ is the key factor in producing the anomaly which radically alters not only Paul’s worldview but his understanding of the signs and symbols of Judaism in his day. This is the main thesis which is explored in a variety of ways throughout the remainder of this book.

The opening chapter reviews Paul’s understanding of Jewish soteriology of the second temple period. After a survey of this debate Bird concludes that Paul’s reason for differing with his Jewish contemporaries came down to the revelation of Christ taking a position above Torah observance. Chapter two is a wonderful overview of Paul’s missionary journey’s, investigating how he was perceived by others in the world around him, as well as what he understood as his mission as an apostle of Christ. Bird rightly calls into question the popular perspective of Paul being the apostle to the gentiles. This is something which has great practical implications when considering the role of the believer in a globalised world. We are not simply sent to a particular people or place; we are the ambassadors of the gospel of Christ wherever we are located, whatever the circumstances.

Moving on, Bird takes up the task of exploring different themes relating to the book of Galatians. Chapter three deals with reading the book of Galatians apocalyptically, yet remaining grounded in salvation history. With the coming of the kingdom of God in Christ there are a variety of tensions which rise to the surface regarding his relationship with Judaism which profoundly influence the early Christian communities which he helps shape. Taking this a step further in chapter four is a discussion of Paul’s heated disagreement with Peter regarding Jew and gentile relations in the church of Christ. For Bird, this moment in Antioch is where Paulinism begins.

Rounding off this exploration of Paul’s anomalous identity in the world of the first century is a study of his relationship with the Roman empire with focus on the book of Romans. Bird suggests that the book could have been a direct challenge to the Roman emperors totalitarian claim for worship and devotion from all citizens. This continues the theme of Paul’s anomalous identity for he neither advocates that Christ followers should embrace this worship nor should they become a confrontational resistance movement.

Although this book does not venture into uncharted territory, it is a great compilation of thought on Paul the man, his message and his mission. Michael Bird is to be commended for not only drawing these essays together but also for compiling a great bibliographic resource which will lead the reader into various avenues of further reading. He writes with a delightful style which makes it easy to read and follow with him and would be a great tool for students engaging with Pauline thought and pastors seeking some background on the anomalous nature of the apostle Paul.

An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks and Romans by Michael F. Bird. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2016, 310 pages, ISBN 978-0-8028-6797-8, £19.99.

Review originally published in SBET 36/2 Autumn 2018.

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