Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2

Brief Review: St. Paul Among the Philosophers [Vol. 2, #48]

A Brief Review of

St. Paul among the Philosophers.
Ed. John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff
Paperback: Indiana University Press, 2009.
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Reviewed by Matthew Kaul.

The problem of Paul’s relationship to the Christian tradition is long-standing that has generated particular attention recently with the rise of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” and the debates this movement has generated. Most notable, perhaps, has been the interchange between Anglican scholar and bishop N.T. Wright and neo-Reformed pastor John Piper. To simplify matters greatly, should Paul be understood as a Jewish theologian who intended not to found a new religion but rather to incorporate Gentiles into Judaism? Or is Paul rather a founder, whose thought represents a break from the Jewish identity in which it was formed, and who provided a theological structure around which the event of Christ’s death and resurrection could be understood?

These questions represent the core of the contemporary discussion, and they have been taken up by philosophers and historians, including many who have no involvement or interest in institutional Christianity. Saint Paul among the Philosophers, a collection of papers first given at a 2005 Syracuse University conference, brings together many of these thinkers for a discussion of Paul’s legacy and the value of his thought today. The value of the collection lies primarily in its clear outlining of the stakes of the debates surrounding Paul, more than any particular solutions its confluence of scholars offer.

John Caputo’s introduction, at times stylistically overwrought, nevertheless helpfully introduces the two broad positions represented throughout the volume. On one side are the philosophers, who see in Paul a model for theorizing absolute truth beyond all particular identity, and who tend to take the second view of Paul outlined above.  Paul abandons particularity; this view takes as its cornerstone Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Seeking to move beyond the stifling, relativistic identity politics of our contemporary world, the philosophers, represented here by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, see in Paul possibilities for a truth that extends to all people.

On the other side, the historians argue that the truth of Paul’s texts must be sought in the context within which they arose. To see Paul as the founder of a universal discourse that helps us resolve contemporary philosophical problems, the historians claim, is to impose an anachronistic category onto Paul. Hence Paula Frederickson’s argument that, for example, Badiou’s philosophical reading completely jettisons the eschatological dimension so central to Paul’s thought. Paul is best understood, according to the historians, within the religious and political milieu of Second Temple Judaism. Against the philosophers, who tend to take Paul’s thought as a single, coherent system, the historians in the volume (particularly the New Perspective’s founder, E. P. Sanders) are much more willing to find in Paul a divergent, at times inconsistent thinker whose thought developed through the course of his life.

Several of the book’s chapters, including the chapters by Badiou, Žižek, and Sanders, are condensed or revised versions of arguments that are more fully fleshed out in other books. Perhaps the most important contribution of the present volume, then, is the transcript of the conference’s concluding roundtable, in which the philosophers and historians have the chance to converse. In this final chapter, the philosopher Žižek and the historian Frederickson debate the value of historical inquiry, theologian Daniel Boyarin and philosopher Richard Kearney discuss the relationship between peace, justice, and ecumenism, and Sanders and Biblical scholar Dale B. Martin consider the particularities of Paul’s vision of universalism. Though the discussion concludes with several dead-end questions from the audience—the scholars seem almost willful in their refusal to take up the audience’s questions, and this final section could easily have been excised—the chapter serves as a fittingly wide-ranging and productive demonstration of the power of Paul’s thought today, among believers and nonbelievers alike.

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From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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