Review: Chai (British Messianic Jewish Alliance) (Richard Gibson)

British Messianic Jewish Alliance “Chai” magazine spring 2005: Issue 223
Book Review
Contours of Pauline Theology

A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings

Tom Holland
2004 Mentor: Christian Focus Publications
ISBN 1-85792-469-X

In this book Tom Holland is introducing to mainstream biblical scholarship what the Messianic movement has been saying about Paul for many years. With scholarly insight and uplifting erudition Tom Holland is making Paul kosher again, demonstrating that the apostle was not, as is sometimes claimed, a self-hating Jew who transformed a good rabbi called Yeshua into a powerful divinity in order to give his new religion an edge over the Greek pantheon of gods.

Tom challenges the current tide of scholarly opinion about Paul by stating that the apostle’s theology can be properly understood only in the light of his Jewish background. In order to correctly read Paul’s writings we must view them through the lenses of Passover and the “New Exodus” spoken of by the later prophets.

Holland takes issue with the liberal reading of Paul, demonstrating that the apostle departed neither from the teachings of Yeshua nor the Tanach. The assertion that the gospel passed through a three-fold evolution from the original message preached by Yeshua in Judea, which was altered for the Diaspora Jews and finally Hellenised for the Gentiles, is shown to be erroneous. New Testament scholarship has become so bad, says Holland, that biblical scholar Mark Nanos has to state what is to some of us blindingly obvious: “We can now read the New Testament as a Jewish book.” (p.15) As Americans say: “Duh!”

Chapter two provides a brilliant insight into Paul’s use of the book of Isaiah to map out the history of salvation. Equally refreshing is Holland’s critique in chapter three of liberal methodology: “It was not from Athens that the writers of the New Testament had drawn their understanding, but from Jerusalem.” (p.52). Liberal scholarship, founded on unsubstantiated assumptions, is now facing serious questions about its continued promotion of outdated methodology. A similar error, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, is an uncritical acceptance by some scholars of the Pseudepigrapha. The warning issued by Holland is particularly relevant to the area where the Messianic movement intersects with the Hebrew Roots movement because the key to a true understanding of the New Testament is the Tanach.

“We must make every effort to free ourselves from unrecognised presuppositions that have enslaved Paul in a Greek prison” (p.82), says Holland. As an example of such effort he challenges the assumption that Paul’s use of the word doulos is based on the idea of a Greek “slave”. He argues that it is more accurate to see Paul’s “servant” imagery rooted in the Old Testament ebed, as in Isaiah’s “servant” of the Lord.

Tom Holland works through various issues in the rest of the book applying his thesis that Paul can be understood only through Jewish eyes. The insights he provides and the conclusion he comes to are challenging and fascinating. Chapters five and six, in particular, demand concentration. There is lots of interesting and in-depth interaction with the views of other scholars, but some readers might prefer to go straight to the conclusions of those chapters to get to Holland’s own views. Particularly interesting is his focus on the themes of the “New Exodus” and Passover Community. Tom Holland’s conclusion is that the Passover and a corporate reading of the texts relating to it are the two required lenses if we are to understand not only Paul but the rest of the New Testament.

Despite having one occurrence of unnecessary supercessionism (page 104-105) which adds nothing to his argument, this book is still excellent. Contours of Pauline Theology is a valuable tool for those in the Messianic movement who want to understand the New Testament, and those in the wider body of Messiah who are confused because they have been taught to read a thoroughly Jewish book through Greek lenses.

Richard Gibson, Editor of Chai

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