Jacob Taubes. The Political Theology of Paul

Jacob Taubes. The Political Theology of Paul. Stanford University Press, 2004.

This is an interesting book, though perhaps not for everybody. Taubes was a Jewish political philosopher in Germany and the United States who died in 1987. Shortly before his death he presented a set of lectures on the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans (kind of). These lectures were gathered, edited, and translated, finally being published in North America in 2004 in a Stanford University Press series on postmodernism that includes other books from European philosophers on Paul.

Mark Lilla’s New York Review of Books article, “A New, Political Saint Paul?” in the October 23, 2008 issue (unfortunately only available online through a paid subscription), very helpfully puts Taubes’ thought in context. Unlike thinkers such as Zizak and, especially, Badiou, Taubes presents us with a Paul who is thoroughly Jewish. This is a major issue, and we can be grateful for Taubes’ counter-witness to what seems surely to be the kind of attention to Paul that does little to advance Christian theology and ethics or the much needed rapprochements of Christianity and Judaism on the one hand and of post-Christian Western thought and the authentic gospel on the other.

Taubes also stands over against the great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, in his understanding of Paul.  Buber’s great book, Two Kinds of Faith, displayed a remarkably sympathetic Jewish reading of Jesus–but unfortunately drives a deep wedge between Jesus and Paul. Taubes rejects this wedge (though he does not pay much attention to Jesus, per se) and makes the assertion that Paul remains thoroughly Jewish in the prophetic line. This assertion would have still been unusual in the 1980s, but happily is now much more central for scholarly readings of Paul. Taubes was a good friend of the pioneering Pauline scholar Krister Stendahl and his affinity with Stendahl on this issue of Paul and Judaism is apparent.

However, the “kind of” in my parenthesis above must be explained. If you are looking for a close reading of Romans you will need to look elsewhere.  Taubes rambled a lot in these lectures. What is reproduced in this book is mainly a series of reflections on an appreciative Jewish reading of Paul, on various currents of 20th-century European political philosophy, and on Taubes’ own very rich and fascinating life. This makes a fun read–but useful more for its suggestiveness than for any sustained argumentation.

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