Scala/Art Resource, NY

Traditional images of Paul—like this 15th-century Russian icon—typically portray the bald, bearded apostle with a book or a parchment scroll, emphasizing his role as the letter writer par excellence of the early Church. Indeed, Paul’s letters have been considered scripture by Christians since the formation of the Christian canon.

In the New Testament, Paul’s letters follow the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. In that context, the letters seem to continue the message of the Gospels, teaching that the way to salvation is through Jesus and no longer through adherence to Jewish law. But when that interpretive framework is removed, Gager says, Paul can be read very differently. Paul considered himself the apostle to the gentiles, but he never speaks of the gentiles as replacing Israel as God’s chosen people. For Paul, Jesus was not the Messiah of Israel but rather of the gentiles. Just as Paul could not envision gentiles seeking salvation through the Mosaic covenant, neither could he imagine Jews attaining salvation other than through that same covenant.