Review of Abed Azzam, Nietzsche Versus Paul

Reviewed By: Joseph M. Spencer

Azzam, Abed. Nietzsche Versus Paul. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 978-0-231-16930-1 (paper). xxii + 209.


In a 1974 essay, Jörg Salaquarda provided an illuminating preliminary analysis of the occasional claim that Nietzsche’s “vehemence” in his polemic against Saint Paul is symptomatic of a certain “closeness” or “kinship” between the two figures (102). According to Salaquarda, Nietzsche and Paul are in fact best read as rival revaluators, parallel in structure if nonetheless opposed in content: Paul is the teacher of the destruction of the (Jewish) law, Nietzsche the teacher of eternal recurrence (128). Whatever the merits of Salaquarda’s conclusions, however, the importance of such an interpretation of Nietzsche has often been less than apparent—of interest, perhaps, only to those who might for reasons of faith wish to defend Paul against his critics. But thanks to the past two decades, which have witnessed a remarkable and unanticipated surge of interest in the philosophical significance of Saint Paul, the relevance of Salaquarda’s question is now plain. Indeed, in the work that arguably inaugurated the shift in philosophical interest toward the Christian apostle—Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul—there appears a brief argument that “Nietzsche is Paul’s rival far more than his opponent” (72). The validity of such a claim deserves renewed critical attention. In Nietzsche Versus Paul, Abed Azzam begins to fill this need.

It is to be hoped, however, that the occasion for Azzam’s book does not overdetermine its reception, as it certainly promises to do. Titled Nietzsche Versus Paul and lacking any clarifying subtitle, the book will likely draw the attention primarily of those interested in Paul’s relationship to philosophy. But Azzam’s intentions drastically outstrip any desire just to contribute to the conversation surrounding Paul. Indeed, Nietzsche Versus Paul is, unlike the best contributions to philosophical work on Paul, little interested in clarifying or developing the meaning or philosophical implications of Paul’s own texts, on their own terms. Azzam seeks primarily—if not solely—to clarify the significance, for Nietzsche and for the task of interpreting Nietzsche, of Nietzsche’s interactions with Paul. There is no attempt to decide on whether Nietzsche understands Paul correctly, nor is there any attempt at a defense of Pauline ideas against Nietzsche’s critiques. Only seldom does Azzam draw on Pauline ideas or texts that do not explicitly appear in Nietzsche’s writings. For Azzam, then, it seems it is largely enough just to make clear what Nietzsche means to say about Paul.

This is not to say, however, that Azzam’s aims in the book are modest. Nietzsche Versus Paul is not a simple exegetical study, systematically working through Nietzsche’s scattered references to and occasional sustained engagements with Paul. Although it in fact does provide exegeses of Nietzsche’s many discussions of Paul (and of Christianity generally), it is primarily a thesis-driven attempt at a full reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s larger project. Azzam in fact takes as his framing interlocutors Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze, two overdetermined philosophical interpreters of Nietzsche’s oeuvre. Like them, Azzam aims at excavating “the essential-Nietzsche” (xiii), but he criticizes Heidegger and Deleuze for having wrongly delimited themselves to “the horizon of the history of philosophy,” that is, for presenting Nietzsche as exhausted by his opposition to Plato (147). Against these interpretations, Azzam presents an “essential-Nietzsche” who is more anti-Christ than anti-Plato. That is, Azzam’s Nietzsche is chiefly a genealogical critic of (Pauline) Christianity who looks to the possible reemergence of the Dionysian, rather than a philosophical opponent of Plato who merely sees Christianity as a pitiful and problematic popularization of Platonism. In short, Azzam takes seriously and provides an extended study of Nietzsche’s late formula, “Dionysus versus the Crucified.”

Azzam’s argument—which he explicitly presents as a furthering of Salaquarda’s “inspiring” analysis (xvi)—unfolds over the course of six chapters. Each pair of two conjoined chapters focuses on a different historical period in Nietzsche’s genealogical interpretation of the West. Chapter One addresses pre-Christian Greek developments from the rise of Dionysian religion to mature (but still pre-Christian) Platonism, while Chapter Two turns to pre-Christian Judaism both in what Nietzsche calls its noble, earlier form and in what he calls its priestly, later form. Chapter Three then focuses on the extra-historical figure of Jesus, Nietzsche’s Buddhist idiot, before Chapter Four assesses Saint Paul and his attempt at legitimizing Christianity as a restoration of the pre-Jewish (or really, pre-legal) Abrahamic faith. Finally, with Chapter Five Azzam comes to the modern period—the death of God, the morality implicit in science, and the importance of modern art—then dedicating Chapter Six to the period of history Nietzsche projected beyond his own day, during which the meaning of God’s death remained to be worked out.

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