Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle

Book Review

Paula Fredriksen, Yale University Press, 2017, 336 pp.

Widely recognized for her works on Augustine and Christian origins, in her latest book Paula Fredriksen turns her full attention to the apostle Paul. She impressively develops a solid and sustained argument, starting from well-known points of consensus and carefully building on them to lead the reader through the essential points of her portrait of Paul, which is effectively encapsulated by the subtitle: “The Pagans’ Apostle.”

Why describe Paul as “apostle to the pagans” as opposed to the much more familiar “apostle to the gentiles”? Whereas she admits the anachronism of the term “pagan” in the context of the first century (p. 192, n. 6), she amply justifies her use of it, since the “distinction between ethnicity and religion is not native to Mediterranean antiquity, where gods and humans formed family groups. In Paul’s period, there was no such thing as a religiously ‘neutral’ ethnicity. For this reason – namely, that ancient people(s) were intrinsically in relation with their gods,” she writes, “I will often use the (religion-specific) ethnic term ‘pagan’ rather than the (religion-neutral) ethnic term ‘gentile’ when speaking of first-century ethnē, that is, of non-Jews” (p. 34).

This starting-point, effectively articulated in her essay in Paul within Judaism, is the touchstone that shapes her entire reconstruction of the historical Paul. Advancing the work of her colleagues (both Jewish and Christian) who are pioneering the perspective of Paul within Judaism, Fredriksen emphasizes the fact that Paul never ceased being Jewish:

Therefore, when Paul speaks against Law observance, he speaks against non-Pauline construals of gentile Judaizing, not against Jewish Torah observance; and when he speaks against circumcision, he speaks against the circumcision of gentiles, not of Jews. In short, and in this specific way, Paul rejects (some forms of) Judaizing, not (all forms of) Judaism (p. 130).

Key to supporting this interpretation is the argument that the rhetorical audience of Paul’s letters is primarily (if not exclusively) gentile, which Fredriksen persuasively demonstrates (cf. pp. 122, 155). These ex-pagans / ex-gentiles were neither “converts” (to Judaism) nor “Christians” (a label that hadn’t yet been invented; p. 117), leaving them in a “social and religious no-man’s land” in the ancient world (p. 91). Convincing gentiles to forsake their native gods and worship only the God of Israel without becoming Jews threatened the entire social order, since disrupting “relations between gods and their humans … risked divine wrath; and for this reason, both Roman magistrates and pagan populations actively resisted the apostles’ activities,” as did diaspora synagogue communities, effectively explaining Paul’s persecution (p. 168).

Fredriksen works through key passages in all the undisputed Pauline letters, from Galatians to Romans, in articulating and supporting the coherence of her reconstruction. In the process she also effectively addresses the inadequacy of the Sonderweg (“two-covenant”) proposal of earlier pioneers of this approach, recognizing that Paul’s expectations for gentiles didn’t imply two separate “paths” to salvation – Torah for Jews and Jesus for gentiles (cf. p. 231, n. 52; p. 234, n. 64). Paul believed that Jesus was the cosmic Messiah for all, and therefore was the goal of the Law for Israel, most of whom did not yet recognize it (cf. p. 166); but that doesn’t mean Paul thought Jews needed to abandon the Law or “convert” to a new “religion” the way he believed that gentiles needed to disavow idols and turn to the God of Israel (a point nicely elaborated on pp. 250,251, n. 84).

Traditional interpreters of Paul will quickly think of numerous verses to cite in contradistinction to much of what’s described above, but since it would be too laborious to walk through all Fredriksen’s treatments of these texts, I urge readers to go straight to Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle and carefully work through it cover-to-cover.

What I can say with deep appreciation is that Fredriksen has effectively addressed and resolved my own remaining exegetical concerns about the perspective of Paul within Judaism, and that it should be widely consulted as the latest in a growing number of key works (many of which have already been reviewed on The Paul Page) establishing this historically plausible reconstruction.

Mark M. Mattison

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