This review first appeared in Kesher Journal, with small modifications. Paul persists as a polarizing and puzzling figure within and without the church and academy. Judging by the book of Acts, this was no less true in the first century! But are we stumbled by the same things as his contemporaries? Paula Frederiksen, author of Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, insists that we misread Paul if we neglect his thorough Jewishness and imminent apocalyptic expectations; “racing on the edge of the End of time” (xii).
Paul: the Pagan’s Apostle
To properly understand Paul, we must return him to his proper context(s). For Paula, these are two: “the scriptural and the social” (p. 7). The former refers to the ancient texts and traditions of Israel as understood in Second Temple Judaism. The latter is the Greco-Roman world, with its cities, culture, and ubiquitous paganism.
Israel and her Scriptures
First, Frederiksen deftly traces the storyline and theology of the Jewish scriptures. Paul insists with his fellows Jews that Yhwh is the god of their forefathers (Rom 15:8), and yet also the highest god; the Jewish god of all nations (Rom 3:29). This does not deny the existence of other spiritual beings or “gods,” such as the sons of God, cherubim, angelic court and other elohim. All mankind finds their source in Noah, and the 70 nation division due to the Babel incident. Israel, however, is created by Yhwh and set apart from the nations and their gods. In ANE culture, such exclusive worship to one deity “can seem at least incautious, if not downright impious” (p16). Furthermore, Yhwh attached himself uniquely to the Davidic dynasty and city of Jerusalem. He promised to establish his kingdom through David’s son, but the kingdom was divided and devastated and deported by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Israel’s prophets, however, maintained hope in a coming Davidic king, and this seed of hope sprouted and expanded. These diverse prophetic hopes shared commonalities: intense persecution of the righteous, the day of the Lord with accompanying celestial disturbances, the final battle, the resurrection of the dead, the outpouring of God’s spirit, and the regathering of the tribes into the land, with rebuilt temple and universal worship of Israel’s god. Though some prophecies stated the pagans (Frederiksen’s translation of ethnē) would be destroyed, others held that they would also be saved through Israel’s future redemption on the last day.
The Greco-Roman World
Next, Frederiksen considers the Greco-Roman world in which Paul lived. In contrast to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, the western Diaspora was “for the most part voluntary” (p32). Jews made their way into every city and thus had to navigate paganism daily: “it was impossible to live in a Greco-Roman city without living with its gods” (p34). Two oddities set Jews apart from others. First, aniconism; the absence of images in Jewish worship. Second, the cultic focus on Jerusalem, resulting in Jews being “the only conspicuously nonsacrificing population in the first-century empire” (p42). And yet, Jews participated in other cultural activities such as gladiatorial games, being “comfortably rooted” in their cities (p49). Even the Septuagint made room for Greco-Roman ideas. In the ancient world, there was no division between religion and ethnicity, and religion was no private matter. So what of non-Jews who admired Jewish practice and worship? Forming an exclusive commitment to the god of Israel was considered changing ethnicity and effectively “becoming a Jew.” Most, however, would be less extreme, participating with the synagogues through benefaction and/or worship, whilst still worshiping other gods. These were known as “god-fearers”. Another term for this — “doing something that usually a Jew would do” (p57) — was “Judaizing”. Jews didn’t, and couldn’t, “Judaize;” pagans did.
Paul and the Pagans
With this background in place, Frederiksen then turns to explore Paul. Why did he become a missionary to the gentiles? Some postulate that there was an intentional and systematic pre-Jesus Jewish mission that encouraged Gentiles to proselytize. Matthew 23:15 and Galatians 5:11 are often used in support. But Frederiksen argues there is “no internal evidence for such missions” (p73). Instead, the turning of the pagans to worship the god of Israel is an apocalyptic idea, a work of Yhwh expected only in the last days. Thus, the first Jewish mission to Gentiles was from Jewish Christ-followers who believed the end was imminent.
But what exactly were Christ-following pagans? Were they proselytes? But prostelytes lost their ethnic identity. Were they god-fearers? But god-fearers remained active pagans, simply adding Yhwh their worship of gods. Rather, they were an anomaly. Like proselytes, they would exclusively worship the god of Israel. But like god-fearers, they retained their ethnic identity, remaining non-Jewish. In other words, “gentiles are indeed included in Israel’s redemption; but they are included as gentiles” (p75, emphasis original).
Why was Paul originally a persecutor of the Jesus-movement? And why was he later persecuted? Was it the scandal of a crucified messiah? This answer “should be retired from New Testament scholarship” (p84). The scandal of a Law-free gospel? This assumes the gospel is irreconcilable with Jewish practice; what’s more “[law-lax god-fearing] gentiles were already present in the synagogue” (p85). For Frederiksen, the persecution was due to the destabilization of the Jewish/Roman relationship due to these aberrant ex-pagan pagans. Indeed, “the early apostles walked these Christ-fearing pagans into a social and religious no-man’s land” (p91). Frederiksen calls them ex-pagan pagans. The existence of such a group was repugnant to unbelieving pagans and Jews. While Jews and their idiosyncrasies were tolerated by the Roman authorities, these pagan believers remained pagans and thus “were still obligated to the gods of the city and of the empire” (p90). Their exclusive worship to Yhwh resulted in ignoring the gods to the city’s peril. Thus Paul was a disturber of the peace for not preaching circumcision (Gal 5:11; 2 Cor 11:24-27).
A Torah-Observant Paul
In the fourth chapter, Frederiksen considers Paul’s own teaching on the Law. Though the pillars of Jerusalem endorsed the circumcision-free mission of Paul, why were later “apostles” preaching pagan circumcision? The answer is found in the delay of the parousia. “Time drags when you expect it to end” (p101) and extended persecution from Jews and Roman authorities caused some to reconsider its necessity. Circumcision and full conversion of pagans into Jews would easily resolve the tension.
But Paul vehemently opposed these ideas. So what did he think of the Law? His statements appear contradictory. A solution has usually been found in believing Paul to be a Law-free apostle by minimizing his about the Law. But Paul in fact upheld circumcision and the Law for Jews (Phil 3:5; Rom 3, 9-11, 15). His negative words on the Law are specifically in regards to gentiles. Contrary to the Traditional and New Perspective schoalrs, Paul did not consider circumcision and Law-observance as either works-salvation or ethnocentrism. Contrary to Sonderweg scholars, Paul did not maintain two tracks to salvation (Christ for gentiles and Judaism for Jews). Rather, Paul believed that proselyte circumcision, like Ishmael’s (Gal 4:21-31; Rom 9:7), would not bring a pagan into the covenant, nor would it solve their immorality. Rather, the solution to both was Christ and his indwelling spirit. While Paul did not impose Law-observance on the gentiles, he did require them to exclusively worship Israel’s god (but by remaining as gentiles), and to “behave toward each other in such a way that they fulfill the Law” (p117). They were justified by faith, made able to act rightly towards their neighbors (p122).
Frederiksen next turns to consider Paul’s broader theology in the fifth chapter. Paul’s eschatology drives his mission. He is bringing in the gentiles to the imminent kingdom, and as such, “expects to live to see Christ’s triumphant return” (p132). As to Christology, later Nicene formulations are foreign to Paul. Phil 2:5-10 does not speak of Christ’s deity, but his eschatological declaration as messiah. Rom 1:3-4 refers not to Jesus’ two natures, but the declaration of his messiahship at the final resurrection (p142-143). As to ecclesiology, gentiles and Jews are united in Christ, but the latter retains a “singular, enduring identity” (p150). Believers are God’s temple, but not to the disparagement of Jerusalem’s temple. To answer the question of the delay of the parousia, Frederiksen summarizes her reading of Romans; one that runs contrary to popular and traditional interpretations. Romans is addressed “solely and explicitly” to gentiles (p155); presenting the problems faced by Judaizing gentiles who lack Christ. The self-proclaimed Jew in Rom 2:17 is in reality a gentile claiming Jewishness to their credit. But for Paul, proselyte circumcision could not make one a son of Abraham. Only faith, following Abraham’s footsteps, could make one his heir and an inheritor of salvation.
Frederiksen holds that Paul, the thoroughly Jewish apocalyptic apostle, was domesticated and misunderstood by later interpreters. Even the “Paul” of the disputed letters, who explained the Kingdom’s delay (2 Thess 2:1-11), undermined any Jew-gentile distinction (Eph 2:11-16), and established enduring church structure (Pastorals). Even the Jewish god “became no longer Jewish” in later Christian theology (p170). In contrast, the historical Paul maintained the distinction between Jew and gentile within one people of God, and firmly believed that Christ would return imminently to establish his Kingdom.
For 174 pages (excluding end-notes), the scope of Paul: the Pagan’s Apostle is simply breathtaking. Frederiksen manages to present a bird’s-eye-view of the Jewish scriptures, first-century culture, early Christianity, and a reconstruction of Paul and his theology. But this is no mere overview, she manages to weigh in on a broad variety of disputed issues in Pauline theology with both depth and clarity. Her end-notes reveal her impressively wide research. Even more, her prose is eloquent and succinct. This could—and should!—be read by the interested bystander and the seasoned scholar, and both would profit to equal measure.
The present reviewer faces difficulty in evaluating this book. While it deserves the abundance of praise it will no doubt receive, it also contains a number of idiosyncratic ideas that will be no doubt challenged by critical scholars.
Frederiksen places little emphasis in the resurrection and ascension, and much in the parousia. Her treatment on “justification by faith” is unclear and undeveloped. Her view on the “Jewish problem” is also largely unclear. She rejects Sonderweg two-track salvation, and rightly points out that, for Jews, recognizing Jesus as the messiah is not conversion. Rather, it was “more like a shift of perspective” (p250 fn 84). However, this seems to downplay that Paul considered Jews as “under sin” (Rom 3:9). Frederiksen sees the Law being weakened by the flesh as only a problem experienced by the gentile (p158); “the Law only revealed sin for gentiles” (p165, emphasis original). Would Jews, under sin, not too face the same problem? What of the historical fact of exile, where Israel in fact experienced the curse of the Law? These questions are unanswered.
Historicity and Christology
What’s more, evangelicals like myself will likely take issue with some assumptions and conclusions. I will mention two:
Frederiksen is skeptical of the historicity of Acts and the authenticity of the disputed Pauline letters, and disregards both in her historical reconstruction. These conclusions are largely assumed, and the arguments presented — for example “contradictions” between Paul’s vision in Galatians 1 and Acts — are easily answered. A truncated Paul means a truncated reconstruction. Her rejection for the full Pauline canon is based on the truncated Paul’s firm conviction that Christ would return in his lifetime; a view not supported in the other letters (p252. n5). However, to this reviewer, this comes off as circular logic. Imminent eschatology is perceived from her reading of certain letters, which is then used to reject the others. Without Acts, Frederiksen is required to speculate on issues such as the mindset of the first missionary work, and the nature and motives of early Jewish (including Paul) persecution of the church. Also, verses such as Acts 10:28 call into question her reconstruction of first-century Judaism as being comfortable with gentile culture and influence.
A second issue would be Christology. From her treatment of Phil 2:5-11, Rom 1:3-4, and 1 Cor 15, Jesus is not divine, but a heavenly human being in the form of a god. As to the allusion to Isa 45:23 LXX that “every knee shall bow” (Phil 2:11), Frederiksen considers this as reverence to Yhwh as a consequence fealty to Christ as his return. This misses the full implication of the allusion, where knees bow to Yhwh (kurios in the LXX) alone. This is the case also with “calling on the name of the Lord [Jesus]” in Rom 10:9-13. This is itself an allusion to Joel 3:5 LXX, where the Lord is clearly Yhwh. Frederiksen recognizes this (p238-9 fn 15), but adds that since “call upon” (epikaloumai) is common in magic, and “lord” (kurios) is a common expression of respect, one should “hesitate to infer” a binitarian theology in these texts. But this underestimates the significance of the allusion to Joel 3:5 LXX, where the context is clearly one of worship, and the kurios is Yhwh!
Frederiksen is a leading scholar in the “Radical New Perspective”, or “Paul Within Judaism,” movement. This movement attempts to re-read Paul and his theology as thoroughly comfortable within first-century Jewish thought. As such, the Jewish nature of the Jesus movement is preserved. Anachronism within the church and scholarship is rebuffed.
In all, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is a strikingly bold and comprehensive post-supersessionist reconstruction of the Jewish Paul and his theology that must be read by any student of Paul and early Christianity must read and with which the arguments must be reckoned. Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is a book worthy to be read widely, with pleasure and frustration; often both on the same page.
This review first appeared in Kesher Journal and was provided in exchange for an unbiased review.