Monday, June 18, 2018


Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans' Apostle. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 319. ISBN 9780300225884. $35.00.

Reviewed by Olivia Stewart Lester, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


Paul: The Pagans' Apostle radically recontextualizes Paul within the diversity of Judaism in the ancient Mediterranean and within a compelling history of anti-Judaism in ancient and modern readings of his letters. Against such readings, Fredriksen transforms essential questions in Pauline studies—on gentile inclusion, the Law, christology, and the imminent end of time—with an historically robust portrayal of Paul as a first-century Jewish thinker. This book offers a new paradigm for Pauline scholarship and requires an ethical reckoning for the devastating legacies of anti-Jewish readings of Paul.

The strengths of this book are evident at the exegetical level, but it is Fredriksen's recreation of the world surrounding Paul that cements the lasting contribution of this book. This world is actually twofold: first is the ancient Mediterranean context in which Paul writes, where the modern categories of "ethnicity," "family," and "religion" come together in overlapping and intricate ways. Fredriksen's study of Paul simultaneously offers a sophisticated discussion of "religion" in antiquity as well as the diversity of ancient Judaism among other cultic practices. Describing Paul's scriptural and social landscape, Fredriksen locates Paul's writings alongside the dynamic development of Jewish scripture—its instability, multiplicity, fluidity, revision—reminding readers of the inadequacy of our modern terms "book," "canon," and "the Bible" for describing ancient texts. She also disentangles the complex negotiations between diaspora Jews and their pagan neighbors, whose daily lives and civic spaces were filled with different gods. Fredriksen places Paul's writings on the gentiles within a series of Jewish debates about how to carry out exclusive worship and when to live distinctly within multi-ethnic, multi-religious ancient Mediterranean cities.

The second is the world of interpretation surrounding Paul—from early second-century readers through the scholarship of the New Perspective on Paul. Fredriksen maps the logic of anti-Judaism as it infiltrates interpretations of Paul over centuries. Fredriksen begins by locating Paul within Judaism, reading his polemical passages as intra-Jewish debate. She then highlights the quick turn among early Christian readers such as Justin Martyr to using Paul's letters for anti-Jewish purposes: ". . . these intra-Jewish critiques became anti-Jewish critiques, spurred in part by real rivalry not for potential pagan converts so much as for recognized 'ownership' of Jewish scriptures and title to the name 'Israel.'" (71) Anti-Jewish readings of Paul have had a long lifespan, and they have resuted in disastrous acts of violence. In Fredriksen's account, anti-Jewish interpretation continues in contemporary scholarly discussions. Fredriksen illuminates theological and scholarly readings that have applied Paul's polemics against other Christ-followers to Jews (and Judaism), particularly following the emergence of Paul as a figurehead for universalist Christianity against particularist Judaism (a classic tenet of the current New Perspective). Fredriksen also levies a serious critique against New Testament scholarship on Paul and the Law, across the ideological spectrum. Scholars from both the "Two-Covenant Perspective" and "New Perspective" have shared the view that Paul became "Law-free" in his life and teaching after becoming a follower of Jesus, meaning that he abandoned Jewish traditions. Fredriksen argues along with other recent scholarly readings emphasizing Paul's Jewishness that Paul remained a Jew and directed his writing to gentiles, whom he required to take on Jewish practices, including exclusive worship of the Jewish God and living according to many of the standards of the Law. She rightly asserts that Paul's letters never speak of Jews abandoning Jewish traditions, and makes a strong case that he also brought gentiles into at least some level of obedience to the Law, with the obvious exception of circumcision. In the process, Fredriksen detects that underlying many readings of Paul on the Law is "a long-standing gentile Christian theological position, namely, that "observing the Law"—that is, living according to Jewish ancestral practices—is intrinsically incompatible with Christian 'belief.'"(86) Fredriksen argues that New Testament scholarship is still dominated by a "view of a de-Judaized Paul," one that he himself would never have recognized. (169)

By contrast, Fredriksen reads Paul within the context of ancient Judaism. Rather than interpreting gentile inclusion in Paul as a turn from particularist Judaism to universalist Christianity, Fredriksen sees Paul in line with a stream of Jewish thought (which she labels "apocalyptic") that expected the eschatological turn of the gentiles to the Jewish God (see Isa 2:2–4, Mic 4:1, Tobit 14:5–6, Isa 66:21, etc.). She argues that while Paul resists "Judaizing" in Gal 2:12–14, his whole mission to the gentiles is about including them in a Jewish movement, encouraging them to take on Jewish beliefs and customs, especially exclusive worship of the Jewish God. "[Paul's] gospel to his gentiles involved their assuming two fundamental and exclusively Jewish practices, namely, fidelity to the god of Israel alone and avoidance of a pagan cult: both ancients and moderns commonly designate such behavior as 'Judaizing.'" (86) Fredriksen makes a compelling argument that despite his rhetoric, the real problem for Paul was not Judaizing, but the wrong kind of Judaizing: gentile circumcision, rather than reliance on the message of Jesus and the work of the spirit for inclusion in God's kingdom. Fredriksen's Paul required exclusive worship of the God whom he understood to be both Jewish and universal from his gentiles. And in Fredriksen's account, gentiles remained gentiles for Paul, even after becoming followers of Jesus and exclusive worshippers of the one God. Pagan receptivity to the gospel message simultaneously strengthened and reframed Paul's belief that the end of time and coming of God's kingdom were near. Although Paul's sense of the end shifted from "now" to "soon," he never lost his own Jewish identity or his commitment to God's special relationship with Israel.
One of Fredriksen's innovations in this book is her historical reconstruction of the early Jesus movement. The book argues that the apocalyptic message of the historical Jesus did not include gentiles, and thus early followers of Jesus were initially surprised at gentiles' acceptance of their message. The gentiles who heard the message hospitably in Fredriksen's reconstruction were participants in diaspora Jewish synagogues who worshipped God but also continued to worship other gods; in other words, "god-fearers" rather than proselytes. Fredriksen asserts that apostles had to develop policies for gentile inclusion in the early Jesus movement, and Paul's writings to gentiles ("ex-pagan pagans") in his communities participate in these larger efforts of gentile inclusion, entering into a conversation that pre-dated him.

Fredriksen's book contributes to a growing body of scholarship reclaiming Paul's Jewishness. With John Gager and Lloyd Gaston, Fredriksen asserts that Paul's audiences are exclusively gentile—even the addressee of Rom 2, drawing on the work of Runar Thornsteinsson.1 Building on the work of Matthew Thiessen, Fredriksen places Paul among other Jewish debates about whether adult male gentiles could enter Jewish communities through circumcision, locating him among those who thought such circumcision is ineffective, whether because of its late timing (after the eighth day) or the impossibility of gentiles becoming Jews.2 Fredriksen's innovations in this larger body of scholarship include her emphasis on the blurred boundaries between religion and ethnicity, her assertion of God's Jewish divine ethnicity for Paul, her more concrete proposal for who exactly these gentile followers of Jesus were, and most significantly, her exposure of anti-Jewish assumptions in interpretations of Paul.

Scholars may argue over some of the details of Fredriksen's readings, but for this reviewer, none of the questions raised undermine the force of her overall argument. The first question one might ask has to do with the broad use of "apocalyptic" in this book, a term which is sometimes indistinguishable from prophecy with a strong eschatological expectation. Fredriksen is clear about the fluidity and diversity of "apocalyptic" within her framework, writing that "Apocalyptic traditions are not "doctrine," an authoritative, internally consistent, and coordinated body of teachings. Rather, they represent various and multivocal speculations, keyed to biblical themes."(29) Readers with a stricter definition of apocalpytic, particularly those who take it as a genre marker, will need to allow for this flexibility when reading Fredriksen's description of Paul as "a charismatic, apocalyptic visionary."(137) Second, not all modern readers of Paul will accept that his audiences are entirely gentile. Fredriksen's argument does not depend on this point, but she does build portions of her case about Paul and the Law on this assumption.

The contents of the book fall into two major sections; the first contextualizes Paul (chapters 1 and 2). Chapter one examines scriptural narratives, highlighting three significant themes that emerge from the dynamic and developing collection of biblical texts for Paul: God is Jewish, exclusive worship is fundamental to God's relationship with Israel, and other nations will participate in the eschatological redemption of Israel. Fredriksen suggests that Paul came to this last interpretive conclusion as a way of making sense of gentile reception of his teaching. Chapter two turns from the scriptural landscape to the social landscape for Pauline apocalyptic eschatology. Fredriksen marks Jewish participation in civic life in ways that complicate their distinctness and pagan negotiations with the Temple and Jewish synagogues. Proselytes and "god-fearers" emerge as two key categories for Paul's comments on gentiles.

The second section of the book gives close readings of Paul (chapters 3–5). Chapter three argues for a link between debates about gentile circumcision and Paul's language of persecution (see Gal 1:13–14; 5:11; 6:12). Fredriksen imagines the social ramifications of Paul's "ex-pagan pagans" becoming exclusive worshippers of Israel's God without circumcision to explain Paul's descriptions of persecution (see 2 Cor 11:24–27; 12:10). She argues that their socially anomalous position would have put them at risk of both intra-Jewish disciplinary violence (39 lashes) and sporadic violence from pagan political authorities. Chapter four attempts to systematize Paul's widespread positive and negative statements on the Law. Fredriksen argues that Paul required three things from the gentile members of his communities: (1) exclusive worship of the God of Israel, (2) no switching of ethnicity, and (3) living as holy pagans, drawing standards precisely from the Jewish Law. Fredriksen reads his negative statements on the Law as speaking about gentiles and the Law, not the Law as it relates to himself or other Jewish followers of Jesus. Chapter five focuses on Paul's christology, eschatology, and his mission to the gentiles. For Fredriksen, eschatological messianism was essential to Paul's gospel, and motivated his mission to the gentiles. Pagan followers of Jesus became a way for Paul of explaining the delay between Jesus's resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead; they were "eschatological gentiles." Fredriksen concludes with a reading of Rom 9–11, arguing that in Paul's schema, gentiles did not become Jews; they were included as worshippers of God while remaining gentiles. But they were part of the ultimate redemption of Israel. Fredriksen's Paul never lost his hope that other Jews would soon receive the message of Jesus, and then the Kingdom would come.

With its careful historical analysis and trenchant critique of the impact anti-Judaism has on readings of Paul, Paul: The Pagans' Apostle is a tour de force. This book issues an urgent call for readers to grapple with the sinister underpinnings of anti-Jewish interpretations of Paul, one which must be taken seriously.

1.   Fredriksen, 86, and 157–59 respectively, drawing from John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987); and Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Paul's Interlocutor in Romans 2: Function and Identity in the Context of Ancient Epistolography (Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series 40; Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 2003).
2.   Fredriksen, 65–69. See Matthew Thiessen, Contesting Conversion: Genealogy, Circumcision, and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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