Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, by Paula Fredriksen


Paul persists as a polarizing and puzzling figure today. Judging by the New Testament, this was no less true in the first century! But are we stumbled by the same things as his contemporaries? Paula Fredriksen, author of Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, insists that we misread Paul if we neglect the thorough Jewishness and imminent apocalyptic expectations of the apostle “racing on the edge of the End of time.”1

To properly understand Paul, we must return him to his proper contexts. For Fredriksen, these are two: “the scriptural and the social.”2 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.

First, Fredriksen deftly traces the storyline and theology of the Jewish scriptures. Paul insists among his fellows Jews that the God of Israel is both the God of their forefathers (Rom 15:8) and also the highest God. He is 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, the angelic court, and other elohim. All mankind finds their source in Noah and the later 70 nation division at the Babel incident. Israel, however, is created by their God and set apart from the nations and their gods. In Ancient Near Eastern culture, such exclusive worship of one deity “can seem at least incautious, if not downright impious.”3 Furthermore, this God 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 (Fredriksen’s translation of ethnē) would be destroyed, others held that they would also be saved through Israel’s future redemption on the last day.

Next, Fredriksen 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.”4 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.”5 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.”6 And yet, Jews participated in other cultural activities such as gladiatorial games, being “comfortably rooted”7 in their cities. 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, while still worshiping other gods. These were known as “god-fearers.” Another term for such practice—”doing something that usually a Jew would do”8was “Judaizing.” Jews didn’t, and couldn’t, “Judaize;” pagans did.

With this background in place, Fredriksen 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 Fredriksen argues there is “no internal evidence for such missions.”9 Instead, the turning of the pagans to worship the God of Israel is an apocalyptic idea, a providential event expected only in the last days. Thus, the first Jewish mission to gentiles was from Jewish Messiah-followers who believed the end was imminent.

What exactly were these Messiah-following pagans? The existing categories of proselyte or god-fearer did not fit neatly. Like both proselytes and god-fearers, Paul’s Messiah-following pagans worshiped the God of Israel. But unlike proselytes, these Messiah-followers did not convert to Judaism and thus abandon their ethnic identity. And unlike God-fearers, they did not continue to worship their old gods. As Fredriksen explains: “gentiles are indeed included in Israel’s redemption; but they are included as gentiles.10

Why was Paul originally a persecutor of the Jesus-movement? And why was he later persecuted himself? Was it the scandal of a crucified messiah? This answer “should be retired from New Testament scholarship.”11 The scandal of a Law-free gospel? This assumes the gospel is irreconcilable with Jewish practice, and furthermore “[law-lax god-fearing] gentiles were already present in the synagogue.”12 For Fredriksen, the persecution was over the destabilization of the Jewish/Roman relationship due to these aberrant ex-pagan pagans. Indeed, “the early apostles walked these Messiah-following pagans into a social and religious no-man’s land.”13 Fredriksen deems them ironically, ex-pagan pagans. The existence of such a group was repugnant to many Jews and pagans. 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.”14 Their exclusive worship of Israel’s God resulted in ignoring other gods to the city’s peril. Thus Paul was seen as a disturber of the peace for not preaching circumcision (Gal 5:11; 2 Cor 11:24–27).

In the fourth chapter, Fredriksen 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,”15 and extended persecution from Jews and Roman authorities caused some to reconsider the necessity of circumcision. Along with full conversion of pagans into Jews, it 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 minimizing Paul’s positive statements about the Law, resulting in a Law-free apostle. 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 regard to gentiles. Contrary to the Traditional and New Perspective scholars respectively, Paul did not consider circumcision and Law-observance as either works-salvation or ethnocentrism. Also, contrary to scholars who posit two paths of salvation (Judaism for Jews, Christ for Gentiles), Paul held that the Messiah was the path of salvation for both Jew and Gentile. However, Paul believed that proselyte circumcision was like Ishmael’s (Gal 4:21–31; Rom 9:7); it would not bring a pagan into the covenant, nor would it solve his immorality. Rather, the solution was Messiah 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.”16 They were justified by faith, made able to act rightly towards their neighbors.17

Fredriksen 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 Messiah triumphant return.”18 As to Christology, later Nicene formulations are foreign to Paul. Philippians 2:5–10 does not speak of Messiah’s deity, but rather of the eschatological recognition that he is the messiah. Romans 1:3–4 refers not to two natures (divine and human) within Jesus, nor his installation as messiah at his resurrection from the dead. Rather, it harmonizes with Philippians 2:5–10 by presenting the declaration of his messiahship as taking place at the final resurrection.19 As to ecclesiology, gentiles and Jews are united in Messiah, but the latter retain a “singular, enduring identity.”20 Yeshua-followers are God’s temple, but not to the disparagement of Jerusalem’s temple. To answer the question of the delay of the parousia, Fredriksen summarizes her reading of Romans, one that runs contrary to popular and traditional interpretations. Romans is addressed “solely and explicitly”21 to gentiles, presenting the problems faced by Judaizing gentiles who lack Messiah. The self-proclaimed Jew in Romans 2:17 is in fact a gentile claiming Jewishness to his 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.

Fredriksen holds that Paul, the thoroughly Jewish apocalyptic apostle, was domesticated and misunderstood by later interpreters. Even the later “Paul” of the disputed letters, attempted to explain the Kingdom’s delay by adding precursors (2 Thess 2:1–11), undermined any Jew-gentile distinction (Eph 2:11–16), and established enduring church structure and hierarchy (Pastorals). Even the Jewish God lost his Jewishness in later Christian theology.22 In contrast, the historical Paul maintained the distinction between Jew and gentile within one people of God, and firmly believed that Jesus would return imminently to establish his Kingdom.

For 174 pages (excluding endnotes), the scope of Paul: the Pagan’s Apostle is breathtaking. Fredriksen 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 endnotes reveal her impressively wide research. Even more, her prose is eloquent and succinct. This book could—and should!—be read by the interested bystander and the seasoned scholar, and both would profit in equal measure.

While Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle deserves the abundance of praise it will no doubt receive, it also contains several idiosyncratic ideas that will be no doubt challenged by critical scholars.

Fredriksen places little emphasis on the resurrection and ascension, and much on the parousia. Her treatment of “justification by faith” is unclear and undeveloped, as is her view of Paul’s problem with Judaism and Jews who did not recognize Yeshua as Messiah. She rejects two separate paths to salvation, and rightly points out that, for Jews, recognizing Jesus as the messiah is not properly considered conversion. Rather, it was “more like a shift of perspective.”23 However, this appears to downplay that Paul considered Jews, alongside gentiles, as “under sin” (Rom 3:9). Fredriksen sees the Law being weakened by the flesh as only a problem experienced by the gentile.24 In other words, “the Law only revealed sin for gentiles.”25 But would Jews, under sin,26 not also face the same problem? What of the historical fact of exile, where Israel experienced the curse of the Law? These questions remain unanswered.

Evangelicals will likely take issue with some of Fredriksen’s assumptions and conclusions. I will mention two:

First, Fredriksen 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. But a truncated Paul results in a truncated reconstruction of his thought. Her rejection of the full Pauline canon is based on her view that within the undisputed letters Paul has a firm conviction that Messiah would return in his lifetime—a view not supported in the disputed letters.27 This appears to be circular thinking to this reviewer. An imminent eschatology is perceived in some letters, which is then used to reject the others that lack it. Without Acts, Fredriksen is required to speculate on issues such as the mindset of the first missionary work, and the nature and motives of early Jewish persecution of the church (including Paul’s). Verses such as Acts 10:28 also call into question her reconstruction of most first-century Jews as being comfortable with gentile culture and influence.

A second issue would be Christology. In her treatment of Philippians 2:5–11, Romans 1:3–4, and 1 Corinthians 15, Fredriksen concludes that Jesus is not divine; rather, he is a heavenly human being in the form of a god. As to the allusion to Isaiah 45:23 LXX that “every knee shall bow” (Phil 2:11), Fredriksen considers the fealty to Messiah Jesus at his return to effectively be worship of Israel’s God. This misses the full implication of the allusion, where knees will bow to God alone (the kurios in Isaiah 45:23 LXX). Thus, Paul attributing these very actions to the Lord (kurios) Jesus implies more than Fredriksen recognizes. Also similar is the case of “calling on the name of the Lord [Jesus]” in Romans 10:9–13. This is an allusion to Joel 3:5 LXX, where the Lord (kurios) is clearly God. Fredriksen recognizes this,28 but adds that since “call upon” (epikaloumai) is commonplace in magic incantations, and “lord” (kurios) is a common expression of respect, one should “hesitate to infer”29 a binitarian theology in these texts. But this again underestimates the significance of the allusion to Joel 3:5 LXX, where worship is in view, and the “lord” (kurios) being worshiped is the God of Israel! Again, Paul’s allusion carries more significance for Christology than Fredriksen allows.

Fredriksen is a leading scholar in the Radical New Perspective, or Paul within Judaism, school of views. These scholars attempt to re-read Paul and his theology as thoroughly comfortable within first-century Jewish thought. In other words, Paul did not leave Judaism or convert to a new religion. As such, the Jewish nature of the Jesus movement is preserved.

In all, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is a strikingly bold and comprehensive post-supersessionist reconstruction of the Jewish Paul and his theology that any student of Paul and early Christianity must read and with whose arguments they must reckon. Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is a book worthy to be read widely, with intellectual pleasure and stimulating frustration often both on the same page.

1 Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), xii.

2 Ibid., 7.

3 Ibid., 16.

4 Ibid., 32.

5 Ibid., 34.

6 Ibid., 42.

7 Ibid., 49.

8 Ibid., 57.

9 Ibid., 73.

10 Ibid., 75. Emphasis in the original.

11 Ibid., 84.

12 Ibid., 85.

13 Ibid., 91.

14 Ibid., 90.

15 Ibid., 101.

16 Ibid., 117.

17 Ibid., 112.

18 Ibid., 132.

19 Ibid., 142–143.

20 Ibid., 150.

21 Ibid., 155.

22 Ibid., 170.

23 Ibid., 250, fn. 84.

24 Ibid., 158.

25 Ibid., 165. Emphasis in the original.

26 For Fredriksen’s statements regarding Israel apart from Christ, see for example, “Paul states that Jews as well as gentiles are ‘under sin’ (Rom 3.9–20) . . . Paul’s concentration of the Law’s negative effects for gentiles does not, in my view, diminish his conviction that Christ comes to redeem Israel as well as the nations (Rom 15.8–9).” Ibid., 234, fn. 64.

27 Ibid., 252, fn. 5.

28 Ibid., 238–239, fn. 15.

29 Ibid.