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“Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle”

August 17, 2017

Paula Fredriksen’s awaited book on Paul has now appeared:  Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press, 2017; the publisher’s online catalog entry here).  And unlike some other recent works, it’s a comparatively modest-sized tome (319 pp. including endnotes, bibliography and indexes).  But its modest (more reasonable?) size encompasses a pithy and highly readable portrait of her subject.  I won’t attempt here a full review, but will merely highlight a few matters.

Fredriksen emphasizes two things about Paul above all else:  (1) He was, and remained, Jewish; and (2) his apostolic mission was driven by a powerful eschatological conviction prompted by his belief that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him as universal Messiah.  More specifically, she contends (persuasively to my mind) that Paul saw Jesus’ resurrection as ushering in the eschatological time foretold by biblical prophets in which the pagan “Gentile” nations would turn from their idols and embrace the one true God of Israel (e.g., Zechariah 8:20-23), and Paul saw himself as specially called by God to declare God’s eschatological acceptance of the Gentiles and summon them to turn to God.

She memorably designates Paul’s churches as comprised of “eschatological Gentiles,” and distinguishes them sharply from Jewish “proselytes.”  Proselytes were Gentiles (she prefers the term, “pagans”) who “converted” to Judaism, forsaking their birth-nations and families to become members of the Jewish nation, and so live by Torah.  Paul insisted, however, that Gentiles now didn’t need to undergo proselyte conversion, indeed, they must not do so, but instead were now granted full acceptance by God as Gentiles/pagans, simply on the basis of responding in faith-commitment to the gospel of God’s grace.  The new eschatological situation initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, Paul believed, had created this new redemptive programme.

There are a number of other things as well to commend about the book.  For example, she (again, rightly in my view) grants that Paul saw Jesus as Messiah of Israel/Jews as well as pagans/Gentiles.  No “two ways” (German: Sonderweg) theology for her!  Also, she insists (against a long-standing Christian theological view/assumption) that for Paul “Israel” remained the Jewish people.  So, for example, the salvation of “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 refers to Jews en masse coming to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, in an eschatological setting brought about by God.  She also rightly notes that, actually, Paul continued to promote observance of commandments of Torah, among which forsaking idols was primary.  He simply didn’t require pagans to become Jews, so the number of applicable commandments was fewer.

There are, however, several views in the book with which I disagree.  I’ll confine myself here to two of them.  First, I remain unable to follow her proposal that Pharisee Saul’s persecution (his term) of “the church of God” (e.g., Galatians 1:13-14) comprised flogging Jewish Jesus-believers because they were recruiting pagans, and so could cause trouble for the local synagogues.  In a previous posting here I’ve laid out my own reasons for my dissent, and the view that seems more compelling to me.  In short, I continue to judge that Paul/Saul sought to “destroy” (his term) the young Jesus-movement because he regarded its claims about Jesus to be outrageous.

And perhaps the other major matter is my view that the devotional pattern of early circles of Jesus-believers represents a novel “mutation” in Jewish tradition of the time.  Much as I appreciate Fredriksen engaging my proposal in an extended endnote (238-39 n. 15), I have to say that her response doesn’t really address the matter adequately.  For example, regarding the phrase “to call upon the name of the Lord (Jesus Christ)” (e.g., Romans 10:9-13; 1 Corinthians 1:2):  It isn’t just the verb “epikaleo” but the full expression that shows its derivation from, and reference to, the uses of the Old Testament expression for worship of YHWH.  Of course, the verb itself is used more widely to signify “calling upon/invoking” a human or a spirit-being (e.g., in magic).  But the full expression that Paul uses is a biblical one, and the “Lord” whose name that he says believers now call upon ritually is “Jesus”.  That’s a pretty noteworthy move!   For what Paul refers to isn’t some private magical act, but the open, corporate, community-identifying acclamation/invocation of the risen/exalted Jesus.

Fredriksen complains that my claim that the dyadic devotional pattern reflected already in our earliest Christian texts is a distinctive “mutation” in Jewish tradition rests upon an argument from silence.  Yes, we don’t have near enough knowledge of what went on in synagogues, but it isn’t really “silence” from which I argue.  We do have some information, descriptions, narratives, and, importantly, a pretty interesting body of prayers of the time.  There were no second beings other than YHWH reverenced in the Temple.  Not Moses, or Enoch, or Michael.  There are also no indications of invocations of second beings as part of synagogue gatherings either.  Of course, our knowledge is limited–that’s why from 1988 onward I’ve said that *within the limits of our knowledge* it appears that early Jesus-devotion comprises a novel mutation, a “dyadic” pattern that doesn’t seem to have an analogy in other Jewish circles of the time.

Consequently, we differ somewhat over how to estimate Paul’s beliefs about Jesus.  In Fredriksen’s view, Paul’s belief was mainly that Jesus is the promised Messiah, now the heavenly-enthroned Messiah to be sure.  I agree that Paul saw Jesus as Messiah, but I contend that Paul saw Messiah Jesus as also the “Lord” of believers, who is now to be reverenced in the remarkable ways that I’ve documented for several decades now.

But I conclude this posting by reiterating my admiration for the learning, wit, creativity, and sheer hard work reflected in Fredriksen’s new book.  Nice going, Paula!


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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    If I am correct, what Paul tells us geographically is that he persecuted the churches in JUDEA before his conversion. Why? Sure their beliefs about Jesus seemed outrageous to Paul. What else seemed outrageous was no doubt Jesus’ teaching, which the new converts were no doubt repeating! Jesus made Judean law relative to his own message. Jesus represented disrespect for Judean law in Paul’s mind, which to a zealot for law like the unconverted Paul was blasphemy! If we look at the earliest known sources for Jesus’ teaching, Q, Mark and some of us would add that strange confusing list of sayings that is Thomas, that also contains an impossible to identify early layer of Jesus’ teaching, there is disrespect for Judean law in the teachings of Jesus. Mark never mentions the word “law” because Jesus did not care much about it aside from the obvious love God and neighbor as yourself. Law according to Mark is primarily belief in Jesus, or belief in The Son of Man. Matthew’s gospel tries to convert Jesus into a law loving Judean Rabbi. He wasn’t! Matthew is wrong. Mark is correct. That said, I respect your comments Larry and I look forward to reading lovely Paula’s new work on Paul!!!

    • John: YOur comments, I have to say, rather perfectly illustrate the distorted views of a great many Christians down the centuries. I print them here to make it clear that they DON’T actually stand up to scholarly analysis. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Torah! (For heaven’s sake, John!) He came to announce the kingdom of God. If Jesus wanted to abolish the Torah, then it’s curious that none of his disciples got this! For the Jerusalem church continued to frequent the Temple, offer sacrifices, observe and promote Torah-observance, etc. And Paul himself had no issue over Torah-observance by Jewish believers. So, John, you need to realize that your confident assertions are dubious in the extreme.

      • Alan Paul permalink

        Of course Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah, but he interpreted it in a new way (Sermon on the Mount), opposed the purely legalistic observation of the law (Sabbath disputes etc) and superseded the Torah through his Messiahship and as the means of mankind’s reconciliation with God. For these reasons, although they continued to be Torah observant as a matter of custom and habit, the early followers of Jesus could not avoid coming into bitter conflict with those Jews who upheld the paramount importance of the Torah and the Temple.

      • Alan: “Legalistic observation of the law” is a theological view through non-Jewish eyes. Yes, the opposition to the Jewish Jesus-movement was likely focused on their objectionable promotion of Jesus. Not over Torah-observance.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        One more point I’d like to share Larry: What was “the Way” (Acts 9:2)? It seems to me “the Way” was a new way of living by the teachings of Jesus, as in . It is for this “Way” that an as yet unconverted Paul would have wanted to persecute Jesus followers. It was not only their beliefs, but their Way was outrageous to him as well!

      • No. JOhn. “The Way” seems instead to have been a group self-descriptive term used by early Jewish believers, e.g., the Jerusalem church. It likely comes from Isaiah 40:3, “prepare the way of the Lord.” Patterson’s argument is now a tired and unpersuasive one about “Q”. It was never a “gospel,” but instead a sayings-collection, composed in Greek and intended for didactic purposes. There was no “Q community” with their own distinctive theology, etc. See my chapter on Q in Lord Jesus Christ. And I’ve written about Paul’s likely reason for seeking to destroy “the church of God” (his term) in previous postings and in publications. It likely had to do with their Jesus-devotion, which for the Pharisee Saul may have bordered on the blasphemous.
        Please, John, could you stop introducing new lines of discussion unrelated to the posts?

  2. Great post Dr. Hurtado, thank you!
    I would just add in support of your position that the whole sentence is biblical (calling on the name of LORD), to recall your previous (and my ongoing) interest in the anarthrous Greek translation to Kyrios from YHWH, especially strong in the first wave of Alexandrian translations. Paul seems to *maintain* that practice when applying the Yahweh text to Christ.

    However, in light of that fact, the “name of Jesus”, could it not also be that Jesus has inherited this anarthrous usage? Yes, his Lordship is understood in human terms too (e.g. “our Lord” being either totally or nearly totally absent/appropriate forms of YHWH or ADON), but to my mind, “inheriting the name that is above all other names” could be a reference to his name-inheritance.

    What do you think?

    John Bainbridge

    • John B., I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking me. Yes (as David Capes noted in his study, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, 1992), Paul does reflect the early Christian reading of YHWH texts as referring to the exalted Jesus. And, yes, Jesus’ name itself quickly came to be seen as having a significance and power of its own. But, I’m not clear what you’re asking in the latter part of your comment.

  3. Thank you for this review and commentary. Some of the concepts here will doubtless make their way into explorations ancillary to our small-group exegetical study of Galatians in the coming days and weeks.

    I notice Paula’s specification that Paul’s Israel “remained the Jewish people.” In Romans 11:26, I wonder if many English Bibles’ renderings of οὕτως (as “so” instead of “in this way”) has led many a reader to suppose that all Jews would simply, eventually be saved — rather than all Jews “en masse coming to recognize Jesus as their Messiah.”

    I wonder now about Gal 6:16. I had once assumed that “Israel of God” referred to a newly constituted people of God in Christ, without reference to Jewish history. I later migrated to thinking that reference was intentionally bi-inclusive, i.e., that the Israel of God includes both gentiles and Jews who accepted the new covenant in Christ.

    Could I logically assume that Paula (and you?) would read Gal 6:16 “Israel of God” as referring only to the Jewish people?

    • Brian: The whole of Romans 11 is eschatologically charged. There is (1) an initial Jewish remnant who respond to the gospel, (2) a mission to the nations that will produce their “fullness”, which in turn then is followed by (3) the salvation of “all Israel” (v. 26). Romans 11:26 isn’t a charter for Jewish missions; it’s an apocalyptic “secret” to be accomplished in God’s good time (in Paul’s hopes).
      As for “the Israel of God” in Gal 6:16, if this doesn’t refer to the nation it would be the only time in Paul’s several uses of “Israel” that it doesn’t. We simply have to get used to Paul’s beliefs (which aren’t fully matched by subsequent Christian traditions of an anti-Jewish nature), in which God’s character required that historic Israel be “saved.” Indeed, Romans 11 seems to indicate that Paul’s gentile mission was pursued in the belief that it was a necessary condition for triggering the eschatological salvation of “all Israel”.

      • In hindsight, I probably would have done better to ask only one question or make only one comment. As to Romans 11, I’ll merely say there that I have no issue with your first paragraph reply above and was intending only to bring up a translation issue for the conjunction that I suspect has contributed to assumptions (whether false or not) about Paul’s Israel and/or contemporary Israel-ologies. In other words, “and so, eventually all Israel” is a bit different from “and so, *thus* or *in this way* all Israel.”

        Since writing, I have scanned all the Pauline uses of “Israel,” and it seems clear that most of them are historical in purview. (Some or even most of those also may be eschatologically charged.) Possible exceptions include Rom. 11-25-26, Gal 6:16, and Eph 2:12, which may refer to Israel more conceptually than historically. Since 60% (9/15) of the instances occur in Romans and the other 6 in isolated spots in five different letters, I’d suggest (a) that Paul’s usage might not be completely homogeneous and (b) that the unique Galatians phrase “Israel of God” could indicate a specialized use, given the particularly specific literary context and given his audience when he wrote. The import of the letter doesn’t hinge on an understanding of “Israel” in Gal 6:16, but it intrigues me nonetheless. Thanks for your response.

      • Brian: In Romans 9–11 “Israel” rather consistently = Paul’s ancestral people. The instance of “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16 is the only one that requires some pondering. And there are good reasons for taking it too as referring to Jews. See, esp. Peter Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church, SNTSMS, 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969). It may take some adjustment for non-Jewish readers of Paul to take account of him being and remaining a Jew in his mind. To be sure, a Jew who preaches Jesus as Messiah and Lord. But a Jew nonetheless, who never got confused about what “Israel” signified.

  4. Interesting. My own soteriology book, Israel’s Gone Global, argues that the eschaton arriving with messiah moved the focus term ‘Israel’ back to an individual (new Jacob), then again to a new people (new Israel), ending the monoethnic road – hence Jesus became the panethnic lord. It argues that Ethnic Israel/Jewry is no longer in Sinai (it being annulled), hardened in God’s will, but not hardened to ultimate life, the latter having always been open to all people, even from conception (if personhood begins then), and always is based on personal faith. But an interesting book.

    • Steve, Your summary reminds me of Tom Wright’s thinking on the matter, and you both essentially echo a long-standing Christian theological notion. But I have to say that I don’t think it’s Paul’s notion!

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        How come you insist on being judged as an academic rather than a Christian author, yet when you differ from NT Wright you describe his position as a longstanding Christian “notion” rather than a different scholarly position?

      • Donald: I’m not a scholar “rather than a Christian.” I’m a scholar who happens to be a Christian too. But I try to keep doing my scholarly work in terms that proceed from premises that aren’t theological, and my aim is simply to understand the past, not apologetics.
        Wright’s view of the church as replacing ethnic Israel is, in historical terms,sinmply a long-standing Christian theological notion. What’s your problem?

  5. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    First, thanks for the review and notice of this book. I look forward to reading it, especially since it is reasonably priced as well.
    I wonder for now, what amount of historical evidence Dr. Fredriksen’s offers for her position that Saul’s persecution was about the Jesus movement causing trouble for the synagogues by their proselytizing? Is there enough evidence to make her claim any less from silence? Of course we rely on limited evidence when dealing with events that occurred almost 2000 years ago, if the evidence was greater, we would not need to express conclusions in tentative terms.
    I am particularly interested in reading how she fleshed out the ‘Eschatological Gentiles’ concept.
    Thanks again.


    • Fredriksen’s starting point in her argument is Paul’s reference to receiving 39 lashes several times in synagogue settings. She proposes that the cause for this synagogue discipline is that Paul’s exhortation to his gentile converts to forsake their gods would have caused trouble for them, and also, for the local Jewish population, as Paul was a Jew. It’s a hypothesis.

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