Those who follow me on Twitter know how much I love Paula Fredriksen. She is not only insightful but writes in such a clear and compelling way that it makes her work a joy to read. Last year I completed two of her most recent books: Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press, 2018) and When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale University Press, 2019). In these, she seeks to set Jesus’ first followers and Paul in their own historical context, chiefly as Jews who didn’t up-and-leave Judaism. Additionally, particularly in Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, she shows that Paul was concerned that Gentiles approach the coming eschaton as Gentiles, or, to use her terminology, “ex-pagan pagans.” She writes,
At the End of the Age, it was God who would turn these pagans – and perhaps even their gods (cf. Ps 97.7; Phil 2.10; Rom 8.21, 38-39) – to himself. And even then, God would turn the nations to himself qua ethnē [“as being the nations”]. Apocalyptic demography, in other words, would reflect quotidian demography: Jews and Gentiles, Israel and the nations. (p. 77)
It is for this reason Paul contests the efforts of those commonly referred to as “Judaizers” who, per the epistle to the Galatians, were trying to convince those Gentile followers of Jesus that they needed to be circumcised and keep Torah to truly follow Jesus (cf. Galatians 3:1-5). Apparently, some of the Galatians had succumbed to this line of reasoning, prompting Paul to ask, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1, NRSV) For Paul, this was not simply theological; it was personal. By hearkening to the words of the Judaizers, they had abandoned Paul’s gospel and thereby called into question his own apostolic authority. It’s why he spends so much time in chs. 1-2 establishing his “street cred” as an apostle of Christ.
But no conversation about Paul and his views would be complete without either dissension or calls for nuance. Over at Syndicate is an interesting exchange (a “symposium”) involving Jennifer Eyl (PhD, Brown University) and Fredriksen over some of the subjects raised in the latter’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle. Following a brief introduction to the book from Matthew Thiessen (PhD, Duke University), Eyl offers her own commentary and criticism of Fredriksen’s work. (Criticism may be too strong a term; she is really just asking for clarification.) Following this, Fredriksen offers her own response which, as one might expect of her, is both clever and concise. I don’t want to spoil the exchange since the point of this post is to get people to head over to Syndicate and read it. But it suffices to say that what Fredriksen does well is to interpret Paul through his Jewish and apocalyptic beliefs.
In any event, as an amateur in biblical studies, I find it riveting to read scholarly exchanges over these topics. Having grown up with a very Protestant understanding of Paul, shifting my views to those of scholars like Fredriksen, John Gager, Mark Nanos, Pamela Eisenbaum, etc. has been a relief. Paul is no longer an anachronism. He’s a Jew.