Book Review: Paul, The Pagans’ Apostle

on Mar 30, 2018 in Updates | 0 comments

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Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle

Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 336 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by M. John-Patrick O’Connor



The Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University, Paula Fredriksen, has contributed a gem to Pauline studies in her recent publication, Paul the Pagans’ Apostle. The rigorous Augustine and historical Jesus scholar has turned her attention to the Apostle Paul, in a delightful reframing of his life and mission.

Fredriksen organizes her work in five major sections with a “Postscript” (167–74) and “Acknowledgments” section appearing at the end (175–78). Her first two chapters, “Israel and the Nations” (8–31) and “Fatherland and Mother City” (32–60) deftly provide the Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts for first-century Paul. Chapters 3–5, the bulk of the argument (61–166), offer a fresh and exciting reframing of Paul and his mission.

Throughout, Fredriksen writes with a piercing clarity. Krister Stendahl, to whom the book is dedicated, would applaud Fredriksen’s swift dismantling of domineering trends in the history of scholarship. Three, in particular, stand out. First, the alleged existence of “Jewish missionaries” pre-Jesus is an overly simplistic solution to earliest Christianity. Sources indicate that Jewish proselytizing existed in some form,[1] but this is not the only Jewish solution to the “gentile problem” nor does it necessitate a change of one’s ethnic status.[2] Second, the prevailing notion that the Christian proclamation of a crucified messiah was “an affront to pious Jews anywhere and everywhere” (83). Galatians 3:13 must be reconciled with Josephus’s records of crucified Jews (e.g., BJ 2.75; 5.449-51).  Finally, as S. Stowers and J. Gager before her have shown, “new” perspective scholars’ insistence on an anti-ethnocentric Gospel has glaring problems, not least of which is Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Fredriksen masterfully guides us between the “two-covenant” and “new” perspectives to a plausible landing pad: Paul’s apocalyptic expectation leads him to reject “(some forms of) Judaizing and not (all forms of) Judaism” (130, see esp. 111–22), which is a conclusion that deserves revisiting again and again.

My criticisms are few. I will mention only three for the reader. The first is miniscule: Fredriksen’s terms.  Should we use the term “pagan”? She has a brief discussion in a footnote on the anachronism of this word, referencing the work of Christopher P. Jones. As Jones woefully concludes, “‘Paganism’ is potentially misleading, but less so than the alternatives that have been proposed.”[3] However, Fredriksen fluctuates between several terms: “gentiles,” “pagans,” “ex-pagan pagans” (74, 94), “proximate pagans” (61), “Christ-following gentiles” (81, 86–87), “Judaizing gentiles” (80), and “gentiles qua pagans” (76), to name a few. On the one hand, her fresh use of terms helps to clear the air (“pagan” is a religious term; “gentile” is not necessarily), while on the other, the term “ex-pagan pagan” leaves one’s head spinning.

Second, Fredriksen valiantly tackles the question of who persecuted Paul in Galatians (86–93). As Fredriksen correctly notes, Paul never states explicitly by whom he is being persecuted (Gal. 5:11; 6:12). And again, the long tradition of interpretation, which insists, “living according to Jewish ancestral practices—is intrinsically incompatible with Christian ‘belief’” is patently false, as Fredriksen demonstrates (86). Instead, Fredriksen suggests that this persecution could be at the behest of the Romans, other pagans, or the gods themselves. Fredriksen once more showcases a careful and clever reading of Paul. However, after scratching the itch of originality, might J. Louis Martyn’s interpretation have been just as—if not more—satisfactory? Another possibility is that Paul refers to those “Teachers,” a conclusion that likewise corrects the odious history of separating “the Jews” and “the Christians” in Galatians.[4] Martyn only gets brief footnote space in an otherwise thorough investigation (184n11, 185n3, 230n43).

Third and finally, I have a broader concern with Fredriksen’s reconstruction of earliest Christianity, related to the previous point. Fredriksen claims that the earliest Jesus followers first went to the synagogues of the diaspora to preach to fellow Jews. Quite to their surprise, they encountered “pagan sympathizers” (God-fearers). Intending to spread the message of Jesus to fellow Jews, a diasporic wrench was thrown into the gears of God’s eschatological clock. Fredriksen rightly notes that “gentiles qua gentiles” (94) have always had a place in Jewish apocalyptic eschatology (Isa. 2:2–4; 1 Enoch 90:37–38). And Paul knows this (Rom. 15:9–12). However, these synagogue-sympathizing pagans presented a real problem for the earliest Christian missionaries. How were these missionaries to accommodate pagans who also worshipped the God of Israel? By doing so, pagans would trigger major consequences for local synagogues from Roman authorities and neighboring pagans—nothing short of upsetting the cosmic order. In short, intra-Jewish “persecution” served to protect local synagogues from public scorn. With a wave of her wand, Fredriksen has ostensibly solved a massive textual and historical conundrum. But how do we know that the earliest Jesus followers went to synagogues first? Fredriksen’s only evidence for this is Acts. The author states Paul went first to the synagogues on several occasions (e.g., Acts 9:20). However, this information does not corroborate neatly with his letters. (As Fredriksen admits, the letters provide our best evidence for reconstructing the life of Paul [62].) As W. Meeks and A. Malherbe have contended, Paul likely did not go to synagogues first.[5] Strictly speaking, this would not be the best place to cast his net if he sought gentile converts exclusively. Fredriksen’s suggestion is nothing short of ingenious, but the evidence in Paul might be stretched a bit to fit the scheme. We have virtually no evidence, outside of Acts, for the earliest, post-Easter Jesus followers going first to synagogues to enlighten fellow Jews and therein stumbling upon God-fearers.

In conclusion, as Fredriksen puts it in her acknowledgements section, “Something is going on in Pauline studies” (175). Fredriksen’s contribution adds quite a bit more than just “something” to Pauline scholarship: it is a perennial book for students and scholars of Paul alike.

John-Patrick O’Connor, PhD Student, Princeton Theological Seminary


[1] Cf. E. M. Smallwood, Roman Rule (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 208; and John M. G. Barclay, Mediterranean Diaspora (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996), 299.

[2] Cf. Matt Theissen, Paul and the Gentile Problem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] Christopher P. Jones, Between Pagan and Christian (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 6.

[4] cf. J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 77–78.

[5] Wayne Meeks, First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); Abraham J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, Rockwell Lectures (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).