Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle

Written by Paula Fredriksen Reviewed By Gregory E. Lamb

Pauline studies are en vogue. However, there is little consensus regarding the best interpretive lens(es) through which to view Paul. N. T. Wright (in Paul and His Recent Interpreters: Some Contemporary Debates [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], vii–ix) notes at least four major Pauline interpretive “schools” in contemporary biblical studies: (1) the Lutheran view (OPP); (2) the so-called, “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP); (3) Apocalyptic interpretations; and (4) Social-Scientific approaches, with varying subgroups within each. Over the past decade, an amalgam of competing (perhaps, antithetical?) Pauline portraits have been sketched by each of these groups. Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle combines a synthetic blend of these last three approaches to Paul while ploughing new soil left mostly untilled in Wright’s monograph. In several places she acknowledges the formative influence of Krister Stendahl (pp. v, 178). Fredriksen is Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and currently serves as co-chair (alongside Matthew Novenson) of the SBL’s “Pauline Literature” section. Also known for her work on Judaism, the historical Jesus, and early Christianity, she is well-qualified to write this book.

Fredriksen’s epigraph, “The past is gone; and the truth of what is past lies in our own judgment, not in the past event itself” (Augustine, Faust. 26.5), is consistent with her overarching thesis: “Paul lived his life entirely within his native Judaism. Later traditions, basing themselves on his letters will displace him from this [Jewish] context. Through the retrospect of history, Paul will be transformed into a ‘convert,’ an ex- or even an anti-Jew; indeed, into the founder of gentile Christianity” (p. xii). Nevertheless, Augustine’s quote is equally applicable to Fredriksen’s own assumptions regarding Paul. Fredriksen’s goal/purpose in writing is to answer sundry research questions that function as the bedrock to her thesis: “How many years [since penning Rom 13:11–12] stood between Paul and his call to proclaim the good news? Why—how—after the passage of so much time, can Paul still be so sure that he knows the hour on God’s clock” (p. xi, emphasis original). Methodologically, Fredriksen employs a hybrid approach (p. 7) utilizing the tools of social-scientific criticism, comparative analysis of primary sources, and exegetical analysis of key Pauline texts (e.g., Rom 1–2; 7–11; 1 Cor 15; Phil 2:6–11). The subtitle “The Pagans’ Apostle” stems from Fredriksen’s distinction between “Gentiles” (a religiously neutral, ethnic term) and “pagans” (a religiously specific, ethnic term denoting non-Jews and non-Christians [p. 34]).

Structurally, the book consists of a preface (pp. xi–xii), introduction (pp. 1–7), five chapters (pp. 8–166), postscript (pp. 167–78), abbreviations (pp. 179–80), notes (pp. 181–253), bibliography (pp. 255–80), and indices (pp. 281–319). In her introduction, Fredriksen reveals her methodology of investigating Paul’s “two generative contexts”: the “scriptural” (Paul’s moorings in Jewish apocalyptic hope) and “social” (Greco-Roman world), which was Paul’s missionary ambit (p. 7).

Fredriksen’s chapters fall into two major sections: chapters 1–2 cover Paul’s “social” world, whereas chapters 3–5 address the “scriptural.” Fredriksen adroitly sketches at least four major themes regarding Paul: (1) Paul was an apostle racing on time’s edge (p. xii, 169, 175); (2) despite his “conflicting” portraits of the Law (e.g., Gal 3:11; Rom 7:12), Paul did not proffer a “Law-free” gospel and remained faithful to Judaism (pp. xii, 113–19, 175); (3) the gods/δαιμόνια/στοιχεῖα of the first-century Mediterranean world were hierarchical and ethnic—creating anti-Jewish tension/persecution as the “ex-pagan pagans” (to use Fredriksen’s “oxymoronic” terminology [p. 34]) abandoned their ancestral gods in favor of YHWH—thus, bringing the gods’ ire against their nations and families (pp. 92–93); and (4) eschatologically, while all are one in Christ (κατὰ πνεῦμα), Israel remains distinct (κατὰ σάρκα) from “the nations” (τὰ ἔθνη; pp. 114–21).

Numerous strengths mark this work. It is eloquently written and well-researched with over seventy pages of notes and a twenty-five-page bibliography. Fredriksen argues her thesis well—highlighting the necessity to recover Paul’s Jewish (apocalyptic) roots, the effects of distanciation—socially and chronologically—on one’s exegesis (p. 58), and the reality of spiritual warfare (p. 92). Further, Fredriksen boldly swims against the streams of the consensus—critiquing the OPP and NPP (pp. 122, 234, n. 64). Perhaps, the book’s greatest strength is Fredriksen’s vivid illumination of Paul’s first-century world, which serves as a helpful corrective to post-Shoah interpretations of Paul within Western Christianity. For this, and more, Pauline students/scholars owe Fredriksen a debt of gratitude.

Despite these notable strengths, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle leaves one wanting. First, regarding formatting, end notes and the inconsistent use and transliteration of Greek make for a frustrating experience—better to have used Greek script throughout. Second, Fredriksen presents an imbalanced approach to Paul by elevating Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians with only passing reference to the full Pauline corpus—even amongst the seven undisputed letters (pp. 295–301). Third, Fredriksen seems to contradict herself—alluding in her epigraph to the impossibility of recovering the historical Paul, while at the same time claiming (through her method) that one “can … begin to see Paul as he saw himself” (p. xii). As George Tyrrell asserted: “The Christ that Harnack sees … is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well” (cf. Christianity at the Crossroads [London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1909], 44). Similarly, the present book risks turning the image of Paul into the image of Paula. Fourth, and more systemic, Fredriksen’s evolutionary view of the gospel pits Paul against Jesus and the Evangelists (pp. 2–3), and she presents the Fourfold Gospel, Acts, and Paul as contradictory, unreliable historical witnesses (pp. 4–6).

In sum, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle offers an accessible, affordable entry into the discussion of “apocalyptic Paul.” Fredriksen rightly situates Paul in the center of his complex cultural milieu, “thick” with various divine, human, and suprahuman actors (p. xii). Fredriksen’s erudite work evinces the fruit of a lifetime of study, and her synthetic approach is commendable. However, given the weaknesses above, this book cannot be recommended without reservation.

Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory E. Lamb
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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