Symposium Introduction

One glance at the cover of Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle signals to its readers something important about what they are going to find within its pages. The cover evokes an earlier book on the apostle Paul, E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published just over forty years ago. It serves, therefore, as Fredriksen’s homage to what remains for many of us the most important work written on the apostle Paul. But it is no mere homage, for a closer examination of both books reveals that The Pagans’ Apostle isn’t a dead ringer for Paul and Palestinian Judaism.



These two pictures frame this forum more powerfully than anything I could write. In the words of the greatest father of all time, Mike Brady (in 1995 film The Brady Bunch Movie), “I couldn’t have put it better myself, Jan. But I’ll try anyway.”

Like Sanders’s work, this is a book about a Jewish Paul, not a Paul who stands against Judaism. This is a book, then, that rejects the anti-legalistic Paul of the pre-Sanders era, which continues in many circles today. It also rejects the anti-ethnocentric Paul that co-opted Sanders’s many insights and threatened to lead the study of Paul into another dead end. Beyond Sanders, though, The Pagans’ Apostle emphasizes the intended Gentile audience of Paul’s letters and situates Paul’s thinking within the larger Greco-Roman world (Jewish and non-Jewish) which was populated by numerous ethnic gods.

Fredriksen begins The Pagans’ Apostle by reminding modern historians that “Paul lived his life—as we all must live our lives—innocent of the future” (xii). Paul simply did not know how it all would turn out. He could not foresee that his individual letters would be collected and canonized, read by people the world over for two thousand years. How, then, should we read Paul? Fredriksen puts it this way: “As historians, we conjure that innocence as a disciplined act of imagination, through appeals to our ancient evidence” (xii). The Pagans’ Apostle imaginatively constructs a Paul from his few letters. All reconstructions of Paul, from the longest Pauline Theology to the briefest of articles, imaginatively construct a Paul, no matter how self-aware their various writers are of this process. Margaret Mitchell has put this fact beautifully:

Pauline interpretation is fundamentally an artistic exercise in conjuring up and depicting a dead man from his ghostly images in the ancient text, as projected on a background composed from a selection of existing sources. All these portraits are based upon a new configuration of the surviving evidence, set into a particular, chosen, framework.1

What evidence does Fredriksen bring to her construction of the apostle Paul? Her career-long research on the world of Late Antiquity. So when it comes to apocalyptic, a word that has considerable currency in Pauline studies, Fredriksen uses it to mean what it actually meant in the ancient world: Paul truly thought the end was imminent, that the Messiah was going to return in his lifetime, and that he and many of his readers/hearers were going to experience it. He was wrong about all this, as we now know; but Paul did not know this, and scholars who purport to do historical work should not evade Paul’s miscalculation. We need to conjure Paul’s innocence of the fact that God’s cosmic redemption did not happen according to Paul’s expectations.

And, like most people in the ancient Mediterranean world, ethnicity and religion were not two distinct fields in Paul’s mind, but intertwined so completely that to mention one was to mention the other. Ethnicity mattered to Paul because, to use a modern term, Paul was himself ethnocentric. If one, following proponents of the so-called “New Perspective,” still insists upon denigrating ancient Judaism as an ethnocentric religion, one needs to be intellectually honest and include Paul within that denigration. Anything else is apologetics masquerading as history. We need to conjure Paul’s innocence (and the larger innocence of the Greco-Roman world) in relation to their thinking about ethnicity and religion, without passing easy judgment.

And when she speaks of Paul being a monotheist, Fredriksen uses the term monotheism as ancients, Jews and non-Jews, would have: to signify that there were many gods, but only one supreme god at power’s pinnacle. Again, the monotheism of modern Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) would differ. But modern historians should conjure that innocence of later developments in monotheistic thinking and allow ancient peoples, and texts, to speak within their own times.

And, most of all, when Paul claims to be a Jew, he actually was a Jew, not merely, and conveniently, a Protestant in disguise. The law mattered to Paul because it was a good gift from God to Israel. Circumcision and food laws mattered because they were integral parts of the law. We need to conjure that innocence of the first Christ followers who did not know that what they were doing would contribute to the rise of something distinct from first-century Judaism, something now called Christianity.

The Pagans’ Apostle, then, lives up to the story that its cover tells, taking its place within a lineage of Pauline interpretation that includes such luminous ancestors as Albert Schweitzer, Krister Stendahl, and E. P. Sanders. Much that it contains can be contested and discussed, and this forum hopes to serve as a catalyst for that conversation. Our forum opens with Jennifer Eyl’s “Putting the End Back into the Beginning.” Eyl expresses an appreciation for Fredriksen’s insistence on foregrounding Paul’s apocalypticism, a frustration with and uncertainty about how best to translate Paul’s ethnē— “pagan,” “Gentile,” or something else—and a concern over whether The Pagans’ Apostle emphasizes Paul’s Jewishness to such an extent that it recreates the Judaism/Hellenism divide that other scholars have shown to be ahistorical.

In “To See Paul as Paul Saw Himself,” Brent Nongbri reflects on the task and the methodology of historians. What, he asks, constitutes good historical work? Given Fredriksen’s opening call to wield “a disciplined act of imagination,” Nongbri wonders how one can know whether one’s imagination has been properly disciplined, especially given the 24,000 or so words we have from Paul? How can modern scholars of Paul ensure that their readings of him are not dictated by their own moral, ideological, or theological sensibilities?

In a wide-ranging and thorough interaction, Troels Engberg-Pedersen begins with high praise for The Pagans’ Apostle, noting numerous points of agreement with the Paul depicted therein. But he wonders whether Paul does not also envisage theoretical consequences for Jewish believers that parallel the consequences of the “Christ event” (by which he means, specifically, Christ’s resurrection) for Gentiles. In other words, while Paul is the pagans’ apostle, what consequences did Paul envisage for his fellow Jews?

Finally, Eric Barreto explores some of the implications of the historical reconstruction of The Pagans’ Apostle for contemporary theological and historical interpretation. Just as ethnicity is a construct, yet no less real because of it, so too our historical Pauls. These Pauls do something for and to us and for and to others. Like Nongbri, Barreto highlights how necessarily tenuous efforts at reconstructing Paul’s thought must be, given how few, and how occasional, his extant letters are. Our modern efforts necessitate our filling in gaps and making connections that are not explicit within Paul’s letters. What, he asks, do these particular efforts tell us about ourselves, our own ethnic discourses, and our own conceptualizations of the divine?

  1. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 428.

Jennifer Eyl


Putting the End Back into the Beginning

Paula Fredriksen, Eschatology, and Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle

Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is the sort of book that indicates where we are now as a field—both a benchmark and beacon monograph in which she offers an original contribution while also pointing to the transformative Pauline scholarship of recent decades. Her study weaves together important arguments which underscore the primary claim of the book: Paul’s apocalyptic eschatological expectations inform everything else he writes, and such apocalyptic eschatology places him squarely within a Jewish tradition. When I say “squarely within a Jewish tradition” I do not mean that Fredriksen perpetuates the misguided notion of a Judaism/Hellenism divide, but rather that she resists the notion that Paul rejected the law, or Judaism more generally. Paul never abandons the traditions of his ethnic group, nor could he, given how ethnicity was understood and constructed in antiquity. Instead, she rightly insists that we consider his audience, the Gentiles, when encountering what he says about the law. Ultimately, to Fredriksen, Paul’s impending crisis is this: Gentiles and ethnic Jews (or, Judeans) must properly worship the Jewish god in preparation for the eschaton, after which the Jewish god will reign supreme.

Fredriksen spends the first two of five chapters providing indispensable context. This strategy is vital, given the long history in which NT scholarship has treated context as “helpful background information,” out of which a hero (e.g., Jesus, Paul) emerges unique. Fredriksen’s chapters on Gentiles and Jews in first-century urban environments, combined with an analysis of Jewish apocalypticism, render Paul legible. Indeed, such context is the very key to why Paul would have been intelligible to anyone to begin with. There is much in the book I would like to respond to, but I will limit my attention to three issues to which I continually returned as I read.

“. . . the impending crisis . . .”

If we take him at his word, the Apostle Paul did not envision a mundane, tellurian future. More specifically, the future that Paul describes is one in which the world as he knew it was imminently ending. The references are familiar to Pauline scholars: “The time has been shortened . . . the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29); “For salvation is even nearer to us than when we first became convinced. The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Rom 13:12) (Fredriksen’s translations, 131–32). He and his peers were the last generation whose transformation would come when Christ returns, raises the faithful from their graves, and sweeps them all up into the sky where they will live forever with God: “And the dead in Christ will rise first, and then we the living who remain will be snatched up together with them in the clouds, meeting the Lord in the air, so that we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15–18).

It is easy to lose sight of the eschatological underpinning of Paul’s thought. As Fredriksen so deftly points out, “Time drags when you expect it to end. Put otherwise: all apocalyptic prophecies tend, of necessity, to have a short half-life. As the designated date fails, as the elusive End-time recedes, the prophecy itself can be undermined” (101). Apocalyptic expectations can be sustained for only so long. One reason why it is easy to forget Paul’s apocalypticism is because there is so much else to look at in Paul’s letters. But perhaps the most important reason why we ignore his eschatological certainty is because he was utterly wrong. Christ did not return, and what Paul thought he was doing to prepare for the End became, unbeknownst to him, the beginning of something else entirely. This is evidenced by the longevity of followers’ lives, anticipated by the authors of the deutero-Pauline and pastoral letters (e.g., Eph 6:3).

Fredriksen’s book elegantly and patiently refocuses our attention on Paul’s eschatology and apocalypticism. As she makes clear, apocalypticism is not simply one aspect of Paul’s thinking that informs his letters; it is the very lens through which he writes everything he writes. Thus, it is the first lens through which we must view and interpret him. It is in the context of such apocalypticism that Paul imagines the eschatological future to include Israel and Gentiles-in-Christ. It is in the context of such apocalypticism that Paul encourages Gentiles to Judaize in some ways (e.g., to worship the god of Israel alone and to “eschew idol worship”—see pp. 116–17) but not others (e.g., practice circumcision).

Fredriksen is, of course, not the only scholar to emphasize Paul’s apocalypticism (most recently, for example, see Emma Wasserman).1 However, this particular book brings apocalypticism to bear in those larger conversations about ethnicity, Torah, Judaizing, and ancient rhetoric. That is to say, through her argument, the many significant advances in Pauline studies over the past forty years are properly anchored by such overarching eschatology. Perhaps “refreshing” is a strange word to use when discussing apocalypticism, eschatology, Paul, or even New Testament scholarship, but refreshing it is to see this eschatological expectation, which is so paramount in Paul’s thinking, successfully reorganize how we approach his letters and labors.

The Problem with “Pagans”

Paganus is a Latin adjective meaning rural, rustic, belonging to a village. Used substantively, it refers to a villager or peasant. Because urban dwellers (ancient and modern) often think themselves more sophisticated than people out in the countryside, the adjective can be used in a derogatory manner to mean “redneck” or “bumpkin.” It is in that disparaging urban versus rural context that paganus is adopted by Christians to mean “pagan”: the backwards country people who cling to their outdated, uneducated, ancestral ways (i.e., ways that are not Christian and urbane). This transformation in connotation does not happen for three centuries or so after Paul. Yet here we stand, the recipients of a legacy that defines Paul’s Gentile followers in the first century by a term developed later by Christians to describe non-Christians. The problem with this, of course, is that when it comes to Paul, we are not dealing with Christians and non-Christians; we are dealing with Judeans and Gentiles. And Gentiles who are Judaizing.

What, then, do we call the followers of Paul? For that matter, what do we call the Gentile non-followers of Paul? He utilizes two categories of people: Ioudaioi and ta ethnē. Occasionally he will use hellēne interchangeably with ta ethnē. In addition to categories of people (by ethnicity), Paul calls his Gentile followers “holy people” or “holy ones” (hagioi) and “brothers” (adelphoi). As Fredriksen points out, even Paul “had no good term for the ekklēsia’s non-Jewish ex-idol-worshippers” (117). In 1 Cor 12:2 he says, “When you were ta ethnē (Gentiles), you were led astray to mute idols,” suggesting that, at least, they are no longer ta ethnē.

The work of Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi has addressed the extent to which Paul may have had his hand in crafting the category of goy or Gentile,2 but we scholars are stuck without a word by which we may identify Paul’s non-Jewish Gentile followers who (may or may not) have abandoned their ancestral gods and traditional religious practices and origins stories, in favor of Paul’s origins story and Paul’s ethnically Jewish god. How do we categorize such people? Throughout the book, Fredriksen navigates this problem by using “pagans,” “ex-pagan pagans,” and “Gentiles-in-Christ.”

“Pagan” is a discomfiting category. I say that not as a critique of Fredriksen’s book; quite the contrary, I am deeply sympathetic to the struggle for an ethnonym or category that resists the anachronistic Christian/pagan distinction. I have a strong interest in this problem, because to think about it means one must grapple with a problem that has no satisfactory solution. Those kinds of problems are particularly compelling.

Sheepishly, I can offer no proper solution and no better category. But the conversation about categories of people in Paul’s letters is persistently interesting and given the centrality of the category “pagan” in Fredriksen’s book, the topic is unavoidable. I suspect that the failure of a sufficient category is a blessing in disguise; because categories function to corral and feature one set of data about people (ethnicity, age, sex, etc.), other types of data are neglected or overlooked. When we rightfully critique the familiar “pagan,” we are forced to consider, in close detail, how Paul speaks of various ancient peoples and how they pertain to one another in a larger divine plan that hinges on ethnic belonging. Lacking a convenient category for such people is frustrating but continuously provocative, as Fredriksen’s book shows. While she uses the word “pagan,” she frequently addresses why it is problematic. This issue is larger than simple nomenclature; to claim that it is simply a dispute over convenient nomenclature is to obfuscate the social mechanics by which new categories of people emerge in history. In the wake of Paul’s life and work, we see a new category for people emerge and that historical process is nothing short of fascinating.

Paul within Judaism

Fredriksen argues that Paul lived his life fully within Judaism. Framing Paul as fully “within Judaism” has gained purchase in recent years, and another way of putting it is that Paul did not “abandon” his ethnic Judaism: he did not neglect worship of the Judean deity, give up traditional ethnic-religious practices, or disavow Judean sacred texts. He can be understood vis-à-vis other Jewish writers of his era. Fredriksen’s articulation of this is especially helpful as a response to the continued proliferation of NT scholars who think that Paul rejected Judaism in favor of Christianity. Such a position, still entrenched in some circles, John Gager dubbed the Rejection-Replacement model.3 Thus, while Fredriksen’s dismantling of such an approach is important, it is unclear what else “Paul lived life fully in his native Judaism” entails in this book.

As an inhabitant of the Roman empire heavily influenced by the legacy of Greece, and as a native Greek speaker clearly versed in Greek philosophical concepts and actively interpreting Jewish sacred texts, Paul would certainly be “as Judean” as he is “a product of Hellenization.” Fredriksen does not dispute this, and even spells that out clearly in chapter 2, which discusses the integration of Jews among their neighbors in Mediterranean cities. Yet, as the book unfolds, it seems that “Paul within Judaism” comes to look like “Paul only within Judaism.” This is a tricky thing for me to suggest, especially since Fredriksen has so painstakingly demonstrated that even “the Western synagogue joined the ranks of the gymnasium, the hippodrome, the odeon, and the baths as another institution of Greco-Roman urban culture” (60).

I do not want to resurrect (ahem) the Judaism versus Hellenism argument, but do wonder this: In Fredriksen’s thinking, how do we see Paul’s activities and teachings as exemplifying a kind of integrated Greco-Romano-Judeanness? I am aware that my question runs the risk of reinscribing distinctions I myself resist. But I ask because after so carefully arguing for the integration of Jews within first-century cities, Fredriksen focuses almost solely on Jewish authors, texts, and traditions. If that integration is as she has suggested, where in Paul’s thinking do we see it most readily? His ethical teachings? His ideas about gender and sexuality?

Paradigm Shifts

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,4 in which he argued that changes in scientific knowledge do not come about by the (traditionally assumed) accumulation, or critical mass, of small-bore knowledge that piles up as an overall mass of knowledge. Rather, he argued, observable anomalies, which poke holes in prevailing scientific theories, trigger a reckoning with current knowledge and, thus, demand paradigmatic shifts in scientific thinking. Scientific knowledge grows and is refined as it disproves itself, giving way to new paradigms. These amount to monumental changes in how we think and what we know.

We see something similar in our field. As Fredriksen points out in her acknowledgments, “Something is going on in Pauline studies” (175). Something indeed is happening, and that something is tantamount to a paradigm shift in how scholars approach, contextualize, and interpret Paul. Anomalies and contradictions in our knowledge abound: if Paul describes his followers and God as pistoi or pistos, respectively, why do translators render God as faithful but Paul’s followers as believers? If Paul uses precisely the same technical vocabulary found among Stoics and Platonists, why the refusal to consider him conversant in Greek philosophy? If Paul clearly employs two categories of people—the Ioudaioi and ta ethnē, why do we insist that he operates with three (Jews, Christians, and pagans)? If we know Paul’s letters to be occasional pieces, why do some New Testament scholars continue to treat them as though they were written for all of humanity, millennia into the future—especially if Paul did not conceive of a mundane future? Such anomalies have punctuated the traditional ways of approaching Paul and demand our attention. Thankfully, over the past forty years, such anomalies, anachronisms, and contradictions have been addressed and continue to be addressed with erudition and thoughtful precision. We have what amounts to a shift in our thinking toward locating Paul not just in his historical milieu, but as a product of that milieu.

This leads me to what I think is the greatest strength of Fredriksen’s book. While scholars have produced groundbreaking studies on Paul in recent decades (e.g., Stendahl, Malherbe, Stowers, Gager, Johnson Hodge, Wasserman, and others),5 Fredriksen does what other studies have not, to date: to synthesize, in one volume, where we now “are” in Pauline studies. She does this with patience for the non-specialist and with exactitude for the scholar. By that, I mean she explains words like theosebeis and prosopopoeia, knowing that many readers may already be familiar with such terms and why they matter. At the same time, she engages in highly specific and technical discussions that will challenge the presuppositions of her specialist audience. This strategy in writing makes the book relevant in scholarly discussions without excluding the general, interested reader.

  1. Emma Wasserman, Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

  2. Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

  3. John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  4. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

  5. Krister Stendahl, Paul among the Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976); Abraham J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989); Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Gager, Reinventing Paul; Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), Emma Wasserman, The Death of the Soul in Romans 7: Sin, Death, and the Law in Light of Hellenistic Moral Psychology, WUNT 2/256 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

  • Paula Fredriksen

    Paula Fredriksen


    Ethnic Eschatologies: A Response to Jennifer Eyl

    We stand on the shoulders of giants. But which giants, and by what criteria do we choose them?

    My questions determine my criteria. Why and how did those texts, communities and, movements that, by the early second century, we can begin to identify as “Christian,” originate in the closing decades of Late Second Temple Judaism? How does a message so idiosyncratically Jewish—about Israel’s god and his son, the final Davidic messiah; about the ends of the ages and the impending resurrection of the dead; about the reunion of all twelve tribes and the universal acknowledgement of their god by the seventy non-Jewish nations—even and ever become involved with pagans in the first place? And why did these pagans sign on, radically Judaizing their social practices, their worldview, and their ritual behaviors, showing honor solely to Israel’s god?

    In light of these kinetically interrelated questions, coherence of explanation is my prime criterion. Whatever these Jews were saying—in the Galilee and in Judea, in Aramaic and in Greek, in Caesarea and in Damascus and in Rome—it had to make sense to their various contemporaries, hearers both Jewish and pagan. What ways of thinking about the past, about this past, best accounts for the behaviors of all of these ancient people, and for the exiguous textual evidence (preserved in vastly changed circumstances) that they left behind?

    Thus, my giants: Schweitzer and Stendahl. Schweitzer (and I interject here a shout-out to Johannes Weiss) in his work on both Jesus and Paul, unflinchingly emphasized eschatology. Immediate, temporally conceived, End-of-the-world-as-we-know-it eschatology.1 Stendahl (and I interject here a shout-out to Johannes Munck), in his work on Paul and especially on the Letter to the Romans, emphasized mission as the context and content of message.2 Jews, convinced that Israel verged on cosmic redemption, had an urgent message to get to the nations. The nations, too, they said, would be redeemed: but they had to commit to the right god. Through the pneuma of that god’s son, these people could do so; and in the brief meanwhile—as Eyl’s own lambent publication has recently explored3—their own pneumatic powers offset those of current cosmic rulers. But, said Paul, they better get with the program before Christ came back, which was soon. To quote Dale Allison’s quoting Harris Lenowitz, “The time scheme . . . for a messianic movement has but a single date: now.”4

    I lack the evidence to conjecture why John the Baptizer and, following him, Jesus of Nazareth thought that God’s kingdom was at hand. I do know that an astonishingly strong, non-falsifiable trust (emunah; pistis) in this prophecy enabled some of Jesus’s followers not only to experience Jesus as raised, but also to interpret that experience: it validated their confidence in his prophecy. Paul, some quarter-century later, and to significantly different auditors, still broadcast the same message: The Kingdom is at hand.

    “Jewish apocalyptic eschatology” is our heuristic, scholarly shorthand term for a baggy and uncoordinated assortment of expectations, predictions, resentments, compensatory visions, and hopes. As an interpretive framework, though, it represents the only first-century way of thinking that could have made sense of Jesus’s resurrection—and, indeed, that could even have sponsored having that experience to begin with. And it is the only interpretive framework that accounts for the immediate afterlives of Jesus’s message in his followers’ missions to Israel of the Diaspora, where synagogues already held sympathetic pagans. The missions’ demand that these ethnic others foreswear their own gods for Israel’s god, itself a form of radical Judaizing, indexes the missions’ apocalyptic sensibility: the returning messiah was about to put these lower deities in their place (e.g., Phil 2:10–11; 3:21; Rom 8:38; for the more detailed theomachy, 1 Cor 15:24–28). Worried synagogue authorities, Roman magistrates, and urban crowds outside the movement(s) thought otherwise (2 Cor 11:24–27). Not everyone was as certain as were Paul and his colleagues that they knew the time on God’s clock. But again, these apostles had inside information: pneuma and its prerogatives.

    “One reason why it is easy to forget Paul’s apocalypticism,” Jennifer Eyl rightly notes, “is that there is so much else to look at in Paul’s letters.” True; and from those elements mighty institutions have grown. Institutions are invested in the long term. Apocalyptic movements are not. Inevitably, then, theologies based on these first-century Jewish texts will have a built-in torque. Paul (as Krister Stendahl luminously reminded us) was not a fourth-century Augustinian catholic. Nor was he a sixteenth-century Augustinian monk.5 Nor was he—I remind my New Testament colleagues—a member of the SNTS with a full set of Loebs. What a text meant to its first-century authors and hearers, as Krister again reminded us,6 will invariably be other than what it means to a twenty-first-century Christian community (of any denomination).

    But, as Eyl continues, “perhaps the most important reason why we ignore [Paul’s] eschatological certainty is because he was utterly wrong.” Paul—as Jesus and the Baptizer before him, and as the Teacher of Righteousness before all of them; and as Joachim of Fiore and Sabbatai Zvi and William Miller, to name but a few, after them—was wrong about the world’s ending in his lifetime.

    This unimpeachably correct observation touches a living nerve that connects the modern measure of truth to meaning: scientistic constructions of empirical confirmation. Logical positivism is a dusty reminder of what happened when philosophy internalized this standard to assess the meaningfulness of truth claims. Scientific and humanistic study both rest on hermeneutics, true. Like God, the Higgs Boson particle is elusive. But criteria of meaning, as we search for each, differ. Ideas about God in the West have a much longer echo chamber, a lot larger institutional investment, and (for better and often for worse) a lot more social purchase than does particle physics, for one thing. And the tests for Higgs Boson, while elaborate and expensive, are empirical, not moral or creedal or cultural.

    It should be possible—indeed, it must be possible—to do theology even though the chief prophecy of Jesus and Paul, it turned out, was wrong. Schweitzer thought so. So did Stendahl. And they declined to distort history, or to deny it, in order to think theologically and to engage the world ethically. In their lives and in their work, these two great men embodied courage. Intellectual and theological courage. Strong shoulders to stand on.

    One quick word, about theological taxonomies—“The Problem with ‘Pagans,’” as Eyl notes. The syngeneia that defined ancient Mediterranean “religions,” the kinship relations between heaven and earth, left Paul’s tongue tied. Ethnic others, whether Greeks or barbarians, were to commit to his Jewish god—while not, he heatedly insisted, “becoming” Jews. (No circumcision parties!) There was no term for non-circumcised (“unconverted”) ex-pagan pagans committed exclusively to Israel’s god, enabled through his son’s pneuma to follow (many of) that god’s specifically Jewish laws. This lexicological fact itself indexes the unstable social novum represented by these first-generation Christ-movements.

    In time—the very thing that Jesus and Paul were convinced did not remain—these ex-pagans would be called “Christians.” That term would then be extended to the original and originary Jewish generation as well. But the very idea attested by this term means that the movements’ founding prophecy had to be retrieved through reinterpretation. In the late third-century anthology that we now call the “New Testament” an assortment of these second-, third-, and perhaps fourth-generation reinterpretations abides, the canonized survivors of Constantine’s later triage. The erasure of immediate eschatology began as soon as time failed to end on time. As historians, we have to work to recapture that moment of the movement. And we can.

    Finally, to “Paul within Judaism.” That the argument qua framing device even needs to be made—as it now is, variously, by a merry band of scholars who dispute raucously as well between themselves—measures how theologically overladen the field of Pauline Studies is. “Judaism,” like “Christianity” and like “paganism,” is just another heuristically convenient label. Roman-period Jews (which is what and who I actually study, not “Judaism”) were an ethnic archipelago unevenly distributed across the empire and beyond, varying locally according to class, clan, and culture, varying trans-locally even more. (Jesus and Paul, remember, did not even share the same scriptural traditions.) Ancestral customs, many concentrated on and around their one particular god (and, occasionally, on his assistants), were variously communicated and enacted by people who thought of themselves and were thought of by others as Ioudaioi. That (hi, Steve Mason!) is what I mean by “Judaism,” whether modern or ancient. Jews were no more on the same page then than Jews are now.

    Eyl gently complains that “as the book unfolds . . . ‘Paul within Judaism’ comes to look like ‘Paul only within Judaism.’” Heu, miserrima! (I, not she.) I labored, using his undisputed letters, to locate Paul within the god-congested, multiethnic pagan religious institution where he worked: the ancient city. I am morally certain that he, like Gamaliel after him, availed himself of Roman baths. (That is, Paul—as other wandering apostles, doubtless—was naked, in public, immersed together with uncircumcised idol-honoring Gentiles both before and after God revealed his son in him. That thought should put the quarrel in Antioch, whatever that was about, in some sort of perspective.) And Paul used the public loos. And the public fountains. But he never says so, and those behaviors do not really touch significantly upon what we have of his messaging.

    But we do know that Paul called down the pneuma of Christ using exactly the same language of adjuration that a magical adept would employ to summon any obliging superhuman power: epikaloumai.7 Surely his first-century auditors (the Jew first and also the Greek) would recognize an adjuration when they heard it. Paul watched (though I doubt ever participated in) Greek sporting events, and he uses this experience to articulate teaching moments. Paul’s main conceptualization for integrating ex-pagans into Abraham’s family draws on Roman (i.e., pagan) legal protocols of huiothesia / “son-making.”8 He combats the social agency of insulted godlings (lower gods, lords, and daimonia), and he looks forward to their losing the final cosmic battle to the son of his god.

    Paul, in short, worked a different neighborhood than did James. In consequence, he had to deal with a lot of non-Jewish others, both human and divine. As a first-century diaspora missionary, Paul-within-Judaism worked within and was shaped by majority Mediterranean culture, a.k.a. paganism. “Paganism” no less than “Judaism” contoured his Christology: those gods are Christ’s “last enemies.” Modern monotheist readers do not see these other gods, but there they are in the New Testament, as in the Old, looking right back at us. Of course, these deities also stand in Plutarch and in Seneca and in Tacitus and in Juvenal, and I appealed to those sources too, though lightly. The gods are not invisible, there. The Pagans’ Apostle seeks to help the reader to see that these gods also operate, importantly, within impeccably Jewish texts: 1 Thessalonians and Philippians and the Corinthian correspondence and Romans. I wanted to make them visible there.9

    To close on the question that Eyl closes on: Where are we now in Pauline Studies? Alas, as far as I can tell, we stand in two discrete silos. The SBL bears witness to this. One silo is Pauline Theology. The other is Pauline Epistles, joined recently by the Historical Paul. These silos usually host scholars trained and teaching in different institutions: divinity schools and faculties of theology, to the one side; humanities departments—comparative religion, or Classics, or history, or philosophy, or some combination of these—on the other. We all share space in some journals, but that situation, too, is becoming polarized.10 There is little traffic across the (evident) aisle. I want to change this. I want this to change.

    To that end (telos, as in Rom 10:4), to contemplate the state of our state, both sections, Pauline Epistles and Pauline Theology, are co-sponsoring a session on Paul, History, and Theology. Paul-people will speak (John Barclay, Troels Engberg-Pedersen). A Roman-period Christianist will speak (Candida Moss). And the man who wrote the book (actually, many books) on Renaissance historiography, Professor Tony Grafton of Princeton University’s Department of History, will also speak. (That way of framing history, in the sixteenth century, is why Luther validated his reading of Paul by saying that he was simply recovering what Paul himself had said.)11 Insha’allah, Covid-19 will get in no one’s way. I cannot divine from here what wisdom will spring forth or which spirits will descend. One thing I do know: this panel will be terrific. SBL, Boston 2020. Be there or be square.

    1. The Quest of the Historical Jesus, ed. John Bowden, trans. William Montgomery (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001; first published as Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. Tübingen: Mohr, 1906); idem, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. William Montgomery (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). Before him, Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, trans. Richard Hyde Hiers and David Larrimore Holland (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971; first published as Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes [Göttingen, 1892]).

    2. “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” HTR 56 (1963) 199–215. Idem, Paul among the Jews and Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1976); idem, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995). Before him, Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, trans. Francis Clarke (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1959). See esp. his first chapter on Paul’s “call.”

    3. Signs, Wonders and Gifts: Divination in the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

    4. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 31.

    5. “Introspective Conscience,” art. cit. On Romans 7 as Paul’s own lament, and the ways that that misreading was shaped not by the Confessions, pace Stendahl, but by Augustine’s later attacks on “Pelagians,” see my essay, “Paul, Augustine, and Krister, on the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in Krister among the Jews and Gentiles: An Appreciation of Krister Stendahl, ed. Paula Fredriksen and Jesper Svartvik (New York: Paulist, 2018), 146–62.

    6. Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, 4 vols. (New York: Abingdon, 1962), 1:418–32.

    7. The Pagans’ Apostle, 238–39n15, with thanks again to Joseph Sanzo for all the PGM references.

    8. The Pagans’ Apostle, 148–51, expanded in my essay “How Jewish Is God?,” JBL 137 (2018) 193–212.

    9. For my more forceful effort at unwrapping this particular invisibility cloak, see “Philo, Herod, Paul, and the Many Gods of Ancient Jewish ‘Monotheism.’” I have tried publishing this essay in two scholarly theology journals, Early Christianity (for which it had originally been solicited) and New Testament Studies. It was rejected, both times, on the basis that ancient Jews were strict monotheists. (With NTS, the first-century Jewish evidence attesting to many gods brought in my argument was dismissed with citations to Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Seriously.) I have taken the essay elsewhere, to a religion journal—with regret: it’s the NT guild, not the religionists, who need to think about it. Stay tuned.

    10. See above, infra n9.

    11. For an unsurpassed analysis of this theological deployment of “history” in the Protestant/Catholic face-off of the late Renaissance/early Reformation, and the ways that it still affects NT scholarship (esp. on Paul and on Jewish law), Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Brent Nongbri


“To See Paul as Paul Saw Himself”

The Pagans’ Apostle and the Task of the Historian

The Pagan’s Apostle is a joy to read. Written with equal parts authority, coherence, and eloquence, it presents a picture of the Apostle Paul that is completely sensible given what the best scholarship now tells us about the humans and gods that populated the ancient Mediterranean world. We’ve been seeing flashes of someone like this apostle for decades—at Aarhus in the work of Johannes Munck, at Harvard with Krister Stendahl, at Vancouver through the writings of Lloyd Gaston, and elsewhere.1 We’ve gotten a closer look at him more recently, lurking in New England in some of Paula Fredriksen’s own earlier articles2 and in Stanley Stowers’s classic A Rereading of Romans.3 It feels somehow appropriate that this apostle has now made his fullest appearance to date with Fredriksen in Jerusalem.

But exactly what kind of apostle are we seeing? The Pagans’ Apostle opens and closes with two references to the imagination. The first comes at the end of the preface to the book. It’s one of those paragraphs, so frequent in Fredriksen’s work, that can make the rest of us feel pretty pedestrian about our own writing abilities:

But Paul lived his life—as we all must live our lives—innocent of the future. As historians, we conjure that innocence as a disciplined act of imagination, through appeals to our ancient evidence. Only in so doing can we begin to see Paul as Paul saw himself: as God’s prophetic messenger, formed in the womb to carry the good news of impending salvation to the nations, racing on the edge of the End of time. (xii)

Similarly, the final paragraph of the postscript invokes the imagination as the means of access to the Paul described in the preceding pages:

If we can move aside the veils of later ecclesiastical tradition, if we can see past their images of Paul the ex-Jew and of Paul the anti-Jew, if we can imagine ourselves back into the full-hearted eschatological conviction of the movement’s founding generation—which thought that it was history’s final generation—it is this other Paul whom we will more clearly see. (173–74)

For me, these passages raise a question as much for my own work as for Fredriksen’s. We are asked to engage in disciplined acts of imagination “to see” Paul and to see him in a certain way. But what exactly does it mean to “begin to see Paul as Paul saw himself?” How will we know if our imaginative acts come close to hitting the target?

This is a question of historiography, but I can’t entirely decide if it’s more a question of evidence or a question of method. You can’t have one without the other, but I’ll try to separate them for the purposes of this discussion. First, let me address the evidence. Fredriksen sensibly limits herself to the seven letters of Paul almost universally agreed to have been authored by the apostle himself (notwithstanding the fact that five of these seven letters are coauthored), along with the occasional and cautious use of portions of the Acts of the Apostles. But what kind of evidence is this collection of seven letters of Paul? It is frequently noted that they are occasional letters written to specific addressees to deal with specific problems. It is less commonly noted that the letters as we encounter them are the result of multiple layers of editing and interpretation. Fredriksen is more forthright than most about this issue:

The antiquity of Paul’s letters also affects their material status. Paul would have dictated them to a scribe sometime in the middle decades of the first century. We have no manuscript copies that go back to Paul’s lifetime. Originally, Paul’s Greek would have been written with no breaks between words and no punctuation: those are both conventions from later orthography. Simply reading Paul’s sentences now, how we break up his clauses and connect his ideas, already depends upon many interpretive decisions before we can even deal with the problem of how we translate him. Compounding this problem was how widely his letters were copied and circulated: changes both accidental and occasionally deliberate were introduced during the long centuries of manuscript transmission, every time a scribe did his job. The result was numerous variants and, accordingly, some uncertainty about how Paul originally said what he said. Last, the transmission of the letters themselves seems to have occasionally gotten garbled: most scholars see at least two letters edited together in our current text of Philippians; and the redaction of 2 Corinthians—two letters? Three?—remains problematic. In sum, the letters as we now have them reflect only imperfectly what Paul’s scribe almost twenty centuries ago, would have written. (63)

The text of the letters is unstable. This instability occurs mostly at the “micro” level—differences in spelling, word order, prepositions, and the like—but it also occasionally occurs at the “macro” level (just where does Rom 16:25–27 actually belong?). Two observations are in order. First, even those “micro” differences (a singular here, a plural there; an ek here, a dia there) are exactly the kinds of things scholars argue about, as in Fredriksen’s completely convincing discussion of the opening verses of Romans (141–45). Second, even if we grant (as all of us effectively do) that the textual critics have been basically successful at obtaining the earliest recoverable text of Paul’s letters, it bears recalling that this is essentially the text of Paul’s letters as it existed in the fourth century (the date usually assigned to the manuscripts containing our earliest complete copies of Paul’s letters). That text is occasionally emended with reference to other manuscripts, but the much-vaunted “early papyri” play little role in the critical text (I’m unaware of any reading in the current critical text that is supported only by a papyrus without additional support from later manuscripts). The bottom line is that we have no good way of knowing what the text of Paul’s letters looked like in the second century, never mind the middle of the first century. Quotations of Paul’s letters in second-century Christian authors are few, and they are subject to the same vicissitudes of manuscript transmission as Paul’s letters themselves.

So, that is the evidence. Seven occasional letters (five of which are coauthored) containing about twenty-four thousand words (less than two and a half JBL articles’ worth), with a somewhat unstable text that is at best a couple centuries distant from the time of Paul and which has been edited by at least one figure into the form(s) of the letters that we find in our surviving manuscripts.

What kind of portraits do we paint with such a palette? A comparison with one of Fredriksen’s other subjects might be helpful. The surviving works of Augustine are usually said to be comprised of some five million words. These words of course also reach us through a process of transmission, but substantial parts of the corpus are preserved in surviving manuscripts that reputable scholars judge to have been copied in the fifth and sixth centuries (one, containing books 11–16 of the City of God, perhaps copied during the lifetime of Augustine). So, in terms of evidence, does the exercise of “seeing Augustine as Augustine saw himself” differ in kind, or merely in scale from the exercise of “seeing Paul as Paul saw himself”? I would be interested to hear an experienced interpreter like Fredriksen reflect on what’s the same and what’s different about handling these two bodies of evidence.

Moving more explicitly toward issues of method, I’ll stay with Augustine and turn to the epigraph of The Pagan’s Apostle: “The past is gone; and the truth of what is past lies in our own judgment, not in the past event itself” (Augustine, Contra Faustum 26.5). The quotation hits home for me because I’ve been pressed on this issue in response to some of my own work. If we agree that the past is gone, how do we adjudicate between better and worse historical accounts of the past? Augustine’s answer seems straightforward: “our own judgment” (nostra sententia).

Bringing Augustine’s words into our own context, I think of sententia in terms of adherence to the rules historians use, rules that are frequently unstated. Our rhetoric can tend to make ancient evidence the reference point, the arbiter of establishing that one historical reading is superior to another. We emphasize getting back to the sources. But the evidence and sources don’t really do anything. They don’t even get to count as evidence or sources until we make them do so in the framework of our arguments. And we’re taught to make those arguments in ways that follow rules from the theoretical (e.g., “anachronism in historical accounts is bad”) to the literary (we learn what “good history writing” looks like as a genre). These rules are grounded in our present, contemporary concerns and not in the past itself. But within the game that historians play, within the sets of rules that historians continuously establish, debate, and revise, I do think we can still talk about the past and decide between better and worse historical accounts. But we do so by reference to these rules to which we all (at least tacitly) agree when we sign up to be historians.

But here’s the rub: It seems to me that many (most?) people who identify as Pauline scholars simply don’t play by those rules, opting instead to, say, “wrap theology in the rhetoric of historical investigation.” I borrow the phrase from Fredriksen’s withering 2015 Catholic Biblical Quarterly review of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God,4 but it could be justifiably applied to many proponents of the “radical New Perspective,” whose zeal for pluralist theology at times rivals Wright’s enthusiasm for orthodoxy. So I suppose the more troublesome word in Augustine’s formulation is nostra—who is included in this enterprise? The question could be phrased in another way: Both Fredriksen and authors like Wright compose books about Paul, but given their differing relationships to the rules of historiography, are they really even engaging in the same activity? And if they’re not, does that tell us something about the guild of Pauline studies?

The Pagan’s Apostle is not intended to be a historiographical treatise, but some of the quotations I’ve highlighted lead me to believe that Fredriksen might have more to say about these issues. I so thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning from The Pagan’s Apostle. Now I would like to learn just a bit more about some of the mechanics behind Fredriksen’s “quest for the historical apostle” (62) and effort “to see Paul as Paul saw himself.”

  1. Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, trans. Frank Clarke (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1959), Krister Stendahl, Paul among the Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), and Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987).

  2. E.g., Paula Fredriksen, “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1–2,” JTS 42 (1991) 532–64, and “Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel,” NTS 56 (2010) 232–52.

  3. Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

  4. N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

  • Paula Fredriksen

    Paula Fredriksen


    Nostra Sententia and Historical Imagination: A Response to Brent Nongbri

    Nostra Sententia and Historical Imagination: A Response to Brent Nongbri

    Paula Fredriksen


    Sometimes, when I read his sermons, full of hate speech; or his obsequious letters wheedling political concessions out of imperial power-brokers; or when I think of the sheer amount of damage he did, framing his massive apology for “pastoral” deployments of coercive force (. . . yes, I know: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition . . .), I think that Augustine is someone who I would cross a room to avoid.

    But when I contemplate his radical secularization of politics (contra, for instance, the supine Eusebius); or his insistence that all efforts at self-knowledge are intrinsically retrospective, unstable, and always potentially self-serving; when I consider the sheer creativity of his assertion that the Bible, whatever its many meanings, must always have one specific to originary times and places, secundum historicam proprietatem; when I think of him standing his ground as that great celebrity scholar-diva, Jerome, staged his thunderous tantrum over how to read Galatians (epp. 28, 40, 71, 75 [Jerome’s response], and 82)—well, then, Augustine the beacon of intellectual courage shines like a star in the firmament.

    Of all the many, many things from and about him that I have learned in the course of our many decades together, it is Augustine’s ideas about the past that have entranced me the most. The past, as he urges in Confessions 11, is a species of non-being. It does not exist—except in our thinking about it. His bon mot to the Faustus he conjured in his virtual disputatio, the c. Faustum (at 26.5), beautifully catches something that is true too for modern practitioners of critical history, as Brent Nongbri so provocatively points out. If historical work is an act of imagination, how can we be sure that we are not making this stuff up? How do we discern good history from bad? And, even more to the point—thanks again, Brent—how do we discern a good historical account of Paul from those historically inflected theologies produced by scholars who think that they are doing history?

    I start where Nongbri starts, with the evidence. What is it? The guild is divided. Colossians and even Ephesians are treated by some as primary sources, “Pauline” in a first-order way. Second Thessalonians has been similarly repurposed. Is 1 Thess 2:13–16 an interpolation (a nod here to Birger Pearson),1 or is it truly Paul, just being his rhetorically over-heated self?2 No manuscript tradition lacks these toxic verses. But then, no piece of Pauline manuscript predates the late second century, by which time the theme of Jews-as-slayers-of-the-prophets has long launched (Gospel of Matthew; Dialogue with Trypho). And how does Acts help or hinder? How do we decide?

    My book explains what I think and why. On these issues of evidence and method, here, I turn now to Nongbri’s productive juxtaposition of Augustine and Paul. Five million words via a reasonably stable textual transmission, from the politically agile late Roman bishop. Twenty-four thousand words via widely varying vicissitudes stabilized only by the fourth century, from the early Roman, messiah-minded, pneumatically empowered Jew. “So, in terms of evidence,” Nongbri asks, “does the exercise of ‘seeing Augustine as Augustine saw himself’ differ in kind, or merely in scale, from the exercise of ‘seeing Paul as Paul saw himself’?”

    Scale. In 1986, pondering the historiographical mess made when scholars considered both men’s rhetorically powerful presentations of former selves—the throbbing book 8 of the bishop’s Confessions; the apostle’s weaponized narration of his past in Galatians 1—I suggested that our problems arose less from our evidence (so much from Augustine! so little from Paul!) than from our question-framing. In this particular instance, the problem was the Quest for the Historical Moment of Conversion.3

    A single, dramatic “moment of conversion” is itself a rhetorical construct, one deployed to great effect in Acts, by which time, of course—early second century—Luke’s Paul does have something to convert to: “Christianity” (cf. Acts 11:26). Augustine also had something to convert to. He went from one form of Christianity (Manichaeism) to another (the imperially patronized Nicene variety). But the descriptions he gives of this transition in its immediate aftermath, the writings from the summer of 386, differ unmistakably from the Confessions’ re-description of it in 397. Through reading Plotinus and Porphyry, and through assessing the lay of the land (unlike Rome, Milan offered no Manichaean network of patrons), Augustine by 386 had long let his dualist allegiances lapse. In that summer of his discontent, he staggered to three fatigued decisions. He would stop sleeping with women. (Monnica had sent the mother of Augustine’s son packing. Augustine immediately acquired another concubine in her stead; Conf. 7.15, 25.) He would be baptized, some nine months thence, by Ambrose. And he would resign his professorship.

    The real work of “conversion” occurred slowly, back in Africa, over the course of the 390s.4 Only thereafter did the dispirited decisions of 386 transmute, through the alchemy of retrospect and rhetoric, into a single and singular dramatic Event: the conversion of book 8. The Confessions is Augustine’s public performance of his (new) catholic self.5 He declaims this self before a skeptical audience of resentful colleagues, chaffing at his shrewd self-promotion up the ecclesiastical ladder to a plum church office.6 If you see all this as achingly introspective “candor,” you’re going along for the ride. It’s a great ride, and you’re in excellent company. William James. A. D. Nock. In the mid-1960s, an astonishingly young Peter Brown. Still: caveat lector.

    Paul also lived in a world where he had two religious options: Judaism and everything else. “Everything else” was the ancestral practices of other ethnic groups. Paul stuck with his own. Stendahl, following Munck, sounded the summons to rethink Paul’s shift of enthusiasms not as “conversion” (what was there to convert to, other than paganism?) but as “call.” Augustine quit the Manichees. Paul never quit the synagogue (2 Cor 11:24–26). And he was, by his own estimate, one of the Best. Jews. Ever. (Phil 3:6; Gal 1:14.) Also one of the best apostles. Ever. (1 Cor 15:10; 2 Cor 11:23; 12:11.) And the best wonder-worker. And best speaker of angelic tongues. And the best diviner of Jewish textual arcana. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” he asks, quoting Isaiah. His answer is all over his letters: Paul.

    A historical analysis of particular evidence can only occur once we critically reconstruct historical context. For Augustine, this means attending especially to the situation that defined him: the evenly matched civil war within North Africa’s catholic church. (On this, again, see especially Shaw’s brilliant Sacred Violence.) By 411, imperial intervention secured, Augustine (& co.) un-leveled the playing field. Dissident catholics would now be prosecuted as heretics.

    The real work came then: subduing angry dissidents, suborning or intimidating their clergy, absorbing Donatist real estate with its income-producing lands and labor. St. Stephen’s relics usefully arrived. Victorious, his political muscle buffed, Augustine sponsored a new, pan-Mediterranean agōn for his talents: he invented Pelagianism. Oh, and Rome fell (to Arian Christians), so he wrote The City of God. (Against the pagans? The second half of the book rails against catholic millenarians.) We have so much from him, and about him. If we overlook his context, his circumstances, and his temperament—not as strategically, seductively retailed in the Confessions, but as registered by his political and rhetorical agility, his sheer will to power, his unflinching embrace of state coercion as a medium of Christian love—we will get him wrong.

    How, then, did Augustine see himself? As a late Roman bishop: magistrate, pastor, politician, combat theologian. He could never be as High Table as Ambrose, and he knew it. But like his distant mentor, he consolidated power and authority in his own person: Voce ecclesiae loquor! That’s what late Roman bishops did. Luckily for us, he was also a restless intellectual and a brilliant exegete. He painted himself into some hideous theological corners—predestination; unbaptized babies justly damned for Adam’s sin; coercion-for-your-own-good—but when he was not trying to crush an opponent, his mind, scripture-borne, could soar. It’s still a beautiful thing to watch.

    Who was Augustine, “really”? His nonpareil rhetorical skills inhibit my ability to peer much more closely than the sketch, above, suggests. Despite the relative disproportion of evidence, then—208 words of Augustine’s for every one of Paul’s—I feel that I know Paul better. Thickly complicated power politics obscure neither his motives nor his actions. Rhetorically, Paul is also very good, but he’s no Augustine; and no hard assets are at stake in terms of real estate, wealth, and raw, state-enforced power. Nothing crucial, for Paul, hangs upon successful dissembling. And the apostle’s circumstances and his goals were wildly different from the bishop’s. Paul’s energies pool around one chief priority: How to pneumatically Judaize ex-pagan pagans so that they can “fulfill the [Jewish] Law.” Augustine is deliberate. Paul is urgent.

    Alas, he was also controlling. He viciously trash-talked fellow adelphoi who, by mid-century, urged proselyte circumcision as the means for Christ-following ethnē to prepare for the approaching End. Read by later Gentile Christians, Paul’s letters served, and serve still, as a sustaining source of Christian anti-Judaism and—as seen in Christian Europe’s systematic mass murder, not a century ago, of European Jews; as seen in synagogue shootings by Americans both white and black in the past three years—a sustaining source of racist anti-Semitism. “Justification by faith, and not by the works of the Law,” Luther’s (sixteenth-century) anti-papal sound bite, still provides many scholars with their key to Paul’s (first-century) intra-movement message. Modern monotheism wraps a theological invisibility cloak around all the pagan gods against whom Paul fights—and against whom, Paul is convinced, the returning Davidic warrior messiah would shortly fight as well. “The Law” (to borrow the incisive language of 1066 and All That)7 is A Bad Thing, defunct currency, one of the stoicheia of this age. (Then how, one wonders, could its telos be Christ?) You would think that Paul’s chief message to his assemblies was “Don’t circumcise!” It was, instead, “No more latreia to daimonia! Trust in Israel’s god alone! And meanwhile, do not listen to the hypocrites, the dogs, the mutilators of the flesh, the false brethren, the so-called super-apostles. . . .” It’s hard, always being right. But it was a burden that Paul shouldered cheerfully. After all, his public (yea, cosmic) vindication loomed, as close to hand as the returning Christ.

    Theology wrapped in the rhetoric of historical investigation. There’s a lot of it going around. I am so tired of investing research time reading big books and endless articles ostensibly on Paul, and coming away knowing more, instead, about the personal religious commitments of their modern authors. This is a roaring industry, and it is not going away. Within universities, theological faculties are usually the oldest, thus the most substantially endowed; in the UK and in Europe, often state-supported as well. And, as I mentioned in my response to Jennifer Eyl, modern allegiances to scientific criteria of meaning, the need for some sort of historically imagined empirical confirmation, hamper doing critical history when looking at ancient figures of continuous religious significance. But if any text from the past—Isaiah’s, Paul’s, Augustine’s, even Luther’s—is immediately meaningful to us, then we are certainly misreading it vis-à-vis how it was conceived by its original author(s) and received by its original audiences. If we cannot rebuild that contemporary context, we cannot retrieve these texts’ original meanings.

    Finding a match between a sentence in Paul and a sentence in Deuteronomy is not “doing history.” Validating a twenty-first-century Christian theology by presenting it as what an apocalyptically-minded first-century Jewish author himself thought is not simply bad history. It is also, I think, not very good theology. The ethical use of history requires theologians and New Testament scholars to acknowledge that Paul did not think about the things that we think about in the ways that we think about things. Indeed, he very often thought about quite different things. (Spirit-possession, divination, demonic impurity, eschatological bodies of pneuma, and male-gendered angels, to name a few.)

    Doing history requires a lot of peripheral vision in order to see the ancient social context. The ruins of Graeco-Roman urban sites.8 The social traction afforded by inscriptions, amulets, divinatory media, papyri. The buried libraries of lost communities whose writings have not been continuously updated through institutional reinterpretation (and yes, Brent, by copying). The universal assumption that superhuman powers have social agency. Paul had to make sense to people thinking in these ways, back then, or we would not have his letters at all, now.

    Theology is textual: clear, elegant, regulated by canon, creed, and community. History is contextual. Contingent, methodologically messy, tempest-tossed. Appreciating ancient context requires, on our part, a sort of letting go. We begin our historical work on Paul by acknowledging that both he and his auditors are different from us. They lived in a geocentric universe. They dealt with daimonia on a regular basis. They thought that special humans were divine. They thought that the divine manifested as special humans. They buried curse tablets. (Believe me, if I thought that these worked, I would too.) They thought that ancient texts revealed concrete and detailed information about current and future circumstances. They thought that moral, cultural, and intellectual differences between various ethnē and genē, between men and women, between slave and free, were intrinsic, timeless, enduring: physei, “by nature.” (My heart sinks, actually, when I reflect on how many people indeed do still think in these ways.)

    Where and how do we start to pursue these ancient people, so radically independent of and utterly indifferent to our own precious sensibilities? We embrace disorientation. We renounce the anesthesia of anachronism. We allow the dead to be radically Other, at home in their own world, and thus not in ours.

    Respect for human difference is the beginning of historical wisdom. Sic est sententia mea, quae vestra fiat!

    1. “1 Thessalonians 2:13–16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” HTR 64 (1971) 79–94.

    2. Thus Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 399–402.

    3. Paula Fredriksen, “Paul and Augustine: Conversion Narratives, Orthodox Traditions, and the Retrospective Self,” JTS 37 (1986) 3–34.

    4. Eadem, Augustine and the Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 122–89.

    5. On which see esp. James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), and Jason BeDuhn, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), vol. 2.

    6. Brilliantly discerned and narrated by Brent Shaw, Sacred Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 388–90.

    7. W. C. Sellars and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (London: Methuen, 1930). Unlike all the other modern publications cited in this exchange, this one has its own Wikipedia page. And it is a work of profound importance to our field. No 1066 and All That, no Monty Python. No Monty Python, no Life of Brian. No Life of Brian . . . well, you get the point.

    8. See now Laura Salah Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Troels Engberg-Pedersen


Does Ethnicity Matter?


Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle1 “mobilizes conclusions reached in work spanning from 1986 . . . to [forthcoming in] 2018” (178), that is, more than thirty years. It is a masterly work that displays all of Fredriksen’s unique qualities. First, it addresses a burning issue, namely, how to understand the message to Gentiles of Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, in relation to Judaism and his fellow Jews. Has he left them behind? Or does he belong among them? Fredriksen argues intensely for the latter position in agreement with “those associated with interpreting ‘Paul within Judaism’ . . .” (165n83).2 Second, it is based on a deep familiarity with Judaism contemporary with Paul and the latest research on that. That is in itself a major help for all Pauline scholars. Third, it also puts Fredriksen’s considerable knowledge of the later Christian tradition up to and including Augustine into use by showing how Paul came to be understood in that tradition—differently, as Fredriksen shows, from the way he should actually, historically be understood. Fourth, it draws on a deep knowledge of Paul himself and of much relevant Pauline scholarship since Albert Schweitzer.3 Finally, it is so well structured and delightfully written that it is a constant joy to follow Fredriksen’s arguments. Readers should be prepared, however, to study carefully the endnotes, too (seventy-three closely written pages: 181–253). They are a mine of information that from time to time address even more pithily issues that have already been raised in the main text—or even raise new questions that may also have occurred in the reader’s mind.

In this essay, I will note our agreements on some of the basic issues (they are many), present an alternative reading that fits those agreements, and then raise a number of questions about Fredriksen’s arguments that seem to point in the direction of the alternative reading.


A first major agreement concerns the importance of apocalypticism for Paul. This is brought out well in many places and respects (5–6, 9 et passim), and Fredriksen is surely right.4 Everything else one will want to say about Paul must fit into his belief that he was living at a point in time when the End events had already begun (through the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and were very soon to be concluded (with the return of Christ). It is this fact that acutely raises Fredriksen’s question: how did Paul see the relationship between Christ-believing Gentiles and (Christ-believing) Jews, that is, Judaism, during this interim period and at its consummation with the return of Christ.

A second major agreement concerns Paul’s relationship with the Jewish law and, by implication, Judaism. Paul did not abrogate the law, neither for Jews (including Christ-believing Jews, who might certainly continue living under the law, by circumcising their male offspring, following food laws, etc.), nor for Christ-believing non-Jews. In fact, the latter—as Paul argues intensely in Galatians 5 (5:13–26) and Romans 7–8 (esp. 8:4)—would now precisely fulfill the law. We completely agree here: Paul was a Jew and he remained a Jew. What he argued for with regard to Christ-believing non-Jews was meant to fit them—in one way or another (there’s the rub!)—into Judaism.

A third major agreement concerns the emphasis Fredriksen rightly places on the reception of the pneuma in Paul’s conception of the consequences of the Christ event (Christ’s resurrection). What is particularly noteworthy here is that Fredriksen fully recognizes the importance of reception of the pneuma for Christ-believing Jews, too, not just for Gentiles.5 In other words, in the interim period (and even more at the final consummation) both Christ-believing Jews and non-Jews were (and would be) in possession of God’s and Christ’s pneuma, as neither had been before that.

A fourth agreement concerns the meanings of pistis (as “steadfastness” and “fidelity toward,” 36, 120) and dikaiosynē (as “being righteoused,” 121). I believe that Fredriksen would also agree that only Christ-believers—whether Jews or non-Jews—have the proper pistis in God and only Christ-believers are—as a result of that and by the reception of the pneuma—“righteoused.”

An Alternative Picture

My questions for Fredriksen spring from the basic opposition (an either-or) with which she operates throughout the book: either (a) Paul speaks for “an undifferentiated humankind united ‘in Christ’” (150) that implies an erasure of ethnic diversity (110n28, 114); or else (b) he speaks for maintaining ethnic diversity “in Christ” between Jews and non-Jews. On the latter picture, which is Fredriksen’s own, Christ-believing Gentiles remain (“ex-pagan”) pagans—and Christ-believing Jews remain what Fredriksen with much warmth calls “ethnic, genealogical, fleshly Israel” (150). We shall return to Fredriksen’s ex-pagan pagans, but her understanding of the Christ-believing Jews is at least clear enough.

However, I am convinced that Fredriksen’s opposition is not adequate to Paul’s thought. It is, as it were, only horizontal: either you are a Gentile, or you are a Jew. However, in between A and B, there is a different kind of position, which is vertical. We may call it this: A+BX.6 It consists of non-Jews and Jews who are both (and if you will, together) directed towards (evidently, the Jewish) God and what he has done in the Christ event. And the point is that in this conception there is no erasure of ethnic diversity; on the contrary, one may well maintain ethnic diversity even “in Christ.” Still, whether a Christ-believer is a Jew or not a Jew, but a Gentile, does not matter in relation to the only thing that matters, namely, the directedness towards God and Christ (call it pistis) that makes the Jew or non-Jew righteous and gives him (or indeed, her!) salvation.7 It is precisely this conception (which, I repeat, does not erase ethnic diversity) that Paul articulates in, for instance, Gal 5:6, Gal 6:15, and 1 Cor 7:19, where he makes use of an originally Stoic way of thinking.8 The differences are there and are allowed to be there; but they are “indifferent” in relation to the only thing that matters.

Indeed, I will go one step further. It is not just that Paul allows those differences to be there. They also should be so by the very pistis-directedness towards God. In Gal 5:6 Paul spells out this pistis as consisting in energeia di’ agapēs (“work through love”). And in Phil 2:4—in what I call Paul’s maxim—he spells out this agapē as consisting in not looking after one’s own interests (including those of one’s ethnicity), but instead, and precisely, those of the others. So, in the A+BX position Christ-believing Gentiles will positively allow Jews to follow their traditional ethnic practices, and Christ-believing Jews on their side will allow Christ-believing Gentiles to follow their traditional ethnic practices (apart, as Fredriksen rightly insists, from that of participating in traditional rituals to Gentile gods). Both things follow from their shared directedness to the only thing that matters: the Christ event.


In the light of this possible way of reading Paul, let me list a number of questions for Fredriksen. They all derive from claims she makes and are intended to show that—as I see it—Paul draws consequences from his understanding of the Christ event that Paula is not prepared to follow.

(1) Fredriksen rightly stresses the importance for Paul of the apocalyptic now. She also rightly recognizes (against Sonderweg scholars) that Jesus Christ is centrally relevant to Jews, too (see 127n64). If the apocalyptic now is crucially relevant to Gentiles to such an extent that it turns their status into something that by Fredriksen’s own understanding makes them a complete anomaly in relation to normal ethnic structures (they must give up their traditional gods in favor of the Jewish god, but must not become Jews), then may it not also be in some way similarly relevant to Jews?9 I recognize the superficial weakness of this question. But as I see it, this claim—of the radical consequences for Jews, too, of Paul’s apocalypticism—is the key point at issue.

(2) Along the same lines, Fredriksen stresses (rightly, I believe) that the status of Christ-believing Gentiles (her ex-pagan pagans) is a theoretical construct (presumably developed in the light of the apocalyptic now, which nobody had hitherto experienced).10 Why, then, should this construct not also be relevant to Jews, to whom it, to begin with, most straightforwardly belonged? (It is Paul, the Jew, who is an apocalypticist.) Will the Christ event not have any theoretical consequences for Jews, at all?

(3) In a wonderful endnote (153n49), Fredriksen first describes her doubt that Paul would have imagined eschatological Gentiles as still segregated from the inner courts of the temple in Jerusalem once the Kingdom came. On the contrary, “I imagine Paul walking with the gentile-in-Christ into Jerusalem’s inner temple area in anticipation of the Kingdom.” Next she asks: “But was Paul envisaging a terrestrial Kingdom at all?” Personally, I am convinced that Fredriksen is right on both counts, not least that Paul envisaged a heavenly kingdom. But then: will such a radical overall conception have no consequences for Jews, too?

(4) Fredriksen also (entirely rightly, to my mind) stresses the importance of reception of the pneuma among Christ-believers. They receive it in the present as a first installment in baptism, only to receive it in full in the (very soon to come) future: at their resurrection. Moreover, its reception has immediate consequences for Christ-believers, who are here and now righteoused by it and so made to possess complete self-mastery or (as I would rather say) moral perfection.11 That is why they, now, fulfill the Jewish law. Two questions here for Fredriksen: (a) Are Christ-believing Jews also baptized and so equipped with the pneuma? (b) If reception of the pneuma has the suggested radical consequences for Christ-believing Gentiles, will it not have the same consequences for Jews?

(5) Back to Fredriksen’s ex-pagan pagans: Fredriksen constructs a very rigid (even essentialist) understanding of ethnicity for the ancient world, which clearly underlies her claim that Christ-believing Jews will remain “ethnic Jews.”12 This overall understanding makes her see the case of a Gentile becoming a Jew (as a proselyte) as an “oddity.”13 Fortunately, she does recognize it as also a fact. Her construal of Paul’s Christ-believing Gentiles (the ex-pagan pagans) represents even more of an anomaly. They are and remain pagans, but have given up their traditional gods. If ethnicity consists of shared blood, language, sanctuaries and sacrifices, and customs (35, according to Herodotus, with whom Fredriksen agrees), then surely this does constitute an anomaly. They are neither pagans (but ex-pagans) nor Jews (but pagans). At the same time, their status according to Fredriksen (and I think she is right) constitutes a “radical form of Judaizing” (111, 112). They are not Jews, but behaving, even radically, as if they were Jews.14 How does that cohere logically?15

(6) Throughout the book, Fredriksen distances herself from the idea of “true Jewishness” (e.g., 156n60). One can understand why. If there is one thing that stands carved in stone in the book, it is the notion of “ethnic, genealogical, fleshly Israel” (150); and the idea of true Jewishness begins to query that. However, all the questions I have asked up to now point in the direction of understanding Christ-believing Judaism (that is, the form of “good, ethnic Judaism” that puts all-important emphasis on the Christ event) as the true Jewishness. Fredriksen—entirely rightly, to my mind—sees earliest Christianity as “in its own generation . . . a sect of Judaism” (113). But were not all such sects claiming to be the true form of Judaism, that is true Jewishness? Similarly, Paul himself, as Fredriksen recognizes (166), speaks clearly of the proper understanding of Judaism, namely, the one that has torn the veil away from reading the law and sees Christ face to face. So, directly for Fredriksen: Does the idea of the apocalyptic now, of the eschatological state as a theoretical construct, of the transformations generated by the pneuma, of the extreme Judaizing on the part of Christ-believing Gentiles not require the notion of true Jewishness (or Judaism) on the part of Jews, too, which is also the one adopted by those extremely Judaizing Christ-believing Gentiles?

(7) Throughout the book, too, Fredriksen is adamant that “Israel” stands for “ethnic, genealogical, fleshly Israel,” that is, circumcised Jews. There is much that speaks for this. Galatians 6:16 is a case in point (114n39). Romans 11:25–26 is another one (161). However, what is the point of Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree in Rom 11:13–24 together with its explication in 11:25–36? Its root, that is, Judaism, is holy (and set apart, as Fredriksen brings out well, 151–54), and so are its branches (11:16). On this tree, then, some branches, namely, non-Christ-believing Jews, have been broken off whereas Christ-believing Gentiles, who are in themselves (that is, as Gentiles) wild shoots, have been grafted in (11:17). They were wild, but have now been grafted in.16 Is this tree (with that root) not Judaism, and by implication, Israel? And does it not continue to be Judaism (and Israel) when the Gentiles have a share in it and so are no longer merely “wild branches” (but radically Judaizing!)? So, directly for Fredriksen: Can you accept that although Paul surely begins from taking “Israel” to stand for “good, ethnic Judaism,” he also aims to create something new? This new thing will be all Israel in the old sense, but now as transformed in such a manner that there is no longer any difference with regard to what alone genuinely matters between that new Israel and those Christ-believing Gentiles who, now, also belong to the holy, Jewish root?

(8) I must end on a more technical level. A rule of thumb among radical interpreters of Paul is to say that where tradition has seen him as arguing against Jews and Judaism, he is in fact arguing against Christ-believing Gentiles who thought that they had to become full Jews, that is, ethnically. The underlying logic is this: Paul addresses Christ-believing Gentiles. So, he is only talking about Christ-believing Gentiles. As a piece of logic, this cannot be right. In some places in these letters that are all directed to Christ-believing Gentiles, Paul also speaks directly about Jews and Judaism, not least when he has in mind those Jews who had not (yet) come around to Christ faith. As a reader of Paul, one has to accept that. One also has to accept the following as a methodological rule: in each relevant passage, one must carefully scrutinize the specific context in order to find out exactly what it then is that Paul aims to say about Jews and Judaism precisely when he is talking to Christ-believing Gentiles.

I have collected six examples of specific passages in Paul where I would ask Fredriksen whether her treatment of a number of texts is in agreement with this rule.

  • For instance, Fredriksen does not at all address Gal 2:15–21 apart from characterizing it as a “tirade” that reflects “the heat of his rhetoric” (99). But would she not allow that this passage, in which Paul is speaking about himself and Peter, who are both “Jews by nature,” and the effect on them of the Christ event, calls for the closest scrutiny, and certainly in connection with 2:11–14, which Fredriksen does discuss?
  • In another instance, Fredriksen considers Gal 3:1–4:31, though only very briefly since she finds that “Paul’s intemperate language and agitated arguments are difficult to follow” (107). “To grasp his thinking on the issue of gentile circumcision” she therefore turns to “Paul in a calmer moment” in 1 Cor 7:18–20. But would she not allow that any account of Paul on Gentile circumcision will have to scrutinize Gal 3:1—4:31, where Paul is once again unmistakably speaking to his non-Jewish readers about non-Christ-believing Judaism?

These were examples of Paul speaking relatively negatively of non-Christ-believing Judaism. But the same kind of textual—and indeed textually contextual—scrutiny is required when he speaks much more positively of Judaism. Again, I do not see this so clearly in The Pagans’ Apostle as one might wish.

  • For instance, when Fredriksen has turned from Galatians to 1 Cor 7:18–20 (cf. above), she concludes that Paul “cannot” here be talking about God’s commandments to Israel, but “must” mean that circumcision or foreskin does not matter “specifically and only for not-Israel, that is, for gentiles’” (107, her italics). But she does not argue this claim by looking at the context itself, but brings in from a wholly different letter (Romans) that “Jewish circumcision . . . mattered very much to Paul” (107, her italics). Would she not recognize that there is a contextualizing deficit in such a manner of arguing?
  • If we then look—for our next example—at Fredriksen’s handling of those texts in Romans just referred to, the same issue of careful contextual scrutiny comes up. “Jewish circumcision is of great value” (Rom 3:1–2, 107); “fleshly Israel’s privileges” remain (Rom 9:4–5, 107); “God’s gifts and call to Israel are ‘irrevocable’” (11:29, 107). This is all very true. But in the two first cases it constitutes an introduction to a line of thought that runs like this: in spite of the fact that this and the other holds for Judaism—there are problems (namely, of course, in the light of the Christ event). And in the last case, the line of thought is given in 11:30–31 to the effect that one can be sure that although (non-Christ-believing) Jews have now been disobedient (to God) by the mercy shown to the Gentiles, they, too, will—now or in the end—receive mercy. “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). In other words, the latter claim concerns the gifts to and calling of “fleshly Israel” with respect to the Christ event. So, would Fredriksen accept the need for careful scrutiny of the line of thought in each specific text (and letter) before drawing any wider conclusions, as opposed to a reading that takes what suits one and forgets the rest?
  • Exactly the same goes for one more example, which is Fredriksen’s suggestion that in Gal 6:15 (“neither circumcision counts . . . nor foreskin”) Paul “is not referring to Jews in the first instance and to gentiles in the second,” but only to different types of Gentiles (107n22). Once again, Fredriksen here draws on the passages just mentioned from Romans. But would she accept that one will—primarily, at least—have to situate this text within its specific context (including that of Paul’s immediate opponents in Gal 6:11–13)?
  • One last example: Fredriksen speaks of “Paul’s much-touted proclamation of oneness in Christ, Galatians 3.28,” which neglects “those many other places where Paul speaks of a community striated by significant internal distinctions . . .” (150). But when she then lines up these distinctions—apostles, prophets, interpreters, healers; male and female; Jew and Greek; Israel and the nations—she forgets to mention Paul’s overt point in those passages: that they all share in the same thing, which is basically the pneuma with all that this implies. Paul did not aim to erase ethnic (and more generally, “sarkic”) differences. But he also did not think that they at all mattered in comparison with what overwhelmingly did matter: dedication to the Jewish God.


I have sketched a reading of Paul that goes a very long way in tandem with the one given in The Pagans’ Apostle. Paul is arguing—apocalyptically and pneumatically—for a directedness towards the Jewish God that is shared by Christ-believing Jews and Gentiles alike. Where our understandings differ is that I take this directedness to have the additional characteristic that it leaves distinctions of ethnicity, gender, social status and the like in place, while also claiming that none of these distinctions (including the one of traditional = non-Christ-believing, Jewish ethnicity) matters vis-à-vis the only goal, which is (a Jewishly conceived) righteousness and salvation. Instead, what alone and apocalyptically and pneumatically now does matter is the true Jewishness (or Judaism) in which both Fredriksen’s only partly, but also radically, Judaizing Gentiles and the Christ-believing Jews have an equal and undivided share.

For the last twenty years, I have kept saying that I have learned most about Paul from Jewish and “Jewish-oriented” scholars. Paula Fredriksen’s new book now helps us enormously—both where it is right and where it is wrong—to grasp the unique understanding of Christ faith and Judaism that was Paul’s.

  1. My old friend Paula I here call Fredriksen.

  2. This self-description cannot be wholly adequate. As we shall see, I myself also understand Paul as belonging within Judaism, but I disagree over what this means with regard, in particular, to ethnicity. (In Denmark, we have decided to continue speaking of the “radical” perspective on Paul.)

  3. It would be extremely interesting to focus one’s attention on Fredriksen’s use of this literature from Schweitzer to, say, John Barclay. Are we in general always fair to those scholars we enlist in support of our cause—and those we reject? Fredriksen, at least, attempts to be so, which is a sign of one of her most laudable virtues: honesty.

  4. Cf. 9n3: “The present book emphasizes the fast approaching, impending future.”

  5. Cf. The Pagans’ Apostle, 153n49: “Jewish Christ-followers are likewise empowered by pneuma, Paul being one of Paul’s premier examples of this.”

  6. Here “A” stands for Christ-believing Gentiles, “B” for Christ-believing Jews, and “X” for God or Christ.

  7. The addition of “or indeed, her!” is intended to indicate that the question of ethnicity (in “Christ-believing Jew or Greek”) has exactly the same place in Paul as the question of gender (in “Christ-believing male or female”), cf. Gal 3:28. In the same way, there is a close similarity in “identity politics” between Fredriksen’s ethnic concern and a feminist one of, say, thirty to forty years ago. Both are highly commendable, but I do not believe they were Paul’s. (Nor do I think—in a modern context—that they contain the whole truth. A book of mine, Paul on Identity, will be published in Danish in January 2020. Here I show how Paul’s “dual understanding of identity” [as expressed, e.g., in Gal 5:6] works throughout the letters in relation to Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, and political authorities. Relating this to the understanding of identity and identity politics given by Francis Fukuyama in Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018], I go on to suggest that Paul’s handling of identity is more satisfactory than Fukuyama’s.)

  8. For the Stoic notion of “indifferents” (adiaphora), see von Arnim, Stoicorum veterum fragmenta III.117–23. Things like “life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, riches, a good name, good birth” (and, we might add, ethnic status) are “nothings” (oudetera, §117) in that they “in no way add to the happy life” (§118) and hence do not matter at all in relation to that. Still, they do have “elective value” (axia eklektikē, §118) and so may well be “preferable” (proēgmena, §122). (Conversely, things like death, illness, etc., have “dyselective disvalue” [apaxia apeklektikē, §118] and so may be “dispreferable” [apoproēgmena, §122].) To that extent, even ethnic status does matter.

  9. Cf. The Pagans’ Apostle, 34, on the phrase “ex-pagan pagans,” where Fredriksen speaks of “the extreme anomaly, socially and therefore religiously, that this first generation represented”: “they were non-Jews who, as non-Jews, committed themselves to the exclusive worship, in some specifically Jewish ways, of the Jewish god.”

  10. The Pagans’ Apostle, 74 (her italics): “But the Kingdom’s pagans were a special and a purely theoretical category: they were ex-pagan pagans.”

  11. For the idea that the pneuma has enabled Christ-believers to act rightly, see The Pagans’ Apostle, 106, 120, 130, 158 (with a reference—158n68—to Stanley Stowers on self-mastery). I myself see Paul as arguing instead for moral perfection in Christ-believers. (Correspondingly, the logic of Pauline paraenesis is not that they should (or must) do something that they are not doing, but that they should keep doing something that they are already doing—since that is what the whole thing means.)

  12. For essentialism, see The Pagans’ Apostle, 65: “Given the essentialism of ethnicity in antiquity.”

  13. Cf. The Pagans’ Apostle, 77: “‘conversion’ itself was an odd thought to think.”

  14. Cf. The Pagans’ Apostle, 112: Paul’s “gentiles were to act ‘as if’ they were Jews without, for males, receiving circumcision.”

  15. You could say, of course, that it is so odd as to be logically incoherent—and that is its very point. But you could also say that it is so odd that it points towards some kind of resolution, which might consist in loosening and weakening the understanding of the all-important role of ethnicity on which Fredriksen insists—as in my alternative model.

  16. Contra The Pagans’ Apostle, 117n45: “the ‘wild’ branches remain ‘wild.’”

  • Paula Fredriksen

    Paula Fredriksen


    Ad Astra: A Reply to Troels Engberg-Pedersen

    My old friend Troels Engberg-Pedersen (whom I here call Troels) did his undergraduate training in Classics, his Oxford doctoral work in Classical Philosophy and in Theology. He probably knows the Stoicorum veterum fragmenta by heart and (no less probably) can declaim them in crystalline Oxbridgian Greek. When I need to know about pneuma—which is often, as things turned out—I turn to Troels. My command of classical grammar will never be what his is. (For that matter, the same holds true for my command of English grammar. Many Scandinavian colleagues make me feel this way.)

    My training was different. I did a double BA in Religion and in History at an American college. (Wellesley. More than 60 percent of the faculty was female, including the higher admin. I did not appreciate then how important this was. But more on gender below.) As an act of will, I shoveled Latin into an overly congested curriculum that also required my taking four semesters of math and science and four semesters of gym. (Not gymnasium. Gym.) And while for my Religion degree I read what now seems like an awful lot of Tillich, Barth, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer, I had only one year of formal post-graduate theological study (Oxford, 1973/74). That was enough for me. Back in the States, I worked with John Gager at Princeton. Melanesian cargo cults, Nuer rituals, Wittgensteinian gnomoi, Nag Hammadi mystica, and Mary Douglas’s grids and groups marked my pathway to my work on Augustine on Paul.

    This Syndicate exchange, then, embodies a small miracle. The enormous differences in our respective academic training notwithstanding, Troels and I when we read Paul’s letters see almost the same apostle. That is amazing. And, for me, enormously encouraging. The current, unhappily polarized situation of Pauline Studies notwithstanding, it is possible—as Troels and I demonstrate—for scholars trained within theological faculties and scholars trained within departments of comparative religion to learn from each other, and to appreciate each other’s work. More to the point, sometimes they can even agree on important questions of historical interpretation. Again deferring to the incisive language of 1066 and All That: This is A Good Thing.

    But informed disagreement is also A Good Thing. It frames argument. And collegial argument offers the opportunity for scholarly progress. So let’s jump in.

    Peri archōn: Language games. Christian theological vocabulary is geared to enunciating Christian theology, which is just as it should be. Utilized in historical endeavor, however, it can becloud the enterprise. So, first, to address (alas, only some of) Troels’s excellent challenges, I need to talk about the ways that words work.

    The Christ-event.” Let me qua historical religionist meditate briefly on this. As used by Troels here—“the Christ event (Christ’s resurrection)”—as by others elsewhere, this phrase speaks in the tongues of historical puncta. But “the” Resurrection is a rhetorical construct, a literary device akin to “a moment of dramatic reversal.” Such devices structure narrative, because they deliver emotional punch. Gospel writers (though Mark less so) used it for their stories about the post-crucifixion Jesus. (Visually reformatted, it gave us Grünewald.) Luke-Acts used it for Paul’s “conversion.” (Think Caravaggio.) Augustine, similarly, used it—the bolt-from-the-blue Event—to retail “Augustine.” Then modern scholars interpret this device as description, deciding that there actually was some such historical punctum. And off they go, chasing after the wild goose of “what happened.”

    But as Paul’s letters themselves describe, and as the physics and psychology of ancient pneuma themselves suggest, Jesus’s post-mortem, pre-Parousia manifestations did not describe a moment: they defined a zone. I connect dots from 1 Corinthians 15 here: I assume that the witnesses whom Paul lists “saw” Christ (whatever that meant) in and as a sōma pneumatikon. (Ancient pneuma is stuff. It is not not-stuff, as Troels taught us all so well.) And as the work of Jennifer Eyl and Giovanni Bazzana now helps us to see, pneuma manifested in individuals within community by empowering charismatic behaviors.1 The flashier phenomena must have been great fun (to the point that Paul worries what wandering outsiders might think, or how male angels might be tempted to behave, 1 Cor 14:23; 11:10).

    The key indices of pneuma for Paul the Pharisee, however, were ritual and ethical. Paul’s kainē ktisis, the empirical measure of pneuma’s effects, were his communities of ex-pagans, ethnē who, though sinners-by-nature (Gal 2:15), were able to start acting more-or-less like Jews without “becoming” Jews. Only Israel’s god; no other gods; no idols; contribute funds for the group back in Jerusalem; and a lot of other idealized Jewish community behaviors (“fulfilling the law,” e.g., Rom 13:8–10). How long could they hold on in this way? Until Christ was declared to the cosmos to be God’s Davidic son, the final christos, empowered by the pneuma of holiness from, out of, on account, by virtue of (ek) the resurrection of the dead (Rom 1:4). A happy elect few knew about this already. Soon everybody would. It was all happening en taxei, nun (Rom 16:20, 26).

    The theology coded by “the Christ event” as “the Resurrection” not only fails to capture this phenomenon of Christ’s diffuse post-crucifixion presence. It rhetorically isolates the post-mortem Christ from what these people were convinced was one single kinetic arc of divine empowerment, terminating only at and as the kingdom. In theology-speak: Resurrection immediately entailed imminent Parousia. Lose sight of that, and “the Christ event” begins to become “the origins of Christianity.” That is indeed how things worked out: Jesus’s one-off resurrection hangs suspended in a history of continuing duration. (I put the eventual Assumption of the BVM aside for the nonce.) But Paul and his generation were certainly convinced that things were, and were about to be, quite otherwise.

    “Righteousness for salvation” and, thus, the Christian theological status of “the law,” a.k.a. hai patrikai mou paradoseis (thus Paul, Gal 1:14). Following Jewish ancestral practices was not about being or getting “saved.” It was about how you lived if you were a Jew who chose to live Jewishly—as even Philo’s allegorizing neighbors thought they were doing (Mig. Abr. 89–93). Philo thought they were, too, though he also thought (on philosophical and practical grounds, since their souls still lived in their fleshly bodies) that they were going about things the wrong way. Meanwhile, he could admire the Essenes from a distance, overlooking a few small differences, like their following a solar calendar, their vilifying Jerusalem’s priesthood, and their living at close quarters with armed angels. Chapter 2 of The Pagans’ Apostle gives more detail on the catholic sensibilities of ancient Jews’ interpretations of lived Jewish law. Vigorous variety was the norm, not the exception.

    When a woman immersed after menstrual niddah—the period of separation varying according to interpretation—she did so in order to resume normal sexual relations with her husband. Was she also immersing to gain salvation through the works of the law? I would be surprised. (It was probably hard enough just to get out of the house.) Why feed the hungry, clothe the naked, protect the powerless? Different ethnic cultures did all these things, and they had various reasons for thinking that these were the right things to do. Jewish culture(s) had a specific reason: their god had told them to do so, and they had agreed. (Speed-read Leviticus 19. It will give you a sense of what “love of neighbor and of the stranger” means. On one leg: Social policy, not emotional affect.) “Salvation” as “happy afterlife once God ends history” may have motivated some Qumran sectarians and various other apocalyptically-minded groups of Jews (like those represented by Peter, James, Barnabas, and Paul). If we could run the numbers, though—and alas, we cannot: ancient demography is statistically more gossamer than angels’ wings—we would probably find that most Jews in most places were cleaning for Passover, if they cleaned for Passover, because, come Nisan, that is what they did. Patria ethē for all ancient people-groups were primarily about how you lived, not primarily about what may or may not happen to you after you died.

    I now face a fork in my road to responding to Troels’s response. Do I go with afterlife (the undead and their bodies), or with ethnicity (the living, and theirs)? Gender matters for both.

    To Paul’s views on afterlife, first, with a shout-out to the scholar curating this symposium, Matthew Thiessen.2 I am going to have to bounce around between several letters. According to Rom 11:26 (Paul, again channeling Isaiah), Christ as returning messiah will manifest in Jerusalem at the mount then crowned by Herod’s magnificent temple. Then what? Eschatological arithmetic: The twelve tribes of the Davidic kingdom and all seventy nations descended from Noah are gathered in. (Paul must have mellowed since dictating 1 Thessalonians: there, ethnē who do not know his god are going to be the objects of wrath. Maybe he mellowed even since dictating Rom 1:18. Divine wrath was part of the hard sell: like execution, it concentrates the attention.) Then what? In 1 Thessalonians, the dead are raised and living lifted, all given glorious bodies. Christ’s politeuma is celestial (Phil 3:20).

    1 Corinthians 15 provides more specific, scientific detail. Paul there speaks of pneumatic transformation: natural bodies both quick and dead change into bodies of pneuma. Pneumatic bodies rise, of course, and in terms of ancient physics that makes sense. Such bodies dwell in the realms above the moon, where flesh and blood cannot go (cf. 1 Cor 15:50). The form of the human body, its morphē, shifts to a god-form, morphē theou, like the one that Jesus had before his cosmic descent, and presumably had again post-mortem (Phil 2:6, 9). This transformation into spirit by spirit was already underway, says Paul, both for ex-pagan Gentile communities and for certain chosen Jews—the present remnant (Rom 11:5), God’s Israel (Gal 6:16, meaning those Jews within the movement who agreed with Paul), and of course Paul himself. These “called ones” know now what everyone will know soon: that the final messiah has already descended, taken on slave form, been crucified, been raised thus again transformed, and is about to come back.

    What about everyone else? If most of Israel, ca. 57 CE, has not yet been immersed into Christ, how do they all get his pneuma? If most of the seventy nations have not been so immersed, how will they get Christ’s pneuma? And what about the dead (that’s a lot of people) who number among each group? I have no idea, since Paul does not say. What he does say is that all Israel will be secured (sōthēsetai) and that the fullness of the nations will “come in” (presumably, to the kingdom of Christ’s father).

    Where then does everyone go? Ad astra.

    Paul says this pretty plainly, as Thiessen has shown. If anyone out there is worried whether Paul’s vision is “Jewish” or “pagan,” from “Judaism” or from “Hellenism,” please, just relax. It is a good, ancient, Mediterranean idea. And the ancient Mediterranean is where Paul and his contemporaries happened to live.

    Will there still be distinctions of ethnicity, gender, and social class once bodies shift to pneuma? Galatians 3:28 can be read as saying “no,” but I think that Paul speaks there about the empowering effects of Christ’s pneuma within community in the “present” (that is, sometime in the mid-first century). In Rom 15:9–12, to which I will shortly return, he speaks of a redeemed humanity broken down by ethnic groups: Israel, and everyone else. (The “everybody else” means both Greeks and barbarians, Rom 1:14: Paul thinks “Greek” as well as “Jewish” and, recalling the ways that he stretches ideas about huiothesia and legal inheritance, Paul thinks “Roman” as well.)

    What about gender? Look, I do not even know what to make of circumcised angels, and they also have bodies of pneuma (cf. Jubilees 15.27). Greek and Roman gods are gendered, and theirs are star bodies too. (When Venus glowed in the firmament, she was a she.) Ancient Jewish angels are usually gendered and usually male, though some ancient Jewish angels are female. (Thank you, Mika Ahuvia.)3 My sense, from the few letters we have from him, is that Paul was not a detail guy. What he does know is that time is on the very edge of the End. To repurpose Troels’s phrasing, that was “the only thing that matters.”

    And finally, Troels, by the discursive criteria of ancient ethnicity, I think that Paul thinks that his god is “Jewish.”4 Letting go of terrestrial real estate was remarkably “modernizing” of him, considering the magnetic pull of The Land in Biblical narrative; but by the early Roman period, YHWH had come a long way since Isaiah, even since Greek Isaiah. And I also think that Paul’s god, like Paul himself, and like most other ancients who thought about people-groups, was an ethnic essentialist. People groups were as they were physei. (Everyone: if you have not yet read Benjamin Isaac, please do so.)5 The new branches supported by the eschatological olive tree are there para physin (Rom 11:13–24, esp. v. 24). They are still wild, though the tree that God had cultivated, by God’s surprising act of generosity, now accommodates them up too. These Gentiles thus are and are not “part” of the tree; and the tree is still, in essentialist ways, “Jewish” (tēi idiai, v. 24 again).

    This yes-but aspect holds true too for metaphors of sonship. Adopted sons are “family,” but their syngeneia is constructed other than biologically, kata sarka. Legal syngeneia through huiothesia for Roman property law, and early imperial succession. Jewish covenantal syngeneia for ethnē, according to those Christ-apostles whom Paul despises—the targets of his tortuous allegorizing in Gal 4:21–31. Pneumatic syngeneia through eschatological huiothesia according to Paul & Co.

    Note, too, the standing difference of status between Israel and the nations in Paul’s imaginaire. Genealogical Israel, Paul’s syngeneis kata sarka, had long ago been made God’s sons by God himself: no agency of Christ had been involved (though the messiah himself was, again kata sarka, part of the pack: Rom 9:4–5). Christ effects pneuma for all, but he effects son-adoption for Gentiles only: God had already taken care of the Jews. (I apologize on behalf of all of these ancient persons for their non-gender-inclusive sensibilities. Ancient gods, like ancients generally, tended to focus on the status, thus the liturgical behaviors, of [groups of] males.) This family distinction between sonship-groups shapes Paul’s closing cento in Rom 15:8–12. How this distinction will register in the stars, God only—and Paul, maybe—knows.

    We come, finally, to 1517 and All That. Thus, too, to J. Z. Smith’s musings in Drudgery Divine.6 Troels suggests that Paul thought A+B X. I do not think so. For Paul, A+B X(AB). And that’s as much linear algebra as I can bluff. But I was struck by the phrasing of the last paragraph of Troels’s section, An Alternative Picture: “So, in the A+BX position Christ-believing Gentiles will positively allow Jews to follow their traditional ethnic practices, and Christ-believing Jews on their side will allow Christ-believing Gentiles to follow their traditional ethnic practices (apart, as Fredriksen rightly insists, from that of participating in traditional rituals to Gentile gods). Both things follow from their shared directedness to the only thing that matters: the Christ event.”

    “Allow”? Who is doing the policing and the enforcing? These are urban voluntary associations on the equivalent of spiritual steroids. Paul gives orders, barks directives, makes demands, utters threats, pitches fits. A lot of his anger and frustration—as well as his verbal artillery—stems from his inability to control. Some of his ex-pagan Gentiles are heeding the “false brethren” and contemplating, or actually receiving, circumcision. (Thus Galatians, passim, and scattered places elsewhere.) He tells these male Gentiles that, for them, circumcision does not matter.7 (Did they listen? We do not know.) A baptized ex-pagan makes offerings to his native gods again. (Did he not get the memo? Had he not received pneuma? “Do not even eat with such a one!” 1 Cor 5:11) Too many people in Corinth’s assemblies are working too many pneumata too much of the time. Enough already, scolds Paul, while managing to mention that he’s better at that sort of thing than any of them. (God’s choice of him, after all, was not in vain, 1 Cor 15:10.)

    Ex-pagan Gentiles are going to “positively allow” Jews in their assemblies to continue not to sacrifice to local gods? Not to eat abominations and crawling things? (Some Jews, not just the allegorizing Alexandrian ones, doubtless ate such stuff anyway.) These ex-pagans-in-Christ were thinking that maybe Jewish adelphoi should stop sealing God’s covenant in the flesh of their Jewish male children, because the ex-pagans had been told by Paul not to start? They were going to “allow” these Jewish adelphoi to continue to hear God’s logia on the Sabbath (as they were probably still doing themselves)? They were going to “allow” these pneuma-filled Jews to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem? To sacrifice once there? These ex-pagans were going to “allow” these pneumatic diaspora Jews, too, to offer their traditional logikē latreia to Israel’s god as they had been doing for centuries already, and would continue, post-70 CE, ever after (Rom 12:1; Tacitus, Ann. 5.5, 2)? How on earth were they going to stop them? Why would they even ever think they should?

    The filaments of ancient divine/human syngeneia ran from the family hearth, through the generations of the dead, up to and through the spheres of heaven. This mutagenic movement within late Second Temple Judaism sheared those filaments with the pneumatic power of Israel’s final messiah—who was about to chasten these lower cosmic powers in any case. Then, through (dia) his son, the Jewish god would be universally acknowledged, from the astral intelligences on down (Rom 16:27; 1 Cor 15:57). Paul, meanwhile—reasonably and realistically—gave the ex-pagan woman “married to an unbeliever” a pass: she had to oblige marital mandate, which meant family cult.8

    But pagan patria ethē were not, and never were, on the same level as Jewish patria ethē: on this point, Paul and the so-called super-apostles were agreed. (Augustine, reading Paul centuries later, concurred. Against Jerome, he argued that the entire first generation of Jewish apostles, Paul included, kept Jewish law. After all, the source of pagan custom was demons; the source of Jewish custom, God; ep. 82.2, 12.) To be part of this movement, whether of Paul’s branch or of any of the others, pagans had to radically Judaize. No Christ-follower, whether ex-pagan or Jew, ever thought that the Christ-Jews must paganize (allophylizein? cf. 2 Macc 4:13).9 Not all ethnic customs were created equal. Christ’s ex-pagans had to adopt many, if not most, of the Jewish ones.

    Full disclosure at this finale: the filaments of intellectual syngeneia bind Troels’s and my computers together, our dialogue mounting ad astra through the electronic ether. Polychrome filaments of endless, intercalated emails. This conversation must continue there. Thank you, Troels my dear friend, for your sharp and salubrious criticisms.

    1. Jennifer Eyl, Signs, Wonders and Gifts: Divination in the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Giovanni Bazzana, Having the Spirit of Christ: Spirit Possession and Exorcism in Early Christian Groups (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).

    2. Paul and the Gentile Question (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), esp. 134–60.

    3. Ahuvia investigates an incantation bowl in “An Ancient Jewess Invoking Goddesses,” AJS 2019 (; we look forward to her essay, “Gender and the Angels in Ancient Judaism,” forthcoming JSQ (2021).

    4. For the full argument, “How Jewish Is God? Divine Ethnicity in Paul’s Theology,” JBL 137 (2018) 193–212.

    5. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). Ethically lucid; bibliographically omnivorous; magisterial.

    6. Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), on the Renaissance origins of anti-Catholic frissons triggered by Protestant contemplation of “Jewish law”; esp., e.g., 43–45, 83, and passim. Smith’s insights have not aged.

    7. For the full argument, see my essay, “‘Circumcision Is Nothing’: A Non-Reformation Reading of Paul’s Letters,” in Protestant Bible Scholarship: Antisemitism, Philosemitism and Anti-Judaism, ed. Hindy Najman, René Bloch, et al., JSJSup (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).

    8. Well observed by Caroline Johnson Hodge, “‘Married to an Unbeliever’: Households, Hierarchies and Holiness in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16,” HTR 103 (2010) 1–25.

    9. What about Peter’s living ethnikōs, Gal 2:14? See The Pagans’ Apostle, 96–99.

    • Troels Engberg-Pedersen

      Troels Engberg-Pedersen


      Paul, the Faith Fanatic: Response to Fredriksen                                                             

      One of the many advantages of a symposium like the present one is that by having a group of scholars focus on a single interpretation of Paul (here Fredriksen’s PPA) one comes to see more clearly the “neuralgic point” of that reading: the precise place at which it stands and falls. In the present case, one is helped to see this, among other things, by three sharp questions from Fredriksen’s interlocutors. First, there is the question (Nongbri) of how one should decide for its validity between the “theological” reading of, say, Tom Wright, on the one hand, and the “non-theological” reading of Fredriksen, on the other. Secondly, there is the question (Eyl) whether Fredriksen is not forgetting to read Paul “beyond the Judaism/Hellenism divide,” which includes acknowledging the relevance, for instance, of philosophy to Paul. Finally, there is the question (Barreto) of how to incorporate the “identity political” stance of any given scholar in the interpretive project. In my response to Fredriksen’s response to my own initial queries, I will focus specifically on identifying the central, neuralgic point at which any reading of Paul must stand or fall. This is the point where across all other agreements one must either agree or disagree, to the detriment (in the latter case) of one’s own reading.

      But how, in the light of the queries of Nongbri and Barreto, can one speak of a single point (or several connected points) on which everybody “must” agree? I have already insisted on two rules: 1) context must never be allowed to trump the text itself; the intrinsic coherence of the text (at least, one like Paul’s) is the ultimate criterion for the validity of any reading; 1 That must be our focus – at the same time as we fully acknowledge to ourselves and others from where we individually come.2

      Now to the neuralgic point. It is this: a) Jesus Christ dead and resurrected and b) the immediate and near-future implications of this for all (including those who respond with faithfulness, whether Jews or non-Jews) is all-important. Nothing else matters.

      Note the a) and b) here. Fredriksen queries the notion of “the Christ event.” The query does not hit me since I have written a whole book that precisely insists on Fredriksen’s point that in Paul a) and b) cannot be kept apart.3 Paul expected direct consequences of a) for all people under b), both now and in the immediate future.

      Consider then “all-important.” So much in Fredriksen’s whole (correct) conception points in this direction: the apocalyptic emphasis; the emphasis on the total novelty of the situation, which lies behind Paul’s mission to non-Jews; also, Fredriksen’s recognition that reception of pneuma, which in a way encapsulates all of the new situation, is crucially relevant for Jews, too; finally, the point we noted that the new situation is not just that of “the Christ event” (a above) but of its immediate and direct implica­tions for all (b above). All of this points towards seeing what has now happened through the intervention of (the Jewish) God as being the only thing that matters. Then why is it, as Fredriksen keeps insisting, that following the Law of Moses nevertheless alsomatters (for Jews, of course)? That is what is so difficult to understand in her position. It is the neuralgic point.

      Paul’s own picture is different. Corresponding to the fact that the only thing that mattered to him was the Christ event and its direct implications is the fact that he is also quite clear concerning all the remaining “sarkic” differences: x) they do not matter (but are adiaphora) – but y) they nevertheless remain there.4 That is why it will be OK for Christ-believing Jews to continue living in accordance with the Law of Moses where this in no way interferes with living “in Christ.” That is also why it will be OK for Christ-believers to have (dispassionate) sex (if they are married) as long as this does not interfere with their being “in Christ” (but of course better not to do so: 1 Cor 7:7; 7:29-31). It is “OK” because it corresponds to the sarkic differences and hence to the actual differences of identity. But it is also “OK” in the sense that it does not intrinsically matter at all vis-à-vis the only thing that matters, the only thing that gives them their ultimate and exclusive identity. What we have here is Paul’s fundamental both-and model: only one thing matters, which is intrinsically connected with the pneuma; by contrast, sarkic differences do not matter – but they may well continue to be there as differences that do not matter.

      This model also explains why Paul inveighs in Galatians against those who think that following the Law of Moses should matter for non-Jews. The reason is that for Christ-believing non-Jews to follow the Law of Moses in the traditional Jewish, ethnic sense would make it the case that there is something that matters for them other than “Jesus Christ dead and resurrected and the immediate and direct implications of this for all.” But there isn’t! Paul was – as I keep saying – a “faith fanatic.”5 Only one thing mattered.

      This can all be read out of his letter to the Galatians once one reads this letter as a coherent whole.6 (1) Gal 2:15-21 and 6:14-15 together articulate Paul’s faith fanatical directedness towards Jesus Christ dead and resurrected. And here Paul is explicitly speaking of himself (and Peter, 2:15-16) as a Jew. (2) Gal 3:1-5:6 articulates the “freedom from the Law” (for Jews no less than non-Jews) that means that following the Law (in the traditional, ethnic way) is no longer the route to righteousness – something else is: Jesus Christ dead and resurrected. And this point is encapsulated in the claim in 5:6 (as repeated in 6:15) that the ethnic differences no longer matter – something else does. But still, as we recall, the sarkic differences remain in place. Only, they are precisely that: sarkic and hence unimportant. (3) Finally, 5:13-6:10 articulates the way in which Paul’s faith fanatical directedness means that all Paul’s Christ-believers (surprise, surprise:) fulfill the Law of Moses in Paul’s special sense of this “fulfillment.” They “love their neighbors as themselves” (5:14, cf. Lv 19:18) or as Paul says in 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

      With this whole set-up and the utterly coherent, philosophical argument of Galatians as a whole, where in the Pauline letters themselves does Fredriksen find any indication that following the Law for Jews continues to matter (the neuralgic point)? It is certainly OK, but it does not matter. Only one thing does.

      In the period of the 2020 Corona crisis, the World Health Organization said: test, test, test. There is a corresponding rule for the interpretation of Paul: read, read, read.7 By way of summarizing the amazing way in which Paul does things with words, let me point to one particularly striking passage: 1 Cor 9:19-23. The context (8:1-11:1) is a question about how to handle meat that may have been consecrated to pagan demons. Paul’s argument is that in spite of the fact that food is irrelevant to one’s relationship to God (cf. 8:8), nevertheless, those who know this must refrain from eating meat where this risks offending those with a weaker conscience (ch. 8). As he says towards the end (10:24): “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.”8

      Paul concludes the whole argument as follows (10:32-11:1):

      32Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the ekklȇsia of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. 1Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

      In this conclusion, 10:33-11:1 is a summary of ch. 9, where Paul has employed himself as an example of a freedom that he has not wanted to realize, out of consideration for those he is addressing. He summarizes this attitude in 9:19-23 (NRSV):

      19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings,

      This is Paul at his most rhetorically and philosophically magnificent. And in order to understand what he is saying, one has to rise to his own level in one’s reading, focusing not just on the rhetoric, but also on the very precise thought that is being expressed.

      Fredriksen reads this passage (PPA 228-9 n. 38) in the light of Augustine’s claim that Paul himself did not pretend that he was a Jew in order to gain the Jews; “instead,” says Augustine, “he acted as someone who was a Jew by birth” etc. But let Augustine and his concerns rest in peace. What Paul himself is saying is that “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law” (9:20). This is not just “pretending.” It is saying that as a Jew, Paul behaved as a Jew in his relations with Jews – but that Paul himself was not in fact “under the law,” where this was understood as being on the same level as and to be contrasted with being in Christ.” That was the understanding of those fellow Jews of Paul who had not (yet) come round to seeing Jesus as the Messiah. In other words, Paul may well have acted (and indeed, according to himself did act) in accordance with the law. He did not at all merely “pretend.” But to him it was something else that mattered. Once again: the both-and model.

      Similarly, as Paul continues (9:21), “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.” Again, Paul is not just “pretending” in his behavior towards non-Jews. He himself is “under” God’s law, which is evidently the Law of Moses, but in the form of “Christ’s law.” Fortunately, we already know what that law is from Gal 5:13-6:2 (including 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”). Paul is and remains under the Law of Moses as this has now been reinterpreted “in Christ.” (But it is all, of course, still Jewish!)

      The overall point is that Paul himself did not see himself as being “under the Law of Moses” where this was understood to be at the same level as and opposed to being “in Christ.” But he was “under God’s Law of Moses” where this was precisely understood as being “under the law of Christ.” In both cases, there is one thing – and one thing alone – that matters: being in Christ. Whether Paul then kept the Law of Moses in the traditional, ethnic sense (as in his relations with his fellow Jews) or did not (as in his relations with non-Jews) just did not matter in comparison with the one thing that did matter: to be “under Christ’s law,” that is, the Law of Moses as fulfilled in Christ. As Paul himself concludes (9:22-23): “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Once again, Paul here articulates his only focus. No matter what he does (in terms of behaving in this or the other way relatively to the Law of Moses), he does it in order to have a share in one thing alone: the gospel (of Jesus Christ). That is the only thing that matters.

      Did Paul then “create a new religion,” “Christianity”? Here we must divide the issue. In his own mind, definitely no. Paul was a Jew, and he remained a Jew. Jesus Christ dead and resurrected (etc.) was the high point of Paul’s Judaism, the telos, aim and purpose of the Law (Rom 10:4) – which, however, also meant the end of the Law as the route to righteousness (cf. Gal 2:15-21). Jesus Christ dead and resurrected (etc.) was what defined the olive tree that, as Paul now saw it, constituted Judaism. But also yes. Behind his own back, Paul, the faith fanatic, articulated an understanding of Judaism that was, as it were (and totally understandably) too radical for most Jews (including Fredriksen herself) – precisely because it demoted so many traditional, ethnic (and hence also “religious”) Jewish identity markers to being only adiaphora. In this way, against all his self-understanding and all his wishes, Paul in fact laid the ground for something that was only taken up and developed much later: Christianity.

      In summary, Paul, the radical Jew, was a faith fanatic. And Paula must accept the full consequences of this.

      1. Thus, for scientific reasons I am rather uncomfortable when Fredriksen suggests that “Paul was not a detail guy” (p. X). We know the approach, for instance, from the splendid work on Paul of Heikki Räisänen. But Räisänen gave up on coherence too quickly (as part of his whole project).[footnote] 2) Any specific saying of Paul’s must always be carefully read within the given letter as a whole. Fredriksen herself adds one more rule, with which I entirely agree. 3) One must be fundamentally suspicious of any later “theological” readings of Paul when it is Paul one aims to understand (at the same time as these are of course also hugely interesting in themselves). Instead, one must always try as best one can to imagine what Paul may have been wanting to say historically, that is, within this and the other context contemporary with Paul himself. Fredriksen deplores that New Testament scholarship is fundamentally a Protestant project. To some extent she may be right, but surely, the best New Testament scholarship lies in a somewhat sharper trajectory that goes back to the Religion historical school, which includes Fredriksen’s own hero Albert Schweitzer, and also my own (though not for the details of his reading of Paul), William Wrede. The point here is that once we have acknowledged all the “identity political” and even “theological” interests of ourselves as scholars, there remains a battle field where all good scholarship belongs: the battle field of historical criticism.[footnote]Fredriksen rightly refers to Stendahl’s classic essay, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick (New York: Abingdon, 1962) 1:418–32, and to Jonathan Z. Smith’s equally classic book, Drudgery Divine. On The Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

      2. Let me note here that my own background, as Fredriksen rightly says, is classics and philosophy. At Oxford in 1974-76, I studied both ancient and modern philosophy (but certainly not theology, as Fredriksen suggests). Later, at Yale, I learned from Wayne Meeks of approaches to early Christianity that were informed by sociology of knowledge and modern anthropology (Geertz et alii) and from Abe Malherbe of a reading of Paul, in particular, that focused on moral exhortation in its widest scope (to which I myself added a focus on the underlying philosophy). All of this serves to explain a strong, methodological overlap between Fredriksen and myself. Basically, it is all derived from the Religion historical school. And it has as one of its fundamental criteria a readiness to find something in Paul that one does not like, must reject, etc.

      3. Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul. The Material Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

      4. In Stoicism: The only thing that matters (which is the only thing that is genuinely good) is living in accordance with “nature,” that is, in accordance with the way things actually are. Everything else (including getting normal “goods”) is “indifferent,” that is, wholly irrelevant in relation to that. Still, if “living in accordance with nature” allows the good and wise person to obtain the “preferable” among the indifferent things, then getting them is OK. We may call this the Stoic both-and model.

      5. I gratefully acknowledge that I have taken this locution directly from Fredriksen herself in one of her many memorable oral interventions at conferences (I forget which one). She said it, and I said (inwardly) Yes!

      6. I already noted in my previous response that Fredriksen is (to my mind) much too cavalier in her treatment of the coherence of this letter

      7. I learned this rule for all ancient texts from my teacher of classics at the University of Copenhagen, Prof. Johnny Christensen (1930-2018). He was always concerned with the inner coherence of any given text as a whole.

      8. This is one more formulation of ”Paul’s maxim”, as given in Phil 2:(3-)4 (NRSV): “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” It is important to see that this (central) idea in Paul is intrinsically, that is, philosophically connected with his both-and model. Since the sarkic differences do not matter, insisting on them in relation to others would break Paul’s maxim – which itself expresses the one thing that matters (directedness towards Jesus Christ). Recall Gal 5:6 (NRSV): “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” And “love” is what is articulated in Paul’s maxim.

    • Paula Fredriksen

      Paula Fredriksen


      Apocalyptic Eschatology and Etic Neuralgia-Points: A Response to Engberg-Pedersen

      Troels Engberg-Pedersen thinks coherently, systematically, and philosophically with the many various ideas shaping Paul’s apocalyptic message. But did Paul think in these ways? Paul himself, dictating his (frequently co-authored) letters to different spirit-filled ex-pagan assemblies, seems to be improvising solutions to a wild assortment of questions and problems arising in unanticipated circumstances. Later readers of Paul will indeed construct well ordered theologies by appeal to elements available in these epistles, as the past twenty centuries of Christian intellectual enterprise has witnessed. But this observation—that Paul’s letters can be retrospectively systematized—does not of itself testify to any “intrinsic coherence” on the part of the letters themselves. (Problems of redaction, such as with 2 Corinthians, as perhaps with Philippians, compound this problem even more.)  Whether because of temperament or because of circumstance—both, I suspect—more often than not, Paul shoots from the lip.

      Thus, to the first of Troel’s three points: “Context must never be allowed to trump the text itself; the intrinsic coherence of the text. . . is the ultimate criterion for the validity of any reading.” For me, historical context comes first: that context frames content. Pagan auditors. Diaspora cities. Apocalyptic convictions. Competing missions. Time continuing, bafflingly, to continue. Paul (and co-authors), when dictating these letters, multi-task: they address various problems (some hearsay), scold misunderstandings, and offer staccato instructions to different communities in obscure social situations. And, not infrequently, Paul loses his temper. All these factors roil the “coherence” of any given epistle.

      Paul’s goals, tone, and arguments shift even within single texts. The sweeping condemnations of pagan culture in Romans 1.18-32, for instance, sit athwart the irenic inclusiveness of Romans 11.25-26 and the closing harmonies of Romans 15.9-12. Paul pitches one argument at the beginning of Romans (idol worship is bad; bad people worship idols; bad people are condemned). But by chapter 11, his attention has shifted: the plērōma of the ethnē will enter the kingdom. All Israel, too. (How? He does not say.) God’s temperament, in these two passages within a single letter, varies accordingly, as does Paul’s rhetoric—and, indeed, as does his vision of eschatological redemption. “Intrinsic coherence”? I see, instead, seriatim tangles of internal developments.

      To a different point: Fredriksen does not deplore “that New Testament scholarship is fundamentally a Protestant project.” What I do deplore is the long-lived Protestant grudge-match with Papists which, lingering within the academy, has characterized Christianity’s Others, “paganism” no less than “Judaism,” as 16th-century “Catholics” avant la lettre: intrinsically wanting in spiritual qualities, focused on empty ritual, attending to external performance rather than to inward, ethical and spiritual matters, and so on (and on). Late Renaissance polemic cannot provide first-century historical description. Classics in general has done a better job than has Pauline Studies in general, in terms of relinquishing Reformation invective as historical description. Much New Testament scholarship, by contrast, is still busily producing—might I say, justifying—Protestant Pauls.

      Finally, to “faith fanaticism.” Troels takes this to mean that for Paul and for other Jewish Christ-followers, Jewish ancestral customs were adiaphora, merely “sarkic.” I would point out that, for Paul, Jewish law was “holy, just and good” (Rom 7.12). Indeed, God’s law is precisely pneumatikos, “spiritual” not sarkic (7.14), a distinguishing privilege granted to Israel by God himself (3.1-2, 9.4). God, said Paul, was eschatologically infusing ex-pagans with Christ’s spirit precisely so that they too would thereby be enabled to fulfill Jewish law: eschewing idols and demonic gods, committing exclusively to Israel’s god, loving the neighbor, enacting idealized Jewish ethics (chaste marriages, community building, contributing for the support of the poor, settling disputes within the assembly, understanding the meanings of Jewish scriptures). Christ-following gentiles—even and especially Paul’s Christ-following gentiles—had to Judaize in order to get on this bus. Infused spirit helped them to do so. Their charismatic law-faithfulness indexed their progress toward final pneumatic transformation.

      Pace Marcion; pace Tertullian, who despite himself agreed with him; and pace so many current NT commentators—Galatians was not Paul’s “primary epistle against Judaism” (Tertullian, adv. Marc. 5.2). It was Paul’s most intemperate attack against his apostolic colleagues who, mid-century, taught a kind of Judaizing different from his own. The “law of Christ” is not something other than “the law of God” but, for Paul’s gentile auditors, it is those aspects of God’s law (thus, of Jewish law) to which they perforce must conform if they would be “in Christ” (or have Christ “in them”). Galatians in its entirety speaks against proselyte circumcision of Christ-following adult males (a modality that Paul repudiates as kata sarka). Galatians hails gentile integration kata pneuma (Paul’s view of Paul’s way). Christ’s spirit alone (for Jews as well as for ex-pagans, Paul insists) enables fulfilling the Law; without spirit, one is disenabled (Gal 2.15-21). But Paul does not, on that account, say “Eh, whatever” about “doing” the Law per se. Galatians 3 and 4 polemically positions Paul’s competitors’ way of Judaizing (through fleshly circumcision) over-against the only right way, namely, says Paul, Paul’s way. Leviticus 19.18 summarizes not “the law of Christ” as opposed to the law of God but, as Paul states, “the whole law”—a common Hellenistic Jewish synecdoche for Sinai’s Ten Commandments.

      Unlike Troels, Paul nowhere speaks of “only one thing that matters.” Plenty of things matter, and plenty of those are specifically “sarkic.” What gentiles-in-Christ do with their sarx matters a great deal to Paul. They are “to learn by us to live according to [Jewish] scriptures” (ha gegraptai, 1 Cor 4.6). No sexual relations with step-mothers (5.1). No greediness, sexual profligacy, drunkenness, or idol worship (5.11). No joining Christ’s members with those of a prostitute (1 Cor 6.15-17). No performing latreia to images (1 Cor 10.14). No eating and drinking in temples, thus provoking Christ to jealousy (1 Cor 10.20-22). Ideally, no marital sexual relations (7.1-7, with sundry concessions). No gentile circumcision or, if it’s too late, no remedial epispasm (7.18, cf. Gal 6.15, making the same point). What matters for gentiles-in-Christ is keeping God’s commandments (v. 19; Jews already knew that this mattered). Ladies: veil your heads (11.10). Convinced that Christ has been raised? Not good enough, unless equally convinced that he is about to return (1 Cor 15 passim). And so on. Troels’ rhetorical device of the neuralgic punctum ill suits Paul’s messy paraenesis, which constitutes a lot of his (many) concerns, in all of his letters.

      Insisting on a single “neuralgic point” enables Troels, further, to argue that, for Christ-following Jews and especially for Paul, continuing enactments of Jewishness are merely sarkic, its traditions adiaphora: “It [that is, Jewish observance of Jewish paradoseis] is certainly okay, but it does not matter.” Troels (and, Troels implies, Paul) distinguishes between “God’s law” and “Christ’s law” as two separate categories. I construe them rather as a Venn diagram: “Christ’s law” is Jewish law for gentiles-in-Christ, a smaller subcategory contained within the larger category “Jewish law,” the telos of which is the eschatological revelation of the messiah (which Paul eagerly awaits, Rom 10.4, cf. 1.4). Differences of behavior in interpreting “Christ’s law” marked Paul’s own communities (“Do not associate with anyone who bears the name of ‘brother’ if he . . . .” 1 Cor 5.11). Such differences characterized other Jewish interpretations of Jewish law no less: variety always prevailed. Think: how small a sliver of the Empire’s total Jewish population did Philo’s Alexandrian, philosophically educated elite represent? Yet extremely significant differences of behavior and interpretation of fundamental points of Jewish law marked even this tiny group (Migr. 16.89-93). Was Paul’s personal behavior likewise variable? When Paul became “as one outside the Law in order to win those outside the Law,” he, too, sacrificed to idols and munched on abominations and crawling things? Exegetically possible? Yes. Historically probable? I think not.

      Paul and his apostolic competition are not arguing about whether gentile Christ-followers should keep Jewish law. They argue, rather, about how these outsiders-turned-insiders should keep Jewish law, and which particular ones. Paul the Pharisee insists that his way, kata pneuma, best conformed to God’s intentions, best prepared everyone for what was about to happen, and best enabled gentiles to fulfill the Law by getting them to stop acting like sinners despite their physis. Paul’s way was further validated empirically, by his own and his gentiles’ pneumatic empowerment. Others of his Christ-following colleagues demurred. But why would they not? Endtime halahkah for eschatological gentiles unexpectedly committing to the exclusive worship of Israel’s god was brand new territory—one that anticipated no long shelf-life. Put otherwise: Christ-following, even in its gentile modalities, was a Jewish enterprise. Of course, then, arguments ensued. Of course, interpretations and behaviors varied. But behavior—ethical, marital, juridical, cultic, social, individual—was the measure of the movements’ success. Behavior mattered profoundly. Its principles derived from Jewish traditions. These traditions, ergo, were not adiaphora.

      To Troels’ last paragraph, then, where he insists that Paul somehow invented a new religion unintentionally, “behind his own back” (emphasis in the original), because the Christ event “demoted. . . Jewish identity markers to being adiaphora. In this way. . . Paul laid the ground for something that was only taken up and developed much later: Christianity.” I have rejected framing the epistles with this motif of only “one thing” mattering to Paul, faith fanatic though he may have been. Many things, all interconnected, mattered very much to Paul. And Jewish tradition bound all of these things together. I see no place in Paul’s letters where he says that Jews could or perhaps even should start living like gentiles, just because gentiles-in-Christ did not have to start living entirely like Jews.

      Further, and finally, the ways in which Paul was read in the generations after his death—a situation that Paul himself was convinced would never happen—cannot be ascribed to Paul. I therefore cannot attribute Marcion’s or Tertullian’s or Augustine’s or Luther’s readings of Paul’s letters, as Troels’ wording does, to Paul’s agency. Paul did not “lay the ground for” them. Fanatically faithful to his vision of Christ’s impending Parousia, Paul never saw those later, predominantly gentile movements coming. His letters—most of them lost; the few that we have variously miscopied, interpolated, combined, or domesticated by later Pauline pseudepigrapha—were eventually repurposed and, necessarily, reinterpreted. But, according to Paul’s own fierce convictions, “Christianity” never should have happened at all. Paul, the radical Jew, knew that “the ends of the ages” had, during his lifetime, already arrived. And scholars, if they indeed work in quest of the historical Paul, must accept the full consequences of this.

    • Troels Engberg-Pedersen

      Troels Engberg-Pedersen


      Agreements and Disagreements on Paul, the Faith Fanatical, Radically Apocalyptic Jew

      Paula Fredriksen’s response to my Faith Fanatic-response is so full of excellent formulations that I will relate these comments directly to those formulations. My aim is twofold, both to identify (once again) the exact point on which we disagree – but also to identify the very many points on which we do agree. There are two framing questions underlying Paula’s response. First, am I producing (another) ‘Protestant Paul’? Paula does not say so, but she somehow implies it. I will eventually answer: No! Secondly, am I right in claiming that ‘behind his own back’ Paul ‘laid the ground for’ ‘Christianity’? Paula rejects this, but I believe on insufficient grounds, as we eventually will see. Here, then, I will answer: Yes! Before we get to this and before we get to the real business of considering our many agreements, there is a methodological issue that needs to be addressed directly once more. So, first on method, then on the real business of agreements and a remaining disagreement – and then on the ‘Protestant Paul’ and his ‘laying the ground for Christianity’.


      Method: context versus coherence. Here is Paula:

      Paul ‘improvis[es] solutions to a wild assortment of questions and problems arising in unanticipated circumstances’ and he gives ‘staccato instructions to different communities in obscure social situations’. Hence: ‘For me, historical context comes first: that context frames content.’

      I see both an agreement and a disagreement here. Historical context certainly matters, even enormously. What we want to find is what Paul intended to say within his historical context. So, it is not an either-or. On the other hand, there clearly is a disagreement between us concerning the extent to which one may find ‘intrinsic coherence’ within the letters. Here I am something of a maximalist, while Paula is more of a minimalist. Is there something here that could be settled, something on which we should agree?

      I believe there are two methodological rules that point in the direction of acknowledging the superior validity of looking for coherence. The first concerns the notion of ‘intrinsic’ coherence versus intrinsic incoherence, where ‘intrinsic’ means within the text itself. If an intrinsic coherence can be found by giving Paul some degree of the benefit of the doubt, then that is by definition a stronger position to take than staying with a claim of incoherence. The second rule concerns the relationship between the text itself and all the historically contextual (and even modern, theoretical) perspectives that can and should be carefully applied to the text. If it is possible to combine these two ‘sides’ of the text in a single reading, then that reading is – again by definition – stronger than one that stays with the claim of incoherence. I believe that these two methodological rules should command general agreement. I readily admit that applying them is not always easy. That, I suggest, is why we are constantly engaged in discussion and dialogue about the better reading. But the rules themselves (possibly in some amended version) do stand and have a claim to general agreement. Maximalism has in advance a stronger claim to being right than minimalism.

      Let me give one example: Romans. Paula thinks that Rom 1:18-32 cannot easily be brought into coherence with 11:25-26 and 15:9-12. I do not really see a problem here. What Paul is after in 1:18-32 is gentiles who have not come round to Christ faith. If, by chapter 11, Jews (‘all Israel’) will eventually come round to Christ faith (rather mysteriously, but that is Paul’s firm conviction), then why should the same not be true of gentiles? So, 1:18-32 does not present a problem for coherence. Indeed, it even makes an important point within the overall argument of the letter, namely, this: without Christ faith, sin of the kind listed by Paul in 1:28-32 will continue until the end. Fortunately, however, there are two spearheads for the ultimate solution: Jews like Paul himself – and the Christ-believing Romans to whom Paul is writing. By giving Paul a fraction of the benefit of the doubt, we also give him a reasonable degree of coherence.


      Now to business: agreements and disagreements on the role of behavior and the Jewish Law.

      For the sake of clarity and in order to find the exact point of any remaining disagreement, I have decided to quote quite liberally from Paula’s excellent formulations and note the many places where we actually agree.

      First on the importance of behavior. In my previous response, I insisted on seeing Paul as a ‘faith fanatic’ to whom only one thing mattered: ‘the Christ event and its direct implications’. All other things, e.g. whether one is a Jew or not, a master or a slave, man or woman (cf. Gal 3:28), do not matter, namely, for salvation. The differences will continue to be there, but they do not matter at all for salvation in the form of resurrection and eternal life. Paula reacts like this:

      Unlike Troels, Paul nowhere speaks of “only one thing that matters.” Plenty of things matter, and plenty of those are specifically “sarkic.” What gentiles-in-Christ do with their sarx matters a great deal to Paul.

      Here we must divide the issue. The first sentence in this is, as I see it, false. Gal 5:6 is a prime example (NRSV): ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’ Another is Gal 3:28, to which I just alluded. Paula’s two next sentences, by contrast, are exactly right. How so? Because what matters, according to Paul, is not just faith (or faithfulness: pistis Christou), but pistis di’ agapes energoumene: faithfulness that is working though love. That, in Paul’s conception, covers all the behavior that he is so concerned about throughout his letters – as Paula rightly insists. That this is so is clear from Gal 5:13-14 (just seven verses later) where Paul famously claims that the Galatians must ‘become slaves to one another through love’ and that ‘the whole law [evidently meaning the Law of Moses] is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ We will consider the relation of this to the Law of Moses in a moment. Here we should just agree with Paula that what gentiles-in-Christ (and indeed, Jews in Christ) do with their sarx matters a great deal (even enormously) to Paul. Indeed, the long list of themes of various kinds of behavior that Paula gives is part of Paul’s conception of Christ faith. Even more: Paul will have thought that these types of behavior can all be logically (philosophically!) derived from his central concern of love, to be understood as ‘becoming slaves to one another through love’. They should all be informed by love.

      What we see here is the intimate connection in Paul between his ‘theology’ (vertical ideas about God and Christ and the relationship of human beings to them) and his ‘ethics’ (horizontal ideas about the relationship between human beings). The ‘ethics’ should be understood as deriving directly – and again logically – from the ‘theology’. Thus, I simply cannot give any meaning to this claim of Paula’s:

      Troels’ rhetorical device of the neuralgic punctum ill suits Paul’s messy paraenesis, which constitutes a lot of his (many) concerns, in all of his letters.

      Rather, Paul’s ‘messy paraenesis’ is precisely derived from the ‘neuralgic punctum’ (of Christ faith).

      Seen in that light, consider this from Paula:

      behavior—ethical, marital, juridical, cultic, social, individual—was the measure of the movement’s success. Behavior mattered profoundly. Its principles derived from Jewish traditions. These traditions, ergo, were not adiaphora.

      Behavior mattered profoundly: Yes! Its principles derived from Jewish traditions: Yes! These traditions, ergo, were not adiaphora: Right! Since the Christ faith itself was thoroughly Jewish, the traditions behind it – generally understood – were certainly not adiaphora. What is an adiaphoron is whether, in having (the centrally important, Jewish) Christ faith, one is oneself in the traditional ‘ethnic’ terms a Jew or not, a master or a slave, a man or a woman.

      Next on the importance of the Jewish Law. Here are five quotations from Paula, all with her italics. First this:

      God, said Paul, was eschatologically infusing ex-pagans with Christ’s spirit precisely so that they too would thereby be enabled to fulfill Jewish law: eschewing idols and demonic gods, committing exclusively to Israel’s god, loving the neighbor, enacting idealized Jewish ethics (chaste marriages, community building, contributing for the support of the poor, settling disputes within the assembly, understanding the meanings of Jewish scriptures). Christ-following gentiles—even and especially Paul’s Christ-following gentiles—had to Judaize in order to get on this bus. Infused spirit helped them to do so. Their charismatic law-faithfulness indexed their progress toward final pneumatic transformation.

      And this:

      Paul and his apostolic competition are not arguing about whether gentile Christ-followers should keep Jewish law. They argue, rather, about how these outsiders-turned-insiders should keep Jewish law, and which particular ones. Paul the Pharisee insists that his way, kata pneuma, best conformed to God’s intentions, best prepared everyone for what was about to happen, and best enabled gentiles to fulfill the Law by getting them to stop acting like sinners despite their physis. Paul’s way was further validated empirically, by his own and his gentiles’ pneumatic empowerment.

      Yes! All of this is exactly right! Only, it will also hold of Jews, as we will see in a moment. Here, then, we have total agreement – and (I suspect) a single remaining disagreement.

      Secondly this:

      The “law of Christ” is not something other than “the law of God” but, for Paul’s gentile auditors, it is those aspects of God’s law (thus, of Jewish law) to which they perforce must conform if they would be “in Christ” (or have Christ “in them”).

      And this:

      Leviticus 19.18 summarizes not “the law of Christ” as opposed to the law of God but, as Paul states, “the whole law”—a common Hellenistic Jewish synecdoche for Sinai’s Ten Commandments.

      Once again, Yes! Indeed, the ‘law of Christ’ is the Jewish Law of Moses, which Paul’s Christ-following gentiles must (and will!) follow and fulfill – apart from those commandments that identify Jews as (ethnic) Jews. Only, fulfilling that law is also a requirement (and an actuality) among Christ-believing Jews. Thus, I simply cannot give any meaning to this claim of Paula’s:

      Troels (and, Troels implies, Paul) distinguishes between “God’s law” and “Christ’s law” as two separate categories.

      On the contrary, Paul is all through talking of ‘God’s law’, that is, the Law of Moses. In calling it ‘Christ’s law’, he is indicating that it is the Law of Moses as seen in the light of the Christ event, including ‘faith working through love’. We also know what this means: the (in itself pneumatic, cf. Rom 7:14 and 8:2) Law of Moses as this is responded to by people who have themselves become pneumatic by having received the pneuma. (For this, compare Rom 8:1-13 in relation to 7:7-25.)

      In conclusion, the Jewish Law is all-important. It is precisely fulfilled by Christ believers.

      Then on the pneuma and its relevance to Jews. Paula must be thanked for this insight (which is already clearly stated in PPA; my italics):

      Christ’s spirit alone (for Jews as well as for ex-pagans, Paul insists) enables fulfilling the Law.

      Total agreement: this one sentence in a way captures it all. It should be learned by heart by anyone who claims to understand Paul. What it says is that for gentiles (Paula’s ex-pagans) and for Jews there is only one thing that matters, namely, to be in possession of the pneuma (of course through Christ faith), thereby fulfilling the Law, thereby being righteoused and saved through resurrection to eternal life. That, in fact, was God’s whole plan with the coming of the Messiah, for Jews as well as for non-Jews.

      What, then, does ‘fulfilling the Law’ consist in for Jews once they, too, have the pneuma? The answer is given in Gal 5:13-26. It consists in not doing the ‘works of the sarx’ (5:19) listed in 5:19-21, but instead being filled with the ‘fruit of the pneuma’ (5:22) that consists in the attitudes (Aristotle would say: hexeis, ‘states of mind’, or even aretai, virtues) listed in 5:22-23, beginning (precisely) with agape (love). When one behaves like that, one in fact fulfills the Law, as Paul has stated in 5:14. Strange as it may seem to a traditional Jewish perspective, such fulfillment – for Jews – does not consist in being circumcised, following food laws, and all other remaining ethnic markers. For the behavior enjoined in 5:13-26 (a) constitutes fulfilling the Law (of 5:14) and (b) constitutes the ‘faith working through love’ of 5:6 that is the only thing that matters – whereas (by the same verse) being circumcised or not does not.

      Do we then know that this also does relate to Jews who have received the pneuma? Yes, for three reasons. First, that kind of behavior is a prerequisite for ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ (5:21). Is that not also relevant to Jews? Secondly, Paula’s own comment (given above) on the role of Leviticus 19:18, which rightly aligns Paul’s use of the verse in Gal 5:14 with ‘a common Hellenistic Jewish’ understanding, implies exactly the same. This is not just relevant to non-Jews. Finally, as I noted, the whole of Gal 5:13-26 is Paul’s attempt to spell out the crucial content of the Christ event as given in that foundational verse: 5:6. And this is where Paul unmistakably states that whether one is a Jew (by being circumcised, etc.) or not does not matter, only one thing matters: faith working through love. That, then, must also hold for Jews. (Incidentally, I still miss a thorough exegesis by Paula of Gal 2:14-21, where Paul is very clearly talking of the paramount and exclusive importance of Christ faith for righteousness – and for himself as a Jew.)

      In fulfilling the Law in this pneumatic way, did Paul himself then neglect or leave behind those aspects of the Law that had traditionally become ethnic signifiers, e.g. circumcision and food laws, when, as he himself has it, he became ‘as one outside the Law in order to win those outside the Law’ (1 Cor 9:21)? Did ‘he, too,’ as Paula rhetorically asks, ‘sacrifice[d] to idols and munch[ed] on abominations and crawling things’? Hardly. First, the brunt of 1 Corinthians 8-10 (not least, 10:14-22) must be that Paul wished to prevent even his non-Jewish addressees from sacrificing to idols although ‘we know that “no idol in the world really exists”’ (1 Cor 8:4). Then why should he himself do it? No: Paul certainly did not sacrifice to idols. Secondly, he may well himself (we just don’t know) have refrained from eating ‘abominations and crawling things’ even while eating together with non-Jews who did eat such things. In fact, the brunt of his criticism of Peter in Gal 2:14 probably was that he, Peter, would not allow shared meals in Antioch between Christ-believing gentiles and Jews where different eating practices were allowed to take place. (Instead, according to Paul, Peter wanted the non-Jews to adopt Jewish practices.) So, Paul may very well have retained his ‘normal Jewish’ eating practices. Only, they did not matter vis-à-vis the only thing that mattered … Thirdly, when in Gal 5:11 Paul rejects that he should have ‘preached circumcision’ (as his opponents may have claimed), the reason may be (the claim is somewhat opaque) that he had in fact ‘preached circumcision’ for Jews, that is, allowed Jews to continue their inherited, ethnic practices just as he allowed the same to non-Jews (apart, as Paula rightly stresses, from engaging in ‘idol sacrifice’). What this is all about is, once again, my ‘double model’ of some things that crucially matter – and others that do not, but may nevertheless remain in place. It is this model that both captures and expresses Paul’s Jewish faith fanaticism. Under the umbrella of the Christ faith and the kind of behavior that directly follows from that, there was plenty of room for traditional ethnic differences. Only, they did not matter (for righteousness etc.). (I develop all this further in a book entitled Paul on Identity to be published by Fortress Press in the fall of 2021.)

      Now to the two framing issues. Is ‘my’ Paul a ‘Protestant Paul’? Did Paul – inadvertently – ‘lay the ground’ for ‘Christianity’? Dependent on how one defines Protestantism, there is at least one respect in which ‘my’ Paul is not a ‘Protestant Paul’: Christ faith cannot in any, supposedly Protestant way be separated from behavior. That has been one main point above – one on which Paula and I are in complete agreement.

      Did Paul then ‘lay the ground’ for ‘Christianity’? Here again Paula and I are in agreement, but only partly:

      Fanatically faithful to his vision of Christ’s impending Parousia, Paul never saw those later, predominantly gentile movements coming.


      [A]ccording to Paul’s own fierce convictions, “Christianity” never should have happened at all.

      I agree completely. Paul was a Jew, he thought as a Jew, and he spoke as a Jew. But then there is also this:

      [T]he ways in which Paul was read in the generations after his death—a situation that Paul himself was convinced would never happen—cannot be ascribed to Paul. I therefore cannot attribute Marcion’s or Tertullian’s or Augustine’s or Luther’s readings of Paul’s letters, as Troels’ wording does, to Paul’s agency. Paul did not “lay the ground for” them.

      Here we must again divide the issue. Right: those later readings cannot be ’ascribed to Paul’ in the sense that they were intended by him. In the same sense, one cannot attribute them to Paul’s ‘agency’ as something he intended. But if I am right in insisting on Paul’s ‘double model’, then it is also correct to say that – inadvertently – Paul did ‘lay the ground’ for those later readings – which would eventually lead to ‘Christianity’ as a religion different from ‘Judaism’. (Incidentally, this is a development that needs to be explained.) That was my point in using the phrase ‘behind his back’.

      There are two elements in Paul’s ‘double model’ that might have that unintended effect. The first is that the model does change the role of the Jewish Law in its traditional form as the road to salvation. There now is another road – and for all: Christ faith. We have seen that this does not in the least leave the Law behind. On the contrary, Christ faith that is working through love actually fulfills the Law. Moreover, the Law in its full ‘ethnic’ extent, which traditionally served to define who is a Jew and who is not, was allowed to remain in place – for Jews. It remains the case that (first) changing the role of the Law at the top level of the model and (secondly) allowing non-Jews a place within the model on completely equal terms with that of Jews (once it had been recognized by all that the whole model is a Jewish one) could (and did) have severe consequences when the majority of Christ believers came to consist of gentiles. For then there was no incentive on the part of these non-Jews to give Jews the equal status that Paul had intended for all with his model. It is all – sadly – a matter of majority and minority in the historical development. That later development was not intended by Paul, but his model did ‘lay the ground’ for it.

      The second feature of Paul’s model that opened up for this development is that he understood the top level of the model (Christ faith etc.) to be fundamentally a matter of a person’s interior (but of course as issuing in behavior). That, in fact, is what the whole argument of Gal 5:13-26 is all about. What is created by the pneuma (its ‘fruit’ – and for Jews no less than for non-Jews) is a set of mental attitudes that issue in the proper acts (compare again ‘faith working through love’), but have an ontological status (sorry about this – it is philosophy) that makes them available to all human beings, irrespective of their ethnicity. This is not ‘universalism’. Pace Alain Badiou, Paul was not a universalist, but a Jew. And his ‘Christ faith’ had just as strong boundaries as he knew from his traditional Judaism, only, they were differently placed. It remains the case, however, that the way Paul developed the Christ faith in fact made it available on equal terms (at both levels of the double model) to Jews and non-Jews alike. That is something that Paul – The Pagans’ Apostle – probably intended. What he did not intend was the consequences that this understanding would then have, for historical reasons that had nothing to do with Paul himself. Paul’s own ‘religion’ was not just traditional Judaism. It certainly was not Christianity, either. It was something in between that was defined by its exclusive, faith fanatical concern for the Jewish Christ, but also gave room for traditional ethnic differences – without, however, attaching any importance to them. Paul may well have felt that this somewhat fragile balance might hold in the very short time before the return of Christ. History showed that it didn’t.

      In summary, were I to identify the one place of disagreement that remains between Paula and myself above or below all the agreements that I have been happy to note, it is this: Paula does see the crucial role of the pneuma even for Jews. But she does not give it the content even for Jews that I believe Paul intended when he developed his ‘double model’ (of Gal 5:6, 6:15, 1 Cor 7:19 and more) in the way given, for instance, in Gal 5:13-26 (or, in fact, Rom 7:7-8:13). (1) The road to Jewish righteousness, salvation, resurrection, and eternal life now lay in Jewish Christ faith that would pneumatically inform the interior of believers so as to make them (now at long last) fulfill the Jewish Law. (2) And this was taken by Paul to hold on wholly equal terms both for Jews and non-Jews. (3) In comparison with this, the traditional ethnic (and social and gender) differences no longer mattered – but might very well (indeed, in most cases probably would) continue to be there until the very-soon-to-come return of Christ.

      Everything good unfortunately comes to an end. I thank Paula (and indeed, Syndicate) for having given me this opportunity to get to the heart of our one, important remaining disagreement. Paula Fredriksen’s willingness to engage in this kind of scholarly discussion is a model to us all.

    • Paula Fredriksen

      Paula Fredriksen


      Once More (Last Time!) into the Breach: Third Rejoinder to Troels Engberg-Pederson’s Three Responses to Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle  

      To those readers of Syndicate who have hung on up to this point (21 September 2020) to follow the Symposium on Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle that began posting almost four months ago (26 May 2020): I salute your stamina. Thank you for your continuing attention. Troels and I herewith vow to move our continuing discussion of the differences in our respective readings of Paul back into polychrome emails. For now, I will respond only briefly to his last remarks, introducing my own by first quoting from Troels’s. The question that frames our entire dialogue is: “Does Ethnicity Matter?”, that is, to Paul. Troels says, Yes and no. I say, Much in every way, per omnia saecula saeculorum—quite literally. Here we go.

      Troels, agreeing with me that the ethics Paul enjoined on his ex-pagan assemblies were derived from Paul’s ancestral paradoseis, says: “Behavior mattered profoundly: Yes! Its principles derived from Jewish traditions: Yes! These traditions, ergo, were not adiaphora. Right! Since Christ faith itself was thoroughly Jewish, traditions behind it—generally understood [my emphasis]—were certainly not adiaphora. What is an adiaphoron is whether, in having (the centrally important, Jewish) Christ faith, one is       oneself in the traditional ‘ethnic’ terms a Jew or not . . . .”

      The last sentence, posed as a question, is in fact an oxymoron. Ioudaios was an ethnonym, defined (as were all ancient ethnē) by inherited customs, kinship, language, locality, and relations with a (no less ethnic) divinity. In other words, there is no such thing as “Jewish traditions ‘generally’—that is, non-ethnically—‘understood.’” Jewish traditions were and are infinitely interpretable; but they are also quite specifically ethnic—especially when put within their mid-first century Greco-Roman context. No idols, and worshiping only the god of (specifically) Israel as mediated through his (specifically Jewish) logia and nomos and graphas (Rom 3.2, 1 Cor 9.9 and 15.3): these were exactly, indeed uniquely Jewish behaviors. “Jewish” means “ethnically specific.” This is why Paul’s evangelion represents a radical endorsement of (his own version of) Judaizing.

      As I have asserted repeatedly throughout this symposium, for traditional Mediterranean societies—thus, not for philosophies—kinship and cult articulated family hierarchy. Theos/ theoi stood at and as the apex of power in this kinship unit. Syngeneia bonded ancient people within their people-group (ethnos, genos, phylos) both to each other (whether living or dead) and to their god(s). (For pagans, this human/divine syngeneia was often constructed as biological lineage; for Jews, the family relationship was constituted through affect, divine fiat, and convenant). There was no religion-neutral “ethnicity” in antiquity, which is why I have insisted on translating ethnē as “pagan” rather than by the seemingly religion-neutral “gentile.” Gods usually revealed to their people the protocols whereby positive relations between heaven and earth could be maintained. (Sacrifices with accompanying rites of purification, other offerings, feast days shaping calendars, specific foodways and other behaviors.) The Jewish god, in this respect, was much like his Mediterranean colleagues.

      Thus, pace Troels, there was no such thing as Jewish tradition “generally understood,” that is, as ethnically unmarked. Further, and as Israel’s god says repeatedly in his book, he gave his laws, ordinances and commandments to Israel quite specifically in order to set them apart from other goyim/ethnē (e.g., Lev 20.22,24.) God’s laws themselves were a constitutive element of Jewish identity, which is itself an ethnic identity.

      Troels’s formulation, above, states that for those Jews with “Christ faith,” being “in the traditional ‘ethnic’ terms a Jew” is an adiaphoron, it does not matter one way or the other. Or, as he states later on, following a catena of five quotations from me, “Yes! Indeed, the ‘law of Christ’ is the Jewish Law of Moses, which Paul’s Christ-following gentiles must (and will!) follow and fulfill—apart from those commands that identify Jews as (ethnic) Jews” (my emphasis). Leviticus 19.18, in this reading, means the whole law—except for the specifically “ethnically Jewish” parts of that law. But “the whole of the Law” was ethnically-specific law.  So what are we really talking about here? The Usual Suspects: circumcision (#fleshandslavery!) and kashrut (the never-ending food fight in Antioch). Paul, says Troels, is urging his communities to keep the “ethical” parts of the law, which eo ipso are not “Jewish” in “traditional ethnic terms,” but to ditch the “ritual” parts of the law, which are ethno-specific and really just no longer important, though in-Christ-Jews can go on keeping them if they feel so inclined.

      The problem with this argument is that even the ethical parts of Jewish law are ethno-specific. And the strongest and most insisted-upon aspect of Paul’s many directives to his assemblies is precisely on a point of Jewish ritual law: NO MORE IDŌLOLATREIA! Paul’s ethics are specifically Jewish ethics, from urging just, mutually supportive and internally regulated community behaviors (“love”) by quoting Leviticus and Exodus, to arguing that ex-pagan Christ assemblies support apostles by conjuring Deuteronomic oxen (e.g., Rom 13.8-10; 1 Cor 9.9). Further, Paul stands not only within Judaism. As Troels so well knows, Paul—especially given his diaspora setting—also stands within paganism. Paul’s Jewish ethics are inflected through (pagan) Stoicism. But all of Jewish law is ethno-specific law. Hoi tou Christou ex-pagans are to keep some Jewish laws; Jews, prevailing varieties of practice and interpretation notwithstanding, in principle all of them. 1 As one scholar has suggested, Jews-in-Christ (continue to) keep the “torah of works” (nomos tōn ergōn); ex-pagan gentiles begin to keep the “torah of trust” (nomos pisteōs): but both torot refer to the law of Moses.2See Yael Fisch’s clear and careful analysis, “The Origins of Oral Torah: A New Pauline Perspective,” JSJ 51 (2020): 43–66. I owe this formulation to her.  She notes that the result of the reception of Christ’s pneuma for both groups, Israel and not-Israel, is knowing what time it is on God’s clock: that is the significance of trusting in Jesus’s identity as the risen, pneumatically present and (soon-to-be) publicly returning messiah. In the meanwhile, both Christ-groups live according to the Law—Jews in their way, gentiles in theirs—until cosmic forces are subdued, eschatological transformation into spiritual body complete, and the victorious Christ hands the Kingdom over to his divine father (1 Cor 15:28; cf. Phil 2:10). It is in this specifically ethnic sense, she urges, that Paul presents a double Torah: Jews currently have the nomos tōn ergōn, the “law of works” (Rom 3:19; and they can be righteous according to its mandates, Phil 3:6), though to achieve the Law’s telos, all Israel will need pistis, “trust” in the evangelion, thus, too, reception of pneuma. And the in-Christ-ethnē currently (mid-first century) have nomos pisteōs, the “law of trust” (cf. pistis as emunah). Ex-pagan gentiles cannot fulfill the “law of works” except through reception of pneuma, and not all of that torah is required of them.3

      Troels takes Galatians 5.13-26 to be addressed to Jews as well as to ex-pagan pagans. Εγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, this whole letter, the rhetorical residuum of a heated intra-Jewish-debate about how to integrate non-Jews, is addressed specifically to Paul’s Galatian ex-pagan pagans. Those are the only ones who would be considering adult circumcision as a way to be included in Israel’s impending redemption. (Adult Jewish males stand well outside of this argument.) Thus it is they, Paul’s non-idol-worshipping gentiles, who are the eschatological kainē ktisis, a new thing: non-Jews pneumatically enabled, at the edge of time’s end, to act like Jews without actually becoming Jews (Gal 6.15). Circumcision or foreskin for salvation does not matter to them (5.6).

      But in any case, what does the Law have to do with “salvation”—which for Paul means a happy pneumatic afterlife? The narrative protagonist of the Pentateuch nowhere names “salvation” among his motivations for choosing Israel. This god did not give his Law in order to “save.” He gave his Law in order to set his people-group apart from other people-groups, to be for himself—or so he says (Lev 20, cited above; cf. Deut 7.7-8). This Jewish god gives his Jewish laws to his Jewish people not so that they will know how to gain a happy afterlife, but so that they will know how, in this world, to live a Jewish life—and thereby remain on his good side.

      For Paul as for others in this particular late Second Temple apocalyptic movement, divine pneuma had revealed the Law’s eschatological dividend: Christ, himself one of the tribe (Rom 10.4; 1.3, 9.5, 15.12). Other late Second Temple apocalyptic movements and writers constructed other eschatological dividends. Resurrection, the in-gathering of Israel, a glorious temple, and the nations’ turning from their false gods to Israel’s true god are strong themes passim. A messiah figure is optional. “Judaism” (our heuristic abstraction for “what Jews did”) was not a “religion of salvation.” That identifier goes to later Christianities, which mutate out of the glowing apocalypticism of the mid-first century’s Christ-movements, negotiating variously with Greek Jewish texts, cherry-picking Jewish traditions to construct their post-Jewish, ex-pagan paideia. But post-Jewish paideia was not Paul’s evangelion.

      Troels asks: “Am I producing (another) Protestant Paul’? Paula does not say so, but she somehow implies it.”

      To Troels I answer: No! You are too good a critical historical thinker to use the ancient past to validate your own current religious convictions, whatever these may be. And I mean this as a deep compliment: from reading your work, I have no idea what these might be. And when we see each other, we usually talk about Paul, pneuma, ancient Stoicism, material spirit, Greek syntax, and good (or bad) books that we have recently read. For all I know, you could be Rastafarian. So, to repeat: your Paul is an ancient Paul. He is therefore not Protestant.

      But this interpretive framework is. The “double model” is a kinder, gentler version of the 1980’s “New Perspective on Paul” unwittingly generated by Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).4And not the view, as Mark Chauncy rightly emphasizes, of Sanders himself: see his introduction to the new Fortress Press edition of Paul and Palestinian Judaism (2017).5 The original version (expressed, e.g., by Jimmy Dunn, may he rest in peace; by Richard Hayes and by Tom Wright) dropped the Reformation’s anti-Jewish (anti-Catholic) indictment of “legalism.” Paul, they now said, did not repudiate Jewish law. What he did repudiate was its “ethnic signifiers”: circumcision, kashrut, purity rules, holy days, and so on—in short, the content of the Law. The problem with Judaism—which definitely had problems, and which Paul the Christian did repudiate—was not the Law. The problem with Judaism was the Jews. They suffered from “ethnic pride” or (in Wright’s recurrent Bismarckian phrasing) from Jewish “nationalism.”

      Troels’s “New Perspective on Paul 2.0” upgrades ethnic Judaism—thus “Jewish ethnic signifiers”—from being A Bad Thing to being An Inconsequential Thing, an adiaphoron. Paul thus “allows” Jews within the movement to keep on living according to their paradoseis patrikai: no harm done, but irrelevant for salvation. Again, pointing to Galatians 5.6, Troels urges that “this is where Paul unmistakably states that whether one is a Jew (by being circumcised, etc.) or not does not matter, only one thing matters,” and that is Leviticus 19.18. I’ve argued briefly against this reading here, and at length elsewhere.6“‘Circumcision is Nothing’: A Non-Reformation Reading of Paul’s Letters,” Protestant Bible Scholarship: Antisemitism, Philosemitism and Anti-Judaism, edited Hindy Najman et al. (Leiden: Brill JSJ Suppl. Series; forthcoming).7 Paul at this point in Galatians speaks of two different kinds of gentiles, circumcised ones and foreskinned ones, not about two different people-groups, Jews and non-Jews, a.k.a. ta ethnē.

      And finally in Romans, where he does speak about actual Jews (3.1; 9-11; 15.8-12), Paul refers to a specific historical-social genos, his own syngeneis. He proudly lists their “ethnic identifiers” in 9.4-5, among which number the diathēkai (sealed by and through circumcision), the nomos (which mandates eighth-day circumcision, as well as kashrut and a few other “ethnically specific” items), and the latreia (the temple cult in Jerusalem). It is precisely this ethnically marked population of whom Paul poses the rhetorical question, “Has God rejected his people? Mē genoito! . . . God has not rejected his people, whom he foreknew” (9.1-2). It was to fulfill his promises precisely to this ethnically marked population that God sent Christ (15.8).

      And even eschatologically, God’s own ethnically-marked people will be distinguished—in pneumatic bodies? How? Paul does not say—from those pneumatically-redeemed ethnē over whom his son the messiah will rule (archein; 15.12). 8Perhaps, if Paul’s god read Jubilees, pneumatic Israel will celebrate the cosmic Sabbath together with him and the two highest orders of (circumcised) angels; Jub 2.17-20; 15.27.9 Paul the ethnic essentialist,10On ancient ethnic essentialism, again, Ben Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton 2004); on such ethnic essentialism as a defining aspect of Paul’s teaching—that people groups are as they are physei, “by nature”—the index of Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, s.v. “ethnicity”; also eadem, “How Jewish is God?” JBL 137.1 (2018): 193-212; Matthew Thiessen, Paul and the Gentile Problem (Oxford 2016); Matthew V. Novenson, The End of the Law. Jewishness and Time in the Letters of Paul (Cambridge, forthcoming 2021).11 like his ethnic-essentialist god, distinguishes Israel from the nations right up to and through the End. Does Paul the faith fanatic, then, really hold Israel’s “ethnic signifiers” to be of no consequence, adiaphora? If he did, then some author other than Paul must stand behind the Epistle to the Romans.

      Therefore, I conclude, interpreting Paul by sorting Jewish law into two piles, “ethnically marked” and “ethnically unmarked” (“generally understood,” in Troels’s locution), and apportioning the latter to what will eventually become gentile Christianity, is indeed exegetically possible. Christian preachers have been doing it for millennia; New Testament scholars, for centuries. But for the first century, such a hermeneutic is historically inadmissible. Then, there was no such thing as “ethnically unmarked biblical law.” For that matter, there was no such thing as “ethnically unmarked,” whether for ancient humans12Or for their current counterparts.13 or for their gods. The “god of the Jews” was also, Paul asserted, the “god of the nations” (Rom 3.29). But his Kingdom was an assertion of his cross-ethnic superiority: the nations and their gods would finally acknowledge him. As for Isaiah, the duet-partner in Romans, so also for Paul: the ethnic identity of Israel’s god remains intact even eschatologically. God (or his son) would victoriously manifest not from Olympus or Delos or (interestingly) from Sinai (again), but from Zion—hardly an ethnically neutral location.14Greco-Roman gods often preferred city living. On the intertwining of Isaiah and Paul in Romans, see esp. J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News. Suppl. NovTest 101 (Leiden: Brill, 2002).15

      Here I rest my case. Troels, let’s take this outside. And I hope and pray that soon we can continue our discussions as in days of old, πρόσωπον κατὰ πρόσωπον, speedily and in our days, amen.

      1. I beg to be excused for my sweeping rhetoric. Many of these laws were incumbent only upon the priests, related only to the temple, and could (like tithes) be enacted only within what was notionally biblical Jewish territory. The conceit of “613 commandments” is a later rabbinic construct.

Eric Barreto


Modeling Ethnicity and Theology in Paul . . . and in Us

Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle narrates an Apostle Paul gazing over a chronological and cartographical horizon. The eschatological moment of redemption and the drawing together of peoples from every corner of the world intersect in a theological and exegetical symphony Paul intended to be heard only for a short while. And in that brief, liminal space between the world as it was and the world as it is and will be, Paul does not turn away from the ethnic and theological resources that shaped who he was before he encountered Jesus; instead, after that encounter, Paul’s imagination finds further root in the same promises and ethnic identity Paul had always confessed. What Paul discovers as he digs into the richness of his tradition is a promise that would be kept to Israel not apart from Jewish ethnic and religious identity but within it; Gentiles too would become beneficiaries of God’s grace neither apart from nor in replacement of the promises God made to Israel. The eschatological upturning of the world would draw the world together in the midst of ethnic and religious particularity. Borrowing language from Acts, we might say that Paul was writing at the end of the world with an eye towards the ends of the world.

In this way, Fredriksen seeks to set free a Paul whose gospel has been occluded by generations of misinterpretation and to make clear the nature and shape of the historical Paul’s ministry among the pagans. Paul did not see himself as turning away from either a faith or ethnicity in following Jesus, and the faith he taught to Gentiles did not efface Jewish particularity. And in this way, yes, Fredriksen’s work is a deeply historical analysis. At the same time, I wonder if the argument’s influence may shape how we understand contemporary interpretation and interpreters of Paul even more than how we understand the historical Paul, the Paul whom scholars conjure even more than the Paul who wrote letters as he imagined that the arc of time was drawing to a close. That is, might Fredriksen bring us to the very edge of the limits of historical inquiry to show us, not just who Paul was, but who historians and Christian theologians alike have become when we narrate a misshapen Paul?

Critical to Fredriksen’s argument is sustained attention to the construction and (re)construction of ethnic identities and their boundaries. How Paul renders Jewish ethnic identity and imagines Gentiles becoming beneficiaries of the gospel are both at stake and interwoven in her book. Thus, I turn to three forms of ethnic construction I see running through this persuasive, fascinating, field-shaping work.

Ethnic Architectures

In some ways, it is not much of a surprise that Paul’s ethnic identity is at the center of this book. The Paul whose ethnic body has been contested through generations of scholars is central here as are the racialized bodies of those Gentiles grafted into a tree cultivated by a God who chooses Israel. To what degree Paul remained Jewish in his ethnic and religious identity is a key working assumption in so many readings of his letters. His assumed departure from Judaism is coded in headings in study Bibles that say that Paul “converted” on the road to Damascus, in popular readings that Paul turned away wholly and dramatically from the law to the gospel, in Christian proclamation that calls Paul a Christian who has departed from his previous religious and ethnic commitments as a Jew. In contesting Paul’s Jewish body, however, too few scholars have noted the ethnic dimensions of these conclusions about Paul’s religious identity. What has become clearer in scholarship are the many ways religion and ethnic identity were interlaced in antiquity and are woven together in many articulations and constructions of identity today as well. Making far more explicit the implications of assuming Paul left behind his religious and ethnic identity when he became a follower of Jesus is one of many vital contributions this book makes.

What is more surprising and that much more interesting in my mind is Fredriksen’s argument that the ethnicity of God is at stake in Paul’s formulation of an eschatological theology. In a significant sense, Paul’s God is Jewish, Fredriksen argues both here and in a persuasive article in the Journal of Biblical Literature.1 The God of Paul is not a generic, universal, numinous deity but a God tied intimately to a people and place; God’s commitments to Israel are ethnic as are God’s commitments to Gentiles, though in a quite different way. Interpreters, she suggests, made a critical mistake when they “radically de-ethnicized Paul’s God; and, accordingly, they also reconceptualized his Kingdom” (173). That is, Paul’s thinking was not free of ethnic particularity, not even when Paul imagines God’s ethnicity. Fredriksen argues for a Paul deeply concerned with the ethnic identities not just of the followers of Jesus but the very God whom they were seeking.

That Paul’s God would bear an ethnicity further clarifies the constructedness of ethnicity. Ethnicity is a construction through and through. It is a fiction by which we organize peoples and places alike. Fiction, however, is not the opposite of reality. Fiction—and in this case, ethnic fiction—is powerful and formative. That ethnicity is constructed, contested, concocted does not mitigate ethnicity’s persuasive force and organizing power. In my own recent work, I have been pointing to ethnicity as narrated, as storied. That is, ethnicity is built in the mode of narrating the past. In short, ethnicity is built, and the architectures of ethnicity provide the rich contexts within which communities make sense of a complex world.

What remains to be done among scholars is to distinguish even more clearly the distinctions and overlaps between religion and ethnicity, especially when it comes to how we today render first-century Judaism. If we follow Fredriksen’s claim that Paul’s God is Jewish, to what degree do we mean that to be an ethnic or a religious designation? To be sure, these two forms of identity are so interlaced, so intersecting that it may prove impossible to create a category “ethnicity” entirely separate from “religion” and vice versa. And yet how do we distinguish between them in our analyses—even if in heuristic ways—so that the two categories do not simply collapse into one another? After all, when fine distinctions collapse so too do their explanatory power.

Ethnic Cartographies

Ethnicity is built; ethnicity is also projected upon the world.

Paul, Fredriksen argues, was persecuted not so much by aggrieved co-religionists troubled by his heterodoxy and his puncturing of the boundaries of Jewish communities with the inclusion of Gentiles but by those who relied on a particular mapping of heaven and earth. That is, Paul proved offensive not so much to fellow Jews but to the larger Roman structuring of heaven and earth as interwoven realities. To assuage the gods was to ensure prosperity and peace; to trouble the cosmic order was to threaten life in the here and now. Paul was perhaps most controversial in perpetuating a restructuring of the relationships between the heavens and earth, a reorientation with real, tangible consequences in the eyes of Paul and his opponents alike.

There is, of course, also the challenge of mapping Paul’s own world, Paul’s own theological cartographies. That is, what sources can we rely on to re-create those threatening maps that got Paul into so much hot water? How do we map Paul’s theology using the varied and complex evidence in the New Testament? For instance, to what extent can Acts illuminate the authentic letters of Paul? Though she will lean some on Acts along the way, Fredriksen contends that “in our quest for the historical apostle, however, Paul’s own letters must have priority” (62). How much weight though can these occasional letters bear in historical inquiry? If relying on Acts is a frail approach because of our uncertainty about how much of Luke’s account of Paul is historically accurate and not the product of Luke’s own theological commitments, then what are the limits of relying on these occasional, theologically inflected letters to communities whose composition and stories we can glimpse only partly, only dimly? Fredriksen acknowledges these limitations, I think, in noting, “In sum, the letters as we now have them reflect only imperfectly what Paul’s scribe, almost twenty centuries ago, would have written” (63). Indeed. We might wonder whether fractured witnesses will always necessarily result in a fractured portrait of a fractured apostle. And how we fill those fractures might reflect far more on us, Paul’s interpreters, than the historical Paul himself. In short, I wonder how we as scholars might continue to appreciate and theorize the very limitations of the historical and theological inquiry in which we are engaged, not just to circumvent those limitations but to see them as real limits worthy of study themselves.

Ethnic Eschatologies

Ethnicity is built. Ethnicity is projected. In Paul, also, ethnicity bears the mark of eschatology, the promise of a world renewed and recreated.

For Fredriksen, eschatological expectation is not a detachable feature of earliest Christianity but the very “drive-wheel of the first generation of the movement—which firmly believed that it would be the only generation of the movement” (167). Fredriksen’s Paul stands at the precipice of an eschatological upturning of the world, a promised setting right of the world. That setting right is not as simple and as colorless as a melting of ethnic particularity into human homogeneity. Instead, the eschatological moment is ethnic in its character too, for it preserves Israelites as Israelites and “ex-pagan pagans” as “ex-pagan pagans,” in Fredriksen’s memorable phrase. Here, she demurs from accounts of Paul’s view of salvation as focused on “grace, not race” (110); she rejects a Paul that escapes the ethnic restraints of first-century Judaism to inaugurate a universal humanity liberated from racial distinction. Here, Fredriksen is particularly persuasive to me as a person of color whose ethnic identity is not buttressed by the dominant culture. It is largely within the confines of majority status with the privileged power such racialized status can bring that one might yearn for liberation from particularity, for an escape from all the ethnic indicia that mark communities as rich and particular. It may only be when one’s own language is assumed to be universal—a lingua franca for the whole world—that the presence of other languages seems so problematic as to necessitate a single language. It may only be from the perspective of the protections of imperial structures that ensure that only one set of cultural experiences is seen as default or universal that a ceasing of difference may sound paradisal. Those who dwell on the underside of history, the victims rather than the victors of colonization, often see this all quite differently.

Ethnic identity is not just a way to distinguish but also an inheritance of survival among the powerless, the hybrid negotiations of empire that shield vulnerable communities while also naming the frailties of the powerful. I wonder then if naming Paul’s colonial status might be a helpful addition to Fredriksen’s already persuasive portrait. How might the limitations experienced by colonized people and the rich strategies of survival found among them help give shape to Paul’s theologizing? This is not necessarily to suggest taking a side in the scholarly contestation over whether Paul is anti-imperial or largely unconcerned with Roman might but to engage further the kind of intellectual and ideological resources tapped by colonized peoples. In what ways were the creation of communities seen by Paul’s opponents as threatening to the social order, to the mapping of heaven and earth funded by the composition and reading of Israel’s scriptures in a colonized ambit?


If Fredriksen is right, then Paul cannot imagine a community of Jesus followers apart from Israel; a singularly Gentile church, an exclusively Gentile Christianity is wholly incomplete, even incommensurate: ethnically, theologically, eschatologically. And thus this book drives us to a critical question for all kinds of scholarship. How do we name historical personages and phenomena? How do we identify peoples and groups and historical moments and eras in a way that both captures well their shape in antiquity but is also legible to contemporary readers of our scholarly work? Naming is power, for it harnesses imagination; it points to definitive boundaries around the object of our study. So, for instance, if Paul’s vision is as described by Fredriksen, then can we even name the earliest Jesus followers as “Christians” without numerous, critical caveats? In reference to Jesus’s earliest followers in particular, is “Christian” far too hampered by the term’s usual reference to a Gentile Christianity wholly apart from the promises God made to Israel? Of course, Fredriksen’s argument goes beyond how we name Jesus followers to the complex, rich identities to which those names might point.

The implications of this book’s arguments are manifold for the exegete of Paul, for the historian of early Christianity, and for the Christian theologian, too. If the God Paul narrates is Jewish, if the communities he helps nurture are sites of ethnic negotiations not erasure, then we will have to reimagine how Christian theology today renders difference, identity, eschatology, and, of course, the theological task itself. If ethnic difference is not a problem Paul seeks to resolve but a site for divine activity, then how might ecclesial practices around the growth of diverse communities and churches need to shift? If identity is not a theological derivative or a tertiary concern after the purportedly weightier matters of theology, then how might theological discourse need to be renewed, especially as white nationalisms rise in Western contexts? If eschatological expectation was a sine qua non for Pauline theology, how do we read Paul as anxiety around the parousia has faded even as apocalyptic fever dreams about rumors of wars and pandemics and supposed hordes of migrants keep nourishing paranoia about our neighbors?

In short, this book is a fascinating, elegantly written work. It also marks a vital turning point in scholarship around Paul.

But most of all, it demonstrates so convincingly that the Paul many of us thought we knew might be a distorting portrait that has distorted history and theology alike for far too long.

  1. Paula Fredriksen, “How Jewish Is God? Divine Ethnicity in Paul’s Theology,” JBL 137 (2018) 193–212.

  • Paula Fredriksen

    Paula Fredriksen


    No, Seriously: How Jewish Is God? Response to Eric Barreto

    Anybody who has ever stood in an Israeli bus queue understands what “purely notional” means: that is what an “Israeli queue” is. So, too, local traffic protocols. (And the drivers commanding those huge, hinged-at-the-middle Egged buses clearly have not left their Indy-500 pasts very far behind.) Queuing in Zurich, or driving there, affords a different experience. These varia have something to do, I imagine, with how different people in different places calculate perisomatic zones. My point: People stereotype because stereotyping “works.” The interpretative idea, the stereotype, is itself purely notional; but people use stereotypes—particularly when characterizing ethnic “others”—because they seem to have explanatory value for something Out There.

    I grew up in an ethnically inflected America. All four of my grandparents immigrated to the States in the early 1900s. Two had come from Scandinavia (Oslo, and somewhere—I never knew where—in Sweden). Two arrived from Italy. Mom’s parents had a mixed marriage. Nonnu hailed from Sant’ Agatha, outside of Naples (he was a Northerner!), while Nana—Sicilian, not “Italian”—came from Messina. Some version of this European story stood behind most of the families of my native neighborhoods. I did not really encounter “White” America—Protestant, established, moneyed, powerful, unselfconsciously in controluntil I went to college. There I made friends whose grandparents spoke unaccented English. And I finally encountered the calibrations of class.

    The college’s international, multiethnic population blurred some of these social borderlines. So too did the fact that Wellesley’s student body was all female. So too did the late 1960s Zeitgeist. And yet. In the fall of 1969, I began to understand that, to be truly “unmarked” (however that idea was expressed back then), one was white, Protestant, and male, characteristics often coordinated with wealth and other indicia of social potestas. This thought had never really occurred to me before. Nor had I, until then, realized that—the accidents of my patronym and of my physical appearance notwithstanding—as a working-class, (post) Roman Catholic, Sicilian-family-formatted female, I was not quite “white.”1 And now, as an Israeli-American, voluntarily Jewish, female historian in historically male, Protestant, theologically tempered Pauline Studies, this sense of in-but-not-in still continues. All this backstory is by way of saying: Eric Barreto, I hear what you are saying.

    But I offer this personal prolegomenon, too, for the reader, in order to locate my responses to Barreto’s reflections on Paul, Pauline Studies, and contemporary Christian theology. I speak only as a historian: current constructivist theology stands well outside my ken and my academic competence. I will begin with some remarks about Paul’s world, especially its ways of relating divinity, humanity, and power. I will then briefly trace the pagan philosophical roots of modern Christian monotheisms. And I will close with some observations on the continuing salonfähig anti-Judaisms of contemporary academic Pauline Studies.

    Then and Now: God(s)

    We will look in on Israel’s god in a moment. For now, I turn to his Mediterranean colleagues.2 Back in the day, Greek gods and Roman gods, Etruscan gods and Lycian gods, Phoenician gods and Punic gods—from what I can tell, most ancient gods—had sexual relations with humans. People groups, especially their leaders, sprang from these unions. These peoples shared with their gods specific languages and locations, and received from them preferred protocols for showing respect. These were not casual connections. As classicist J. K. Davies reminds us, ancient gods were “powers first, persons second, and moral agents a long way third.”3

    This standing situation of unequal power and moral opacity inscribed a certain anxiety into social relations between ancient peoples and their gods. Phobos, eusebeia, pietas—all of which we might translate as “fear”—encouraged prudent displays of deference. Traditions for showing respect, often received from the god him- or herself, managed the instability intrinsic to these relations of vastly unequal power. These traditions shaped time, structured social relations, and choreographed enactments. One’s emunah or pistis in or fides toward these protocols meant trusting that they pleased the god, who acknowledged these demonstrations of love and loyalty by sheltering his or her cities and peoples beneath a canopy of sōtēria/salus. (Not “salvation”: “security” or “wellbeing.”) In short, divine/human kinship, syngeneia, stabilized unequal power relations by “domesticating” them, quite literally: gods and their peoples lived together in (steeply hierarchical) family groups.

    Peoples, places, deities, languages, sanctuaries, ancestral traditions: from these elements, ancients built the idea that we now call “ethnicity,” people-group-ness.4 Israelite ethnicity participated in this construction. Israel’s relationship with their god—unusually—was not biological, but they still formed a “family” unit, modulated by family metaphors, with power patterned accordingly. Male Israelites were as sons to their divine father (thus, in the first century, Paul’s language not of “begetting” but of “son-making,” huiothesia, when speaking of Jewish males and their god, Rom 9:4); or, Israel was to God as wife to husband, joined in a mutually covenanted marital relationship (with God, again, in the dominant male role).

    Their god had decided to separate Israel out from other peoples “for himself.” His people in turn agreed to enact those behaviors that he insisted on. In the Five Books, very occasionally, God makes a “Because, that’s why” effort to explain both himself and, at the same time, the provisions of his torah (“teaching”). “Be you kidoshim, because I the lord your god am kadosh: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:2). Directives then follow (a.k.a. “the Law”).5

    Kadosh (or, once God spoke Greek, hagios) means “holy,” “separated out.” The same language shapes Jewish marriage ritual to this day. “Consecrated” is an ecclesiastically overstuffed translation of kadosh. “Be you separate from, other”—other than all those other peoples—“for I the lord your god am separate from, other”—other, that is, from all those gods, the ones worshiped by the other nations. (These nations were also distinguished from each other by their particular lands, languages, kinship groups and gods: cf. Gen 10; Deut 32:8–9 NRSV). In brief, all ancients, Jews included, thought in terms of divinely established, discrete group identities. That is why so many of these other ancient peoples also proclaimed Heis theos! “One god!” when giving a shout-out to their own particular deity.6

    Philosophy, by contrast, reformatted the idea of theos. “God” served as one of the categories shaping a discourse aimed at rationally organizing the elements of the “real”: theos, cosmos, anthrōpos, psychē, noûs (“rational mind”), and so on. A cultural form initially specific to the Greeks, philosophy as meta-discourse stood to the side of traditional piety. It was not inherited and communally enacted so much as voluntarily chosen, taught, and learned among elites. Some philosophies were non-theistic. Other forms (like that of the much-maligned Epicurus) featured divine powers that were less emotionally invested in human behaviors than were those ethnic gods who filled traditional narratives, who lived in local social space, and who engaged, along with their humans, in inter-city politics, diplomacy, and war. For theistic philosophies, especially those of Platonic genres, the single, highest god was really Out There: radically transcendent, non-gendered, non-city-specific—indeed, beyond cosmos itself—and, thus, non-ethnic as well.

    In the course of the second century CE, philosophically educated Gentile Christians turned their attentions to the Greek texts of Jewish scriptures. How did the ethnic god of those ethnic stories relate to philosophy’s non-ethnic high god? Valentinus said one thing; Marcion, yet another; Justin, another still.7 Eventually, in 312 CE, a successful imperial usurper stabilized his rise to power by underwriting those Christian urban blocs whose traditions of reading the LXX (now this group’s Old Testament) aligned (more or less) with Justin’s. The Jewish identity of Israel’s god was gone. Imperially sponsored from this point on, he was Platonizing philosophy’s high god, tethered exiguously to these churches’ Old Testament through the later career of his Son. Reformatted even further through philosophy as Trinity, these divinities (with hypostasized “holy spirit,” added on or in) related only glancingly to Jewish scriptural traditions.

    Paul’s own god, in short, has long been irrelevant to Christian theology. The biblical god lost his Jewish identity some twenty centuries ago. More intriguingly, this god’s son, the Davidic messiah, lost his Jewish identity as well. So too, no less remarkably, did that “Hebrew born of Hebrews,” the Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin, the Pharisee whose law-righteousness had been “flawless”: Paul.

    Why? Because the “white” power brokers of the late imperial church identified all of these figures, divine and human, with themselves. (This was, to repeat, a normal ancient Mediterranean way for humans to relate to their gods.) Developing Christian art performed visual epispasm on the nude Jesus (as eventually on other formerly Jewish heroes gleaned from OT texts),8 or clothed him in the armor of a Roman military commander (a real chutzpah, in light of Pilate’s decision back in Jerusalem, ca. 30).9 Family is family. God—rather and in particular his divine-and-human Son, Christ—was Roman.

    And Paul? He too was ethnically bleached, made un-Jewish by becoming anti-Jewish. Exegesis was (and is) the handmaiden of this theological de- and re-ethnicizing; later, Christian art took over. Eventually, classic Hollywood epics—The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965, starring Max von Sydow); The King of Kings (1961, featuring the young Brad Pitt of his day, Jeffrey Hunter)—would continue the tradition, remastering Jesus as vigorously, visually Northern European (thus, Protestant). And, retelling Kazinzakis’ retelling of the gospels, Scorsese (1988, Last Temptation of Christ) rendered the Gentiles’ apostle as a come-to-Jesus circuit preacher.10

    Which brings us, once again, back to 1517 and All That.

    Then and Now: Theology and History

    Christian anti-Judaism—and its murderous modern inflection, racist anti-Semitism—has a long and continuous history.11 Paul’s bad temper when maligning his Christ-following Jewish colleagues to his ex-pagan assemblies got things off to a bad start, once his letters—and the ones written later, in his name—were heard in circumstances that he never could have imagined. Then, right in this formative period, Jews fought three unsuccessful revolts against Rome, the first of which ended with the destruction of the temple. In the aftermath of 70, some Jewish Hellenistic writers (known to history as “the evangelists”) explained the temple’s destruction as God’s punishing the priests for failing to follow Jesus. And by the second century, in-fighting between Gentile Christians of various theological persuasions led to the mutual and heated exchange of anti-Jewish insults. (Tertullian to Marcion: #WorsethanJews! Athanasius to Arius: #JustlikeJews! Chalcedonians to Nestorians: #‘Jews’!)

    Constantine’s patronage, combined with evangelical Passion narratives, rehabilitated Rome, despite the historical detail of Jesus’s death. Identifying Romanitas with ecclesia (configured variously by ethnic group and locale) led to the criminalization of Jewish practices for Gentile Christians and, eventually, for Jews as well.12 Then came fantasies of Jewish super-agency and malice, especially in times of social trauma. The fall of Christian Jerusalem to Islam, blood libels, the Black Death: Jews, said Christians, were at the bottom of it all. In the modern period, with the disruptions of industrial capitalism, international banking, and radical nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics, anti-Semitism bloomed and continues to bloom, both on the Right and on the Left, both in the West and, within Muslim regimes, in the (Mid-) East. RIGHT NOW, with Covid-19, paranoid anti-Semitism is awash on the Web. That’s a lot of cultural water under the historical bridge—and a lot of Jewish blood poured out on the sand.13

    The Shoah (1941–1945) was a high-water mark of vicious anti-Semitism. Energized and enabled by Nazi policy, Christians of all denominations—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox—with very few, very heroic exceptions, willingly joined in the murders. And simple human greed as much as theologically undergirded anti-Semitism fueled a pan-European feeding frenzy of theft, from high art to village huts. (Post-1945, Jews returning from the camps were slaughtered by neighbors unwilling to give their property back.) This is the huge homicidal convulsion that provides “post-Holocaust Western thinkers” with those “tearful misted-up spectacles” so derided by N. T. Wright, who impatiently urges Pauline scholars to discard them.14 Since such ethical blightedness speaks for itself, I prescind from further comment here.

    How does 1517 and following fit in with all this? It identifies an inflection point on the arc of Renaissance Humanism, that cultural matrix for what we as New Testament scholars do now: restoring foundational texts through paleographical heavy lifting; reading in the primary languages; setting the texts within their historical contexts. The “new history” of this period was born along with its new science. Rome was less than exemplary in some of its responses to this moment. (Erasmus. Galileo. Copernicus. Papal Inquisition.) And as if all this weren’t enough, Rome had the Reformers to deal with as well. (Early modern European politics and the birth of the nation state had a little something to do with all this, too.)15

    Tried-and-true traditions of intra-Christian insult—Gentile Christian opponents were “just like the Jews,” “leagued with the Jews,” “worse than the Jews,” or just plain “Jews”—were weaponized anew. Rome was more than the enemy of Reform: it was the enemy of Jesus, of Paul, of God himself. Sacramentalism, indulgences, Pharisaism, the “works of the Law” stood on Rome’s side. Grace, faith, the return to restored scriptures liberated from institutional monopoly, stood to the other. Reformers were not generating Protestantism. They were recovering what Jesus, and what Paul, had actually meant.

    It was the Protestant insistence that Protestant constructions of Pauline theology were descriptive of the first-century apostle’s first-century thoughts that has had the most lasting effect on the work that we as scholars of religion now do. This too, I must note, is historically very interesting. Intervening centuries and cultures notwithstanding, the ancient Mediterranean correspondence between gods and humans has held. Syngeneia, now constituted theologically, continued (and continues) to coordinate heaven and earth. If the scholar were Protestant, then God, Christ, and Paul—each “unmarked” by Jewish (read: Catholic!) traditions—were Protestant as well.16

    Late to the game (1943, Divino Afflante Spiritu), Rome formally joined in the project to quest for these historical figures. University faculties of theology—some denominational, some not—and departments of religion began their work. Today, in our newer context, scholars Catholic and Jewish also work within this Reformation-born intellectual tradition. In consequence, they, too, more variously, continue the production of Protestant Jesuses (anti-Pharisee, anti-purity, anti-priesthood, anti-temple), and of post-Torah-observant, Protestant Pauls. (#FoodfightinAntioch!) Academic “New Testament” studies remains a culturally Protestant discipline. It still mobilizes the past to configure modern confessional identities.17

    There is no such thing, of course, as an “unmarked” humanity. People emerge from other people. They form groups, beginning with the family. They have histories. Ethnic constructs, modern no less than ancient, knit together ideas of biological kinship, place, foodways, language; constructs committed to concepts of ethnically specific, intrinsic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. Though notional, these ideas “explain” things Out There. (And that is one of the reasons why ethnic humor works. Mel Brooks’s Moses cursing in Yiddish still makes me laugh.)

    Is modern theology qua ethical discipline capable of transitioning to becoming an ethnical discipline?18 To disavow the mirage of “unmarked” humanity? To imagine “ethnicities” as “a site for divine activity,” as Eric Barreto asks? Ecclesiastical institutions, no less than their members, have long histories, power structures, and deep investments in particular constructions of identity. A new post-Reformation theological task will require creativity and courage—and a certain salubrious stubbornness as well.

    However notional ethnicity is, the passage of time is not. Non vacant tempora: “time takes not holiday.” (Augustine again, Conf. 4.8, 13.) In this way and for this reason, humans are truly “marked.” They are truly marked historically. The first century really was different from the twenty-first century. Jesus and Paul—themselves, though contemporary, two very different sorts of Jews—lived in a world configured very differently from our own. In my last two books, Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle and its smaller sequel, When Christians Were Jews (Yale University Press, 2018), I tried to put them both in their place. Historically.

    But is a historically constituted Jesus or Paul—or Moses or David or Isaiah or Rabbi Akiva; or Mohammed, for that matter—theologically usable for current communities? I do not know. That is up to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians. I speak here, again, only as a historian—and as only a historian. And it is as such that I state my wish, namely, that New Testament scholars stop wrapping their theological work in the rhetoric of historical investigation. I am interested in my colleagues as their colleague, but as a historian I am not interested in my colleagues’ twenty-first-century religious identities. Ancient people are my intellectual interest. That is why I do ancient history. Reading for the nth time that Jesus or Paul promoted “justification by faith” or believed in “grace, not the works of the law” just does not move that project along very far.

    One last thought, on God. For Western monotheisms, God is, himself, historically conditioned.19 He speaks, muffled and imperfectly, through maddeningly interpretable, inherited texts. Like us—the only beings that he, for reasons that pass my understanding, made in his image—God too stands within a web of words. The religious (thus ethical) inferences that we draw from this condition of contingency are our responsibility, not his.

    First, do no harm. All the rest is commentary.

    1. “White” as a category of power structures and their exclusions has a particularly complex social history in the United States, given its violent policies and practices vis-à-vis native peoples, captive Africans, and foreign immigrants. For an account of this history told from the vantage of labor, see the studies by David Roediger, among which Working toward Whiteness (New York: Basic Books, 2005). As the past three years’ record of lethal violence against American Jews has once again shown, the category “Jew” is complex, counting both as “non-white” by white supremacists and as [too] “white” by black nationalists.

    2. On gendered pronouns and the Bible’s god, please see my final footnote infra.

    3. “The Moral Dimension of Pythian Apollo,” in What Is a God? Studies in the Nature of Greek Divinity, ed. Alan B. Lloyd (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2009), 43–64, at 58. On the political consequences of divine sex, C. P. Jones, Kinship Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

    4. Fredriksen, How Jewish Is God,” art cit., walks through the ancient Jewish and Greek materials.

    5. This biblical chapter, Kidoshim, is an internal commentary on Sinai’s 10 Commandments. It’s also the site of God’s directive on loving the neighbor and the stranger “as yourself.” “Love” has to do not with psychological states, but with concrete actions. No stealing (v. 11). No lying (v. 12). Just law courts, weights, and measures (vv. 15, 35). No grudges, no vengeance (vv. 17–18). Respect elders (v. 32). No taking advantage of the disadvantaged (v. 14). Food for the poor as social justice, 19: 9–10. Good things to think about, and to do something about, in Trump’s America.

    6. See the essays assembled in Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen, eds., One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

    7. For a brief overview, The Pagans’ Apostle, 167–74.

    8. Robert Couzin, “Uncircumcision in Early Christian Art,” JECS 26 (2018) 601–29.

    9. Thus, the Christus Militans—beardless and beautiful—of a sixth-century baptistry mosaic in Ravenna.

    10. On all of which, esp. Adele Reinhartz, Jesus of Hollywood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

    11. See James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

    12. On the arc of this story, Paula Fredriksen, “Jewish Romans, Christian Romans, and the Post-Roman West: The Social Correlates of the contra Iudaeos Tradition,” in Conflict and Religious Conversation in Latin Christendom: Studies in Honour of Ora Limor, ed. Israel Yuval and Ram Ben-Shalom (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 23–53; further, with Oded Irshai, “Christianity and Judaism in Late Antiquity: Polemics and Policies, from the Second to the Seventh Centuries,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 4, The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period, edited Steven T. Katz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 977–1035.

    13. On the perpetuity of these ways of interpreting the world, see esp. David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: Norton, 2013), and the review essays in Marginalia. Post-colonial Islamic regimes, by contrast, see Jews as leagued with Western “crusaders.” A Yemeni Islamic scholar, on March 27, 2020, announced that the Covid-19 virus was a plot by Israel, the US, and “the Jews” to take over Medina and Mecca (, while a conservative American pastor claims that the virus has spread in synagogues because of Jewish rejection of Jesus (

    14. In his two-volume screed, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), Wright exhorts NT scholars to stop worrying about putative relationships between the mass murder of Jews and traditions of Christian theology: see, e.g., 1129, 1413, and passim. Wright’s Jesus, like his Paul, also evinces principled problems with Jews, with Judaism, and evidently with Theodore Herzl. For my assessment of Wright’s efforts with Paul, my review in CBQ 77 (2015) 387–91; before this, ruminating on Wright’s “anti-nationalist” Jesus, eadem, “What You See Is What You Get: Context and Content in Current Research on the Historical Jesus,” Theology Today 52 (1995) 75–97. On the whole delicate issue of Christian foundational figures who must be “Jewish, but not too Jewish,” esp. James G. Crossley, “A ‘Very Jewish’ Jesus: Perpetuating the Myth of Superiority,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 11 (2013) 109–29.

    15. If you have time to read only one book: Tim Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory (New York: Penguin, 2008), picking up the story in the wake of the pan-European bloodletting of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).

    16. One last shout-out, here, for Smith’s Drudgery Divine.

    17. I retired from the Jesus Wars long ago, but still recall Dom Crossan’s claim that an anti-sacerdotal, ant-ritual Jesus navigated his mission by the principles of Gal 3:28; John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 263. For two Jews’ productions of the Protestant Paul, Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), and Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Identity politics, as well as academic formation within New Testament scholarship, figure in the work of both of these Jewish authors. “Christianity,” as represented by their respective reconstructions, was always other than and over-against “Judaism”: the clear separation was there ab origine in Paul’s own letters.

    18. See here the Syndicate Project on the State of Theology:

    19. I’m with Augustine on this one. He was wrong to tell Jerome not to bother re-translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew (bad for party discipline, he argued; and besides, all human language is distorting, because it bridges eternity and time); but he was right that sacred texts, issues of divine inspiration notwithstanding, are eo ipso historically conditioned, because they are texts. Further on this: Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), esp. 190–210; on God’s character shifts during the historical periods between Jesus and Augustine, see my essay, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

      A final word, then, about divinity and humanity. I personally do not think in terms of God’s ethnicity, or gender, or—pace Paul’s insistence on Hebrew (Αββα!)—in terms of language. I do not manage my relationship to and with God through animal sacrifices. I do, however, depend upon certain specific constructions of days and seasons and foodways and ancient texts (especially Leviticus 19) to try to stay focused. While I am also personally committed to gender-inclusivity, I do not extend my politics to ancient liturgical lexemes. Dear colleagues, please excuse my use of the masculine pronoun when referring to God.