The Pagans' Apostle

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Paula Fredriksen
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Paul’s epistles are inevitably studied in the context of the Christianity that they themselves helped to form. However, in Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, Paula Fredriksen calls for a reconsideration of the worldview from which and through which Paul worked, arguing that throughout his life he was a devout Jew living and working in a world of increasing hostility and tension between the Jewish people and the Roman government.

This, combined with the growing apocalypticism both in Judaism and the culture at large, never ceased to impact Paul’s theology and writing. This is the primary crux of Fredriksen’s argument, which she develops through a careful, thorough, and deeply nuanced examination of the historical period of the first century C.E., and through an exploration of the many worlds in which Paul walked: Jewish, Christian, Pagan, and Gentile. Her work is a study of the historical Paul and the formative time in which he lived.

The book is broken up into five sections with a brief prologue, introduction, and postscript. The introduction briefly introduces readers to the work of Jesus, and the underlying apocalyptic narrative, which in chapter 1 Fredriksen refers to as “apocalyptic hope” (9). Fredriksen continues by providing extensive historical context for Paul’s world, and both chapter 1, “Israel and the Nations,” and chapter 2, “Fatherland and Mother City,” provide an in-depth cognitive map of the places Paul lived and to which he travelled.

Chapter 1 is particularly important in contextualizing the role of the Bible, particularly the Hebrew stories and their Greek analogues. It is a concise introduction to the basics of Hebrew theology, the importance of prophecy in the Biblical narrative, where the figure of Jesus fits into all of that, and why the “redemption of Israel” (31) suddenly assumed such importance.

Chapter 2 looks at the impact of Hellenism and the polytheism of the surrounding societies on Jewish thought. Fredriksen uses the term “Pagan” to refer to the polytheists and their cultures throughout the book and particularly notes the relational nature of polytheistic theology—that is, the idea of “divine kinship” (37) evidenced through stories of gods intermarrying across pantheons, as well as the ways that the Roman gods in particular helped to structure civic life (36). She notes a push amongst certain Hellenized Jews for greater tolerance of their neighbors’ pantheons (37). Of particular importance is her exploration of the ways in which not only Jews “penetrated” Pagan spaces, but the ways in which Pagans may have intermingled with Jewish spaces as well, something inevitably problematic due to Jewish purity laws. Her evaluation relies not only on historical analysis but also on philology (Greek, Latin, and Hebrew) adding a rich, linguistic component to the story she carefully unfolds.

It is only in chapter 3, “Paul and His Mission,” that readers are really introduced to Paul. The chapter opens by contrasting Paul’s linguistic world (Greek) with his spiritual world (Jewish) and his social world (Jewish, Pagan). The chapter begins to lay out a biography for Paul through the lens of material culture—constructing this biography from his surviving letters. Fredriksen raises the point that the proviso that newly converted Christians entirely abandon their traditional polytheisms may have been one of the reasons for Paul’s initial persecution of the movement. She arrives at this given that Roman authorities looked unfavorably on any interference in political and civic matters by the Jewish community, and in the Pagan world, religious rites were deeply entwined with proper functioning of the state. The idea that proper performance of one’s religious obligations benefitted the luck, strength, and integrity of the empire was deeply ingrained in Roman religious consciousness (89-90), and, as Fredriksen notes, early Christian converts’ “deviance was socially disruptive” (91). The growing number of non-Jewish Christians therefore raised questions about the ongoing safety of Jewish communities in the Roman Empire, questions that eventually drove Paul to seek out the original apostles in Jerusalem. This was one of the most interesting and provocative chapters in the entire book.

The next two chapters delve more deeply into the ways in which Paul answered those questions and the controversies (particularly over circumcision) that began to arise in the nascent Christian community. Fredriksen concludes with a postscript discussing Paul’s ongoing recruitment of Pagans and the effect this and his apocalypticism had on his legacy and the way in which later thinkers (she particularly notes Marcion and Justin Martyr) used and misused his work.

Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is a rich and deeply learned book that forces a reevaluation of Paul and his work. It foregrounds the social and political complexities of the time in which he worked, highlighting the importance of the eschatological currents informing his theology, and demonstrating Paul’s importance within the framework of Jewish, Christian, and Pagan cultures alike. At the same time, this book is eminently accessible, appropriate both for the scholar and non-academic reader. For the scholar, it is a crucial addition in the field of Pauline studies, one that challenges its reader to consider Paul in the fullness of the realities in which he moved. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Galina Krasskova is a doctoral student in Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio professor of scripture emerita at Boston University, is a member of the Humanities Faculty of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she has published widely on the social and intellectual history of ancient Christianity, and on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in the Roman Empire. Her books include From Jesus to ChristJesus of Nazareth, King of the JewsAugustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism; and Sin: The Early History of an Idea.



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