Book Review of Paul within Judaism, “The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”

Paul’s convictions about the impeding dawn of God’s kingdom place him securely within the world of the late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic hope. But Paul’s biblical tradition was Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. His audience–unlike that of Jesus and of the earliest disciples–was pagan, not Jewish. And he stretched his time-driven gospel over the spatial frame provided by antiquity’s map of the cosmos.

-Paula Fredriksen
from the beginning of her essay
“The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

I had a difficult time wrapping my head around Fredriksen’s essay at first but when I finally figured out where she was going, not only did everything click into place, but I saw the connections between what she was saying and what I wrote about not that long ago.

Fredriksen draws a sharp distinction between the teaching and mission of Jesus (Yeshua) and that of Paul. While Jesus operated almost exclusively within a Jewish context, speaking to Jews, drawing Jewish disciples, training Jewish apostles, Paul had an extremely different audience to contend with and an environment at odds with Jews and Judaism, the pagan arena of the diaspora.

While the message of Jesus, the repentance of the Jewish people and return to the Torah in preparation of the coming Kingdom of Heaven, was not particularly surprising, Paul’s role required him to do the astonishing. He had to bring Gentiles out of worshiping pagan gods and into exclusive devotion to the One God of Israel, while leaving them in their diaspora towns, cities, and countrysides, living among idol worshiping family, friends, and business associates.

The Church tends to take all this for granted, having Paul preached to them like any modern missionary they know or have read about, but in fact, he was charting a course through unexplored territory, doing what no one had ever done before, at least on such a large-scale, and dealing with Gentiles not only as different ethnicities, but as pagans.

Today, we separate one’s ethnic orientation from their religion, but in ancient times, no such distinction was made. Lifestyle, business, family life, everything tied together into one’s identity. So a Jew practiced Judaism and Gentiles practiced some form of pagan worship, although, as I said, it was really all a part of living your life as you had been born.

interfaithOccasionally, a non-Jew would undergo the proselyte rite and live among Jews as a Jew, but Paul was attempting to bring a large number of Gentiles into a form of Judaism, while having them remain wholly distinct from Jewish ethnicity and obligation to the Torah mitzvot.

What we think of as “religion” ancient people accordingly constructed as an inheritance: “mos maiorum, fides patrum, ta patria ethe, paradoseis ton patrikon (this last from Paul, Gal. 1:14). “Religion” as a category separable and separate from one’s “family”–household to empire–did not exist.


Finally, gentile versus pagan masks the degree to which not only households but also cities were family-based religious institutions.

In some ways, what Jesus had attempted in the Jewish homeland among his own people was all but child’s play compared to the mission he gave to Paul. While Jesus was imploring the Jews around him to return to a Torah lifestyle that was their inheritance, Paul was directing pagan Gentiles to leave behind everything they had ever known to join with a foreign people, the Jewish people, in worshiping what for them would have been an alien God.

I suppose I’m leaving out the non-Jewish “God Fearers” who frequented synagogues in the diaspora nations, but according to Fredriksen, these “God Fearers,” while worshipping and praying to Israel’s God on Shabbos, also worshipped and prayed to the various pagan gods during the other days of the week. As long as they behaved themselves while in Jewish community, these “God Fearers” were not required to leave their other “gods” behind.

Changing gods “was tantamount to changing ethnicity” but without undergoing the formal rite of conversion, abandoning the pagan gods and worshiping the God of Israel only would seem not only bizarre, but an all but impossible act.

What was everyone, human and divine, so upset about? Paul (and others like him), in proclaiming the gospel, radically disrupted the long-lived and socially stable arrangements prevailing between synagogues, god-fearers, and the larger pagan community; and they disrupted relations within the pagan community itself, from those of immediate family right up through the larger family of fellow citizens and the cities’ gods.

It’s easy to see why just about everybody learned to hate Paul, from many of the Jews in the diaspora, to the citizens of the various pagan communities in which the Apostle operated. He was stirring up a hornet’s nest of trouble no matter who he talked to, Jew or Gentile. The Jews needed the good will of the Gentile community around them and the Gentiles needed to be able to live life as was expected of them by the self-same community. Paul threatened all of that.

Receiving the SpiritIt was a miracle that anyone bucked the system at all and came to faith, and yet it was a miracle God arranged.

But this, as I suggested above, put the Gentile disciples into an uncertain state:

But Paul’s pagans fell into neither category. Like converts, his pagans made an exclusive commitment to the god of Israel; unlike converts, they did not assume Jewish ancestral practices (food ways, Sabbath, circumcision, and so on). Like god-fearers, Paul’s people retained their native ethnicities; unlike god-fearers, they no longer worshiped their native gods. Paul’s pagans-in-Christ are neither converts nor god-fearers.

Then Fredriksen asked the poignant question:

So who and what are they?

The very same question I’ve been dealing with lately.

You may not like Fredriksen’s answer:

…they occupied a social and religious no-man’s land. Eschatologically, however, they represented a population long anticipated within centuries of Jewish restoration theology: they were pagans-saved-at-the-End.

Paul and the other apostles and elders in the ancient Messianic movement then known as “the Way,” would have seen these droves of Gentiles turning to Israel’s God through Jesus-devotion as the fulfillment of prophesy, that at the coming of the close of the present age, the Goyim would be redeemed as part of God’s overarching plan of redemption for Israel.

Seen from that perspective, it would have been a very exciting time for Paul. He couldn’t possibly have realized that nearly two-thousand years later, both Israel and the faithful among the nations would still be waiting for Messiah’s return. He may indeed have believed, as other Jews in Messiah did, that Yeshua’s coming back in power and glory was imminent.

I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, both related to this review series and otherwise, that in all likelihood, Paul had no idea how to fully resolve the social status of Gentiles in Jewish community, including the development of a complete and functional halachah for such a population.

If I’m reading Fredriksen right, he likely didn’t think this was a problem. If Messiah’s return was right around the corner, so to speak, why bother? The effort would be wasted and Yeshua would be back so quickly that he’ll be the one who will finish the job of establishing how Gentiles were supposed to be integrated.

Photo: First Fruits of Zion

Or, given that all Jews were to be returned to Israel as part of the Messianic promise, all Israel’s enemies would be defeated and removed from the Jewish homeland, and all (or the vast majority) of Gentiles would reside in their own nations, the task of integration would be completely unnecessary. Except for events such as the moadim in which devoted Gentiles would come to Jerusalem to pay homage to God, Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Kingdom might not do much mixing at all, at least as Paul may have seen things.

Here’s an important point Fredriksen made that I think should be shared:

What about Paul? Paul’s circumstances differed pointedly from those of the Baptizer and of Jesus. His “mission field” was the cities of the eastern empire. His hearers were not Jews but pagans. And these he called to repent not of “Jewish” sins (i.e., breaking the commandments), but of “pagan” sins (most especially idolatry and its perennial rhetorical companion, porneia).

I mentioned this above but here we see Fredriksen emphasizing the imperative of each population repenting of sins specifically connected to their own populations in terms of how they had come into relationship with God. For Jews, it was primarily the Sinai and New Covenants, and while the New Covenant blessings also could be applied to the Gentile believers in terms of the promise of the resurrection and giving of God’s Spirit, that overlap only covered just so much common ground.

One of the clearer commandments for the Gentiles was to worship the God of Israel only, but their/our lives were not so specifically defined and delineated as were the Jews.

The Gentiles were to practice righteousness and justice, but these concepts were less “about religious sentiment than about showing respect.”

So how were the Gentiles called to “fulfill the law” (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14-15; 1 Cor. 14:34)?

The common translation of the Greek in Romans 5:1 is rendered “justified by faith” but Fredriksen suggests that this would better be understood as a directive for the non-Jewish disciples to practice piety toward God and justice (charity) toward others.

Piety toward God can be covered in commandments such as no other gods, no graven images (idols), and no abuse of God’s Name, while justice toward others is exemplified in no murder, no adultery (or other sexual sins), no theft, no lying, and no coveting.

So, reading Paul without anachronism, “fulfilling the law” for a Gentile means turning away from pagan idols and turning to God alone as the One God “through baptism into the death, resurrection, and impending return of his [God’s] son” and making “right toward each other by acting rightly toward each other–‘not like the ethne who did not know God’ (1 Thess. 4:5; cf. Rom. 1:18-32).”

JerusalemBut then “who enters the Kingdom,” as Fredriksen asks? This is also a question recently asked in the comments section of my aforementioned recent blog post.

Since approximately the second century, in part basing their view on their reading of Romans 9-11, most Christians have answered “only Christians.” This despite Paul’s insistence, in this very passage of Romans, that “the fullness of the ethne” and “all Israel” will be saved (11:25-26), and that God’s promises are “irrevocable” (11:29; cf. 15:8).

No, not “true Israel” or “new Israel” but “all Israel will be saved!” Exclamation point. End of story.

But Fredriksen says not just all Israel but “the fullness of the Gentiles”. That sounds like a lot, and that’s not a very Christian point of view.

God’s universalism, in short, is a very Jewish universalism. And his particular universalism is reflected in the ways that Paul imagines ethnicity in the eschatological community, both the proleptic one of the present ekklesia, before the Parousia, and the final community, once Christ returns.

In both present ekklesia and future Kingdom, Jews and Gentiles are “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28) and yet Paul absolutely insisted that all those “in Christ” should and must remain Jew and Gentile, distinct from one another, and Paul “has no problem accommodating both difference and oneness.”

That may not have been a problem for Paul, especially as I said before, because he believed the present ekklesia was to be short-lived and Messiah would settle the matter once the Kingdom was established, but it’s a problem we struggle with today, if only for those of us who have left the anachronistic interpretive traditions of Christianity behind and who have chosen to engage with the Jewish scriptures on their own terms.

If the nations, through an eschatological miracle, now worship Israel’s god alone, then even though they remain ethnically distinct, they are spiritually joined to God’s family.

Even our ability to call God “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15) is a deeply mystical mystery, one we may end up spending all of our lives exploring.

According to Fredriksen, the Jewish Paul believed “Eschatological Israel will stand together with but distinct from the other nations, for they are the nation long ago set apart by God.”

I completely and wholeheartedly agree, both with Fredriksen and with Paul (assuming Fredriksen’s understanding of Paul is correct).

The Jewish PaulIt may not seem so, but I’ve only scratched the surface of Fredriksen’s article regarding the connections between Gentile devotion to the God of Israel and the redemption of Israel herself.

So far, I’ve found all of the chapters I’ve read and reviewed to be very illuminating and edifying and I hope, if you choose to read the Nanos/Zetterholm volume, that you will as well.

There are only three essays left for me to consume, though it seems like I’ve gotten through little more than half the book.

I’ll post my next review soon.

11 thoughts on “Book Review of Paul within Judaism, “The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel””

  1. Maybe you can clarify a thought I’m struggling with regarding Fredriksen’s perspective.

    Where does she believe these pagans are coming from? I mean, where is Paul finding them? Does she suppose he is collecting pagans in these communities from somewhere other than the local synagogue?

    To me this makes a big difference because why would a pagan be in a synagogue unless they are drawn to Israel’s G-d in some way? And if they are drawn to a G-d that their fathers have not known, wouldn’t that in itself be enough to be scandalous and risk all sorts of social troubles?

    I struggle with the idea that Israel is okay with anyone adding HaShem into their pantheon of gods and not zealous for Him so much that they expect a pagan to renounce their false gods at some point if they hope to worship HaShem as well. What evidence is cited that Judaism of the Second Temple Era didn’t expect non-Jews to ditch their false gods?

    I’ve wrestled with these ideas ever since R. Derek Leman reposted an old entry (maybe it was you who was looking for it…).

    I want to take this scholar seriously, but there are some big gaps in my understanding of the material presented and it’s hard to do so just yet.

    1. Unfortunately, I can’t quote from the entire article, but yes, she believes Paul was finding many or most of his disciples in local diaspora synagogues. It’s her contention that Gentile God Fearers, while worshiping the God of Israel, also maintained worship to the pagan gods, which would have been a part of their family, social, and business life. Paul made the radical proposal that these God Fearers give up their pagan gods and turn their backs on everything they ever knew because of the good news brought by the Jewish Messiah that even the Gentiles could be reconciled to the One God of Israel and thus be redeemed.

      There’s been an assumption, and I’ve shared it, that God Fearers were already on board with ethical monotheism, but Fredriksen isn’t the first scholar I’ve heard say that this wasn’t true.

  2. Good point, Lisa. Outside of synagogue settings, Paul’s attempts at converting rank pagans were disasters. Thinking of Mars Hill and Ephesus.

    1. Steve – that’s exactly what I was thinking. I’ve always heard and told my children that neither Yeshua nor Paul were found in taverns seeking converts. The modern models that I grew up with for “converting the lost” are not based on Scriptural models and really, they make no sense to me.

      James – I am still turning this over in my mind. While I understand that the convert would have cut himself/herself off from the worship of other gods, and I understand that a G-d Fearer may be in the middle somewhere and the denial of their family gods may take time and be a matter of coming to their own conclusion, I find it difficult to think that Judaism was accepting of it. Probably because my experience with religious Jews is that if I claim to worship their G-d then I must, by necessity, NOT worship any other god at the same time. But maybe that’s my unique experience as well.
      Also, it’s probably a bit obvious that I don’t have the time or capacity to read like you do. 🙂 So I am very grateful for your reviews as they help me to understand the scholarly discussions better.
      I think my sensibilities want to have the G-d Fearers in a category JUST prior to converts and further away from paganism with something akin to “seekers” in the dual pagan category. I guess I find it a smidge offensive to be categorized as a G-d Fearer and yet it would somehow be acceptable (at that time, according to this understanding) for me to decide to worship some other god right along with HaShem.

    2. @Steve P.– I wouldn’t call Mars Hill a disaster. The Athenians seemed to take Rav Shaul’s “babblings” fairly academically. Acts 17:17 shows us that he was speaking not only in the synagogues but also in the marketplace. Now, I don’t know the mechanics of that marketplace activity in cosmopolitan Athens, whether he merely wandered around striking up conversations with strangers, or whether he might actually have set up a stall like the surrounding vendors (mideast bazaar style), or if there might even have been a public square set aside for entertainers of various kinds (e.g., jugglers, acrobats, singers, orators, instrumental musicians, accepting contributions in a hat or a basket much as is sometimes seen nowadays on the streets of large cities. Nonetheless, when he thus came to the attention of some philosophically-minded Atheneans, they actually invited him to the Areopagus (on Mars Hill) which was a much more highly recognized place where orators might be heard. And he did find there a few who heard and joined him. Hence we would have to suggest that his audience was not comprising solely those who were already G-d-fearers.

      In Ephesus, on the other hand, the events over a period of time began to be perceived by some to threaten their trade in religious articles, so some rabble-rousers raised a riot and a mob that got out-of-hand. In Thessalonica, even speaking in the synagogues was too much for some to put up with. I’ve seen that dynamic myself, in a modern synagogue. So I don’t think we can draw a line between the venues where Rav Shaul spoke, to separate out success from disaster or “rank pagans” from G-d-fearers.

      About Fredriksen’s view that G-d-fearers tended toward henotheism rather than true Jewish monotheism, I suppose actual conditions may have varied somewhat from the early G-d-fearing model that we see in Elisha’s time. In 2Kgs.5 Naaman the Syrian (Aramean) pleaded to take home some dirt (sufficient to construct an earthen altar) where he vowed to perform sacrifice and make offerings solely to Israel’s G-d, except for a professional and political concession to accompany his master in the house of Rimmon. Nonetheless he had confessed to Elisha his recognition that there was no G-d in all the earth except in Israel, which seems to imply that he no longer considered Rimmon qualified as such and that any related religious behavior he might perform was merely meaningless formality.

      I imagine that in Rav Shaul’s era there may have existed a range of feelings among those within the general category of G-d-fearers. Some may have begun merely to be attracted to the ethical teachings of Judaism, and thus have frequented the synagogues and been attracted to Rav Shaul’s presentations, without yet being fully convinced of ethical monotheism; while others may have progressed farther in their thinking toward a position like unto that of Naaman whose leprosy had been healed. Modern G-d-fearers who are pursuing Rav-Yeshua discipleship would, of course, be much more like Naaman and even beyond him. Hence the term “G-d-fearer” is probably too general and broad to serve as a label for Rav-Yeshua disciples, even though it may be appropriate as an adjective or a general category.

  3. This is so fascinating! I’m so glad I found your blog. It’s so important for me to understand the Jewish context of the Gospel message and Paul’s epistles.

  4. Has anyone said WHY “God-fearers” would have been there if they weren’t on board with ethical monotheism or whatever we might think is or was or should have been the point of the matter? Yes, I’ve heard it before, too, that these people weren’t necessarily converted even in their hearts (much less as Jews at all). I’ve also, though, known of pastors who didn’t see it that way and called themselves God-fearers; but that’s not the point. Why would such people have been hanging out? Just adding another god to their collection or something?

  5. No one in the Pagan first Century world would take a day off from their normal line of work, and go to synagogue just to smooze. It was illegal, and costly to meet at a synagogue, and only a real drawing from G-d could have produced that ‘to hell with Caesar’ attitude.

    Where Paul made a difference was with those few God Fearer’s going home, and grabbing all their friends and family back to hear the guy with the Gospel where becoming a Jew didn’t seem to be required to get together with the Jews’ God who actually made a difference in people’s lives…unlike all the statues around town.

    If the nations, through an eschatological miracle, now worship Israel’s god alone, then even though they remain ethnically distinct, they are spiritually joined to God’s family.

    Being connected to G-d was what was desired…not Judaism, which was and is still foreign to this pagan world. It still is.

  6. Apparently the issue of God-fearers and whether or not they also continued to worship their local pagan gods is up for discussion today. I just read a comment made by Derek Leman on his blog post Paul Was Too Jewish For The Synagogue, where he states in part:

    As you have heard in “Paul and Judaism” sessions at SBL (sessions we both attended) God-fearers were allowed to participate in the Greco-Roman cult and the synagogues expected them to unless they converted.

    I don’t know Derek’s source in terms of his opinion, but apparently, it’s not an unknown concept in New Testament scholarship, even if it doesn’t make a great deal of intuitive sense by modern standards.

  7. Paul (and others like him), in proclaiming the gospel, radically disrupted the long-lived and socially stable arrangements prevailing between synagogues, god-fearers, and the larger pagan community; and they disrupted relations within the pagan community itself, from those of immediate family right up through the larger family of fellow citizens and the cities’ gods. (Fredriksen)

    Whatever had been their reason(s), I tend to agree with this general outcome once they and people in more plainly pagan places started hearing from Paul. And given that the author of this piece of the book reminds her readers Paul’s audience was in parts of the empire that weren’t so Jewish, I recall that there were people with ambitions for political leadership back at the other part.

  8. That is, such people would have to be acclimated to some degree.

    Some people get tired of hearing it, but Herod is an example of something being very “off” in the empire in relation to Judaism. He went through some kind of process, at some point was considered acceptable (to someone) as a Jew, and obtained a Roman position and transfer. But this was apparently not the motivation of all.

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