Tag Archives: pagans

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.

And…

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.

Restoration
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.