Paul: the Pagans’ Apostle

Paula Fredriksen, Yale University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Paul’s letters concentrate on two ancient worlds, one Jewish, one pagan.  The first is incandescent with apocalyptic hopes, expecting G-d through his messiah to fulfill his ancient promises of redemption to Israel.  The second teems with human and divine actors, with superhuman forces and hostile cosmic gods. Fredrikson clearly outlines Paul’s situation within the social/cultural content of gods and humans, pagans and Jews, cities, synagogues and competing Christ-following assemblies, with particular attention to Paul’s letter to the Roman church. 

        Central to Pauline thought is his conviction that the kingdom of G-d is at hand, his firm belief that he lived in ‘history’s final hour’ is absolutely foundational, shaping everything Paul says and does. This vivid apocalyptic expectation unites the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth with the resurrection experience of his early followers, and accounts for their decision to spread Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom outside of the homeland to Israel within the Diaspora (p 167).  It also explains their incorporation of pagan god fearers into this new charismatic assembly (the promise of the biblical theme of Gentile inclusion in Jewish End-time traditions, the inclusion of Gentiles as a natural extension of its mission to other Jews).

        Fredriksen does careful cultural and linguistic analysis of terms and categories; calling Jesus ’Lord’ does not attest to unique divinity; it functions as an eschatological-messianic designation, not as a theistic identification (p 238).  ‘Divinity is an extremely flexible category in Mediterranean antiquity and it is applied to humans as well as to superhumans’ (p 241).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.