I have interacted with theology as a preacher and someone involved in Christian thought, but I think more like a historian. As I often say, theology makes my head hurt.
So when I come to this problem of the new perspective on Paul, I am aware that there has been a massive investment by the church in interpreting Paul. Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Calvinists, Arminians, Orthodox, and many others are stake holders. But my tendency is to want to skip it all and talk about the Jewish guy who wrote all those letters in the first century.
So I have been open to a “Paul within Judaism” perspective associated with Mark Nanos and not so much involved in debates within Protestant theology.
There is a book of articles about the Paul-in-Jewish-context approach called Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm.
It is a book of articles and I do not propose to blog straight through it. I am going to select articles and intersperse them with other things I will blog about. I do not know whether I will do all of the articles.
So first off, I am choosing an article by Paula Fredriksen. I have read and appreciated her book on the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Her article is called “The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”.
Her aim is to place Paul “within the world of late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic hope”.
She makes a contrast between Jesus and Paul. Jesus battled demons who were local and made those they possessed sick or insane. Paul battled cosmic demons who were the same as the pagan gods. These demon-gods pervaded civic and family life for the non-Jewish recipients of Paul’s message.
Ethnic and national identity could not be readily separated from religion. She cites Apion, who in 39 CE asked “If the Jews wish to be citizens of Alexandria why don’t they worship the Alexandrian gods?”
The problem of diaspora Jews was that simply by living in Gentile cities, they were living in pagan religious institutions–that is what the cities were. Jews tried to accommodate to this. The LXX of Exodus 22:28 seemed to say “do not revile the gods.” Rabbis used this and other teaching to get Jews to tolerate their neighbors and adapt to living with the surrounding paganism.
Pagans, in turn, often showed respect for Israel’s God. Some of them converted. But this was extremely unusual. It meant denying their heritage and cutting themselves off from their family and city. It was a kind of “cultural treason”. Nevertheless, proselytes were tolerated.
More commonly, people associated with Judaism by visiting synagogues and even making pilgrimages to Jerusalem to pray in the court of the Gentiles at the Temple. These became targets of Paul’s message. They already understood concepts like christos, the Law, the prophets, Abraham, and the Temple.
But by targeting these people, Paul ran into resistance. This was because Paul threatened the stable and comfortable accommodation between the synagogue and the larger community. The reason for this was that Paul called the pagans not just to respect Israel’s God, but to stop their devotion and sacrifices to the institutional gods of their cities and families.
People would have blamed any earthquakes, floods, or diseases then on this disrespect for the gods. Anger against Paul would have been not just human anger but the wrath of the gods. And the Jewish communities also would have been placed at risk by being identified with this.
Gentiles who became “Christians” were not proselytes or god-fearers. In other words, they neither affiliated fully with the culture of Judaism nor the cosmopolitan Greek culture. They became a new culture, a new creation that had not existed before. This upset social stability in the diaspora cities.
Fredriksen sees the eschatological significance of this. Paul called people to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). He saw this as fulfillment of scriptures (e.g. Isaiah 45:22, Tobit 14:6). So his radical call for no more sacrifice to idols fit into a belief that God’s timetable had moved the clock to just before dawn. The messiah had come already and would very soon inaugurate the final redemption (Romans 13:11 ff.).
So social stability did not matter in this situation of apocalyptic fulfillment.
Fredriksen goes on to apply this to Paul’s understanding of righteousness. I will have to talk about that in a second post on this article.