Paula Fredriksen continues her article in Paul Within Judaism on the meaning of the rejection of idol worship for Paul’s followers in the context of the situation of diaspora Jews.
She says that the messages of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul converge in the call for repentance in the face of the nearness of God’s kingdom. John and Jesus made this call in a Palestinian Jewish context. They called for Jews to return to keeping the Ten Commandments. Jesus particularly articulated the two tables of the law as meaning to love God and to love neighbor. In Mark 10:19 he called directly for keeping the Ten Commandments. This was the meaning of Jesus’ call to “righteousness”. Righteousness was an almost techincal term for the keeping of the second slate of commandments, those dealing with the right treatment of others.
But Paul’s mission field was different. For Jews repentence meant keeping the commandments more purely and without hypocracy. But for Paul’s people it meant rejecting idol worship and the associated immoral lifestyle (porneia).
Fredriksen speculates that Paul did not use usebeia, the term for the first table of the law (we might translate it as “piety”), because it included the Sabbath commandment which he did not impose upon Gentiles. It was enough that they reject sacrificing to idols.
But Paul made frequent use of “righteousness” and related words. He links this righteousness with faith. In Christian, especially Protestant, interpretation this has yielded the phrase “justification by faith.” People have worried about whether their faith was sincere enough or strong enough or authentic enough to save them. This focus on faith as an inward state of mind is foreign to Paul’s use.
She struggles to find an English way to express the idea of righteousness or justification as Paul used it. She falls back on E. P. Sanders’ awkward new word, “righteoused”. God “righteoused” the Gentile believers by conferring the Holy Spirit. So, in Protestant dogmatic language, she seems to equate justification and sanctification.
She points to Romans 13 where in v. 9 Paul recites some of the commandments from the second table. This is the content of righteousness. For his Gentile followers, Paul puts this in light of the end times:
So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. . .(Romans 13:12b-13 NET Bible).
What Paul meant by justification by faith was “right behavior according to the Law on account of steadfast attachment to the gospel”.
In Romans 13 Paul is giving the fast-approaching dawn of the kingdom as motivation for right behavior. I am not sure how relevant that is two thousand years later.
Fredriksen also gives a unique reading of the notion of universalism in Paul. According to Romans 11:25-26 both the “fullness of the Gentiles” and “all Israel” will ultimately enter the kingdom. Since the second century Christians have read this restrictively to mean only the Gentiles and Jews who have entered the Church.
She points out that there could only have been a few thousand Christians in the world when Paul wrote this. And he thought the end was near. So, if God was only going to save Christians, he was thinking pretty small.
If you think, though, about the God Paul believed in who had promised to bless all nations through Abraham (Genesis 18:18), then it seems Paul must mean something big. “All nations” in Genesis is linked to the the Table of Nations (traditionally 70 nations). And “all Israel” in the Hebrew Bible means all the tribes, including those scattered among the nations.
All the Gentiles and all Israel constitute the population of God’s kingdom. Even about the pagan gods there is a tension in Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15:25 God destroys them. But in Philippians 2:10-11, they join in the universal confession of Christ. In Romans 8 redemption is cosmic in scope. So Paul thought bigger than we might think.
We should not require him to be consistent. He was an activist, not a philosopher or systematic theologian. But he probably responded in his own lifetime to the inexplicable delay of the parousia and the unexpected positive response of the Gentiles by revising the elements his end-time scenario. The fullness of the Gentiles were going to turn. Then God would end the hardening of Israel. So Paul’s work to turn Gentiles away from the gods was a major step toward the redemption of Israel.