Fredriksen-Gentiles and delay

Today I continue with my reading of Paula Fredriksen’s Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle.

Fredriksen applies her end-time, apocalyptic perspective to issues discussed in Paul’s letters. The first followers of Jesus held that the end, characterized by the resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous, was about to happen. That it did not happen in the early 30s came as a surprise to the disciples. That it had not happened by mid-century was big problem.

Paul himself saw the delay in terms of the full number of the ethne (Gentiles) needing to follow Christ (Romans 11:25). He did not have a time-table. (My old professor, Bill Baird, thought the phrase “as far around as Illyricum” in Romans 15:19 might mean that Paul’s goal was to preach all the way “around” the Mediterranean).

Fredriksen thinks that the best speculation about Paul’s Galatian opponents might be to see them as having an alternative way of understanding Gentiles and delay. She seems to incline to the view that some early disciples saw the Gentiles as representing the 10 lost tribes. Their returning to Israel was part of the last things. But they had to actually return. That is, they had to become Jews and their males had to get circumcised.

Paul’s understanding of Abraham in Galatians may point to this. The opponents of Paul may have claimed that Abraham had been the prototype Israelite and initiated the people of God through circumcision. But Paul argues that, since his uncircumcised (Paul used the Greek akrobustia, which literally means foreskined) Gentile Christ-followers had already received the spirit, it was their faith that enabled their righteousness. It was not circumcision.

In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul makes an allegory about two kinds of Gentile mission. His mission produces children of promise, like Isaac. His opponent’s mission produces children of slavery, like Ishmael.

Galatians is a very heated and polarizing letter where sometimes Paul seems not to value the Law. Fredriksen says that in a calmer moment Paul gave us his considered position:

18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:18-20 NRSV).

What matters is keeping the commandments. So, no, Paul was not against the Law. However, for Gentiles it did not mean to seek circumcision. Also the whole context of 1 Corinthians 7 is apocalyptic–the world is passing away (v. 31).

Fredriksen asks what had happened in the decades between Jesus and Paul’s letters. She focuses on the fact that many Gentiles began attaching themselves to the Jesus movement and that time went on and some disciples died, yet the end still did not come.

She does not mention the attempt of Emperor Gaius to put an image of himself in the Temple. Jews saw this as the “desolating sacrilege” of Daniel and a sure sign of the last days. Then Gaius died and nothing happened.

It seems to me that this strengthens Fredriksen’s case. There was tremendous excitement about the end, but time went on. This would have left both Jews and proto-Christians scrambling for ways to facilitate the coming of the kingdom. Zeolots sought to precipitate the end by pursuing an uprising in Judea. Essenes and other devotees of piety sought to be even more radically pious. Some followers of Christ saw the Gentile mission as the way. But Paul and some others may have taken diverging approaches.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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1 Response to Fredriksen-Gentiles and delay

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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