According to Paula Fredriksen in Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle, people have misinterpreted Paul partly because they have used the concept of religion. She has absorbed a lot of the ideas of Brent Nongbri who thinks religion doesn’t exist, but is something that modern people have made up.
I haven’t read Nongbri, but I have watched this interview with him.
It isn’t until about 15 minutes in that he gets down to his main idea, which seems to be that religion as a realm that contrasts with another realm—the secular realm—is a modern invention. So to say that religion does not exist is not to say anything about the reality of divine beings. It is more that, particularly in first-century Roman society, it was not a thing separate from political, economic or family life.
I love the idea that Paul was not religious. I do not consider myself religious either, even though I have long lived a personal and professional life that most would call religious.
Fredriksen thinks Paul has been interpreted through the lens of religious concepts. Interpreters of Paul speak as though you could contrast his religion with another religion called Judaism. This has particularly impacted the discussion of “justification by faith”, which people have taken as a Christian doctrine or ideology of redemption to contrast it with a different Jewish ideology of redemption.
But that whole discussion misses the point.
Justification by faith centers on two words that Paul used. First there is a word that has been misinterpreted as a redemptive status, justified. Second there is another word that has been misinterpreted , faith.
Justice was what the second table of the law of Moses was about. It was about how people treated each other. Theft, murder, adultery, false witness, and envy produced a disordered community. Paul’s denunciations of pagan society show that he saw this disorder all around him. So Fredriksen’s view is that Paul’s goal was to establish communities of just Gentiles.
Faith comes from the Greek word pistis and the Latin word fides. Both words meant faithfulness or steadfastness based upon confidence. But from Turtullian to Kierkegaard Christians have opposed it to certainty and made it into an inner disposition.
So for Fredirksen, Paul was not talking about anything like what Christian doctrinal discussions of justification by faith have been about.
Paul was thinking about the question of the righteous Gentile. Pagans could not live together justly because they did not have the Torah. Embedded in pagan society, they could not keep the Jewish law even if they admired it and tried to keep it. The passage in Romans 7:14-25 about not being able to do what the law required, applied to Gentiles without Christ.
But with Christ they were inspirited and given steadfastness by the assurance of his impending return.
Faith meant “confidence that Christ had died, been raised and was soon coming back.” This confidence “righteoused” ex-pagans “by an eschatological fiat of God through Christ”. They were “righteoused” in the sense that God’s pneuma gave them the ability to act according to the second table of the law, the commandments focused on justice to others.
So the attempts of both Old Perspective and New Perspective interpreters of Paul to see him in contrast to Judaism are wrong.
Although, I think Fredriksen makes several true and important points, I do not think her proposal is quite as radical as it sounds. Paul still held that people were saved by grace. For him the gift of salvation from destruction came in the face of divine judgment threatening to soon consume the unrighteous. But it was also salvation from the hostility, risky sexual behaviors, and drunkenness that Paul saw as marks of the pagan life.