According to Paula Fredriksen, the Apostle Paul had taught that the current age was about to end and the God of Israel was about to inaugurate a new age with the risen Jesus as the royal messiah. His coming from heaven would topple the pagan gods, call the dead to life, and institute the kingdom of David. For Paul the major sign of this was the gathering of the nations represented by his own work calling non-Jews to abandon pagan worship and turn to the God of Israel and Jesus.
Obviously the event Paul expected did not happen in the time frame he expected.
This resulted in several afterlife’s for Paul in works attributed to him that modified his expectations.
Second Thessalonians included a list of things that had to happen before the end (I think that letter is genuine but that it does contain non-Pauline material: from the prophet Silvanus who wrote it with Paul).
Colossians and Ephesians moved in the direction of a realized eschatology with the powers already defeated and the dead, in some way, already raised. Also, in Ephesians, Paul’s insistence on a distinction between Jews and Gentiles dissolved into a kind of universal ethnicity.
In the Pastoral Epistles a church was given structure in the expectation that the world might go on and on.
Paula Fredriksen’s concern, in Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle, is to call us back to something Christianity has lost about Paul. That is his Jewishness, his view that Gentiles have a place in God’s plan as Gentiles and Jews have a place in God’s plan as Jews. These were complimentary positions—both important in God’s economy. But Paul did not merge the two.
Early interpreters of Paul also came out of the non-monotheistic milieu that Paul and his assemblies had lived in. Platonic interpreters of Paul often insisted that Paul called them to worship a high God greater than the lesser demiurge, the god of Israel. This shows not just in Marcion and other gnostic-tending teachers, but in the church father, Justin Martyr.
Thus, Paul’s commitment to the God of Israel was twisted around . Also the dialectical contrasts in his letters, such as law-gospel, flesh-spirit, works-grace, got interpreted as contrasts between Judaism and Christianity. People saw Paul as a convert, an ex-Jew, and even an anti-Jew.
This utterly turned Paul on his head. So Fredriksen has written to help us get past the filters of tradition that have distorted the historical Paul.
I can’t help but agree with much of this.
I was recently reading some discussion about the call of some environmentalists for people to stop having children. In the comments someone brought up Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, where he supported celibacy. Thus Christianity also was antinatalist, the commenter claimed. But Paul believed this world was soon passing away.
The world went on. And on. And on. So Christianity, which lives in a world that has gone on, cannot just adopt the perspective of Paul. His perspective on this proved shortsighted. To be honest, so did that of Jesus.
So there is a theological and ethical need for Christians to apply a faith forged in the heat of apocalyptic expectation to a world with ongoing family, institutional, and national life. The problem is that in taking the apocalyptic out of Paul, we run the risk of badly misunderstanding him and losing his Jewishness. In another post, I will try to talk about positive ways to deal with this problem.