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Paul: The pagans’ apostle by Paula Fredriksen

08 December 2017

Henry Wansbrough doesn’t find that Paul held this view of Jesus


AN IMMENSELY learned work (100 pages of notes and bibliography) by one of the leaders in the field of Pauline studies, now Professor Emerita, and attached to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this book sets out a new interpretation of Paul. Paul wrote in a world which was “incandescent with apocalyptic hopes”, and “thick with angry superhuman forces”. He was convinced that the end of the world as they knew it was alarmingly imminent, and that Jesus the Messiah was one of those lesser deities with which the world was “teeming”. Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as the first-fruits of resurrection, which would shortly be followed by the full resurrection of the dead.

The first chapter gives an excellent overview of the religious atmosphere of the time, dominated by the hope of the coming Kingdom of God that was the motive force in the mission of Jesus, and also of Paul and those to whom he took the message of the Good News. The second chapter concentrates on the Hellenization of the Jews of the Diaspora, the intermingling of Jews and “pagans”. From the beginning, the author insists that “monotheism is a species of polytheism”, and that even the monotheist Jewish world was permeated by lesser semi-divine or seemingly divine figures and demons. Plenty of witnesses are called, such as a pair of first-century Jews from Cyrene being trained as citizens; they “would have been present at” the ceremonies of the religious life of the city. Despite the stunning extent of the author’s learning, it is difficult to estimate whether her evidence is merely anecdotal, or really representative of widespread trends in society.

When we come to Pauline exegesis, the chief contention of the book becomes clear. Paul, of course, is far the earliest and most reliable witness to the beliefs of the followers of Jesus, a decade or more before the earliest Gospel came to be written. It is fair scholarship to hold that the theology of the Gospels and the Deutero-Pauline letters includes later developments, which may or may not be true to the earliest beliefs.

The study of later New Testament texts has no place here; there is barely a mention of John (certainly not John 1 or 5), and Ephesians and Colossians are mentioned on only two pages. The contention is that Paul did not hold Jesus to be God in the sense of the supreme deity, or in the sense defined in terms of Greek philosophy in the fourth century, “God from God, Light from Light”. So the important hymn of Philippians 2 is translated, “Christ Jesus, though existing in god-form, did not consider divine status something to seize upon”; and this “god-form” is that of a lesser deity.

Despite the fact that “every knee should bow” at the name of Jesus, and “every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord”, this “lord” means only “any social superior, whether human or divine”. No mention is made of the crucial passage in Isaiah 45.23, which Paul is using to show that Jesus holds the position of the Lord God. This neglects the fact that the distinction between the Lord and lesser spiritual beings has always been clear in Judaism. Similarly, in Romans 1.4, Christ Jesus was/is “appointed son of God in power by [the imminent general] resurrection of the dead” — that is, his resurrection was to inform his community “what time it was on God’s clock”. Personally, I do not find either of these exegeses convincing.

There are a few unsubstantiated departures from widely accepted views. For example, the Acts of the Apostles is dated to the early second century. Throughout the book, it is simply assumed that Paul’s statement that he received 39 lashes implies that he also inflicted such punishments. Another recurrent assumption is that the difficulty at Antioch about Peter’s eating with Christian Gentiles was that there might have been idols in the house. Also that Romans is addressed only to Gentiles; and that when Paul addresses “Jews”, he means Gentiles who act like Jews.

This is a powerful book, but not a wholly reliable guide to Paul.


Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


Paul: The pagans’ apostle
Paula Fredriksen
Yale £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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