Paula Fredriksen: Paul and Paula

Author and early-church historian Paula Fredriksen discusses the life and times of the apostle Paul.

Paula Fredriksen is William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. She specializes in the social and intellectual history of ancient Christianity, from the late Second Temple period to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In 1999 she received a national Jewish Book Award for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. Professor Fredriksen has subsequently written Augustine and the Jews, published in 2006 by Doubleday. In this interview she speaks with Vision publisher David Hulme about the life and times of the apostle Paul.


DH Some people have said that Paul wasn’t a Christian because there were no Christians in his time. How would you respond to that?

PF We think of Paul as a Christian because we’re standing on 20 centuries of Christianity’s development. But it’s clear from his own letters that he divides the world roughly into two groups: Israel and everyone else. Inside those two groups there’s almost a new precipitate, which is the community in Christ. But in terms of peoples, it’s Jews and gentiles. And his gentiles are able, through Christ, to worship the God of Israel. Taking all those things together, I would think that Paul viewed himself as a Jew.

DH Was he a “convert”?

PF We habitually think of him as “Paul the convert,” but Paul isn’t converting from Judaism to something else. He’s joining a Jewish group within Judaism. He’s a Pharisee, and then he becomes a member of this group around Jesus the Messiah. But he’s not exiting Judaism because of that.

DH In the book of Acts we read about Paul meeting people whom Luke refers to as “God-fearers.” Where do those people fit in?

PF Ancient Jews living in cities outside their own land organized their communities intocan hear it, because they are allowed to go into the synagogue and listen, just as Jews could (and did) pop into the baths, the theatre, athletic competitions or law courts, where the gods of these other nations were routinely invoked. In the ancient city, “no fences” made good neighbors.

DH Ancient Judaism is a way of life, a way of looking at everything. So what would have changed for a God-fearer when he or she became convinced by Paul’s message?

PF I imagine Paul going into a Diaspora synagogue as part of the gathering that would happen on the Sabbath, and among his audience are gentiles who are interested enough in Judaism to also be there. What they hear is an extreme form of Judaism—that the Messiah has come, and that the end of the age is at hand. They’re able to understand what Paul is talking about, because they’ve heard the Bible read to them in the synagogue.

Behaviorally, what changes for them? The difference is that Paul said they must not worship their own gods anymore; that they couldn’t eat the meat that was sacrificed to their native gods anymore; that they could only worship the God of Israel through baptism into His Son, Jesus Christ. Paul (and others like him who were giving this message to these “churched” pagans—pagans who were already in the synagogue) is giving them the message that in this regard they have to act as if they’re Jews. These gentiles are being told by Paul that, as a matter of principle, they have to violate their ancestral custom and not worship their ancestral gods. They’re going to be included, as gentiles, in the final redemption.

Now in one sense, so far, that’s normal Judaism. Paul is standing on top of a centuries-long tradition that anticipates gentiles being part of the kingdom of God. Israel will be redeemed from exile, and gentiles will be redeemed from idol worship. Paul, in this odd wrinkle in time between the resurrection and the second coming, is asking these gentiles to stop worshiping idols before the kingdom is publicly established. He’s making a much more rigorous Jewish demand on his gentiles-in-Christ than the normal synagogue would make on their pagan gentile sympathizers, because he’s saying, “You must not worship your own gods any longer.” Normal synagogues never did that. It would be much more difficult, and socially destabilizing, to be a gentile-in-Christ within Paul’s movement than to be a gentile God-fearer in a mainstream synagogue community.

DH You mentioned in your 1999 book on Jesus that there were gentile tourists in Jerusalem at the Passover season. Who were those people?

PF When you have a big empire, you have internal peace and usually a good communication system, which in antiquity means roads. So if you have domestic peace, you’re able to travel.

This is what happened in the ancient world, beginning with Alexander the Great in 300 B.C.E., as well as in the Roman period. In first-century Jerusalem, Herod’s temple was built for foot-traffic control. The largest courtyard in this beautiful building was the court of the nations, and it anticipated a lot of people coming. There was a circuit of various temples that tourists could take. There’s a big, beautiful pagan temple to the god Pan up in Banias, and people would go to that temple too. The temples in Egypt were tourist attractions forever—or so it seemed to ancient peoples. And once you came to one of these sites, you showed respect to the god whose location you were visiting, because in antiquity, gods lived in their temples. The God of Israel in a special sense was present at His altar; He lived in the temple. In the Gospel of Matthew, that’s what Jesus says: he who swears by the temple swears by Him who dwells in it. So if you were a tourist, the only polite thing to do was to show respect to the god you were visiting. When pagans went to Jerusalem for the Jewish pilgrimage festival, which they did do—Josephus mentions that several of them got trapped there once the war started with Rome—they showed respect to the Jewish God. But they were still pagans.

DH This is a very different world than we’re used to seeing on film or video. What we get out of the average movie is that members of the two groups never crossed over. And yet the second-century Roman writer Juvenal satirized his own people for keeping the Sabbath, the food laws, and so forth.

PF The way most modern people get their idea of ancient history is through the movies. In the movies, Romans dress differently from everybody else. The Romans are the ones speaking with a British accent, and the good, liberty-loving slaves are speaking with American accents. It’s an oral coding for the different populations. In I, Claudius, when Herod Agrippa comes on stage after he’s been home in Palestine for a few years, he has prayer curls the way an 18th-century Polish Jew would, because the movie has only a few seconds to indicate visually who the character is. But the historical Herod, of course, would have looked just like any other Roman. And Paul, for that matter, would probably have been clean-shaven too. People dress like each other if they’re contemporary. This idea of clearly separate populations comes from trying to code these people—historically, when we try to distinguish between them, and also visually, with movies, to make it easier to tell the story. In real life, these populations all swim in the same sea. The Western Jewish population is speaking the great Western vernacular of Greek, and there’s a normal tendency to adopt local habits.

In the movies, Romans dress differently from everybody else. The Romans are the ones speaking with a British accent, and the good, liberty-loving slaves are speaking with American accents.”

Paula Fredriksen

Some upper-class Romans were offended out of a sense of patriotism that Roman ancestral custom would be sullied somehow by picking up the ancestral custom of another group, and people like Juvenal or Tacitus would have been very grouchy about this, because it’s not the right Roman thing to do. But in fact, what that actually means is precisely what they’re complaining about: Romans were interested in other gods.

DH Would the first-century church have thought of itself as separate from Judaism?

PF When Paul writes to his congregations he often uses a Greek word that means “the group.” The word is ekklesia, translated “church” in English. But when we hear “church,” we think of an institution or something like that. He’s talking about a gathering. There is no Christian church in the way that there will be when Constantine decides to back one particular institution—certainly not a Christian church the way there is now. He’s talking about a gathering of people, and I don’t see any reason to imagine them no longer attending synagogue. Where else are they going to continue to hear Bible stories? Books are not privately owned, for the most part, in antiquity. There’s no reason to think that Paul’s gentiles, now that they’ve made this incredible commitment to the God of Israel by not worshiping their own gods anymore, would stop going to the synagogue and listening to the Bible. That’s how they have the vocabulary and the idea of God in history, so that they can comprehend the Christian message. I see this group that Paul designates the ekklesia as being a special subgroup within the penumbra of the Diaspora synagogue. But I don’t even think that they think of themselves as something that’s wholly other than Judaism. After all, the God that they’re gathering together to worship is precisely the God of Israel.

DH It’s been said that Paul’s been wrongly portrayed for the last 2,000 years or so. What do you make of the idea that we’ve not really known who he is?

PF People who loom large in history are very easy to misinterpret, precisely because they’re so important culturally that, in a sense, the image of the person is continually obligated to make sense to us. So this is how Paul can seem to be a Protestant; “He doesn’t like all that messy ritual,” Luther thought. Or he can very easily seem to be an orthodox Christian. Certainly, when Augustine, in the fourth century, does his commentaries on Paul, he sees him as a type of proto-Augustine.

What’s really enabled us to stop being cheated of a historically accurate image of Paul is all the work that’s been done in the past half century on late Second Temple Judaism. Seeing Paul in his Jewish context has enabled historians to understand how this man can be a passionately committed Jew and at the same time be a passionately committed apostle for the message of redemption in Jesus Christ, without being confused about the prospect. What he’s doing is precisely a radical form of Judaism. We, with the benefit of retrospect, know that this form of Judaism will eventually give rise to gentile Christianity. Paul in his own lifetime did not have the benefit of our retrospect.

DH We hear increasingly about the new perspective on Paul; what exactly is the “old” perspective?

PF The old perspective on Paul is that he became a Christian, and that that meant something other than being Jewish. It’s captured very nicely in a children’s Christian cartoon I once saw, where Paul is on the road to Damascus, and he has the Jewish male head covering—the kippa—on his head. He gets knocked down, the shining light is on him, Jesus speaks to him, and for the rest of the cartoon he doesn’t have a kippa anymore. Finished. He’s “Christian.” Christianity is so easily imagined as somehow the opposite of Judaism, because that’s how Christianity has presented Judaism to itself in the centuries long after Paul. In Paul’s lifetime, Christianity is only understandable as an extreme form of Judaism. And Paul thinks of himself as a Jew. What’s his choice? The only other option would be to think of himself as a gentile.

DH You’ve noted that the divide between Judaism and Christianity resulted from politics within the Roman Empire and Constantine’s decision in favor of Roman Christianity. Under Constantine the Sabbath was officially changed to Sunday and Christians were told not to confer with rabbis on the dating of Easter. What would Paul have made of that if he were living in that period?

PF We habitually refer to the conversion of Constantine. I think it’s more appropriate to say that under Constantine we have the conversion of Christianity. Christianity under Constantine becomes a form of imperial Roman culture. One Christian denomination is favored with his patronage. They get tax breaks. They get big, beautiful Bible codices copied at public expense. They can use the imperial post for free. They ask Constantine to kick out the leaders of the other Christian denominations in town. So the people who get the worst treatment after Constantine becomes a patron of this one church are other Christians. More Christians are persecuted after the conversion of Constantine than before, because they’re targeted by one particular branch of the church.

We habitually refer to the conversion of Constantine. I think it’s more appropriate to say that under Constantine we have the conversion of Christianity.” 

Paula Fredriksen

Paul’s first reaction to all of this would be that the type of Christianity Constantine is patronizing is very different from what Paul enunciated. The fact that Constantine’s Christianity understands itself as the only one that’s true to what Paul taught wouldn’t help the historical Paul’s shock in seeing how different Constantine’s Christianity was from his own. For one thing, when Constantine’s official biographer, Eusebius, writes about the emperor, he sees the foundation of the Christian Roman Empire as “Isaiah’s peace”—the Messianic peace promised in what we call the Old Testament. When Paul’s thinking about the kingdom of God, he’s certainly not thinking of the Roman emperor as His agent.

DH Is there any continuity between what we see in the fourth century and what might have been happening in the first, during Paul’s time?

PF Whether they are pagan or eventually Christian, these gentile populations in the Mediterranean never stop going to synagogue. But once some Christians develop an ideological commitment to the distinctive difference between Judaism and Christianity, this synagogue-going drives them crazy. We have complaints in sermons from bishops through the fourth and fifth centuries. We have law codes from ecclesiastical conferences in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. This means that Jewish synagogues, even if the bishop of their gentile-Christian neighbors is saying horrible things—calling the synagogues “whorehouses,” and saying that Satan lives in them, and that the Jews all killed Christ, and so on—these synagogues are still worshiping the God of Israel, reading the Bible stories in Greek, and welcoming their gentile-Christian neighbors and also their gentile-pagan neighbors into the community. It never stops. We think so easily of Paul abandoning the synagogue, of Jewish Christians no longer going to synagogue, of gentile Christians absolutely stopping on a dime, of the church and the synagogue as two completely different institutions from the beginning. But that picture is false.

DH Can you speak to the problem of anachronism and its effect on understanding Paul?

PF I’m a historian, and the most grave “original sin” for a historian is anachronism. What that means is that you lift something out of its historical context and put it in a different historical context, and so misinterpret it. If in addition we think of Paul as an orthodox Christian, we will only misinterpret him that much more. He’s living in a period where he’s not thinking in a Trinitarian manner. The idea of the Trinity hasn’t been conceived yet. His letters will have Jesus Christ in them; they will have God the Father in them; he will talk about the Spirit of God. Those are the textual origins that will be used to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, but Paul’s not thinking in a Trinitarian way.

People reading Paul assume that he’s hostile to Judaism because he’s the “inventor” of Christianity. In fact, he’s still imagining himself as a Jew and he’s presenting Christianity in continuity with Judaism. The fact that Paul is such a huge figure for Christianity makes it almost impossible for us not to interpret him anachronistically when we look at him, because it’s so important that his message speak immediately to modern Christianity. If we allow ourselves to see how much his message actually cohered with first-century Judaism, then we have to relinquish an immediate connection between him and us, between this ancient Jewish messianic movement and the modern church.