For these reasons I’m grateful for Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle. This wide-ranging, deeply learned, but accessible argument gives, at a minimum, a lot of help in bypassing anachronistic assumptions, mistranslations, and other blind alleys.
Fredriksen first explores what it meant in the ancient world to have an identity such as “Jewish” or “Greek”—not what we would think, given the identity politics of today. Ethnicity, nationality, clan, class, the arts, education, and religion formed something like a single, nonnegotiable legacy. Yet when it came to these categories, the ancients could be surprisingly accommodating. We might shake our heads at the thought of Jewish boys in Alexandria exercising nude in a gymnasium. We might imagine that a wealthy donor to a synagogue who also observed her city’s polytheistic cult must have been shocking and singular. But letters, legal documents, and inscriptions don’t lie, and the logic of live-and-let-live is plain: when custom and ritual mattered more than personal assent to dogma, there was much less to fight about concerning religion—even in cities where people fought like cats and dogs over politics and their ordinary personal affairs.
These realities entailed a surprising amount of fudging even with Judaism’s famous “monotheism.” In the pre-Christian and early Christian eras, the question of which god or gods existed was, except to a few intellectuals, not compelling. Gods existed through their public and communal cults, which quite demonstrably and persistently existed. Through constant and elaborate observances, people acted out their loyalty to the commonwealth and its laws, to their common past and indivisible future.
Religious conflict did arise, but mainly in a way very different from modern religious conflict. If individuals neglected the cult that, in the public mind, enacted the soundness and fertility of humans, animals, and fields, the success of the army and the flourishing of trade, the god or gods would take revenge on the whole society, with plague, famine, economic collapse, and natural and military disasters. Not to honor one’s own god or gods was the basic contagious sin. Because different societies could recognize that they shared this ethic and respect each other for it, even some pious Jews more or less condoned polytheism, backed up by Scripture treating the gods of other nations as inferior deities—daimonia in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament. Paul evidently held this to be true.
In the eyes of many Jews, the apocalypse itself would be required for pagans to turn toward the worship of the one true God. Even then they might not be considered able to “convert” in the modern sense of fully joining another religion. (Jewish circumcision after the eighth day of life was widely held to be invalid, though some adult proselytes did have themselves circumcised.) Fredriksen calls the pagans who turned to Judaism “ex-pagan pagans”—quite an awkward formulation, but any other term would still have to account for what to us is a great paradox: in the heavenly arrays of the saved in apocalyptic literature, all the nations, tribes, and so on are who they were before. The only difference is that now they do one critical thing, worship God, having ceased to worship idols.
Christianity realized on earth, in the form of a multiethnic church, some measure of the apocalyptic visions long familiar to Jews. This came about, according to Fredriksen, by accident. The sense that God’s Kingdom was coming encouraged the gathering in of Palestinian Jews to the Jesus movement in preparation; the failure of the Kingdom to manifest itself right away in material, historical form suggested that Diaspora Jews must come into the fold too. Pagans were already there in the Anatolian and European synagogues, participating in various ways, and Paul found them receptive to his message. When, generation after generation, the world failed to end, the Kingdom of God was reconceived and seen as transcendent; the terminology of Middle Platonism was helpful here.