Eschatological Gentiles

Paula Fredriksen’s impressive recent book, The Pagans’ Apostle, prioritizes apocalyptic as the interpretive frame through which to read the letters of Paul. Her Paul is not the innovative theologian of justification by faith as says the Old Perspective. Nor is he the ethnic iconoclast, the prophet breaking down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, as say many proponents of the New Perspective. Instead, according to Fredriksen, what drove Paul’s mission to the nations was his indelible conviction that the end of the age, the general resurrection, and, most importantly, the return of the Messiah was imminent. God revealed this to Paul through visionary experiences of the risen Christ—the one Paul came to understand as the first fruits of the Resurrection of the dead. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus did not mean first and foremost that Jesus was God or that death had been defeated, etc. It meant the end of the age had begun and the resurrection of all the dead was at hand.

Paul’s mission therefore, was centered on fulfilling certain biblical end-times prophecies concerning “eschatological gentiles.” He worked tirelessly against the clock on two fronts.

First, to facilitate the flight of pagans out of paganism and into certain Jewish modes of existence (monotheism, sexual purity, holiness/separation). This was to fulfill an apocalyptic reading of Deuteronomy 32:43, quoted in Romans 15:10—“Rejoice, O Nations, with his people.” As such, Paul compelled his ex-pagans to remain ethnically distinct from Israel, to remain gentile pilgrims rejoicing in the redemption of Israel’s God (Isaiah 66:18). Paul’s harshest criticism therefore was for those who dissolved this differentiation between Gentile and Jew, subsuming the ex-pagan into ethnic Israel through circumcision. For Paul, the time of judgement and salvation was very near—the gentiles as gentiles were to worship God alongside Israel.

Secondly, Paul worked to arose the jealousy of his kinsmen. He labored on this second front by means of the first. By gathering eschatological gentiles, pledging to them the apocalyptic inheritance promised to Israel’s patriarchs, Paul expected Jews to soon flock to the gospel en mass in order to not miss out on their end-times privileges. But pressing his message onward, farther and farther into the pagan Mediterranean, Paul looked back upon Israel with confusion; how could every nation and every tongue rejoice in the eschatological messianic salvation of God if Israel refused to do so? Thus Paul’s answer in Romans 9-11: jealousy would eventually overtake the synagogues.

All in all, Fredriksen’s approach is thoroughly removed from the detriments of theological obligations. Her portrait of the Apostle is for this reason strange and compelling. He is, as he should be, a man of his own time—an ancient apocalyptic Jew.

As Fredriksen notes often, from earliest letter to latest letter, Paul grows only more certain that the time is short (Romans 13:11). Because of this Fredriksen’s category of “eschatological gentile” fits so well; Paul had neither the time nor the biblical precedent to make gentiles into Jews. In his own lifetime—in his recruitment of idol-abandoning gentiles and in his monetary collection among them for Jerusalem—Paul was acting out biblical (Isaianic) patterns reserved by God for the great and final restoration of Israel. Doctrines of atonement, ecclesiology, and christology are all subservient in Paul to his eschatological vision.

 

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