My last day at SBL involved a session on Paul’s Jewishness. I got to hear Mark Nanos’ full paper, “Locating Paul on a Map of First Century Judaism”, and part of Paula Fredriksen’s “A Way Forward for Research and Discussion of ‘Paul and Judaism'”, before drifting off to another session. People like Nanos and Fredriksen keep me honest since I understand Paul in significantly less clean terms than they do.
Mark’s paper was vintage Nanos, revisiting arguments from his paper on I Cor 9:19-23 (that Paul never actually behaved like a pagan, only reasoned like one rhetorically to persuade Gentiles of Jewish truths), and urges that we attach a disclaimer to everything Paul says negatively about the law: the negativity applies to non-Jews alone, for Paul was Torah-observant, remained Torah observant, and would naturally have wanted other Jews to remain Torah-observant in the body of Christ.
In the part of her paper I heard, Fredriksen suggested that the term “conversion” needs to be dropped from discussion, for the standard view is upside down. Paul didn’t urge conversion on pagans, but just the opposite: they did not have to become proselytes (Jews) when turning to the God of Israel. Nor was Paul breaking down ethnic boundaries: he in fact urged that Jews remain Jews, and pagans remain pagans, in the body of Christ.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the question of conversion can be looked at from so many angles, and it’s hard to keep them straight. From the viewpoint of Paul himself, Fredriksen may be partly right (I think Paul did effectively break down ethnic barriers in Galatians, then later reinforced them in Romans), but both Jews and pagans had to “turn to” something rather different under the God of Israel, namely, Christ, who was at least on the road to being deified if not implicitly already so. From a more technical point of view (a la Zeba Crook), by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted, in the sense that while Paul expressed his vocation in terms of a call or commission, that’s exactly the language of patronage/benefaction — he was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor (“conversion”) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time. And the issue doesn’t stop there, for what ultimately matters, I think, is how Paul was perceived by others; he could express his calling like Isaiah and Jeremiah all he wanted, but if other Jews or Jewish Christians could readily deny the claims of his gospel, then he effectively taught apostacy, in which case the term “conversion” starts to look very appropriate. Fredriksen nonetheless scored some real zingers, not least in her observations (reinforcing Mark Nanos) about Paul’s unyielding Jewish abhorrence of idolatry.