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Power, Politics, and God: Religion in the Roman Empire
Picture: Christ treading the beasts - Chapel of Saint Andrew - Ravenna © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / Creative Commons

Power, Politics, and God: Religion in the Roman Empire

Prof. Paula Fredriksen

Power, Politics, and God: Religion in the Roman Empire

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About the lecture:

In Roman antiquity, gods and humans clustered in family groups. Pagans often saw their own ethnic group, or at least their rulers, as descended from a sexual union between a human ancestor and a god; Jews used the language of family and lineage to describe their relationship with their own god (as Israel’s “father” or “husband”). What modern people think of as “religion” ancient people saw as a group-defining patrimony. People were born into their relationship—thus, into their ritual and ethical obligations—to their gods. The first generation of the Jesus movement, by reaching out to non-Jews while promoting exclusive devotion to the god of Israel, disrupted this genealogical/patrilineal model of divine/human relations. Eventually, different interpretations of the figure of Jesus as God’s messiah (christos in Greek) gave birth to a wide variety of gentile movements who argued with each other—and with Jews both within the movement and outside of it—on the correct way to relate to the high god who was the father of Christ. By the fourth century, beginning with Constantine, Roman power politics complicated—and simplified—these debates. The application of Roman state coercive force was brought to bear, first, on other Christians (“heretics”), then on traditionalists (“pagans”), and finally, even on the source of the imperial church’s Old Testament scriptures, coercion against Jews. Our time together traces the arc of these social and religious developments.

Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita, Boston University; Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Paula Fredriksen earned her doctorate in comparative religions at Princeton University (1979), and holds three honorary doctorates in religion or theology from institutions in the US (Iona), Sweden (Lund), and the Israel (Hebrew University). She has written seven books and over 100 articles on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in Mediterranean Antiquity. Her two most recent monographs, Paul. The Pagans’ Apostle (winner of the 2018 award for Best Prose from the American Publishers Association) and When Christians Were Jews, place the Jesus movement’s Jewish messianic message within the wider world of ancient Mediterranean culture, politics, and power.

Moderator: Marc Brettler, the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University.

A graduate of Brandeis University, he has published and lectured widely on metaphor and the Bible, the nature of biblical historical texts, gender issues and the Bible, and the use of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. His How to Read the Bible was the award winner in the Judaism category of the Best Books 2006 Book Awards. He is co-editor with Amy-Jill Levine of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press), the first book of its type; professors Brettler and Levine presented this book to Pope Francis in 2019. In 2017 and 2021, he was one of 100 scholars and leaders asked to participate in the “American Values Religious Voices” project.

Sunday, 6 February, 8 pm Israel / 7 pm CET / 6 pm UK / 1 pm EST

Lecture Handout



The lecture is a part of

Jews and Christians through the Centuries: Communities in Conflict and Contact

A Series from the National Library of Israel

The relations between Jews and Christians through the ages have often been fraught, in part because they share some common scripture, but often interpret it very differently. In this series, we will examine the interaction between these communities, which has varied over time and place. The series address a sensitive yet vital set of issues from a variety of approaches and perspectives, and contributes to the hope that we may move from polemic toward reconciliation.

The series was created by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with Prof. Marc Brettler (Duke University), who will be moderating each lecture and Q&A session.


Sunday February 6th 5 Adar I 08:00 - 09:00


Prof. Paula Fredriksen


Online Zoom Event Map

For whom?

General public, Researchers





Picture: Christ treading the beasts - Chapel of Saint Andrew - Ravenna © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / Creative Commons