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Paul Straddled Four Worlds

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There is a place in the western part of America where a person can straddle four states .  It is often referred to as the “four corners” region because four US states come together at one spot: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  You can see it on any map.  Theoretically, it would be possible for a person to stand with his right foot planted firmly in New Mexico, his left foot in Arizona, and reaching to the north his right hand would be in Colorado and his left would be in Utah.

When we think about it, all of us straddle different worlds.  Some in my business straddle academic and church life in America.  Then, to make things more complicated, they go home to family that speaks Spanish and has little formal education.  We all have to make our way through a complicated maze of worlds.St. Paul

This was Paul’s story too.  Paul straddled four different worlds.  The first happened to be the world and culture of his birth.  His right foot was firmly planted in the world of second temple Judaism.  It was a world shaped in large measure by what Christians call the Old Testament or what someone like Paul would have called the law, the prophets and the writings (the Tanakh).   The Hebrew Scriptures boldly declared the existence of One, True God who created all things and had made covenants with Abraham and Israel at Sinai.  Israel’s God stood in sharp contrast to the many gods and lords worshiped by the nations.  Second temple Jews lived with a sturdy expectation that God’s Kingdom would come one day to right all the wrongs and make Jerusalem the center of the world instead of an occupied city on the outskirts of the Roman empire.

This brings me to the second world Paul occupied: the world ruled by Rome.  According to Acts, Paul was a Roman citizen and used it to his advantage when it suited him.  Though Paul makes no direct mention of this in his letters, it is not unlikely that someone like Paul enjoyed its favored status.  Paul’s Jewish heritage would have placed him at odds with many aspects of Roman empire, particularly their ultimate religious claims about their gods and a growing cult devoted to Caesar.  The empire’s political claim to provide peace and security were laughable for Jews who lived everywhere—but especially in Judea–under the heel of Rome.  In some ways Rome provides the perfect foil for Paul to rail against. Pagan sacrifices were not neutral; they were offerings to demons  (1 Cor 10:20).  As many NT scholars have noted: if Jesus is the true Lord and king and king of the world, then Caesar is not.

A third world Paul straddled was Greek.  Though Paul was certainly multilingual, the letters we have from him are all written in Greek.  Greek had become the lingua franca of most places Paul traveled, even though he would have encountered dozens of different local languages and dialects.  Language is only one thing but it is a big thing because with language goes literature, poetry, education and ideas which slowly but inevitably permeate society.  When Paul quoted the OT in his letters, more often than not he quoted from some Greek translation of the OT.  It’s possible he made up his own translations on the fly, of course. But since his quotations appear so similar to translations we know today, its more likely he drew from some standard version available to him.  Furthermore, Paul’s letters and accounts about him in Acts reflect a knowledge not only of Greek language but Greek oratory, literature, and rhetoric.  In Martin Hengel’s massive volumes translated into English as Judaism and Hellenism (1974), he argued that Jesus’ homeland, the land of Palestine, had been Hellenized by the middle of the 3rd century BC.  Judaism had not escaped the hellenizing edge of Alexander’s sword.

The fourth and final world Paul occupied was relatively new.  In fact, by the time he entered it and became one of its greatest advocates it had only been around a few years.  Saul the Pharisee became a Christ-follower probably only 3-5 years after Jesus’ execution.  But already there were traditions, practices, and beliefs which were beginning to mark out this first century Jesus movement.  We don’t have access historically to any material and literary evidence that come prior to Paul’s conversion. His letters contain a few hints here and there of the kinds of things early Christians may have been saying.  For example, the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:6-11) may have been sung, chanted, or recited in Christian gatherings before Paul came to faith.  What seems more likely is that Jesus’ death and resurrection are already seen as the fulfillment of God’s plan.  To put it another way, they are the climax of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Moses and Israel.  In 1 Corinthians 15:3ff Paul writes:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Paul says he “hands on” what he “had received.” The apostle to the Gentiles employs the language of tradition to let us in on some of the content of the church’s message before Paul.  Already the death of Jesus the Messiah was being understood as an atoning sacrifice.  Already the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were seen as complementary to the Scriptures.  Not only do these crucial events not contradict what God had said previously through the prophets; they fulfill them.  Already, Cephas (namely, Peter) and the twelve had gained prominence as some of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.

Paul not only straddled these four worlds, but as destiny would have it, he would go on to shape them as well.  It is hard to imagine what Christianity today would be like without Paul.  He is credited with having written nearly 1/2 the books of the New Testament. The  Protestant Reformation of the 16th century found in Paul its inspiration. And what of Judaism? As my friend Alan Segal often said, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were like Rebekah’s children; both religions were very different twins formed in the womb of second temple Judaism. And what of Greece and Rome? Well, Rome soaked up much of the best of Greek culture.  Then after centuries of persecution, Christianity would go on to become the dominant religion of the empire.  In the end the many gods and lords of Rome would yield to the One God in three Persons.  Or as the apostle would put it (1 Cor 8:6):

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

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1 Comment

  1. PB says:

    This is really good! It’s not an accident that one of the best communicators of Jesus in the first century was a multi-cultural person. Additionally, Paul was from Tarsus, so I assume his parents, being immersed in a Greek city, spoke Greek and passed it on to him, depending on how long Paul lived in Tarsus.
    As an aside, I do think Hengel’s argument on the hellenisation of Palestine is largely flawed. Palestine is a rural area and I doubt there would be much interaction with cosmopolitan Greek culture. Jerusalem is the only Jewish city that has some history with hellenisation, and even then a strong attitude against it did exist. Louis Feldman has some good work on this. That said, Paul obviously had a foot in the Greek culture and knew it well.

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