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Paul Straddled Four Worlds

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.

“Adoption” in the New Testament

 For Paul the salvation he experienced in Christ was greater than words could describe.  That is why the apostle to the Gentiles used so many different kinds of images and metaphors to express the blessings of knowing Christ.  Under the Spirit’s guidance he mined the OT and the culture around him to find ways to articulate an experience and reality that lay beyond words.  With terms like “reconciliation,” “redemption,” “justification,” and “forgiveness,” he attempted to parse the blessing of salvation and create a new type of theological grammar for the young church.St__Paul_the_Apostle

One of those metaphors, “adoption” (Greek huiothesia), was a common part of family life in the Mediterranean world.  It means literally “to make [someone] a son”.  Paul used it to describe a change of status from an existence marked by slavery and Father-lessness to a new family or community characterized by freedom and Spirit.[i] 

Human societies have practiced adoption in one form of another since the beginning of recorded history.  Broadly speaking adoption refers to the creation of kinship relationships between two or more people through legal and/or ritualistic means.  Archaeologists have unearthed adoption contracts and law codes that provide us with some information regarding its practice in ancient Babylon.  While most adoptions were of a son or daughter, it was also possible to adopt a brother, sister or father.  Slaves were typically manumitted by adoption.  In the Jewish community identified today as Elephantine, an Aramaic papyrus dated to 416 BC describes the manumission and adoption of a slave.[ii]  The same practice is referred to in Gen 15:2-3 when Abraham suggests that his slave Eliezer will likely become his heir unless God acts.  First Chronicles 2:34-35 indicates that a son-in-law could become an heir when there was no male descendent.[iii]  

When Pharoah’s daughter drew baby Moses out of the water, we are told: “he became her son” (Exod 2:10).[iv]  Although this account appears to reflect Egyptian customs, the fact that Moses continued in Pharoah’s household indicates a change of family, a new kinship relationship had been formed.  In Acts 7:21 Stephen retold these foundational stories and said: “Pharoah’s daughter took him away [adopted him] and nurtured him as her own son”.  Since Egypt and slavery had become synonymous, Hebr 11:24 indicates that Moses refused to be called the son of the Pharoah’s daughter, chosing instead to identify with his own people.  This statement makes sense only if Moses’ family status was indeed “the son of Pharoah’s daughter.” 

Still adoption does not seem to have been a common practice in Israel since no biblical or post-biblical laws legislate for it.  We can cite four reasons: (1) the importance of natural or blood lineage; (2) the practice of polygyny (having multiple wives); (3) the custom of levirate marriage; and (4) the belief that barrenness reflected God’s will and displeasure, a situation which adoption could remedy.[v]   In other words, if it is God’s will for a woman not to have children, adoption could set aside God’s will.  There may well have been other reasons, but these seem sufficient to account for the fact that adoption appears rare among the people of Israel.

Paul used the term “adoption” (huiothesia) fives times in his letters (Gal 4:5; Rom 8:14, 23; Rom 9:4; Eph 1:5).  In each case it refers to God’s adoption, not of an individual, but of his covenant people.  In one instance Paul described his “kinsmen according to the flesh” as “Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons (huiothesia), and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law . . . “ (Rom 9:4). His usage clearly reflects the language of Scripture.  Hosea 11:1 says famously: “When Israel was a youth I loved him,/ And out of Egypt I called My son”.  Moses is to say to Pharoah: “Thus says the LORD, Israel is My son, My firstborn . . . “ (Exod 4:22).  So when Paul referred to Israel as having “the adoption as sons” (Rom 9:4), he is echoing a long standing tradition codified in the Bible.

The majority of Paul’s references to adoption, however, refer to God’s people of the new covenant.  The apostle wrote: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (huiothesia)” (Gal 4:5).  In Rom 8:15 he said: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons (huiothesia) by which we cry out, `Abba! Father!’”  Later he continued (8:23): “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons (huiothesia), the redemption of our body.”  Among the many spiritual blessings in heavenly places Paul included adoption when he wrote: “He predestined us to adoption as sons (huiothesia) through Jesus to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, . . . “ (Eph 1:5).  These passages indicate that “adoption” was an important metaphor for Paul in describing the glories and blessings of salvation.  In fact, Paul is the first Christian theologian to use “adoption” as a way to talk about the affects of Christ’s redeeming work upon His people.  So where does this come from?Paul the apostle

Many interpreters of the Bible think Paul took “adoption” as a legal category from contemporary Greco-Roman family life.  That makes sense for two reasons.  First, in the Roman world adoption (adoptio) was commonplace.  So both Paul and his audiences would have been familiar with the practice even if it were unusual among the minority population of Jews in the empire.  Second, inheritance rights were an essential component of adoption in Roman society in terms of both property and power.  Likewise, Paul connected the believers’ adoption with their spiritual inheritance obtained through faith in Jesus.  In Rom 8:17 the apostle claimed that God’s adopted children are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ”; and in Gal 4:7 he affirmed that an adopted believer is “no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.”  So it may well be that adoption practices in the Greco-Roman world provided Paul and his audiences with a ready-made image to describe the baptized-believers’ inclusion into God’s eternal family.  But there may well be another place from which Paul adapted this image.

As we suggested above, the OT indicates that God looked upon His covenant people as “son” or “sons.”  This was one of the ways Scripture described God’s unique relationship with Israel that began with the exodus (e.g., Exod 4:22).  Paul, having a mind steeped in Scripture, reflected the same notion in Rom 9:4 writing that God had adopted Israel as His son (huiothesia).  But earlier in Romans the apostle used that exact term to refer to the new status of believers, both Jew and Gentile, in Messiah Jesus.  Fortunately, Jewish documents from the intertestamental period provide an appropriate analogy.  Although they are not “Scripture,” they do provide evidence of a robust belief in God’s salvation during the time when Christianity is born.  They promise that God will free his people from exile in a second exodus, restore the covenant and adopt them as sons based upon 2 Sam 7:12-14: “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me” (e.g., Jub 1:24; T.Judah 24:3; 4QFlor 1.11).[vi]  This means that at least some Jews during Paul’s day expected God to end the exile and establish them as sons.  Paul seems to have shared this conviction but found its fulfillment in what God had already accomplished in Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.  Scripture then and its later interpretation appears to have been Paul’s main reason for choosing “adoption” as one of his major soteriological motifs. 

It is important to note that Paul never used the word “adoption” (huiothesia) to refer to Jesus’ Sonship.  He referred to Jesus as “the Son of God,” “His Son,” or simply “the Son” (e.g., Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4).  This indicates two truths: (1) Jesus’ Sonship is unique and of a different order than ours and (2) our “adoption as sons” derives from Jesus’ life and work.  We cannot be adopted into God’s eternal family without relying on Jesus.  Furthermore, Paul explained our sonship in two stages, present and future.  In Rom 8:15 the apostle contrasted our prior condition of slavery (to sin, death and malevolent spiritual forces), animated by fear, with our present experience of “adoption as sons,” animated by the Spirit of God.[vii]  It is the Spirit who brings about this adoption by uniting people with Christ through the gift of faith.  Indeed it is only by the Spirit that we can cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6).  Still there is a “not-yet” component to our salvation, including our adoption.  That is why Paul wrote that those who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan along with the rest of the created order as we wait for “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:23).  This is another example of the already/not-yet feature of Paul’s Christian hope.  As James Scott notes: the “present and future aspects of huiothesia [adoption] in Romans 8 reflect successive stages of participation in the Son by the Spirit . . . “[viii]  In other words, God adopts all who believe in Christ into his forever family; but the fullness of our inheritance awaits us when Christ returns.  It is then that the living and the dead will be raised, that the new creation will be complete and that all God’s family will be home again.

[i] C. F. D. Moule, s.v. “adoption,”  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962) 1:48-49.

[ii] Frederick Knobloch, s.v. “adoption,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday) 1:76-77.

[iii] Moule, 1:48.  Other biblical examples may include Naomi’s adoption of the son of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:16), but by the laws of levirate marriage the son is already her descendent.  Mordecai also adopted the orphaned Esther (Esther 2:7, 15). 

[iv] All Scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Version.

[v] Knobloch, 79.

[vi] James Scott, s.v. “Adoption, Sonship,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 15-18.

[vii] C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 186.

[viii] Scott, 17.

Is It Time to Retire “The Old Testament”?

Old TestamentSo why do we call the first part of the Bible the “Old Testament”?  Well, for several reasons.  First, there is tradition.  For hundreds of years Bibles have been published with a page in front of the collection of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi clearly declaring these are the books of the Old Testament.  Second, there is Jesus’ declaration that he comes to establish a New Covenant in His blood.  We hear these words spoken first at the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses God and invites His followers to “take and eat.” That phrase “New Covenant” becomes identified later with part two of the Christian Bible; we call it the New Testament (the Greek word for “testament” means “covenant”).  If these 27 books from Matthew to Revelation make up the New Testament, then the first part must be, well, the Old Testament. 

Seldom, if ever, does anyone stop and ask “Why?”  Or perhaps even more significantly: “What do we mean when we call these books the Old Testament?”  Tradition is a powerful factor in how we think.  Now I have no real problem with calling these books the Old Testament as long as we do not fill the word “old” with the wrong content.  Frankly, I think sometimes we do.  When Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament—if by “old” they mean worn out, used up, obsolete, yesterday’s news—then  I think we ought to retire the term altogether.  Certainly that’s not how Jesus and his followers looked at their Bible. For them it was God’s Word.  In “the Law, Prophets and Writings”—the way they referred to the Scripture—the Voice of God could be heard and felt.  They heard prophecies there, stories there, poetry there that found ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant inaugurated by the Liberating King.  For Jesus and his contemporaries the “Old Testament” was not “old” at all.  It was as fresh as the morning, as relevant as the Internet news.  They were still waiting for some of its prophecies to be fulfilled.  There is no sense in which they considered their Scripture old or obsolete.  If that is what we mean by “old,” we ought to throw a retirement party and be done with it.  

 But if by OLD Testament we mean tested, tried and true,

if we mean the foundation upon which the New Covenant is built,

if we recognize that these books point toward the climactic moment of

God’s redemption of the world . . .

then why don’t we just call it what it is: the Classic Testament. 

In many ways I prefer “Classic Testament” to “Old Testament” because it can help us reframe the discussion about Scripture.  I suggest that this subtle change might pay big dividends when it comes to thinking about the relationship between part one and part two of the Christian Scriptures. Although this is an oversimplification, the Old Testament stands in relation to the New as promise is to fulfillment, as foundation is to temple, as classic is to contemporary.  You cannot have one without the other.  The earlier paves the way and makes the later possible.  That’s why the Christian Scriptures contain both Old and New Testaments or what I prefer to call the Classic and New Testaments.

Now I realize I’m not likely to change many minds on this.  I don’t expect Bible publishers to change the introduction page to part one of the Bible.  I just want to get you thinking.  When you say Old Testament, what do you really mean?



Saul a.k.a. Paul

We encounter Paul the apostle in the NT under two names: Saul and Paul. There’s a common misunderstanding about the two names. Often you hear that Saul the Pharisee changed his name to Paul when he came to faith in Jesus. At first glance that seems reasonable because there are biblical people whose names are changed at significant moments in the story. For example, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham when he puts faith in the covenant that God was making with him (Genesis 12-22). Jacob’s name is changed to Israel ( = one who wrestles with God) right before he meets his brother Esau again. Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Cepha = rock). So there is a tradition of name changes that correspond to important moments in a person’s life. Also, when we first encounter Saul, he’s persecuting the church and standing by as Stephen is stoned (Acts 7). Later, however, in Acts 13-28 the missionary, apostle is referred to as Paul. Conclusion: he changed his name when he accepted Jesus as Messiah. Sounds reasonable, right?
On closer investigation, however, we find out this is not the case. First, Saul is converted or called in Acts 9. He’s baptized and engages in apparently a significant period of Christian discipleship and ministry under the name of Saul. In Acts 13 Saul along with several others are leaders in the church at Antioch when the Holy Spirit sets them a part for the Gentile mission. In Acts 13:6 Saul is called Paul for the first time (“But Saul, who was also known as Paul, . . . “) on the island of Cyprus. For the rest of the book and in all of his letters he is referred to as Paul. So what is going on?

Saul was a Pharisaic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. If Jewish tradition were followed–and there is no reason to think it wasn’t–he was given his Jewish name on the day of his circumcision. So Saul was his Jewish name, the name of Israel’s first king. But Saul may well have been a Roman citizen as well (that’s Acts testimony) which means that he needed a Roman name. Perhaps Paul was taken because it was a family name or the name of someone who helped provide citizenship to his family, we don’t know. But the name Paulos in Greek means something like “little fellow.” I suggest that what happens is this: when Saul is around Jews, he uses his Jewish name. But when Saul is around Greeks and Romans, he uses his Roman name. In Antioch where the Jewish population of Christ-believers was significant it made sense that he’d use his Jewish name. But during the Gentile mission, he encountered primarily, well . . . Gentiles. So he used his Roman name then. But there’s another thing. When you take the Jewish name Saul and render it in Greek it sounds like this: Saulos. And the word saulos in Greek means “the sultry walk of a prostitute.” No wonder Paul didn’t want to be introduced like that.

By the way, the same thing happens today. One of my best friends is a Jewish rabbi. His Jewish name is Shimon (Simon). When he is around Jews, particularly at the synagogue, they call him Shimon. But his “American” name, the name on his birth certificate, is Stuart. That’s how I know him.

As you move across cultures, you may find that your name means something odd or even scandalous in another language. That’s true for another friend of mine. His Vietnamese name when properly pronounced in Vietnamese is a really, really bad word in English. So he allows all his non-Vietnamese friends to call him by another, more acceptable name.

Cross-cultural work calls for compromise and creativity. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul said I have become all things to all people so that I can by all means save some.