Rediscovering Paul
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Rediscovering Paul

An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology

David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, E. Randolph Richards

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eBook - ePub

Rediscovering Paul

An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology

David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, E. Randolph Richards

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Über dieses Buch

For some of us, the apostle Paul is intimidating, like a distant and difficult uncle. Maybe not someone you'd like to hang out with at a coffee shop on a rainy day. He'd make a scene, evangelize the barista, and arouse looks across the room. For a mid-morning latte, we'd prefer Jesus over Paul. But Paul is actually the guy who—from Ephesus to Athens—was the talk of the marketplace, the raconteur of the Parthenon. He knew everyone, founded emerging churches, loved the difficult people, and held his own against the intellectuals of his day. If you're willing to give Paul a try, Rediscovering Paul is your reliable guide. This is a book that reacquaints us with Paul, as if for the first time. Drawing on the best of contemporary scholarship, and with language shaped by teaching and conversing with today's students, Rediscovering Paul is a textbook that has passed the test. Now in a reworked edition, it's better than ever. There are fresh discussions of Paul's letter writing and how those letters were received in the churches, new considerations of pseudonymity and the authenticity of Paul's letters, and updated coverage of recent developments in interpreting Paul. from Paul's conversion and call to his ongoing impact on church and culture, this second edition of Rediscovering Paul comes enthusiastically recommended.

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Rediscovering Paul in His World

Paul did not think like a twenty-first-century Western Christian. His ways were not our ways. His priorities were quite different. For example, he did not share our “family values” that hold up marriage as the ultimate goal for everyone. Instead, Paul contended that believers should try to remain single. To him, a celibate convert was more devoted to Christ than a married person (1 Cor 7:8, 29-35). Paul did not operate with the assumption that all churches should think for themselves either. The apostle to the Gentiles did not believe in freedom of speech. Instead, he required his converts to conform to his directives, to keep his instructions, to think like him, to imitate him (1 Cor 11:1, 2, 16; 14:28, 38; Gal 5:10). And Paul, like his contemporaries, did not maintain that all people are created equal, born with “inalienable rights.” Paul was convinced God made some people superior to others (Rom 3:1, 2; 9:20, 21). These convictions offend our sensibilities, tempting some of us to rehabilitate Paul to our way of thinking. The verses we like, we teach. The parts of his letters that do not support our convictions, we ignore, or we try to convince others that “Paul did not really mean that.” But before we argue for our convictions, perhaps we should let Paul argue his. Rather than trying to understand Paul on our terms, we should try to figure out what he meant on his terms. Paul belonged to his world, not to ours. His letters were addressed to his converts, not to us. So before we can understand Paul and his letters, we need to study his world.
This is going to require much effort on our part. It’s difficult enough to make sense of the beliefs and ways of peoples who live around the Mediterranean today. How much more work will it take to describe the peoples who lived in the same region two thousand years ago? How are we supposed to rediscover the first-century world of Paul and his neighbors?
It’s not hopeless: texts, artifacts, and case studies of the first-century Mediterranean world all help us. Historians study literature from the period—religious writings, political histories, letters, novels, plays, inscriptions—in hopes of getting a firsthand description of life in the first century. The problem with relying exclusively on literary texts is that they reveal primarily what the literary elite had to say about their world. Only about 3 percent of the Roman world fell into this ultrawealthy class.
The Rich and the Poor in Paul’s World
Steve Friesen estimated the economic classes of the New Testament world by producing a poverty scale from the ultrawealthy to the very poorest. He then estimated the percentage of the population that fell into each group. Bruce Longenecker nuanced this as an Economic Scale (ES).
Freisen’s Estimates
ES1–ES3 (the wealthy classes)
ES4 (the upper middling class)
ES5 (the lower middling class)
ES6 (the subsistent poor)
ES7 (the desperately poor)
Bruce Longenecker estimates that urban churches of Paul likely had no members from ES1 to ES3. Perhaps 10% of the members were ES4, but the majority, 65% of members, were from the poorest groups, ES6–ES7.a
aBruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010). Longenecker’s estimates vary slightly from Friesen.
In order to reconstruct a picture of the everyday life of the more common man or woman of the first century, archaeologists excavate sites where Mediterranean peoples used to live. The artifacts they uncover can tell us much about the languages, diet, religious practices, housing conditions, domestic chores, trade labor, infrastructure, and economy of certain villages, towns, and cities. Finally, anthropologists study rural communities in modern Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in order to describe the current, shared social convictions of these different ethnic groups. Biblical scholars take these field studies and compare them with observations gleaned from literary texts and archaeological reconstructions and correlate the evidence. Cultural anthropologists show how Mediterranean peoples of the last fifty years share in at least some ways similar social convictions with first-century inhabitants of Achaia, Asia Minor, Syria, Judea, and Arabia. Put it all together and we can get a general picture of what life was like in the first-century Mediterranean world.


The peoples who lived around the Mediterranean basin in the first century negotiated a multicultural world, as indeed they do today. It was a pluralistic world of various religions, languages, foods, fashions, currencies, schools, houses, shrines, and nations. Different ethnic groups sought to preserve their social identity by resisting cultural conformity. Old ways, ancestral customs, and family traditions were more easily preserved in rural areas than in the high-traffic urban centers connected by Roman roads. Greeks differed from barbarians as much as Jews distinguished themselves from Gentiles. And yet, despite the diversity, these different peoples had similar religious experiences, shared social customs, and possessed a common Mediterranean worldview (also called “symbolic universe”). In certain respects, they looked at life the same way. They shared similar priorities. Their social networks operated according to the same general rules. Consequently, scholars can speak, in the broadest context, about the culture of first-century Mediterranean people. So, what did first-century Mediterranean peoples believe?
All things come from God/gods. In Paul’s day, people did not think in terms of “natural resources.” Every nation, every trade, every territory was given, governed, and controlled by divine powers. Israel believed that Judea was given by YHWH to the Hebrews in order to take care of his people (Judg 11:24). All Mediterranean peoples believed the same about their gods. The gods sent rain in order to bring crops to maturation to feed their people. For the Jews, it was YHWH who provided for them (Ps 104). The gods’ blessing would mean abundance. On the one hand, Paul’s Jewish perspective wasn’t novel. But on the other hand, it was. The God of Israel was the only source of life:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 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. (1 Cor 8:4-6)
We Believe God Is in Charge of Our Lives, Don’t We?
Actually, most of us believe in the power of choice. We create our own destinies. We believe in choosing our own lifestyle. To the Mediterranean peoples, a person’s destiny was already determined by the decision of one of the gods. Wealth, status, power, and privilege belonged to those who were born into the right family. No one could choose to be a priest or a king or a father or a man. A proper pedigree was required to serve the gods in the temple or reign over his people. For example, the people of Israel recognized Levites as priests and hoped for a “son of David” to be their king. God is the potter; we are merely the clay. Paul pointedly asked, “Will the one who is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom 9:20, author’s trans.)
The people of Paul’s day also believed that the gods’ curses would bring limited goods (e.g., Deut 28:15-68). Since the great majority of the population dealt with meager resources, most people were convinced they were living under a divine curse. In order to placate divine powers, then, devotees would do whatever the priests told them to do without question. Worshiping the gods was not a matter of choice; it was a requirement of communal life. All were dependent on the gods’ care and protection. To promote a god’s honor, then, was to promote the welfare of the community (Prov 3:9-10). Sinners were deviants who jeopardized the favor of the gods for everyone. Compliance, therefore, was the mark of a faithful devotee.
Jews believed their God was the source of life—the power that opens the womb of a woman. Fertility drugs were supposedly empowered by fertility gods. But the God of Israel created male and female. Men were built for the outdoors; women sought domestication. The rich were born into wealthy families. Landowners inherited their domain. Power belonged to nobility because they owned the land that fed the people. All of this was by divine design (Sir 33:10-13). God made certain people superior to others—some to rule, some to govern, some to manage, some to labor, some to farm, some to beg. The circumstances of people’s birth, their station in life, the place of their birth, and even the trade they learned from their fathers were predetermined by God. People were born into their religion and their vocation. If you were born to a king, a king you would be. If you were born to a farmer, a farmer you would be. If you were born poor, you were meant to be poor. If you were born into the retainer class, God intended for you to manage the land and its resources. The Romans, for example, were convinced that the gods gave them dominion over their subjects in order that they could become the world’s benefactors. They maintained that the benefit of Roman rule was a gift from their gods.
Herein lies the irony. We know our “natural resources” will eventually run out. We are developing alternative energy sources because one day there will be no oil. Yet we are as wasteful as though we lived in a world of unlimited goods. The Mediterranean peoples believed, on the other hand, that all things come from God/gods—powers of everlasting supply. And yet the gods seemed to parcel out their blessings in limited supply, making their subjects totally dependent. There was only so much rain, so much land, so much food, so much wealth, so much power, so much influence, and so much honor to go around in a subsistence society. If someone had more than they needed, someone else had less. Theirs was an agonistic world, that is, a world where competition for limited goods required alliances among social equals.
Paul and Predestination
Like his Mediterranean neighbors, Paul believed that God destined certain individuals for certain tasks: “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Cor 7:17). Spiritual gifts were assigned by God (1 Cor 12:4-11). God gave certain persons more honorable gifts than others (1 Cor 12:24); he made different persons for different tasks (1 Cor 12:17-18). To object to God’s purpose was analogous to a clay pot questioning the design of its maker (Rom 9:20-21). Indeed, to Paul “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). Paul knew that all too well. God made him an apostle (Gal 1:1, 15-16). God assigned him the field of his work: the Gentiles (2 Cor 10:13; Gal 2:8). Yet Paul was no determinist. Did he believe God could change a man’s destiny? Quoting Hosea, Paul argued that his Gentile converts were sons of Abraham even though they were born pagans, because God said, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’” (Rom 9:25). According to Paul, God added the law to the covenant because of sin (Gal 3:19). Describing the ever-changing ways of God, Paul warned his readers that God could graft in and break off branches of Abraham’s family tree (Rom 11:17-21). Indeed, God could change the destiny of a person’s birth (Eph 2:11-13). And according to Paul, this was good news indeed.
This was especially evident in rural areas, where villagers relied on each other to maintain their standard of living. They shared their goods and services with each other. Their children married each other. There was no room (or need!) for upward mobility. Limited supplies required thrifty lifestyles and occasional forays into the big cities to sell their wares. Living in towns without gates, villagers did not take kindly to outsiders. Walled cities, on the other hand, were urban centers that welcomed travelers because city dwellers needed merchants, day laborers, messengers, and even itinerant teachers like Paul.
It takes a village to raise a child. In the Mediterranean world, individual accomplishments did not define the significance of a person. Instead, a person’s identity was wrapped up in the reputation of his or her family, community, and people group. Scholars call this a “dyadic personality.” Self-discovery came from the opinion of others, not from self-reflection. The family you were born into, the village of your nativity, and the alliances you maintained with other groups established your individual identity. When Paul was in trouble in Jerusalem, he did not identify himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles” or “slave of Christ” or any other favorite self-designation that we find in his letters. Instead, he relied on the conventional social markers of his day: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). First, when Paul identified himself he was quick to point to his membership within an honorable covenant community. He was essentially saying, “I am one of you.” Second, he saw himself as a citizen of Tarsus, “an important city” (Acts 21:39). And last, he was raised in Jerusalem, the holy city, and was the disciple of a prominent Pharisee. These were not claims of individual accomplishments. Paul was a product of his family, his city, his people, and his traditions.
Those who knew their place in society always promoted the welfare of their own family. This maintained th...