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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Four.   Leave a comment

The Challenge – What was Paul thinking?

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The Sources – The Great Pastoral ‘Epistles’:

To understand the thought of Paul, we naturally turn to his letters. Although Luke’s Acts of the Apostles gives a fair account of his life and work, and a general idea of what he stood for, it is in his letters that his mind is fully revealed. In the New Testament, there are thirteen letters that name Paul as their ‘author’. A fourteenth, the Letter to the Hebrews is often included with them it is, in fact, an anonymous work, since in the early church itself it was admitted that no one knew who wrote it. Of the thirteen, it is by no means certain that all were written by Paul’s hand or even at his dictation. This was not unusual for the period in which he was writing since it was not unusual for disciples of an outstanding teacher to compose books to propagate his teaching as they understood it, and to publish them under his name; we only have to remind ourselves how ‘loosely’ the gospels are connected with the disciples whose names they bear.

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There are strong reasons for thinking that the Letters to Timothy and Titus might have originated in a similar way. On the other hand, the four great pastoral Epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians and the Romans, to which we might add the short note to Philemon, carry the style of the apostle’s style and personality on every page and in every verse. There is no question that Paul composed them and most scholars have claimed the same about Philippians and the two Letters to the Thessalonians. There is more doubt about Colossians, but the balance of probability falls in favour of Paul’s authorship, possibly with some collaboration. The inclusion of the Letter to the Ephesians is more debatable, because of the difference in style. Yet if it was written by a disciple, it must have been written by one with great insight into the mind of the apostle, and whether or not it comes from his own hand, it can be included in the canon in gaining a full picture of his thought in its fullest and most mature form.

The letters were almost all the result of some particular event, and none of them, except perhaps the Letter to the Romans, makes any attempt to present the author’s thinking in any systematic way. They were clearly written at intervals in the midst of an extremely busy life, but are also the product of a prodigious intellect responding to the challenge of practical problems of Christian living in a pagan environment, as in the correspondence with the church in Corinth, or of a subtle propaganda which seemed to be subversive of the truth, as in Galatians and Colossians. We have to interpret his teaching by gathering and combining what he wrote in different geographical contexts, to different people and at different times. His thought was formed both by his background and the environments he was writing in and for, as well as by his personal experiences. We have to take particular account of his strict Jewish upbringing and of what he owed to the primitive Christian community which he had joined at an early, formative stage in its history. What assessment can we then make of his brilliant mind and passionate heart? Tom Wright has the following answer:

For Paul, there was no question about the starting point. It was always Jesus: Jesus as the shocking fulfilment of Israel’s hopes; Jesus as the genuinely human being, the true ‘image’; Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God – so that, without leaving Jewish monotheism, one would worship and invoke Jesus as Lord within, not alongside, the service of the ‘living and true God’. Jesus, the one for whose sake one would abandon all idols, all rival ‘lords’. Jesus, above all, who had come to his kingdom, the true lordship of the world, in the way that Paul’s friends who were starting to write the Jesus story at that time had emphasised: by dying under the weight of the world’s sin in order to break the power of the dark forces that had enslaved all humans, Israel included… Jesus was the starting point. And the goal.

Jewish Heritage, Judaism & the Nations:

God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. By the time of his later letters he realised that he might himself die before it happened. But that the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued from its state of slavery and death, emerging into a new life under the glorious rule of God’s people, God’s new humanity – this was something he never doubted. Insofar as there was an ‘apocalyptic’ view in Paul’s day, he shared it. He believed that Israel’s God, having abandoned the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, had revealed himself in Jesus, breaking in upon an unready world and an unready people. There was a certain contradiction deeply embedded in the monotheistic Judaism of the first century. The One God, it taught, was the God of the whole world, maker and ruler of all mankind. Yet in a special sense, he was the God of Israel, the nation bound to him in an ‘everlasting covenant’. The ‘charter’ of this covenant was the Law, which was held to be the perfect embodiment of the righteousness He required of men. As such it was absolute and universal, but it was also, primarily, Israel’s law. Paul himself gave eloquent expression to the pride which the Jew felt in this unique privilege:

You rely upon the Lord and are proud of your God; you know his will; instructed by the Law you know right from wrong; you are confident that … in the Law you see the very shape of knowledge and truth.

(Rom. 2: 17-20).

The possession of the Law marked Israel out as God’s chosen people, and it was to his people that God had revealed himself in ‘mighty acts’, through which his purpose was fulfilled. This was the central motive of its history and the key to its destiny. In this way, the highest moral idealism became wedded to an assertive nationalism. What then was the status and the destiny of the nations that did not know the Hebrew God? The answers to this question were various and uncertain. Some of them show a finely humane spirit which went as far as possible – without prejudice to Israel’s prior claim – in generosity to the Gentiles. Others seem to us today to approach the limits of chauvinistic nationalism. But there was in first-century Judaism a strong ‘missionary’ movement towards the pagan world. On one level, it was content to propagate the monotheistic idea and certain fundamental moral principles, but its ulterior aim was to bring Gentiles within the scope of the divine mercy by incorporation in the chosen people. The ‘proselyte’ submitted himself to the Law of God – that is, to the Jewish Law; he became a Jew.

On the other side, the question arose, what was the status and the destiny of the Jews who, knowing the Law, do not in practice observe its precepts? Here again, the answers were uncertain and various. The Law itself proclaimed a curse on all who do not persevere in doing everything that is written in the Book of Law (Gal. 3:10), and prophets and Rabbis alike use the language of the utmost integrity in castigating offenders. Yet there is a notable reluctance to admit that in the last resort any ‘son of Abraham’ could be rejected by God; for the sake of the fathers, he would come through in the end. For Paul, who looked at the matter with his broader view of the world outside Palestine, this was simply not realistic; moreover, it was inconsistent with the principle of monotheism. The One God could not be the exclusive God of the Jews; he also had to be the God of the Gentiles. The conclusion was therefore unavoidable, that…

God has no favourites; those who have sinned outside the pale of the Law of Moses will perish outside its pale, and all who have sinned under that Law will be judged by the Law.

(Rom 2: 11 f.)

Yet while this clears the ground by setting aside any notion of preferential treatment, it is a negative assessment of the human condition. There is no distinction in that all have sinned (Rom. 3: 22), so that while there may be some ‘good’ Jews who keep God’s Law (Rom. 2: 29), and some ‘good’ Gentiles who live by ‘the light of nature’ (Rom. 2: 14), Paul held that, fundamentally, human society is in breach of the Law of God and is therefore headed for ultimate disaster, subject, as he put it, to the law of sin and death (Rom. 8: 2). This universal human condition enters the experience of every individual in the desperate moral struggle which Paul has depicted with deep psychological insight in the seventh chapter of Romans: When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach (Rom. 7: 21). The problem which began as a domestic concern within Judaism turned out to be a broader enquiry into the human condition. That is why Paul’s controversy with his Judaic opponents which looks, at first sights, like an antiquated, parochial dispute, turns out to have permanent significance. The only possible solution to this quandary that Paul could contemplate was a fresh divine initiative such as the one taken when he had established the covenant with Israel at Sinai. He now saw that this new initiative had actually taken place when Christ entered history:

What the law could not do because our lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done – by sending us his Son.

(Rom. 8: 3).

The Divine Initiative – Doctrines & Metaphors:

This divine initiative is an entirely free and authentic, original act of God, conditioned only by his love for mankind while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5: 8). This is what Paul describes as the ‘grace’ of God. The response that is asked for from the people is ‘faith’, or ‘trust’ in God. In writing about this divine initiative in human experience, Paul uses a variety of expressions. The most frequently used was ‘salvation’. In common Greek usage, this word had a wide range of meanings. It could simply mean safety and security, deliverance from disaster, or good health and well-being. In effect, it conveyed the concept of a condition in which ‘all is well’, and the particular way in which that was the case depended on the context in which it was used. In Paul’s writings, as in those of the New Testament authors in general, salvation stands for a condition in which ‘all is well’ in the absolute sense; a condition in which we are secure from all evils that afflict, or menace, the human spirit, here or hereafter. Thus the expression, while strongly emotive, is hardly capable of telling us what precisely, as Paul sees it, God has done for us in Christ.

More illuminating are some of the metaphorical expressions he uses. Three of these have played a major part in the development of Christian doctrine, and need to be looked at more carefully. First, there is the legal, or forensic metaphor of ‘justification’, which we have previously encountered with Tom Wright in the context of the letter to the Galatians (Gal. 2: 15 f), but it is also a major theme in the later letter to the Romans (Rom. 3: 24, 26). Sin is conceived in this context as an offence, or offences, against the Law. The sinner stands at the bar and no-one but a judge with competent authority can condemn or acquit. Before the divine tribunal, the defendant is unquestionably guilty, but God acquits the guilty (Rom. 4: 5). Here Paul is setting out in the most challenging terms his conviction that God takes man as he is, with all his imperfections on his head, and gives him a fresh start so that he can then take on his moral task relieved of the crippling sense of guilt.

Secondly, there is the metaphor of ‘redemption’ (Rom 3: 24; 1 Cor. 1: 30; Eph. 1: 7; Col. 1: 14). The Greek word was used of the process by which a slave acquired his freedom; it means ‘release’, ’emancipation’, or ‘liberation’ (and is translated as such in the NEB). For Paul, the condition of a man caught in the moral dilemma he has described is a state of slavery, since he is unable to do what he wishes to do. But God, exercising all his supreme authority, declares the slave free, and free he is. All that Christ did – his entry into the human condition, his life of service, his suffering and death – may be regarded as the price God pays for the emancipation of the slave. The exultant note of liberation sounds all through the letters as Paul’s own experience as well as that of those he was writing to:

Christ set us free, to be free men.

(Gal. 5: 1)

Thirdly, there is the ritual metaphor of sacrifice. Sin can be regarded not only as a crime against the law, bringing a sense of guilt, or a state of slavery, bringing a sense of impotence, but also as ‘defilement’, which makes a man feel ashamed and disgusted with himself. In ancient religious defilement could be incurred in all sorts of ways, many of them having nothing to do with morals. It was assumed that the defilement could be removed by the performance of the proper ritual, most commonly, and perhaps most efficaciously, by the sacrifice of a victim. This was called ‘expiation’ or, less accurately, ‘atonement’. The metaphor of expiation, drawn from a world of thought quite alien to us, was ready to hand for anyone, like Paul, who was familiar with the elaborate ritual of sacrifice laid down in the Law of Moses, and in his time still practised in the temple at Jerusalem – or indeed for anyone acquainted with the religious rituals of the Greek states. This is the background of what he says about the work of Christ: God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death (Rom. 3: 25). There is no suggestion, here or elsewhere, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to ‘propitiate’ an offended deity. In using the metaphor of sacrifice Paul is declaring his conviction that the self-sacrifice of Christ meant the release of moral power which penetrates to the deepest recesses of the human spirit, acting as a kind of ‘moral disinfectant’.

These are the metaphors which have most captured the imagination of Paul’s readers. His thought has sometimes been obscured through taking one of or another of them by itself, and then forgetting that it is, after all, a metaphor. What he was writing, all the time, was that in Christ God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The criminal could not pronounce his own acquittal, nor the slave set himself, nor could the slave set himself free, and God alone could ‘expiate’ the defilement we have brought upon ourselves. In the course of the following passage, perhaps the clearest and most succinct statement of his teaching on this theme:

From first to last this is the work of God. He has reconciled us men to himself through Christ … What I mean is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding their misdeeds against them.

The Ministry of Reconciliation:

In the idea of ‘reconciliation’, his thought passed out of mere metaphor and adopted the language of actual personal relations. Many people know something of what it means to be ‘alienated’ or ‘estranged’ – perhaps from their environment or their fellow-men, perhaps from the standards of their society, perhaps, indeed, from themselves. The deepest alienation is from the true end of our being, and that means estrangement from our Maker, out of which comes a distortion of all relationships. The great thing that God, from his side of the gulf that has opened, has put an end to the estrangement; he has reconciled us to himself. Nowhere does he suggest that God needed to be reconciled to us. His attitude towards his creatures is, and always was, one of unqualified goodwill; as Jesus himself said, he is kind to the unthankful and wicked. Out of that goodwill, he has provided the way to reconciliation.

It was entirely in harmony with the prophetic valuation of history as the field of the ‘mighty acts’ of God that Paul saw in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as one more ‘mighty act’, the ‘fulfilment’ of all that God had promised in the whole history of Israel. In common Jewish belief, the symbol of that fulfilment was the expected ‘Messiah’. After his conversion, Paul accepted what the followers of Jesus were saying, that in him the Messiah had come. But what Paul meant by ‘Messiah’ was something different from any of the various forms of Jewish messianic expectation. The messianic idea had to be re-thought in the light of a new set of facts. One invariable trait of the Messiah in Jewish expectation was that he would be the agent of God’s final victory over his enemies. On the popular level, this meant victory over the pagan empires which had oppressed the chosen people from time to time. In Paul’s thinking, the idea of the messianic victory is completely ‘sublimated’. It is the cosmic powers and authorities that Christ led as captives in his triumphal procession (Col. 2: 15). Here, Paul was drawing on mythology which belonged to the mentality of most men of his time (Rom. 8: 38; Gal. 4: 3; Eph. 6: 12; Col. 2: 8, 15, etc.) The mythology stood for something real in human experience: the sense that there are unexplained factors working behind the scenes, whether in the world or in our own ‘unconscious’, frustrating our best intentions and turning our good to evil.

As Paul saw it, Jesus was, in his lifetime, in conflict not only with his ostensible opponents but with dark forces lurking in the background. It was, Paul says, the powers that rule the world that crucified him (I Cor. 2: 8), perverting the intended good to evil ends, for neither Pilate nor the chief priests and Pharisees meant ill. But in the outcome, Jesus was not defeated, and unclouded goodness prevailed. His resurrection was the pledge of victory over all enemies of the human spirit, for it was the final victory over death, which Paul personifies as ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15: 26).  So, God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15: 57). It is for Paul highly significant that Jesus lived a truly human life, that he was a man and a Jew. But that does not mean that he is just one more individual thrown up by the historical process. On the contrary, his coming into the world can be seen as a fresh incursion of the Creator into his creation. God has now given the light of the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4: 6). In the act of creation, according to an influential school of Jewish thought, it was divine ‘wisdom’ that was at work, and Christ himself, Paul wrote, was ‘the wisdom of God’ visibly in action among men (I Cor. 1: 24). According to these Jewish thinkers, this wisdom was the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness (Wisdom of Solomon 7: 26). So Christ, Paul says, is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1: 19).

This was a new historical phenomenon, to be brought into relation with the history of Israel as the field within which the purpose of God was working itself out. The formative motive of that history was the calling into existence of a ‘people of God’ – a divine commonwealth – in and through which the will of God might be done on earth, an ‘Israel’ worth the name. The distinguishing mark of such an ‘Israel’, Paul wrote, was to be found in the promise made to Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people, that in his posterity all nations shall find blessing (Gal. 3: 8). This ideal had never yet been realised, though in successive periods there had been some who had it in them to become such people, the ‘remnant’ of which prophets spoke (Rom. 9: 27; 11: 5). In the emergent church of Christ, Paul saw the divine commonwealth coming into active existence. If you belong to Christ, he writes, you are the issue of Abraham (Gal 3: 29), i.e. you are the true Israel in whom all nations shall find blessing.

Church & Sacraments:

002 (3)Here we have a pointer to one reason, at least, why Paul set such store by his mission to the Gentiles. The church was the consummation of a long, divinely directed, history. It is a theme to which he returns in the long and intricate discourse in Romans (9-11). The new, supra-national Israel was constituted solely on the basis of ‘belonging to Christ’, and no longer on racial descent or attachment to a particular legal system. Paul wrote: you are all one person in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28). The expression ‘in Christ’ is one which recurs with remarkable frequency throughout Paul’s letters. The reality of the doctrine for which it stands was present in the church from the beginning in the two rites of baptism and the ‘breaking of bread’. It was through baptism that a person was incorporated into the community of Christ’s followers. In its suggestive ritual, in which the convert was ‘buried’ by immersion in water, and came out cleansed and renewed, Paul saw a symbolic re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ:

… by baptism we were buried with him and lay dead, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet on the new path of life (Rom. 6: 4).

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Baptism affirmed the solidarity of all members of the church with Christ. So, even more clearly and emphatically, did the other primitive sacrament of the church. From the first, its fellowship had been centred in the solemn ‘breaking of bread’ at a communal meal. As the bread was broken, they recalled the mysterious words which Jesus had spoken when he broke bread for his disciples at his last supper: ‘This is my body’ (I Cor. 11: 23 f.). Reflecting on these words, Paul observed, first, that in sharing bread the company established a corporate unity among themselves: We, many as we are, are one body, for it is one loaf of which we all partake (I Cor. 10: 17). Also, Christ himself had said, This is my body. Consequently, when we break the bread, it is a means of sharing the body of Christ (I Cor. 10: 16). The church, therefore, is itself the body of Christ; he is the head, and on him, the whole body depends (Eph. 4: 16). It is in this way that the new people of God is constituted, ‘in Christ’.

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In all forms of Jewish messianic belief, it was common ground that the Messiah was, in some sense, representative of Israel in its divine calling and destiny. Paul presses this idea of representation further by stating that those who adhere to Christ in sincere faith are identified with him in a peculiarly intimate way as if they were being included in him in his own being. He was the inclusive representative of the emergent people of God. Another way of putting it is to say that Christ is the second ‘Adam’, symbolic of the new humanity of which the church was the head. In the Jewish schools of thought where Paul had his training, there was much speculation about the ‘First Adam’ and about the way in which all men, as ‘sons of Adam’, are involved in his fortunes as depicted mythologically in Genesis. Paul takes up this idea: mankind is incorporate ‘in Adam’; emergent new humanity is incorporate ‘in Christ’: As in Adam all men die, so in Christ, all will be brought to life (I Cor. 15: 22; Rom. 5: 12-14). Once again, we see here a fresh expansion of the messianic idea.

The church, as the new ‘Israel of God’, in its essential nature was a united entity and this unity, he argued, should be reflected in the life of every local congregation; he was dismayed to see it being disrupted. In particular, there were persisting influences, both pagan and Jewish, in the minds of those so recently converted. Paul discusses, for example, divergences among Christians about the continued observance of Jewish holy days and food regulations (Rom. 14), and, on the other side, about the extent to which they might share in the social life of their pagan neighbours without sacrificing their principles (I Cor. 8: 1-13; 10: 18-33). But apart from such special discussions, Paul insisted on the idea of the church as a body, analogous to a living organism, in which the parts, while endlessly various, are interdependent and subordinate to one another, and each makes its indispensable contribution to the well-being of the whole. There is a passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians (12: 14-27) which is the classical statement of the idea of the social organism. He develops this idea in relation to his governing conception of the church as the body of Christ. In all its members, it is Christ who is at work, and God in Christ, through his Spirit:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all men, are the work of the same God.

(I Cor. 12: 4-11).

We can see from the lists of ‘services’ in other letters (Rom. 12: 6-8; Eph. 4: 11 f.) just how complex and sophisticated the activities of the ‘primitive’ church had already become in Paul’s time. It is in this context that Paul develops his doctrine of the Spirit, which is another of his most original contributions to Christian thought. It was an innovation rooted in what he had taken from his own Jewish background as well as from the first Judaic Christians. In some forms of Jewish messianic expectation, it was held that in the days of the Messiah, or in the age to come, the divine Spirit, which was believed to have animated the prophets and heroes of Israel’s remoter past, would be poured out afresh, and in a larger measure (Acts 2: 16-18). The early followers of Jesus, when the realisation had broken upon them that he had risen from the dead, had experienced an almost intoxicating sense of new life and power. It was accompanied, as often happens in times of religious ‘revival’, by abnormal psychic phenomena, including visions, the hearing of voices, and ecstatic utterance or ‘speaking with tongues’. The early Christians valued these as evident signs that God was at work among them through his Spirit. These abnormal phenomena reproduced themselves in the new Christian communities which sprang from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and here they created an exciting atmosphere which he also saw to be full of danger.

Liberty & the Gifts of the Spirit:

The situation needed careful handling since Paul did not want to be seen as damping down the enthusiasm of which these strange powers were one expression (I Thess. 5: 19-21). Nor did he wish to deny that they could be the outcome of genuine inspiration. He knew from his own personal experience what it was to have visions and to hear voices (II Cor. 12: 1-4), and he could himself ‘speak with tongues’ (I Cor. 14: 18). But there were other ‘gifts of the Spirit’, less showy, but in the end far more important to the community, such as wisdom, insight, powers of leadership, the gifts of teaching, administration, and the meeting of needs of those in states of deprivation and/or distress (Rom. 12: 6-8; I Cor. 12: 28). These were gifts which helped ‘build up’ the community (I Cor. 14:12) and in emphasising them Paul diverted attention away from the abnormal and exceptional to such moral and intellectual endowments as any society would wish to find among its members. It was their devotion to such endowments to the common good that gave them real value.

It was this original concept of the Spirit as the mode of Christ’s own presence in his church opens up a new approach to ethics. Paul found himself obliged to meet a formidable challenge to his message that the Christian is free from the ‘bondage’ of the law since Christ annulled the law with its rules and regulations (Eph. 2: 15). This kind of language ran the risk of being misunderstood. His Jewish critics, both inside and outside the church, suspected that in sweeping away the discipline of the Mosaic Law he was leaving his Gentile converts without moral anchorage in a licentious environment. Paul scarcely realised at first how open to misconstruction his language was. He soon discovered that he was widely understood to be advocating a purely ‘permissive’ morality, which was in fact far from his intention. People were claiming, We are free to do anything (I Cor. 6: 12; 10: 23), in the belief that they were echoing his own views. He did point out that there were some obvious limits on freedom and that Christian morality was not conformity to an external code but sprang from an inward source. The transformation which this involved was made effective by the work of the Spirit within as the true source of Christian character and action:

“We are free to do anything,” you say; but does everything help to build up the community?

(I Cor. 10: 23)

You were called to be free men, only do not turn your liberty to license for your lower nature.

(Gal. 5: 13)

Let your minds be remade, and your whole nature transformed; then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable and perfect.

(Rom. 12: 2)

The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, and self-control. There is no law dealing with such things as those. 

(Gal. 5: 22 f.).

The church was under a ‘new covenant’, which was not, like the ‘old covenant’, guaranteed by a single code of commands and prohibitions engraved letter by letter upon a stone (II Cor. 3: 7), but by the Spirit animating the whole body of the church. But that Spirit was not simply an ‘inner light’, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit in the church which is the Spirit of Christ working in the members of his body. This was the historical Christ who had lived and taught, died and rose again. Christians who had received the Gospel and teaching that went with it were in a position to know what it was like to be ‘Christlike’ in character and conduct, and this was an objective standard by which all inner promptings could be brought to the test. It might even be described as the law of Christ (Gal. 6: 2; I Cor. 9: 21), but Paul was obviously cautious of using such quasi-legal language; he did not wish to be introducing a kind of new Christian legalism. The ‘law of Christ’ and the ‘life-giving law of the Spirit’ are, for Paul, one and the same thing (Ro. 8: 2). Sometimes Paul wrote as if the ‘reshaping’ of the mind of the Christian took place almost immediately upon their becoming believers, but there are sufficient passages in his letters which reveal that he was aware that the process might be gradual, perhaps lengthy (Gal. 4: 19; Eph. 4: 13; I Cor. 9: 26) and possibly never completed in this life (Phil. 3: 12-14). But once the process was genuinely underway, a believer was ‘under the law of Christ’, and Christ himself – not the Christian’s own ideas, not even in the end, his conscience – is the judge to whom he defers in all his actions (I Cor. 4: 3 f.).

Loving-kindness – The Law of Christ & Social Ethics:

The ‘law of Christ’ is, therefore, Christ himself working through his Spirit in the church to give ethical direction. And it is all that we know of Christ that comes into it – his teaching, the example of his actions, and the impact of his death and resurrection. These acted as influences on Paul’s thought, not as from outside, but creatively from within. His ethical judgements are informed by the Spirit of Christ and yet are intimately his own. That is why the law of Christ, while it commands him absolutely, can never be thought of as a ‘bondage’, as the old law with its rules and regulations; where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Cor. 3: 17). Paul’s ethical teaching, therefore, is the application of what it means to be ‘Christlike’. His death is the commanding example of self-sacrifice for the sake of others (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5: 2, 25), and it was his expression of his limitless love for mankind (Rom. 8: 34 f.; Eph. 3: 18 f.).

It is this quality of love, above all, that Paul holds up as the essence of what it means to be ‘Christlike’, and as the basic and all-inclusive principle of Christian living (Rom. 13: 8-10; Gal. 5: 14; Col. 3: 14; Eph. 1: 4). The word he uses is the almost untranslatable agape, a word first brought into common use in a Christian setting. It can be rendered by the older use of the word charity, from the Latin Caritas. ‘Agape’ includes feelings of affection (Rom. 12. 9 f.), but it evokes, more fully and fundamentally, the energy of goodwill or ‘loving kindness’ emanating unconditionally towards others, regardless of their merit, worthiness or attractiveness. The eloquent passage in I Corinthians 13, which has the feeling of a hymn to agape, contains pointers to the kind of attitude and behaviour it inspires, and in this context, it is presented as the highest of all ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (I Cor. 12: 31; 14: 1). It is in this ‘hymn’ that the ‘law of the Spirit’ and the ‘law of Christ’ become intertwined and thereby completely indistinguishable.

Agape, then, is the source of the distinctively Christian virtues and graces of character. It is also the most constructive principle in society; it is love that builds (I Cor. 8: 1). Thus the ideas of the building of the body and the centrality of love imply one another and form the effective basis for Paul’s teaching on social ethics. The whole of Christian behaviour can be summed up in the maxim, Love one another as Christ loved you (Eph. 5: 1; Gal. 5: 13 f.; I Thess. 4: 9; Col. 3: 14). This does not mean, however, that Paul is content to say, Love and do as you please. Nor, on the other hand, does he undertake to show how detailed rules of behaviour could be derived deductively from a single master-principle. Ethical behaviour is essentially an individual’s response to actual situations in which he finds himself in day-to-day living as a member of society. Paul envisages his readers not just in any society, but in the particular society in which their daily lives must be lived, namely the Graeco-Roman world, which he knew so well, with its political, legal and economic institutions, and within that world, the young Christian communities with their distinctive ethos and unique problems. He indicates, always in practical terms, how this whole network of relations may be permeated with the Christian quality of living.

How close these immature Christians stood to the corruptions of paganism, and how easily they could relapse into them can be gathered by some of the startling remarks which he lets fall about his converts (I Cor. 5: 1 f.; 6: 8-10; Col. 3: 5-7; I Thess. 4: 3-8), as well as from the passion with which he insists that there must be a complete break with the past (Col. 3: 5-10). So alarmed was he at the possibility of the infection of immorality that he sometimes writes as if the only safe way of avoiding this was for the church to withdraw from pagan society altogether (II Cor. 6: 14-18); but he had to explain that this was not his real intention: the idea that Christians should avoid dangerous contacts by getting right out of the world he dismisses as absurd (I Cor. 5: 9-13). In fact, it is clear that he envisaged Christians living on good terms and in normal social intercourse with their pagan neighbours (I Cor. 10: 27 f.). Their task was the more difficult one of living as full members of the society in which their lot was cast, while firmly renouncing its corruptions; to be in it, but not of it. But although deeply corrupted, Graeco-Roman civilisation was not without moral ideals. A certain standard of what was ‘fitting’ was widely accepted, at least in public. The Stoics spoke of it as the general feeling of mankind (communis sensus hominum), and there was a genuine desire to see this standard observed in corporate life. Paul was well aware of this, as he shows when he enjoins his readers: Let your aims be such as all men count honourable (Rom. 12: 17). Even after his fierce castigation of pagan vices at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans he goes on to write that the good pagan may do God’s will by the light of nature; his conscience bears true witness (Rom. 2: 14 f.). There is a broad universality about what he writes to the Philippians:

All that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable – fill all your thoughts with these things.

(Phil. 4: 8)

It is therefore not surprising that Paul was concerned to work out his sketch of Christian behaviour within the framework of Graeco-Roman society as it actually existed, rather than as Christians might have wanted it to be. The empire was, for him, part of the divinely given setting for a Christian’s life in the world, and he made it clear that he would be following the law of Christ in obeying the Roman law, respecting the magistrates, and paying his taxes. This was an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. In fact, the fulfilment of such obligations is an application of the maxim, Love your neighbour as yourself (Rom. 13: 1-10). Similarly, in dealing with family life he took over a general scheme current among Stoics and moralists at the time which assumed the existing structure of the Graeco-Roman household, with the paterfamilias as the responsible head, and the other members, including the slaves, having their respective obligations (Eph. 5: 21 – 6: 9; Col. 3: 18 – 4: 1), and indicated how within this general structure Christian principles and values could be applied.

As far as Paul is concerned, marriage is indissoluble for Christians because there is a saying of the Lord to that effect (I Cor. 7: 10 f.; Mark 10: 2-9). Beyond that, because in Christ there is no distinction between man and woman (Gal. 3: 28), although the husband is usually the head of the household, the marriage relation itself must be completely mutual as between husband and wife. Neither can claim their own body ‘as their own’ (I Cor. 7: 4). This bond is so sacred that in a mixed marriage the ‘heathen’ spouse is ‘holy’ to God, as are the children of such a marriage (I Cor. 7: 14). So the natural ties of family relationships are valid within the Christian fellowship which is ‘the body of Christ’. However, in I Cor. 7: 26-29, Paul apparently ‘entertained’ the belief that family obligations were of limited relevance since the time we live in will not last long. It was only by the time he wrote to the Colossians that he had fully accepted the principle that family life should be part of life ‘in Christ’, though even then he only gave some brief hints about what its character should be (Col. 3: 18-21).

The Graeco-Roman household also included slaves, and here again, Christian principles and values began to make inroads into this practice. It was a fundamental principle that in Christ there was neither slave nor free man (Gal. 3: 28, Col. 3: 11). Accordingly, there is a level on which their status is equal:

The man who as a slave received the call to be a Christian is the Lord’s freedman, and, equally, the free man who received the call is a slave in the service of Christ.

(I Cor. 7: 22)

In writing to the Colossians he urges slaves to give their service…

… as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men… Christ is the Master whose slaves you must be; … Masters, be fair and just to your slaves, knowing that you too have a master in heaven. 

(Col. 3: 23 f.; 4: 1)

The Christian ideal of free mutual service transcended the legal relations of master and slave. The letter to Philemon is a short ‘note’ in which Paul deals with the particular case of the recipient’s runaway slave, Onesimus, who had also helped himself to his master’s cashbox. Somehow or other Paul came across him, and converted him. Under Roman law, anyone harbouring a fugitive slave was liable to severe penalties, and a runaway recovered by his master could expect no mercy. Paul decided to send Onesimus back to his, trusting that the ‘law of Christ’ would transform their relationship from within, without disrupting the civil order, and in Philemon’s readiness to take a fully Christian view of the matter:

Perhaps this is why you lost him for a time, that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a dear brother. 

(Philemon 12-16)

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Paul’s Eschatology – Christ, the Church & the Future:

The permeation of the church, and ultimately of society, with the Christian quality of life gives actuality to Paul’s doctrine of the indwelling of Christ, through his Spirit, in the body of his followers, the church. It is not simply the experience of an individual, but a force working in history. But if Christ is thus present in the church, then he has to be known not only through his historical life, supremely important as that is, but also in what he is doing in and through the church in the present and in the future into which the present dissolves at every moment. His brief career on earth had ended, so far as the world, in general, could see, in failure. His disciples may have known better, but how was the world to know? For many early Christians, the very short answer to this question that, very shortly, he would ‘come again’, and then ‘every eye shall see him’ (Rev. 1: 7). Paul began by sharing this belief. At the time when he wrote his earliest surviving letters (as they probably are), to the Thessalonians, he seems to have had no doubt that he and most Christians would live to see the ‘second advent’ (II Thess. 2: 1-3; 4: 15). Even when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians he was still assured that ‘we shall not all die’ (I Cor. 15: 51). Before he wrote the second letter there was an occasion when his life was despaired of (II Cor. 1: 9), and it may be that for the first time he faced the likelihood that he would die before the Day, and in that way ‘go to live with the Lord’ (II Cor. 5: 8). At any rate, from this time we hear little more of the expectation of earlier years.

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Tom Wright suggests that when writing II Thessalonians, Paul had perhaps foreseen the fall of Jerusalem of AD 70, quite possibly through a Roman emperor doing what Caligula had so nearly done. The ultimate monster from the sea, Rome itself, would draw itself up to its full height, demolishing the heaven-and-earth structure that had (according to Jesus) come to embody Jeremiah’s “den of robbers.” Jesus would then set up his kingdom of a different sort, one that could not be shaken. But if Jerusalem were to fall to the Romans, Paul had to get busy, because he knew what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Christians would claim that God had finally cut off the Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted (favourably, of course) with something called ‘Judaism’. Conversely, Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile brethren – and particularly the followers of Paul – of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus as Messiah would be in no doubt at all that all this had happened because of this ‘false prophet’ and the renegade Saul, who had led Israel astray. Wright’s supposition leads him to believe that Paul was therefore determined…

 … to establish and maintain Jew-plus-Gentile communities, worshipping the One God in and through Jesus his son and in the power of the spirit, ahead of the catastrophe.

Only in this way, he believed, could this potential split, the destruction of the ‘new Temple’ of I Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, be averted. This is why Paul insisted, in letter after letter, on the unity of the church across all traditional boundaries. This was not about the establishment of a new ‘religion’ and had nothing to do with Paul being a “self-hating Jew”. This anti-Semitic slur is still found in ill-informed ‘studies’ of his work, but Paul affirmed what he took to be the central features of the Jewish hope: One God, Israel’s Messiah, and resurrection itself. For him, what mattered was messianic eschatology and the community that embodied it. The One God had fulfilled, in a way so unexpected that most of the guardians of the promises had failed to recognise it, the entire narrative of the people of God. That was what Paul had been preaching in one synagogue after another. It was because of that fulfilment that the Gentiles were now being brought into the single family. The apostle came to be less preoccupied with a supposedly imminent ‘second advent’ as he explored the range of Christ’s present activity in the church. He saw the church expanding its influence abroad, and developing internally the complexity that marks the evolution of a living organism. If all this raised some problems, it was all part of the growth of the body – of Christ’s body – and it was Christ’s own work:

It is from the Head that the whole body, with all its joints and ligaments, receives its supplies and thus knit together grows according to God’s design.

(Col. 2: 19)

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This, as Paul saw it, was the way in which Christ is revealed to the whole universe (Eph. 3: 10). Nor is there any limit to this growth, until we all, at last, attain the unity inherent in our faith (Eph. 4: 13). In the church, Paul saw men actually being drawn into unity across the barriers erected by differences of ethnicity, nationality, language, culture or social status. He was powerfully impressed by the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the fellowship of the church (Eph. 2: 11-22). In this, as his horizons widened, he saw the promise of a larger unity, embracing all mankind (Rom. 11: 25-32).  In this unity of mankind, moreover, he finds he finds the sign and pledge of God’s purpose for his whole creation. In a passage which has much of the visionary quality of poetry or prophecy, he pictures the whole universe waiting in eager expectation for the day when it shall enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God (Rom. 8: 19-21). In the church, therefore, can be discerned God’s ultimate design to reconcile the whole universe to himself… to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone (Col. 1: 20). Such was the vision of the future which Paul bequeathed to the church for its inspiration. In a sense then, he continued to believe that he was living in the last days. For him, God had, in sending the Messiah, had brought the old world of chaos, idolatry, wickedness, and death to an end. Jesus had taken its horror onto himself and had launched something else in its place. But, as Tom Wright puts it…

… that meant that, equally, Paul was conscious of living in the first days, the opening scenes of the new drama of world history, with heaven and earth now held together not by Torah and Temple, but by Jesus and the Spirit, pointing forward to the time when the divine glory would fill the whole world and transform it from top to bottom.

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This vision was not to be found in the non-Jewish world of Paul’s day. It was a thoroughly Jewish eschatology, shaped around the one believed to be Israel’s Messiah. Paul believed, not least because he saw it so clearly in the scriptures, that Israel too had its own brand of idolatry. But the point of Jesus’s ‘new Passover’ was that the powerful ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ to which mankind had given away their authority, had been defeated. The resurrection proved it and had thereby launched a new world with a new people to reflect the true God into that new world. That is why Paul’s Gentile mission was not a different idea from the idea of forgiveness of sins or the cleansing of the heart. It was because of the powerful gospel announced and made effective those realities that the old barriers between Jew and Greek were abolished in the Messiah. That is why Paul’s work just as much as ‘social’ and ‘political’ as it is ‘theological’ or ‘religious’. Every time Paul expounded ‘justification’, it formed part of his argument that in the Messiah there was a single family consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles, a family that demonstrated to the world that there was a new way of being human. Paul saw himself as a working model of exactly this:

Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Sources:

C. H. Dodd (1970), Paul and His World; The Thought of Paul, in Robert C Walton (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM.

N. T. Wright (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: SPCK.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles.   Leave a comment

Part One – From Tarsus to Antioch & Galatia:

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Introduction:

For Christmas 2018, my eldest son gave me a copy of Tom Wright’s Biography of the Apostle Paul, ‘hot off the press’. It reminded me of the time, as a child, when I found a picture book of Paul’s life on my Coventry grandmother’s bookstand and read it in one sitting, cover to cover. It also reminded me of watching the television film shown above (from which I have included stills throughout the text). Both as Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle, his was an eventful and exciting life story, as he himself recognised in his later letter to the church at Corinth:

Let me tell you what I’ve had to face. I know it’s silly for me to talk like this, but here’s the list. I know what it is to work hard and live dangerously.

I’ve been beaten up more times than I can remember, been in more than one prison, and faced death more than once. Five times I’ve been thrashed by a Jewish court to within an inch of my life; three times I’ve been beaten with (Roman) rods by city magistrates; and once I was nearly stoned to death. 

I’ve been shipwrecked three times; and once, I was adrift, out of sight of land, for twenty-four hours.

I don’t know how many roads I’ve tramped. I’ve faced bandits; I’ve been attacked by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners. I’ve met danger in city streets and on lonely country roads and out in the open sea.

(II Cor. 11: 23-33, New World.)

The writings of Paul have had an incalculable influence on Western culture and beyond, and his words continue to guide the lives of two billion Christians throughout the world today. In his biography, Tom Wright traces Paul’s career from the Sanhedrin’s zealous persecutor of the fledgling Church, through his journeys as the world’s greatest missionary and theologian, to his likely death as a Christian martyr under Nero in the mid-sixties of the first century.

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To understand Paul, Wright insists, we must understand the Jewish world in which the young Saul grew up, a world itself firmly earthed in the soil of wider Graeco-Roman culture. This is what I want to concentrate on here, especially in the context in which Wright is writing, a twenty-first century which seems just as filled with religious and ethnic hatred and in which anti-Jewish thought, feelings and actions are once more on the rise, despite the atrocities of the previous century. The ‘Breaking News’ as I write is that incidents of anti-Semitism in Britain have risen for the third year running: 1,652 incidents were recorded by Community Security Trust (CST) in 2018, including more than 100 Assaults. Growing up in a Baptist manse in Birmingham in the 1960s and ’70s, I became conscious of anti-Semitism at the age of eleven when I asked one of the older boys I regularly walked to school with if he was a ‘Jewboy’. I had heard my father use the term, but didn’t think, at that time, that it meant anything other than a ‘Jewish’ boy and didn’t realise that it was used as a term of abuse. After they were called to the school, my parents informed me of this, I apologised to the boy and never used the term again. Later, I understood that my father’s view of the Jews was based on ‘replacement’ theology, the idea that the Christian Church had been chosen to replace the people of Judea and Israel, who had proved themselves unworthy by their rejection of Jesus and their ‘role’ in his crucifixion. One of my seventh-generation Baptist grandmother’s books, George F Jowett’s The Drama of the Lost Disciples (1961) expressed this (then) popular view:

Jesus Himself… denounces the Sadducean Jews, telling them that the glory shall be taken away from them and given to another (Matt. 21: 43). Again, when He says He came not to the Jews, but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matt. 15: 24). He knew He would not convert the Sanhedrin and its following, so it had to be others – the lost sheep. Who were they? The answer lies in his answer to Paul, the converted Saul, whom he commands to go the Gentiles.

C. H. Dodd wrote (1970) that Paul was the pioneer leader in the Christian approach to the Graeco-Roman public. The fortunate preservation of a number of his letters has put us in a position to know him better than we know most individuals of the ancient world. The information they give can be supplemented from the account of his career given in the Acts of the Apostles. Whilst there are points where it is not easy to bring the two sources of our knowledge into complete harmony, there is a good reason to believe that the author of ‘Acts’, thought to be Luke (the gospel-writer and Greek doctor), was well-informed, and may have travelled with Paul himself. This made him an eye-witness, and his account may be used as a historical frame in which to set Paul’s own accounts, contained in his letters.

Saul of Tarsus:

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According to Acts 21: 39, Paul was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, an ancient Greek city, and then a strong centre of Hellenistic culture, his parents belonging to the Jewish colony there. Tarsus was ten miles inland on the river Cydnus in the south-east corner of what is Turkey today, in ‘Asia Minor’, on the major east-west routes. It was a ‘noble city’ which could trace its history back two thousand years. Generals like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had recognised its strategic importance; the emperor Augustus had given it extra privileges. It was a city of culture and politics, of philosophy and industry. It had a thriving textile business, producing materials from goats’ hair, used to make shelters, which may well have been the basis of the family business of tent-making, in which Saul had been apprenticed and which he continued to practice.

The cosmopolitan world of the eastern Mediterranean flowed through the city, which rivalled Athens as a centre of philosophy, not least because half the philosophers of Athens had gone there a century earlier when Athens had incurred the wrath of Rome in a struggle for power. The Jews had struck a deal with Augustus Caesar by which he accepted that they were exempted from adopting the ‘divinity’ cult of his father, Julius Caesar. In return, they agreed to pray to their One God for Rome and its emperor.

We don’t know how long his family had lived in Tarsus. Later legends suggest various options, one of which is that his father or grandfather had lived in Palestine but had moved during one of the periodic social and political upheavals which always carried ‘religious’ overtones as well. They were orthodox Jews and brought their son up in the Pharisaic tradition (23:6; 26:5). The word ‘Pharisee’ has had a bad press over the centuries since. Modern research, operating at the academic rather than the popular level, has done little to dispel that impression, partly because the research in question has made things far more complicated, as research in question in question has made things far more complicated, as research often does. Most of the sources for understanding the Pharisees of Saul’s day come from a much later period. The rabbis of the third and fourth centuries AD looked back to the Pharisees as their spiritual ancestors and so tended to project onto them their own questions and ways of seeing things. But besides Paul’s writings, the other first-century source on the Pharisees, the Jewish historian Josephus, also requires caution. Having been a general at the start of the Roman-Jewish war of AD 66-70, he had gone over to the Romans and claimed that Israel’s One God had done the same thing, an alarmingly clear case of remaking the Almighty in one’s own image.

In Tarsus, as throughout the ‘Diaspora’, there were all sorts of cultural pressures which would draw devout Jews into compromise. Families and individuals faced questions such as what to eat, whom to eat with, whom to do business with, whom to marry, what attitude to take toward local officials, taxes, customs and rituals. The decisions individuals made on all of these questions would mark them out in the eyes of some as too compromised and in the eyes of others as too strict. There was seldom if ever in the ancient world a simple divide, with Jews on one side and gentiles on the other. We should envisage, rather, a complex subculture in which Jews as a whole saw themselves as broadly different from their gentile neighbours. Within that, the entire subgroups of Jews saw themselves as different from other subgroups. The parties and sects we know from Palestinian Jewish life of the time – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and a nascent militantly ‘zealous’ faction – may not have existed exactly as we describe them, not least because the Sadducees were a small Jerusalem-based aristocracy, but intra-Jewish political and social divisions would have persisted.

We can’t be sure how many Jews lived in Tarsus in Saul’s day. There were, quite possibly, a few thousand at least in a city of roughly a hundred thousand. But we can get a clear sense of how things were for the young Saul. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as ‘private life’ for individuals and families. A tiny number of the aristocracy or the very rich were able to afford a measure of privacy but for the great majority, life was lived publicly and visibly. The streets were mostly narrow, the houses and tenements were mostly cramped, there were noises and smells everywhere, and everyone knew everybody else’s business. We can assume that this was true for the Jews of Tarsus who would have lived close to each other partly for their own safety and partly for the ease of obtaining ‘kosher’ food. The questions of where one stood on the spectrum between strict adherence to the ancestral code, the Torah, and ‘compromise’ were not theoretical. They were about what one did and what one didn’t do in full view of neighbours, and about how those neighbours might react.

The Torah loomed all the larger if one lived, as did the young Saul, outside the promised land and hence away from the Temple. The Torah, in fact, functioned as a movable Temple for the many Jews who were scattered around the wider world. Wherever they were, in Rome or in Babylon, Greece or Egypt, if they prayerfully studied it, then it might be as if they were in the Temple itself. They would be in the divine presence, not in its most dramatic form, but there nonetheless. But the Temple in Jerusalem remained central, geographically and symbolically. It was the place where heaven and earth met, thus forming the signpost to the ultimate promise, the renewal and unity of heaven and earth, the new creation in which the One God would be personally present forever. We don’t know how often Saul travelled with his parents to the homeland with his parents for the great festivals. It is quite probable that, at an early age, the young Saul acquired the sense that all roads, spiritually as well as geographically, to Jerusalem. The Temple was like a cultural and theological magnet, drawing together not only heaven and earth but also the great scriptural stories and promises. In addition, therefore, it was the focal point of Israel’s hope, The One God, so the prophets had said, abandoned his house in Jerusalem because of the people’s idolatry and sin. Tom Wright argues that we will never understand how the young Saul of Tarsus thought and prayed until we grasp…

… the strange fact that, though the Temple still held powerful memories of divine presence … there was a strong sense that the promise of ultimate divine return had not yet been fulfilled. …

… The God of Israel had said he would return, but had not yet done so.

Saul of Tarsus was brought up to believe that it would happen, perhaps very soon. Israel’s God would indeed return in glory to establish his kingdom in visible global power. He was also taught that there were things Jews could be doing to keep this promise and hope on track. It was vital for Jews to keep the Torah with rigorous attention to detail and to defend the Torah, and the Temple itself, against possible attacks and threats. … That is why Saul of Tarsus persecuted Jesus’s early followers.

The young Saul was not ‘learning religion’ in the accepted modern sense of general religious education, and the mature apostle was not a teacher of it. Today, ‘religion’ for most people in the West designates a detached area of life or even a private hobby, separated by definition from politics and public life, and especially from science and technology. In Paul’s day, ‘religion’ meant almost the exact opposite. The Latin word religio has to do with binding things together. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants (gods and ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, home life and work. The public nature of individual life was apparent in the workplace. We know from Paul’s later letters that he engaged in manual work, both as a young apprentice and later to support himself as a missionary. ‘Tent-making’ probably included the crafting of other goods made of leather or animal hair in addition to the core product of tents themselves. Many people migrated from place to place for work, those who worked outside needed awnings and pilgrims required ‘tabernacles’ for their sojourns.

The market for tents and similar products was widespread. We might guess those likely purchasers would include regiments of soldiers, but travel was a way of life for many others in the Roman Empire. It seems unlikely that a Jewish tent-maker would be selling only to fellow Jews. We can assume, therefore, that Saul grew up in a cheerfully and strictly observant Jewish home, on the one hand, and in a polyglot, multicultural, multi-ethnic working environment on the other. Strict adherence to the ancestral tradition did not preclude know-how of the wider world of work, and how it spoke, behaved and thought. The tent-maker was unlikely to have had a ‘sheltered’ upbringing. The place where the invisible world (‘heaven’) and the visible world (‘earth’) were joined together was the Temple in Jerusalem. If, as in his case, you couldn’t get to the Temple, you could and should study and practice the Torah, and it would have the same effect. Temple and Torah, the two great symbols of Jewish life, pointed to the story in which devout Jews like Saul and his family believed themselves to be living:

… the great story of Israel and the world, which, they hoped, was at last to set up his kingdom, to make the whole world one vast glory-filled Temple, and to enable all people – or at least his chosen people – to keep the Torah perfectly. Any who prayed or sang the Psalms regularly would find themselves thinking this, hoping this, praying this, day after day, month after month.

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As an apprentice in the bustling pagan city of Tarsus, the young Saul knew perfectly well what it meant to be a loyal Jew. It meant keeping oneself pure from idolatry and immorality. There were pagan temples and shrines on every corner, and Saul would have had a fair idea of what went on there. Loyalty meant keeping the Jewish community pure from all those things as well. Saul’s family seem to have lived with a fierce, joyful strictness in obedience to the ancient traditions and did their best to urge other Jews to do the same. At the same time, his father possessed the coveted status of a Roman citizen, which meant that the family had a superior standing in the local community and his son also had Roman citizenship as his birthright (Acts 22: 25-29). He grew up bilingual (fluent in both in Aramaic and Greek) and bi-cultural: at home, he was Saul, named after the first king of Israel; outside he was Paulus, a citizen of Tarsus and of Rome. He was also literate in Hebrew, able to read the scriptures in the original. His mind had the freedom of two worlds of thought: He had more than the average educated man’s understanding of Greek literature and philosophy. His language quite often carries echoes of ‘Stoicism’.

A Zealous Student in Jerusalem:

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On the other hand, Saul’s formal education seems to have been entirely within the native Jewish tradition, and he was sent to Jerusalem as a young man to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the most distinguished rabbi of his time. Paul was not only, evidently, well versed in the Scriptures, but also in the Rabbinic methods of interpreting them, which sometimes present difficulties for modern readers.

He was therefore well-equipped for his later mission to take the message of a religion rooted in Judaism to a generally non-Jewish Hellenistic public.

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At every stage of Israel’s history, the people of the One God had been tempted to compromise with the wider world and forget the covenant. Resisting this pressure for Saul meant becoming zealous. In his letter to the Galatians (1: 14), Paul wrote I was extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. Nevertheless, Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Roman, it seems, did not live in complete harmony within the same skin. There are signs of psychological tension; in early life, the Pharisee was uppermost. He recites with pride the privileges of the chosen people:

They are Israelites; they were made God’s sons; theirs is the splendour of the divine presence, theirs the covenants, the law, the temple worship, and the promises. (Rom. 9: 4, NEB)

Not only was he proud of the Hebrew people, but he was also proud beyond measure of his own standing as a Jew:

Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred: in my attitude to the law a Pharisee, in pious zeal a persecutor of the church, in legal rectitude faultless (Phil. 3: 5-6).

In another retrospect on his early life he added a significant claim:

In the practice of our national religion I was outstripping many of my Jewish contemporaries in my boundless devotion to the traditions of my ancestors (Gal. 1: 14).

That tells us something powerful about the man; from a young age, he had possessed an irresistible drive to excel, to be distinguished. It was necessary to his self-respect that he should himself as the perfect Pharisee: in legal rectitude faultless. This has led to some Judaistic readers to suggest that there was something extravagant or abnormal in Paul’s account of his pre-Damascene phase. The time came when he himself was forced to confess to himself that this was fantasy, not reality. He was not faultless, and his efforts in pursuit of perfection had been self-defeating:

When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves. (Rom. 7: 21 f.).

Yet by the time Paul was studying in Jerusalem, it was clear that the Abrahamic ‘project’, Israel’s ancestral vocation, was at the point where it needed rescuing. Some Jews had returned to Palestine from Babylon, while others were scattered all over the known world. But the cry went up from one generation to the next over the four centuries to the time of the Roman occupation: We are still in exile! Exile was not just a geographical reality; it was a state of mind and heart, of politics and practicalities, of spirit and flesh. As long as pagans were ruling over Jews, and demanding taxes from them, and profaning their Holy Place, the Jews were again in exile. Since the exile was the result of Israel’s idolatry, according to the prophets, what they needed was not just a new Passover, a new rescue from slavery to pagan tyrants: they needed forgiveness. As Tom Wright has put it, …

That was the good news the prophets had spoken of, the word of comfort at every level from the spiritual to the physical. … When the One God finally puts away the idolatry and wickedness that caused his people to be exiled in the first place, then his people will be ‘free at last’, Passover people with a difference.

That was the ancient hope which Saul of Tarsus cherished along with thousands of his fellow Jews, by no means all of whom were as ‘zealous’ as he was. Few had his intellectual gifts, but they were, like him, very well aware, through scripture and liturgy, of the tensions between those promises and their present predicament. Theirs was a religious culture suffused with hope, albeit long deferred. That was the great narrative in which they lived out their daily lives in their heads and their hearts, giving shape and energy to their aspirations and motivations. Paul sought a means of working out his inner conflict in action, and it was this that made him, at first, a persecutor. His first contact with the new sect of the ‘Nazarenes’, it appears, was one of the most radical and aggressive representatives, a Hellenistic Jew (like Paul himself) named Stephen, who was reported to be…

… forever saying things against the holy place and the law … saying that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the Temple) and alter the customs handed down to us by Moses (Acts 6: 13 f.)

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This was an act which impugned the most sacred pledges of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. And when it appeared that these sectaries hailed Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah, this was sheer blasphemy. Did not the Law say, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a gibbet (Gal. 3: 13)? These people were dragging the glory of Israel into the mire: they were enemies of the Temple and the Torah, enemies of Israel, enemies of Israel’s God. Jerusalem’s Temple, like the wilderness Tabernacle before it, was designed as a small working model of the entire cosmos. This was where the One God of creation would live, dwelling in the midst of his people. When the Temple was destroyed, this vision was shattered, but the prophets had declared that God would one day return and that the people should prepare for that day. Yet the Jews of Saul’s day found themselves in the long, puzzling interval between the time when the One God had abandoned the Temple and the time when he would return in glory, bringing heaven and earth together at last. Seers, mystics and poets wrote of dreams and visions whose subject matter was the rescue of Israel and the final saving ‘revelation’ (apokalypsis in Greek) of the One God. This was the world in which Saul of Tarsus, heir to these traditions, practised his fierce and loyal devotion to Israel’s God. This was how he could keep hope alive and perhaps even to glimpse its fulfilment in advance.

Locating him within this world is not a matter of psychoanalysis, but of history. We are trying to think our way into the mind of a zealous young Jew determined to do God’s will whatever its cost, eager to purge Israel from idolatry and sin, keen to hasten the time when God would come back to rule his world with justice and righteousness. All the fear and hatred that Saul felt for that in himself which was ‘fighting against the Law’ could now be directed upon overt enemies. Stephen was stoned to death, with Saul as an accessory. This was only a beginning. With characteristic determination to outstrip everyone else in his zeal for the Law, Saul obtained from the high priest a commission to hunt the heretics down wherever they might be found (Acts 9: 1 f.).

The Followers of ‘The Way’ & The Road to Damascus:

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According to Acts, the Sanhedrin’s persecution of the first followers of ‘The Way’ (not yet calling themselves Christians) collapsed when Saul had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul, on a permanent basis. The incredible happened, apparently. Paul was struck blind and heard the voice of Christ speaking to him and was suddenly converted to the faith of ‘The Way’. Going into hiding with those he had planned to persecute, he had his sight restored. Wright suggests that this ‘apocalyptic’ event needs to be set in the context of Saul’s seeking, through prayer and meditation, to inhabit for himself the strange old traditions of heaven-and-earth commerce, to become in mind, soul and body, a visionary whose inner eye, and perhaps whose outer eye, might glimpse the ultimate mystery. The practice of this kind of meditation was something one might well do on the long, hot journey from Jerusalem to Damascus.

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When this news got back to Jerusalem, it stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). The effects of his conversion experience on both his career and the passage of history in which he played his part are open to observation. It is evident that it brought a resolution to his personal predicament. His attempt to resolve it by externalising his inner conflict had proved to be no solution at all. He now found real reconciliation of the contending forces in his soul through his reconciliation with the ‘enemies’ he had been pursuing with such pious hatred. He threw in his lot with them and with ‘Jesus whom he was persecuting’. But to do so meant standing with one who was under the curse of the ‘Law’: it was to become an ‘outlaw’. He wrote that he had been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2: 20).

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It was the most complete break possible with his past self. It took all meaning out of the desperate struggle to see himself in legal rectitude faultless. He could now accept himself as he was, aware of his weaknesses yet willing to stand at the disposal of his new Master. He wrote of how we make it our ambition to be acceptable to him (II Cor. 5: 9). This was a different type of ‘ambition’ from that which had spurred him on to outstrip his Jewish contemporaries. It was the displacement of self from the centre, which proved to be the removal of a heavy burden. But above all it was a liberating experience: ‘Christ set us free, to be free men’ (Gal. 5: 1). It shows itself in an expansion of the range of his interests and energies, no longer restricted by Jewish nationalism and orthodoxy. For an Orthodox Jew who lived the life of a great Greek city, relations with Gentiles were always problematic. Paul was repressing his natural instincts in maintaining the degree of separation from his Gentile fellow-citizens which ‘legal rectitude’ seemed to require. Now he could give those instincts free rein. From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he knew that the ‘dividing wall’ was broken down and that he must ‘go to the Gentiles’. Thus the main direction of his new mission was decided from the outset, though it may have been some years before the required strategy was worked out. The rest of what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is well-known, not just from the narratives in Acts, but also from his own letters. But we are scantily informed about his early years as a Christian, and the skeleton outline of the Acts tells us little. All that we have from the man himself are his recollections and reflections on the situations into which his missionary career had brought him.

Similarly, the drama of Saul’s Damascene conversion fits too neatly with the need for an early Christian account of a new departure, schism or breakaway in what, in reality, was a gradual evolution of Christianity from Judaism. At first, Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect by both Jews and Gentiles. This led to opposition and persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities, who objected to its doctrines and the admission of Gentiles without their accepting the Law. Yet since Jews were also already scattered in communities throughout the Empire and beyond, they provided Christian missionaries with an entry into the Gentile world. It was not until three years after his conversion that Paul returned to Jerusalem (Gal. 1: 17-19). At that time he stayed for a fortnight with Peter (or ‘Cephas’, as he calls him, using the Aramaic name given to him by Jesus) and also met James, ‘the Lord’s brother’. These would be able to tell him much at first-hand about Jesus. His stay in Jerusalem seems to have been cut short. however, and he then spent a period of about a dozen years in ‘the regions of Cilicia and Syria’ (Gal. 1: 21). Perhaps some of the adventures he recalls later in life belong to that period, but Acts records only his return to Tarsus, in Cilicia (9: 30) and his removal to Antioch, in Syria (Acts 11: 25 f.). It was with his arrival in the Syrian capital, where Jesus’ followers were first given the nickname ‘Christian’, that the story of his missionary journeys really begins.

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The Synagogues; The Judaeo-Palestinian Converts & The Antiochene Church:

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Above: Paul regularly used the local synagogue as his starting-point when bringing the gospel to a new place. Later, the bridges between Jews and Christians were broken. This reconstructed second-century synagogue is at Sardis, in modern-day Turkey.

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Since these first missionaries, such as Paul and other apostles were Jews, they used the synagogues, both inside and outside Judea and Palestine as ready-made centres for evangelism. Paul regularly used the local synagogue as the starting point for bringing the gospel to a new place. Recent archaeological evidence at Capernaum and elsewhere in Palestine supports the view that early Christians were allowed to use the synagogues for their own meetings for worship. Although most of their fellow Jews remained unconverted, many God-fearing Gentiles, who were attracted to Judaism but had not gone through the ritual of total integration into the Jewish community, became Christian converts. In fact, in spite of the growing divergence between the church and the synagogue, the Christian communities worshipped and operated essentially as Jewish synagogues for more than a generation. Apart from the period of the Jewish wars, the Roman Empire enjoyed three hundred years of peace and general prosperity. This was known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. It allowed both Christians and Jews great freedom to travel throughout the Mediterranean world along superbly engineered roads and under the protection of the Roman government. Paul was able to do this until the final years of his life, but he was only the first of many missionaries. Equally, pilgrims to Jerusalem were able to travel in the opposite direction. This was part of the reason why Paul emphasised the importance of good government.

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The ‘Christian’ community at Antioch included a substantial proportion of non-Jewish converts from paganism. The division between Jew and Gentile, from the Jewish point of view, was greater than any other social or cultural division, more important even than the other two distinctions that run through the whole ancient world, those between slave and free, on the one hand, and male and female on the other. Different Jewish community leaders would draw the lines between Jew and non-Jew at different places. Business dealings might be fine, but business partnerships might be frowned upon. Friendships were tolerated, but not intermarriage. The lines might be blurred, broken or redrawn, but they were still there. Underneath it all, there was still a sense of difference, of “them and us.” Social and cultural indicators would provide visible markers. What you ate, and who you ate with were the most obvious of these, but there were others too. From a Gentile perspective, non-Jewish writers of the day sneered at the Jews for their ‘Sabbath’, claiming that they just wanted a “lazy day” once a week. The fact that Jews didn’t eat pork, the meat most ordinarily available, looked like a ploy to appear socially superior. Jewish males were circumcised, so if they participated in the gymnasium, which normally meant going naked, they might expect taunts.

Beneath these social indicators was the more deeply seated non-Jewish suspicion that the Jews were, in reality, atheists. They didn’t worship the gods, didn’t turn out for the great festivals, didn’t go to parties at the pagan temples and didn’t offer animal sacrifices at local shrines. They claimed that there was only one true Temple, the one in Jerusalem, but rumours abounded, going back to the time when the Roman general Pompey had marched into the Holy of Holies, that the Jews had no image, no statue of their god. Hence the charge of atheism, which was not so much one of theological belief (since the authorities tolerated a whole range of beliefs) but a practical one. The gods mattered for the life and health of the community as a whole. If bad things happened, it was because the gods were angry, probably because people hadn’t been taking them seriously and offering the required worship. People who didn’t believe in the gods were, therefore, placing the entire city, the whole culture or the whole known world at risk. The Jews had their answers for all this, and Saul would have grown up knowing these debates well. After his move to Antioch, he must have heard them repeated with wearying familiarity. “Our God,” the Jews would have said, …

“… is the One God who made the whole world. He cannot be represented by a human-made image. We will demonstrate who he is by the way we live. If we join the world around in worshipping the local divinities – let alone in worshipping the Roman emperor (as people were starting to do when Saul was growing up) – we will be making the mistake our ancestors made.”

In fact, a significant minority of Gentiles admired the Jews for their integrity in this respect, preferring their clear lines of belief and behaviour to the dark muddles of paganism. Many of them attached themselves to the synagogue communities as “God-fearers.” Some went all the way to full conversion as “proselytes.” But the Jews were clear about the fact that, if they compromised with the pagan world around them, however ‘compromise’ might have been defined in any particular city or household, they would be giving up their heritage, and with it their hope for a new world, for the One God to become king at last. So what would the diaspora Jewish communities in Tarsus or Antioch think of the suggestion that the One God had already done what he had promised by sending a Messiah to be crucified? What would this mean for Jewish identity? Was this ‘good news’ simply for the Jewish people, or might it be for everyone?

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Syrian Antioch, even more than Tarsus, was exactly the kind of place where these questions would rise quickly to the surface. It boasted a busy, bustling mixture of cultures, ethnic groups and religious traditions, including a substantial Jewish population. The Roman General Pompey had made it the capital of the new province of Syria, and Julius Caesar had raised it to the level of an autonomous city. With a population of around a quarter of a million, it was widely regarded in antiquity as the third or fourth city of the East, after Alexandria, Seleucia and later Constantinople. It was a classic ‘melting-pot’ in which every kind of social and cultural group was represented.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the crowded streets, the markets selling exotic fruit as well as local produce, the traders and travellers, foreigners in strange costumes and the temples on every street corner. It wasn’t surprising that some of the early followers of Jesus had found their way there, considering that everyone else had. Nor was it surprising that they were eager to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus with non-Jews as well as Jews. If the Jewish scriptures had seen the coming king as Lord of the whole world, how could membership in this kingdom be for Jews only?

Some of the believers who had come to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene saw no reason for any such limitation. They went about telling the non-Jews about Jesus as well. A large number of such people believed the message, abandoned their pagan ways and switched their allegiance to the Christ as Lord. Many Jews would have naturally supposed that these Gentiles would then have to become full Jews. If they were sharing in the ancient promises, ought they not to share in its ancient customs as well? What sort of common life ought this new community to develop? The introduction of this Gentile element in Antioch had no doubt acted as a stimulant, and it is not surprising that they soon found themselves impelled to reach out to a still wider public in the Graeco-Roman world. For this task, they selected a Cypriot Jew of the tribe of Levi, Joseph, known as Barnabas (Acts 4:36 f.; 11: 22-24; 13: 2.), a nickname given to him by the church in Jerusalem which means “son of encouragement.” He was one of those early followers of Jesus who had the gift of enabling others to flourish. The Jerusalem church had sent him to Antioch to see what was going on there.

002 (4)Good-hearted Barnabas (pictured in a recent film portrayal by Franco Nero, right) was not the sort to jump instinctively to a negative response, to reach for familiar prejudices just because something was new. He could see the transformed lives and transparent faith of the Gentile believers which were the work of divine grace, reaching out in generous love to people of every background and origin.

Barnabas shared Paul’s belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had broken down the barriers to Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom. The evidence of a new dynamic in worship and of the love which meant shared obligations of mutual support told its own story to Barnabas. Others from Jerusalem, faced with the same evidence, might have reached a different conclusion. They would have urged the believers in Antioch to restrict themselves to their own ethnic groups, at least for mealtimes and perhaps even for the Lord’s meal, the “breaking of bread.” Many Jews would have assumed that Gentiles still carried contagious pollution from their culture of idolatry and immorality. But as far as Barnabas was concerned, what mattered was the depth of their belief and allegiance to the Lord. This new community was not defined by genealogy, but by the Lord himself, and what counted as a sure sign of their belonging to Him was loyalty and ‘faithfulness’.

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Paul was an obvious choice to join him as a companion since Barnabas had first introduced him to the Antiochene church (Acts 11: 25 f.). They were therefore at the centre of the controversies there and became firm friends. The vibrant and excited group of Jesus-followers in Antioch was doing something radically counter-cultural, experimenting with a whole new way of being human, and Barnabas and Paul would have to help them think through what that really meant. In this way, the friendship between the two ‘brothers in Christ’ helped to shape Paul’s mind and teaching, leading to what, with long hindsight, we might call Christian theology. It had been a decade since Saul had gone to Tarsus, after his brief time in Damascus and Jerusalem. We don’t know whether anyone in either Jerusalem had seen or heard of him during that time, but Barnabas had a strong sense that he was the right man for the job. This was the beginning of a partnership that would launch the first recorded official ‘mission’ of the new movement. He worked with Barnabas and the local leaders in Antioch for a whole year, teaching and guiding the growing community.

002 (6)The pair was then sent to Jerusalem with a gift of money for the Jerusalem believers, who were suffering from their decade-long persecution by the authorities and struggling to stay alive at a time of widespread famine in AD 46-47. Paul’s own retrospective account of the visit (Gal. 2: 1-10) ends with the Jerusalem leaders admonishing him to go on “remembering the poor.”

While there, Paul argued his case for inclusion of the Gentiles in the koinonia (international fellowship). The three central ‘pillars’ of the Jerusalem church; James (brother of Jesus), Peter and John, all agreed that they would continue to restrict their mission to the Jewish people in ancient Israel, while Paul, Barnabas and their friends in Antioch could continue their work among the Gentiles of the Mediterranean world.

Into Asia Minor – The First Missionary Journey:

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The junior colleague soon slipped into the leading role for which his vigour and discernment marked him out. Thus began what is commonly referred to as his ‘First Missionary Journey’ which first took the two to Cyprus (Acts 13: 4-12) and then on as far as the interior of Asia Minor, and in particular to a group of towns in the southern corner of the province of Galatia (Acts 13: 14,51; 14: 6 f.). We can date this journey roughly to AD 47-48.

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Above: It was through country such as this (in modern Turkey) that Paul and his companions, Barnabas and John Mark, travelled into central Asia Minor on their first arduous mission. They founded a number of churches in Galatia.

In the first of these towns, Antioch-towards-Pisidia (Acts 13: 15-50) the apostles began with an address in the synagogue to a congregation which included both Jews and ‘Gentile worshippers’. The latter was a group of people, now fairly numerous in many Hellenistic cities, as in Antioch, who were attracted to by Judaism to attend the synagogue services, without becoming regular ‘proselytes’ and members of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’. They showed a lively interest which spread to circles without previous association with the synagogue. From his letters, we can gather that Paul suggested that these people could become full members of the people of God without submitting to the Jewish Law, by joining the Christian church. This provoked a violent reaction from stricter Jews, however, who could only see this new preaching as a threat to their way of life. They denounced Paul and Barnabas as false teachers leading Israel astray.

002 (5)Paul’s response was to quote Isaiah 49: I have set you for a light to the nations so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth. This delighted the non-Jews who had heard his message: they were free to belong to God’s ancient people. But this, in turn, strengthened Jewish reaction, producing an altogether more serious turn of events.

Both the leading Jews and the leading citizens of the town saw the threat of real civic disorder. When opposition turned to violence, this was sufficient to cause the missionaries to leave the town in a hurry, symbolically shaking the dust off their feet as they did so, but also leaving behind them the beginnings of a new community filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. After that experience, however, the missionaries put out a statement of policy, making it clear to the Jewish communities in the cities they were to visit that:

It was necessary that the word of God should be declared to you first, but since you reject it … we now turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13: 46).

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002 (2)This principle, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1: 16; 2: 9 f.) was the principle that guided Paul’s ministry and expressed many times in his letters. In his letter to the Romans, he provided a theological justification for it (Rom. 11: 1-27). The outcome of this tour was the foundation of several communities, largely Gentile in membership, and the unleashing of Jewish hostility to Paul’s mission which was to follow him wherever he went, and to finally bring his active career to an end. When Paul and Barnabas found themselves facing people in remote highlands of ancient Anatolia with a strange language and religion, they became overnight heroes when Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth (depicted above). As the pagan crowd began to worship them, they remonstrated with it that this was not the purpose of their mission. At that point, Jews from the towns where they had already been who had followed them there, told the pagan crowd in the town of Lystra what they thought about the missionaries:

That turned the crowd against them, and they started to throw stones at Paul. They thought they had killed him, and dragged him outside the town. Paul’s friends stood round him; they, too, thought he was dead. But he got up and went back into the town. (Acts 14: 8-20)

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Illustration by Trevor Stubley of the stoning of Paul at Lystra,

for Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus (OUP, 1979).

Paul explained to his friends that this kind of suffering was precisely the sign of the two world’s colliding; they are on the cusp of a new world, and if this is what it costs, so be it. Despite these trials and tribulations, what they had witnessed before in Syrian Antioch – the creation of a new community in which Jews and Gentiles were able to live together because all that previously separated them had been dealt with on the cross – had come true in city after city. At the heart of Paul’s message was radical messianic eschatology. ‘Eschatology’ because God’s long-awaited new day had dawned; ‘Messianic’, since Jesus was the true son of David, announced as such in his resurrection and bringing to completion the purposes announced to Abraham and extended by the psalmists and the prophets to embrace the whole world; ‘Radical’ in the sense that nothing in the backgrounds of either Paul or Barnabas had prepared them for the new state of affairs they were facing. The fact that they believed it was what the One God had always planned did not reduce their own sense of awe and astonishment.

What they could not have foreseen, as they travelled back through the southern part of the province of Galatia and then sailed home to Syria, was that the new reality they had witnessed would become the focus of sharp controversy even among Jesus’s followers and that the two of them would find themselves on opposite sides of that controversy as it boiled over. The missionaries returned to the church which had commissioned them at Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Acts 14: 25-28). Barnabas chose to return to Cyprus (Acts 15: 39). Paul took on Silas as his new travelling companion and colleague. He was a member of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15: 22 f.), but a Hellenistic Jew and possibly, like Paul himself, a Roman citizen.

(to be continued…)

Posted February 11, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Apocalypse, Baptists, Bible, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Civilization, clannishness, cleanliness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Coventry, Crucifixion, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Galilee, Gentiles, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, History, hygeine, Immigration, Integration, Israel, Jerusalem, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jews, Josephus, manufacturing, Mediterranean, Memorial, Middle East, Migration, Militancy, multiculturalism, multilingualism, Mysticism, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Palestine, Population, Poverty, Remembrance, Respectability, Resurrection, Romans, Security, Simon Peter, Statehood, Syria, terror, theology, Turkey, tyranny, Zionism

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The Stony Road to Jerusalem – Palm Sunday into Holy Week.   2 comments

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There was a shout about my ears

And Palms before my feet.

G. K. Chesterton, The Donkey

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the last before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, is taken from John 8 vv 58-9:

Jesus said, “before Abraham was born, I am”. They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the Temple.’

These words come at the end of a long ‘dispute’ with the Jewish authorities in the Temple during the Festival of the Shelters, or Tents, in October. During this festival the people lived in temporary tents, or ‘booths’ along the sides of the rocky, hilly road into the city from Jericho. It was a time for giving thanks for the harvest, but also a celebration of their long march to freedom through the desert from Egypt with Moses, a time for thinking about leadership, and to look forward to the coming Messiah. Jesus spoke in the Temple Courts, as was the custom for Jewish teachers, and it seems to have been at this point that the Jewish leaders saw the threat he posed to all that they stood for and decided to get rid of him. “Who do you think you are?” they demanded of him angrily, in a battle to show who had the purest genealogy. Jesus refused to trace his ancestors for them, but simply said “I Am Who I Am”, words which could be interpreted as blasphemous, being close to the Hebrew name of God, ‘Yahweh’. He followed this up with the claim to be greater than Abraham, greater than Judaism itself, as Abraham was its founder. At the time, this would be like an Imam in Islam today claiming to be greater than their founding prophet.

Two events which happened when Jesus and his friends returned to the city at the Passover Festival were ‘acted parables’, intending to make clear in action, in addition to his words, just what he stood for. The first was his triumphal entry, intended to convey a message to his disciples and would-be followers. This took place outside the city, along the stony road, and was a very different declaration than that hoped for by many of those among the five thousand men he had broken bread with in Galilee. Jesus and his friends joined the pilgrims who had come up the steep road from Jericho and were singing hymns and psalms as they walked along. They began to recite the words of an ancient hymn:

 

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Jesus used the occasion to show his friends that, though they might share many of the nationalistic aims of the day, he came in peace and not in war, that his message was inclusive and not exclusive. In John’s gospel, some Greek pilgrims (many Jews were Hellenistic at this time, living around the Mediterranean or in northern Palestine) seek an audience with Jesus through his Galilean disciples, Philip and Andrew. Jesus affirms them as one of the many groups he has come to minister to, no doubt further annoying the orthodox Judeans present, who commented that the ‘whole world’ seemed to be following him.

Jesus’ choice of an ordinary farm animal, borrowed from a friend, as the means of his entry into Jerusalem was also an act of commemoration of the time when King David, his ancestor, rode into the city on a warhorse, after a great victory in battle over the enemies of Judah. It was an act aimed at his followers, demonstrating that, far from being a Zionist (in modern interpretations) he was seeking to be a servant of the whole of the people of Israel, as well as a prince of peace. A servant king. When evidence of his revolutionary views was sought for by the Sanhedrin, this very public action was not seen as significant, perhaps discarded even by them because they too acknowledged it as an inclusive, conciliatory gesture, rather than a divisive one. Only later, for the Christians, did it become imbued with revolutionary significance. This is how they told it:

001Jerusalem was at last in sight. Near the Olive Hill, Jesus sent his friends to a village. 

‘Go into  the village facing you,’ Jesus said, ‘and just as go in you’ll find a donkey. It’ll be tied up, and hasn’t been broken in yet. Untie it and bring it; and if anyone asks you why you are doing this, tell them: “The master needs it, and he’ll send it straight back”.’

They set off, and found the donkey tied at a door outside in the street. They untied it.

‘What are you untying the donkey for?’ asked some of the bystanders.

They said what Jesus had told them to say, and the men let them take it away.

They brought the donkey to Jesus and threw their clothes on its back. Jesus sat on it. People spread their clothes on the road, and others put leafy branches from the fields (down) and spread them out. All the crowd, those in front and those behind, shouted the words from the old Bible hymn:

Hurrah!

Happy is he who comes in God’s name!

Happy is the kingdom of King David, our father!

A thousand times – Hurrah!


The donkey became an important symbol in the early church, partly because the animal figured so much in the stories of Jesus. The mark of the cross is said to have originated from the that left on the back of the beast on the first Palm Sunday.   It had been a donkey that had taken Mary to Bethlehem Down just before Jesus’ birth and carried them through the town and into safety in Gaza, returning via the Temple in Jerusalem for the announcement of the birth en route to Nazareth. At one time, the association between the Christ and the beast was so strong that both Greek and Roman writers accused his followers of worshipping it as well as Him. Many church ceremonies in Britain are still led by donkeys on Palm Sunday, and there is  a traditional distribution of strips of palms, looped and folded into the form of a cross. The palms are then kept and returned to be burnt to make ashes for the ‘Ash Wednesday’ of the following Lent, being smeared on believers’ foreheads in the shape of the cross.


Throughout Holy Week, the Church re-enacts the incidents of  the last, memorable week in Jesus’ life, through selected, often dramatised, readings. Early in the week, the gospels tell us, Christ turned out the money-changers and merchants from the Temple. This second ‘acted parable’ was far more revolutionary in its immediate impact on Jerusalem, as the Holy City, than his entry into it had been. This was because it was it was not aimed at his own followers, but deliberately  targeted at the Temple authorities. It was a protest against their failure to keep the Foreigners’ Court clear for those from long distances coming to worship, from the Greek city states around the Mediterranean, to the hinterland of the Nile Valley.  It wasn’t simply an attack on the misuse of the Court of the Foreigners as a place for making gain from these pilgrims. To buy creatures for sacrifice, every Jew needed Temple money, and the money-changers were demanding high, unfair fees for every transaction. This was a further act of discrimination against non-Judean pilgrims which the authorities chose to ignore, as it suited their purpose of treating them as inferior.

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Jesus’  ‘personal’ clearing of the Court is usually presented as a spontaneous event, an expression of the righteous indignation which he felt at the moment he entered the Court, but the account in Mark’s gospel hints at it being premeditated, and there can have been no event more calculated as a direct challenge to the authority of the Temple administrators. It would also be seen as more of a threat to the order which the Romans struggled to maintain during the festival under the watchful eye of the Roman Governor himself, representative of the power of the Empire, as the final political authority in Palestine. It seems that, following his verbal challenges to the authorities at the October Festival, Jesus had made up his mind to appeal, over their heads, directly to the people at the Passover Festival, the following Spring, when the Temple Courts would be crowded with pilgrims from throughout Palestine and from all parts of the known world around the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia Minor. He would speak his final words and act out his message to his people, including those from Galilee who continued to support him, and who would be in and around the city in greater numbers in the Spring.

As a ‘tweeting vicar’ from Weston-super-Mare said recently on Sky News, Jesus used every means at his disposal to communicate his message, often using different means at the same time – pictures, parables, plays and poems as well as sayings, symbols, stories, songs and sermons. He planned carefully to use all these for serious purposes, as well as seizing every moment of opportunity as it occurred. In seeking ‘fresh expressions’ of discipleship, the Church needs to follow his lead, not just in the message, but in the media by which it is delivered.

Based on Alan T Dale’s ‘Portrait of Jesus’.

O Lord, who came to show God to men and was not afraid of their anger, take from us the wish to speak in inoffensive whispers in an unwelcoming world, and make us strong to speak of you boldly; in your name. AMEN.

O Lord of time, Lord from before our birth to beyond our death; help us to know you in each moment, so that, keeping your word, we may live now in the free and greater life of God. AMEN.

Susan Williams

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