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

Part Three: The Third Missionary Journey, Jerusalem & Rome.

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Chronology:

The chronology of Paul’s career cannot be fixed precisely, but fortunately, we have one precise date to start from. The proconsul before whom Paul was cited at Corinth on his first visit there was Junius Annaeus Gallio, who was known to have held the appointment from July AD 51 to June AD 52. Based on the reports of this visit in Acts, Paul was in Corinth from early in 50 to late 51. From this fixed point, we can then calculate backwards and forwards, using the indications of time supplied in Paul’s own letters or in Acts. If Paul reached Corinth early in 50, then his ‘Second Missionary Journey’ must have begun in 49, and the visit to Jerusalem which preceded it, when he came to an agreement with the leaders of the church there, would presumably have taken place in AD 48. Paul dates his earlier visit to Jerusalem fourteen years before, pointing to AD 35, three years after his conversion, which has therefore been tentatively dated to AD 33. When exactly Paul arrived at Ephesus is a matter of conjecture, but we know that he established himself there for a full three years. His stay there seems to fall between 54 and 57 AD, rather than any earlier, and it was between these years that he undertook his ‘Third Missionary Journey’.

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Ephesus & Corinth:

The ‘Third Missionary Journey’, through the interior of Asia Minor, is given the most cursory treatment in Luke’s diary which constitutes much of the Acts of the Apostles. He seems to be in a hurry, as Paul himself probably was, to reach Ephesus (Acts 18: 23; 19: 1). It is evident that he had formed definitive ideas about the most effective way of conducting his mission. He decided not to cover ground by moving rapidly from place to place, but to settle, as he had done at Corinth, in a suitable centre from which he could reach a whole province. Ephesus was to prove to be such a centre as one of the principal cities of the province of Asia, with excellent communications by land and sea. Settled by Greeks in antiquity, but always with something oriental about it, it had been a meeting place of East and West long before the conquests of Alexander had inaugurated the Hellenistic age. Its world-famous temple was dedicated to the native Anatolian fertility-goddess, Artemis, or Diana to the Romans (Acts 19: 27; 34 f.), though she had little in common with the virgin huntress of the classical pantheon. From ancient times a seat of Greek philosophical thought, Ephesus was also hospitable to all manners of superstitions, and in Paul’s time it was notorious as a centre of the ‘black arts’ of magic (Acts 19: 18 f.). This was the place which for the next three years or so was to be Paul’s headquarters (Acts 20: 31). There are evident signs that this was a planned strategy on his part. Ephesus was another meeting point of trade routes and cultures, and therefore an excellent place from which to disseminate the gospel.

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Paul arrived in Ephesus and began as always in the synagogue, this time for three months. Opposition grew, however, as the disturbing implications of Paul’s way of reading the familiar stories dawned upon the puzzled hearers. Resistance hardened, and this may have been one of the occasions when submitting to synagogue discipline, Paul received the official Jewish beating of forty lashes. He tells us that he had received this five times, which in itself indicates his steady commitment to working with the synagogue congregations as long as he could since he could easily have avoided the punishment by simply not turning up. Some of the Jewish community in Ephesus had begun to spread rumours about what this “Messiah cult” was doing. From later writings, we can guess at the sneering comments about what these ‘Jesus-worshippers’ were up to behind closed doors, with men and women meeting together and talking about a new kind of “love,” not to mention the disturbing gossip about eating someone’s body and drinking their blood. So Paul realised, as he had done in Corinth, that he could no longer treat the synagogue as his base. It was time to move elsewhere. He formally ‘withdrew his converts’ and established himself on neutral territory in a lecture hall in the city, which he rented. For the next two years, he divided his time between his tent-making business and the public exposition of the faith. He held daily conferences at the hall, open to all comers, which attracted numbers of residents to the city (Acts 19: 8-10). People came from far and wide, spent time in the city, and then went on their way. They chatted about anything strange or new that they had come across in their travels. The group of early Christians who met in the lecture hall was one of these.

By this time, Paul had built up an efficient ‘staff’, whose names keep recurring in his letters – Timothy (Rom. 16: 21; 1 Cor. 4: 17; 16: 10; Phil. 2: 19-23 etc.), Luke, Tychicus (Eph. 6: 21; Col. 4: 7; II Tim. 4: 12; Titus 3: 12) and several others, though Silas had, by this time, faded out of the narrative. They were available either to work by his side at the headquarters or to be sent where they could be useful in keeping in touch with churches already founded, or in breaking new ground. It was in this way that Paul’s mission in the province spread. We happen to learn from his letters the names of the three up-country towns where churches were founded without any visit from the apostle himself – Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 1: 7; 2: 1; 4: 13-16) – and there were certainly others. The author of Acts says, perhaps with some exaggeration, that…

…the whole population of the province of Asia, both Jews and pagans, heard the word of the Lord.

(Acts 19: 10)

Meanwhile, however, trouble was brewing. There was furious opposition from the Jews (Acts 20:19), and some from pagan quarters (Acts 19: 23-27), though we hear also of some of the dignitaries of the province who were friendly towards him (Acts 19: 31). We have some record both in Acts and in the letters (I Cor. 15: 32; II Cor 1: 8). From the letters to the Corinthians we also learn something that the author of Acts does not tell us, that Paul was, at this time, driven almost to distraction by disorder in the church in Corinth. In a climactic passage of his letter to the Galatians, he had pointed out that the Messiah’s people had ‘died’; they had left behind their old identities as Jews or Gentiles and had come into a new identity (Galatians 2: 19-21). That was, in part, why the gospel was “a scandal to Jews,” but, at the same time, only makes sense within a deeply Jewish, messianic view of the world. Charged with his specific responsibility, Paul was able, without compromising that messianic identity, to live alongside people of all sorts, sharing their customs while he was with them. When he had dinner with Jewish friends, they would have eaten ‘kosher’ food together, and when he went to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he would have eaten whatever they put in front of him (I Cor. 10: 27). What would then have made the difference was ‘conscience’, not Paul’s, but that of anyone else who might have been offended or who might be led back into idolatry.

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This must have been a much harder path to tread than that sketched in the apostolic letter issued after the Jerusalem Conference in which simple abstinence from all relevant foods was enjoined. Paul not only thought that this was unnecessary, but that it violated the fundamental principles of Jewish belief itself. His own pragmatic solution must have seemed not just paradoxical, but also perverse to some. For instance, a Jewish family who had shared a meal with Paul and watched him keep all the Jewish customs must have found it strange that the same week he had dined with a Gentile family and eaten what they were eating, though a Gentile family would have seen little harm in it. But, once again, Paul is teaching in his letter to the Corinthians that they should think like the people of the Messiah, building on the foundation of Israel’s scriptures, interpreting them afresh in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah himself. So in Chapter eleven of his epistle, he deals with the problems of the family meal, the Lord’s Supper or ‘Eucharist’. Then in Chapter twelve, he addresses the question of unity in the fellowship and the way in which the Spirit gives to each member of ‘the Messiah’s body’ different gifts to be used for the benefit of all. In Chapter fourteen, Paul applies this to the corporate worship of the church, following his exquisite poem about divine love, agape, in chapter thirteen. In this, Paul is not just teaching them ‘ethics’, but also to think eschatologically:

We know, you see, in part;

We prophesy in part; but, with perfection,

The partial is abolished. As a child

I spoke, and thought, and reasoned like a child;

When I grew up, I threw off childish ways.

For at the moment all that we can see

Are puzzling reflections in a mirror;

But then I’ll know completely, through and through,

Even as I’m completely known. So, now,

Faith, hope and love remain, these three; and, of them

Love is the greatest.

(I Cor. 13: 9-13).

Love is not just a duty. Paul’s point is that love is the believer’s destiny. It is the reality that belongs to God’s future, glimpsed in the present like a puzzling reflection, but waiting there in full reality for the face-to-face future. And the point is that this future has come forward to the present time in the events involving Jesus and in the power of the spirit. That is why love matters for Paul even more than faith, which many have seen as his central theme. Love is the present virtue in which believers anticipate and practice the life of the ultimate life to come. That’s why the final theological chapter, fifteen, dealing with the resurrection of the body, is the centre of the gospel. It is also the beginning of a study I have made elsewhere on this website in a series of articles examining the role of eschatology in Christian thought from Paul onwards. Paul’s main point in relation to the fulfilment of Israel’s hope is about messianic eschatology. He is not saying, “We Jesus-followers have found a better sort of religion than the old Jewish one.” But if Israel’s Messiah has come and has been raised from the dead, then those who follow him are the true people of God. This is blunt but consistent and precisely what the followers of the other first-century Jewish leaders would have said. It was not disloyalty to Israel’s God, but the contested messianic loyalty that characterised Paul’s missionary thought and journeys throughout.

Jesus had described himself at his trial by the Sanhedrin as the ‘Son of Man’, which was the Hebrew and Aramaic way of saying ‘man’ and could even be used to describe the Jewish people themselves who believed themselves to be ‘God’s People’. Jesus used the words not just to describe his own ministry, but about himself and his friends, the new ‘People of God’. The word ‘Christ, the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘the one who is anointed’, was a word Jesus seemed not to like and was more wary of using, including of himself. When Peter had used the word of him, he rebuked him for doing so. It was a word with a long history. Kings had been ‘anointed’ and prophets had been spoken of as ‘anointed’. The word was even used of a foreign emperor, Cyrus. In the years before Jesus began his ministry, the word had come to represent God’s ‘Chosen Leader’ whom the Jewish people expected God to send as their deliverer. But this ‘Chosen Leader’ was thought of in many different ways – sometimes as a supernatural figure, sometimes as a soldier. Yet although he did not like the word and did not use it of himself, Pilate had had him executed as a ‘messiah’, a claimant to the leadership of the Jewish people – ‘the Jewish King’, as he had put it on the official death-notice on the cross.

It seemed to Jewish Christians that no word described him better – he was ‘God’s Chosen Leader’. They began to talk about him as ‘Jesus the Messiah’, where ‘Messiah’ is a simple descriptive name. When ‘Messiah’, however, was translated into Greek as ‘Christ’, it began to change its meaning. Greek-speaking ‘foreigners’ didn’t understand it and simply used it as Jesus’ second name. Paul, of course, knew the Jewish world from the inside and used the word ‘Christ’ in his letters to describe the whole influence of Jesus – his life in Palestine and the new experience of God which he made possible, so that he could use the words ‘Spirit’, ‘Spirit of God’ and ‘Spirit of Christ’, as we have seen, to describe this new experience. Paul was struggling with an almost impossible task, and he was aware of how difficult it was. But to talk about Jesus as though he was not just a good man who had died was to be false to what he felt in his heart the new divine experience to be. His meeting with the Messiah on the Damascus Road fulfilled everything and thereby changed everything, as the following statement made clear:

Whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss – because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by the Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith. This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection from the dead.

(Phil. 3: 7-11).

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The Messiah regarded his status, “equality with God”, not as something to exploit, but as committing him instead to the life of the ‘servant’ and the shameful death of the ‘slave’. That is why he was now exalted as Lord over all. ‘Lord’ was another word the early Christians used as a common way of identifying Jesus; he was ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. The word ‘Lord’ had been used for God in the Old Testament; God was ‘Lord’. It was also used to describe the Roman Emperors and some of the pagan gods. As Paul once wrote, There are many gods and many lords. So it came to be used of Jesus; to say that “Jesus is Lord” became the simplest way for believers to proclaim their Christian faith. It carried a sense of his presence, his love and his forgiveness, of the power to live in his way, which He gave to all who accepted his love. This is what lay at the back of the struggle to find words that really described what Jesus meant to his followers. The passage above is focused not just on a belief or theory about the Messiah, but on personal knowledge. Paul wrote of knowing King Jesus as my Lord, of knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. Paul knew the theory thoroughly, but it meant nothing without the awareness of the person and presence of Jesus himself. His personal ‘knowledge’ of the Messiah found intimate expression in suffering. He speaks of this as a ‘partnership’, which is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, giving us synonyms such as ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing’. It expressed a mutual belonging for which modern English does not provide exact words.

Paul had come to the point where he was content to share the Messiah’s death in order that he might arrive with him at the ultimate hope of Israel, ‘the resurrection from the dead’.  The ancient story of Israel had been fulfilled in the Messiah, and all Paul’s previous zeal for God and the Torah had to be counted as “trash” by contrast. That’s why he ‘forgot’ about his past and, like an athlete with his eye on the finishing line, aims to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. Then comes the point of all this for the Philippians: they must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the Messiah (Phil. 3: 13-19). But how could the Gentile Christians do this? They had not been zealous Jews, eager for the Torah, but they all had their own status, personal and civic pride. Even if they lacked status, because they were poor, or slaves, or women (though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all had the standing temptation to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So whether they were Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who found themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, they must instead resist and find instead the way of holiness and wholeness shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God (Tom Wright).

Colossae & Corinth (again):

Paul’s later letters to both the Ephesians and Colossians are both deeply Jewish in their orientation, only making sense within that worldview. Nineteenth-century Protestantism didn’t favour Jewish thought, and didn’t want Paul to be too Jewish and, more recently, some scholars have tended to demote the two epistles as anathema to the more ‘liberal’ agenda they find in Galatians and Corinthians. Tom Wright claims that this is a mistake, resulting from contemporary ideology and moralising which seeks to ‘pigeon-hole’ Paul. Colossians was written, it appears, to a young church. Paul had been informed of its existence by Epaphus, himself from Colossae, who seems to have been converted by Paul in Ephesus and to have returned home to spread the word. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians was written at Rome, when he was in prison in Rome, shortly before his martyrdom, in about AD 63. Colossae had been a great city, but had very much declined, and was now the smallest of the three neighbouring cities in the valley of the Lycus. Laodicea and Hierapolis were still prosperous by comparison. Its church was the most insignificant of the churches which received a letter from Paul, and it was scarcely mentioned in later times. Neither in this epistle nor in the Acts is there any evidence that the apostle ever visited the Colossians. But he had “heard of their faith” (I: 4, 9) and states that they “had not seen his face in the flesh (2: 1). Nevertheless, Paul was praying for the church to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding and to be able to draw on the “power” of Jesus in living and working to his glory (Col. 1: 9-11). In particular, Paul longed for them to develop and enrich the practice of giving thanks. To that end he supplies them with a poem, like that written to the Philippians (chapter two, above), celebrating the universal lordship of Jesus over all the powers of the world. Part of the meaning of this poem was that it was written by someone in prison. According to Tom Wright, it invites…

… those who read it or pray it to imagine a different world from the one they see around them – a world with a different ‘Lord’ in which the One God rules and rescues, a world in which a new sort of wisdom is unveiled, a world in which there is a different way to be human.   

‘Wisdom’ was the key theme of much of Colossians. As always, Paul wanted people to think, not simply to imbibe rules and principles to learn by heart, but to be able to grow up to full maturity as human beings, experiencing that “Christ is all and in all,” and coming to “the knowledge of God’s mystery.” (Col. 2: 2). All this will happen when they realise that it is Jesus himself who reveals that ‘mystery’ and the means of finding all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Paul is here drawing deeply upon two important strands of Jewish thought. First, he knows very well the traditions of prayerful meditation through which devout Jews hoped for a vision of the heavenly realm. These traditions seemed to have been developed at a time when with pagans still ruling Palestine even after the end of the Babylonian exile had ended, there was a sense that the greatest prophetic promises, particularly those concerning the visible and powerful return of Israel’s God to the Temple of Zion had not been realised. Second, there was the belief that the whole creation was made by the One God through his wisdom (Proverbs 8). To speak of “Lady Wisdom” as God’s handmaid in creation was a poetic way of saying that when God made the world, his work was neither random nor muddled, but wise – coherent and well-ordered; it made sense. To reflect God’s image, mankind needed to be wise as well.

The “mystery” tradition and the “wisdom” tradition were both focused by some writers of the period on the Temple. That was where the One God had promised to dwell. If there was to be a display of the ultimate mystery, the writers expected that it would be in the Temple. This expectation got bound together in yet another strand of Jewish thinking: David’s son Solomon, the ultimate ‘wise man’ in the Bible, was also the king who built the Temple. When Solomon consecrated the newly built shrine, the divine glory came to fill the house in such blazing brilliance that the priests could not stand there to do their work (I Kings 8). For us, living in a radically different culture, all this feels like an odd combination of disparate ideas. In Paul’s world, and especially for a well-educated Jew, all these apparently separate notions belonged like a single well-oiled machine. Here is the secret of creation, of wisdom, of mystery, of the Temple. This is how it all fits together. N T Wright challenges us to imagine all the complex but coherent Jewish thought…

… pondered and prayed by Paul as he travels, as he works in his hot little shop, as he stays in a wayside inn, as he teaches young Timothy the vast world of scripture, which is his natural habitat. Imagine him praying all that in the Temple itself as he visits Jerusalem after watching the gospel at work in Turkey and Greece. Imagine, particularly, Paul finding here fresh insight into the way in which, as the focal point of creation, of wisdom and mystery, and of the deep meaning of humanness itself, Jesus is now enthroned as Lord over all possible powers. And now imagine Paul in his moment of crisis, of despair, feeling that the “powers” had overcome him after all, reaching down into the depths of this fathomless well of truth to find, in a fresh way, what it might mean to trust in the God who raises the dead. This is what he comes up with:

“He  is the image of God, the invisible one;

The firstborn of  all creation.

For in him all things were created,

In the heavens and the earth.

Things we can see and things we cannot –

Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers –

All things were created both through him and for him.

And he is ahead, prior to all else

And in him all things hold together;

And he himself is supreme, the head

Over the body, the church.

 

He is the start of it all,

Firstborn from realms of the dead;

So in all things he might be the chief,

For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell

And through him to reconcile all to himself,

Making peace through the blood of his cross,

Through him – yes, things on the earth,

And also the things in the heavens.

(Col. 1: 15-20.).

If this poem were less elegant, one might suggest that Paul was shaking his fist at the powers on earth and in the dark realms beyond the earth, the powers which had put him in prison in Rome and crushed his spirit to the breaking point. But he was not doing so, but rather invoking and celebrating a world in which Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is now the one through whom, by means of his crucifixion, all things are reconciled. This is not the world that he and his friends can see with the naked eye since that is one in which allegiance is given to Caesar and there are bullying magistrates and threatening officers, with prisons and torture in their weaponry of oppression. But they are invited to see the world with the eye of faith, the eye that has learned to look through the lens of scripture and see Jesus. The Messiah is living with the Colossians, just as Paul had written to the Galatians. The ancient Jewish hope that the glory of the One God would return and fill the world is thus starting to come true.  It may not look like it in Colossae, as ten or twenty oddly assorted people crowd int Philemon’s house to pray, to invoke Jesus as they worship the One God, to break bread together, and to intercede for one another and the world; but actually, the Messiah, there in their midst, is “the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).

From his base in Ephesus, Paul sent different members of his staff to deal with the quarrelling Corinthians (II Cor. 12: 17 f.), but he then found it necessary to interrupt his work and cross the Aegean himself (II Cor. 12: 14). There are two letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament, but these contain clear indications that the correspondence they represent was more extensive. They illustrate vividly the problems that arose when people of widely different ethnic origins, religious backgrounds, levels of education and positions in the social hierarchy were being welded into a community by the power of a common faith, while at the same time they had come to terms with the secular society to which they also owed allegiance. These problems were threatening to split the church into fragments. It may have been about the same time that the very serious trouble broke out which provoked Paul to write his fiercely controversial letter to the Galatians. If the Second Letter to the Corinthians was written at about this time, this would explain Paul’s cri de cour in it: There is the responsibility that weighs on me every day, my anxious concern for all our congregations (II Cor. 11: 28). The difficulties at Corinth were eventually resolved, and Paul, having wound up his work at Ephesus, was able to visit a church now fully reconciled.

Rome & Jerusalem:

It was at this point that he wrote his the longest and most weighty of all his surviving letters, that addressed to the Romans. In this letter, he looked back briefly on the work that lay behind him and sketched a plan for the future. He had covered the eastern provinces of the empire, from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum. He added that he had no further scope in these parts and that it was now his ambition to bring the gospel places where the very name of Christ has not been heard. Accordingly, he was planning to open up work in the west, with Spain as his objective. On the way, he would visit Rome, and hoped to find support there for his enterprise (Rom. 15: 19-29). Paul had not yet visited Rome, but from the greetings, at the end of his letter he obviously had several friends there, and he knew quite a lot about the what was going on in both the church and the wider society. His intention to round off his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean world and to move on to the West was a more focused ambition than simply finding more people to preach to, more “souls” to “save”. He wanted to plant the flag of the messianic gospel in key points where the “gospel” of Caesar and the ‘Pax Romana’ was being flaunted. Rome itself was, therefore, the obvious target; but beyond that, Spain, the western edge of the known world, was also a major centre of Roman culture and influence. Paul’s great contemporary Seneca had come from there. Galba, soon to be emperor, had been governor there, based in the port of Tarragona, which would presumably be Paul’s initial target. It boasted a large temple to Caesar. As in Ephesus and Corinth, Paul would have longed to announce that Jesus was the true Kyrios right under Caesar’s nose.

He knew he would have to tread somewhat warily in Rome, as the church there was not of his founding, nor was it within his ‘sphere of influence’ originally laid down by the church in Antioch. He also knew that there was some prejudice against him among the Roman Christians, who had all sorts of rumours about him. Some might distrust him, either because he was too Jewish or because he was not Jewish enough and had treated elements of Jewish practice too loosely. Some kind of outline of his teaching was a basic necessity. Before presenting himself there he sent his letter, a considered and comprehensive statement of his theological position, designed to establish his standing as a Christian teacher. There was also a more pressing need. Something had happened in the recent past in Rome that had put the Roman Christians in a new and complex position. Claudius, who had become emperor in AD 41, had banished the Jews from Rome after riots in the community sometime in the late forties. Despite the decimation of the community, not all the Jews had actually left, and those that remained had ‘gone to ground’ to hide their identity. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila were among those who had left, which was why they were in Corinth when Paul first arrived there, probably in AD 49. But with Claudius’ death in 54 and Nero’s accession to the throne, Claudius’ edict was revoked. Jews could once again be permitted back in the imperial city, though they were not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

At this time, there was more than a streak of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome. The term “anti-Jewish” is more appropriate than “anti-Semitic,” because the latter implies some kind of racial theory unknown until the second half of the nineteenth century. Also, in the first century, all Jews were identified by their Judaistic religious practises. There was no such thing as a ‘secular Jew’, as is evidenced by the fact that Jews were exempted from making sacrifices to Caesar and the Roman gods. The danger posed by Paul and Silas in Philippi was that, as Jews, they were teaching non-Jews things that it was illegal for Roman citizens and subjects to practice. In the amphitheatre at Ephesus, when Alexander, a Jew, stood up to preach, there were angry whispers. The same antagonism can be sensed on the edge of remarks by poets like Juvenal or sneering historians like Tacitus. Underneath the ethnic and cultural prejudice there was always a ‘theological’ belief that since the Jews did not worship the gods, they could, therefore, be blamed for disastrous events. This blame was subsequently transferred to the Christians in subsequent decades and centuries. Even in Corinth, Gallio’s refusal to make a judgment about Paul caused the mob to beat up the synagogue president, getting away with it. Going after the Jews was a default mode for many, right across the Roman Empire. Besides their exemption from religious observances that would compromise their beliefs, the Jews were allowed freedom of worship and the right to collect taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean that they were integrated into wider society. For the most part, they were ostracised.

Paul’s message ran completely contrary to this social reality. Among the churches he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece this had not been so clear-cut, since he had always started in the synagogue first and made it clear that the gospel was “to the Jew first, but also, equally, to the Greek.” (Rom. 1: 16). He had given no opportunity for the creation of a Gentile-only Christian community. In most of the cities where he had preached, with the possible exception of the large metropolis of Ephesus, the probability is that the followers of Jesus were never large in number, perhaps only ever a few dozen, or in Corinth, conceivably, a few hundred. It would have been difficult for significantly different theological positions to have emerged once these communities had been established, at least not in the early decades of their communal life.

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But in Rome things were different. The message of Jesus had evidently arrived there sometime in the forties, perhaps with the apostle Peter, though this is only a tradition. This places Peter as having arrived in Rome in the year AD 44, whereas Paul did not arrive there until after AD 56, a date given by St. Jerome. There were followers of ‘The Way’ present in Rome perhaps even before Peter’s visit (if it took place), but the scriptural references to ‘the Church’ should not be taken too literally, as referring to a material institution. If it existed in any united form, it was a spiritual body in Christ. The more likely case is that the followers of Jesus at Rome were unorganised, treading in fear, meeting secretly in small groups at the homes of various converts in order to worship, often quite literally ‘underground’.

The imperial capital was, in any case, a city where different cultural and ethnic groups from all over the empire would cluster together for protection in their own districts. It is therefore highly likely that there were many scattered and disparate ‘house-churches’, as is shown by the greetings given in Romans 16, all worshipping Jesus but not really in direct contact with one another, and almost certainly with differing customs and practices based on their cultures of origin. The bands of converts met in grottoes, but mostly in the catacombs among the dead. The Roman law had recognised these underground cemeteries with the decree of sanctuary. However, when the persecution of the Jesus-followers was at its worst, the Roman soldiery would waylay the worshippers on entering or leaving the catacombs. To avoid capture they would make secret entrances and outlets, often through the houses of believers. The Tiberian and Claudian ban that promised to inflict death on all who openly professed the new faith was still in place when Paul was planning his sojourn in the Imperial City. When writing to the followers in Rome, he was aware that one of the ‘churches’ met at the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16: 5) and that as well as this Jewish ‘church of circumcision’ there were also Gentile Christian meetings elsewhere in the city. Paul’s visit to Rome, however, was not pending immediately, and probably didn’t take place until AD 58 at the earliest. First, he had to go to Jerusalem, and he implored the Roman Christians to pray for him,

… that I may be served from unbelievers in Judaea and that my errand to Jerusalem may find acceptance with God’s people.

(Rom. 15: 31)

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Paul not only apprehended danger from Jewish opposition but also felt some doubt how far he would be welcome to his fellow Christians at Jerusalem. To understand this we need to look at the situation which had developed as a result of his startling success in the building, all over the eastern empire, of a close-knit network of Christian communities which was supra-national, multi-racial, and ‘egalitarian’. As he was to write to the Colossians, that there was to be no distinction between…

Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man.

(Col. 3: 11).

This inevitably antagonised those who adhered to a stiff, nationally orientated type of Judaism – those, in fact, who stood where Paul himself had stood before his conversion. He had ‘ratted’ on them, and that could not be forgiven or forgotten. In his letter to the Romans, Paul argued, as he had done in Galatians, that the church could not be allowed to become a ‘purely’ Jewish institution with Gentile Christians tolerated as second-class citizens. “There is no distinction,” he repeated (Rom. 3: 22; 10: 12). If he had been finally defeated over this, the Christian church might have had as little impact on the great world as any other of the of the numerous Jewish sects. Although he was not defeated, neither could he be said to have gained a decisive victory in his lifetime. Advocates of the narrower view dogged his steps to the end and sought to win over his converts. No doubt they were honest and conscientious men, who stood obstinately by their principles, as did he. Quite simply, as far as he was concerned, they were in the wrong, and in his letter to the Galatians, he had written of these opponents in harsh terms and with passionate indignation. His tone in Romans was softer than that of Galatians, as he also set out his mission to Jerusalem as one of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the opening passages of his letter read like a ‘manifesto’ for a religious revolution, demonstrating how vital the issue was for him:

God has shown us clearly what he is like in a new way – how he stands for what is right, overthrows what is wrong and helps men to live in his Way.

This is not altogether a new Way, as we have seen – the Men of God of the Jewish people had begun to see how God puts wrongs right. But Jesus has made it quite plain. If we are to live in God’s Way, we must trust God; this means trusting in Jesus who has made God real to us.

This is true for everybody everywhere; for God … has no favourites. We have all done wrong; none of us has lived as splendidly as God intended him to live, though we were all created to live in his Way and be like him. But God treats us as if we had learned to live splendidly; his love is given to us freely. And it is Jesus who has won this freedom for us. 

There is nothing in all this to make us proud of ourselves. Keeping all the rules wouldn’t have stopped us being proud of ourselves. We have simply taken him at his word, and that leaves no room for boasting.

I am sure of this: everybody can really live as God wants him to live simply by trusting him, not by trying to keep all the rules. I mean everybody. Is God only the God of the Jewish people? Isn’t he God of all people everywhere? Of course he is, for there is only one God. So he puts Jewish people right – if they trust him; and he puts the people of other countries right if they trust him. 

When the original Jerusalem concordat was made, the leaders of the church had stipulated that the ‘Gentile’ churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. But for Paul, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions that arose among them. He set up a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded; he recommended a system of regular weekly contributions (Rom. 15: 25-28; 1 Cor. 16: 1-4; II Cor. 8: 1-9, 15). The raising of the fund had gone on for some considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, so as to represent the several provinces (I Cor. 16: 3 f.; Acts 20: 4).  The handing over of the relief fund was to be both an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the ‘Diaspora’ churches affirming their fellowship with the Judaean Christians in the one church. However, the goodwill mission miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was certainly not entirely welcoming. James was genuinely frightened of the effect of Paul’s presence in the city on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. James urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Torah by carrying out certain ceremonies in the Temple (Acts 21: 20-24). Paul was quite willing to accept James’ guidance. As he had already written to the Corinthians,

To Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews; as they are subject to the law of Moses, I put myself under that law… 

(I Cor. 9:20).

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Unfortunately, however, he was recognised in the Temple by some of his arch-enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the Holy Precincts  (Acts 21: 27-29). There ran across the temple court a barrier with an inscription threatening with death any ‘foreigner’ who trespassed beyond it. There was no truth in the charge against Paul, but it was enough to rouse the rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the Roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21: 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safekeeping to the headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23: 23-33). After wearisome wrangles between the Sanhedrin and two successive Roman governors, and fearing that he might be sent back into the hands of his accusers in Jerusalem, Paul decided to exercise his right of appeal to the emperor (Acts 25: 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship bound for Rome, leading to the famous ship-wreck off Malta (Acts 27: 1 – 28: 15).

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Paul in Rome:

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So Paul fulfilled his cherished plan of a visit to Rome in person but as a prisoner. He was placed under something like house-arrest, occupying his own private lodging, with liberty to receive visitors, but with a soldier constantly on guard (Acts 28: 16). He was awaiting trial there, a trial which was continually delayed.  It is probable, though not certain, that the Letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, as well as to Philemon, all of which refer to their author(s) being in prison at the time of writing, belong to this period of confinement. This period of house-arrest lasted, we are informed, for two years (Acts 28: 30). Scholars presume that the case eventually came up before the imperial tribunal, but whether it resulted in acquittal and a further period of freedom to travel, or ended in condemnation and execution, we have no means of knowing. The Letters to Timothy and Titus have been thought to refer to a further period of imprisonment in Rome, but the evidence is at best ambiguous, and it is unlikely that these letters, in the form in which we have them, come from Paul’s own hand. We know that Paul’s original plan before he went to Jerusalem, was to travel on to Spain, but we have no evidence that this goal was fulfilled. He was associated with Rome for ten years in all, and some have suggested that in addition to visiting Spain, he also travelled to Gaul and Britain. However, there is little if any hard contemporary evidence to support these assertions, which are based mainly on tradition and fanciful conjecture.

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That he ultimately suffered martyrdom may be taken as certain, and there is no good reason to doubt the Roman tradition that he was beheaded at a spot on the road to Ostia known as ‘the Three Fountains’, and buried on the site now occupied by the noble church of St Paul-without-the-Walls. According to the chronology given at the beginning of this article, Paul could hardly have arrived in Jerusalem before AD 59. His period in prison in Caesarea could not, therefore, have ended until AD 61, therefore. At that point the governor Antonius Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, based on evidence from non-Biblical sources. Accordingly, Paul would have sailed to Rome in the autumn of 61, arriving there in early 62. His period of house arrest would have continued until AD 64 and Tom Wright dates Paul’s death to this year or later. Beyond that, we cannot go, but it may be significant that it was in the winter of 64/ 65 that the emperor Nero made his savage attack on the Christians of Rome, following the Fire which was blamed on them. The Roman-Jewish War followed in AD 66-70, during which Nero died in AD 68, and the War ended with the Fall of Jerusalem…

… (to be continued).

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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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