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AM, 2016 11:May

A Polite Bribe: Paul, His Movement, and Hellenic Culture

As an independent scholar and film maker I have been fascinated with the potential to reframe the story of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and his relationship with the earliest Jewish Christian communities—especially that of Jerusalem.

Paul recognized the early Jerusalem church to be an important source of authority and tradition, but also at the same time he saw it a conservative and limiting force in what he saw as the necessary expansion of the church out of Syria-Palestine and into the Mediterranean region. The narrative I propose, The Paul Story, will present, in both print and visual media, just how difficult Paul’s struggle was to imagine and then attempt to bring into reality a Christianity that included both Jews and Christians on an equal footing. However, to his mind the Church had to include both—despite the conflict and rejection such a mission might entail. The cultural basis for this radical vision of inclusion was Paul’s immersion in Hellenistic culture and his understanding of that culture as a Diaspora Jew.

In New Testament studies there has been a tendency to focus primarily upon Syria-Palestine as the crucial geographical and cultural matrix for the emergence of early Christianity. However, it is quite evident for anyone who takes a moment to reflect upon the geographical and cultural environment of Luke-Act and the Pauline letters that while to Jerusalem church is important to the Pauline mission and churches, these churches grow out of the Jewish Diaspora and non-Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean— specifically Anatolia, Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece. These areas and their populations had long been under the deep cultural influence of Greek culture and language—indeed Paul’s visits to Corinth and Athens brings him into the very heart of Hellenic culture. Even the cities of the Anatolian (Ionian) coast have historical and cultural ties as Greek colonial cities going back as early as 800 BCE. The campaigns of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE further consolidated the influence of Greek language and culture throughout the Near East.

So that when Paul in born in Tarsus a city once part of the Seleucid kingdom—in the first decade of the first century CE, he grows up in an environment that has been completely Hellenized. Though his zeal for the Jewish religion is undiminished by this upbringing, it is evident that he sees his religion through a Hellenic lens. After his “conversion” this zeal turns to a passion for the inclusion of non-Jews within the early Church and, as he sees it, this means that while there is continuity between Judaism and Christianity—especially in the acceptance of the Hebrew bible as revelation for Christians—much of what constituted Jewish identity must now be relaxed in order to open up the Christian movement, not only to Hellenized non-Jews, but also to Hellenized Jews in the Diaspora. In short, it is Paul’s own Hellenic culture, the culture of the Roman Empire at the time, that forms the conditions for the possibility of Christianity to move out of Syria-Palestine as a religious movement and into the general empire.

The has been much literature over the last few decades that ties Paul’s thought back to his Jewish world—but it is a Diaspora, Hellenized Jewish world— a world he shares with figures like Josephus and Philo. Like them Paul uses Greek (as do the evangelists) to convey his message to the widest audience possible. His scriptures are quoted in Greek—perhaps in some tradition of the Septuagint translation. In any case, it is Hellenic culture that carries Paul’s message.

Yet this innovative approach to spreading the gospel is not without controversy—indeed, conflict is at the core of this mission. At stake is what will constitute the core of Christian identity—Hellenic culture, institutions, language, etc., or Jewish cultural practices—such as purity laws, circumcision, the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. In my approach to Paul’s mission, I do not follow the smooth evolutionary arch of Luke-Acts—which tries to portrays the inclusion of the so-called Gentile mission as being condoned and fostered by the early “apostolic” church based in Jerusalem. Rather the struggle for a broad definition of what it is to be a Christian brings Paul into direct conflict with the Jerusalem church. This conflict does not go away, though some truces are called, and lukewarm support is given to Paul. In fact, if one reads carefully both the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters, Paul’s fate, his imprisonment and extradition for trial in Rome is anything but a triumph. It appears that Paul’s attempt to legitimate his mission with the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem failed.

However, the Hellenic Christian communities—made up of both Diaspora Jews and Gentiles—because of their cultural independence from that of the Jerusalem church allowed them to expand and survive the demise of their founder Paul—as well as the destruction of Jerusalem, which seems to have been fatal to the life of the Jewish Christian church in Syria-Palestine.

In short, the Pauline mission and its expansion throughout the Roman Empire are based in its Hellenic cultural background—a background shared by both Diaspora Jews and gentiles. From this matrix will emerge the forms of Christianity that will ultimately be taken as “orthodox” and become the dominant religious culture of the Roman Empire.

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Make a donation Dr. Witherington unexpectantly lost his daughter, Christy at the age of 32 this year. The Christy Ann Witherington Scholarship at Asbury Theological Seminary will support female students who are taking the M.A. in Biblical or Theological Studies, or the M. Div. or PhD in Biblical Studies. Please consider making a tax-deduxtible donation in support of this cause.

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