The Apostle Paul is such an extraordinary figure both historically and spiritually. What is it about this man that draws so many people to him, that makes him both so relatable and yet so elusive? Paul follows the trajectory of so many of our favorite hero stories. A man rises up from average, pride propelling him forward until he’s toppled into humility. In this story, our prideful man encounters Jesus and is humbled, and this humility transforms him into one of the best superheroes the world has ever seen: a man trying to model cruciform love for the world. And this encounter, and the love he tries to teach the world, ends up filling up half the New Testament, shaping the faith of Christianity, and setting much of the standard for what it means to follow Christ.
When we look at the world in which Paul lived, it seems very foreign, but there is also something very relatable in it. There are many times when all of us feel as if the world is shrinking and we are surrounded by a multitude of cultures and diversity; the same can be said for the Apostle Paul. As we seek to understand the man, we must first understand his background, the world from which he came. For Paul, it would more aptly be described as worlds: his Mediterranean culture, the Roman Empire’s influence, and his Judaism were the three biggest spheres of influence.
The Mediterranean was Hellenized starting with the triumph of Alexander the Great and Greek culture continued to spread. “A somewhat simplified form of classical Greek, koine (common) Greek, became the norm for conducting commercial and business affairs, as well as for most other forms of communication; it is the language of the New Testament.” (Gorman, pg. 2) This Greek thought and language even permeated Jewish culture and Scriptures in many regions. Additionally, there was a group identity within the Mediterranean. As we see referenced often in the bible, their was that to live is to be part of the body, not alone as an individual (this is known as a dyadic culture). Feeding into this dyadic culture is a system of esteem from others where honor and shame is highly sought after and “…based primarily on such things as wealth, education, rhetoric skill, family pedigree, and political connections.” (Gorman, pg. 4) Since group solidarity was of the upmost importance, social structure ended up defaulting into very hierarchal structures. At the top were a small elite and at the bottom were the vast and unclean expendables. It is important to note very few in Jewish communities were ever part of the elite; they did, however, have their own hierarchy that operated in a similar fashion. At the center of the hierarchy is, of course, it’s patriarchy. “The male head of household governed his own little universe, with his wife, children, and slaves as personal property. This gave free men power and privilege in their own homes, even if nowhere else.” (Gorman, pg. 6) Another attribute of this hierarchy would be the foundation of it; slavery. “In urban areas a significant percentage of all inhabitants were slaves….even smaller households often had a few slaves…” (Gorman, pg. 7) Slaves in the Mediterranean weren’t based on race, but were made, found, or self-made. Freedom was an option if the person who owned them was willing to grant it.
The second sphere Paul operated in was the Roman Empire. The phrase pax Romana, or Roman peace, ended the civil unrest in Rome and brought peace to a large swath of land. Born around 27 BC, Roman law, virtues, gods, roads, etc. spread everywhere, as well as the worship of Roman emperors. “…As ancients and moderns alike have often assumed, no one but (a) god could subdue and then control a huge portion of the known world. From the time of Julius on, Caesar was not only the top political but also the top religious figure…” (Gorman, 15) To keep pax Romana, there was a cost and that was subjugation in the form of enslavement of conquered people, taxes and tributes, and crucifixion and other violent deaths for any noncitizen who was a threat to the empire. Honor was a driving force for Rome within this competitive society of those with means; they competed to outdo one another in projects and civil service. There wasn’t a middle class but there were free people and slaves and still a hierarchy maintained, and there was a lot of interaction between classes when it came to the patron-client relations. To that end, there was a tremendous amount of movement around the empire, made easier by the Roman roads. These roads made it easier for Paul to travel during his ministry but were also dangerous and common for robbery and other dangers. At this same time, emperor worship was in full swing, with shrines in temples for other gods and their own temples in most major cities. It was expected for citizens to worship them. “As magnificent benefactors, Augustus and his imperial successors were given (or took for themselves) titles such as Savior, God and Lord.” (Gorman, pg. 18) Jews mostly enjoyed exemption from this requirement but any message that threated this status (like a Jew proclaiming himself Lord or Savior) could be considered a grave threat to pax Romana.
The final world we want to understand as a background to Paul is his Judaism, which was known as Second Temple Judaism. Obviously as we read the bible we can tell that there were, in fact, many different types of Jewish sects around and so we understand that, “To be Jewish was to confess and worship the one God YHWH, who had graciously chosen Israel to be God’s distinctive people.” (Gorman, pg. 18) This God entered into a covenantal relationship with the people of Israel, through the Law of Moses. While the Jewish people were allowed some freedoms, they were still a subjugated people to the Romans and had attempted revolt. The Messiah they looked for was going to bring revolutionary activity; they were awaiting deliverance and salvation. There were things that separated the Jews from everyone else: boundary markers that were ritual and religio-ethical. Some of these things include fidelity in marriage, keeping all their children, circumcision, food laws, and holiday observances. Observing these things are what is referred to as covenantal nomism, or keeping the law to stay in covenant with a gracious God. Jews at that time had a lot of disagreement with what was required to remain “clean or holy” and thereby remain in covenant with God. The last attribute to examine at this point is apocalypticism. Because of the oppression that seemed to be never-ending and their hope for a Savior, an apocalyptic viewpoint brought hope to many first century Jewish people that a day of both judgement and salvation was on the horizon. This was paired with a cosmic perspective that there was also a current spiritual war being fought and that in the future resolution would result with God defeating evil. These viewpoints lead to a dualistic view of current and future, of a present state of suffering, evil and injustice with a future state of righteousness, liberation and justice for God’s people.
Now Paul was born a Jew and lived his entire life as a Jew, “from his early years in Diaspora Judaism, to his life as a Pharisee in Palestine, to his zealous commitment to extinguish the early Jesus movement, to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, to his subsequent life as apostle of the Jewish God and his crucified Messiah among the Gentiles.” (Gorman, pg. 40) He parents would likely have given him two names, the first being Saul (Saulos), a famous ancestor, and the second Paul (Paullus), a common Roman name. Growing up in Tarsus and born somewhere between 5 BC and 10 AD, it’s likely Paul studied Jewish Scriptures in Greek. Since Tarsus was a cosmopolitan university town with schools for rhetoric and stoicism, both of which are evidenced in his writings. It is likely that is where Paul is exposed to them, although he tries to distance himself from rhetorical showmanship specifically in his letters.
Eventually Paul moved to Palestine and studied under a rabbi named Gamaliel and was greatly influenced by the Palestinian Jewish culture. “It is clear from his letters that he had a apocalyptic perspective similar to that of other apocalyptic Jews, though it is radically reworked in light of God’s intervention in history through the death and resurrection of the Messiah.” (Gorman, pg. 52) Thus, Paul became the Pharisee many knew him to be from the biblical stories. Pharisees are most known for their zealous keeping of the Law, their obsession with the purity of Israel, and the belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead. It was their obsession with the Law and purity that caused them to pursue so aggressively the separation from Gentiles and furthermore the concern of contamination of Israel from the Christians who were violating the Law through their interactions with those they saw as unclean. In the eyes of the Pharisees, the actions of what we might call the Messianic Jews or Christians were pushing them further and further away from God.
It is for this reason the Paul persecuted the early Church so aggressively. “Acts says he approved the stoning of Stephen (8:1) and ‘voted’ for the deaths of others (26:10)…” (Gorman, 54) This zealousness was seen as necessary and a protection of the Jewish faith and manifested itself in violence towards the apostate Jews who were violating everything that they should have stood for. Therefore, Paul leaves Damascus for Jerusalem within a few years of Jesus’ death to try to stop this movement. On his journey, Paul encounters the resurrected Christ as a divinely granted revelation. This, to a Pharisee, is one of the three biggest thing in that there is a bodily resurrection of the dead. Paul’s transformative encounter leads him to know that God raised Jesus and that Jesus is the Messiah, that his death was for the sins of others, that it was the beginning of the end of days and that Jesus could be encountered as a living being.
Furthermore, Paul understood the undeserved mercy being experienced through Christ, and that the persecution and zeal in going after the Church and believers was a huge mistake. All of these things need to be re-evaluated in the light of what God did through Christ. Lastly, God had a plan for the Gentiles, who were to come to God in the last days. Paul notes that God called to him to carry out a commission: “proclaim him [God’s Son] among the Gentiles” (Gorman, pg. 58) Paul’s interpretation of this was that those who were at one time excluded were now to be included in God’s Kingdom.
Following his encounter, Paul began to live the life of Apostleship. Although there are several benefits that come with being an Apostle, Paul denied them. For him, the responsibility of the Apostle was, “…not primarily about power or authority as they are normally understood. To be an apostle is not merely to preach, but also to live, the gospel.” (Gorman, pg. 61) And live the gospel Paul did. 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.” He lived out a cruciform love in his daily life, demonstrating suffering, sacrifice and weakness.
Paul does this by doing three things in his travels of over 10,000 miles: “proclaiming the good news, forming communities of Jews and especially Gentiles who believe the good news, and suffering for the good news.” (Gorman, pg. 65) When establishing communities, he had coworkers, three dozen are referenced within his letters. The number of coworkers changed as did their abilities, but Paul was rarely alone in his work. This meant that there were additional costs, and Paul did not rely on the financial support he was owed as an Apostle because he didn’t want to burden the community in which he was working which left him with tent making. Paul did, however, accept financial support from communities that they had already set-up.
So Paul and his co-workers would find a Jewish community and a place to stay and set-up shop for his tent business. Then he would begin his evangelistic work with the Gentiles in public, accompanied by deeds of Power. He would build community, with Churches meeting in homes and new relationships between people of all types of social and economic backgrounds forming.
This brought a lot of persecution onto Paul, who experienced a lot of prison and trial time. Although he suffers, he considers it an honor because his suffering brings him closer to the suffering of Christ. “In weakness he finds strength and effectiveness (2 Cor 12:10); in suffering he sees the manifestation of the power of God for the salvation of Gentiles and Jews.” (Gorman, 71) While some believe that Paul was sure that he would see the coming of Christ, others hypothesize that Paul knew he, too, would die for his beliefs. Regardless of Paul’s expectation, based on the history of his life and the relationship he had with God, I would not be surprised to learn that Paul viewed it as an honor to be sacrificed in the shape of Christ’s cruciform love.