You know, I kinda felt bad about doing this at first. I am basically laying out the ideas and concepts from another author’s book for people who haven’t purchased it. It’s like spoiling a good ending to a movie. However, I think I can justify this for two reasons:
1) I am discussing something central to the faith of millions of people, something that needs to be looked at and considered if we, as Christians, are going to understand exactly what Paul meant.
2) Christians do this to each other ALL THE TIME. Don’t believe me? Google “Love Wins.”
So, on that note, here’s the three worlds in which Paul dwelt, which deeply influenced the letters he wrote to churches all over the world he knew:
1) Judaism. Anyone who’s read ANYTHING about Christianity knows this is true of the whole religion, but this man was the poster-boy for Judaism in his time (and had no trouble telling people that, either). Being a Jew influenced how Paul preached and acted as a Christian, and that’s just about the biggest understatement I can make. See, Jews believed (and still do) that the entire span of history has been this big story, stemming from God creating the world, man screwing it up, and God promising man redemption through Abraham. Paul saw Jesus’ death and resurrection as the climax of that story, as well as the initiation of a whole new chapter in time where a new world could be initiated. More on that later.
2) Hellenistic (Greek) Culture. Because Alexander the Great loved the Greeks so much, he made it so that everyone spoke Greek, and everyone certainly did in Paul’s time, at the very least as a second language (kinda like English today). In addition, it was also the basis for thought. Wright gives the example of Paul’s contemporary Epicetus (whom I have not read); if you read the two, apparently, though their opinions differed greatly, their style of writing and arguing is almost identical. Now, Paul openly says about his need to “take every thought captive for the Messiah,” but he’s right at home in Hellenism too, making use of the language and imagery the pagan moralists would use while keeping himself firmly rooted in his Judaism.
3) The Roman Empire. Paul, much to the surprise of people then and now, was a Roman citizen, and utilizes it several times in the book of Acts when he gets thrown in jail for preaching God’s word. However, this doesn’t make him all pro-Empire; he had no trouble criticizing and speaking openly against his Roman overlords. One of the big themes in Jewish religion was the Exodus, where God delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, and it was certainly easy to swap out Egyptian for Roman in Paul’s day. Now, the Romans drew heavily from Greek culture, as we mentioned, so Paul lived in a situation perfect for himself to bring the monotheism of Judaism to a strongly pagan culture.
Now, at this point, Wright keys in on a fourth world in which Paul dwells: the church. This was an entity that, to Paul, existed in a world of its own. The church was the true family of Abraham, yet it made room for everyone of every walk of life, Jew or Gentile, and made its way in the Roman empire, yet it was different from all of these. It wasn’t a social club, or an enthic group, or a cult or a guild. According to Wright,
“For Paul, to be ‘in the Messiah,’ to belong to the Miessiah’s body, mean embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination, while being both more or less than a simple combination of elements from within those three.”
Basically, there was little room for definition in Paul’s time for what the church was, but Paul was going to every town, every Roman province, and preaching it and explaining it in the best way that he could.
That’s all for today, guys. Up next: Wright on the predominant narratives in Paul’s writings, and what the new perspective on Paul really is!