This post gives a summary of C.J. Den Heyer’s book Paul: A Man of Two Worlds.
It is important to remember that Paul was someone who wrote letters. He did not write systematic theology. He wrote letters to specific people at specific times addressing specific issues.
The ‘historical’ Paul
There are about 14 letters that have in history been ascribed to Paul. Hebrews does not have the usual greeting or address specific issues but in the closing verses does mention Timothy: “I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free; and if he comes in time, he will be with me when I see you” (Hebrews 13:23). Its content and style seem very different to most Pauline letters so it is not believed to be written by Paul. I and II Timothy and Titus are no longer considered to be from Paul as they refer to a highly organised church set up that was not around in the time of Paul. Language and Style are also very different. II Thessalonians has also been doubted. In the first letter to the Thessalonians Paul says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (I Thessalonians 5:1-3), implying soon and suddenly. In the second letter it will come slower and there will be signs beforehand (II Thessalonians 2:3-8). Finally Ephesians and Colossians are similar (Ephesians building on Colossians). Ephesians deals with issues that Paul would not have encountered such as the issue of a universal church. Colossians seems very close to a Pauline letter with some differences leading some to believe that a close associate such as Timothy wrote it. The author also looks at the relationship between Paul’s letters and Acts. While similar in certain places there are significant differences such as what did Paul do after his conversion. The Letter of Acts is considered to be written by the same person as Luke. As Luke is considered to be written in the 80s or 90s it could not have been written by an eye-witness. Hence discrepancies with Paul’s account.
The Life of Paul: Biographical Information
Paul refers to himself as a Jew. In the Acts he mentions that he coems from Tarsus but in the letters just Syria. He writes in Koine greek, a simpler form of classical greek. There were many diaspora Jewish communities at that time, in Babylon, Alexandria and elsewhere. The community that stayed in Babylon went on to produce the Babylonian Talmud considered better that the Palestinian Talmud. Jeremiah mentions Jewish communities running to Alexandria to escape the wrath of Persia. It was in Alexandria that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) was written. Also much wisdom literature, for example by Philo. Tarsus was a Roman centre and would have had Roman armies staying there. It is likely that Pauls’ ancestors were tent makers for the army. In those days the Son followed in the father’s footsteps.It is noted that the Pharisees are shown in a very negative light in the gospels, though they are in no way connected to Jesus’ death. At one point they warn him about his safety (Luke 13:31-35). This negativity is said to relate to later developments between the Pharisees, who became the Jewish leaders post AD 70, and Christians. It is estimated that Paul was born in AD15. He makes no mention of being in Jerusalem when Jesus was there, and as Jesus was crucfied in AD30, and the fact that Paul went to Jerusalem as a young man, he could have come any time after AD30, when he would have been about 15 or more.
The Pharisees were very zealous and often had jobs to support themselves. They were more pragmatic than the Essenes and sought to work out lives in accordance with Torah in real-life settings. The issue of Paul being a zealot is raised. Paul often refers to himself as being very zealous. The theme of being zealous goes back to Phineas who killed an Israelite man who took a Midianite woman to his tent and were in the act of fornication. Phineas then leads a revenge war against Midian. Elijah is zealous in his killing of Jezebel’s prophets. Ezra, who is noted as being descended from Phineas (Ezra 7:5), is zealous in his removal of the foreign wives. The zealot movement in the first century got started with Judas during the Census. Although not successful it continued to gather support especially during the 40s and 50s. Some of Jesus’ disciples seem to have a link with the zealots. Most obviously there is Simon the zealot, but also James and John the sons of thunder(thunder could also be terrorist here). And Judas Iscariot – Iscariot could have been the name for a member of the very extreme Sicarii. In Acts Pauls says he was trained by Gamaliel but not in his letters. It is important to remember that Gamaliel was much more moderate towards the early Christian community than Paul. Paul may have moved away from the line taken by Gamaliel.
3. From Persecutor to Preacher
The persecution after the martyr of Stephen does not seem to have affected all the believers. Acts 8:1 mentions that the apostles were able to stay on in Jerusalem. It seems that persecution depended on the extent to which believers followed Torah or not. James the brother of Jesus, who was killed in the early 60s, apparently had a good reputation with the Pharisees. It seems unlikely that a very young diaspora Jew would have led the persecution against the early Church. More likely that he zealously supported it. Then Den Heyer looks at Apocalyptic thought compared to traditional prophecy. Was Paul apocalptic? Yes. He uses that word to describe his encounter with Jesus.
4. Between Damascus and Antioch
Den Heyer looks at the ‘uknown’ years. Paul hardly mentions Jesus’ life on earth. This is because of his apocalyptic worldview, looking forward to the imminent coming of Jesus, and is dealing with current and future issues (“the time is short”,1 Cor 7:29). More than any other New Testament writer Paul sees the cross as a scandal and a curse. This is in contrast to John where much more positive terms like ‘lifting up’ and ‘glorification’ are used. Unlike Matthew and John, Paul very rarely speaks negatively about ‘the Jews’. He never blames the Jews for the death of Jesus or even mentions Pontius Pilate. The notion of a ‘Messiah’ figure re-gaining the throne of David is a quite late development. In Psalms of Solomon 17:21 (about 50AD) we read “Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, at the time known to you, O God, in order that he may reign over Israel your servant”. Paul may not always have been a zealot. He later seems to distance himself from Gamaliel, perhaps because he had become more fanatical since being taught by Gamaliel, implying that he was more moderate before. After his vision he seems to return to being more moderate in regards to Torah.
5. It began in Antioch
It is Barnabas who brings Paul into the Christian community in Antioch. The other believers seem to have given him a very frosty reception in Jerusalem and then he goes home! Barnabas was also a diaspora Jew, coming from Cyprus. Antioch was founded by Seleucus in 300BC and Jews had first come to the area as merchants following the army of Alexander the Great, and lived in the city from its beginning. In contrast to Jesus who avoided cities, the early Christians were drawn to the big great cities such as Jerusalem, Damascus and Antioch. Peter and Paul’s argument is discussed. According to Torah Jews could not eat with uncircumcised men. Peter and first accepts this but then pulls back in fear of ‘men from James’. Paul never mentions the meeting of the apostles in Jerusalem to discuss this issue (Acts 15) when dealing with the issue of circumcision in Galations. Maybe Galations came first or perhaps Paul’s beliefs developed from that rather simple compromise. Paul’s missionary zeal seems spurred on by him being a diaspora Jew and so aware of the bigger world and his apocalyptic beliefs that the promises in Isaiah and the prophets were shortly to be fulfilled and that the gentiles needed to be ready for God’s great feast. Interestingly Paul never refers to the Great Commission.
6. The first letter to the Thessalonians
The background is discussed. Paul went over to Macedonia after a dream. Persecuted in Philippi (by pagans?), then went to Thessalonica. Initial success especially with the god fearing gentiles and some prominent women, but then the Jews became jealous and caused trouble, and then Paul had to leave. Then there is correspondence in the future and Timothy visits them.
The letter tells the Thessalonians to avoid idols and immorality, and to be expectant of the Lord’s coming which could come at any moment without warning. Thessalonica had pagan temple with male and female prostitutes, and it was normal for men and women to go to the temples and sleep with them. Hence the instructions to avoid immorality.
7. Correspondence with Corinth
There are divisions in the church. Some people had thought it normal to sleep with temple prostitutes till recently. Also divisions over which leader they followed, Paul, Cephas or Apollos. Also with the city being very busy, some were making a lot of money, and others left very poor. Paul emphasises the importance of love to counteract these divisions. Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it. Apollos was from Alexandria which was a place famous for religious and philosophical dialogue. Paul views the cross as a scandal and curse. Apart from Jesus only one person who was crucified is remembered in history, Spartacus. They were forgotten because they were failures. The community were ‘bought with a price’; this does not refer to being saved but being owned by Christ, like slaves. Paul discusses marriage. He is not an ascetic seeking spiritual encounters instead of physical ones, as he does mention husbands and wives should give themselves to each other, and not deprive each other. His preference for being single is purely practical, that he can get on with God’s work and also because the time is short and so it is better to think about things that will last. Unity is a big theme in this letter. 1 Corinthians 12 mentions that believers form one body, and though there are differences they have to work together. The hymn to love in chapter 13 may be based on Jewish wisdom literature. Paul’s collections for the poor in Judea at the time of famine, from mainly gentile believers was not just to meet a need but also to promote unity between the groups.
8. First letter to the Community in Philipi
When reading Phillipians there is an abrupt change in tone at 3:2. It seems that this is because what we have as The Letter to the Phillipians is composed of two letters written at two different times. The first one 1 – 3:1, and 4:2-7,10-23 are looked at in this chapter. There are no big issues. Paul really appreciates their support for him and the letter is a very joyful one. This letter includes the famous Christ Psalm 2:5-11. This contains words which are not used by Paul anywhere else so it probably was not written by him. It has similarities with hymns in praise of wisdom, notably Wisdom 9:1-10 (Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may labor at my side, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you (v10)).
9. Letter to Philemon
From the way Paul talks to Philemon it seems that they knew each other well. It is likely that he was in Colossae. Archippus and Onesimus mentioned here are also mentions in the letter to the Colossians. Paul is writing from Ephesus about 100 miles away. Onesimus is a slave but may be a higher grade slave. There may have been issues with financial dealings. Paul says if there is any debt I will pay it. Some slaves would have been at home and had little rights; others would have gone on journeys and undertook deals for their masters, and enjoyed a peaceful old age. While Paul does not advocate the abolishment of slavery he does tell Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a ‘beloved brother’. At least in the Christian Community Paul believed that rank and status had no place.
10. Second letter to the Corinthians.
This letter is generally considered to be by Paul. However, the unity of the letter is doubted. It is believed that chapters 10 to 13 make up part of what is known as the ‘tearful letter’ that Paul refers to in 2:4. This section has a much harder tone than 1 to 9. It is also believed that the letter contains part of the ‘immorality letter’ – the very first letter Paul wrote to Corinth. Paul seems to have visited Corinth and this does not seem to have been a great success. Titus got on better. Paul speaks of a new and better covenant. This theme made it hard for Christianity to stay a part of Judaism. The believers may have been influenced by an early form of gnosticism, and so Paul writes in a way that may attract them (2 Cor 4:16…) Paul is still coming against believers going to temples and sleeping with prostitutes. In Chapter 10 it seems as though the Corinthians do not find Paul impressive in person.
11. Second letter to the community of Philippi
From 3:2 on the canonical letter of Philippians takes a much darker turn. Before the mood was upbeat and worshipful. Then in 3:2 we get “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” It seems that this was written on a different occasion. This is similar in content to issues in Galatians. IT could seem that Paul talks about leaving the Torah behind him as ‘refuse’. Paul’s righteousness is not based on Torah but on faith. Christ has become everything important for Paul.
12.Letter to the Galations
The province of Galatia included a region called Galatia and other areas to the south. This latter area includes Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. There are two main themes: first defending his apostleship; second dealing with the issue of circumcision. Paul appeals to the fact that the promise to Abraham that all nations came before the Torah and the Torah did not invalidate it. The Torah was given because of transgressions – in other words to highlight the issue of sin. The Law was meant to lead us to Christ. After the death and resurrection of Christ it no longer had a part to play. This meant the removing of boundaries and the possibility of one family. Part of the reason that Paul does not give a very explicit solution is that he believes the Lord is coming very soon. For Paul there were five key points in history: creation, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the Parousia (second coming).
13. Letter to Rome
The New Testament books are generally arranged in order of decreasing length. Matthew (28), Luke (24), John (21). Mark is very similar to Matthew hence its position next to it. This is also generally true of the epistles. Romans and 1 Corinthians are the longest and Philemon is the smallest. Romans is different to most of Paul’s other letters in that it does not seem quite as ‘contextual’ – dealing with specific problems. It is also different in that Paul has not yet visited the believers.
The situation in Rome was quite unique. Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome. Seutonius (c. AD 69 – c. AD 122)- “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Acts 18:1-2: “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.”
This led to a unique situation – a completely gentile church, which Jewish Christians later returned to about five years later. Usually Jewish Christians came first and then were joined by Gentile Christians.
From reading Romans 16 it does seem as though Paul did know many of the believers there. Prisca and Aquilla who Paul met in Corinth have returned to Rome. So he must have been aware of some issues there. It is often considered that this letter is pure theology and does not deal with specific messy issues. It is likely that, given the situation, that unity was a key issue that Paul had to deal with. There are passages on unity in Romans that mirror material in I Cor 12-14, e.g. Romans 12:4-8. His mention of love matches up with the Torah (Lev 19.18) and with the teaching of Jesus (Mat 22:37-40).
Paul speaks about submission to authorities. The believers in Rome were literally very close to the most powerful authorities on earth at that time. The situation was delicate with Claudius being poisoned and Nero taking over at 16 years, and very inexperienced; nationalist resent was brewing in Judea.
Paul was not anti-semitic. His love his fellow Jews is seen in chapters 9-11.
The Gentile believers are called the “strong” as they d not worry about food, idols etc, whereas the returning Jewish Christians are the “weak”.
There is mention of the gospel and of faith, and the righteousness of God. At the end there is mention of parallels with the sacrifices at the mercy seat of the day of atonement.
14. A Retrospect
This is a summary. Paul’s life in two worlds is re-considered. Some of his views are challenged even in other later New Testament writings like II Thesalonians which relativized the imminent parousia of Christ. Other letters such as Colossians and Ephesians start to say more about church structures. With the belief about the imminent coming of Christ starting to wane structures were needed in the church to help it to proceed soothly long-term.
As gentiles came to believe it was apparent that the Torah was a barrier. With the cross and resurrection Paul believed a new age had come and the place of Torah was relativized.
Paul was a charismatic man reacting to issues that he had to deal with. He has to be heard in his context. He is aware that though the messianic kingdom has come, he is still sinful and still living in a sinful world.