Friday, June 18, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 1

I begin teaching a course on the Pauline and Catholic Epistles in the Church of Assumption, Petaling Jaya today. This module is part of the bible study course offered by the Regional Biblical Commission (RBC) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. I have decided to post the following paper that I wrote several years ago on the Jewish and Hellenistic influences that had impacted St Paul and his writings. As the paper was quite lengthy, I have decided to serialise it for the purpose of this blog.


If there is, after Jesus, any person of stature and importance in the early Church, that person is Paul. Till today, the vast influence of Paul, rightly called the first Christian theologian, is met with mixed reception. For some, Paul is indeed the great hero of the Christian church, the one who most clearly perceived the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ and most enthusiastically presented the message of the good news. For others, however, Paul was largely responsible for taking the pristine Jewish message of Jesus and corrupting it, turning it into a Hellenistic type of religion which Jesus could hardly have recognized, let alone approved. Still others are also annoyed by some of his statements about women (1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:34). Similarly, on the topic of human sexuality, Paul seems to have minimal respect for marriage when he asserts his preference for celibacy (1 Cor 7:8-9). These reactions may not appear to be too alarming if we were to consider that Paul was noted to be a controversial character even in the New Testament writings (e.g. in the Acts of the Apostles). The 2nd letter of Peter tells us how from the beginning Paul was held in esteem, and yet was in the storm of controversy: “Think of our Lord's patience as your opportunity to be saved; our brother Paul, who is so dear to us, told you this when he wrote to you with the wisdom that he was given. He makes this point too in his letters as a whole wherever he touches on these things. In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture -to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:15-16).

Certainly Paul is a strong personality and his letters indicate that people either loved him or hated him, but were scarcely ever neutral or indifferent toward him. Yet we must appreciate that he addressed all of his letters to specific problems of specific communities and often in the heat of battle. His occasionally strong statements (strongest in his letter to the Galatians), need to be properly interpreted, and must be balanced by his total vision of Christianity. Another important area of study would be to see how the Jewish and Hellenistic background of Paul had influenced his mission and writings. In fact, we may conclude that Paul was the right person for the right time. Raised a Jew in Gentile territory but educated in the best traditions of Judaism, he was eminently suited for his time to help bridge the gap between Christians of Jewish background and the ever increasing numbers of those of Gentile background.

Christianity did not develop in a vacuum. Neither did the development of Paul’s theology. Paul recognized that Christianity needed to address itself to the questions and concerns of its day. “To the Jews I made myself as a Jew, to win the Jews; to those under the Law as one under the Law (though I am not), in order to win those under the Law; to those outside the Law as one outside the Law, though I am not outside the Law but under Christ's law, to win those outside the Law” (1 Cor 9:20-21). So it may be said, with some qualifications, that “Paul redesigned Christianity from the simple message of Jesus, not to change its essence, but to adapt it from a rural, Jewish setting to the contemporary urban Gentile culture” of the various communities he founded or ministered to. (1)

In attempting to construct Paul the Jew and Hellenist, I will be drawing on various sources. In examining his writings, I will concentrate on the seven letters that are almost universally accepted as authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Another source of information comes from the Acts of the Apostles. As scholars would caution us, we must use Acts prudently. Luke writes Acts in a way that idealises Paul beyond his historical character, and uses him, along with all the other persons in Acts, in order to express Luke’s own faith message and theology. In Acts, Luke wants to paint a picture of the ideal Christian community and their missionary efforts extending over the Roman Empire. A casual reading and comparison of some descriptions in Acts with Paul’s versions of the story will highlight the different pictures we can get and the caution with which we must read Acts. We must therefore pierce through this interpreted history to capture the historical Paul. In spite of the extensive studies that had been done on the subject of Paul and his background, he remains very much an enigmatic figure – he simply resists easy classification. In this study, we will only be examining two facets of the apostle – his ‘Jewish-ness’ and his ‘Hellenistic-ness.’

1. Anthony J. Tambasco, In the Days of Paul: The Social World and Teaching of the Apostle (New York: Paulist Press, 1991) 13.

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