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Paul: Jewish Theologian or Greek Philosopher?

by Dr Alex Tang

“Who is Paul of Tarsus?”


1.                   The World of the First Century A.D.

In the First Century A.D. the Roman Empire is first entrenched as a world power. It rules an empire that includes all the countries in the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, Europe and as far north as the southern part of Britain. The Imperium imposes a series of laws but also allow local rulers to have some autonomy. The Roman builders made great highways connecting the empire and the Roman army made these roads safe to travel. Trade and culture flourishes.

1.1               The Diaspora: World Dispersion of the Jews

The destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians and the forced resettlement of the Israelites have created the Diaspora. Great Jewish communities with great centre of learning developed in Babylon and Alexandria. Jerusalem with the Temple remained the centre of Jewish faith and thoughts. They still travel to Jerusalem for the annual feasts.


1.2               The Church before Paul’s Missionary Journeys

After the formation of the Acts 2 church on Pentecost, the church remains a localised body. Though people from many lands received the Holy Spirit, by A.D. 45 the regions recorded to contain Christians are around Jerusalem, Sidon, Antiochia and Rome.

2.                   Paul of Tarsus

Paul has provoked people as much in the twentieth century as he did in the first. Then, they sometimes threw stones at him; now they then throw words. Some people still regard Paul as a pestilent and dangerous fellow. Others still think him the greatest teacher of Christianity after the Master himself.  This spectrum of opinion is well represented in the scholarly literature as well as the popular mind. We have a love-hate relationship with him. “We love to hate him, we hate to love him’. It is his teaching on marriage, women, sex, homosexuality and slaves that get people really wild.

We normally settle for a few favourite passages, a few ‘desert island texts’ (such as 1 Corinthians 13, which is about as popular as 1 Corinthians 11 is unpopular), a few favourite themes (such as ‘being in Christ’, which can be stated so vaguely as to support almost any theological scheme), and perhaps a favourite epistle (quite possibly Philippians, because it’s short, clear, and happy, unlike 2 Corinthians, which is perceived as long, tortuous, and gloomy – a good preparation for Lent, which is where it comes in the lectionary. Oh, and it has two chapters about money, which makes us embarrassed.

Paul was born in Tarsus in southeast Asia Minor. He was born Saul. The exact dates of his birth was uncertain, probably between 6 BC and A.D.10, probably on A.D.5 (based on the terms  ‘young man’ Acts 7:58 and ‘old man’ Phm 9. He was born in an observant Jewish family belonging to the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5), his parents gave him a Jewish name- the name of the most illustrious member of the tribe of Benjamin in the history of Israel, King Saul.

Tarsus is a Roman city with Greek culture. For Paul to become a Roman citizen, his father must have some influence. The Romans do not give away their citizenship easily. How Roman citizenship come into the family, we do not know. One archaeological scholar suggested that a firm of tentmakers could have proved very useful to the Roman army in these parts and received the citizenship for the services rendered.

3.                   Jewish Theologian or Greek Philosopher?

            Tarsus is big enough to have a university. Strabo mentioned that the school or university surpassed in some extend those of Athens and Alexandria. Its two important teachers, both called Athenodorus, were Stoics, and Stoicism were probably he prevailing philosophical fashion in the city. Paul must have learned to speak and read Greek when he was a child. His Greek was too fluent, too eloquent (though he made occasional grammatical mistakes) to convince that he picked up the language after he became a Christian. This meant that he was exposed to the Greek philosophy and has knowledge of their culture, philosophies and worldview.

Paul was also educated under Rabban Gamaliel I in Jerusalem. Gamaliel was the first to receive the title Rabban and was regarded as the greatest teacher of the Law. This have no doubt given him an excellent knowledge of the Scripture and of the oral Torah which supplemented, interpreted, and applied the written Torah of the Old Testament. Tradition has it that when he heard about the Christians in Tarsus; he hurried back to Jerusalem. This implied that he has completed his training and was back home in Tarsus. Aside form being a tentmaker, he may be a Rabbi of the local synagogue.

4.                   Sources for our study

We shall limit our study of Paul from the book of Acts and from his writings, a corpus of work known as the Pauline epistles. In the New Testament, there are thirteen letters that bear Paul’s name. In addition, the book of Hebrews has been traditionally attributed to him, but the tradition is weak. “Who wrote the epistle, God knows”, wrote Origen, a Church Father.

            Of the thirteen epistles, almost all scholars agree that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and 1 Thessalonians are written by Paul. Using textual criticism and other modern analytic methods, scholars disagree on the origin of the other six especially the Pastoral Epistles. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are rejected because (1) their Greek style differs from Paul’s, (2) their theology is more developed but less profound and (3) they reflect a church order different from that which appears in the other epistles. Some of them, however contains some historical references which is likely from Paul’s other writing (especially 2 Timothy) and incorporated by the writer into the epistles. The Epistle to the Ephesians presents a more difficult problem. The style is closer to Paul but not identical. Eph.2: 20; 3:5 speaks of apostles and prophets are of the past and Eph 3:2-4, the writer presupposes that the Ephesians do not know Paul even though Paul has stayed in Ephesus for some time. The same is true for Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.

The sources of our study will be:

(1)                 Biographical data from Acts

(2)                 Primary source from Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon.

(3)                 Secondary sources from 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Ephesians, Colossians and Titus

Does it really matter who wrote the Pastoral Epistles? If someone thinks highly enough of Paul to use his name to write the epistles, so what? So for all intend and purposes, we shall use the book of Acts and all thirteen epistles in our study of Paul the apostle.

5.                   Paul in Acts 9, 11:25-26, Galatians 1

(1)                 Paul born in Tarsus (Acts 22:3)

(2)                 Paul sent to study under Gamaliel at Jerusalem (Acts 22:3)

(3)                 Persecution of Christians by Paul (Acts 9:1)

                                    The stoning of Stephen marked the start of persecution for the followers of the Way. Saul appeared in Acts 7 looking after the clothes of those stoning Stephen and next in Acts 8 as destroying the church by moving from house to house, arresting believers and throwing them into prison.

(4)                 Journey to Damascus; vision of Christ; conversion (Acts 9:29)

Temporary blinded by the ’glory of that light’ which he has seen, Paul has to be led by the hand into Damascus and there he lodged for some  days in the house of a man named Judas in the ‘street called Straight’. There he was visited by Ananias who welcomed him as a brother and welcomed him into the company of Christ’s followers.


(5)                 Baptism and ministry at Damascus (Acts 9:10-22)

He visited those synagogues to which he had been accredited as the high priest’s ambassador, but he visited them now as the ambassador of Jesus Christ. But the risen Christ has specifically called him to the Gentiles.

Paul started to preach a Jewish Messiah to the Gentile world. He has not forgotten the roots of his religion and the law, nor has he forgotten his love for his fellow Jews. But his calling is to the Gentile. This introduced an ambiguity into his life that created a lot of problems for him, both from his fellow Jews and non-Jews.

1 Cor 9:20-23

20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.


(6)                 Withdrawal to the desert for study (Acts 9:25; Gal 1:17)

Paul spent some time among the Nabatean Arabs (Gal.1:17). His activity among them was sufficiently provocative to attract the anger of the Nabatean king, Aretas IV (9 BC-AD 40).

(7)                 Return to Damascus (Gal.1:17)

On his return to Damascus, the local representative of Aretas (2 Cor. 11:32,33) and the Jews guarded the city gates in the hope of arresting him and Paul was forced to make his escape in a basket let down in the city wall.

(8)                 Return to Jerusalem after three years (Acts 9:26; Gal 1:18)

(9)                 Persecution at Jerusalem, Paul returns to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30)

Paul probably preached in Tarsus for 10 years before Barnabas came to look for him. News kept coming to the churches in Judea that “our former persecutor is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy’ (Gal. 1:23)

(10)             Barnabas sent to Antioch (Acts 11:22-24)

Many Gentiles in Antioch, hearing the Gospel for the first time, believed and soon there was a flourishing church. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus became known as Christians; the name of Christ was so continually on their lips that they were recognised as his people.

The church in Jerusalem heard of this church and sent Barnabas to investigate. Barnabas settled down there. The church grew so fast that he found he needed help.

Christianity is being reckoned as a Gentile religion. Yet it originated as a movement within the Jewish nation. Jesus and his disciples were all practising Jews. If we ask how Christianity become detached from its Jewish matrix and acquired its predominantly Jewish character, we have to look at Antioch, the real birthplace of Gentile Christianity. The unnamed men of Cyprus and Cyrene who first thought of communicating the gospel to the Gentiles in Antioch started something, the outcome of which they could never has foreseen.

(11)             Barnabas’ visit to Tarsus to get Paul (Acts 11:25)

(12)             Paul’s visit to Antioch (Acts 11:26)

6.                    Reflections

Paul is God’s chosen agent to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. It is God who prepared him, called him and sustained him in this mission.

                                                                                                                                                            Soli Deo Gloria


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