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Paul: The Man, His Message, and His Letters
The apostle Paul, like the message of the cross he preached, was something of a paradox, a study in contrasts. His own testimony is eloquent witness in this regard. He was a Jewish rabbi transformed into a Christian theologian (Phil. 3:5-11); a persecutor of the church turned apologist for the gospel (1 Cor. 15:911); simultaneously sinner and saint (Rom. 7:13-25; 2 Tim. 1:12-16); a citizen of two kingdomsChrist's (Col. 1:13; 2 Tim. 4:18) and Caesar's (Acts 22:28; Rom. 13:1-7). Paul says that he can live with or without the amenities of life (Phil. 4:11-12). He claims that he is exclusively focused on Christ (Phil. 3:13-14), while being an astute observer of his day (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
Stark contrast apparently even extended to Paul's appearance for, according to the vivid picture of him reported in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, the apostle was, 'a man of little stature, thin haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace, for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel' (cf. 1 Cor. 2:3-4; 2 Cor. 10:10). Perhaps the most profound antinomy characterizing Paul's message was his resolute conviction that the end of time had arrived within human history, in the climactic events of Christ's death and resurrection. He writes in 1 Corinthians 10:11 that, in light of this, Christians are the ones 'upon whom the ends of the ages have come' (pers. tr.). This assertion is pregnant with meaning, the truth of which forms the basis for the following study and calls for some introductory remarks.
Our point of departure for grasping Paul, arguably the most important figure in Christianity (except of course, for Jesus) is to appreciate the force that drove him. The Old Testament, and the Judaism that resulted from it, viewed the structure of reality as comprised of two basic periodsthis age and the age to come (Isa. 40; Dan. 2, 7, 12; Joel 2; Zech. 9-14; 1 QH 3; 1 QS 4; 4 Ezra 4, 7; 2 Bar. 44; etc.).1 The former of these was identified with the present time, which has been given over to sin and suffering because of the fall of Adam and Eve; but it will one glorious day be replaced by the latter, with its inbreaking of the kingdom of God and attendant righteousness and peace. These two eras were thought to be consecutive in nature, with the arrival of the Messiah effecting the eschatological, or end-time, shift of the two ages.2 Gordon Fee captures the New Testament's modification of the preceding Jewish twofold delineation:
The absolutely essential framework of the self-understanding of primitive Christianity is an eschatological one. Christians had come to believe that, in the event of Christ, the new (coming) age had dawned, and that, especially through Christ's death and resurrection and the subsequent gift of the Spirit, God had set the future in motion, to be consummated by yet another coming (Parousia) of Christ. Theirs was therefore an essentially eschatological existence. They lived 'between the times' of the beginning and the consummation of the end. Already God had secured their.salvation; already they were the people of the future, living the life of the future in the present ageand enjoying its benefits. But they still awaited the glorious consummation of this salvation. Thus they lived in an essential tension between the 'already' and the 'not-yet.'3
As we will repeatedly observe during the course of this work, such an eschatological view of Christian existence is thorough going in Paul, especially the 'already/not yet' paradox. In order to set the stage for the discussions that follow, the present chapter situates Paul in the context of his day by orienting the reader to the contours of Paul's world, exploring different proposals claiming to be the key to his thought, and identifying the corpus, or body, of his writings.
A. The Man: The Contours of Paul's World
Paul did not live in a vacuum; certain influences unavoidably shaped his life and thought. Three such dynamics will be surveyed here: Greco-Roman society, Judaism, and Christianity. These movements may be viewed as concentric circles. The Greek and Roman setting of the first century provided the outer sphere of influencethe cultural and political context. The Jewish world, the matrix from which early Christianity emerged, supplied Paul his formative environment, while his Damascus Road conversion initiated the core of his Christian experience.4
1. Greco-Roman Influence
The secular setting of Paul's day involved the interfacing of two powerful forcesGreek culture and Roman government. Thanks to Alexander the Great and his Hellenizing policy,5 Greek culture dominated the world from 331 to 63 B.C.E.6 Its chief contributions to society included: the establishment of a common language; the assimilation of rhetoric and the pursuit of philosophical questions raised by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.; adherence to a pantheon of deities; and an emphasis on the city, or polis, as the integrative center of the population. In one way or another, these elements impacted Paul.
The merger of Greek with other languages that it encountered created a common (koine) trade dialect for the ancient world (ca. 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E.). Though Paul's mother tongue as a Jew was Hebrew (more technically Aramaic, a cognate language of Hebrew), he also spoke and wrote fluently in Greek. The latter afforded at least two advantages over Semitic speech. First, as the lingua franca of the day, koine Greek made world evangelization possible. Second, because of its grammatical precision, the Greek language was well suited for theological expression. Precedence for doing so could be found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (ca. 250 B.C.E.) and the Bible Paul most often used.7
Greek literary style and philosophical speculation also influenced Paul. For example, the apostle used such rhetorical features as the diatribe (a Cynic-Stoic mode of argumentation; see Rom. 2:1-20; 3:1-9; 1 Cor. 9);8 the fool's speech (a sarcastic and ironic method of exposing the weaknesses of one's critics, whose origin is attributed to Socrates; see 2 Cor. 10-13);9 the tribulation lists (patterned after the suffering wise sage of Hellenism; see, for example, 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 6:3-10);10 not to mention the Greek epistolary genre that forms the very structure of Paul's letters.11 That the apostle was conversant with Greek philosophy is evident in some of the terminology he employs ('freedom' [Gal. 5:1, 13]; 'conscience' [Rom. 2:15; 1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25-29; 2 Cor. 5:11]; 'all that you need' [2 Cor. 9:8]; etc.);12 the leading thinkers he quotes (1 Cor. 15:32-33; Titus 1:12; cf. Acts 17:24); the conceptual heritage he shares (note, for example, the possible influence of the Platonic contrast of spirit and matter [2 Cor. 5:1-10];13 the Stoic idea of the divine reason permeating the cosmos [1 Cor. 8:6; etc.];14 and the Hellenistic household code of ethics reflected in Eph. 5:18-6:9 and Col. 3:18-4:1).15