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Thinking through Paul
an introduction to his life, letters, and theology
By Bruce W. Longenecker, Todd D. Still
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still
All rights reserved.
A SURVEY OF PAUL'S LIFE AND MINISTRY
To be knowledgeable of and conversant with what can be known about Paul prior to his life-changing encounter with Christ
To be conversant with texts and issues related to Paul's Damascus experience
To understand various facets and underlying commitments of Paul's missional strategy and practice
To be able to describe the make-up of Pauline communities and Paul's commitment to and communication with them
To be able to summarize how Paul is thought to have died
1. From Tarsus to Damascus
2. Paul's Encounter with Christ and Its Immediate Aftermath
3. Paul's Mission to and Ministry in the Mediterranean World
4. Paul's Departure
5. Concluding Remarks
6. Key People, Places, and Terms
7. Questions for Review and Discussion
8. Contemporary Theological Reflection
9. Going Further
Philippians 3:4b - 6: "If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless."
1 Corinthians15:8 - 11: "And last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed."
Galatians 1:11 - 17: "I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother's womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus."
1 Corinthians 9:19 - 22: "Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 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. 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. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."
2 Timothy 4:6 - 8: "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."
Having met our subject and surveyed our volume in the introduction, we are now ready to "think through" Paul's life, letters, and theology. In this chapter, our aim is to piece together Paul's life. And what a life it was!
Born in Tarsus to Jewish parents, Paul (also known as Saul) was a zealous follower of the Lord (Yahweh) and of the law (Torah). Over time, he became both a Pharisee and a persecutor of Jesus-followers. A life-altering encounter with the risen Christ while en route to Damascus, however, caused Paul to reevaluate and to alter a number of his convictions and commitments. Having become convinced that Jesus is the living Lord, Paul proceeded tc risk life and limb to proclaim the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection to the nations. Like his Lord, Paul was ultimately put to death by Roman hands, but not before his work as an apostle was widely disseminated and well established.
If the above is something of a trailer, below we consider the fuller motion picture of Paul's life. Because we lack the details necessary to trace his life from womb to tomb, the picture that emerges is incomplete. This unfortunate reality will require us to cobble together, with critical care, autobiographical materials from Paul's letters with biographical information found in Acts and other early Christian literature. Yet given the scarcity of our sources and the chronological chasm that separates us from our subject, we are fortunate to know as much about Paul as we do.
A person can examine Paul's life in any number of ways. In this chapter we will treat the apostle's eventful life under the following four headings:
1. From Tarsus to Damascus
2. Paul's Encounter with Christ and Its Immediate Aftermath
3. Paul's Mission to and Ministry in the Mediterranean World
4. Paul's Departure
While Pauline chronology is complicated and controversial, there is a broad scholarly consensus regarding the dating of certain periods and episodes in Paul's life and ministry that we will follow as we proceed with our study.
FROM TARSUS TO DAMASCUS
Birth and Upbringing
Place of birth. Paul does not indicate in his letters where he was born. Acts reports, however, that Paul was born in Tarsus in Cilicia. As it happens, Paul refers to the province of Cilicia in conjunction with Syria in Gal 1:21. Although Pauline and Lukan scholars have questioned the historical veracity of certain claims that Acts makes about Paul, few interpreters doubt that Acts accurately identifies the place of Paul's birth.
Pompey won Cilicia for the Romans in 67 BC. In turn, he named Tarsus the provincial capital. Later Mark Antony made Tarsus a "free city" and exempted it from Roman taxation. Still later, Augustus confirmed and extended these civic privileges. By the close of the first century BC, Tarsus had earned a reputation as a place of culture and learning. Most scholars think that Paul was born in Tarsus near the beginning of the first century AD.
Paul's name. In writing letters in Greek to primarily non-Jewish believers, Paul employs no other name in referring to himself. According to Acts, however, Paul was known also as Saul (13:9). Is the name "Saul" a Lukan invention? If not, how was it that Paul could also be known as Saul?
In Phil 3:5, Paul remarks that he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews" from the "tribe of Benjamin" (see also Rom 11:1). In light of his Jewish pedigree, it is unlikely that his parents would have only given him the Roman name "Paul" (which happens to mean "small") from birth. Indeed, it may well be that his Jewish parents named him after Israel's first king, Saul, who was also a Benjamite (1 Sam 9:21). As history would have it, we do not know when, where, or why the Jew "Saul" (Shaul) began to be called by the Roman name "Paul." So, the man from Tarsus we are studying had two names, one Jewish ("Saul") and the other Roman ("Paul").
Paul's parents. Acts indicates that Paul was "a son of Pharisees" (23:6). This verse may suggest that Paul's father was a Pharisee. Whether or not his father was a Pharisee (Paul claims to have been one [Phil 3:5; see also Acts 26:5]), Paul's circumcision on the eighth day suggests that his parents were self-respecting, law-abiding Jews (Phil 3:5; note Lev 12:3).
How did Paul's parents come to live in Tarsus? There is some suspicion that Paul's parents or ancestors were taken to Tarsus as prisoners of war. The theologian Jerome (late fourth to early fifth century) indicates that Paul and his parents were brought to Tarsus from the region of Gischala in Judea as Roman prisoners of war. Although Jerome does not date their deportation, sometime between 5 BC to AD 5 would be a reasonable inference, when uprisings against Rome were not infrequent.
Because Acts reports, however, that Paul was born a Roman citizen (22:28), some have questioned the accuracy of Jerome's account, preferring to place Paul's parents, or more likely his parents' ancestors, in Tarsus at an earlier time. In that view of things, Paul's ancestors could have come to Tarsus as prisoners after Pompey's invasion of Jerusalem (63 BC) or, perhaps even earlier, during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175 — 163 BC).
Dual citizenship? According to Acts, Paul was a citizen of both Rome (Acts 22:25) and Tarsus (21:39). Contemporary treatments of Paul reveal skepticism toward both of these Lukan claims. The reasons adduced to counter Luke along these lines are numerous and of varying strength. While the scope of this volume does not afford us the opportunity to enter fully into this ongoing debate, a few points merit mention here.
First, it is certainly possible that Paul could have inherited Roman citizenship from his father or grandfather. Either one could have been granted the status of freedman (through manumission from slavery or distinguished service to the state) and have become a Roman citizen.
Second, when Acts presents Paul as a citizen of Tarsus, Luke may have had in mind something less than full citizenship. The term he uses in Acts 21:39 (polites) can mean "resident" or member of an organization (politeuma) as well as a duly recognized citizen. These observations suggest, if all too succinctly, that a case can be made to support Luke's claims with respect to Paul's "dual citizenship."
Place of education and upbringing. Even as many contemporary scholars are wary of Luke's presentation of Paul as a "dual citizen," a number of Paul's modern interpreters also question whether Acts is accurate in maintaining that he was "brought up in [Jerusalem] under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors" (Acts 22:3; see also 26:4). In light of the language, style, and contents of Paul's letters, some specialists regard Tarsus as the more likely location for Paul's education and upbringing.
Whether Paul is best viewed against a Hebraic or Hellenistic backdrop has been a point of ongoing debate among Pauline scholars, despite occasional calls to adopt a moderating position between the two extremes. The degree to which a given scholar judges Paul as more or less Jewish in orientation, cognition, and expression will invariably influence his or her judgment regarding where Paul was educated as he was growing up. Whereas a more Jewish view of Paul lends credence to Acts' claim regarding his education and upbringing, a more Hellenistic understanding of the apostle inclines one to regard Tarsus as a more likely locale for his rearing and training.
For our part, while recognizing the comingling of "Hellenism" and "Judaism" as well as the complexity inherent to tracing the relative and various influences on any ancient person's thinking and writing, we are struck by the fact that Paul's autobiographical remarks are a testament to his Jewish past (esp. Gal 1:13 — 14; Phil 3:5 — 6). Such statements suggest that Paul was likely a Diaspora Jew who valued the ancestral customs and convictions of his people, even if he would eventually radically reevaluate all things Jewish in light of his encounter with the risen Lord and his Gentile mission.
Given Paul's own statements regarding his commitments and concerns prior to becoming a follower of Christ Jesus, it seems altogether plausible that he would have received the lion's share of his religious education in Jerusalem, the epicenter of Judaism and home to at least a few of his relatives, including a sister and a nephew (Acts 23:16). Additionally, if Paul were in fact educated in Jerusalem, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Gamaliel was his instructor, or one of his instructors, in Pharisaic Judaism.
Paul's social and marital status. If one does not assume that Paul's family paid a handsome price to become citizens of Tarsus and/or of Rome and if one does not presuppose that Paul's education came at a considerable fiscal cost to his family, there is no evidence that would compel one to conclude that he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. In fact, if Paul learned his profession as a "tentmaker" or "leatherworker" (Acts 18:3) from his father as a boy, he would not have been a blue blood.
Because we have precious little information about Paul's family of origin and because social structures and status indicators in Greco-Roman antiquity differ considerably from those in contemporary Western cultures, trying to pinpoint Paul's socioeconomic status in today's terms is a tall order. Paul's letters indicate that he was a relatively well-educated and remarkably well-traveled artisan-apostle, who was vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a mobile existence. It may be that prior to becoming a Jesus-follower Paul had achieved some degree of social and/or economic status (Gal 1:14). Perhaps Paul had such markers of success in mind when he states that he had lost all things because of his commitment to Jesus as Lord (Phil 3:8).
It may also be that Paul was married prior to the time that he wrote 1 Corinthians in the mid-50s. In that letter, he indicates he was not married (7:7, 9, 38, 40; 9:4). Some scholars have noted, however, that Paul employs the term agamoi, which may be rendered "widowers," in 1 Cor 7:8 and suggest that the apostle included himself among that group. If Paul were at one time married, this would coincide with Jewish traditions that praised and even stipulated marriage. Such an expectation was probably present among Pharisaic Jews in the first century. As a result, Paul might well have thought it both appropriate and prudent to marry.
Paul's Persecutory Activity
Paul's opposition to Jesus-followers. Although uncertainty marks our inquiry into the early Paul, of this we may be sure — prior to his revelatory encounter with Christ en route to or in Damascus, Paul sought to oppose the church. Paul does not speak frequently or fully about his persecutory activity in his letters, but the passing, retrospective comments he does make allow us some insight into this part of his past.
To begin, in Gal 1:13 Paul describes the action that he took against the "church of God" as ardent persecution intent on destruction (see also 1:23). He does not indicate how he sought to destroy the faith, but the intensity of Paul's language in this verse suggests that he would have taken both sanctioned and unsanctioned action against Jesus-followers. Even though some scholars suspect that Acts dramatizes and formalizes aspects of Saul's persecutory activity, Paul himself reports that during the course of his apostolic ministry he received the maximum number of strokes from synagogal authorities on no less than five occasions (2 Cor 11:24), was driven out of one location by Jewish opposition (1 Thess 2:15), and felt himself consistently endangered by his fellow Jews (2 Cor 11:26; see also Rom 15:31). It may also be that the stoning of which Paul speaks in 2 Cor 11:25 came at the hands of his Jewish compatriots (see also Acts 14:19; 2 Tim 4:11). Paul's apostolic experience of Jewish opposition to which he refers in his letters may well illustrate his own persecution of Jesus-followers before he became one.
From what we can now determine, Paul would have "pulled out all the stops" to thwart "the church of God," which Paul repeatedly identifies as the object of his violent opposition (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6). He would have used formal means (e.g., synagogal discipline) and informal means (e.g., mob violence) to effect the obliteration of Jesus groups.
That Paul was an ardent opponent of believers before his conversion/call is suggested not only by the ongoing regret (guilt?) he experienced over his persecuting past (1 Cor 15:9; see also 1 Tim 1:12 — 17), but also by what Judean churches were reportedly hearing about Paul a number of years after he had encountered Christ: "The man who formerly persecuted us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy" (Gal 1:23).
Where did Paul persecute Jesus-followers? In Gal 1:22 Paul indicates that Judean Jesus-followers did not know him by sight for some ten to fifteen years after his Damascus experience. This comment has led some scholars to conclude, in contrast to Acts 8:3; 9:1 — 2, that Paul did not persecute Jesus-followers in Jerusalem. Before dismissing this particular Lukan claim out of hand, however, a few comments are in order.
Excerpted from Thinking through Paul by Bruce W. Longenecker, Todd D. Still. Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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