Studying the Letters of the Apostle Paul – Overview

The Man, his Ministry of Letters and the Message for Us
Paul's Missionary Journey's Map

The newest class of members of Skyline United Methodist Church, located in Pike Creek, DE (near Wilmington DE) have challenged themselves to read Paul’s Letters this summer.

Our intention is to grow in our own faith by looking at published letters of the 1st century apostle Paul from whom the Christian Church has inherited fundamentals of theology and polity that has fed multiple denominations of Christ followers.

Here is a quick link to Paul’s journeys in the 1st century. Paul converted from a zealous Greek Jew to a zealous follower of Jesus in 35AD.

Originally known as Saul of Tarsus (Hebrew: שאול התרסי‎;Greek: Σαῦλος Ταρσεύς Saulos Tarseus), was an apostle of Jesus (though not one of the first Twelve Apostles) who taught the gospel of Christ to the first-century world. Paul darker skinHe is generally considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age. In the mid-30s to the mid-50s, he founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. Paul used his status as both a Jew and a Roman citizen to advantage in his ministry to both Jewish and Roman audiences. (Thanks Wikipedia)

The books of the Bible attributed to the apostle Paul are not books, as we know them today, but were letters written in early Christian history, between 50-60CE (some scholars consider later dates but note that some are attributed to Paul but likely written by others in his name).

Reading these letters, in any time frame since the one they were written in, involves reading someone’s interpretation/translation from the original ancient Greek style of writing. Different scholars, editors and publishers may use different words of phrases. Some phrases and concepts simply cannot be adequately expressed in a foreign language (such as 21st century American).

In General here are some basic questions to ask while reading any historical document:  ‘who wrote it’, ‘when was it written’ for whom was it written, what was the aim of the author in writing this, is the author male or female, what kind of text is it, is this a report of a dream or fantasy, is it autobiographical, how was the message received by its audience, are the author and the speaker in the passage the same person, etc.

Patrick Gray, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhoades College, and author of Opening Paul’s Letters, suggests we organize our study of Paul’s letter and ask questions through the lenses of three categories:
1) the world behind the text (history, culture, society, politics, literary traits and religion)
2) the world of the text (the literary, aesthetic and structural characteristics of the author’s work)
3) the world in front of the text (what takes place when one reads, between the words on the page and the ‘real” readers throughout history who engage it.

“Paul’s letters are filled with obscure, ambiguous and confusing statements.  It is possible to treat Paul’s letters like picnic or potluck dinners; the author brings the words and the reader brings the meanings.  Readers often attempt to reconcile or account for discrepancies.” (Opening Paul’s Letters, Gray, 7-8).

Make note of historical and chronological items in your reading.  Identify theological or thematic approaches that clarify or enhance ideas or themes (either within one letter or as an overarching theme for all the letters).

Yung Suk Kim, author of A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters, suggests another lens to view Paul’s writings.  “Paul’s theology”, Kim writes, “can be informed by who God is, who Christ (Messiah) is and who the believer is” (Kim, x). He quotes Paul’s Romans 1:19
“Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made”
to show that, for Paul, the way of salvation for humanity was to live up to God’s law through the example of Christ’s life and death.” (Kim, 2).


who question with magnifying glassPaul (formerly known as Saul) of Tarsus

Jews and Romans and Christians, Oh My! Dorothy Wizard of Oz  Oh My

 Sometimes the encounter between the Jews who were Jesus’ first followers and the Greco-Roman world is quite explicit, as when Paul reminds the centurion about to flog him that he has certain legal rights as a Roman citizen. Articulating a new faith, Paul and his readers are engaged in the process of creating a distinctively Christian identity. Christian identity is formed from preexisting elements in the cultural contexts of those who had converted, Jew and gentile alike (Gray, 22-23).

To appreciate Paul’s Jewish background, you have to realize that Jewish life and thought continued to thrive during the so-called inter-testamental period between the time of Nehemiah and the last of the bible prophets (ca 400 BCE) and the birth of Jesus. Intertestamental timeline

Many Christian have a biblical canon that does not include books such as Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, 1-2 Enoch, Apocalypse of Abraham and Ascension of Isaiah. But, Jewish diversity flourished in literature, politics as well as theology. There were four main sects of Judaism each with their own sensibility and position regarding institutions and ideas: Land, covenant, law and temple, interpretation and in their unique adaptations of Mosaic law.

The four sects within Judaism in Paul’s time were: Pharasees were interested in Mosaic law as it related to all areas of life. The Sadducees were associated with Temple activities in Jerusalem, and often seen as overly friendly with the Roman overlords.  The Essenes were an austere community in the desert at Qumran near the Dead Sea.  The Zealots wanted to throw off the Roman yoke by military means (Gray 24-25).  Paul likely identified with the Pharisees given his preoccupation with the role of the law in his letters.

pharisee costumePharisee  SaduceeSaducee

 Qumran community of the Essenes

Ancient Jewish Zealot relief Jewish Zealots

Diaspora Jews who were spread out across the Mediterranean during the first Temple’s Destruction in Jerusalem, and who outnumbered the Jews left in Palestine, strove to keep their strict moral code and old customs, garnering prejudice from their neighbors. Their non-Jew countrymen saw them as insular and having bizarre food restrictions as well as being loyal to a foreign entity (Jerusalem) and their barbaric practice of circumcising infant males.

Paul’s ministry was conducted mostly in the Diaspora with regular contact with Jerusalem and Jewish Christian groups there. The Christian faith found in Paul’s letters is born out of a Judaism that had been immersed in Greek and Roman cultures for centuries. The impact of Roman rule on Jewish life was a mixed bag of heavy taxation, loss of political self-determination, slavery and military occupation and good roads, aqueducts, sanitation, wine, medicine, education, irrigation, public order and peace.  So, life under Roman occupation was complicated. (Gray, 26-27). The Romans didn’t get bogged down in the internal Jewish disputes about ht elaw and other matters and; they saw Christianity as a subset of Judaism so they ignored it.

Paul’s World – Social Relationships

Before your interpret the texts of Paul’s letters, you should know a thing or two about 1st century Palestine…under Roman occupation.

Paul the ApostleSocial Relations in the Greco-Roman was prioritized by 1) members of the same household/family, 2) friends, and 3) patrons and clients. Adoption of males was common in ancient Greece and Rome to carry on the family name and proper disposition of the father’s estate in this patriarchal society.  Read Romans 8:12-25; 9:4 or Galatians 4:1-7 for some legalese Ancient Roman-style.  Friends have all things in common; a friend is a ‘second self’. See Philemon 1:27; 2:2-5 for Paul’s exhortation to his Philippian friends to stand firm “in one mind…with one spirit”.

Patrons and clients are relationships in a hierarchical system of social life. A patron was an individual in a position of superiority vis-à-vis another individual.  A client was in a subordinate position.  Everyone was a patron or client, except slaves who had no paying clients and the Emperor who had no patron since he was, well, the Emperor.  Clients owed their patron honor and respect; Patrons used their power and influence to protect the client’s interests, helping them network as we’d say today or loaning them money. Check out Romans 16:1-2 to hear about Paul’s female patron, Phoebe; also see 1 Corinthians 16:15-18 (Gray 32-33).

Because Paul’s background was so common it is often unstated, yet it’s important to bear in mind so as not to incorrectly characterize his prejudices and exhortations.   He is sometimes seen as anti-Semitic, but; as a Jew himself his doesn’t need to write about the places where he and his Jewish opponents agree. Rather he points out where they disagree, particularly their divergence in Jesus’ significance (Gray 33).

Clearly Paul and his contemporary Pharisees have different views of Jesus’ significance (Gray 33). But, much of Paul’s language in his letters is within normal bounds of intra-Jewish theological debates in the first century. We have to remember to read Paul through the cultural lenses of 1st century Palestine (Gray 34).