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).

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