Paul: A Citizen of Two Cities

When John Polhill calls Paul a “citizen of two cities” he is of course referring to Tarsus and Jerusalem (Paul and his Letters, 5). He has in mind Acts 21:39 where Paul claims both Greco-Roman and Jewish heritage.  In the first chapter of N. T. Wright’s Paul: A Fresh Perspective Paul is described as living in three worlds, Greek, Roman and Jewish.  As a Roman citizen Paul was certainly part of the Greco-Roman world, but he was also educated in Jerusalem and “zealous for the Law.” These two worlds seem incompatible, part of the “secular” world of Rome and yet also a conservative, traditional Jew.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria

Paul is a representative of Diaspora Judaism. Diaspora is a term applied to Jews who were living outside of Palestine, they were dispersed throughout the world, Babylon and Egypt from the captivity, but nearly every major city had a colony of Jews living in it.  Because they lived far from Jerusalem, the temple as no longer the center of their religion, the synagogue was.  It was in the synagogue that the studied the Torah and worshiped on the Sabbath.  The synagogue was the educational center for young Jews and a social support system for the Jewish community in a town.

Jews living in the Second Temple Period struggled with just how far they should go in assimilating into Greek culture.  This process of Hellenization varied from community to community, perhaps even family to family.  There is a difference between speaking Greek in order to do business with Gentiles and eating with them, ignoring food traditions.

All Jews were in some ways Hellenized, even those living in Jerusalem.   John Barclay studied Jewish documents from Diaspora communities developed three areas of Hellenization found in the Diaspora:

  • Assimilation.  How successfully has a Jew become integrated into the dominant culture?  On the low end, someone who stays within a Jewish neighborhood and has no contact with gentiles, in the middle, someone who has daily business contact with gentiles but maintains the “boundary markers”, at the high end Jews who have abandon those markers.  There are relatively few Jews at the high end, although some reversed circumcision or became a part of a pagan cult.
  • Acculturation.  To what degree does a Jew internalize the dominant culture? At the low end, a Jew might have no knowledge of Greek, while in the middle of the scale there is a use of Greek and basic familiarity with Greco-Roman ethics and culture.  At the high end, a Jew who understands and uses the literature and rhetoric of the Greco-Roman world and has a mastery of the Greek language.
  • Accommodation.  This measures the extent to which a Jew puts to use their acculturation. On one end of this scale, a Jew might reject Gentile culture entirely. On the other end of the scale, a Jew might completely embrace the Greco-Roman world and drop all of the markers which set them apart as Jews. Perhaps the Essenes represent the far end of this continuum since they attempted to live separate from any type of uncleanliness. Philo and his brother Alexander might represent the other end of the scale since they participated in every level of society in Alexandria, Egypt. Philo attempted to present his Jewish heritage in categories that would be most acceptable to the Greek philosophical world.

The issues raised here resonate throughout Paul’s letters.  The earliest Gentile believers who were completely Greco-Roman struggled to integrate their new status of “in Christ” into their ethical and moral decisions.  On the other extreme, Jewish converts struggle with Paul’s broadly Hellenized Gospel which did not require the Law for Gentile converts.

Since Paul claimed to be both a Roman citizen and a Jewish Pharisee in Acts 21, where does he fit into this scale? In other words, how “Hellenized” was Paul? Is it at least possible to detect some movement along this scale of Hellenization from “early Paul” to later?

Bibliography: John Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.

21 thoughts on “Paul: A Citizen of Two Cities

  1. When we first encounter Paul in the New Testament, Luke writes that he, “was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). In other words, we meet Paul, the zealous Jewish Pharisee, who’s main mission was to wipe out Christianity. With no more knowledge of him we would be brought to think that he is the lowest end of the scale of hellenization. In fact, Polhill states, “whether through law or worship or whatever, religion often becomes a human endeavor to reach God. For Paul, the only true encounter comes when God first reaches out to us. He could not see his former Pharisaic faith as wrongheaded” (Polhill, 29). It isn’t until later that we learn that Paul, is also a Roman citizen, a Greek himself, by birth or his family’s military service (Polhill, 16).
    When looking at the above scale, according to John Barclay, Paul, although he did not reverse circumcision or join a pagan cult, he would be on the high end of assimilation because he converted to Christianity later on in his life (found in Acts 9:1-9). He gave up much of his Jewish heritage, except that which is profitable and foundational for the Christian faith also, such as knowledge of the Torah (or rather the entirety of the Old Testament). His knowledge alone of Judaism, assisted him in reaching the Jews with the knowledge and love of Christ and allowed him to call out those religious leaders who condemned the acts of Christians.
    Within acculturation, Paul, again, would be placed at the high end of the scale, because he was thoroughly aware of and able to to use the Greek language and knew the Greek traditions. Being born a Roman and having lived in Tarsus, Paul was immersed in the Hellenistic culture and thus, was adequate for the job of ministering to the Gentiles. Acts 10, speaks of the first Gentile converts to Christianity, Cornelius and the eunuch. This makes me puzzle about how acculturated we should be with the world today. Like Paul, it is important to understand and be able to converse with the culture around us, but it is also important that one acts according to the Word of God. (Romans 12:2, is an example of this).
    Lastly, Paul would be in the middle of the scale of accommodation. He understood and used Greek and the Greek culture, however, he did not act on hellenism. He did not accept the Greek culture as that which was supreme and join in pagan worship. He used his knowledge to combat the fallacies in the Jewish religion and in pagan worship. Yet he was not the opposite with rejecting the Greek culture either. Paul was the prime example of “being in the world, but not of the world,” so to speak. Paul, with his Roman citizenship and Jewish background, was the perfect tool for God to use to begin his restoration of the world to himself through the ministering to of Gentiles and Jews alike.

    (Post for Polhill, Ch. 1-4)

  2. In Acts 8:1-3 we met the early Paul, and what the early Paul would do. Reading that scripture we could tell that early Paul would have been on the low end of the Hellenistic scale. It wasn’t until Acts 9 that the scale moves for Paul. Under assimilation, Paul would be on the high end. Even though he was circumcised, and he wasn’t part of a pagan cult. For acculturation once again Paul would be on the high end. John Polhill says, “His literary skills are beyond question, as demonstrated in his letters. They are written in a fluent, educated Greek” (Polhill 10). Accommodation Paul would be right in the middle of the scale. He wasn’t fully into the Greek Culture yet he wasn’t fully into the Jewish Culture either. Paul was a Roman Citizen and Jewish, but he was never on one side or the other.

  3. Saul in acts starts off with a lower sides of assimilation in Greek culture as a pharisee. A man breathing out murderous threats against Christians because they blasphemed the One True God is far from the Greek norm. Greek culture such as mars hill was about learning other ideas, understanding them, and growing as a collective Saul starts to shut down this new “the way” that sprang up claiming to know the one true God. its not to after his conversion do we see Paul who is all things to all people he starts to show more Greek assimilation in his thoughts and actions. As Paul goes on his conversion and learning we see a new side maybe one that lay dormant from living in a whole different culture besides the Jewish culture and the two worlds seem to come out and cause a bit of conflict in him. Paul continues to become accommodating the more he seems out being all things so when hes with those under the law he acts as one under, when hes with the ones free of the law he acts in a way to reach them, if he is with a roman he shows respect to his Caesar.

  4. During Saul’s early career, it is clear that he is low on the scale of Assimilation, which we can see in Acts 7 during the stoning of Stephen, along with Acts 8:1-3. Saul does not assimilate at this time into Hellenistic culture as he considers himself to be a devout Jew and a Pharisee. After Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, he begins to move higher on the assimilation scale, as he understands his calling to reach the Gentiles through the Holy Spirit. Paul seems to fall somewhere on the higher end of the middle scale of acculturation, which is reflected in his writing and argument style. He also consistently cited Scripture from the Greek translation of the scripture, the Septuagint (Polhill, 9). Finally, I would place Paul on the higher end of the accommodation scale. Although he first tries to bring the Gospel to the Jews, he does not neglect to also bring it to the Gentiles. Acts 13:47 Paul understands his mission that he is to be a light to the Gentiles, so that he may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. Because of this, Paul is highly accommodating, as this was necessarily in his mission of gaining Gentiles for Christ. With all of these factors in mind, I do believe Paul becomes more Hellenized throughout his life after his conversion as this was a necessary step in bringing the message to the Gentiles.

  5. For assimilation, Paul is on the high end because he cared for and had daily interaction with Gentiles but not in the sense that he abandoned the markers of Judaism and reversed circumcision. For acculturation, Paul is also on the high end because he had very good knowledge of the Greek world and language. Paul is in the middle of the scale for accommodation because he embraced Gentile culture, but he still acknowledged some of his Jewish culture and heritage. Regarding all of the previous statements, it is interesting to me how God arranged things in Paul’s life, especially his earlier life, that played a major role in who Paul was, how he lived, and how it helped further God’s kingdom. For example, Paul living in Tarsus but also among Diaspora Jews, helped him learn not only the Pentateuch and other Jewish teachings, but also the Greek language and culture. Polhill says, “One thing was certain: he learned his Greek Bible well… Of course, Paul ministered among Jews and Gentiles outside Palestine for whom Greek would have been their primary language… He had probably first become acquainted with it in Tarsus” (Polhill 9). A good example of when Paul used his Greek background as well as his Jewish heritage is in Acts 18:3-4, “and because he (Paul) was a tentmaker as they (Aquila and Priscilla) were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.”

  6. I believe that Saul’s Assimilation would be on the lower end of the scale. It is evident that during this time he does claim to be a devout Jew. Therefore, during this time he would completely reject the Gentiles, and their way of living and culture. I believe that it isn’t until after the blinding on the way to Damascus that he really turns around, and begins to reach out to the Gentiles and begins to partially accept parts of their culture. It is then in Acts 9, after his conversion that he moves, not only up the assimilation scale, but also the acculturation. Throughout the the scriptures, and Paul’s letters, you can see an increase in his letters and style of writing in the scriptures. As far as the accommodation scale goes, I would place Paul on the higher end of that scale, but once again, only after his conversion. After his conversion he was very much set on reaching out to all of the lost including the Gentiles. He realizes that he needs to reach out to those who need the Lord including Jews or Gentiles. I do believe, after reading from Polhill, Acts, and also by looking at the factors above that Paul, throughout his life does become more Hellenized. In order to do his work for the Lord, and reach out to the Jews, as well as the Gentiles, he needed to become more Hellenized.

  7. I really like how you pointed out how Saul’s Assimilation would be on the lower end of the scale. It is evident that during this time he does claim to be a devout Jew. Therefore, during this time he would completely reject the Gentiles, and their way of living and culture. I believe that it isn’t until after the blinding on the way to Damascus that he really turns around, and begins to reach out to the Gentiles and begins to partially accept parts of their culture. It is then in Acts 9, after his conversion that he moves, not only up the assimilation scale, but also the acculturation. Throughout the the scriptures, and Paul’s letters, you can see an increase in his letters and style of writing in the scriptures. As far as the accommodation scale goes, I would place Paul on the higher end of that scale, but once again, only after his conversion. After his conversion he was very much set on reaching out to all of the lost including the Gentiles. He realizes that he needs to reach out to those who need the Lord including Jews or Gentiles. I do believe, after reading from Polhill, Acts, and also by looking at the factors above that Paul, throughout his life does become more Hellenized. In order to do his work for the Lord, and reach out to the Jews, as well as the Gentiles, he needed to become more Hellenized.

  8. Whenever one nation conquers another, a subsequent cultural battle often occurs. The conquering civilization usually pushes its own culture onto the defeated populace as a safeguard against local uprisings. However, people are usually not too keen on giving up their way of life, and fight to preserve their culture.
    As a Jew in the first century A.D., Paul was all too familiar with this cultural conflict. Paul was raised and taught by Jews, in cities conquered by Romans, in a part of the world that was dominated by Greek culture. All three groups influenced Paul to a varying degree throughout his life. During his upbringing and time as a devoted Pharisee, Paul would have held strongly to his Hebrew heritage. Although certainly influenced by Hellenism, he would be considered on the lower end of the spectrum. All of this changed after Paul was converted and dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel. While one might argue that with his abandonment of Jewish tradition and acceptance of the Gentile people, Paul had now become much more Hellenized, I would go as far as to say that Paul gave up his cultural ties altogether. Now, Paul used what he knew about various cultures to lead all kinds of people to Christ. Each of Paul’s past cultural identities “contributed to the success of his mission to the Gentiles” (Polhill, 6). Paul himself states that he became “all things to all men, so that [he] may by all means save some” (1Cor 9:22). Paul understood that he was no longer part of the earthly system, rather, his citizenship was in heaven (Phil 3:20). Like Paul, we should not let cultural ties interfere with our mission to share the Gospel.

  9. It is easy to see in Acts chapters 7-8 that Saul the pharisee is far from the high end of assimilation. His bitterness and resentment towards the concept of Christianity shows where his heart stood amongst various teachings. After Saul’s transformation in Acts 9, we find that Paul begins to use his education in Greek culture in his ministry. He follows through with his “hypothesis” and becomes all things to all men (1Cor. 9:19-23). He is able to effectively evangelize to those under the law, helping them to understand the concept of Christianity as a whole,while using Greek analogies and imagery. This puts Paul on the high end of the accommodation scale; being willing to share the Gospel among Jews AND Gentiles. For Paul internally, it is not quite prevalent to us which culture he chooses to embrace more. I wouldn’t consider the question to be irrelevant, though Paul doesn’t find his identity through his cultural background. His identity is in Christ which is what he is ministering about in the first place. It is evident though that Paul does embrace more of a Hellenistic perspective and approach when it comes to sharing the Gospel with Gentiles especially.

  10. It is interesting to see the shift that Paul goes through when we examine his life. He started out a devout Jew and a “Hebrew of Heberews” as he called himself, but he never fully forsook that identity even with his conversion. I do believe that he started out with more “boundaries” and resisted assimilation more before he was converted to Christianity, and that he indeed held his Jewish heritage in high regard, but he still was a Roman citizen and I think was in the middle of the road in terms of the assimilation scale. After his conversion I think he did assimilate more of the Greek culture so that he could be a more effective representative for Christ. We see this in some of his writings to the church where he makes references and writes in ways that fall well within sayings and knowledge of Greek culture in order that he could in fact become all things to all people and relate to his audience as Steve pointed out. Paul was a very effective and passionate communicator when it came to educating people about Christ, he held strong to his ties as a Jew, but he also saw the importance to relating to others in the culture that was around him. We can learn much from how he utilized all of his identities and combined them together in order to preach the gospel clearly.

  11. I believe that Paul’s assimilation would be on the low end of the Hellenistic scale. Paul does claim to be a Jew and does claim to hold it close to one of his roots. Paul was at first more concerned with the Jews and their way of life and that being the only way of life but after his conversion however, is when he turns to reach all the gentiles and bring the Gospel message to them. He then moves on the assimilation scale to the high end because of his focus and ministry after his conversion. After his conversion, he converts more and accepts more of the culture of the Gentiles in order to reach them. I would put Paul on the higher end of acculturation as well after his conversion and when he starts preaching the Gospel to both the Jews and the Gentiles. I don’t think that Paul is on either end of the Accommodation scale because he never fully adopted the Greek culture and he also never completely professed that he was completely into the Jewish culture. He had learned to keep both of them at an equal point so that he could reach people in either culture.

  12. I would say that Paul is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. At the beginning of Polhill chapter one he talks about “Paul’s self-identification on all three accounts”. Maybe unintentionally he uses wording that, in my opinion, perfectly describes Paul’s assimilation into the three cultures influencing him. Polhill talks about how Paul speaks fluent greek. But, Paul not only speaks the language fluently, he speaks the culture fluently, he know how to talk to the greek people because he understands them.

    The second of Paul’s three cultural influences, is his Jewish heritage. I think that Paul’s emphasis of this heritage is fully to help with communication in a religious way. While Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles, he was not at all willing to alienate the Jews by not trying to relate to them. So, he makes sure that they understand that he never forsook his upbringing in Judaism, and so keeps them on his side.

    Then, on the other side of then, when “push comes to shove” Paul was forced to appeal to his Roman citizenship. I would say that Paul actually describes his assimilation perfectly in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people”. I would say that it is not so much a matter of which culture Paul is assimilated to, but rather it is the fact that Paul used whatever means available to minister. Paul says, again in 1 Corinthians 9, that he does “all this for the sake of the gospel”.

  13. I may be slightly confused, but you basically worded the question “how hellenized did Paul appear to be, claiming to be both Roman and Jew?” However, hellenization is the influence of Greek culture, not Roman or Jewish culture. That being said, I’m probably just misunderstood.
    Paul does tend to sit on the higher side of hellenization in assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation. Paul clearly assimilated with Greeks, as one who spent almost his entire Christian career bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. Growing up in Tarsus, it seems like his education was also quite influenced by the Greeks, leading him to a pretty high acculturation as well. As far as accommodation, or putting his acculturation to use, Paul clearly uses a classic Stoic-sytle argument in Romans 6:1 when he asks a seemingly rhetorical question and then answers it himself to further his argument (Polhill 14).
    Although Paul clearly had Jewish influence, I would argue that it is impossible to bring the Gospel anywhere without first learning and becoming part of that culture. For that reason, Paul, a teacher to the Gentiles, a heavily Greek culture, couldn’t possibly have been effective without being fairly high on all three scales of assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation.

    • Good point, but at this point in history think of “Greco-Roman” culture. Rome absorbs Greek culture to the point that there is little difference.

  14. In terms of assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation, Paul integrated his Jewish culture into the dominant culture to a higher end. It seems in Philippians 3 that Paul is dedicated to doing whatever is necessary to win others to Christ. Paul claimed to be both a Roman citizen and a Jewish Pharisee, and it seems that he was very “Hellenized” in a way where others may have questioned where his true loyalties lay. In early Acts (7-9) Saul (Paul) seems to be very strong in his Jewish culture as he studied with Gamaliel as well as became a Pharisee-an extremely zealous one at that. However, it seems that when he encountered God on his way to Damascus, he began to become more “Hellenized” as he realized that cultural boundaries were important, but winning others for Christ was the most important. It seems that Paul did respect and follow the Law, but it did not dictate every area of his life if it contradicted or got in the way of Christ’s message of grace.

  15. Paul is a unique case because I believe it is hard to fit him into a certain category on the scale. This is because Paul was culturally aware of the people that he was ministering to. He knew both the Roman and Greek cultures well enough that he could use what was important to them and their cultural values so that he could better relate to the people. Just as Polhill mentions Paul was able to utilize his knowledge of all three identities to more properly influence those he was associating with (Paul and His Letters, 5). In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 we see an example of how Paul uses his cultural knowledge to save people without changing his core beliefs. It says in verse 22, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”. It’s hard to say that he was exactly one or the other on the scale, because he changed culturally from situation to situation.

    • Very good, Aubree. Paul is certainly unique, and “all things to all men” certainly describes a great deal of what Paul does in his ministry – but how far would he take “all things”? Would he break Jewish food taboos in order to reach Gentiles?

  16. So where is Paul on the continuum between Extremely Hellenized and Extremely Pharisaic? He is definitely a “become all things to all men” sort of man (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). God did an extremely amazing feat, when he changed and grew Saul (the murderous prosecutor of Christians) into Paul (a man of stunning an ground breaking ministry). One can either choose to ride the fence on Paul and say he was perfectly balanced or choose a side, and then say that he was A Jewish Pharisee or Hellenistic Greek till the end. When reading Polhill between pages 35-37 I had no idea that Paul “raised havoc” (portheo) and one of the possible reason he raised havoc against Christians is speculated to be because they criticized the law (like Stephen) that he was so zealously for (Polhill 38). From this news I obviously turned, from my previous decision to see Paul as a die hard Hellenistic Greek. When I re-read chapter 1 of Polhill I saw that Paul “held his own with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the Athenian marketplace” Acts 17:16-21 (Polhill 13). Paul also had Roman citizenship, which was so rare then, that even government officials, high ranked military personnel and wealthy people did have the status Paul did. When I look at Paul’s life as a whole for whatever reason I want to see Paul as mainly a Hellenistic man following some principles of good-ole fashioned Jewish teaching. But in the end I had to see him for what he really was. Paul is a zealous Pharisaic Jew, who’s bag of tricks includes a repertoire of very impressive amount of intellectual knowledge of Greek language and culture allowing him to meet Jew or Gentile at a very relatable level.

  17. Many of us experience what the apostle Paul lived through—cultural influence. Just as most of us here in America are products of Greek/Roman culture, so was Paul a part of this Greco-Roman effect. Therefore, it is possible to make a case that Paul stood towards the middle to high end of the scale when it came to assimilation. Paul understood the boundaries that were drawn out for him, 1. Out of his Jew heritage and 2. After his conversion in Acts 1:1-19. Nowhere throughout Paul’s epistles can you sense him fully engulfing into the civilization of the Roman’s, however he is apostle to the Gentiles (Eph. 3:1).
    Again, it is possible to make a similar argument to Paul’s acculturation in the dominant culture. In essence, Paul, although receiving most of his education through a Jewish synagogue, it is important to remember that Paul was still continuously ensconced to the Greco-Roman world. If Paul (for some reason) acquired some sort of intuitive personality, he could have certainly understood the use of Greco-Roman rhetoric and literature. It is even recorded in Acts 17: 16-21 him debating with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.
    Within the lines of accommodation, Paul most definitely falls in the middle of the scale. His commitment and understanding of his role to fulfill the mission that Christ had bestowed on him, served as an impetus for him to reject the fallacies that revolved around the Greco-Roman world. Consequently, just as we experience the battle between the sacred and the secular in modern time (which just simply derives from Plato’s concept of form vs. matter), so did Paul have to combat this axiom. Basically, Paul replaced the solid line that divided the secular (Greco-Roman culture) and the sacred (Christ identity) with a more profound dotted line which allowed him to vacillate between both the secular and the sacred, without losing harmony in his relationship with God.

  18. the question, how Hellenized was Paul, I think that he was definitely in between. With Paul being Roman and Jewish, this gave him the ability to be able to reach both sections of people . In Acts 17 where Paul is preaching in Athens about the unknown god, he was familiar with what there culture was and know then how to speak to them. Rome was the culture of that time so Paul would have been very familiar with it. But on the other hand, Paul coming from a Jewish background also, he still knew there laws and was apart of that culture also. It is amazing to see Paul so grounded to the Jewish law then switch to reaching out to all people in such a dramatic transformation.

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