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.
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.