In his short book What St. Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), on Paul, N. T. Wright suggests all interpreters of Paul must place Paul in the history of first century religion. In other words, what are Paul’s influences? In his medium-size book Paul A Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2005), Wright suggest Paul inhabits three or four different worlds, he is a Jewish rabbi, but one who was raised in a Greek environment and is trying to reach a Roman world with the Gospel. The fourth worldview is his new faith in Jesus as messiah and all that entails. Paul understands the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds through the lens of Christianity.
In his most recent and mind-bogglingly huge book on Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013) works this out over the first 569 pages of the book arguing that Paul is a deeply coherent thinker who was personally called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles, a role that is unique to him (563) and forced him to work out a theology which is different from the Judaism as he formerly understood it, yet surprisingly similar in other ways (567). But this theology is also up to the task of challenging the pagan world of the Greco-Roman philosopher and “street level pagan.”
Although I would two combine these into Greco-Roman making three worldviews, this is helpful for understanding Paul. By privileging one of the three worldviews we will end up with a stunted view of Paul. For some Paul is too Greco-Roman, he is creating theology by stealing from the mystery cults. For others, he is so Jewish he is more like a second Temple period reformer. It is possible to make Paul too Christian by importing into Paul’s theology elements of later Christian debates about developing theology.
It is possible to see Paul as more influence by one of the three, but is this necessarily a bad thing? For example, was Paul more influenced by his Jewish heritage, or did he embrace the Greco-Roman world order to fulfill his commission as the apostle to the Gentiles? Did he completely turn his back on Judaism after he encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, or did he interpret his Jewish faith through a new lens, that of a suffering and resurrected messiah?
In her provocatively titled 2009 book Paul was not a Christian (Harper One, 2009) Pamela Eisenbaum argues Paul is best understood in a Jewish context. For Eisenbaum Paul’s letters are only Christian because Christians chose to canonize them. There are not many distinctly “Christian” elements in the Paul’s letters. In fact, Paul is concerned with how other Jews understand a particular messianic claim (namely, that Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah). Although I am not at all persuaded by the book (obviously Paul was a Christian), but she does make the point that Paul is not a Christian in the sense that a post-Reformation follower of Jesus is a Christian. I doubt Paul would fit in at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society or the Southern Baptist Convention.
This could be said for “Paul was a complete Hellenist.” There are some less-than-academic books arguing Paul borrowed heavily from the Mithras cult or other mystery cults, but this has been more or less dismissed by serious Pauline scholars. More interesting is Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Westminster John Knox, 2000). This book is an attempt to compare Paul’s letters to contemporary Stoic writers. Although there are certainly parallels between Paul and popular Stoic writers of his day, it seems unlikely Paul would be mistaken for Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.
When reading Paul it is therefore important to keep all three worldviews in mind. He really does have a foot in all three words, or perhaps better, he understands both his Jewish heritage and his Greco-Roman world through the lens of the crucified and resurrection messiah.
What are some other examples of Paul’s thought which may lean toward Second Temple Judaism or Hellenistic philosophy? Is it possible to maintain a balance between these two poles? Or to put this another way, how radical is Paul’s vision of Jesus? How thorough is his rethinking of the Judaism of his day? To what extent does his view of Jesus require him to absolutely reject the culture of the Greco-Roman world?
11 thoughts on “Where Do We Find Paul’s Influences?”
Paul was influenced by four different worldviews, as explained by P. Long, such as his Jewish training, growing up in a Greek dominated culture, seeking to reach the Roman world with the gospel, seeing all these through the perspective of his commission and encounter with Christ. That commission obviously being that which is his commission to be a light to the gentiles (Acts 13:47, 22:21, 26:23). P. Long leaves us on a cliff hanger, asking if it is possible to find a balance between Paul’s influences of his Jewish training and growing up in a Greek culture. That answer that question simply, yes. And here is why; Paul writes in verses 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 that to the Jews he became a Jew, to those under the law he became under the law, to those who do not have the law he became like one without the law, and to the weak he became weak. Specifically, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 that he has become all things to all people so that he may accomplish his commission. He concludes in verse 23 that he does all this for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of being a light to all people. So yes, there is a balance between Paul’s influences in context of his Judaism and Hellenism influences. Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still write in Thinking Through Paul that Paul was most likely a dual citizen of both Rome and Tarsus and that, in their view, Paul did train under Gamaliel (Longenecker, Still, Pg. 25-26). This shows the great influence both Judaism and Hellenism had upon Paul. However, as we see in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul puts all things aside for the sake of his newfound perspective and influence of Christ. After all, we see a complete life change after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). From persecutor to the greatest missionary of all time, Paul had a complete life transformer during his encounter with Christ. Because of this dramatic life transformation, I do not see it unreasonable to assume Paul was most influenced by his newfound perspective and thus was less influenced by Judaism or Hellenism in comparison. Paul was a balanced man who was influenced both by his Jewish training and growing up in a Hellenistic culture however Paul’s greatest influence will always be Christ. Paul did not convert or leave his Jewish heritage and training, nor did he reject his Roman citizenship but instead Paul used both as tools by which he was able to fulfill the commission Christ gave him.
Paul’s influences came from his dual citizenship of his Jewish origin and Hellenism, to his Pharisee training, and to his encounter with Christ. Originally Paul’s name was Saul from his Jewish origin, but his Roman name translated as Paul. According to Longenecker and Still, Paul was trained under Gamaliel, who was of Pharisaic Judaism (p.26). Paul persecuted the Church from his Pharisaic influences. Paul says in Gal. 1:13, “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” (NIV). Paul killed many Christians including Stephen in Acts chapter seven, which was probably a pre-encounter influence to the conversion of Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus. After Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus his life was transformed and he was called to proclaim Christ. This is where I begin to answer the questions that P. Long asks in his final paragraph. How radical is Paul’s vision of Jesus and to what extent does Paul view Jesus to reject the Greco-Roman culture? Christ had began to influence Paul at the encounter. Paul views Jesus as the only way of life and radically, Paul was willing to give up anything for Christ such as, to be beaten, to go without food, sleep, etc… as 2 Cor. 11-25 mentions.
There is no doubt that Paul’s ministry was greatly influenced by what he witnessed while conducting his ministry. However, it is clear that Paul had numerous influences that would come to influence his ministry. According to our class lecture and notes, Paul’s influences came from a Hellenistic background, Jewish heritage Greco-Roman world, and a Christian worldview (Long, 2019). In essence, Paul had different encounters in different places that would come to influence how he would minister to those he was with. At the same time, Paul’s life would come to defined by his conversion, and acceptance of Jesus Christ. As stated in Galatians 1, where Paul returned and ministered to those persecuted in the past (NIV). More so, Paul most likely used his comprehensive knowledge of the different worldviews to gain a deeper understanding of congregates he worked with. Also, the common influence of Paul is Jesus Christ, and how he prepared a message that is centered around the Word, but also understanding the congregation with the delivery of the message. Bruce Longenecker asserts that Paul used different theological emphasis with each of his congregates (Longenecker, p. 31). At the end of the day, while Paul had numerous influences, it is transparent that he was able to use his knowledge of God’s Word and different cultures to the various spots of his ministry.
Paul’s writings make up a considerable portion of the New Testament, and therefore have a large impact on what we, as Christians believe today. As a result, it is important that we understand fully what Paul meant by his words, and the context in which the text was written; which includes the religious influences that Paul had experienced; whether Judaism, Christianity, or Hellenism. Regarding this topic, I would agree with what Dr. Long has discussed in his blog post, and I believe evidence of this can be found within scripture. We know from the book of Acts that Paul has at very least had exposure with all three of these influences even after being converted. In Acts chapter 9, Saul encounters Hellenists who he disputes and speaks out against, resulting in them seeking to kill him (Acts 9:29-30, ESV). Showing that though he may have been influenced by Hellenism, his views did not fully align with them. As to Paul’s overall Hellenistic influence would depend primarily on where he was born and where he received his education (Longenecker & Still, 2014). In Acts 13, Paul and those with him went on the Sabbath day to a synagogue and read from the “Law and the Prophets” (Acts 13:13-15, ESV). This text displays the influence of Judaism, from the mention of the Sabbath day, to spending time within a synagogue, and even reading from the Old Testament. Additionally, this is an example of Paul’s comfort among Jews; which could be a result of either his Jewish heritage, or his life as a pharisee prior to conversion (Longenecker & Still, 2014). Finally, we first understand Saul as someone who is dead-set on persecuting Christians, displaying his knowledge, (and hatred) of the Christian faith as described throughout Acts. However, In Acts 9 his perspective changes drastically when he meets God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:2) and begins to “proclaim Jesus in the synagogues” (Acts 9:19). In summation, though it is not completely clear to scholars, (or to me), which of the three influences had the greatest impact on the teaching and preaching of Paul, it can be seen that Paul encountered and was influenced by all three.
To ask where Paul received his influences from is a hard question to pinpoint. As we know from scripture and “ Thinking Through Paul” (TTP), Paul is a scholar that was raised in a place that had “earned a reputation as a place of culture and learning” (Longendecker, 23). Something many people know about scholars is that a joy of theirs is to study, observe, and interpret many different subjects that pertain to life and its many mysteries. While doing so, it is easy to take on the thoughts of others and become influenced by the research that they take on. Being a scholar, it is only natural that there were many things and people that Paul was influenced by. Other than that there are a few other factors that also play a part in the way people like Paul walk and talk. One of those factors would be parental influence. From the reading we learn that Paul’s father and mother were most likely Pharisees as Paul claims to be one (TTP 24). Something that is still true today is that sons would follow their father’s and learn the roles that they should step into. Meaning at an early age, Paul was learning the ways of a Pharisee and how they were a group of elite Jews. He was learning that the Pharisees believed themselves to be superior to others that did not follow the same laws and commands as they did and also did not have the same prestige as them. Then, as we learn Paul also has dual citizenship between Greece and Rome. So something to also take into account is the possibility of being influenced by these two different cultures. Another influence we can look at is his encounter with Christ himself on the road to Damascus. Just understanding how remarkable and pivotal of a moment this was for Paul is vital. I mean this is what made Saul convert to Paul in the first place. We can come to the conclusion that being a scholar, Jewish Pharisee, citizen of a Hellenistic ruled culture, and being known as someone who encountered Christ all plays a huge role in his teachings. Each of these moments and experiences shaped Paul into the Apostle that we study today.
Born in Tarsus and educated under Gamaliel, Paul had his share of diversity in his upbringing. This can be seen in the letters he wrote back to various churches around the Mediterranean. His Jewish background is evidenced by his extensive use of the Old Testament in his letters. In Romans alone, he references the Old Testament over 50 times. Clearly, Paul thought that understanding the Jewish Scriptures was pivotal for understanding the gospel of Christ.
Scholars debate several key points in Paul’s theology as originating from his Greek or Jewish background. One such point is Paul’s position on baptism. Paul could have taken the imagery of washing from a cult practice. When worshippers were initiated into the cult of Mithras they were washed in the blood of a bull (Long, 13). However, the idea of washing is also the cornerstone in Jewish sacrificial laws. The priests and the people had to wash to be ceremonially clean. In the same way, baptism symbolizes the washing away of sins so the believer is clean.
Paul modified some Greek ideas and completely rejected other aspects of the Greco-Roman culture. One example is the view of sexuality at that time. Prostitution was a widely accepted practice, especially in temple worship (Longenecker & Still, 2014, p. 63). Roman male citizens had the freedom to indulge their sexual desires. However, Paul strongly opposed this lifestyle. Instead, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:13 that our body “is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord.”
Paul, before he was Paul, was known to have such zeal for the Law that he made his life about persecuting Christians. He grew up in a strong Jewish household and he lived under the law throughout his childhood. I believe his upbringing, being taught the Law and living the Jewish life in a Hellenistic land influenced everything about him up until his encounter with Christ. I think Paul’s journey to Damascus was quite radical because it was the start of his life. Saul was a killer, he sought to bring an end to what he thought of as evil, that kind of behavior is hard to just out of the blue stop. After Paul’s revelation/call he was a completely different person. He had just learned that everything he had been taught about Jesus had been wrong, his zealous anger misplaced. I believe Paul’s upbringing of, as Bruce W. Longenecker puts it, dual citizenship (pg.25) was God’s way of preparing Paul for his call to ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 Paul writes, “To the Jews, I became a Jew… to the weak I become weak, to win the weak…” In the blog above, P. Long asks the question if Paul turned his back on Judaism and if he embraced his Greco-Roman surroundings. I think he saw his things in a new light after his encounter with Christ. He didn’t let go of that influence because it was what made his ministry so effective. As for the Greco-Roman world around him, he would have to embrace it in order to truly reach people in that life style. By showing love and trustworthiness is a way for people to open up and listen which can lead to understanding. With the influence of his Jewish background and Greco-Roman experiences, he was better prepared to share the Gospel to the Gentiles. With solely relying on Christ, Paul was able to balance his influence in different circumstances in order to better preach the Gospel to those in need of it.
It is important to recognize that Paul comes from a variety of different environments that can have an influence on his worldview. A few of these, like mentioned in the blog post, include that he was a Jewish Rabbi who was raised in a Greek environment. His audience for reaching the Gospel was to the Roman world though–as explained in Acts 28 where Paul spends several years in Rome. The last worldview is Paul’s belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Due to these variety of different environments Paul has encountered, he is understanding of the Jewish, Greek, and Roman worlds through the perspective of Christianity.
Paul was very familiar with Judaism before being called to preach for the Lord. Another religion/philosophy to be familiar with in order to understand Paul is Greco-Roman. There are various beliefs about whether Paul was too Greco-Roman, too Jewish, or too Christian. Philippians 2:6-11 is a prime example of how Paul felt about Jesus. Paul uses powerful words to describe how Jesus “emptied Himself” and took the form of a servant to be “obedient to the point of death.” It is interesting how cultured Paul was and how he took a little bit of each different part of the different cultures and formed them into the person he was.
Paul is an incredible example of a well-balanced man. He was influenced by many different factors that helped shape him into the man of God he was. He lived for Christ-which is so clearly demonstrated throughout the books he wrote in the Bible-and because of that it is shown that Christ was his biggest influencer. Paul is a great example to follow in today’s world—we have many different things that are influences on our lives such as friends, family, our work place—but through all these things, whether good or bad influences, Christ still needs to be our number one influencer.
There are many questions surrounding Paul’s childhood and upbringing, such as the amount of Hellenistic influence he experienced during his formative years or when he began his formal training under the great teacher Gamaliel. There is unfortunately little information regarding Paul’s childhood to go off of, however, the information in his letters and the writing of Luke gives us small pieces of details regarding his early life (TTP, 25-26). However, his early years are examined, one must conclude there are two schools of thought that come together in the mind of Paul – that of Hellenism and that of Judaism.
To suggest that Pauline thought is in any way mostly or purely Hellenistic thinking is truly inconsequential in every way. One must denote that Paul’s influences are not just subjugated to the fact that he is from a Greek-speaking origin, but also that he was raised a Jew and trained as a Pharisee, a fact that he radially reminds the church in Philippi of (Phil. 3:3-6). To forsake the idea that Paul’s influences come from two very different origins of thought is truly to misunderstand the teachings and writings of Paul.
By having this frame of reference, one can begin to look at Paul in the correct light – understanding the Law completely as a fully trained Pharisee – but also with the experience and knowledge of being born and raised in a very Hellenized city. Thus, Paul’s influences helped him reach individuals the other apostles could not identify with in a way where he could truly be all things to all people for the purpose of sharing the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
Like today, we are surrounded by many different influences that change the way we view current things compared to others. The same can be said with Paul, as stated in the blog, Paul was a Jewish Rabbi who was raised for the most part in a Greek influence. Unfortunately, we do not know the extent of the various influences had our Paul during his childhood; all we are know is that Paul’s beliefs are based off Hellenism and Judaism. “Thinking Through Paul” suggests that Paul was likely a Diaspora (living outside Jerusalem) Jew who valued the ancestral customs and convictions, even if he would eventually reevaluate based on his encounter with the risen Lord and the Gentile mission. In other words, Paul knew and practiced all the Jewish practices and then was called to go out and preach for the Lord as a “gentile”.
So the ultimate turning point of Paul’s influences is when he meets God on the Road to Damascus. Paul was once the one to persecute those who believe in Jesus Christ, but now thanks to God’s grace and revelation to Paul to proclaim Christ through the nations (1 Corinthians 1:15-16). Saul is changed into a new man (Paul) and is now willing to die telling everyone about his conversion and change of heart. This is what makes Paul so special. He is the last person you would have expected God to use, yet, God has the power to change his heart and frankly change the world at the time through someone that once was killing believers.
Figuring out Paul/Saul’s influences is a very interesting subject to touch on because there are a couple different views that are somewhat contradictory. A great place that we can find out one of Paul’s influences would lie in the first chapter of Thinking Through Paul. In the first chapter it states that Paul was born in Tarsus to his Jewish parents; without going into detail at all one’s parents definitely play a huge role if not the most influential role in one’s life; and they were Jews. Moreover, Paul’s father was a Pharisee; and growing up as a Jewish child one’s early life is pretty much in the hands of the parent hence, Paul himself claims that he too was a Pharisee. However, Rome also plays an influential part of Paul’s life as well, for that is the main reason his name was changed from Saul to Paul. According to Acts 22:25 Paul was a citizen of both Rome and Tarsus, which technically speaking he is both Jewish and Roman however; Paul was raised in a Roman society which plays a substantial role and influence on the way Paul lived his life. According to (TTP 27) Paul was “well educated and well traveled artisan apostle”; with that being said he was popular in the economic and social aspects of life. Finally, the most important and noteworthy influence that Paul had on his life that completely changed him would be that of his encounter with Christ on the Road to Damascus. According to Galatians 1:11-13, Paul is told to preach the Gospel on commands that are not from human origin, rather from Jesus Christ himself. Like P.Long says “he is a Jewish rabbi, but one who was raised in a Greek environment and is trying to reach a Roman world with the Gospel” who also “understands the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds through the lens of Christianity”.