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?