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In 1 Thessalonians 2:4 Paul says he spoke to the congregation as someone who was approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel. This is an important claim and is related to Paul’s apostleship.
First, Paul says he was “approved by God.” This verb (δοκιμάζω) has the sense of being tested for the purpose of determining the genuineness (BDAG). For example, an ore which appears to contain gold can be tested to determine if it is in fact gold as well as the quality of the gold. Only after the test is finished can the ore be described as real gold (as opposed to iron pyrite, fool’s gold). Paul is claiming he has been tested by God and has been given approval for his mission to the Gentles. Ironically, it is his suffering persecution for that is the “proof” he has been tested and approved!
Second, Paul was “entrusted with the Gospel.” He was given a revelation that God’s grace was being extended to the whole world without distinction. Gentiles are now able to be right with God without keeping the Law or converting to a form of Judaism. He says something similar in Galatians 2:7. There Paul describes his commissioning as the “apostle to the Gentiles.” His commission is a trust given him from God and he takes this commission very seriously.
To be “entrusted” with something is perhaps a financial metaphor. When someone invests money they expected the financial manager to wisely invest the money and provide some kind of return on the investment. If the manager loses the money, they have not taken their commission seriously and have failed. The fact is that God tested Paul and approved of him to be entrusted the ministry of the evangelization of the Gentiles, and Paul took that commissioning so seriously that he would not do anything that might possibly hinder that trust from yielding fruit.
There are a number of obvious applications to the modern church that can be drawn at this point. Each church is given by God a commission, a purpose, a ministry. You are called to do something in this community. A church that wants to succeed tries to understand what their purpose is, and evaluate their ministry to get that purpose done.
If you know why you exist and you have a pretty good idea what it is you can do to fulfill that purpose, then you must not doing anything that might detract from that purpose. Paul is saying that his ministry is a success, and it is a success because he is honest and genuine while doing his ministry, that he is not out for money or power, or anything else that might motivate other people.
Are churches (or individuals) “entrusted with the Gospel” in a similar way today? Can (or should) we apply similar tests to churches today in order to decide if they are in fact genuine? I think this might even be applied to individual programs within a church – what do we do as part of church which fulfills our “trust” of the Gospel?
Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.
First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”
Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countlessly and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!
Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).
What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times! Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.
In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.
Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.
I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”
So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?
In several letters Paul confesses that he once persecuted the followers of Jesus and caused the death of some. In Acts Luke associates this violent persecution with the preaching of Stephen, a deacon who delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7 arguing that Jesus is superior to the Temple.
The response of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogue is in fact violent: Stephen is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and executed. Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1), but if he was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear. Saul is described as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534). What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?
It is important to observe that Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not standing int eh Temple courts speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there. Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship.
While we cannot know this for certain, it is not unlikely that Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue because he was from Tarsus (Cilicia is specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9). Stephen’s powerful argument that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53) pushed the crowd to attack Stephen, Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.
Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and importing them into Acts 7. For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision. This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10. God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.
Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws. This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period. This is an issue in Galatians, but that is perhaps 15 years after the stoning of Stephen and concerned Jews and Gentiles eating together.
A more likely motivation is the possible political/social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah/savior. How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans? Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity? The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences. The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.
Rabbi Saul is therefore opposing the Stephen as an attack on the central institution of Second Temple Judaism (the Temple) and a particular view of the messiah held by the Pharisees. For Paul as a Pharisee, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was absurd since he was crucified, “hung on a tree.” Jesus was under a curse rather than the source of salvation. Saul likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.
But is this the whole story? Would a disagreement over who the messiah might be result in such a violent response from a Pharisee? Are there other factors which may have motivated Paul’s persecution of Stephen and the other Christ followers?
Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here. Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.” Romans 7:25 is a key part of the classic account of Paul’s conversion: Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death. Acts 26:14 describes Paul as “kicking against the goads” prior to his conversion, as if he knew the truth about Jesus but he refused to believe.
This reconstruction of Paul’s pre-Christian spiritual state is popular and makes for good preaching. It has, however, been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul, especially by Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders. Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification. In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology leading to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism. For many students of Paul, Jews were proto-Pelagians akin to Catholicism in the early sixteenth century. Paul sounds more like Luther bashing his Catholic opponents than a Jewish rabbi hoping to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles with the culture of the first century.
In the traditional view of Paul and his letters, Judaism was the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity. Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism, freeing Christians from the restrictions of the Jewish Law. Sanders challenged this as a mischaracterization by arguing the questions posed by the Protestantism in the Reformation have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period. For Sanders, the Protestant version of Paul obscures what was actually happening in the first century and misses how Christianity developed out of Judaism. In addition, Sanders points out that the traditional Protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Samuel Sandmel, for example). The traditional Paul was either incoherent or inconsistent for them because they understood Second Temple Judaism better than Post-Reformation scholarship.
According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law. In fact, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into Paul. Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus. Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.
What difference will it make in our reading of Paul if we think of him as a “reform movement” within Judaism? I am not saying this is the case, but if Paul has more roots in the Hebrew Bible than are usually recognized, what is “radical” about Paul?
For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) is the classic story of the conversion of the chief of sinners. Jesus himself appears to Rabbi Saul and confronts him with the truth of the resurrection and completely turns him around. For many preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. His conversion is therefore an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.
Yet there is a great deal about Paul’s experience which is open for discussion. Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road in Acts 9 (TTP 31). First, the terminology use to describe Paul’s experience varies within Acts and even within the Letters of Paul. Did Paul experience a vision in Acts 9? How is that vision related to his 2 Corinthians 12?
A second problem is the chronological relationship between Paul’s “conversion” and his “mission.” Perhaps it is inappropriate to describe Paul as converting from Judaism to Christianity in the modern sense of the word. Did Paul experience a conversion experience similar to a person who attends a modern evangelistic meeting, raises their hand and walks forward to “accept Jesus”? Or was his experience more of a calling to a particular mode of ministry, the mission to the Gentiles?
The relationship between conversion and mission raises a third problem for Longenecker and Still, how should Acts be used to unpack what happened to Paul? For some scholars, Luke’s story of the early church is suspect: he is a later writer trying to emphasize the unity of the church and (perhaps) promote Paul as a more significant leader than he really was. For other more conservative interpreters of Acts, Luke tells his story with a theological agenda but he does not create events out of nothing. He tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times in order to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.
Yet it seems clear Paul had some kind of experience that really did cause him to rethink everything, even if he did not reject all aspects of Judaism in favor of Christianity. By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense. It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is and what he claimed to be.
Over the next few posts I will take up these topics and examine a few of the texts in which Paul describes his own calling to ministry. Perhaps this is a discussion that ought to stay in the academy, but I wonder if it is surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do?
Paul claims to be a Pharisee in Philippians 3 and when brought before the Sanhedrin Paul claims to have been “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). This is a controversial topic, Scot McKnight interacts with N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God on the topic of Paul as a Pharisee, and Tim Gombis has written a few thoughts on the topic as well. (I will anticipate the objection Paul only claimed to be a Pharisee by stating my assumption that it is historically plausible he was in fact trained as part of the party of the Pharisees simply because the Law-Free apostle to the Gentiles has nothing to gain by claiming to be a Pharisee if he was not.)
The Pharisees are well known in scripture and history. While Pharisees are the chief persecutors of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, especially in Matthew, some Pharisees appear to be interested in Jesus’s teaching (Luke 7:36-50) and the Gospel of John presents Nicodemus as a Pharisee who approached Jesus with respect both before and after the resurrection. Acts 15:5 indicates some Pharisees were associated with the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem.
Josephus has a more positive view of the Pharisees than the Synoptic Gospels. In the period before the Maccabean revolt there was a movement against increasing Hellenistic Jewish political leadership. This movement was known as the Hasadim. These Jews emphasized strict obedience to the law and observance of all Jewish customs, especially circumcision and Sabbath worship. All three of the major parties on first century Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) developed from the Hasadim.
By the first century, Pharisees became less involve in politics but grew in number and popularity with the people of the Israel. Josephus estimates that there were 6000 Pharisees in the early first century, (Antiq.18.16-17), although this number may be inflated.
Beliefs of the Pharisees were fairly conservative and very much in line with the whole of the Old Testament. Scot McKnight has a lengthy post answering the common assumption the pharisees were hyper-conservative bigots in the first century, it is well worth reading. First, Pharisees struck a balance between freedom and human responsibility. They believed in Divine providence, and the election of Israel, even the predestination of many vents of life, yet man has some freedom of choice that ensures his responsibility. Second, Pharisees placed supreme importance on the Law and their own oral traditions and interpretations of the Law. Third, unlike the Sadducees, they believed in resurrection and an afterlife. This appears to have been a point of contention between the two groups, as is seen in Acts 23:6-8. Last, the Pharisees had messianic hopes; they were looking for the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. This is the reason that they are among the first of the leaders of Israel to examine the teachings of John the Baptist and of Jesus.
At least for these four points, Paul’s thinking is similar to his early training as a Pharisee. He also has a balance between determinism and human responsibility and has a strong belief in God’s election of Israel (Roman 9-11, for example). Paul has a view of resurrection consistent with the Pharisees and he obviously believes in a messiah. The difference, of course, is the messiah is Jesus. As one of my students once said in this context, “that is a pretty big difference.” Although Paul is clear Gentiles are not required to keep the Law, he does use the Hebrew Bible extensively and in ways which would resonate with the methods of the Pharisees.
There other ways in which Paul is consistent with the Pharisees in his letters, such as marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. This might come as a surprise to Christian readers of Paul who tend to read the letters as if Paul was a member of an American evangelical church (or worse seminary faculty member!) How will this understanding of Paul’s Jewish background effect our reading of Paul’s letters? Perhaps this leads to a more difficult question, how much of Paul’s thinking changed as a result of his Damascus Road experience?
Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law. He required Timothy be circumcised (16:3) and he had made a vow while in Corinth (18:18). When he is before the Sanhedrin, Paul claims he has continued to keep the law (23:1). This is curious considering the reputation Paul has for preaching a “Law-Free” gospel among the Gentiles. To what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.
Paul claims to have a “good conscience” in 23:1. The verb Luke uses refers to living as a good citizen (πολιτεύομαι) and is the same work Paul uses in Phil 1:27 for having a “manner of life” worthy of the Gospel. In the Maccabean literature the verb refers to living one’s life in accordance with Jewish traditions (2 Macc 6:1, 11:25; 3 Macc 3:4, 4 Macc 2:8).
4 Macc 2:23“To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.”
Paul therefore claims loyalty to the Law while at the same time evangelizing the Gentiles and teaching them they are not under the Law. It is clear from Paul’s letters he does not advocate freedom from Law as a license to sin, but when people heard Paul teaches a law-free Gospel, they appear to have thought the very worst.
In order to prove to Paul’s detractors that he is stull loyal to the Law, James proposes Paul prove sponsor a Nazarite vow for a few you men (21:22-25). Dunn rightly observes that James does not deny the rumor: “the advice of James and the elders is carefully calibrated. They do not disown the rumors. Instead they suggest that Paul disprove the rumors by his own action, by showing that he himself still lived in observance of the Law” (Dunn, Acts, 287). The fact that James drops out of the story after Paul’s arrest is a mystery – why does James not come to the aid of Paul? No Christians are willing to defend Paul when he goes before the Sanhedrin. Why is this? It seems as though Paul has less support in Jerusalem in A.D. 58 than we might have expected.
Does Paul make a mistake in sponsoring the vow in the Temple? Some people think it would have been unlike Paul to “keep Law” at this point in his career. What is his ultimate motivation for doing this? Does he really need to “prove himself” to be faithful at this late date?
At the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, Paul must clarify his relationship with the Jerusalem church. Polhill wonders why Paul thought he had to spend so much effort at the beginning of this letter to prove his independence of his Apostolic office (Paul and his Letters, 146). The usual answer, he comments, is that his opponents, the Judaizers, are attacking him as an illegitimate apostle, forcing him to defend his calling.
There is another possibility for this autobiographical section, according to Polhill. He may be offering his life as a model for the Galatians. Paul was converted to a gospel of freedom on the road to Damascus, just as the Galatians were when Paul preached that gospel to them. Just as Paul did not go back to Jerusalem and place himself under the authority of the old order, now the Galatians ought to resist “returning to Jerusalem” by keeping the Law.
The bottom line is that if Paul is under the authority of Jerusalem, then it is at least possible that the “men from James” could claim that Paul has not been authorized to preach a gospel to the Gentiles which frees them from the Law. These Judaizers may have styled themselves as the real followers of Jesus and Paul as the aberration. Paul therefore stresses that his calling is from the resurrected Jesus himself and that his gospel came directly from the Lord.
At issue here is not the Gospel that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-5). Paul clearly states that this gospel was passed along to him as the primary core of the gospel. It is also clear that the preaching of Christ Crucified can be found in the apostolic preaching form the beginning. What Paul is going to argue in the next two chapters is that his Gospel is Christ Crucified, but when the death and resurrection of Christ is applied to the gentiles, they are not under the Law. They are not converts to Judaism by rather adopted children of God and therefore free from the law.
Was Paul really as “independent” as he claims in these verses?
The main problem Paul addresses in the book of Galatians is the status of Gentiles in the current stage of salvation history. Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? The immediate occasion for the letter is a problem with Gentiles being forced to keep the Law by some persons coming from Jerusalem claiming to have authority from James. This Jewish party accepted Christ, but they held to a keeping of the Law in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul calls this a “new gospel” that is not really a gospel.
A secondary issue is Paul’s authority to declare that Gentiles are free from the Law. The Judaizers are likely questioning Paul’s right to teach that gentile converts do not have to keep the law. Who is Paul? Where did he get his authority? The first two chapters address this issue. Note that this is a theme that is found from the very first lines of the letter – Paul is an apostle by the authority of Jesus Christ and the Father himself!
A third issue in the book concerns the status of the Law in the new age. If Paul has authority because he is called by Jesus personally to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and if the Gentiles are really set free from the restrictions of the Law, what was the point of the Law in the first place? This is covered in the third and fourth chapters of the letter. What is missing from this letter is the status of the Law for Jewish Christians. Should a Jewish Christian continue to keep the Law? They appear to have done so, but that is not really the issue that Paul treats in this letter.
Finally, if Gentiles are freed from the Law, what is their motivation to behave in a moral and ethical way? Has Paul cut off the gentile from the Law so that they can live any way that they choose to? It appears that there were some believers in Paul’s churches who did in fact “sin that grace may abound,” or at the very least continued in some Gentile practices that were offensive to God. Rather than keep part of the Law (the so-called “moral law,” for example, or the Ten Commandments), Paul tells his readers that they are “in Christ” and that they ought to live like it. They are to “live by the Spirit” rather than the flesh. Paul covers this issue in the last two chapters of the letter.
If Paul was allowing the Gentiles freedom from the Law, this might have implied to some law-keeping Jews that they were free entirely from moral restraints. Perhaps Paul is teaching that Gentiles can accept Jesus as the Messiah and live the way that they have always lived. To a Jew, things like circumcision and food laws were very important, but true ethical living was more important.
Paul must defuse this criticism of his Gentile mission by showing that the Gentile is free from the Law, but now he lives by a new law, a Law of Christ. This new law is a law of love, a law that is guided by the Holy Spirit. The “sin list” in chapter five makes it clear that Paul is not advocating an anarchist libertine freedom, but rather a life that is led by the Spirit of God and manifest in the “fruit of the Spirit.”
As Thomas Schreiner points out in his recent commentary on Galatians, when he wrote this letter, Paul did not need to explain the situation and background to his readers (p.31). They knew what the situation since it concerned them. We are therefore at a great disadvantage when we pick up the letter to the Galatians because we have to infer the situation from what Paul says in the letter itself.
This process of inferring a background for a letter like Galatians is known as “mirror reading.” We only have access to one side of the story. It would be ideal if we were able to read documents written by the opponents of Paul, or a letter from the Galatian churches explaining what the problem was and asking Paul for advice. In the case of Galatians, we have only Paul’s side of the story as he describes it in Galatians.
I think that there are a few other “resources” for reading the situation in Galatia that resulted in the letter Paul wrote to his churches. The book of Acts is an obvious candidate for a source, although sometimes Luke’s theological agenda forces scholars to wonder about his accuracy. In the case of Galatians, for example, there are some chronological problems, but Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches.
There are other resources that help us to accurately mirror read is the literature of the Second Temple period. Some of these are Jewish, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. There are hundreds of documents that collect Second Temple Jewish literature to help us understand the Jewish world view reflected by Paul’s letters. While Josephus may not always be accurate (especially when talking about himself), his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews are essential reading for understanding this period in history. I might recommend Paul Maier’s Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988) as a good entry point for students wanting to know more about Josephus.
Other resources are Greco-Roman. These might be less helpful, since they often reflect popular misconceptions of how Judaism was practiced in the first century. There are several excellent collections of this kind of material that save the student from having to sift through the hundreds of Loeb volumes looking for good background material. My favorite is Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans edited by Feldman and Reinhold (Fortress, 1996). Fortress also recently published Documents and Images for the Study of Paul edited by Elliott and Reasoner (2011). I have also enjoyed Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 2003).
While it would be ideal for a reader of Galatians (or a student of Pauline theology) to have letters from the opponents, I think that there is sufficient data to support Paul’s description of the situation in Galatia as accurate.
Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians? Should we use other Jewish writings as supplementary materials for understanding this letter? What are the dangers of this approach?