Was Paul Wealthy?

Polhill speculates that Paul may have been from a wealthy family based on his citizenship.   In order to “buy” a citizenship, one might need to spend 18 months wages or more on the necessary bribes in order to receive the honor.  The fact that Paul was a tent maker from Tarsus may imply that he worked with the costly material cilcium, used for both tents and saddles.

Since Jews were known to have worked in the very active textile industry in Tarsus, it is possible that Paul’s family was connected to this trade.  On the other hand, Paul may have learned his trade through his rabbinical training.  A trade was required in order to support one’s study of the Torah, tent-making may have been a choice he made while studying in Jerusalem rather than the family business. Tent-making was potentially lucrative.  Tarsus was known for a particular felt-like material made from the wool of goats native to the region.  This cloth and other linens were expensive and required special handling. It is possible Paul and his family worked with this sort of cloth, doing jobs for the wealthy of Tarsus.

It is possible that Paul took a voluntary vow of poverty after his conversion, renouncing the wealth of his family.  This is based on the early disciples in Acts 2-3 who sold everything and “lived in common.”  While there is nothing that rules out Paul living in poverty, it seems that he may have relied on his wealth to finance his ministry.  He is not known for accepting gifts from churches yet he is able to travel extensively, working in the cities he hopes to reach for the gospel as a tent-maker.

On the other hand, Martin Hengel speculates that Paul’s education may be a hint at his social status.  If he came to Jerusalem at a young age, then he was likely from a “well-to-do” family which could afford to send a son to study on Jerusalem.

Paul’s extensive travels were expensive.  He had to finance travel for his group.  He likely rented a place to stay in Corinth and in Ephesus he rented a room to teach in for over two years.  On at least two occasions Paul had to support himself while under house arrest (Caesarea and Rome).  In Rome he lived in a rented house for two years and was unable to work to support himself.  Is it possible that Paul was able to use his family’s wealth in order to pay for travel and housing?

One key bit of evidence is that Paul sponsored a vow in Acts 21.  The Nazarite vow was a Jewish tradition that was supposed to be a deeply spiritual exercise.  To sponsor such a vow would be an indication of Jewish loyalty and fidelity to the Law.  For example, Agrippa I sponsored vows for several young men in order to show his personal loyalty to the law (Josephus, Antiq. 19.294).  Since the expenses for the vow itself could be high, wealthy men could show their support by paying the expenses for one or more men completing their vow. While it is possible Paul took this money from the collection he delivered to Jerusalem, that is not stated in the text.  In any case, taking money intended for the poor in Jerusalem to sponsor the vow does not seem appropriate, the money ought to be come form Paul’s own pocket.

To what extent does Paul’s wealth effect the way he did ministry?  Modern evangelism is often targeted on the “down and out,” people who on the fringes of society.  This is very much like Jesus, and perhaps Peter in Act 9.  Did Paul target wealthy, higher class people (ie., Roman citizens) because he was a wealthy Roman citizen?

Paul and the Philosophers

Paul’s education prior to training in Jerusalem is also unknown, although we may infer a few things from his writings.  Polhill cites Martin Hengel – Paul had a Jewish childhood education rather than a Greek one, but it was a Hellenistic Jewish education!   For example, he cites the Greek Bible most often when quoting the Old Testament, implying a fluency in Greek.

Paul cites Greco-roman writers on several occasions, twice in Acts 17, once in 1 Cor 15:33 and once in Titus 1:12.  But there is nothing about any of these quotations that requires special training in classical literature, although if the sermon in Acts 17 is spontaneous then perhaps he was quite familiar with the types of writers that the Stoics and Epicureans were reading.  The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan (who is also cited in Titus 1:12).  The original poem no longer exists, but it is cited by a number of other ancient writers.  The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line was pantheistic, “in him we move and live and have our being,” but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

We might ask how Paul came to know these lines of poetry.  There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers!  One possibility is that he had a “secular” education which he applied to the preaching of the gospel. On the other hand, these may very well have been well known bits of proverbial wisdom that were more or less “common knowledge.”  If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.

As Enberg-Pedersen states, Paul actively participated in the moral philosophical discussion of his day, but with his own special emphasis (Paul and the Stoics, 301).  That “special emphasis” is his thoroughly Jewish worldview.  He did participate in the philosophical discussions of his day, but he did so as a Jewish thinker who believed that the new age was dawning.

We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences.  If this is true, then Paul is functioning like an apologist, quoting some popular and well known scholar in order to find some common ground for discussion.  I think that Paul probably spent a great many years working out the finer points of his theology and deciding how best to present the gospel to the Gentile world.  He did not do this in a library (or a blog!), but likely in discussion with both Jews and Gentiles in ministry.  I have in mind here not just the three years in Arabia, but also his time in Tarsus and later in Antioch.  Paul was constantly developing his thought from the moment of his conversion, so that it had maximum impact on the Gentile world.  We encounter a mature “theology of Paul” in the letters, some fifteen to twenty years in the making by the time he writes the first letters.

There is quite a bit of modern application here, especially with respect to how we educate people for ministry.  How well do we equip the young pastor or youth leader to deal with “secular philosophy” in their presentation of the gospel?  I am not talking about rolling clips of The Matrix or playing a Nine Inch Nails song for your youth group here (yep, I have done both).  How can we prepare people to deal with the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary thought?

The Blog Plan: Reading John Polhill

For the next few months I plan on blogging through John Polhill’s Paul and His Letters (Broadman & Holman, 1999).  I am teaching Pauline Lit this fall, so this is an academic exercise for me, as well as for my students.  I have used Polhill for several years now and it is a rather useful guide to Paul’s letters.  What I particularly enjoy is the way he places the letters within the context of the book of Acts, given that many of my students have not had a chance to study Acts closely.

I will intersperse a few posts from N. T. Wright’s Paul: A Fresh Perspective as well as other Pauline Theology items as they arise in my reading or class discussions.