In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom
(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) 32 color photos, 130 black-and-white illus., 464 pp., $29.95 (hardback)
The Apostle Paul is known as the key figure in the process of preaching the message of Jesus and founding assemblies of Jesus followers throughout the Mediterranean world. While there must have been many other ambassadors of this message who were attempting to do the same kind of work in the mid-first century C.E., the amount of material available on Paul far exceeds information on any other figure in the post-Easter churches. We can gain a partial picture of Paul’s activities and concerns from his own letters and from letters written by followers who tried to continue the Pauline tradition. We also find a very vivid and creative reconstruction of Paul’s missionary work in the Acts of the Apostles, written near the end of the first century, and in later works as well. If we stick with the impression of Paul derived from his undisputed letters, we can be confident in at least the following observations:
First, sometime after the death of Jesus, a Pharisaic Jew named Paul received a revelation that led him to become a promoter rather than a persecutor of the fledging Jesus movement. Second, at or around the same time, Paul came to understand that the new message about salvation through Jesus was also accessible to non-Jews, and that the imminent return of Christ made the mission time-sensitive.
Third, in an effort to spread this message as quickly as possible, Paul traveled the roads and sea lanes of the Roman empire and preached his message throughout Asia Minor and Greece. (We also know that he intended to go to Italy but cannot confirm that from his letters.) In many cities along the way, he founded assemblies of believers. He also appears to have set up a network of associates who stayed with the new “churches” and reported to him on their progress. Finally, in most places he traveled, Paul met up with other believers who disagreed strongly with some of Paul’s most fundamental understandings of Jesus and the movement.
In Search of Paul is an impressive attempt to combine evidence from archaeological research as well as textual analysis in order to give the reader a vivid picture of Paul’s message and the world in which it was delivered. Crossan and Reed assemble an extensive array of references to ancient sites, texts and artistic representations, and instead of simply evoking a city name or author, they devote large sections of each chapter to sites like Delos, Philippi, Corinth, Thessalonica and Pompeii. The authors certainly provide the reader with realistic glimpses of what life in these cities was like, at least for a portion of the population. By necessity, the treatment of these sites is cursory, but it does give the reader some helpful visual and mental images with which to work. The problem comes when those images are forcefully arranged into an artificially coherent picture of both the Roman world and the apostle’s teaching.
The sub-subtitle for this book is “A New Vision of Paul’s Words & World.” While many details of this interpretation of Paul’s writings may be new to readers who have not followed recent developments in Pauline studies, the overall message of the book—that Paul’s gospel of “peace through justice” stands in opposition to Rome’s message of “peace through victory”—can hardly be described as new. In fact, the authors admit that other scholars “have already emphasized creatively and accurately the confrontation between Pauline Christianity and Roman imperialism.” What they assert as “new” is their interpretation that “Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself.” The effect of this assertion is to universalize Paul’s challenge to the Roman empire into a condemnation that can be directed against every oppressive social order, including the American empire. The authors invite readers to imagine themselves on a journey to this ancient society in order to challenge the modern American culture they left behind.
Crossan and Reed point out a number of ways in which the conflict between Paul’s message and his culture can illuminate modern social issues. The preface admits that a subtext of the book is to answer the question, “Can America be Christian?” Other sociopolitical issues mentioned include a challenge to the “new world order” of American foreign policy, an allusion to the “shock and awe” approach of U.S. military action, questions about the possible admission of Turkey to the European Union, a suggestion that the modern label “obscene” should be used to condemn war rather than sexual material, and the assertion that destruction awaits modern humans unless they reject a culture of violence. They write: “Is it not clear by now that the safety of the world and the security of the earth demand the unity not of global victory, but of global justice? Otherwise, God will still be God, but only of the insects and the grasses.”
While I happen to agree with the spirit of most of these criticisms, I am uneasy about a method that uses slogans like “global victory” to summarize the ancient Roman and Pauline evidence in order to set the biblical material in opposition to modern social concerns. This approach tends to oversimplify both the ancient evidence and the modern issues.
The second major development highlighted as novel in this work is the cooperative authorship by a field archaeologist (Jonathan Reed is an archaeologist at Sepphoris) and a textual exegete (John Dominic Crossan is an expert on the historical Jesus). While this type of collaboration is rare, and to my knowledge has never before resulted in such a substantial volume, the authors should at least acknowledge the cooperative work of archaeologist Charalambos Bakirtzis of the Greek Ministry of Culture and New Testament scholar Helmut Koester in a short collection of essays on Philippi at the Time of Paul and After His Death (Trinity Press International, 1998). Bakirtzis (and this reviewer) also contributed to another major work edited by Koester, Archaeological Resources for New Testament Studies (now available on CD from Fortress Press under the title Cities of Paul). Although written by a single scholar rather than a team, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s St. Paul’s Corinth (Liturgical Press, 1983 and 2002) includes serious consideration of archaeological evidence. Finally, over the last 20 years, Dennis E. Smith has done much to integrate archaeological and literary evidence for ancient dining practice, culminating in From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Fortress, 2003).
The authors are successful in recreating for readers a sense of the world in which Paul lived. It seems odd, therefore, that throughout the book they rely on terminology that is not attested as being used by Paul. Why say in the subtitle that Paul “opposed Rome’s empire with God’s kingdom” when Paul never uses the phrase “Kingdom of God”? Likewise, when referring to the different groups of people who were involved in the growth of the Jesus movement in the mid-first century C.E., Crossan and Reed choose to make use of traditional but ultimately unhelpful terms such as “Christians” and “pagans.”
The term “Christian” is not used in Paul’s letters or the Gospels. (It first appears in Acts 11:26.) The use of the term “pagan” is even more anachronistic. It is simply inaccurate to say that Paul considered himself to be “called by God as an apostle to the pagans.” To Paul, the Latin term paganus had no religious meaning; it simply referred to someone who lived outside of an urban area—a hayseed or hick. Three hundred years after Paul’s death, when the church became the dominant religious power in the empire, people who didn’t believe in Jesus were forced to carry on their worship of the Greek and Roman gods in the countryside. Only in that context can the term “pagan” be used derisively to describe polytheistic religious practice. Perhaps the most difficult misuse of this term comes when the authors argue that in the Book of Acts, Luke mentions “pagan gentiles.” The author of Acts never uses the term “pagan,” not even as a modifier for “gentiles.” Crossan and Reed want the reader to have a “you are there” feeling about the world in which Paul lived, but they describe the majority religious understanding of the time by using a later, derogatory term.
Uncritical use of “Christian,” and “pagan” with reference to the mid-first century is a common practice in scholarship. Crossan and Reed, however, complicate these designations even further in discussing the phenomenon of “God fearers,” mentioned in the Book of Acts. Reports in Acts suggest that these “God fearers” (also called “God worshipers”) were non-Jews who provided support to some synagogues. Even though Paul makes no mention of this category of believers in his letters, Crossan and Reed make the fairly bold assertion that these gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism were in fact the main focus of the Pauline mission. This is an interesting hypothesis that is worthy of further consideration (see below), but the language used to present and support it is troubling. Along with calling these people “God fearers” and “God worshipers” (terms attested in archaeological and textual evidence) and “sympathizers” (a fairly broad modern characterization), the authors choose to label this group as “semi-Jews” or “half-Jews” as opposed to “pure pagans.” Apart from difficulties with the concept of a half-Jew, the eclectic and inclusivist nature of Greco-Roman religion would have allowed someone to participate in the synagogue and continue to be what Crossan and Reed would call a “pure pagan.”
The main archaeological source for the “God fearers” is a third-century C.E. synagogue inscription from Aphrodisias, which the authors discuss in detail. (It is unfortunate that in this case and some others, the authors do not provide citation for the inscription.)a Crossan and Reed rightly point out the striking statistic that of the 126 donors mentioned on the inscription 43 percent are identified as “God worshipers.” Based largely on this, they build the case that Paul’s mission “focused primarily not on ‘full Jews’ or ‘pure pagans,’ but on those in-betweens known as God-fearers.” Paul’s “convert poaching” not only deprived synagogues of important financial support, it also stripped them of a “very important buffer zone against any localized anti-Judaism.” There can be no doubt that “God worshipers” played an important part in the success of Paul’s communities, but to reduce his mission to “convert poaching” goes well beyond the evidence. If, after all, Paul was so successful in stealing away these patrons of the synagogues, would we still expect to find an inscription 150 years later where sympathizers made up 43 percent of the supporters?
The authors also consider architectural evidence for Jewish presence from the Aegean island of Delos, where a second-century B.C.E. building has been identified as a synagogue. Crossan and Reed point out that the structure was well integrated into its neighborhood, and they present this as evidence that “Jews had, to some degree, assimilated architecturally to their diaspora settings.” The authors also mention two inscriptions (again without citation) that were discovered a few blocks away from the synagogue structure. Since the inscriptions refer to Israelites who make offerings on Mt. Gerizim, the Delos synagogue has usually been taken to be a Samaritan meeting place. Crossan and Reed make the much less likely suggestion that the Samaritan inscriptions are actually from a second, as yet undiscovered structure. While this can’t be disproved, it seems to be an unnecessary complication of the evidence.
There is much to commend in a section titled “Who and What Controls Your Banquet,” especially in regard to architectural evidence for the interplay between classes in the Roman world. The authors argue that in Roman cities such as Herculaneum and Pompeii, the standard architectural form included a luxurious villa combined with shops and workshops on the street level and apartments above. The Roman system of patron-client relationships and the proximity of entrances to these different areas of the building must have provided the opportunity for mixing among different strata of society. Crossan and Reed suggest that this design provided the kind of architectural crossroads in which people from different social levels could have become involved in the communities of Jesus followers.
The authors also assert, however, that this same architectural mixing would have also been found at Corinth, which is a bit more risky, since very little domestic space, and none in this style has been found there. The authors want to transpose this architectural context for social mixing to Corinth, where they argue that Paul was exposed to “more elevated circles” than he had known before. If this pattern is as widespread as suggested, why would Corinth be the first place where Paul would have encountered it? Since in 1 Corinthians Paul mentions issues of apparent class difference in the community (1 Corinthinans 1:26–31, 11:17–22), the authors choose to highlight this architectural pattern (borrowed from Herculaneum) only at Corinth.
At the beginning of the book, Crossan and Reed ask, “Where does archaeology uncover most clearly Rome’s imperial theology, which Paul’s Christian theology confronted nonviolently, but opposed relentlessly?” This statement contains a number of problematic assumptions. Using a phrase like “Christian theology” again forces later categories and concepts into “Paul’s world.” The construction “Roman imperial theology,” is even more difficult to unpack. The authors acknowledge that “the imperial cult” never “existed as a monolithic entity, since the archaeological, epigraphic, and literary evidence reveals a striking diversity of forms.” Yet, throughout the book, “Roman imperial theology” is treated as a unified system of thought and practice, even to the point of asserting that “any Roman imperial theologian would have told Paul that ‘victory’ was grace.” Comparison of two similar imperial statues from Thessalonica, one of Augustus and the other probably of Claudius, leads to the conclusion that “imperial divinity was, quite simply, the ideology that held the Roman Empire together.” Yet there is no mention of the letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians in which he refused a temple and priesthood in his honor because such devotion was reserved “for the gods alone.”1
Reed and Crossan even take the Roman network of roads and harbors connecting cities across the empire to demonstrate “the integrated universality of imperial theology.” In fact, the roads’ most important function was not theological but militaristic. Rome’s ability to move troops and enforce the pax romana remained the fundamental reality of the Roman world, whatever religious imagery or devotion was used to support it. Far from being systematic theologians, the emperors and their representatives used religious propaganda to their own advantage, however it best suited the time and place.
Paul traveled along these same roads not because he wanted to unseat the road builders, but because he wanted to establish and nurture eschatological communities of believers awaiting the second coming of Christ. He responded to the needs of those communities using whatever explanation best suited their needs and situation. Paul did not take time to develop detailed theological arguments against either a Roman empire he thought was passing away, or a universal order of empire, what Crossan and Reed call “the normalcy of civilization.” It is telling that in the one instance where Paul talks directly about the empire and posits God’s support of governing authorities (Romans 13:1–7), the authors have to insist that it was “not a general universal decree, but a specific Roman situation.” In order to use Paul’s teaching as a weapon against imperial forces in the modern world, Crossan and Reed first have to recast that empire as a unified theological enterprise, and then redirect Paul’s message as an attack against a uniform and universal imperial attitude. The resulting travelogue provides some spectacular views but only moderate insight.
The Apostle Paul is known as the key figure in the process of preaching the message of Jesus and founding assemblies of Jesus followers throughout the Mediterranean world. While there must have been many other ambassadors of this message who were attempting to do the same kind of work in the mid-first century C.E., the amount of material available on Paul far exceeds information on any other figure in the post-Easter churches. We can gain a partial picture of Paul’s activities and concerns from his own letters and from letters written by followers who tried to continue the Pauline tradition. […]