Paul has been my constant companion throughout my adult life. Like all friends, he still sometimes surprises me, puzzles me and even annoys me. But I feel at home with him. Having written my doctoral dissertation on Romans, whenever I pick up a new commentary on that letter I feel as though someone has come into my living room and set about rearranging the furniture.
As I glance at my shelf of recent books on Paul, the titles reveal how the subject has developed in the last 20 years. Paul and the Law accounts for half a dozen; Paul and Judaism covers several others. Those who try to explain Paul as a Hellenizer are swimming against the tide. The arguments for his essential Jewishness are overwhelming.
But Paul describes himself as the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 11:13; 15:16; Galatians 2:7–10). What was his message to the pagans? What was the relation between Paul and paganism? The derivation of ideas is an important topic, but confrontation is equally important. Paul’s message confronted paganism with good news—but it was good news that undermined their worldview and replaced it with an essentially Jewish one, reworked around Jesus.
Paul became, as he said, all things to all people (“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel” 1 Corinthians 9:22–23). He didn’t shout his message across a yawning cultural gap. The Areopagus speech in Acts 17 exemplifies the principle Paul himself enunciates in 2 Corinthians 10:5: He “takes every thought captive to obey Christ.” When Paul picks up his opponents’ slogans to do something new with them, he brings them into his Jewish/Christian frame of reference. He seems to have believed what he (or someone else) wrote in Colossians 1:17: “All things were created through Christ and for Christ.”
Paul’s confrontation with paganism was of course sharp. He declared that certain beliefs were untrue, that certain practices were dehumanizing and simply wrong, and that certain styles of community life were not how the creator had intended humans to function. But Paul was no dualist. At the heart of his polemical engagement with paganism was a radical affirmation of the goodness of the created world, and, with that, of the possibility that pagans, and their ideas and beliefs, could be redeemed by the Christ through whom the world was made. Hence, good news for the pagans. Not the sort of good news that told them they were all right as they were, but the sort that told them that, despite their present idolatry and immorality, the God who made them loved them and longed to remake them.
Paul’s message to the pagans was rooted in Jewish expectations. When Israel was finally redeemed, the Gentiles would share in the blessing (Zecharia 8:20–23). It wasn’t that he’d secretly been in love with Hellenism all along, and was now turning a Jewish message into a Hellenistic one. He believed that with Jesus’ death and resurrection and in the coming of the Spirit, the promises of Israel’s restoration had been fulfilled, however paradoxically. The New Age had dawned; it was therefore time for the Gentiles to come in. The message, nevertheless, had to remain Jewish if it was to have its proper relevance to the pagans.
Paul saw his challenge to the pagan world in terms of announcing the reality of which paganism was the parody. To illustrate, I highlight three topics out of many.
First, he announced the reality of the true God, and the creation as his handiwork. Paganism was aware of the existence of the creator, but identified him with objects or forces within creation itself (Romans 1:18 and following). In a passage like Colossians 1:15–20, Paul opposed the multiplicity of gods with the news of the one God, and the divinization of creation with the news of the createdness of creation. Creation is good, but it isn’t God.
Second, he offered a challenge in terms of pagan cultic practices. In 1 Corinthians 8–10, he addresses the problem: Should Christians, having abandoned paganism, eat meat originally sacrificed at pagan shrines? Paul insists that nothing is wrong with the meat itself when sold in the market. Problems arise only if someone’s conscience is offended, or if Christians actually attend pagan worship. As long as the sacrificial meat is in the general stream of commerce, there is no prohibition on buying or eating it. The reason is clear: The church, he argues, worships the one true God, the God of Israel; the church’s own central meal, the eucharist, evokes Israel’s traditions of the Exodus; the church must therefore be separate from idol worship, just as Israel was called to be. Eucharist and pagan worship cannot mix, because 054the true God challenges the pagan idols. Worshiping the creator God is the reality, pagan cult the parody.
Third, Paul challenged paganism at the level of power and empire. If we begin with “justification by faith,” as many have done, we will marginalize what Paul says about the powers. But if we begin with the confrontation between the gospel and paganism, this is central and vital. In Philippians 2, Paul speaks of Jesus in language that echoes, in order to challenge, regular Roman language about Caesar. Kyrios Kaisar, Caesar is Lord! No, said Paul: Kyrios Iesous Christos, Jesus Christ is Lord. This theology is derived from the Jewish critique of pagan cult and hence confronts paganism.
I believe, as a historian, exegete and theologian, that these are pointers in the right direction in studying Paul. Wearing my preacher’s hat, though, I perceive another dimension to the task. The Western world is rapidly embracing new forms of paganism. Those who want to address our contemporaries with the message of Jesus Christ would do well to rediscover the ways in which that gospel really is good news for a pagan world.
Paul has been my constant companion throughout my adult life. Like all friends, he still sometimes surprises me, puzzles me and even annoys me. But I feel at home with him. Having written my doctoral dissertation on Romans, whenever I pick up a new commentary on that letter I feel as though someone has come into my living room and set about rearranging the furniture. As I glance at my shelf of recent books on Paul, the titles reveal how the subject has developed in the last 20 years. Paul and the Law accounts for half a dozen; Paul […]