Friday, July 10, 2009

1 Born at a Time and Place 1

I was delighted to receive a warm reception at Wesleyan Publishing House (WPH) not only possibly to write one book with life reflections on Paul, but to write two, as well as perhaps some Bible study material. I've designated Friday as my writing day on this project, and they were happy for me to do it publicly here on the blog. That means you can help steer things like tone and focus. What line of approach most interests you and would be most helpful/interesting to those in your congregation who like Bible study?

Another idea was to triangulate between WPH, our new seminary at IWU, and perhaps a church like College Wesleyan. The idea here is that at a time when some churches would ordinarily be having a Wednesday night or Sunday night service, perhaps even Sunday School, to crank up Adobe Connect so that churches could log on for a live Q & A with me over a week of the Bible study material.

Or I could even lead such an online hour of Bible study each week with PowerPoints, a talking head, and a chat feature. The church could put the webcast up on a screen at the front of the church and designate a person to type in chat questions. If someone wanted, we could give a certificate for finishing the Bible study, etc.

So here's a start. I'm thinking of dividing each chapter into two parts, the first of which has more to do with Paul and the second of which has more to do with life refections on Paul. Love to know what you think.

[By the way and completely unrelated, five days of my novel in progress are now posted :-)]

1 Born at a Time and Place
It is hard to understand a person fully and what makes them tick if you do not know anything about their past. It would be nice to be able to take Paul out for coffee to ask him a few things, to fill in a few blanks. But thankfully, he has left us with three key passages where he gives us some personal information about himself: Philippians 3:4-6; 2 Corinthians 11:21-12:10; and Galatians 1:13-2:14.

We learn that Paul was a Jew. One significant difference between the way Paul likely understood himself and the way we understand ourselves has to do with how much of our identity we draw from the groups to which we belong. Westerners usually lean toward the "individualistic" side of the spectrum. That is to say, we identify ourselves far more in terms of how we are different from other people rather than in terms of those we are like. It was not so in Paul's world. In his world, your identity was primarily a function of the groups you were in rather than how you as an individual defined yourself.

As one scholar has put it, identity in the ancient Mediterranean world was primarily a function of three things: gender, geneaology, and geography. [1] Are you male or female (gender)? Where are you from and what is your ethnicity (geography)? What is your family like, its place in society and social status (genealogy)? We rightly question these sorts of stereotypes and pigeonholes today. They are the stuff of prejudice, and you could argue that our attempts to abandon them are a working out of gospel principles into the fabric of our society, although we have not completely arrived.

So if Western cultures tend--sometimes too much--toward the individualist, ancient and third world cultures have tended toward the "collectivist." Identity tends to be "group-embedded" rather than self-identified. For example, it is not surprising that marriages are often pre-arranged in group cultures, sometimes even before the children are born. When identity is primarily a function of "external" features like gender, family, and race, you know the compatibility of two people at birth. Two comparable families of the same race can pair up their children as long as they have a male and a female.

Today, we have such highly developed individual tastes and desires that we want to date to see if we are compatible. Will this other person make me happy? Will they really irritate me because they do not squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube or because they roll their toilet paper from the bottom. Most ancients spent their energies just trying to survive. They did not have the luxury and opportunity to worry about such trivial things. We often do not need each other to survive.

So Paul was a Jew. This was a significant statement of identity in his world. For an outsider, it meant he was wierd at the very least. "Why don't you eat pork," a Roman emperor once responded to a Jew who had waited months to see him about matters of life and death. [2] Jews were the ones who cut off the foreskins of their male children. What was up with that?! And they did no work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, the day they called the "Sabbath." What was that all about?

For Paul growing up, though, it meant he was a part of God's chosen people. He was a member of the nation God had chosen out of all the nations of the earth to walk with and bless, if Israel would only keep His commandments (e.g., Deut. 32:8-9; 7:6-11). Paul was part of the nation to whom God had entrusted the "oracles of God," the Scriptures (Rom. 3:2). It was to Israel that God had given all the promises that had begun to take place in Christ (Rom. 9:4).

Since the early 100s, Christians have often had a skewed perspective on the Jews. We likely deserve some blame in various persecutions of Jews that have taken place over the centuries. Some of Martin Luther's comments on Jews in his later writings were atrocious, and it is not too surprising that the Holocaust took place in his Germany with significant support from many in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches of his country at the time. [3]

Of course it would be equally wrong--indeed the same sin--to paint all the Germans of the day as anti-semitic. Germans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudolf Bultmann did not support Hitler. Bonhoeffer famously lost his life within months of the liberation of his prison for his opposition to Hitler. We will address some of the misconceptions of Judaism that persist to this day in the next chapter.

Paul calls himself a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:22), although interestingly he was not born in Jerusalem to some well established family of important Jews. He was born in Tarsus, in Asia Minor, according to Acts (e.g., 22:3). [4] To say he was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” means that Aramaic was a first language for him and that his family was oriented around Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem. Yet all his letters are in Greek, and fluent Greek at that. He quotes as much from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, as he does the original Hebrew.

In short, he has all the makings of a “wannabe,” someone whom others might easily put down as one of those "Diaspora" Jews scattered around the world. Someone might stereotype him as a Hellenistic Jew who spoke Greek instead of the Aramaic of the motherland. "No!" he might have protested in the days before he believed. "I am an Aramaic speaker like anyone in Jerusalem. In fact, I know Hebrew and read the Bible in the original language like the Pharisee and purist I am."

Whether this background accounts for some of Paul’s drive, we do not know. Did he spend a good deal of his early life trying to prove himself to those who looked down on him or dismissed him because of where he was born? If so, he would not be the first or the last to do so. Some of us spend our whole lives trying to prove ourselves to some phantom of our childhood that has long since passed.

Perhaps one casualty of this syndrome is Paul’s failure to mention anywhere in his writings that he was a Roman citizen, an honor very few in his world enjoyed. Was he a little ashamed of it? Was not Rome the political power that held sway over Jerusalem and the land of Israel? Would not the restoration of the land of Israel mean that the messiah would overcome the hold of Rome?

Even in Acts, Paul does not bring up his citizenship until Philippi, after he has suffered a beating and has spent a night in jail (16:37). Perhaps he finally sees that he can use his citizenship to his advantage in the spreading of the gospel. At the very least, he could use it to get out of a few beatings!

If Paul was a Roman citizen from birth, as Acts 22:28 indicates, it says some important things about him. It suggests that his family had some status. Paul did not pay for his citizenship or get granted citizenship by someone important. His family already had this status before he was born. Perhaps his grandfather made tents for Julius Caesar when he was traipsing around the Mediterranean chasing Pompey. Or perhaps he made tents for Pompey. In any case, some important Roman seems to have rewarded one of Paul's ancestors with the great honor of Roman citizenship.

It is thus possible that when Paul was back in Tarsus, he was much more like the owner of a tent-making or leatherworking business rather than a menial laborer himself. At one point in his letters, he seems to think of working with his hands as a kind of sacrifice for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 4:12). He had the kinds of means to be able to travel and leave his hometown behind. At some point he moves to Jerusalem, perhaps to live with his sister (Acts 23:16), and he studies with the Pharisees of his day.

And so he enters a quite different world than the one he was surrounded by as a child. If he had at least the beginnings of a Hellenistic "gymnasium" education, he now becomes a Pharisee. He no longer learns Homer and how to separate Greek syllables. Now he extends his knowledge of the Law, the Torah, and the traditions of the elders. We will think more about what it meant to be a Pharisee in the next chapter.

[1] As we move through Paul's life and letters, I will be suggesting the fifty or so books on Paul that a person might read to master Paul. Here let me mention the first: Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey's Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).

[2] Philo of Alexandria had come to the emperor Caligula in the aftermath of a persecution against the Jews in AD38. The story is found in Philo's treatise, Embassy to Gaius.

[3] Especially Luthers, On the Jews and Their Lies.

[4] We only learn that Paul is from Tarsus in Acts, but we have no reason to question this claim. Some have questioned whether Acts was overstating things to call Paul a Roman citizen. The question of whether Jews were citizens was one of the things Philo brought as an issue to the emperor Caligula (see note 2).


Keith Drury said...

This will be great--and you are the person to write it for sure!

Aramaic Student said...

You say that Paul was a Jew, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and that he spoke Aramaic, but all his letters were in Greek. You are referring to the Greek New Testament. However, why do most people in the West ignore the Peshitta - the Aramaic New Testament? All the evidence is that Greek was translated first, from the Aramaic - not the other way round! The Church also spread east of Israel, and everyone in the East uses the Peshitta (Aramaic New Testament), yet the history of the Church of the East is ignored in the West.

Ken Schenck said...

The Peshitta is a legitimate object of study (although it is in Syriac, rather than the Aramaic of Jesus or Paul), particularly for text critics. But Paul's Greek in the New Testament is not translation from Aramaic. I believe him when he implies he spoke Aramaic, but we wouldn't know it from the New Testament. The only parts of the NT that seem to be translated from Aramaic are a particular subset of Jesus' sayings in the gospels.