The Cultural Influences on the Apostle Paul’s Letters to the Churches
by Bobby Bruno
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When Paul wrote his letters to the congregations he had started in various places around Rome and Greece, he was influenced by the cultures of these places. These influences showed in the way he wrote to the people and in how he explained the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that they, and we in the future, could understand his meaning in the texts we hold so close to our hearts. Let’s look at what these influences were and how these influences affected the writing of his letters.
In reading book entitled “Rediscovering Paul” written by David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards (2007), we find that the authors have discovered three cultural influences that had an effect on Pauls’ letters. These three influences are: Paul’s Judaism; the Greco-Roman world; and Paul’s social identity (Jewish or Hellenistic).
The first cultural influence on Paul’s letters was his Judaism, which our text calls “a religion known for its provincialism and obscurantism…at odds with Hellenism” (p. 37). The word provincial means “a person lacking urban polish or refinement,” while obscurantism means “opposition to the spread of knowledge” (both Merriam-Webster, 2000). Judaism is the religion of the Jews, but Paul was born and raised in Tarsus, a Grecian city. Paul was a Jew through and through, but Diaspora Jews did not necessarily follow Judaism to its fullest. Israel Jews were very stingy about outsiders knowing their religion, which is why they abhorred the Gentiles joining their religion through salvation. Diaspora Jews were refined, sometimes wealthy people who followed only the rules of their own religion they wanted to. Thus, the purity of religion the Jews had was severely lacking in the religion of the Greeks.
The influence this part of his culture that affected Paul’s letters can be seen in 1 Corinthians 1:22, where Paul is comparing the difference between the two religions, “Jews ask for miraculous signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but our message is that Christ was crucified. This offends Jewish people and makes no sense to people who are not Jewish” (GW).
The next cultural influence on Paul’s letters was the Greco-Roman world “with all of its social peculiarities and syncretistic religions tendencies” (p. 37). Syncretistic means “the combination of different forms of belief or practice” (Merriam-Webster, 2000). Paul was constantly arguing with the Jews about how and when the Gentiles should be let into the church. For instance, the Jews argued about the purity of the Gentiles in not wanting or needing to be circumcised to be allowed to enter the Church. This argument grew so large that a council needed to be called in Jerusalem to hash out the answer to this problem (Acts 15).
The affect this influence had in Paul’s letters can be seen in Romans 2:25-26, “Circumcision, the surgical ritual that marks you as a Jew, is great if you live in accord with God's law. But if you don't, it's worse than not being circumcised. 26The reverse is also true: The uncircumcised who keep God's ways are as good as the circumcised…” (MSG).
In regards to Paul’s social identity, some scholars speak of Paul being a complete Jew, while others say that Paul had a more Hellenistic point of view. Paul was born and raised in Tarsus, a Grecian city, was educated in Greek schools by Greek teachers, so it would be no surprise that he speaks and acts like a Greek citizen, even in their religious views. As a Pharisee, Paul hated anything to do with the Christ and His followers, and did everything he could to stop the plague from spreading, until he met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, thereby changing
his life forever. When Paul was taught the true Way from the Master of that Way, the lies he had been taught had now become a bitter taste in his mouth.
The affect this influence had on Paul’s life and letters can be seen in Romans 1:14-16, “I have an obligation to those who are civilized and those who aren't, to those who are wise and those who aren't. 15That's why I'm eager to tell you who live in Rome the Good News also. 16I'm not ashamed of the Good News. It is God's power to save everyone who believes, Jews first and Greeks as well” (GW).
No matter what the cultural influences were that shaped the way Paul wrote or lived, it must be strongly stated that the one Person who affected Paul the most was the Lord Jesus Christ, who met Paul the murderer on his way to kill more Christians. The influence of Jesus on Paul can never be measured outside of the letters he left us to read. Through these letters we can only read the words, but we can never really feel what Paul felt as he went about his journeys to bring the risen Christ to the worlds.
Whether he was a compete Jew who used Hellenistic views to shape his words or not, the Apostle Paul “…had the power of expressing spiritual truths in the simplest of words, and this, rather than the building up of a systematic theology, was his contribution to the early Church. A man of action, Paul reveals the dynamic of his whole career when he writes, "I press on towards the goal, to the prize of God's heavenly calling in Christ Jesus." Although he himself was forever pressing onwards, his letters often invoked a spirit of quiet meditation, as when he ends his epistle to the Philippians with the beautiful lines: "Whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable, whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything worthy of praise, think upon these things" (Lives of Saints, n. d).
Capes, D., Reeves, R., Richards, E. (2007) Rediscovering paul. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
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