[I am currently teaching the Paul section in a module called “New Testament Texts: The Johannine and Pauline Literature” at Cranmer Hall Theological College in Durham. At the beginning of each class, I have tried to offer a scenario of some kind to engage our imaginations and prime our minds to think more contextually about Paul and his ministry. Here is how we began the course….]
Think “Mediterranean.” Some of you have seen it with your own eyes. A warmer, sunnier climate than the one we are used to here in the UK; an exotic place that perhaps soldiers building a wall for Emperor Hadrian in a cold no-man’s-land might wistfully long to return to once Autumn came. This is a world culturally and linguistically dominated by the Greeks of old; and politically and economically dominated by Rome, the heart—the nucleus—of this vast cosmopolitan realm.
All of life is structured within a universally understood hierarchy. Everyone has a place, the gods holding chief position, the Emperor the earthly manifestation of their supremacy; then the Roman aristocracy; and then there is the aristocratic power bases within the localized municipalities throughout this massive realm. Following these elite ranks is a merchant-class, some of whom are quite wealthy; and there are the renown soldiers—retired generals and heroes whose swords so courageously splintered barbarian bones that they now enjoy lands, fame, riches. These members of the upper castes of society are a tiny fraction of the populace.
But they control the populace. There are farmers, craftsmen, temple priests, prostitutes, freedmen, villagers, and slaves. 1 out of every 4 is a slave, in fact. But all these players in this vast society are bound together by recognizing their place in relation to each other. Knowing your place is critical for survival, and one must always cavil and cater to the society-members ranking above you. Everyone has their place.
Interwoven into this complex way of inferiors relating to superiors and vice versa is a dynamic religious life from which no element is untouched. The “many gods” of this realm are visually and culturally inescapable—images of the gods line every city square, temples command the visual landscape, the coinage is marked by religious imagery. This is a society governed by a rigid caste system, saturated at all points by idolatrous religion, and infused with the rock solid political conviction that Caesar is Lord.
But suddenly, there is a ruckus in the market, a disturbance on the crowded hilltop and in the city square, along the side street. A voice crying out, speaking alien words into this well-established web of life, voicing volatile ideas into the tightly woven fabric of this august culture… What this voice speaks is a counter-intuitive word, a destabilizing word, a message that makes no sense, a message that warrants this accusation about its heralds in the Book of Acts: they “have turned the world upside down… acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).
The most vocal emissary of this message, the world-inverting message of the Gospel, is the subject of this course: Paul the Apostle.
In his first appearance in the canon he is no apostle. That initial appearance scene is bloody and grim. A death-scene. He stands as a young man approving the splintering of Christian bones as Stephen dies the 1st death of the church. But soon, the world is being inverted, and over time the Greco-Roman world will not withstand the influence of his message. Every one of us in this room have ourselves been changed by this man’s destabilizing, world-inverting words.
Welcome to THMN2021: New Testament Texts.