Discussion Notes for Paul and His Communities (2017 version)



Online Maps

Interactive Ancient Mediterranean Project (IAM) maps


Christian Origins and the Academic Study of Religion

1. Why study Christian origins and early Christian writings?

  • Life in the ancient world
  • From insignificant Judean sect to Roman imperial religion to world religion
  • Significance for Western history and civilization

2. What is the academic study of religion, or Religious Studies?

  • Background of the discipline
  • Characteristics of the academic study of religion
  • How do we approach the study of the early Jesus movements within this discipline?

3. Ongoing themes and arguments

  • Literature in context: Genres or types of writings (e.g. Letters, Biographies, Apocalypses)
  • What was it like to be a Christian in the first century or so?
  • Contribution of certain authors, leaders or founders
  • Developments and changes over time (e.g. leadership and women)
  • Diversity in Christian belief and practice
  • Judean-Christian relations
  •  Jesus-followers and Greco-Roman culture


Paul and his communities in context, part 1: The Judean and Greco-Roman Worlds



1. The Greco-Roman world

  • Historical developments
    • Alexander the Great and the impact of Hellenization (from 331 BCE)
    • Roman Rule and the impact of the pax Romana from Augustus on
  • Greco-Roman societies and cultures
    • Social life and the structures of society
    • Honouring the gods (“religious” life)
      • Embedded within everyday life in antiquity
      • Honouring the gods – Intolerance of failure to do so
      • Various forms of cult: Official and unofficial
    • Philosophical life: Stoics, Platonists, Epicureans, Cynics

2. Second-Temple Judean culture

  • Judean culture and Hellenistic culture: Influence and opposition
  • Judean culture and Roman rule in Israel
    • Incidents illustrating tensions: E.g. Josephus, Antiquities 18.55 on Pilate and imperial images; War 2.224-227)
  • Characteristics of Second-Temple Judean culture (“Judaism”)
    • Misrepresentations within scholarship
    • Common characteristics – Four common denominators:  1) Monotheism, 2) Election/land, 3) Covenant/Law, 4) Temple-cult


  • Diversity of Judean culture(s):
    • Parties and sects: Saduccees, Pharisees, Essenes (e.g. Josephus, War 2.119, Ant. 18.11-25 on the Judean “philosophies”)
    • Messianic movements (e.g. Ant. 17.269-278 on popular movements and “disorders”;
      Ant. 20.97 on Theudas the prophet / “magician”)
  • The Jesus-movement’s origins within Judean culture
  • Diaspora Judean groups throughout the empire: Cohabitation and conflict

3.  Jesus Groups in their contexts

  • Devotion to Jesus within the context of Judean culture
  • Where did Jesus groups fit (or not fit) within the Greco-Roman

    • Models from the ancient context: Philosophical school, synagogue, association
  • Jesus-followers through Greco-Roman eyes:
    • Pliny the Younger: A Roman elite perspective (Pliny, Epistles 10.96-97)
    • Popular perceptions:
      • Familiarity: Just another association
      • Peculiarity: Jesus-followers (and Judeans) as “atheists”


Paul and his communities in context, part 2: Who is Paul and how can we approach his letters?


1.  Who is Paul?:

  • A Hellenistic Judean in the diaspora (remember the slides on Paul’s world)
  • Sources and their problems: Priority of Paul’s own information (over the Acts of the Apostles)
  • The “autobiographical” passages
    • Discussion of Philippians 3:1-16; 2 Corinthians 11:7-12:13; Galatians 1-2

2.  Paul’s relations and tensions with the Jesus movement at Jerusalem

  • Paul’s “announcement” (gospel): Focus on the notion of the resurrection and vindication of Christ (very little focus on the earthly life of Jesus and his sayings); Notion of being “one in Christ”; Inclusion of Gentiles (without requiring circumcision and food laws); Paul’s apostleship / “announcement” and Jerusalem
  • Jerusalem meeting according to Paul and the author of Acts (Galatians 1-2; Acts 15; discussion)

3.  Approaches to the study of Paul, his letters, and his communities

  • Epistolary approaches: Paul’s letters as Hellenistic letters
    • Some ancient Greek letters: Family Letters of Paniskos
    • Structural elements in Paul’s letters:  Opening (greetings and thanksgiving); Closing (greetings and benediction); Body: Recurring types of material (autobiographical statements, travel plans, paraenesis); Traditional material (Christian hymns, sayings, vice/virtue lists)
  • Rhetorical approaches: Paul, the rhetorician
    • The three types of rhetoric corresponding to context and purpose:
      • 1) Judicial:  type of speech used in the law courts to convince judges concerning past events: accusation or defence
      • 2) Deliberative:  type of speech used in the civic context (politics) to persuade people to take a certain future course of action: persuasion or dissuasion
      • 3) Demonstrative (epideictic):  type of speech used in ceremonial contexts (e.g. festival gatherings) to provide pleasure for audiences in the present: praise
        or blame
  • Historical and social-historical approaches: Paul and his communities in their contexts
    • The situations in the assemblies and Paul’s responses to those situations


Paul and Jesus-followers at Thessalonica


1. Thessalonica, the capital of the province of Macedonia

2. The history of Paul’s relations with the Thessalonian Jesus-followers

  • Before Paul wrote: Acts and the evidence in Paul’s letter

3. The situation of Jesus-followers at Thessalonica

  • Difficulties in reconstructing the historical situation behind Paul’s letters
  • The composition of the Christian groups:
    • Ethnic background and social-economic status
    • Paul’s identification: Paul’s occupation as a handworker and its significance
  • Issues of concern among Jesus-followers:
    • Afflictions: Social harassment
    • Death of fellow members: Apocalyptic outlook

4. Paul’s response to the situation

  • The Rhetoric of the letters
  • Comforting converts faced with affliction or social dislocation:
    • The tone of 1 Thess: “…like a nurse…”; familial language
    • Paul as example
  • Relations with outsiders
  • The paraenetic section (4:1-12): Paul’s instructions and exhortations
  • Paul’s apocalyptic world-view and Christ’s “coming” (parousia):
    • “…concerning those who are asleep…”
    • Apocalypticism: Discussion of Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Community Rule = 1QS III.15-IV.26)

5. Implications

  • The Hellenistic and Judean sides of Paul
  • Paul, the Thessalonian Jesus-followers and their situation: Typical?

Paul and Jesus-followers at Corinth: 1 Corinthians

1. Corinth, a Roman colony with a Greek past

2. The history of Paul’s relations with the Corinthians

  • Initial visit (cf. Acts 18:1-17) and Paul’s message (1 Cor 15:1-8), Paul’s previous letter (see 1 Cor 5:9 = 2 Cor 6:14-7:1?), Chloe’s report and the letter from some of the Corinthian Jesus-followers, Paul’s second letter (1 Corinthians)
  • After 1 Corinthians: Paul’s third letter (2 Cor 10-13: “super-apostles” and tensions over Paul and financial support/handwork) and fourth letter (2 Cor 1-9: easing of tensions)

3. Situation of Jesus-followers at Corinth

  • The ethnic and social-economic composition of the community
  • Internal divisions and inequalities:  Social, economic, ideological, and other “problems” (in Paul’s eyes)
    • “I belong to Paul” – “I belong to Apollos” (chs. 1-4)
    • Ethical problems (ch. 5): Thou shalt not sleep with thy step-mother
  • The socially “superior” Jesus-followers
    • Court cases (ch. 6)
    • The drunk and the hungry (rich and poor) (11:17-34)
  • The religiously “superior” (spiritual enthusiasts) and their slogans (chs. 7-15)
    • Asceticism: “…it is good not to touch a woman…”
    • Knowledge and wisdom: “…all of us possess knowledge…an idol has no real existence” (the weak and the strong) (chs. 8, 10)
      • Background:  “Idolatry”, sacrificial food and communal meals in Corinthian society (the social context of the religious position); Paul, the Judean, and idolatry
    • Worship and spiritual gifts
    • “…some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead…”

4. Paul’s response: Concord and equality

  • Paul’s deliberative rhetoric and the language of civic discourse
  • The body metaphor and proper order in worship
  • Paul’s defence of his mission: the Corinthians vs. Paul? (chap. 9)

5. Implications


Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus: Ancient Slavery



1. The situation

  • Conditions of ancient slavery
  • Addressees: Christian group in Colossae?
  • Onesimus the runaway slave

2. The response

  • Paul’s letter of recommendation
  • The rhetoric of the letter
    • Request or social pressure: “Paul…to Philemon…and the church in your house”
  • Discussion:  Paul and slavery (Philemon and 1 Cor 7)

3. Implications

  • Paul and the institutions of Greco-Roman society: a person of his time?


Paul and Jesus-followers in Galatia

1. The province of Galatia in Asia Minor: Celts, Greeks and Romans

2. A history of Paul’s activity pertaining to his letter to the Galatians

  • Northern (ethnic) Galatia or Southern (Phrygian) Galatia?
  • Paul’s journeys in Southern Galatia according to Acts (13:13-14:20; 16:1-6; Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe)
  • The Jerusalem meeting (Gal. 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-35), Judean Jesus-followers and Paul’s collection (see Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:23-32)

3. The situation in the churches

  • Ethnic identity of Jesus-followers (cf. 4:8)
  • The “circumcision party” (opponents/Judaizers) with a “different gospel”
  • The primary issue is circumcision as an entrance requirement into the community of God and sign of favoured status (not salvation after death through works)
    • Avoiding a 16th century interpretation of the situation: A reminder concerning the nature of ancient Judean culture
    • Rationale of the opponents: Circumcision, proselytes and God-fearers in Judean culture

4. Paul’s response

  • Paul’s tone: “O foolish Galatians!”
  • Paul’s methods: Hellenistic rhetoric; Judean biblical interpretation
  • Paul, the Law and the Gentiles: Circumcision is not an entrance requirement
    • Paul’s defence of his circumcision-free gospel
    • The issue of the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God (the mission to the Gentiles) as the guiding principle in Paul’s view
  • God’s primary covenant-promise to Abraham (Gen 15):  The blessing of Abraham – faith (not circumcision = “works of law”) as the true sign of being sons of Abraham
    and members of God’s community
  • The secondary covenant, circumcision (Gen 17) and the Law at Mount Sinai: “the law was our custodian until Christ came”
    • Allegorical interpretation of scripture: Sarah and Hagar

5. Implications

  • Paul and Judean culture/Torah: antithetical?
  • Paul, the Gentiles and Israel (comparison with Romans 9-11)


Paul and Jesus-followers at Rome



1. The city of Rome, capital of the empire

2. The situation at Rome that led Paul to write his letter

  • Traditional views: Romans as a summary of Paul’s theology
  • New view: Romans as a response to a concrete situation

1) Situation among Judeans at Rome

  • Synagogues (about 10-15 attested, some based on district, others on geographical links)
  • Origins of earliest groups of Jesus-followers within Judean gatherings (e.g. Prisca and Aquila)
  • Scholarly theories, including the issue of Roman authorities’ actions or expulsions (see Suetonius and Acts 18:2; Dio Cassius on restriction of meetings; collegia):
    • Wolfgang Wiefel’s thesis: Return of expelled Judeans to predominantly Greek groups of Jesus-followers after expulsion relating to conflicts over “Christ” (of 49
      CE, or 47-50 CE)
    • Philip Esler’s proposal: Whether expulsion or not, still ethnic conflict; Judean synagogues and Jesus-follower house-churches

2) Situation within groups of Jesus-followers

  • Identity of Paul’s addressees  and the house churches at Rome (Romans 16)
    • 26 identified individuals: 7 probably Judeans, Latin names, Greek names
    • Primary addressees as Greeks
  • Divisions and tensions along ethnic lines (Greeks vs. Judeans) as the primary issue
    • Greeks feeling superior to Judeans: Case of the food laws in chapters 14-15 (contrast situation at Galatia)

3. Paul’s response

  • Paul’s purposes in writing (Going west, collection for Jerusalem, address ethnic conflict)
  • Rhetoric and the diatribe (imaginary opponents and hypothetical objections)
  • Paul, the Law and second-Temple Judean culture (again!?)
  • Paul’s response to the divisions and claims of superiority: To the Judean first and also to the Greek” – “God shows no partiality”

1) Gentiles (Greeks) and Judeans equally under the power of sin and in need of reconciliation by faith (ch. 1-8)

  • Gentiles (Greeks) wicked and guilty: Idolatry and sexual immorality (1-2:16)
  • Judeans also under the power of sin (2:17-3:20)
    •  “What is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way.” (3:1)
    •  “Are we Judeans any better off?  No, not at all.” (3:9)
    • “For there is no distinction”: Made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ, not by law (3:21-31)
    • Abraham as the “father of us all”, both Judeans and Gentiles (4)
    • Christ as the second Adam in Paul’s typological thinking (5)
    • Dead to sin (6): Baptism in Paul’s view and the context of this ritual (also see 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28)
  • Sin as a power (7)
  • Flesh and spirit: Children of God (8)

2) If Judeans and Gentiles are on equal footing, what is the place of Israel within God’s salvation history (ch. 9-11)

  •   The remnant and Israel’s stumble (9)
  •   “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11)
  •   Israel stumbles but does not fall: “all Israel will be saved”
    •   Israel’s stumble is the Gentiles’ gain
      •   The olive tree analogy: “do not become proud” (11:20)
      •   Mercy: “all Israel will be saved” (11:26)

3) Parenesis and moral exhortation (12-13)

  • “I bid everyone . . . not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” (12:3)
  • “Be subject to the governing authorities” (13:1): Paul’s civic advice in context
  • Fulfill the law (13:8-10)

4) The “strong” and the “weak”: Gentiles and Judeans respecting one another (ch. 14-15)

4. Implications: Paul and his communities in retrospect

Legacies of Paul, part 1: The Acts of Paul and Thecla



1. Legacies of Paul: The “battle” for Paul – “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” vs. the Pastoral epistles

2. The Acts of Paul: Introductory matters

  • Genre: Apocryphal Acts and the ancient novel
  • Date: (c. 160-200 CE), authorship, and use
  • Content of the Acts of Paul:  Paul and Thecla; Lion at Ephesus; Paul’s martyrdom
  • The Thecla episodes:
    • Earlier oral traditions underlying the Acts of Paul and Thecla: The story tellers behind the stories

3.  Women, leadership, and group-society relations: Thecla and the Pastorals

  • Alternate portraits of Paul and realities of women’s lives in the Christian communities
  • Women’s leadership and the relationship between Christian groups and society
  • Greco-Roman perceptions and varying responses (Aelius Aristides and Celsus on women and Jesus groups)
  •  Discussion of key themes in the Thecla episodes:

(1) Sexuality, marriage, and asceticism

  • “Blessed are those who have kept the flesh chaste. . .
  • Turning the novel’s love theme on its head: Kissing Paul’s bonds
  • Chastity and society: “Overturning the city”
  • Pastoral epistles: Domestic women (1 Tim 2:15; 4:1-5; Titus 2:3-5)

(2) Women’s roles and leadership

  • Thecla, the leader and teacher: “Go and preach!”
  • Questions of gender: The “manly” Thecla?
  • Historical context: The Phrygian (Montanist) movement and women prophets in Asia Minor
  • Pastorals:
    • Subverting the “old wives’ tales” (1 Tim 4:7-8; 5:13-16; 2 Tim 3:4-9)
    • Silent and domestic women: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men” (1 Tim 2:11-15)

(3) Church-society relations and conflicts

  • Thecla: Overturning Greco-Roman society
  • Pastorals: Greco-Roman values and alleviation of group-society tensions (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 3:7; Titus 3:1)

4. Conclusions:  Would the real Paul please stand up?

  • Comparing Pauls:   Paul’s letters; Pastoral epistles; Canonical Acts; Apocryphal Acts
  • Discussion: Women in groups of Jesus-followers

Legacies of Paul, part 2: Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles



1. The legacy of Paul and the Pauline tradition

  • Collection and use of Paul’s letters
  • Importance and use of the figure of Paul in subsequent debates: The “battle” for Paul
  • So many Pauls, so little time
    • The Pauline “school” and the deutero-Pauline writings
    • Pseudonymity in ancient literature
      • Factors in assessing pseudonymity:
        • 1. Language and style; 2. Ideology / theology; 3) Situations, developments, anachronisms (e.g. church order, household codes, etc.)
        • Possible or likely New Testament examples: 2 Thessalonians; Colossians; Ephesians; Pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus)
  • Key developments after Paul:
    • 1. Development of ideas (e.g. Christology) and focus on “sound doctrine”
    • 2. Importance of household structures
    • 3. Institutionalization and leadership structures (church order)

2. Cities of western Asia Minor

  • The civic context
  • Judean groups in the cities
  • Varieties of Jesus devotion in Asia Minor (e.g. Revelation, John’s epistles, 1 Peter, Ignatius’ epistles, Martyrdom of Polycarp)

3. Colossians and Ephesians

  • Colossians
    • Situation: the “philosophy” and practices of the opponents (2:8-23)
      • Early form of gnosticism?
      • Syncretistic rituals and beliefs regarding benevolent and malevolent beings
        • Angels in the religious life of Asia Minor
    • Response: Christ has disarmed the principalities and powers
      • The Christ-hymn of 1:15-20
  • Ephesians
    • Discussion: Post-Pauline Christian groups and the structures of the household (Household codes: Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:22-6:9; cf. 1 Peter)

  4. Pastoral epistles

  • Discussion:  Leadership structures – The Pastoral epistles as a window into developments in the late first century
  • Situation: Opponents / false teachers –  Myths, knowledge, asceticism and women
  • Response: Sound doctrine, household management and proper church order

5. Implications

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published.