from jesus to christ - the first christians

Paul's Mission and Letters

Carrying the 'good news' of Jesus Christ to non-Jews, Paul's letters to his fledgling congregations reveal their internal tension and conflict.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


The Apostle Paul is, next to Jesus, clearly the most intriguing figure of the 1st century of Christianity, and far better known than Jesus because he wrote all of those letters that we have [as] primary sources.... There are many astonishing things about him. For example, in modern scholarship, we have tended to divide various categories. There are gentiles, and there are Jews. There are Greek speaking people and there are Hebrew speaking people. There's Palestinian Judaism, which includes apocalypticism. There's Rabbinic Judaism and there's Hellenistic Judaism, which has derived deeply from the Greek world. Paul seems to fall into several of these categories, therefore confounding our modern divisions. So he's an intriguing and puzzling character in some respects.

The primary impact he has left on Christianity after him is through his letters, but in his own time, he sees himself primarily as a prophet to the non-Jews, to bring to them the message of the crucified Messiah, and he does this in an extraordinary way. He is a person who is somehow a city person, and he sees that the cities are the key to the rapid spread of this new message. ...At one point he can write to the Roman Christians, I have filled up the gospel in the East, I have no more room to work here. What could he possibly mean? There are only a handful of Christians in each of several major cities in the Eastern Empire. What does he mean, that he has filled up all of the Eastern Empire with the gospel? But we look at those places and we see [that] each of them is on a major Roman road or it is at a major seaport. They are the great trading centers of the world. They are the center of migrations of people and he sees this world, from a Roman point of view, which is an urban point of view, that the surrounding country is centered in that city and the spread of Christianity depends upon getting it to those major centers....

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Mike, take us back in time to Corinth early fifties and describe the scene. What's happening? What's going on that's new?

The city of Corinth in about the year 50 would have been the burgeoning capital of a Roman province in the Greek East. ... A great center. It had two ports. One on the Aegean side and one on the Adriatic side so that it served as one of the major crossroads for Roman shipping throughout the Mediterranean. So when Paul arrived in Corinth in the year 50, he would have come up the slopes to the center of the city and seen the rise of a great Roman splendor. A kind of monumental city built around the remains of the older Greek city, the center of which was the temple of Apollo with its great monolithic Ionic columns standing up above the rest of the city.

And what does [Paul] do [when he arrives in Corinth?]

So when Paul gets there he must have gone among the merchants and the artisans who would have been the key figures in the economic growth of the city, precisely because Corinth was an important trade center spanning the Eastern and the Western half of the Mediterranean. ...The city of Corinth is a bustling cosmopolitan place with people from all over the Mediterranean world there, and so when we see Paul in Corinth he's really another one of these travelers and tradesman. Traditionally at least Paul is a tent maker. He's somehow involved in the tent making or leather working industry. We've often viewed Paul as some sort of handworker. He may be actually from the upper artisan class. His family may have owned the business back in Tarsus. We're not absolutely sure but it's quite reasonable to think of Paul then moving very comfortably among the artisans who frequent and inhabit the marketplaces of a city like Corinth ....

... Let's imagine Paul going up the main street of Corinth through the monumental Roman archway into the forum, the center of city life, the place where all the business and most of the political activities are done in the public life of this Roman city. Here are the shops. Here are the offices of the city magistrates, and we're standing literally in the shadow of the great temple of Apollo. It's among these artisans, among the shopkeepers, among the bustle of activity of a Greek city that we must imagine Paul beginning to talk about his message of Jesus and so when we hear Paul say "I've determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah and him crucified," that must have struck an interesting chord among these cosmopolitan Greeks who would have inhabited Corinth at that time.

How would they have reacted?

They must have reacted as if this is some sort of strange message at certain levels. What does it mean to call someone the Christ or the Messiah? It must not have been intelligible to a lot of them until some sort of explanation could be given. From other references within Paul['s writings] we can determine some of the rudiments of his preaching message. He talks about how they turn from idols to serve a living God so he brings a message of the one Jewish God as part of his preaching. He's a Jewish preacher. Secondly, he talks about the wrath to come, a kind of apocalyptic image of a coming judgment on all who worship idols and don't serve that living God, and thirdly he talks about Jesus the Messiah as the one who will deliver from that wrath. So in Paul's view it is the messianic identity of Jesus that is an important new element in this very traditional Jewish message and now there's one other element. He's taking it to a non-Jewish audience. He's preaching to gentiles.

So why is he preaching to gentiles?

Paul had decided to preach to gentiles apparently out of his own revelatory experience that this was the mission that had been given him by God when God called him to function as a prophet for this new Jesus movement.

But Paul was Jewish, wasn't he?

Paul was Jewish. Paul was a Jewish prophet but when Paul talks about himself he describes himself as having been called from the womb to serve and fulfill this mission. But that language of being called from the womb is prophetic language drawn directly from the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Jeremiah, so Paul sees himself in direct continuity with this Jewish legacy of the prophetic tradition as someone called to have a special purpose. A special function on behalf of God.

Do we know anything about Paul's upbringing, his background?

Traditionally Paul grew up as a Diaspora Jew. That is from a Jewish family, [with a] very traditional Jewish upbringing but living not in the homeland but rather in Tarsus, a city in Eastern Turkey. So he lives in a Greek city, itself, in fact, an interesting kind of crossroads on the frontier of the Middle East, and yet he also had a very traditional Jewish education. He was himself a Pharisee and trained as a Pharisee so he would have been conversant with the tradition of interpretation of the scriptures and indeed of the prophets themselves. When we hear Paul using prophetic language both as a way of framing his preaching message and also as a way of describing his own self-understanding, it is because he was steeped in that prophetic language from his own studies in the Jewish tradition.


Why does Paul go to Antioch?

We ha[ve] the story of Paul's life in a complete narrative fashion given to us in the Book of Acts, which details his activities from the time that he was in Jerusalem to the time that he goes to Damascus. There [he] has a conversion experience and afterwards comes back to Jerusalem. He then moves on to Antioch, one of the other important cities of the Greek East under Roman rule. In fact it's the capital of Roman Syria. We also know that there was a very large Jewish community in Antioch, and apparently when Paul went there it was because he understood it to offer a very important opportunity for him to preach this new message that he had come to understand as a result of his own revelatory experience about Jesus.

...Alongside of our account of Paul's life that we get from the Book of Acts we also have an account that Paul himself gives us and it's very important to notice that in some ways these two accounts contradict one another. They're not completely parallel in the way they describe certain events in Paul's career. For example in Galatians, when Paul tells us about his early career, he explicitly says he has little or nothing to do with Jerusalem early on. Only later does he come back to Jerusalem to become more familiar with the leaders of the Jerusalem Christian community. Paul himself spends more of his time away from Jerusalem. Initially in the area of Arabia. Probably around the city of Damascus, and then he moves back to Antioch. Paul describes much of his activity in the early stages of his career as a Christian. That is after his conversion around the areas of Antioch and Tarsus, his hometown.

Now when Paul describes his return to Antioch it's clear that's he working in this mixed Jewish and non-Jewish or gentile population of a major cosmopolitan center. Antioch itself has one of the largest Jewish communities outside of the Jewish homeland in the Roman period. It's been suggested that maybe something like forty thousand people in this Jewish community. So we must imagine a number of different Jewish congregations and sub-sections of the city in and through which Paul could have moved and still felt very much at home within the Jewish community. Some of these Jewish congregations probably like Paul, probably like other people in the homeland, also knew this apocalyptic message of a messianic expectation and maybe more than one kind of Messiah. Just like we see back in the homeland at this same period. So expect Paul to be preaching about a Messiah. To be talking about a messianic identity isn't really all that unique in and of itself, rather, it's more important to recognize that Paul and other followers of the Jesus movement of this time would have been given a special new meaning or a special new kind of information about their understanding of who and what that Messiah was to be.


Which was?

In the Jesus movement it's clear that a new understanding has come to the fore. In fact it's slightly odd from certain perspectives. One doesn't normally expect that a Messiah should die and yet we have this ironic message in Paul that in fact the Messiah is the one who has been crucified. Now it's true that one could within a standard Jewish tradition think of the Messiah dying. The difference is that even when a Messiah should go through some sort of death or suffering that the event precipitated by that death should be the coming of the new kingdom.... What we find in Paul, and indeed among most of the early Christians, is a slightly ironic twist of fate that the death of the Messiah doesn't immediately inaugurate the new kingdom, and yet that doesn't seem to diminish their sense of apocalyptic expectation. Paul still thinks it's coming soon. He will go through his entire life thinking the kingdom will come soon but the Messiah had already died.

How does Paul refer to Jesus?

So when we hear Paul talking about the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, we're beginning to get for the first time in the New Testament the language that will become the hallmark of all the later Christian tradition. Indeed it's where we get much of the vocabulary that makes Christianity distinctive. The term "Christ" is a title. It's the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messioc and they mean exactly the same thing. They both refer to someone who is anointed. ... It's identifying him as a religious figure in a new way.

...[However] for Paul to use the term "Christ" does not automatically signal that we're dealing within a Christian frame of reference that everyone would have recognized. The term Christ, Messiah, could have been used by any number of different Jewish people and still meant different things. So just to hear that term even in the Greek city like Antioch probably wasn't all that unique, and yet it had to have sparked some interest. It's significant therefore that the Book of Acts tells us that the term "Christian" is a follower of the Messiah or a proponant of some Messiah.


The term "Christian" was first coined in Antioch probably some ten maybe even fifteen years after the death of Jesus. Now while this term Christian of course becomes the standard terminology for all later Christian traditions, and we think of it in much more lofty and positive terms, at the time that it was coined it was probably a slur. It was probably thrown at these early followers of Jesus as some derogatory designation of them. This is what we often see happening with new religious movements.... We often find in the sociology of sectarian groups that the group may have one self designation. They may call themselves "the way" or "the true light" or something like that because that's their religious self conception, but outsiders will often label them by the name of the leader or the name of some catchy element in their message that sparks their interest. So when we hear at Antioch that they're called "Christians" we have to think of that in more in the vein of them being called "Messianists" or "Christies." People who follow a Messiah or just talk about the Messiah an awful lot and we're not actually sure who coined the term. Whether it's other Jews who didn't believe in the Messiah or pagans who heard these Jewish groups talking about messianic ideas. It's not entirely clear.


Were there practical issues that arose during the time that Paul was in Antioch? Can you describe to me the difference in the tension between Jerusalem and Antioch? The tensions that arose over time.

It's during the time that Paul is Antioch that a major new development starts to take place in the Christian movement. Because it's there that we first hear of the expansion of the movement more to gentiles, to non-Jews. Even though it's coming out of this predominantly Jewish social context of the synagogue communities of Antioch. Now the situation seems to be that initially when people were attracted to the Jesus movement, they first became Jews and they had to go through all the rituals and rites of conversion to Judaism. But apparently it's among Paul and some of his close supporters that they began to think that it was okay to become a member of the Christian movement without having to go through all of those rites of conversion to Judaism, and that would, in the case of Paul's career, spark one of the most important controversies of the first generation of the Christian movement. Do you have to become a Jew in order to be a follower of Jesus as the Messiah?

The major issues in converting to Judaism for a gentile, for a non-Jew, is that one must, if a male, become circumcised, and of course this was a an obvious distinction if one is working out in a Greek gymnasium where everyone was nude to begin with so the physical fact of circumcision was the noticeably distinctive quality to Jewish self-identity in the Greco-Roman world. So the ritual of circumcision as a process of conversion to Judaism is one of those major hurdles that people would have thought about from the Greek world background in which Paul was living.

Now the other things that one must do in order to convert to Judaism, in addition to circumcision if a male, would be to observe the Torah. That is, the Jewish law and the dietary and other kinds of purity regulations that would have come from the Torah.

The one other thing to say, though, is that conversion to Judaism was actually much easier for women, and it may actually be the simple fact that more women could easily be attracted to Judaism...we know that later on when we see Paul's churches in the Greek world... in those Greek cities there are far more women in them, and it may be that this is where he had an early following precisely because it was already a hurdle that was easier to jump.

So how did Paul get this idea that it was okay not to do all this stuff? What was his logic?

Paul's notion that it was possible for gentiles to enter the congregation of God without some of the rules of Judaism interestingly enough seems to be a conviction on his part that comes from his own interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. In fact he gets it mostly from the prophet Isaiah. Paul's message of the conversion of gentiles seems to be predicated on the Isaiah language of what will happen when the kingdom comes when the Messiah has arrived and there will be a light to the nations, "a light to the gentiles." And in that sense Paul views the messianic age having arrived with Jesus as being a window of opportunity for bringing in the gentiles into the elect status alongside the people of Israel. So what Paul is really doing is creating this apocalyptic message of what the kingdom is about to be, and the arrival of the gentiles, the engrafting or integrating of the gentiles who will come to believe in the true God of Israel into the community of Israel as the elect nation, then is one of the hallmarks of the messianic age.


Do these views that Paul had, did they cause conflict or tension with the group in Jerusalem?

Apparently Paul's attitude toward gentile converts stimulated controversy both at Antioch among the Jewish communities there and also among the older Christian communities back in Jerusalem. There are several issues involved here. One is the notion of the dietary laws, the eating restrictions that would have obtained for eating certain kinds of food if one was an observant Jew. Also with whom one could eat, and so we see some indication during Paul's time in Antioch that this becomes a source of some tension. Precisely because in Paul's view it's now possible to integrate these gentiles, people who don't keep the proper food laws, into a dining fellowship with Jews, all of whom are followers of Jesus. And it's in that mixed community where fellowship around a common meal and the celebration of the story of Jesus is the center where Paul brings everyone together, but because it's at a meal it also runs headlong into some Jewish sensitivities about what kind of foods you can eat and with whom you can eat.

Now where we see this tension coming to a head most clearly is after Paul returns from a conference in Jerusalem. When he went to Jerusalem he took with him a young gentile convert by the name of Titus who was Paul's test case and Paul says explicitly that he went down to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there. ... Peter, one of the leading Apostles from all the gospel stories, and James the brother of Jesus himself.... When Paul goes to see them he takes with him Titus and some of others of the Antioch community who are his supporters in the beginning..., and they go down to ask the question of "how do we deal with these gentile converts?" and they manage to get some sort of rough agreement with the Jerusalem leadership. They agree that it's okay for Paul to convert these gentiles and yet not to force them to be circumcised.

So when Paul goes back to Antioch he seems to think that he's won a major victory in the understanding of what the Christian will be. Shortly after his return to Antioch, however, Peter arrives from Jerusalem. Initially Peter seems to have been willing to [keep] fellowship with Paul and these gentile converts. He eats with them, but then not too long thereafter some other people from Jerusalem arrive and Peter backs off. He refuses to eat with them, and Paul blows his stack because he feels that Peter has backed out on a fundamental agreement on what it means for gentiles to convert to followers of Jesus. Paul says he confronts Peter to his face and challenges him with hypocrisy.

What was the flip side of the [agreement with Peter and James in Jerusalem]? Did Paul agree to do anything in return ...?

The other thing that emerged out of the Jerusalem conference was that Paul would go predominantly to a gentile audience and from this point on in Paul's career he is a preacher predominantly to gentiles. He doesn't really work mostly in Jewish communities any longer. In fact he even says that Peter is the one charged to be the missionary to the Jewish communities. Now as part of this agreement that was reached in Jerusalem, Paul also decides that it would be important to raise funds in support of the poor in Jerusalem. That is, the followers of the Jesus movement who live there and who seem to be beset with some problems as a result of the famine or other kind of economic distress. So part of Paul's missionary activity for the rest of his career is raising funds to bring back to Jerusalem.

So what happens after he and Peter have this blow up? What does Paul do?

The blow up in Antioch over eating with gentiles probably is the turning point in Paul's career. Up until that point Paul has worked predominantly within Diaspora Jewish communities, where he moves out of the Jewish context to deal with gentiles, but after the blow up with Peter, Paul leaves Antioch and probably never returned again. And from that point on, Paul works almost exclusively within gentile communities. Now we know he does encounter other Jews in these major Greek cities and there presumably are Jewish communities in all of them, but Paul doesn't view himself as working any longer within a predominantly Jewish matrix.

Read Paul's account of the altercation at Antioch in his letter to Galatians.


After the blow up with Peter at Antioch, Paul left and went to Western Turkey or Asia Minor and Greece, and that would be the new center of his missionary activity for the next ten years of his life. The dates are hard to decipher here in precise detail but if we think of the Jerusalem conference in about the year 48 by the year 49 or 50, we know that Paul is up in Northern Greece, Macedonia, in the cities of Phillipi and Thessalonica. By the year 50 he arrives in Corinth and it's at that juncture that we think of him then beginning to preach this message of Jesus Christ.... For the next ten years... from 50 to roughly 60, Paul will concentrate all of his efforts in this region of the Aegean basin. That is the region bounded by the Eastern coast of Greece and the Western coast of Turkey and the island in-between. That will be his mission center for the next ten years.

...Now within this circuit of the Aegean basin Paul basically has two or three major cities that serve as his mission bases. We know of the two cities up in \Macedonia, Phillipi and Thessalonica, that he frequents. He travels to them on several different occasions. Corinth is his base in Southern Greece. On the Eastern side of the Aegean in Turkey his base is the major city of Ephesus which precisely at the time that Paul is arriving there is about to become the most important metropolis of all Asia.

...[I]n about the year 50 to 55 when Paul is traveling back and forth from Corinth to Ephesus, this is a period when the whole Aegean is going through the beginnings of a massive growth under Roman expansion... Roman development. We should think of it as Roman urbanization programs. Now Ephesus up until this time had really not been the major city of Asia. Only under the Emperor Nero and a little later on would it really take off and grow to become the most important Greek city in the East. Paul was there just at the beginning of that process, and so we have to imagine Paul coming in to Ephesus from the harbor, down the main street to the Greek theater and encountering what was at that stage still a smallish city but one that was just about ready to take off. Like Corinth, Ephesus was a cosmopolitan environment. We have to imagine traders there from Egypt, from the Turkish hinterlands, from Greece, from Italy. In fact the inscriptions and the statues and the art work and the buildings all tell us that this is really a crossroads of culture and religious life throughout the Mediterranean world.


So what does Paul do when he gets to Ephesus?

While all of the cities to which Paul travels in this period are very important to his work, it's probably Ephesus and the areas immediately around Ephesus that will be his most important base of operations. For several years we will see Paul living in and around Ephesus and writing letters back and forth to these other congregations. We have to think of it this way; Paul mostly travels around in a kind of circuit of these congregations around the Aegean rim, or he sends out his helpers and his co-workers, people like Timothy and Titus, to take information or check out what's happening over in Phillipi or some place like that. Sometimes perhaps even to go and help start a new congregation. Some place over in, say, Colossae or maybe up toward the interior in Galatia. So we have to imagine the Pauline mission as a kind of beehive of activity... as Paul, his co-workers, other Christians from various cities are all traveling back and forth across the Aegean, but most importantly, we discover Paul doing something new. He writes letters as a mechanism for further instructing them in his understanding of the Christian message. You see it's Paul who starts the writing of the New Testament by writing letters to these fledgling congregations in the cities of the Greek East.

What kinds of letters is he writing? Is he writing scripture?

Now when we say that Paul writes letters we have to realize that Paul really doesn't think of himself as writing scripture. He hasn't yet thought of a New Testament. It didn't exist yet. For Paul the Bible means the Hebrew Scriptures, or more precisely, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Septuagint. So when Paul quotes scripture he's quoting from the Hebrew Bible in its Greek form. When Paul writes letters he's writing everyday, ordinary letters to real people in real cities trying to deal with the circumstances in which they're living. ...[H]e does want to deal with theological issues, but Paul isn't writing theological treatises as much as he's giving advice and instruction and encouragement for living.

Is he meeting any conflicts? Are there practical problems that he has to kind of worry about?

The other thing that Paul's letters show us is that these fledgling congregations are also facing enormous difficulties of social adjustment, and so when Paul writes he very often is trying to mediate disputes or settle the social tensions that crop up precisely because of the mixture of people that come in to these congregations. For example we know that Paul wrote at least four or more letters to Corinth, only two of which seem to be preserved in the New Testament, and there are probably maybe as many as ten different letters that go back and forth between Corinth and Paul during the time that he's living in Ephesus. We also know from the letters that there are at least five or six different congregations of Christians in Corinth, each one located in someone's home in some different suburb of the city. So we hear of people like Chloe and Gaeas and Stephanus and a very prominent woman by the name of Phoebe who lives in the port city of Cenchreae. All of whom have congregations that gather in their homes, and so it's this mixed and varied small cell group kind of organization that probably establishes some of the important social context for Paul's letters, precisely because there are disagreements that crop up. There are differences of opinion on what the message means. There are differences of behavior and ethical patterns that these converts will naturally incline toward in their attempt to live the Christian life. Some of them take the message differently and it's those differences of opinion that prompt some controversy that Paul himself feels compelled to respond to in his letters. First Corinthians is a very good example here. Paul says, "I hear there are disputes among you," and he proceeds then to talk about the difficulties that these disputes create in the life of the Christian communities there.

One of the difficulties is precisely over social differentiation among the members of the community. Rich and poor, Jewish and gentile are living side by side and worshipping side by side, and sometimes the tension seems to want to fragment the entire community. Paul has to say it's really the fellowship of the community, the ability to come together that's the important hallmark of the Christian message, and he has to try to show them the way to get back to that ideal.

What's the tone of Paul's letters? Describe his tone. Does it change?

When we see Paul's letters, we realize that he's writing a very ordinary kind of prose letter writing style because it's very similar to what we see in all the standard letters of the ancient world. Letter writing itself had a very standardized style and tone, and we know from the discovery of many, many letters from Egypt among the papyri that the practice of letter writing and the forms of letter writing had become very commonplace in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul's letters match up with these typical letters from the ancient world very, very well. Paul adapted some of the standard stylistic features of letter writing to the particular needs of his own theological concerns and his needs of instruction for these Christian communities. So Paul kind of develops a standard letter form for his style of writing. But within that standard style Paul is very adaptable. He's able to take the standard elements of a letter and make them fit the peculiar needs of any given situation. If the Corinthian community is suffering from too much division and strife he turns it into a letter of instruction on harmony and unity. In the case of the Thessalonian congregation when they're not sure about what's going to happen to them he turned it into a letter of consolation and comfort. In the case of the Galatian community when they seemed to be ready to turn their back on Paul entirely and become much more Jewish in their orientation he turns into a scolding parent and blisters them with purple prose about how they cannot turn back on the Gospel of Christ that he had given them. So the letters very sharply intone according to the needs of the situation and the circumstances to which he's writing.


It's clear that one of the concerns that keep showing up throughout this period of Paul's ministry is when is this kingdom going to arrive. What's going to happen? How soon? From a fairly early stage we know that almost from the moment that Paul began preaching in the Greek world that people assumed that the kingdom would have to arrive soon. Paul's very first letter, the earliest, single writing that we have in the New Testament is First Thessalonians and already in First Thessalonians Paul is having to console them when people are starting to die within the congregation and the kingdom hasn't arrived yet.

Still, by the end of Paul's career when he writes the massive Roman letter, probably the last thing that he wrote, and when he writes it he still is saying the time has grown short. The kingdom is still near. It appears that Paul never expected to die before the kingdom would arrive and so this apocalyptic message that was the hallmark of the earliest stages of the Jesus movement is still one of its central features prophetic preaching of Paul.

So Paul's mediating all this stuff, trying to keep all these people more or less on target but is he also making other plans? Is he envisioning something? Does he have a sense of urgency?

Paul's an interesting case because he is so able to blend a thoroughly Jewish self consciousness and a thoroughly Jewish interpretation of scripture with a great deal of knowledge of Greek rhetoric and philosophy of standard letter writing and other aspects of Greek culture. Paul really is a blend of all of those things and it's precisely that blending that seems to provide a lot of the dynamic quality of his understanding of early Christianity. Now when Paul gets to the end of his Aegean phase of ministry he seems also to be facing some problems. We know that later on... by the middle fifties... around 55 to 58, other Christians are starting to move in to Paul's territories and starting to argue with his congregations over proper forms of Christian practice and belief.


Paul's a controversial figure throughout his life. It started when he was back in Antioch. It continues throughout his Aegean ministry, and... the conflicts and controversies that Paul precipitates by virtue of his personality and his preaching really will follow him throughout his career.

By around the year 58 or 60, though, Paul seems to have felt that he had done as much as he could do in the Greek East and was preparing to move on. When Paul wrote the Roman letter, it's the longest of all of his letters and the last one that he wrote, he was preparing to go to Rome. He was writing to Rome but he himself had never been there. We know who was carrying the letter. It's his house church patroness Phoebe who has gone ahead to Rome to prepare the way.... Paul is going to Rome to get the Christian communities at Rome to support him in a new endeavor to go to start a new gentile mission in an area that had never before heard the preaching of Jesus. But before he does that he wants to fulfill the promise that he had made to Peter and James back in the Jerusalem conference. For these ten years that he's been in the Aegean he's had his congregations collecting monies together to take back to Jerusalem. Now we find him gathering all that up, each congregation sending an emissary with their part of the contribution, and they're all going as a entourage to lay it at the feet of James in Jerusalem. James is the brother of Jesus, now the leader of the Jerusalem congregation, and it is the direct legacy to Jesus himself through the family members that seems to be very important in this first generation of the Jerusalem congregation.

Does he make it and what happens?

Paul apparently never got to Spain, although we don't know for sure. What seems to have happened is when he went back to Jerusalem with the contribution, he was arrested as some sort of rabble rouser.... This sets the stage for his eventual trials and... tradition holds he eventually died a martyr's death....


We don't know precisely what happened to either Peter or Paul. Tradition holds that they were both martyred in Rome in around the year 64. This was after the great fire, and the emperor Nero seemed to have wanted to blame the fire on a variety of groups in Rome such as Jews and Christians. Now what really happened to Peter and Paul, we can never say for sure but by the mid sixties, say between 62 and 64, it does appear that both Peter and Paul have died. About the same time Josephus tells us that James, the brother of Jesus at Jerusalem, has also been killed. All in about the same two or three year period, so by the mid sixties the original first generation of leadership of the Christian movement has passed away and this is going to set the stage for an important shift that will occur within the next few years.

We also shouldn't minimize the level of expectation that was going through their minds at that time because ... with the passing of this first generation, the expectation that all of those coming events must be closer to hand probably was a concern for a lot of people. At the same time the situation in Jerusalem itself was becoming a good bit more tense...

Holland Lee Hendrix:

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


Paul alludes in a number of his letters to the message that he would have communicated verbally probably in the settings of the forum... and the homes of private individuals in these cities. And in talking about what he preached to them, he emphasizes two things; on the one hand, very clearly, the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the other hand he also emphasizes the importance of understanding the end time, and the immediacy of the end time, and that one must be prepared for it, and the way one prepares for it is to be good. We find a lot of ethics in Paul. And it's around this issue of how one lives in anticipation of the end time that's just around the corner for Paul. This is tied very importantly to Paul's message about the saving significance the dead, now risen, Jesus.

Clearly the message about the coming end time was the part that would have been threatening to a Roman official and would have been threatening to any native population that had vested some authority in Roman officialdom. And it's very important to keep that in mind. Paul would not just have upset potentially Roman officials, Paul would have upset local populations dependent on Roman rule for their livelihood and continued peace and security.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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