I think most of us Christians take Paul for granted. I’m not sure how many of us, especially those of us swimming in a Christian context the entirety of our lives, believing as we all do in a resurrected Jesus as an inevitable fact, can fully appreciate the world the early Christians were reckoning and the mission Paul, in particular, chose to embark on.
Trying as I am to get a crash course on the contextual world at that time, leaning heavily as I am on NT Wright’s biography of Paul has helped me a bit to put myself into that world.
First of all, consider Paul, he grew up a devout, in his words zealous pharisee in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, a city teaming with intellectual diversity, Romans, pagans, philosophers, and Jews spanning that devoted spectrum. Paul, notably, was a Roman citizen but also notably a devote, perhaps a prodigious scholar of the Hebrew scriptures. His knowledge of philosophy, scripture and languages become evident in his writings and interactions on his multiple missions.
But early on, his zealous membership in the pharisaical tradition placed him in a violent collision course with the early Christians. The Jews at this time were desperate to shed themselves of Roman rule and reinstate the Jewish kingdom in Israel. They knew the scriptures, and they believed what it would take to get their was complete devotion to the one true God, and complete adherence to the law of Moses. Any deviation from that path could not be tolerated and in that vein, violence was deemed necessary to stamp down heresies.
We know what happened next. Paul has the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s blind for three days, in total darkness, realizing his worldview has been completely turned upside down. He’s miraculously healed, joins the early Christians and re-absorbs what this means. Acts traverses this time period rather quickly, but in reality, he spends quite a bit of time reorienting himself with this new paradigm. Restudying the scriptures, discovering fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus, but in a way he never anticipated.
Soon after, Peter receives the revelation to share the message of this gospel to the entire world.
So, now consider the world at this time. Paul is about embark on multiple missions, walking hundreds of miles, talking to zealot Jews desperate to overthrow the Romans, expecting a Messiah to help them get that job done, conversing with Romans and non-Jewish pagans, who have established complex societies steeped in a deep historical culture of philosophy, multiple gods and a Roman empire whose head is considered near deity.
Many, likely, never heard of Jesus. Many who had, knew him as a radical, sentenced to death by crucifixion, one of the most ignominious punishments at the time.
In Acts 17, Paul spends some time in the synagogue in Thessalonica. He ends up organizing a small community of believers here but not before incurring the wrath of the Jews. In verse 6 they say, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;”
They were right about that. Paul’s mission was to turn the world upside down. And for those of us now living in it, it’s easy to forget just how successful he ended up being in that mission.