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Paul, a Jew from Jerusalem

I am suggesting an understanding of Paul that is somewhat at odds with the one in Acts. From the surviving evidence it is impossible to say definitively that Acts is wrong; I actually think that the author was careful to produce a historical narrative that would have seemed plausible against his (?) own sources. At the same time, though, the portrayal of Paul in Acts leaves too many gaps and open questions when compared to Paul’s own letters. The Paul that I have depicted here can more easily be reconciled to the evidence provided by his letters.

See Also: How the Bible Became Holy (Yale University Press, 2014).

Michael L. Satlow
Brown University
September 2014

Few important figures from antiquity are as frustratingly elusive as Paul. His seven surviving letters (Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, First Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon, with scholars divided about the authenticity of Colossians and Second Thessalonians), probably written in the 50’s CE, have left a tangled theological legacy over which Christians have fought for nearly two millennia. This legacy, which grapples with the meaning of Christ and salvation, stands at the very center of nearly all varieties of Christianity. Paul’s theology is, in fact, so important that he, not Jesus, is considered by some to be the “founder of Christianity.”

But who was Paul? In his letters, Paul himself tells us precious little about himself and his background. Nearly all modern scholarly biographies of Paul largely depend on Acts of the Apostles, whose date and authorship has been a source of extensive debate. According to Acts, Paul himself stated, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (22:3, see also 21:39. All biblical translations from NRSV). Using this as their starting point, Paul’s modern biographers almost all understand him as a Hellenized Jew from a middle-class family (according to Acts 18:3, he himself was a tentmaker) who received both a Jewish and Greek education. Before moving to Jerusalem, according to this narrative, he would have learned Scripture in Greek as well as at least some basic elements of Greek philosophy and rhetoric.

This is not an unreasonable reconstruction. It explains Paul’s interest in Jews outside of Palestine; his knowledge of Greek and Scripture; and his acquaintance with Greek ideas and forms of letter-writing. At the same time, though, it leaves some troubling gaps. What do we actually know about what it meant to be a “Hellenized Jew,” especially when his writings are so different from Philo of Alexandria, who is sometimes seen as the exemplar of such a Jew? How would a child of a craftsman get an education in letters? How does Paul’s use of Scripture in his letters make sense against what we imagine to be Jewish practice outside of Palestine?

In this essay, which is based on the argument in my book How the Bible Became Holy (Yale UP, 2014), I would like to offer a different reconstruction. In short, Paul is best seen as coming from an upper-class, Jerusalem family. Paul’s upbringing would have been rather typical (even if the rest of his life was not) of such families and this context helps us to better understand some of the peculiar aspects of his letters. After considering Paul’s own few and brief statements, I will show how some often overlooked features of Paul’s letters (especially his use of Scripture) reinforce the picture of a Paul who makes much more sense in Jerusalem than in Tarsus.

Paul tells us exceedingly little about his background and education, but the little that he does say is revealing. Paul never identifies himself as having been born outside of Judea. In fact, in his biographical précis, he states that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). Two features are striking. First, Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee and, to our knowledge, Pharisees existed only in Palestine. Second, and more significantly, he identifies himself as being from the “tribe of Benjamin.” This makes no sense as a term of tribal identity; by Paul’s time such tribal affiliations had long been defunct. Instead, what this must surely mean is that Paul is from the territory of Benjamin, that is, Jerusalem. Paul tells us nothing further about his family, but if it is correct, the report of Acts (23:16) that Paul’s nephew was in Jerusalem would reinforce the hypothesis that Paul was born and raised in Jerusalem.

But does this make sense? Can a Jerusalem upbringing in Jerusalem provide a plausible context for Paul’s letters? That depends greatly on what we imagine an education in Jerusalem was like, and how a Jerusalem Jew might have differed from a Jew from Asia Minor who was in the same socio-economic class.

First, it is worth stating the obvious: Paul was relatively literate in Greek and had some familiarity with both Greek ideas and the skill of letter-writing. We must be careful about judging the degree of his literacy; Paul dictated at least some of his letters (see Romans 16:22; 1 Corinthians 16:21) and perhaps had less skill writing than we suspect. In any case, it is likely that Paul’s first language was Greek, although he probably knew Aramaic just as well. His knowledge of Hebrew was probably quite limited. At first blush, this might seem to argue against the hypothesis that Paul was from Jerusalem. We might expect these characteristics more from a Jew raised in Asia Minor.

That, however, would be mistaken. Paul’s profile also precisely accords with what we might suspect of upper-class, well-educated (but not scribal) Jews in Jerusalem. Our best example of such a Jew is the historian Josephus Flavius, who was only slightly older than Paul. Josephus knew Aramaic, probably as his vernacular language, and was trained in Greek well-enough to write histories, although with some assistance (Josephus, Antiquities 20.263). There is little evidence that he knew very much Hebrew. Josephus’s parents most likely hired a pedagogue, an instructor in Greek, to tutor him, because all upper-class Jerusalem Jews were expected to know Greek (as the many Greek epitaphs on Jerusalem ossuaries and burial caves from the time also attest) and use it, especially in official business and literary pursuits. For many of these Jews, Aramaic might have been their ordinary spoken language. While it is true that Paul nowhere tells us that he is from a wealthy family, the very fact of his literacy – with perhaps his too-defensive a statement that he makes his living from his own hands (1 Corinthians 9:6) – strongly suggests it.

What of his Jewish education? The comparison with Josephus is again illuminating. Josephus claims to have been well-educated in “ancestral traditions.” By this he means the traditional way of life, not necessarily a text (Josephus, Life 8-9). Josephus undoubtedly learned some Scripture growing up, but it is far from certain how much or in what context. He would have heard the Torah read on Sabbaths in synagogue, but the readings were most likely in the form of ad hoc selections, not a consecutive progression through the text as is a regular practice today. He would not have fully understood the biblical Hebrew but instead would have depended for comprehension on the oral, Aramaic translation (targum). Only later, in Rome, does Josephus engage himself in deep reading of Scripture, quite possibly in Greek.

Compare Paul to Josephus. Paul, too, may not have learned much Scripture formally as part of his elementary education or, indeed, even as a Pharisee, a group that was marked by its mastery of the “ancestral traditions.” He would have heard pieces of Scripture in the synagogue and understood it through its Aramaic translation. Later, as he began to travel through the Greek-speaking Diaspora, he would have become increasingly familiar with Scripture in Greek.

This context helps us to better understand Paul’s use of Scripture in his letters. It is often said that Paul relied on the Septuagint when he cited Scripture, but this is not exactly right. Building on the work of earlier scholars, in 1957, a scholar named E. Earle Ellis categorized Paul’s scriptural citations. He found that in none of Paul’s genuine letters did more than 40% of his citations agree with the Septuagint, whether the Septuagint version was similar or different from the Hebrew. Predictably, Paul almost never cites the Hebrew version of Scripture when it diverges from the Greek; his command of Hebrew was shaky. The real surprise, though, is that in every letter more than 50% of his citations do not agree with either the Hebrew or extant Greek versions. The differences are often minor, but this fact nevertheless demands an explanation.

Scholars have actually long noted this problem and have offered several answers. One is that Paul cited from memory and sometimes distorted Scripture in order to better make his argument. A second was that Paul was citing from Greek versions that we no longer possess. There is no way to positively reject either of these explanations, but I think that a third fits better with what we now know of Paul: his first knowledge of Scripture came through Aramaic translations.

By the time he wrote his letters, Paul’s knowledge of Scripture was deep but jumbled. Much he learned orally, in snippets, in Aramaic translation. Some, though, he knew from direct reading in Greek which he did later in life as he traveled through the Diaspora. Perhaps he copied verses that he liked into a notebook that he consulted later when writing (a suggestion advocated by the scholar Christopher Stanley), but we should not imagine that he had several reference materials open in front of him as he composed these letters in Greek. Much of his quotation was done by memory on the fly.

Placing Paul first in Jerusalem and only later in the Diaspora also helps us to make more sense of other characteristics of the way that he cites Scripture. Diaspora Jews, exemplified by Philo, greatly preferred the Torah to other books of the Hebrew Bible. Paul most frequently cites from Isaiah and Psalms, followed by Genesis, Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus. This largely mirrors the citation patterns found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Isaiah and Psalms in particular were popular in Judea; not so much so in the Diaspora. Moreover, Paul uses citation formulas (e.g., “as it is written”) that also characterize Judean literature in contrast to Jewish literature produced in the Diaspora.

I am suggesting an understanding of Paul that is somewhat at odds with the one in Acts. From the surviving evidence it is impossible to say definitively that Acts is wrong; I actually think that the author was careful to produce a historical narrative that would have seemed plausible against his (?) own sources. At the same time, though, the portrayal of Paul in Acts leaves too many gaps and open questions when compared to Paul’s own letters. The Paul that I have depicted here can more easily be reconciled to the evidence provided by his letters.

Understanding Paul as fundamentally a Palestinian Jew who spent much time in the Diaspora has significant, although subtle, ramifications. While there was never a bright and clear border between “Palestinian” and “Hellenistic” Judaism (all the more so due to the prevalence of Greek among the elite in Judea), and Paul, like Josephus and many others in his class traveled comfortably throughout the Roman empire, Paul should be considered first and foremost a Jew from Palestine. This does not mean that Paul must be seen as always typical or in agreement with his compatriots, but when he is not (as, for example, E. P. Sanders has argued for his soteriology) we can better see where and how he differs, and frame our questions accordingly. At the same time, it raises questions about the potential gaps between what Paul attempted to convey in his writings and how his letters might actually have been read by Gentiles in, for example, Corinth or Asia Minor. Paul may not have known his audience as well as we sometimes think.

Comments (2)

If it's true that Paul generally quotes from memory and gets a bit 'jumbled' do we not then have sufficient reason for his exact words' not being found elsewhere without postulating that his memory was further confused by his having encountered the text in two languages? There again, would it have been that difficult for a popular preacher, with some following in several centres, to get his hands on a bible when he wanted one?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 10/02/2014 - 21:34

That Paul may have been a Judean is fascinating, and the argument is good for the most part but he does state he was born in Tarsus.

Other points of mine are...
* Could he have been a garment-maker rather than a tent-maker? It makes sense if you recall that the traditional Jewish outer garment was historically used as a covering and still perhaps colloquially referred to as a tent. The urban background and his lodging lean me away from "tent" making.
* Josephus wrote propagandistic history.
* I think Aramaic in the synagogue was used to distinguish targumim from scripture.
* Sidnie White Crawford writes of "The Fluid Bible" wherein texts were not generally standardized in Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Greek until 2nd(?) c. CE.
* Paul's scripture quotes, even his own narrative, was probably at least greatly shaped by or more likely the majority product of the transcriber/redactor
#2 - Rick Carpenter - 10/07/2014 - 23:42

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