Adolf Deissmann knew that “you are there” value over a hundred years ago. He called his ground-breaking volume Light from the Ancient East, but intended Light not just as a metaphor for information, knowledge, or wisdom. He meant it literally, like this:
Something special happens, we are convinced, when you stand on the heights of Priene in the Mediterranean sunlight and read that huge fallen beam from a temple once dedicated to the Imperator Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus. There, and elsewhere, on Pauline and non-Pauline sites, we ask you to stand with us, possibly on location but certainly in imagination.
Second, this new approach from integrated archaeology and exegesis breaks new ground as it relates the apostle Paul to the Roman imperial world that surrounded him, the Jewish covenantal religion that formed him, and the Christian faith that enthralled him.
Paul and the Roman Empire. We will of course travel to cities Paul actually visited but we will also study sites he never saw but which tell us much about the world in which he lived. Our new question is this: where does archaeology uncover most clearly Rome’s imperial theology that Paul’s Christian theology confronted non-violently but opposed relentlessly. In Paul’s lifetime Roman emperors were deemed divine, and, first and foremost, Augustus was called Son of God, God, and God of God. He was Lord, Redeemer, and Savior of the World. People knew that both verbally from Latin authors like Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and visually from coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums, from ports, roads, bridges, and aqueducts, from landscapes transformed and cities established. It was all around them everywhere just as advertising is all around us today. Without seeing the archaeology of Roman imperial theology, you cannot understand any exegesis of Pauline Christian theology.
Some scholars of Paul have already emphasized creatively and accurately the confrontation between Pauline Christianity and Roman imperialism. That clash is at the core of our book but we see it incarnating deeper and even more fundamental strains beneath the surface of human history. What is newest about this book is our insistence that Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.
Paul’s essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a newcreation in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, or human rights. The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace. Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus’ footsteps and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace though justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, non-violence, justice, and peace. A subtext of In Search of Paul is, therefore, to what extent can America be Christian. We are now the greatest post-industrial civilization as Rome was then the greatest pre-industrial one. That is precisely what makes Paul’s challenge equally forceful for now as for then, for here as for there, for SPQA as for SPQR.
Paul and the Jewish Covenant. In an ancient world divided between Jews and Gentiles, there was also a third, in-between category of pagans sympathetic to Judaism. In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles calls them “God-fearers” or “God-worshippers.” They remained pagans but they admired Jewish culture, attended synagogue services on the Sabbath and were a very important buffer-zone against any localized anti-Judaism. What is new in this book is our claim that those pagan sympathizers are absolutely crucial for understanding both Paul’s mission and message.
We argue that Paul went to Jewish synagogues not to convert Jews (despite those stories in the Acts of the Apostles) but to “un-convert” their pagan sympathizers. That convert-poaching was inflammatory in the highest possible degree. He was, where successful, stripping a local synagogue of some or all of its most important religious, political, social, and financial defenders, all still operating fully in the urban civic world. That central focus explains many big questions about Paul.
First, his Gentile converts could readily understand his theology because they were already familiar with Jewish practices, traditions, and scriptures. Second, such synagogue-poaching would have generated stiff opposition not only from other local Jews but also from those local sympathizers who stayed loyal to Judaism. Third, that explains Paul’s polemical descriptions of Judaism in his letters. Paul is fighting to obtain and hold on to his God-worshippers and fiercely but unfairly--is polemics ever fair?--attacking the quite normal Judaism of his opponents. Fourth, that explains why Paul could move do fast from one major provincial capital to the other and could consider his work in the eastern Mediterranean finished when he wrote his letter to the Romans in the mid-50s. He was setting up small cells around those now-Christian God-worshippers and letting them bring in other pure-pagan converts. The Pauline express thundered along on God-worshipper rails and Paul moved fast because he did not have to lay track.
Paul and the Christian Community. In 1906 a small cave was discovered cut into the rock on the northern slope of Bülbül Dag, high above the ruins of ancient Ephesus, just off the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey. To the right of the entrance and beneath layers of plaster, Karl Herold of the Austrian Archaeological Institute uncovered two sixth-century images of Saint Thecla and Saint Paul.
They both have the same height and are therefore iconographically of equal importance. They both have their right hands raised in teaching gesture and are therefore iconographically of equal authority. But while the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, some later person scratched out the eyes and erased the upraised hand of Thecla. If the eyes of both images had been disfigured, it would be simply another example of iconoclastic antagonism since that was believed to negate the spiritual power of an icon without having to destroy it completely. But here only Thecla’s eyes and her authoritative hand are destroyed. Original imagery and defaced imagery represent a fundamental clash of theology. An earlier image in which Thecla and Paul were equally authoritative apostolic figures has been replaced by one in which the male is apostolic and authoritative and the female is blinded and silenced. And even the cave-room’s present name, St. Paul’s Grotto, continues that elimination of female-male equality once depicted on its walls.
We take that original assertion of equality and later counter-assertion of inequality as encapsulating visually the central claim of this book in terms of Christianity itself. The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote, held that within Christian communities, it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian woman, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians but not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home (2:8-15). And a later follower of Paul inserted in 1 Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home (14:33-36).
Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla’s eyes and hand in that hillside cave. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality. Our book is about the actual and historical Paul, about the radical apostle who was there before the reaction, revision, and replacement began. He did not think in terms of political democracy or universal human rights. He only said what Christianity has never been able to follow, that within it all are equal, and that is to be its witness and challenge to the world outside.
We put on our front cover an artist’s creative revision of that frescoed point/counterpoint from the Cave of St. Thecla and St. Paul. Paul is in the center under full spot-light, just as the church’s post-Pauline tradition has always placed him. Thecla is of equal height, with open eyes intact and upraised hand untouched but she is on the very edge of the cover. She is half-on and half-off. But, here are our questions. Is Thecla still departing or now returning? Does a search for Paul push female leadership, authority, and apostolicity off to the side and finally off that cover, or does a search for Paul bring Thecla, women, and equality back steadily and inevitably into the light until female and male stand together side by side in the full life of the center?
Back to the Roman Empire. In Matthew’s powerful parable, Pilate’s wife sent him this message as he sat in judgment on Jesus: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (27:19). That is all Matthew tells us about the interchange but imagine what might have happened later that day. When Pilate returned to his private quarters, he told his wife that he had received her advice but had condemned Jesus to death in any case. But this, he said, is what I cannot understand. “Why do these people oppose us? We have brought them law and order. We have brought them peace and prosperity. We have brought them culture and civilization. We have brought them free trade and international commerce. Why do they hate us so?”
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