This week there were several bits and pieces in the material that contributed to a more vivid picture of the setting and circumstances of Paul and his work. So much of my mental picture built up over years of study has been built around what Paul exhorts his subjects to do in the actual text, especially in small passages linked together by a particular argument. The identification of an overall theme in a book has also been part of that picture. Both the study of the Corinthian letters and Fredriksen’s chapter 3 have added texture and nuance to my approach to this material.

For one, I had never considered if Paul was overall successful in Corinth. The story told of Christianity is largely of its rapid growth and acceptance, and subsequent influence on the world. Paul must have been successful wherever he went because Christianity was successful, right? The possibility that he was not had never really been on the table for me.

Furthermore, this is the Apostle Paul, hand picked by Christ to be his emissary to the “Nations.” Who could question his credentials or otherwise consider him to be less persuasive than these so-called “super-apostles?” I’ve been told by an evangelist before that the Word of God is all the power that is needed to persuade men, yet here is Paul struggling to hold on to an ecclesia with whom he spent at least 18 months. The hearts of men, as it turns out, were just as fickle and easily persuaded as they are today. What’s more, the Word is not a magical formula which by being spoken adjusts the priorities and perceptions of the hearers.

The first significant observation from reading Fredriksen this week was the realization that we know so much of Paul from Acts. This is, of course, highlighted because she is approaching her topic from the academic vector, wherein sources have different values baked into people and circumstances from which they were produced. If you erased what we know of Paul because of Acts, you might certainly arrive at a different picture.

And finally, yet again we’re weaving a context together of how Jews and pagans were interacting in the Greco-Roman world of the NT. Most interesting to me, Fredriksen suggests that we put to bed the idea that Jews viewed a crucified Messiah as a scandal because of a perception that crucifixion was a curse from God. Pair that with a Jewish community that had at least two categories for pagans in-mixing (proselyte and god-fearer) and the idea that Jews were distinctly separated from their contemporaries very quickly starts to fade away. It turns out it’s the pagan and Christian culture that is at such odds.

The cultural norms in the Greco-Roman world in regards to letter writing may not seem like an exciting topic to some, but its value is undeniable in reconstructing the messages found in the NT. I, for one, have enjoyed learning more about it and what it brings to the conversation.

As someone who grew up reading the NT letters, I certainly felt like I was learning the formal language for a pattern that I had already come to recognize. Of course, Western letter writing has, in a sense, most of the same elements, so NT epistles aren’t entirely foreign. Understanding the cultural influences that are present in the letters, however, increase our recognition of the context and aid in interpretation.

Specifically standing out this week was a point in the lecture concerning the letter to the Galatians. The lack of a proem was a great example of how understanding the historical norms of letter writing tells us more than we could immediately interpret in the text. Not only does this fact of this omission have value, but it also gives us an incredible insight into how the church at Galatia would have received Paul’s words.

Hartman’s “On Reading Others’ Letters” was a great read as well, especially concerning his conclusions on Paul’s letter writing. As we approach the Word in our young Christian walk, we Westerners see through Western eyes, and so we envision a solo Paul penning yet another letter to another of his children churches. More study results in ideas about how letters were copied and distributed, and uncertain authorship and inspiration. Hartman, for me then, provides a new suggestion in that Paul understood his writings were useful to a much wider audience that his primary recipient, and so purposefully wrote them to accommodate such a fact. That the Holy Spirit provided inspirational guidance to that effect had certainly crossed my mind, but not that Paul himself would have considered it.

Furthermore, the idea that Paul kept copies of his letters in a local collection is striking enough to cause us to relook at his work under such a suggestion. “Paul writing to the Galatians” and “Paul writing to the wide Christian world by means of the Galatians” would be similar volumes, but the amplitude and specificity of ideas and suggestions would likely be noticeably different.

Finally, Hartman makes a comparison that I found compelling and will undoubtedly find a way to use in the future. Hartman references reading Scripture through a contemporary lens while disregarding the original intended meaning, using as an example a Lutheran reading of Paul that equates the Law with God’s will. (Hartman, 143). He then likens this to how Christian interpretations of the Tanakh must appear to the Jew. This is an excellent reminder that the Hebrew Bible has both always pointed to Jesus and simultaneously had a primary meaning separate from Jesus.