Paul’s times, our times

Papa Benedict XVI, in his first Wednesday audience dedicated to St Paul (back in 2008), observes the task of re-imagining the world of Paul’s formation and mission is perhaps not so arduous as we might at first suppose, because “unter verschiedenen Aspekten der sozio-kulturelle Kontext von heute sich nicht sehr von jenem der damaligen Zeit unterscheidet.”

He goes on to catalogue some of the relevant features, beginning with a distinction between the Jewish “Minderheitskultur” of Paul’s formation and the cosmopolitan world of his mission. Jews were at best 10% of the Roman population, which made them either targets of ridicule or objects of amazed perplexity. Nonetheless, the Jews (unlike the earliest Christians) won legal recognition and its attendant peace. And Paul benefited tremendously from the existence of a Hellenistic cultural lingua franca, and of a Roman econonomic-governmental “tissue” that bound together disparate regions and peoples from Britain to the Upper Nile, and from Spain to the Levant. Paul’s early threefold cultural identity might have contributed, Benedict suggests, to his willingness as a missionary to write something like Gal 3:28 (the Holy Father is also careful to mention the resurrection in this connection!). And of course, the Stoics were making a similarly universalizing move around this time as well.

B. concludes as follows: “Abschließend scheint es aus diesem schnellen Blick auf das kulturelle Umfeld des ersten Jahrhunderts der christlichen Zeit klar, daß es nicht möglich ist, den hl. Paulus angemessen zu verstehen, ohne ihn vor den sowohl jüdischen wie heidnischen Hintergrund seiner Zeit zu stellen.”

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