Paul in Historical Context
New Testament scholars stress the importance of studying Jesus in his historical context. But when it comes to Paul, they don’t. The facts are too disturbing.
A great deal is known about the economic context of the Roman Empire. Life was hard. Roughly ninety percent of the empire just subsisted. This has important implications. First, the vast majority of people never traveled far from their place of birth. They couldn’t afford to. While New Testament scholars boast that Paul traveled about 10,000 miles on his missions, they never mention how he paid for it.
Paul told his church in Thessalonica that he slaved night and day as a tent-maker to support himself. Nearly all New Testament scholars agree, and many believe he made his converts while slaving in his workshop. But artisans like tent-makers merely subsisted. Paul could not have made enough to pay for his mission. Professional Christians are faith-based, and are not constrained by facts. Some, like Bruce Chilton, the well-known author of Rabbi Paul, even claim that tent-makers like Paul grew rich.
Professional Christians not only ignore economic facts, they also ignore Paul’s own writings when expedient. While Paul told his church in Thessalonica that he supported himself, he thanked his church in Philippi for repeatedly sending him money in Thessalonica. Similarly, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul claimed he supported himself. But in his second letter, he was forced to admit that he “stole” money from Philippi. These and other inconvenient facts are somehow overlooked.
Paul complained of his poverty, and his followers often stress his hardships. But when he reached Rome, he purchased housing that only the elite could afford. Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem ended up in Rome. That’s why Luke never mentioned the collection, despite its centrality for Paul's mission. That’s why no Pauline scholar has ever attempted to follow the money. Paul spent a great deal of money, contradicting many of his claims. When he wrote the Corinthians of his dire poverty, the cost of that letter could have purchased more than a year’s room and board. There was no public mail, and letters were very expensive. When E. Randolph Richards estimated the cost of Paul’s letters, he fraudulently eliminated over ninety percent of Paul’s costs. His colleagues had only praise for his efforts.
Non-economic contexts are also ignored when expedient. For example, Paul repeatedly claimed he was a Pharisee. But over thirty years ago, Hyam Maccoby showed that was virtually impossible. For example, Paul only knew the Bible in its Greek translation. But Pharisees only studied scripture in its original Hebrew. Paul was a lifetime bachelor who prized chastity, while the Pharisees carried out God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Maccoby’s arguments were and still are ignored, while he was effectively persecuted.
Paul’s Christ not only contradicted Jesus, but also contradicted himself when expedient. For example, before he told the Romans that rulers were God’s earthly representatives, he told the Corinthians that they were God’s enemies, who Jesus would crush.
There are many more troublesome facts and contexts. Most of Paul's churches called him a liar. Some charged him with "using his gospel as a cloak for greed," and "adulterating the word of God for profit." Paul was a "myth-maker," who created a fictitious past, and also varied it. Almost nothing about his life before Antioch makes sense. But under Constantine’s leadership, Paul became a central figure in Christianity. The faithful go to incredible lengths to defend him.
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