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The Influence of Hellenism and Judaism on the Pauline Epistles, Thesis Paper Example

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Thesis Paper

The Pauline Epistles are a compilation of thirteen New Testament books that were authored by Paul the Apostle. These letters are believed to be some of the earliest Christian documents, and as such were heavily influenced by Hellenism and Judaism, as these were two prominent religions and cultures during the time period in which they were written. It is essential to understand the elements of Hellenism and Judaism contained within these documents because they are responsible for defining both Christian theology and ethics by allowing Christian people to assess what aspects of these ideologies were either necessary or unnecessary to adequately practice the Christian faith.

The “Epistle to the Romans” is the first of the thirteen books in the New Testament that are considered a part of the Pauline Epistles. The intent of this writing was to demonstrate that salvation was achievable through the gospels of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, there are elements of this explanation that are reminiscent of Hellenistic and Jewish beliefs. To understand the reason for these elements in this writing, we must first understand the context of when and where they were written. Firstly, biblical scholars believe that the books were written between the years of 51 and 57 A.D., although there is a lot of debate on the specific time frame. However, most scholars agree that all thirteen books were written in an approximate span of two years after Paul’s travels. It is also important to understand that Paul the Apostle was considered to be a Hellenistic Jew with a Pharisaic background. As such, he was writing about the concept of salvation through Jesus Christ during a time period in which many of the biblical events that people are familiar with had just occurred and the Christian faith had yet to be widespread to other parts of the world.

In “The Epistle to the Romans”, Paul mentions several concepts of the Christian religion that are similar to the Jewish faith as a consequence of his and the Christian belief in the Torah as the events that preceded the arrival of the messiah. Paul begins the letter by announcing his intention and purpose in the statement by saying “I’m debtor both to Greeks and to foreigners, both to the wise and to the foolish”. This demonstrates Paul’s want and need to spread what he has learned to the Greek people and hope that they will come to accept Christ as their savior. Since this letter was specifically addressed to the Greek people, many of who were Jewish during this time period, it is not surprising that Paul discusses many elements of Judaism throughout it (Hvalvik 1996). Paul begins by telling the story of idol worship and how men who believed themselves to be wise were foolish because by honoring these idols, they were ignoring the glory of God. Biblical scholars interpret this statement twofold. It can either refer to the worship of the Golden Calf in the Hebrew Bible which Aaron makes to please the Israelites while Moses climbs Mt. Sinai or it could refer to Greek pagan practices in which they construct idols of their gods at sites to pray and worship them. Regardless of the context however, Paul explains that these people both knew God and failed to worship Him; as a consequence, these people were vain, foolish, and corruptible for admiring a creature of God rather than the Creator. He uses this example from both Hellenistic tradition and Jewish religion to exemplify this mistake that people have made in our history and encourage us to better ourselves and move past these practices.

Paul continues to tell the Roman people of the sins that men without belief in God commit. These sins reflect beliefs in the Torah which ultimately served as a moral code for the Jewish people. He speaks of biblical crimes such as homosexuality, “being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil habits, secret slanderers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, unforgiving, unmerciful. Some of the examples that Paul discusses here alludes to not only the fact that people who do not believe in God will exhibit these negative characteristics and live an unjust life, he also refers to many of the practices of the Greek and Roman people (Rendell 1999). The first trait that Paul says is characteristic of ungodliness in this example is homosexuality. It is a well-known fact that the Greek and Roman people regularly engaged in orgies for entertainment, nearly all of which only involved men (Cyrino 2013). This statement is a reminder to these people that these actions would not be approved by God and should be avoided since they provide no natural purpose. Furthermore, the other “ungodly characteristics” that Paul discusses could be easily avoided if one follows the Ten Commandments set forth by the Torah, which were given to Moses by God. Those who believe there is only one true God, don’t worship false idols, do not take the name of God in vain, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, and do not lie will avoid many of the negative traits that Paul speaks of in his epistle (Aletti 2010). Here, he reminds the Roman people of the importance of morality, which they should already have since the Jewish doctrine directing this proper moral behavior had been available to them, although many had decided not to follow it in favor of false pagan gods.

It may be obvious that there are many references to Hellenistic beliefs and Judaism in “The Epistle to the Romans” because its purpose was to bring the idea of Christ the messiah to the Roman people. However, these references continue throughout the epistles; “The First Epistle to the Corinthians” is no exception to this trend. The First Corinthians is the seventh book of the New Testament and the letter was addressed to the church of God in Corinth, Greece. It is known that Paul the Apostle worked to establish this church in Corinth and this letter was delivered to them from the nearby Ephesus around 54 AD (Hays 2011).

The epistle opens by discussing the lack of unity in belief among the people in Greece by stating, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment”. Paul the Apostle explains that he is preaching so that others can achieve salvation, yet “the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Here he uses the lack of belief exhibited by the Jewish people and the Greeks to demonstrate a lack of wisdom in man. He then follows this statement by saying that the “foolishness of God is wiser than man”. In these statements, Paul shows that his is still concerned that the beliefs of the Jewish people and the Greeks still cloud the minds of people in Greece and many don’t believe in the son of God who sacrificed himself for the salvation of others. Paul the Apostle calls for the need of the gospel to be spread so that others in Greece will be able to understand what had occurred. He then continues to use the Greek belief in the god Apollo as an example of false belief. Specifically he says, “For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?” The purpose of this statement is to allow people to recognize the difference between man and God. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.” Paul the Apostle uses this metaphor as an example of the power of God; even though many Greeks and Romans believed in a polytheistic religion, none of the consequences in nature were truly directed by these forces even though they believed in them. Rather, their entire lives were dictated by God even though they were unable to recognize and accept Him. In addition, Paul is saying that while he is spreading the word of God, it is not he that people should turn to and believe in because it is God that is able to provide the life that people require; no human or false god has this same power.

Another example of an epistle with elements of Hellenistic culture and Judaism is the “Epistle to the Galatians”. This is the ninth book of the New Testament and is a letter from Paul the Apostle to early Christian communities living in Galatia. Paul was becoming concerned with conflicting ideas between non-Jewish Christians and Mosaic Law and was written to them between 50 and 60 AD (Bruce 1982). This epistle is primarily concerned with the fact that in Antioch, Gentile Christians were required to observe Jewish law. The main issue that was brought to Paul the Apostle’s attention was the practice of circumcision; the Jewish community believed that the laws handed to them to Moses from God should be observed by all people. Paul the Apostle asks of these people, “But when I saw that they didn’t walk uprightly according to the truth of the Good News, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live as the Gentiles do, and not as the Jews do, why do you compel the Gentiles to live as the Jews do?” Christian Gentiles believed that they did not need to follow this rule and Paul the Apostle was sympathetic because he believed that as long as one accepted Jesus Christ, they would be saved. As such, he instills the idea of righteousness by faith rather than righteousness by following specific laws. This example of an element of Judaism in the epistles is significant because it defines the difference between Judaism and Christianity further than the acceptance or rejection of Christ as the messiah. Even though both religions accept the Old Testament as the word of God, Christians are not necessarily required to follow the same rules and traditions that the Jewish people do because faith serves as a better guide than ancient laws formed as a consequence of Jewish tradition.

The “Epistle of Paul to the Colossians” is the twelfth book of the New Testament and describes Paul the Apostle’s journey to the Church in Colossae located in Asia Minor. During his journey, he travelled to various church’s which helped define the practice of Christianity. It is believed that this letter was written while Paul was in prison. This epistle was meant to explain two main points to the Colossians; one that Christ is supreme over the entire created universe and encourages other to lead godly lives and the second that provides doctrine regarding conduct. It criticizes people who have been teaching false beliefs and spreading error about Christianity.

One of the major issues that Paul the Apostle had with the practices of the Colossians is that they were incorporating pagan practices into their Christian worship. Because god is supreme over all things and people, Paul the Apostle informed them that these pagan practices are contradictory to their supposed acceptance in Christ (Dunn 1996). He says, “Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator, where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.” In doing so, he is reminding the Christian people of Colossae to continue their Christian practices and rituals independently of what other people are telling them to do. He is telling them to replace religious leaders with ones who model their image after God, rather than one who still believes in the pagan gods and rituals. Paul again mentions Greeks and Jews here as an example to show that even these groups of people can truly accept God as the Creator. In addition, Paul again alludes to the major issue presented in “Epistle to the Galatians” concerning circumcision and Gentile Christians. Regardless of current religious practices, ethnicity, or caste, Paul believes that acceptance and faith in Christ above all is what defines one as a Christian.

Although there are many more examples in the Pauline Epistles that demonstrate elements of Hellenistic beliefs and Judaism, it is clear that from conducting an analysis of “The Epistle to the Romans”, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians”, “The Epistle to the Galatians”, and “Epistle of Paul to the Colossians” that these cultures influenced the writing of these documents. In some situations, practices of Judaism complemented the practices of Christianity that Paul the Apostle wished to convey to early Christians. These included belief in the true God and following the Ten Commandments among other practices. However, Jewish beliefs contrasted the opinions of Paul the Apostle when considering Mosaic Law; instead of agreeing with non-Gentile Christians that Mosaic Law should be followed in addition to the worship of Christ, Paul argued that only spiritual belief in God and Christ was necessary to be a good Christian. In addition, Hellenistic culture regularly occurs throughout the apostles as an indicator of contradiction of Christian beliefs. Often, early Christians made the mistake of incorporating pagan rituals in their worship of Christ. Paul the Apostle criticizes these practices and explains that these ideas are not consistent with the fact that God is supreme over all things.

Bibliography

Aletti JN. God’s Justice in Romans: Keys for Interpretating the Epistle to the Romans. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010.

Bruce FF. The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians: a commentary on the Greek text. Paternoster Press, 1982.

Cyrino MS. Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dunn J. The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon: a commentary on the Greek text. Paternoster Press, 1996.

Hays RB. First Corinthians Interpretation. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Hvalvik R. The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant. Tubingen: Gulde-Druck, 1996.

Kostenburger AJ. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. B&H Academic, 2009.

Rendell R. The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. Great Britain: Cannongate Books Ltd., 1999.

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