Chapter 5: Paul Lost in The Crowd

Chapter 5: Paul Lost in The Crowd

 Chapter 5: Paul Lost in the Crowd

(Editorial suggestions are welcome! ghm)


“Exploring and narrating the Pauline story can be a means to articulate a counter narrative, a challenge to this (and other) dominant narratives, a means to envisage human communities in which a different story constructs a different sense of identity and undergirds different patterns of community practice.”[1]


“Let him wander through the city, an exile from the bridge and the hill Let him be the least among the raucous beggars Let him pray for the crusts of rotten bread thrown to the dogs.” Epigram on the Death of a Poor Man[2]


By the time we find Paul in any of the seven letters under consideration we have found a poor man, but exactly what that poverty meant for him we cannot immediately discern. We could not have picked him out from a crowd of people walking into a city in Asia Minor. Had we walked along one of the narrow alleys in which there were traders and crafts people hawking their wares, we would have seen what he had for sale, but we would not have known him as a follower of Jesus. By then he wouldn’t have appeared as a Jew but simply as another man struggling for his living.

Paul, however, was known to a great many who were also poor. Most likely many of them shared his trade or had nearby shops. In the busy marketplace banter of everyday life in one of those Greek cities he most likely would have asked for your name, and remembered it the next time he saw you. My image of Paul is that it wouldn’t be long before he learned much more about you, and began to ask you some questions about your view of the world and what would be giving you hope and joy. He would want to know your story, and when the time was right, as I think it must have been for many in his world, he’d tell you his story.

Later on those letters were sent to people who could remember when they first met Paul and what he looked like. They would have remembered hearing about the way God was revealed to him in the context of the story of Jesus who was crucified and raised from the dead. They would know, better than we do, how to head echoes of that story in what he was writing. The challenge before us to hear those echoes. What if Paul is re-telling part of his story, for example, in his first letter to the Corinthians even while making what appears to be a theological argument?

I am suggesting we consider three of Paul’s questions more as autobiography? The three questions under consideration are:

“Where is the one who is wise?

Where is the scribe?

Where is the debater of this age?” (1 Cor 1:20)

It reads differently if we put Paul’s name in the midst of those questions:

Where is Paul who was wise?

Where is Paul who was trained in skills like unto a scribe?

Where is Paul who took pride the in debates of this age?

(Or “Where is Paul who learned the rhetorical skills required by this age?)

We need to begin with first question because wherever Paul was raised, it had to be in the context of a Jewish community with leaders having deep theological questions regarding holy scripture and the meaning of their faith in such trying times.  Paul also knew scribes, which was a slightly different guild than the Pharisees, to which he belonged. At the same time, given the reality of living in a Greek world, Paul and others knew the legacy of philosophical inquiry that required immersion into the ideas of Aristotle and Plato. The New Testament scholar, Kenneth Bailey imagined what Paul was trying to say with these three questions:

“Yes, the scribes like to think of themselves as a powerful intellectual Guild. I lived in Jerusalem and I know them. But there are very few — do not be intimidated by them. On the Greek side, the philosophers of Athens like to think that they are the center of intellectual life of the entire world. But they also are very few. Trust me — I have just spent a serious block of time debating with them and I am not impressed. Do not be afraid of them.”[3]

It is true that Paul’s last question, at least, raises the possibility that Paul was trained in the philosophical traditions of the Greco-Roman world. There is evidence in so many of his letters that he wasa “man of his times.” There is a brilliant structure to so many of the arguments he makes his letters and it is clear that he could communicate to non-Jews. There is also more compelling evidence that he was formed in the oral Hebraic traditions which shaped discourse in a more concentric narrative style than was characteristic of Greek philosophy. Was he, though, ever one of the great debaters of this age?

The author of Acts answered that last question in the affirmative with his story of the speech Paul gave the middle of Athens in front of the Areopagus and the council of its leaders. (Acts 17:16-34). One scholar who examined that speech concluded that it shows the extent of Paul’s training in the world of the classical Greek orators. “Supporting his argument by quotations from Epimenides and Aratus of Soli, Paul employs a line of reasoning not unlike that of classical Greek orators.”[4]

Paul who doubted the validity of the debaters of this age,however, never needed to travel to Athens (Acts 17: 16-34) to know about the famous philosophers on his day. I believe the Acts story of Paul debating Greek philosophers in Athens is more the story of legendthan it is of fact. Once more, following the premise of this book, the more reliable path to take is to trustPaul as we read seven of his letters. In the letter to the Corinthians he didn’t want to be considered as one of the debaters of this age.

What came next in his argument in 1 Corinthians really set the stage for Paul’s audience to consider truly radical claims regarding the “wisdom of this world.”

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor. 1.22-25)

The contrast is between wisdom (sophia) and foolishness (moron). The contrasts of these two words form what is best called a polarity. We are dealing with a distinct contradiction. While we might think there is a scale of wisdom or maybe aspects of foolishness that aren’t really foolish, such distinctions are not at work in these statements of contrast by Paul. We’re in the either/orworld of Paul’s thinking.

What becomes clear in both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is that he is not heldin high regard byallthe members of those communities. More to the fact he is an embarrassment at least to a few. This, however, is not our usual picture of Paul. The opposition to Paul is particularly in focus in parts of 2 Corinthians where Paul admits to having better writing skills than speaking skills. (2 Cor. 10.10)  It’s clear that he has refused to accept patronage from any in his community, which means that his working with his hands was considered demeaning. (2 Cor. 11.9)  Welborn explains it this way: “To such elite Christians, Paul would have been an embarrassment, owing to the  weakness of his person, the defects of his oratory, his banausic occupation, and the content of his gospel.”[5]

What had to be particularly troubling about Paul was his consistent emphasis on Christ-crucified in a community that was more focused on the preaching of the resurrected Christ. Paul’s life wasn’t probably a gradual story of downward mobility, but more likely, a dramatic event in which he found his place with the most expendable in his world. In that solidarity Paul also found his voice that spoke against the “wisdom of the world” while proclaiming the weakness of God (dying on a cross) as strongerthan human strength.

Locating Paul in the midst of the nameless nobodies of the world isn’t the usual way to tell his story, but what he speaks about in his letters means that we shouldn’t look to find him exceptat home among those who struggle for their daily bread. To be sure there were some—emphasis “some”—with more security or status also attracted to the message of the gospel proclaiming Jesus risen from the dead. Those with some degree of self-importance, no matter what their reasons for such claims, had to be in disagreement when Paul said, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (1 Cor. 1:26) But some had to think they either were wise, powerful or of noble birth, either in their past or by virtue of what they become.

Whatever the case regarding those who considered themselves more important, Paul was addressing divisions within the Corinthian community, and the various groups (baptized by Paul, Peter, Christ, and maybe other groups?) where at least a few claimed superiority over others. “Thus the disagreement among different parties may be a matter of scrapping for position within a pecking order.”[6]

Claims of superiority within the communities founded by Paul seemed to be particularly troubling to Paul who, in his sometimes contrary ways, sided with the leastin the world. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:28-29) It is a stunning claim! I wasn’t personally raised to think like this, and I suspect it is counter to the values of many of us. Everywhere Paul looked and what was apparent to everyone, though, were the massive numbers of the “low and despised in the world.” They weren’t out-of-sight as they are sometimes in our world. What we need to understand at this point in our discovery of Paul is how large and visible, although nameless, the crowd was before we find Paul again.

5.1. The Visible Poor

Jonathan Sachs, in The Great Partnership, offered a most significant observation of what it has always meant to be a Jew living a world that doesn’t knowthe Hebraic story of God. He said, “Outside Israel, all religion in the ancient world was essentially conservative. It canonized the status quo.”[7]Sachs was claiming that the Jewish story is ultimately and fundamentally subversive of the dominant political powers no matter what the century. It was clearly true for Paul. Wherever he looked he saw the dominance of Rome and the subjection of all who had been conquered by Rome—including Jerusalem, Judea, and Gaililee. What he knew of God’s story, however, was counter to the story Rome was proclaiming.

We must consider what the world was like for Paul and Jews both in Jerusalem, Judea, the province of Galilee and throughout the diaspora in cities and towns wherever Jews had migrated. Their status wasn’t that of being citizens. While a few rights and privileges were carved out for them to continue their religious and community life, they knew how tenuous those agreements were. The stories they told and remembered, moreover, were those that distrusted tyrants, such as Pharoah, Now in Paul’s world was another tyrant in the form of Caesar who didn’t just tower over Egypt, but over the entire Mediterranean world.

Rather than the glamorous picture so often painted when looking at the Roman aristocracy we need a more factual account of the realities of life in this world from the point of view of the majority whose stories, sadly, are mostly lost to history. Sachs helps us start this story with this observation, “The religious literature of the ancient world was about politics and power, dominance and submission, struggle and victory. The race was to the swift and the battle to the strong.”[8]We know who generally wins that race. The public and official images of Rome were authored by the powerful and the successful. The authorities in the time of Caesar Augustus and moving through the first century tell just one side of the story—that of the winners! No one did a better job of framing this narrative than Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). While more needs to shared further in in this book with regard to the subversive language of Paul—which counters the Augustine narrative—at this point we must focus on the claims of Caesar and how the ordinary people (“the low and the despised” of the world) would have received those messages.

We may think that a unique characteristic of our political world is the mass of advertisements and messages with which we are inundated through print, social media, TV, and massive billboards, but something similar was true in the 1stcentury of the Roman Empire. People in Paul’s world were constantly reminded of who ruled their world with the many visual representations in media almost a pervasive as what we know. Caesar Augustus is considered the first Roman emperor, having become the sole ruler of the empire in 27BCE. His long rule ended with his death in 14CE. A year before he died he ordered inscriptions on various arches and temples throughout the empire which would display for all to see his many accomplishments—meaning his victories over his enemies. It was called the Res Gestae (“What I have done!). It is long document—over 2700 words in Latin—all of which were inscribed in stone and marble throughout the empire on monuments and temple walls.

The manifold ways in which people were reminded of the power of Caesar and his divinity (being called the “son of God”) included the coins that bore his image. Even Jesus gazed at one of those coins. Asked by the Pharisees if it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor, Jesus asked to see the coin in question. He would have looked at a relief of Caesar. There were many coins with Caesar’s image and a message of his power. One coin is called the Lugdunum 2BCE – 11CE[9]. The legend circling his profile reads “CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE” Translated: “Caesar Augustus Divine F (for Filius, i.e. “Son of God”) Father of the Country (Meaning all in the Empire!).

(Note: Images don’t appear here. But they are with the .pdf tabs)

The reply Jesus made after looking at whatever coin he was shown had to be understood by all in the audience as a subversive message in the context of the commandments proscribing the use of graven images, and the ridiculous assertion of Caesar claiming divinity. We should note that Jesus asked to be shownthe coin, instead of making a request to have it handed to him. That such a coin was so readily available should not, however, be seen as unusual as the people in Galilee and Judea were equally surrounded on a daily basis with reminders of the power of Rome.

What is especially important to this chapter with its suggestion that Paul would have been amongst the nobodies of his world, is how often all of those who had been conquered by Rome and considered its enemies, were constantly reminded of their status as “others”. As a Jew Paul may have been born in the later years of the reign of Caesar Augustus. He had to know that wherever Jews lived they were considered in the eyes of Rome as just one of the “…many defeated and incorporated peoples”[10]living inside the Roman empire. Even though Paul did not live to see Jerusalem destroyed by the army of Vespasian in 70 CE, he would not have been surprised to see the coin following his “so-called” victory which is known as the Judaea Captiva[11].

(Note: Images don’t appear here. But they are with the .pdf tabs)

As expected of an imperial coin the image of the Emperor is found on one side of the coin—this is an image of Vespasian. What interests us in terms of the iconography of images used as propaganda in the continuing suppression of conquered peoples is the story on the other side of the coin. With a palm tree growing tall indicating the agricultural prosperity of Judea, there are two figures on other side of the tree. One is a tall, proud, muscular Roman soldier. At the foot the tree, on the right side, with her head held in a despairing pose sits a defeated woman. As Davina Lopez noted with regard to this image “…it is not unusual individual representation of the Roman imperial period to use women’s bodies as personifications of territories and defeated peoples.”[12]Even Jewish men, following the destruction of Jerusalem, without regard to where they lived in the diaspora inside the extensive boundaries of the Roman Empire, had to see that they(as men!)were considered in the category of a defeated woman—like that women holding her head in shame.

We will be returning to the topic of the way Rome proclaimed its dominance over all the people it conquered when we consider the subversive language of Paul as members of his assemblies knew that faith in Jesus was incompatible with loyalty to Rome. What matters more to the topic of this chapter is the extent of poverty and the resulting context of living with the threats of hunger and illness that had to haunt the masses of people, especially those in the cities of the Empire. The emergence of these small Jesus communities seems, for the most part, to have been an urban phenomena, though there were clearly assemblies to be found in Judea and Galillee prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.

What the Roman semiotics of public spaces, inscriptions and coins created was the constant reminder of conquest over all considered in the category of “others”—those not like us Romans. At the core of every ethnic identity is the same concept— we are not like the others.What we need to keep in mind with Paul’s revelation (apocalypse) was that the Messiah was crucified asone of the “others.” Paul’s call was to be one too. Paul is to be found, as it were, among the plebs urbana, misera ac ieiunia.[13]A friend of mine offered a few translations of this phrase that help us see the people (plebs) Cicero had in mind.  A simple basic translation is “urban, squalid, and starving.” There is irony, however, in the Latin word ieiunia as it can mean “fasting.” We might see “fasting” as a chosen spiritual discipline, but in the lives of the poor its not “chosen” but it is a daily reality. Thus we might translate that phrase as “Urban common people: hopeless and forced into fasting.” [14]This was the life Paul shared.

He described his life as marked by “…great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” (2 Cor. 6:4-5). The same theme was repeated a few chapters later where he described a life “often near death.” (2 Cor. 11:23). Paul knew, from first hand experience, and not as a reporter, the world of the urban poor: “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Cor. 11:27)

Those sleepless nights were not in the comfortable bed of someone’s Roman villa. Those who lived in such villas would never be found doing anything that resembled toil. Then there was Paul’s reference to being naked? Not in any of the Renaissance art that I know is Paul nearly naked, but such he must have been, if we are to believe his words. Few in Paul’s world had anything like a closet full of clothes. He most likely wore the same patched clothing day after day!

All of this places us much closer to the radical life and story Paul was both telling and living. As we have already noted Paul’s previous life involved some status and probably security that gave him some privileges and honor. I don’t believe for a second that in his previous life Paul could have admitted to being “…in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” (1 Cor. 2:3) but that’s how he told the Corinthians he came to them. He admitted to the Galatians, moreover, that his first proclamations of the gospel took place in the context of “a physical infirmity.” We don’t know what it was, but it may have meant he was hard to look at because Paul admitted that they were “put to the test.” The entire passage reads:

“You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn me or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 4:13-14)

Bridgett Kahl came to a stunning conclusion about the way the Galatians (presumably non-Jew) welcomed Paul and nursed him back to health.

“He came to them as Jewish other, highly vulnerable and needy, and they could’ve treated him as an enemy or just let him die, but they took them in as neighbor and brother. In his weaknessand repulsiveness, he embodied the dying and crucified Christ for them (4:14), and in their solidarity with him they brought him back to life.”[15]

Not all Biblical scholars, though, have seen Paul as “highly vulnerable and needy.” One of the challenges in this attempt to have a more accurate picture of Paul is that a number of scholars have suggested that Paul had wealthy friends, and may have even benefited from those relationships. Gerd Theissen, for example, noted, as I am suggesting, “the majority of Corinthian Christians come from the lowers strata.” Then, in the same sentence, Thiessen states, “…it is all the more noteworthy that all of those baptized by him belonged to the upper strata: Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanus.”[16]The case Theissen makes is that even though most followers of Christ in Corinth we’re poor, the assemblies that worshipped together had “…a few influencial members who come from the upper classes.”[17]

An older source on Paul, but still respected, was Adolpf Deissmann. His book, “Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, was first published in 1912. In this book Diessmann emphasized Paul’s deep concern for those living in poverty, but he still talked about Paul’s world as having a class system such as he knew in 1912. “The people whose souls were moved by the mission of Paul and his faithful companions were—the overwhelming majority at least—men and women from the middle and lower classes.”[18]

In America in the early part of the 21stcentury much of the economic concern expressed in the political world has been on the effects of the economy on the middle class.  It is an assumption that presumably focuses  on the largest majority of Americans. If we take the “class” consciousness current in our world and apply it back to the first century in Rome, however, we are making a serious mistake. There are some real issues if we are tempted to think that the term “middle class” was operative in Paul’s world.

The first problem with the concept of social class when contrasting Paul’s world with the 21stcentury, is that “class” is primarily defined in economic termsin our world. But classin Paul’s world was a legalterm[19]and was restricted to an extremely small segment of society. There were really only two classes, as such, in Rome: the senatorsand the “ ‘equestrians’, or ‘knights’ (equites).”[20]According to Beard the “equites” were substantial property owners, often involved in financial and commercial businesses. Below these two categories were all the rest, lumped indiscriminately, into the category of the common poor that included some who were free, but a vast number who were slaves. Upon them the economy of the empire depended, and it was especially so in Italy with slaves concentrated in the agrarian economy and various mining enterprises. It has been estimated that there were between 2 to 3 million slaves in the first century, alone, in Italy out of a total population of 7.5 million[21].

Our discovery of Paul in the context of urban poverty brings up the issues of where he lived and worked. We know the cities and towns where there were assemblies he founded and we have a sense of his extensive networks of friends and co-workers in those communities. From the list of challenges Paul mentions we also have a glimpse into the daily challenges Paul faced alongside the fast majority of the poor.

It may be almost impossible for any of us to imagine what life was like for those living in any of the major cities in the Roman empire and that’s because life was so precarious and fragile for the majority of people. Most of the population of Rome, for example, lived in the upper levels of four and five story tenements or in the rear spaces of a shop. It was estimated that up to 90% of Rome’s population was housed in tenement buildings. There wasn’t such a thing as “privacy” and “sanitation” didn’t exist either. It was what Jewitt describes as a form of “vertical zoning” in which the overall density was estimated to have been 300 per acre, a number “almost two-and-a-half times higher than modern Calcutta and three times higher than Manhattan Island.”[22]

The question related to the topic of housing concerns whether or not there were actually houses in which these small communities of Jesus followers met? We’re they meeting in houses? It’s clear from the fragile archeological evidence of the tenements in Greek and Roman cities that there wasn’t space for more than 8 or 10 people in most of the apartments of the poor. But were their wealthy members with houses, or in that world “villas” of a size that could hold 30 to 50 people at a time? One such gathering seems to be referenced in Paul’s letter to Philemon with the opening greetings. “ Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” (Philemon 2) That is the only reference in any of Paul’s letters specifically to a “house church.”

Gerd Theissen looking at the social context for early Christianity suggests that there were gatherings at the homes of Phoebe and Gaius.[23]There is Paul’s statement that he baptized the “household of Stephanus,” (1 Cor. 1.16) but it comes without reference to where the baptism took place. More recent scholarship suggests that the term “house-churches” is entirely inappropriate to use in describing the urban fellowships known to Paul.[24]Given the social status of most of the early followers there are two or three other reasonable places that they met for worship and teaching, including a rear space perhaps in the shop where Paul worked, ate, and slept.

Based on the many references in Paul’s seven letter to his labors and working with his hands, it is reasonable to presuppose that during most days he would have been in some shop making things. We will discuss the possibilities of his trade and the extent to which Paul was familiar with the language of the marketplace further on in this book. What needs to be in view for the moment would be the taberna, or work place combined with a counter displaying goods open to a narrow alley in which people came to shop. There would have been room in the back of the tabernafor some stools or maybe a chair or two. Whoever rented that space for work probably cooked in the back and maybe slept on the roof. Perhaps there was space for small groups to gather in the evening.[25]

In his extensive study of early Christian meeting places Adams suggests a myriad of possibilities open to early assemblies. They could easily rent barns in a nearby countryside, or simply find a free open public space next to a lake, a river, or the ocean. Perhaps they rented dining rooms (called popinae) for their weekly Eucharist. There is also evidence of gatherings at burial sites, and that included funeral meals as well.

There are a few more things to consider regarding the reality of poverty in Paul’s world. Meggitt’s book title contains the word “survival” and I think that’s an appropriate frame to understand the daily realities facing the mass of people in the 1stcentury. Paul, in the context of having founded various communities of faith, and knowing the constant struggles faced both internally and externally, was concerned with their survival. The communities Paul wrote to were threatened. Sometimes Paul is very clear about those who would destroy what he had built. Nearly all in those assemblies were struggling at or near the economic level of basis subsistence. It was the life Paul had chosen for his life in Christ.


  1. 2 Excursus: What Paul Looked Like

Susan Eastman made a claim for Paul that is key to our understanding of “Paul lost in the crowds.” She asserted that “…only by crossing the boundaries to become like the Gentile “others,”without first requiring that they become like him, can Paul firmly communicate the grace of God who took the initiative to liberate enslaved humanity.”[26]The Jewish Paul, is still Jewish, but in terms of how he lived his life, and how he looked, he was one of the Gentile others. That would mean you could see in him what Romans expected to see in those who were not like them. Paul, in terms of his dress, his occupation, and his chosen companions (non-Jews, the poor) wouldn’t have been seen as any one of note or importance.

As hard as it may be for us to comprehend we must take Paul at his word in terms of his way of telling his story in Christ. God’s revelation (apocalypse) was a callmade while still in his mother’s womb to preach to the Gentiles the Jewish story of God’s grace—known now in and through the death of Jesus. (Gal. 1:15). Once this became clear, obviously when he was fully grown, this was his path to follow for the last decades of his life. As a Jew he was called to witness to the non-Jew world.  Paul “did whatever it took to ingratiate himself into gentile communities in order to establish intimate relationships, all the while offering himself as model of how to be justified out of the faithfulness of Christ.”[27]An important question is “How far did Paul have to go to ingratiatehimself into gentile communities?”

This is one of those points in our journey with Paul where we come, once more, to the question the historicity of Acts. This time we must wonder about the claim of Acts that Paul was trained as a rabbi in Jerusalem under the feet of Gamaliel. According to Acts Paul was about to be arrested by some Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, when he gave a speech in Hebrew, which the soldiers would not have understood. He began with these words: “I am Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous, just as you all are today.” (Acts 22:3)

With regard to the basic methodology of this book we need to look to what Paul actually said in his letters to affirm what might be found in other sources such as Acts. Of first importance is that there are really only three possible visits Paul made to Jerusalem, with the first coming at least three years after God’s revelation to him. He cannot have studied under Gamaliel. Thus Haenchen, “That Paul studied under him ‘is scarcely correct, since one must probably conclude from Gal. 1.22 that before his conversion Paul did not stay very long in Jerusalem.”[28]Another unconfirmed part of that speech was that Paul was speaking in Hebrew. As I stated in Chapter 2 Paul most likely was able to speak Aramaic, but his basic language for day-to-day conversations, as well as how he knew his Bible, was the Greek language. “…Paul’s extensive reliance on the LXX indicates that his native language is Greek, and that he knew the Scriptures of Israel in Greek rather than Hebrew.”[29]

Had Paul remaineda Phariseethere is no doubt, considering at least one factor of life in the Middle Eastern world, he would easily have been identified in any particular crowd walking through one of the cities in the Roman Empire. The New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, with over forty years of living and teaching in the Middle East as part of his background, said that in the time of Jesus [and Paul] there were two ways to identify a “stranger.” It was either by talking to him and hearing his dialect, or by looking at his dress. There was a clear difference between Hellenistic and Jewish garb. Bailey went on to note, “…even separate villages of Palestine and Lebanon had their distinctive dress.”[30]

Paul no longer claimed membership in the community of Pharisees by the time he was writing any of the seven letters we are considering, but he was “working with his hands” at some kind of “labor.” We will have more to say about the reality of that labor in the further on, but for now what matters is what he wore, or rather what little he wore. Trying to pick out Paul from the crowd walking through a town like Corinth or Ephesus is going to be extremely difficult, simply because he will have looked like nearly all the rest of the poor.

When we look to the gospels for indications regarding clothing the references are not numerous, but we do know that the clothing Jesus wore at the time of his arrest was a prize, as it were, for the soldiers who even gambled for his tunic. There is one telling condemnation on the lips of Jesus, however, regarding the dress of “the scribes who love to walk around in long robes.” (Luke 20.46) We have a phrase the “clothes make the man” and by it that proverb has a meaning that carries across the world and back into the time of Jesus and Paul. If you have the money for the clothes, you can look like you have the money. The clothes Paul wore, in his life as an apostle, could not have been, and were not by his own testimony, coming from a man of wealth.

We can only surmise that Paul wore the tattered and patched clothes identifying the majority of those surviving from day to day. The clothing had to be inadequate for keeping one warm or covering your body. There are small terracotta sculptures from the 1stcentury showing mime actors, those clearly at the bottom of society, which are wearing a chiton, which was a short frock, patches of small fabric sewn together.[31]Contrary to our Renaissance paintings of a well-clothed Paul wearing wool garments for a cold day, we need to consider a barely clothed Paul carrying an some equally shabby bags with his tools as he walks into the next city to bring the gospel of Christ.

If Paul walked into a new city as a stranger, the chances are that it wasn’t long before others knew who he was. Stowers makes the important point regarding the urban world of the 1stcentury that everyone made judgments about others with regard to dress, speech, posture, and even the way you walked.

This was a culture where people believed that you could determine another’s character, class and ethnic origins not only from dress and speech but also from such things as posture, the way one walked, how one sneezed and whether one scratched one’s head or not. Paul was a Jew and a leather-worker. It is doubtful that he could have overcome the stigma of these roles even if he had sought to do so.[32]

5.3 Excursus: Judged by Others

It has been said that ethnographywas invented by the Greeks and that the same Greeks invented the term barbariansto describe non-Greeks.[33]It is always part of a strong group identity to maintain its boundaries by having clear concepts regarding “others.” These boundaries must be maintained and reinforced, and if need be, established in laws. We know this story, from recent history, in terms of issues about building border walls, and enforcing immigration restrictions. Each community seemingly always finds way to define the people or tribes that it fears the most.

We are also going to find that the early Pauline communities had their own language to identify “others,” for they were the unbelievers, those without faith (apistis[34]). It is a word Paul used frequently in his letters to the Corinthians.[35]At the same time the “believers” —the Jesus people connected to Paul—were as unexpected as a community could have been possibly conceived in the first century. Paul’s preaching brought together the most unlikely mix of people that crossed the typical boundaries which usually kept others apart.

These early followers, in turn, would be designated as others and in the next few centuries as they experienced some periodic deadly persecutions for their reluctance to identify as citizens of Caesar’s Empire. Presumably, they were not willing to be participating subjects in the civil life of its games and community celebrations. They weren’t loyal to Rome or it’s Kurios(Latin for “Master’) known as Caesar. These strange people called the one crucified by Rome as their Lord  (Kurios) Jesus Christ! Many of them first heard about Jesus from a Jew with a Latin name that meant small.

What was he like? We really don’t have much to work with except for his letters, but there was one comment about him coming from a 2ndcentury account—from The Acts of Paul[36]. It is important to remember that Paul dealt with others spreading rumors about him in his own time, and the stories continued long into the 2ndand 3rdcenturies, as various groups claimed Paul for their own purposes. The first excursus in Chapter 1 was my warning about some necessary historical skepticism with regard to stories of Paul. The memory of Paul was contested territory in the life of the early church. As we consider a description of Paul from the 2ndcentury we must be cautious about accepting it as factual..

From the second century we have a document called “The Acts of Paul”, that may have been written a woman, and even if that’s not provable (and it isn’t), it is clear these stories were grounded in an oral tradition of women’s stories. In these stories Paul has many women friends with Thecla as the real heroine of the story. He has few male allies, as MacDonald noted, “The apostle’s only male allies are Aquila, an angel, and a lion.”[37]We should add the name of Onesiphorus to the list because he welcomed Paul to his house. From him we have this picture of Paul:

“And he saw Paul coming, a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, and a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and knows somewhat cooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.”

The only thing that conforms to what we know about Paul is that in Latin his name meant “small,” and it was the kind of name given to a slave. Does this conform to what Paul said about himself in writing to the Corinthians? They said “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor. 10:10). A little further on Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.”  Those comments don’t necessarily agree with what Onesiphorous saw in a man with “a good state of body.” It’s certainly not what the Galatians first saw when Paul came to them: “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Gal 5:13-14). With a miserable looking Paul, by his account, we, nonetheless, have the Galatians having treated him as an “angel.” That little detail does coincide with what Onesiphorous saw.

There is something very interesting about this single description of Paul, supposedly by an eye-witness, and that is how it resembles a description of Caesar Augustus written by another 2ndcentury writer Suetonius, author of The Lives of the Caesars.

“He (Augustus) was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life… He had clear, bright eyes… His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept; his hair was slightly curly and inclining to golden; his eyebrows met. His peers were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little of the top and then fit slightly inward. His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short stature…but this was concealed by the fine proportion and symmetry of his figure.” (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesar’s 2.79.1-2, Loeb). p. 130

Not all the details in this picture of Augustus match that of Paul as seen by Onesiphorus. The similarities are in terms of stature, eyebrows, nose, and physical strength. Malina and Neyrey take these visual characteristics and offer an analysis of Paul based on what the ancients called physiognomics, which essentially meant they knew the character of a personby how they looked.[38]What these authors found in that description of Paul were all admirable traits, many of which described successful Roman generals.  It is a most interesting analysis, but I am somewhat skeptical. For one thing I’m not sure we should take the description by Onesiphorus as accurate. It stands alone in the ancient record and we argue from silence if we affirm or deny it as factual.

The one thing we know is that Paulus in Latin meant small. We have also enough from Paul’s own letters to have some ideas about his character, and we ought to take those comments as clues to his character, rather than an interesting, but singular account from the 2ndcentury that cannot be corroborated..

Something important, however, comes from Malina and Neyrey. In their unique study ancient personality, as it was defined in this ancient world, they help us understand Paul in the context of a world that primarily defined people in terms of generation, geography and gender. “To know someone [in that world] means to know their roots, ancestry, and genealogy.”[39]What really mattered was being a group-oriented person, because in that world anyone claiming individualitywas really defining themselves as a deviant.

It was a culture that “..valued stability and constancy of character. Hence “change” of character was neither expected nor praiseworthy.”[40]What I think will be important for letting Paul tell his own story, is that there was a major event in his life, but his character, or rather his rootedness in God’s story and belonging to “his people” (Rom. 9.2-3) never changed, and certainly didn’t make him an “individual.” What was clear is that he wasn’t claiming to tell his own story, but only that of Jesus. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

There was a real change that took place in Paul’s life. The evidence he said could be seen on his body: “for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” He was probably talking about those scars on his back (2 Cor. 11:24), which would clearly never have been found on the back of Augustus. But Paul had a new Lord and Savior. Paul had new communities of friends who claimed the ancient Jewish story in the context of a vision of community breaking down the vertical barriers which created such injustice and death in the world, even the death of Jesus.

What we will find is that these new communities founded by Paul are the same kind of group-oriented values stemming from Paul’s Jewish background, albeit bringing together in a unique way those mostly discarded as non-citizens, nobodies, and even those whose identity as slaves placed them as living in a category of “suspended death.” These Jesus people become familyand are called to unity and loyalty giving them dignity and hope they couldn’t have known as the “others” in that world.

Excursus 5.4: The Extent of Poverty in the First Century

With the letters of St. Paul we have a rather unique person from the 1stcentury of the Roman Empire. We have the words and the story of a “poor man.” My description of Paul, however, has been contested by New Testament scholars, many of whom, according to Meggitt have claimed “…that Paul came from a wealthy background and as a consequence did not share completely the bleak lives of the impovrished.”[41]Meggit on the same page has a long footnote with references to a great number of scholars who have claimed Paul had financial resources or kept contacts with wealthy patrons.

Jerome Murphy-O’Conner also believes that Paul’s parents lived in what he said were “easy circumstances.”[42]He came to that conclusion, in what I considered a questionable interpretation of comments from each of the letters to the Corinthians. Paul said, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (1 Cor. 9:19) Murphy-O’Conner interpreted that passage as if Paul was describing his manual labor as “slavish.” It’s not an adjective in that passage—it’s a noun (doulo, i.e a slave). It was Paul’s way to describe himself when he started his letter to the Romans, “Paul, a slave(doulos) of Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 1.1) It is term he adopted on purpose!

Murphy O’Conner uses as his other example for Paul’s attitude toward his work what he wrote in the 2ndletter to the Corinthians. “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge.” (2 Cor. 11.7) I don’t know how he came to his conclusion but Murphy-O’Conner thought Paul himself was calling his work demeaning.Actually Paul is most likely quoting the allegation laidagainst himsince he refused to be part of a patronage system in which he would be obligated toward some wealthy patron.[43]

There are also some scholars who maintain that since Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire he must clearly have had wealth to coincide with such protected status. Gerd Theissen states, “Paul was only a cloth worker, to be sure, but he possessed citizenship of both Tarsus and Rome.” He added “….Paul enjoyed an unusual privileged status.” All of these conclusions are based on the story from Acts where Paul had been arrested and bound. Just before he was about to be flogged he asked the nearby centurion, “It is legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25)

I think it may be possible to make a case that Paul was never a Roman citizen, but it has to be an argument from silence.[44]The best solution is simply to raise a few questions about the probability that the author of Acts was correct in this detail. The author of Acts needed the detail of “Paul’s citizenship” to continue the story. There is no doubt that Paul’s citizenship[45]is key to a story that not only saved Paul from flogging, but which brought to him to Rome where he was awaiting trial when the story of Acts comes to an end. It is a significant “plot device,”[46]and there is no other external evidence either from Paul’s letters or the other non-Pauline letters in the New Testament. Nowhere in any of the letters of Paul, even including the Pastoral epistles, is there any mention of Paul being a Roman citizen. Most significantly he mentioned a great deal about his Jewish credentials—which is critical to our account of finding Paul—but he never mentioned Roman citizenship.

We are on much firmer ground, however, to find Paul sharing the life of the poorer members of his world, with the question still remaining regarding the extent of that poverty. In our world many with skills making things, working with their hands, fixing machines and  using tools may not be wealthy, but they can often have a decent standard of living. Was that the case for Paul?

The historical problem is that the poor they are those, who in numbers we can’t count, “failed to leave any significant mark in the historical record.”[47]There were some poor within Rome, however, who left a mark on a few tombstones detailing their pride in work that society demeaned. In other words, as Morley noted[48], they were taking pride in their work, and there’s evidence of that attitude from Paul as well. At the same time the poverty, for the working poor, was a reality.

It is one thing to see Paul hard at work in his shop working with his hands, but it is much harder to for biblical scholars to connect the extreme poverty he knew to his work as an apostle and a creative Jewish theologian. Thus, Friessen, “For the most part, however, specialists have not assimilated Paul’s economic life into their portraits of ‘Paul the apostle’ or ‘Paul the theologian’.”[49]There is no doubt that Paul had a few times he stayed in someone’s house, that he could never have called his own. He also received some gifts and we don’t know what to make of Paul’s reference to Phoebe as “a benefactor of many and myself as well.” (Rom. 16:2).  The danger is that we might think of Paul as a poorly paid pastor, who nonetheless, gets free housing in the church’s parsonage and who receives a few free chickens from time to time.

The best picture I was able to discover in my research came from Steven Friesen who offered a seven-point poverty scale for the first century of the Roman Empire. In the following table I have listed his descriptions of each group, a brief description, and the percentage of those in each category.

Friesen’s Poverty Scale (modified by author)[50]

Category Title People in this category % of the total

PS 1: Imperial Elites



Imperial family, senators



PS 2: Regional or Provincial Elites Equesterian families, provincial officials, retired military  



PS 3: Municipal Elites

Decurial families, few wealthy non office holders, some veterans, merchants  



PS 4:  Moderate Surplus

Some merchants, traders. Artisans who employ others. Military veterans  


PS 5: Stable Near Subsistence Level


Merchants. Artisans, shop owners, some farm families  



PS 6: At Subsistence


Small farm families, laborers (skilled & unskilled) most merchants, traders, shop owners  



PS 7: Below Subsistence Level


Some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, day laborers  



What are we to make of this picture of the economic reality that faced the vast majority in Paul’s world? Friesen states it bluntly: “For nearly everyone in Paul’s assemblies, as for nearly everyone in the Roman empire, poverty was a way of life.”[51]

Even if we place Paul in the category “PS 5: Stable Near Subsistence Level”, we are talking about 22% of the population that is an illness or a broken bone away from near disaster. It is a world where over 90% of the people are near, at, or below subsistence level.

With Paul we certainly have a “religious genius”, but we should bear in mind that didn’t give him a social status that offered him much security. Meggitt said it best:

Undoubtedly Paul was not a ‘typical’ artisan of the Greco-Roman world — he would not have left such a mark on history if he had been — but his uniqueness, particularly the uniqueness of his religious genius, should not blind us to the fact that his experience of material existence is far from unusual: he was nothing less than the arduous and bitter experience of the urban poor.”[52]

This chapter began by turning three questions Paul was asking and suggesting they might even have been autobiographical in nature.

Where is Paul who was wise?

Where is Paul who was trained in skills like unto a scribe?

Where is Paul who took pride the in debates of this age?

(Or “Where is Paul who learned the rhetorical skills required by this age?)

Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians was to focus on “Christ crucified” as the key to understanding the mysteries of God who would choose the things that “low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:28). It’s an upside down world for Paul, and we have to believe his was also a story of being turned upside down. As one who was “down” he literally could be “one” with that vast majority, and that became the source of nearly all his friends in Christ.

Chapter 5: Footnotes

[1]Horrell, David G., 2002, 170.

[2]Woolf, Writing Poverty in Rome, 95.

[3]Bailey, 2011, 82. (Note: I have doubts that Paul ever lived in Jerusalem. Visited to be sure! But he had to know about the scribes. I agree with Bailey on that.)

[4]Charles, 1994, 52.

[5]Welborn, 129.

[6]Theissen, 1982, 55.

[7]Sachs, 2011, 129.

[8]Ibid, 168.


[10]Lopez, 2008, 25.


[12]Ibid, 37.

[13]A quote of Cicero, Epistulae ad Atticum 1.16 Referenced in Meggitt, 2008, 97.

[14]With thanks to my friend The Rev. Glen Lewandoski, The Crozier Community of Onamia, MN.

[15]Kahl, 2014, 283. (My italics)

[16]Theissen, 1982, 102.

[17]Ibid, 69.

[18]Diessman, 1912, 241.

[19]Gager, 1982, 262.

[20]Beard, 2015, 262.

[21]Jewitt, 2007, 51.

[22]Ibid, 54.

[23]Theissen, 1982, 89.

[24]Adams, E. 2013, 201-2.

[25]Meggitt, 1998, 62-67.

[26]Eastman, S., 2007, 186. (Italics mine.)

[27]Hodge, 2005, 281.

[28][28]Haenchen, 1971, 625. Quoting from Bultmann. Earlier Haechen suggested that with Acts we are dealing with a “Legendary portrait taken over by Luke..” (298). We should also note that in Gal. 1:16 God didn’t need a human teacher (a Gamaliel?)  to reach Paul regarding his Son. (Malina & Neyrey, 1996, 41).

[29]Eastman, Susan, 2007, 20.

[30]Bailey, 1996, (Through Peasant Eyes) 42.

[31]Welborn, 2005, 39.

[32]Stowers, 1984, 74.

[33]Mattern, Susan P., 1999, 70.

[34]It is important to note that the root Greek word pistismeans more than simply “faith.” It also means “loyalty.”

[35]Trebilco, Paul, 2017, 44.

[36]Lest the readers be confused please note that the Acts of Paul is not the book of Acts (i.e. Acts of the Apostles) found in the New Testament.

[37]MacDonald, 1983, 36.

[38]Ibid, 108

[39]Ibid, 24.

[40]Ibid, 39.

[41]Meggitt, 1998, 80.

[42]Murphy-O’Conner, 2006, 4.

[43]Ralph P. Martin, 1986, 529.

[44]Eisenbaum, Pamela. 141.

[45]He word is in italics, because I don’t believe we can prove either side of the question.

[46]Smith and Tyson, 275.

[47]Morley, 2006, 31.

[48]Ibid. 35.

[49]Friesen, 2004, 350.

[50]I have shortened some of the descriptions Friesen used in his chart of poverty.

[51]Ibid, 358.

[52]Meggitt, 1998, 96-7.

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