For several years now, I have pondered the question, “Was Paul a cross-cultural missionary?” It seems that many today and in recent history have made it their assumption and presupposition regarding their theology of mission that Paul in fact was a cross-cultural missionary. Not only so, but that he was the founder of cross-cultural missions. Throughout my years of studying the New Testament, Pauline literature, and the Greco-Roman world of the first century, I have increasingly been leaning towards the opposite conclusion. Here are three reasons why I think that Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary.
1. Paul Lived in the Greco-Roman World
First, Paul was a product of his environment which was the Greco-Roman world. It is reported of him in Acts that he was from Tarsus and later was trained in Jerusalem, both of which are in the Roman Empire. He thus grew up in Roman Hellenism (Greek and Roman culture) which was so far spread in the Roman Empire that the lingua franca was Koine (or Common) Greek – that means that everyone in the Roman Empire spoke Greek. What displays this even more was Paul’s ability to speak to this Greco-Roman culture. The reason why he was so effective in doing this was because it was in fact his own culture. Missionaries today always say that the natives know how to best contextualize the Gospel in their own culture, and this, I suggest, is precisely what we find Paul doing. He is a native contextualizing the Gospel to his own Greco-Roman culture.
2. Paul Was Born a Roman Citizen
Secondly, Paul was born a Roman citizen. This is something quite noteworthy seeing that Rome was the reigning empire over all of the places where Paul evangelized (Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc.). He was not an outsider coming in to a new culture; rather, he was an insider, a born citizen knowing the ins and outs of the way this world worked and thought.
3. Paul Was a Native Speaker of Greek
Lastly, Paul was a native speaker of Koine Greek. This is the language that all of his epistles have been handed down to us in and this is also most likely the language that he used when evangelizing. Now of course, Paul was also a Jew and knew Aramaic and probably Hebrew as well, but Greek was the language he used on the road and he didn’t have to go to missionary school in order to learn some new language because he was himself a native speaker. What is more, his preferred Bible was the LXX or Septuagint which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
In sum, Paul didn’t have to learn a new language, didn’t have to learn a new people group, and didn’t have to learn a new worldview. In other words, Paul didn’t have to learn a new culture. Why? Because he was a missionary in his own culture.
Now while the Greco-Roman world was by definition poly-cultural (i.e. many subcultures under the umbrella of one large culture), it was the norm for Paul to interact with people from the same culture in different subcultures. But this is not the same as cross-cultural which is two totally distinct cultures. (As a side note, I believe that a great comparison for understanding Paul’s cultural dynamic in his Greco-Roman world can be made between America and Rome: think of America today and all of its different subcultures based upon geography. You have the subcultures of the South, the Midwest, the North East, the West Coast, the South West, etc. Now while these all have very distinct subcultures, they all fall under the umbrella of the broader American culture. Everyone speaks English and everyone knows what 9/11 means. I think this is a good comparison to Paul’s situation. Grec0-Roman culture dominated the entire empire, though there were multiple subcultures in all the various geographical parts of the empire.)
So if Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary, then what was he? In addition to being an “apostle” sent by God to proclaim the Gospel, I suppose that we could call Paul a cross-geographical missionary since he frequently moved from location to location throughout his ministry in the Roman Empire. But this is very different from a cross-cultural missionary who is faced with the challenges of overcoming so many cultural and lingual barriers. So if Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary, and thus not the founder of cross-cultural missions, then what are we basing our theology of cross-cultural missions on today? It could perhaps be founded on the Great Commission in Matt 28 or the promise that people from all nations will hear the Gospel and worship Christ from Matt 24 and Rev 7. It cannot however, as I have suggested here, be founded upon the assumption that Paul was a cross-cultural missionary, because he ministered, evangelized, taught, and preached to his own culture which was why he was so successful. Let this serve as an affirmation to us today that God has given us the great calling to be missionaries right where we are in our own world and culture.
For further exploration on this topic, check out NT scholar Phillip Long’s blog post on this subject and also Eckhard Schnabel’s book Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods which you can buy on amazon.