Was Paul a Cross-Cultural Missionary?

Via Sacra, Rome, Italy

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.

CONCLUSIONS

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.

6 comments on “Was Paul a Cross-Cultural Missionary?

  1. Bryan says:

    Good post and great thoughts. Have you ever thought of him as a bi-cultural rather than saying he was either located in Hebrew culture or in Greco-Roman culture? I wonder if this fits the evidence we have of Paul as a bridge person.

    • Timothy Christian says:

      Thanks for your comment Bryan. That’s a great suggestion of Paul being bi-cultural. The main reason why I would not see this being the case is that his Hebrew culture was highly influenced by the Greco-Roman culture at large. Hellenism was deeply ingrained in the Hebrew culture in the first century. The Hellenization of the Jews happened in the Second Temple period even to the first century. So Greco-Roman culture trumps Paul’s Hebrew subculture. Another reason is that Paul was not only capable of communicating with his own Hebrew culture in Judea, but also in several other areas of the empire all of which had their own subcultures. For example, the subculture of Ephesus in Asia Minor was not the same as the subculture of say Corinth in Achaia. These places had two very different subcultures, yet Paul was able to tap into the main culture of Roman Hellenism. So Greco-Roman culture connected these two seemingly different cultures and thus they had much in common. So the fact that Paul was able to maneuver his way effectively through these multiple subcultures so successfully tells me that he was not simply bi-cultural (Hebrew + Greco-Roman), but that his primary culture was Roman Hellenism which spanned across a massive amount of geographical landscape which is how he was able to communicate so well with people in the Roman Empire. Thanks for your comment!

      • Bryan says:

        Thanks for your reply. I think you are on to something with your analysis of Paul’s knowledge of Greco-Roman culture. You’re right. He grew up in Tarsus, spoke Greek and would have known the thought world, symbols and praxis of Greco-Roman culture. I agree Paul is different that someone than a white American who travels to sub-Saharan Africa to work. He’s not in our words a cross-cultural worker. You are right on.

        • Timothy Christian says:

          Thanks Bryan. I appreciate that. I in no way want this to discourage us in doing cross-cultural missions because God wants the Gospel received in every tribe and nation. I do however want this to discourage us from using Paul as our model and example, because that’s not what he did.

  2. I appreciate your view that Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary. I think we are influenced by the cultures we are in. It forms our thoughts and at times our attitudes. Paul was exposed to multiple cultures. He interacted with people of different cultures. Possible what I see more is an understanding of what those people are up against within their culture. That to me means that Paul has an understanding of that culture, not that he is a part of that culture. In a way, being of a different culture shows the warning signs of a different culture as you are trying to direct them toward a holy life. I certainly would be interested in your thoughts.

  3. Phillip Long says:

    Thanks for this post (and the link to my blog!) I think you are heading the right direction, Paul was not a missionary like a modern missionary who embeds themselves in a different culture for a long time of ministry. A title like “Paul the Missionary” is in many ways anachronistic (although that is not a problem in Schnabel’s book).

    If there is a “cross-cultural” aspect to his mission it is a Jew reaching out to Gentiles with the message of Jesus the Messiah. A more pointed question is the motivation for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles opposed to other Jews. You suggest the great commission, but Paul himself never really cites anything like those words of Jesus as his motivation. For Paul, his calling was to be the “light to the gentiles,” fulfilling a kind of apocalyptic ministry by bringing the Messiah to the Gentiles apart from the law. To bring Judaism to the nations (ala the great commission) is not all that radical in Second Temple Judaism, but to declare a Gentile might participate in a Jewish Messianic Age without converting to Judaism was extremely radical!

    Again, thanks for the post.

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