Archaeology: Why Paul Went West

PictureWhile we’re looking at fascinating articles from the Biblical Archaeology Review, you’ve just got to know about this article, “Why Paul Went West.”

The diaspora of Jews in the east developed very differently from the diaspora in the west. The eastern diaspora extended from Trans-Jordan to Babylonia; the western diaspora included Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, the south of France, the Mediterranean islands, Egypt and some other sites in north Africa such as Cyrene. In reality, there were two different diasporas, a western diaspora and an eastern diaspora. ..

Unfortunately, the full text of the article is available only to paid subscribers. But here’s how to read the map —

1. The red areas on the map are areas where Jews did not speak Hebrew and did not concern themselves much with the Oral Law of the rabbis.

2. The yellow areas are areas where rabbinic teaching was strong.

3. The striped areas had a blend of Greek and Hebrew culture — remember Jesus’ interactions with both Saduccees and Pharisees.

The Jews were in Babylonia and Persia for 70 years before Ezra and Nehemiah. Many returned to Jerusalem but many (most, most likely) stayed. The world of Judaism was thus divided between Babylon and Judea.

This is why the most important written record of the Jewish Oral Law is the Babylonian Talmud. Particularly after the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon became the center of traditional Jewish scholarship.

In the red areas, the Septuagint (LXX) was “the scriptures.” The Hellenistic Jews did not read or speak Hebrew, and so they studied the scriptures in the Greek. The Septuagint was their King James Version — and just like the KJV, it was a less-than-ideal translation but nonetheless very serviceable.

This is why Paul usually quotes from the Septuagint and why many New Testament words find their meaning in the Septuagint.

This division in Judaism tells us that we can’t use the Talmud to tell us what the synagogues were like in Paul’s part of the world. It would be like using a guide to the United Kingdom to interpret the culture of the US Deep South — common roots, many affinities and overlaps, but very different worlds.

For example, the Talmud describes the Passover meal as a seder, an elaborate meal with many ancient rituals still practiced in many Jewish households even today (based on the Talmud). But in Paul’s world, the Passover was practiced as described in the Torah, adapted to the local circumstance. It was a simple meal with songs of praise, the sacrifice of a lamb, and unleavened bread (sound familiar?).

In the east, the Oral Law was an essential supplement to the Tanakh (Old Testament). In the west, the Tanakh was supplemented by the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha — books such as 1 – 4 Maccabees, Tobit, and Judith. (Patrick Mead recently posted a great series on these materials. Google “Patrick Mead Those Other Books.”) Thus, the divided Jewish community read the Tanakh through two very different lens.

We find in the Gospels that Jesus sometimes followed the Oral Law and sometimes not. He certainly didn’t consider it in any sense binding on him. Meanwhile, Paul, Peter, and Jude occasionally make allusion to the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha.  They were writing and speaking in the cultural context in which they worked.

The article doesn’t go this far, but I’d suggest an interesting line of investigation. The Gospels picture highly legalistic Pharisees being roundly condemned by Jesus. Paul writes extensively about salvation by faith vs. law. E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and others have argued that Paul is not writing against a legalistic salvation by law so much as the idea that those saved by faith must have certain identity markers, such as circumcision and celebration of the Jewish festivals.

It occurs to me that Paul is writing to the western, Hellenized Jewish community, a community far removed from the Pharisees and the rabbis. It may well be a mistake to treat the Judaizing teachers Paul is opposing with the Pharisees opposed by Jesus. Jesus’ and Paul’s opponents may be coming from very different directions.

Thus, Sanders, Wright, and Dunn glean the nature of Jewish thought from the Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha, which is sound if we’re speaking of Hellenized Jews in the West and likely the Saduccees. But the theology of the Pharisees would be better found in the Oral Law.

My knowledge of the Oral Law is pretty sparse, and so this is just a thought. But I’m sure we can’t automatically assume that Paul’s opponents in Rome came from the same mindset as Jesus’ opponents in Galilee and Jerusalem.

And, of course, this new information impacts our efforts to reproduce the First Century assembly of the Pauline churches. We can’t just assume they were like the synagogues described in the Talmud or even like what we learn from other sources about the synagogues in the East. Then again, we have to realize that Christianity spread east as well as west. The 12 apostles didn’t all go west. Some went east. Christianity made it to Japan by 1000 AD!

As we read the writings of Paul, we have to recognize not only the Jewish background within which he worked but also that this background was not uniform through the Roman Empire or even Christendom. Therefore, it’s not necessarily sound to add Jewish roots into our theology, such as by arguing the Christian assembly ought to in some way be like the synagogue. Which synagogue? Practice was not uniform among the Jews.

Indeed, as so often happens, this new information reminds us that there are more gaps in our historical knowledge than we sometimes like to admit. Therefore, it’s all the more important to avoid treating history — which is always subject to modification due to fresh scholarship — as scripture. History is of critical importance in understanding the scriptures, but history is not scripture.



About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Archaeology: Why Paul Went West

  1. Larry Short says:

    By the way you missed why West? Very easy this was Paul's homeland. You don't go to Tarsus via Babylon.

  2. Zach23 says:

    Also though the Sanhedrin did survive the destruction of the Temple it moved to Yavne and lost a lot of its influence. But what about the Talmud Yerushalmi? it wasn't as extensive as the Babylonian Talmud since Jews weren't able to thrive in Jersalem as much as they could in Babylon post exile, but would rabbinical teachings in it not have any influence on Greece?

  3. R.J. says:

    Weren't the legalists of Galatia(imposters according to the Jerusalem council) of the sect of the Pharisees per Luke in Acts 15:5?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Isn’t Acts 15:5 is speaking of Pharisees who’d traveled to Antioch from Jerusalem?

  5. Pingback: Things to Read 8.6.2011 | Thinking and Believing

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