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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Paul's Apostolic Modus Operandi.


The number of churches addressed or referred to in the letters suggests that Paul was strikingly successful in gaining converts and founding new congregations. The letters provide us with very little direct information, however, on how he went about the process. Once again, the lack might seem to be supplied by the Acts account. Here Paul's activity in founding new churches tends to follow a recognizable pattern. He begins in the synagogue, where he takes advantage of opportunities to proclaim the gospel in a public forum (e.g. Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1–2, 10; 18:4 ). The preaching meets with a mixed response—a positive reception by some of the Jews and many of the Gentile proselytes and ‘God-fearers’ ( 13:43; 14:1; 17:4 ), but a hostile response by the larger proportion of the Jewish community ( 13:45; 14:2; 17:5–9, 13; 18:6 ). This opposition leads Paul to withdraw from the synagogue with his small group of converts, who become the nucleus of a separate community with a growing number of Gentile members ( 13:46–9; 14:3–4; 18:6–11 ), and an appointed body of leaders (‘elders’, 14:23; 20:17 ). Eventually local opposition or other considerations force Paul to depart and to move to a different city, where the process is invariably repeated.


Again, however, the Acts material should be used with caution; for when Paul describes his mission field, Jewish synagogues are nowhere in sight. While preaching to Jews is not categorically eliminated (1 Cor 9:20 ), Paul invariably characterizes his apostolic mission as directed towards Gentiles (1 Thess 2:16; Gal 2:2; Rom 1:5; 11:13; 15:16; Col 1:24–9 ); indeed, this was precisely the division of labour agreed to with Peter (Gal 2:7–9 ). Likewise, when he addresses his readers, he refers to them as Gentiles (1 Cor 12:2 ). In neither case is there any hint of a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. Further, when he describes his Thessalonian converts as people who had ‘turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God’ (1 Thess 1:9 ), he does not seem to leave room for the possibility that adherence to the synagogue had been for any of them a half-way house on the path from idolatry to their new faith, in contrast to Acts 17:4 .


Still, the differences between Paul and Acts should not be exaggerated. For one thing, if some of his converts indeed had first been ‘God-fearers’ and synagogue adherents, Paul would have had his own reasons to play down this fact, not wanting his mission to be seen as dependent in any way on the synagogue; he is, after all, not a disinterested observer of his own mission. Further, the ease with which he can quote and allude to Scripture in his letters suggests a real familiarity with Jewish Scripture and tradition on the part of his Gentile readers, a fact not inconsistent with the idea that some of them had had a prior association with the synagogue. In addition, Paul's statement in 1 Cor 9:20 that ‘to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews’, indicates that he did not consider Jews to be out of bounds for him. Indeed, given the evidence for Jewish communities in most of the cities where he worked, it would be difficult to imagine that he could have carried on a mission that did not impinge on the synagogue community in some way.


Nevertheless, Paul's letters represent our primary source, and we should not allow the more fully developed but nevertheless schematized picture in Acts to control or overshadow the information emerging from the letters themselves. Further, the task of setting the information from both Acts and the letters into a richer description of Paul's mission has been aided of late by more sociologically informed studies—both those that draw on models of how new religions grow and develop (on the Christian mission generally, see Stark 1996 ) and those that attempt detailed descriptions of Paul's social context (e.g. Meeks 1983 ). One emphasis arising from both types of study is the importance of various social networks in the spread of a new religious movement. While the role of public preaching and teaching should not be eliminated entirely, more emphasis should be placed on family networks (e.g. 1 Cor 7:13–16 ), on the extended household with its various networks of slaves, freedmen, tenants, clients, and so on (e.g. 1 Cor 1:16 ), and on the networks involved in the carrying out of a trade (Hock 1980 ). Indeed, the frequency of references to house-churches (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3–5, 23; Philem 1; Col 4:15 ) suggests that households provided the primary social context in which Paul's churches were embedded (though other models such as voluntary associations may have helped shape the new communities as well; see Ascough 1997 ).


It is not easy to discern the shape of Paul's original preaching. The basic elements are clear enough; the summary in 1 Cor 15:3–8 , with its focus on Christ's death and resurrection as a saving event, is reflected in other references sprinkled through the letters (e.g. 1 Cor 2:1–5; 1 Thess 1:9–10 ). But it is more difficult to discern how these basic elements were fleshed out. To take one sharply debated issue, how much biographical information about Jesus' life and teaching was included (Dunn 1998: 183–206)? Or, how central was Israel to Paul's preaching? Did he, for example, lead his converts to believe that they were full members of Abraham's family (Gal 3:29 ) or that they had been grafted into Israel's stock (Rom 11:17–24 ), or did these Israel-centred themes emerge only later and in response to external influences (see Donaldson 1994 )?


In any case, after his initial preaching Paul spent a period of time consolidating his evangelistic gains and establishing a self-sufficient community. Most of his letters contain passing references back to this initial period of community-formation (e.g. 1 Cor 1:14–16; 2:1–5; 2 Cor 1:19; 12:12–13; Gal 4:13–15; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 2:9–12; 2 Thess 3:7–10 ). During this period he did not request or accept financial support from the congregation, preferring to support himself through his own work (1 Cor 9:3–18; 1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:7–10 ) and contributions from already-founded congregations (2 Cor 11:7–11; Phil 4:15–16 ). With the exception of Phil 1:1 , there seems to be little evidence of the kind of appointed ‘elders’ referred to in Acts (e.g. Acts 14:23 ). Indeed, a striking feature of the letters is that in dealing with local conflicts Paul does not bring local office-holders into the picture, either to instruct them or to encourage his readers to submit to them. He tended to operate more on the basis of a charismatic, gift-based leadership (Rom 12:4–7; 1 Cor 12:1–31; cf. Eph 4:11–16 ), though one should not under-estimate the de facto leadership role played by the head of the household in which the church met.


After leaving the congregation and moving on to another city, Paul continued to feel ‘daily pressure because of [his] anxiety for all the churches’ (2 Cor 11:28 ). His anxiety took the positive form of an ongoing pastoral responsibility, exercised not only through his own follow-up visits (Phil 1:27; 2:24; 1 Cor 4:18–21 ), but also by means of appointed emissaries—for example, Timothy (1 Cor 4:16; 16:10–11; Phil 2:19–23 ) and Titus (2 Cor 7:6–16; 8:16–24 )—and by means of the letters themselves. Through these agencies Paul extended his apostolic activity and authority; both emissaries (1 Cor 4:17 ) and letters (Gal 4:20 ) functioned as proxies—and sometimes as precursors—for his own apostolic presence (Funk 1967 ).


Paul founded self-sustaining congregations and then moved on. But where, and why? How did he decide which city he would move to next? More specifically, did Paul operate from some sense of a geographical plan or strategy? A number of pieces of evidence seem to suggest that he did. (1) Not only did he concentrate on cities, but the cities he chose to work in tended to be prominent ones, provincial capitals and the like. (2) He seems to have thought of these cities in terms of the provinces in which they were found, preferring to refer to his churches with provincial rather than city names; e.g. Achaia and Macedonia (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1; 9:2 ), Asia (Rom 16:5 ), Illyricum (Rom 15:19 ), Spain (Rom 15:24 ), and (probably) Galatia (Gal 1:2 ). (3) For years, he says, he had a desire to proclaim the gospel in Rome (Rom 1:10–13; 15:23 ), which he then wanted to use as a staging-post for a journey to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28 ). (4) The agreement between Peter and Paul recounted in Gal 2:9 —‘that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised’—is at least open to a territorial (rather than solely ethnic) interpretation. (5) The geographical context in 2 Cor 10:12–18 suggests a territorial element in Paul's statement that ‘we…will keep within the field that God has assigned to us’ (v. 13 ). (6) Paul's statement in Rom 15:19, 24 , to the effect that he is now free to travel to Rome because he has ‘fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ’ ‘from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum’, seems to suggest not only a notion of territoriality but also of a specific evangelizing agenda within that territory. Since there was still plenty of scope for preaching, not only in untouched cities but even in the cities where churches had been planted, his statement that his work was finished in this area must suggest that he was operating according to some more specific strategy than simply preaching to as many Gentiles as he could wherever he might find them. (7) Finally, the statement that the conversion of the ‘full number of the Gentiles’ would be the thing to trigger the coming of the End and the salvation of ‘all Israel’ (Rom 11:25–6 ), sets the whole mission within an eschatological framework: when the gospel was ‘fully preached’, not simply from Jerusalem to Illyricum but from Jerusalem to X (X being wherever he considered the end of the territory to be), then the parousia would take place.


While these pieces of evidence seem to add up to a geographical strategy of some kind, it is not any easy matter to discern what it might have been. The popular notion that Paul engaged in ‘missionary journeys’, with Jerusalem as his point of departure and return, owes more to Luke than to Paul—and actually owes more to the modern missionary movement than to Luke: as Townsend (1985 ) has observed, it was not until the onset of the missionary movement in the eighteenth century that anyone thought to describe Paul's apostolic activity in terms of ‘three missionary journeys’. Another notion influenced by more modern Christian missionary strategy—namely, that Paul intended each of his churches to be centres of evangelism for the whole province of which it was a part (e.g. Dunn 1988: ii. 869)—founders on the fact that Paul nowhere urges his congregations to carry out the task of evangelism; strangely, his letters contain no injunctions to evangelize at all. Somehow he seems to consider his churches as representative of the provinces in which they are located, so that once a church was founded within a province, he could say that the gospel had been ‘fully preached’ in that province.


But how did he determine which provinces in which to work? Knox has suggested that the word kuklō in Rom 15:19 (‘from Jerusalem and kuklō as far as Illyricum’) should be translated ‘in a circular manner’, arguing on this basis that Paul's plan was to work his way through a string of provinces circling the Mediterranean and ending up in Egypt (Knox 1964 ). Others have attempted to find a geographical template in Israel's Scriptures—either the sequence of nations listed in Isa 66:18–21 (Riesner 1998: 245–53) or the various ‘tables of the nations’ in Gen 10 and elsewhere (Scott 1995 ). Each proposal has its difficulties, however, not the least of which is the fact that there were many provinces between Jerusalem and Rome or Spain which Paul did not seem compelled to visit. The statement that he chose to work only where Christ had not ‘already been named’ (Rom 15:20 ) might suggest that he avoided other provinces because they had already been evangelized. But this would hardly have been true of Thrace, Moesia, or Gaul, to name only a few of the provinces in which he did no work. Moreover, Rom 15:20 cannot be pressed too hard, in that Paul was quite prepared to preach the gospel in Rome (Rom 1:13 ) and to consider it as part of his apostolic turf (Rom 1:5–6; 15:14–16 ) even though a church already existed there.

Perhaps the most that can be said is that Spain, considered by the ancients to be the ‘end of the earth’, represented for Paul the goal of his ever westerly-pressing mission. In this connection, it is worth noting that Paul seems to have conceived of his apostolic task in the light of the Servant passages of Isaiah (see the citations or allusions in Gal 1:15; 2 Cor 6:2; Rom 15:21 ) and that the Servant's task was to bring God's salvation ‘to the end of the earth’ (Isa 49:6 ; see further Donaldson forthcoming).

In all probability, however, Paul never made it to the ‘end of the earth’. He journeyed to Rome not in apostolic freedom but as a prisoner. While it is possible that his Roman hearing resulted in release (Murphy-O'Connor 1996: 359–63), it is more likely that it resulted, eventually, in his execution.

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