Was Paul “Greek”? Pt. 1

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, St. Paul


It is obvious and demonstrable (to most) that the apostle Paul was a Jew: he clearly identifies himself as such in various of his letters (see, for example, Phil 3:5–6; Rom 11:1; 2 Cor 11:22).[1] For those who see the book of Acts as providing valuable evidence for Paul’s biography (as I do), his status as a citizen of Rome has long been acknowledged: Acts 16:37 and 22:25–28 indicate Paul’s Roman citizenship and many if not most scholars (classicists included) see the case as essentially clear.[2] While there are all sorts of fruitful debates and discussions to be had on the nature of Paul’s social identity with respect to Judaism and the Roman world, this post is devoted to a third sphere of social identity for Paul: his being a “Greek.”

Paul was not ethnically Greek, nor was he Greek with respect to political designation in the way he was a Roman, but he was a Greek in a nonetheless important sense: that of a key aspect of his social and cultural identity. In fact, to say that Paul was “Greek” in this sense is to use language Greeks themselves used to identify people who were not ethnically Greek, yet who nonetheless shared Greek culture in dynamic and important ways: “Greek” was an “emic term in the Hellenistic period, referring generally to both the original Greeks and the Hellenized population.”[3] Education was perhaps the most significant vehicle for Hellenization in a direct sense, but the dynamic ways that the Greek language itself brought people into contact with Greek culture cannot be overlooked. Both can be seen as ways to think about Paul’s being a Greek, but some nuance needs first be made with respect to Jews and Greek culture.

Greek Culture among Jews

With respect to the emic term, “Greek,” mentioned above, we can speak of “Hellenists” among the Jews. The “Hellenists” (Acts 6:1) were Jews who perhaps only spoke Greek, or at least only knew little Aramaic (see Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 246–54). We can also speak of Jews who spoke Aramaic and who had perhaps very basic knowledge of Greek or virtually none, yet nonetheless lived in a world connected with Greek culture through language (yes, even outside urban areas, even in the Galilee); someone like the apostle Peter might fit in this category, who probably knew basic Greek “by force of circumstance” (i.e., business) as Scott Charlesworth characterizes Greek knowledge in first-century Galilee; Peter possibly increased his facility with Greek as he became a major figure in the Jesus movement (it is hard to see why he would not).

We can also speak of Greeks who knew Hebrew and spoke Aramaic, but who also spoke Greek well. Some of these might have learned Greek as a second (or third, etc.) language and had learned facility in it–enough to teach, for example (it has been argued that Jesus fit into this category), and others might have had Greek as a first language and had literacy (with greater Greek literacy than Hebrew). Philo of Alexandria would fit in such a category, Paul would fit in such a category.

Altogether, this is one reason why when speaking of “Late Second-Temple Judaism” we are oftentimes speaking of a socio-religio context fully immersed in the Hellenistic; thus, we speak of Hellenistic Judaism. Martin Hengel’s now classic work, Judaism and Hellenism was and is an important source to emphasize this reality.

This spectrum of knowledge of Greek among Jews is not, however, directly proportional to the degree one might have embraced Greek culture. There may be reason to think that some Jews who were Hellenists (or had great facility with Greek) otherwise expressed their Jewish identity in ways deliberately discrete from Greco-Roman identity markers.

For one dramatic example, consider findings from the “Cave of Horror” (a cave which served as a refuge for Jews who fled Romans during the Bar Kokhba Revolt). The cave is so named because a number of skeletons of Jewish revolutionaries were found who were fleeing for their lives from the Romans during the Bar Kokhba revolt/war. Those revolutionaries, under the leadership of Simeon bar Kokhba, were seeking to establish and independent Jewish state (the occasion for the revolt). They were thus very much concerned with asserting, celebrating, and instantiating a historic notion of a Jewish state/identity. Yet, the only scriptures which have been found from this cave—a well-preserved Scroll of the Twelve Minor Prophets—are in Greek (a new fragment of this scroll was discovered last year). The original scroll has the Hebrew tetragrammaton, but the rest is in Greek, which shows not only that these Jewish revolutionaries interacted with their scriptures in Greek, but that they likely did so predominately or exclusively (they likely brought with them their most important possession with respect to scripture). Other papyrological evidence serves as evidence for the supposition, like papyrus Yadin 52, which is a letter between Jewish leaders during the Bar Kokhba revolt and which potentially reveals that these Jewish leaders were more literate in Greek than in Hebrew. This shows that those who were discretely Jewish were still thoroughly integrated with the Greek language. One doesn’t need to be a linguistic relativist to admit to the fundamentally important role a language can play in the construction of one’s culture.

A cave at Qumran; the “Cave of Horror,” Naval Hever Cave 8, (not pictured) contained Jewish scriptures in Greek

Yet, at the same time, we have clear Jewish evidence that apparently decouples Greek language learning from the learning of Greek wisdom, prohibiting the latter but being open to (even promoting) the former; consider Sotah 49b. Yet, is the “beautiful tongue of the Greeks” (as Greek is called in Sotah 49b)–and the learning of it–so easy to decouple from Greek wisdom? Their intent must be taken at face value in any case.

Thus, it seems that a case can be made to show that even where Jews knew (and perhaps only knew) Greek, they did not always embrace Greek culture or wisdom (or at least were very concerned for Jewish identity to be discrete from any Greek identity).

Paul’s Greekness

How to locate Paul? At the spectrum opposite those who ostensibly rejected Greek culture, there were Jews who eschewed their Jewish identity and sought to fully embrace or be embraced within Greco-Roman culture.[4] Paul does not fit in either category. More moderately than both, we can see a positive kind of Greek reception even among those who might be presumed to be distinctly Jewish (and thus who do not eschew their Jewish identity but celebrate it to a degree); Paul belongs in this category.

Paul is an excellent example of someone thoroughly steeped in and identified by Jewish culture, yet who nonetheless exhibits a cosmopolitan social identity (this itself being indicative of a kind of Hellenistic reality), and in particular, one that is fairly expressive of Greek identity. Paul can be seen as a Jew who was thoroughly Hellenized through his birthplace, language, and education, and who variously expressed this in and by his corpus of writings.  Interestingly, Paul’s Hellenization thus co-existed with his Judaism prior to his conversion to Christianity and persisted after his break with his “former way of life in Judaism” (Gal 1:13). [Yes, I believe there was a parting of the ways between the early Christian movement and Judaism, and yes I believe Paul had a conversion experience].

As mentioned above, education was a major Hellenizing force—if not the major Hellenizing force in the Greco-Roman world. This is so to the point that “indigenous cultures of Asia Minor gradually became completely absorbed” into Hellenism via education (Endsjø, Greek Resurrection, 18). The same was true for Roman Hellenization: the famous lines of Cicero and Horace complement each other and are illustrative: Cicero admitted that “in learning and all kinds of literature Greeks did excel us,”[5] and Horace evocatively made the point that “Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive, and brought the arts into rustic Latinum.”[6]

While Paul did not have a full-fledged Greek education (a critical point against arguments imply Paul must have had a full Greek education), he nonetheless would have been educated in the Greek system as a child.[7] Paul was also born in Tarsus, one of the major Greek cultural centres in the Hellenistic world.[8] Tarsus was a university city, and of the city the great Greek writer Strabo says that it was a place “whose people’s zeal for learning surpassed that of Athens or Alexandria.”[9] It was so at the time of Paul’s birth there, and Paul was thus born into a thoroughly Hellenistic city. He would have learned Greek as his first language and gained literacy in the language, he thus obviously spoke Greek and could write in Greek if the need arose (as is evidenced in Gal 6:11). Paul also read Greek literature—and this, to some degree perhaps by choice and beyond his early education, as would be evidenced from his citations of Greek literature in various places (his speech in Athens in Acts 17, for example).

Paul’s move to Jerusalem as a child/young man, his subsequent study under Gamaliel, and his rising through the ranks of the Pharisees, in no way mean that he eschewed his “Greek” upbringing and early education; the two could co-exist and in some sense did in Paul prior to his conversion, but perhaps the latter was expressed more after Paul’s conversion (even while it’s a myth that Paul said he “became a Greek to win Greeks” [1 Cor 9:19-22 does not say that]).

In fact, while Paul’s citation of Greek poets has long been noted (in Acts 17), and while Paul’s writings have long been brought into fruitful comparison with Greek ideas (see here for a recent example), I believe we can say even more than this about Paul’s “Greek” identity. More than Greek being Paul’s first language, or his early Greek education, and even more than the New Testament evidence we have for Paul’s knowledge and use of Greek writings and philosophy. I think there is potentially better evidence than these–direct evidence–and the case for that evidence rests on these features as background information.

In part 2, I will present that evidence in detail.

[1] Disputations to the contrary are in a class esoteric in biblical studies, while they do exist; see, for example Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.

[2] Wallace and Williams, Three Worlds, 137–46

[3] Endsjø, Greek Resurrection, 18; emphasis added. Emic refers to a designation within the social group as opposed to a term constructed as a label from outside the group. The word is used this way in the New Testament: consider one definition of “Greek” [Ἕλλην] from the LN lexicon: “a person who participates in Greek culture and in so doing would speak the Greek language, but not necessarily a person of Greek ethnic background.” LN 1:135.

[4] Epispasm—the reversal of circumcision—being a dramatic example.

[5] “Doctrina Graecia nos et omni litterarum genere superabat,” Cicero, Tusculans Dispute, I.1.3

[6] “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio,” Horace, Epistles, II.156–57

[7] See Stanley E. Porter – Andrew W. Pitts, “Paul’s Bible, his Education and his Access to the Scriptures of Israel”, Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008) 9-41.

[8] On Paul’s Tarsian citizenship: Wallace and Williams, Three Worlds, 142.

[9] Strabo, Geog. 14.5.13.


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