During his general audience on July 2, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was beginning a new series of catecheses devoted to St. Paul at the beginning of a special Pauline Year within the Catholic Church that is dedicated to St. Paul and his teachings.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to begin a new series of catecheses devoted to that great apostle, St. Paul. As you know, the year extending from the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul on June 29, 2008 until their feast day in 2009 has been dedicated to him.
The Apostle Paul, an exceptional and almost inimitable yet stimulating figure, is set before us as an example of total dedication to the Lord and to his Church, as well as a figure of great openness to mankind and its cultures.
Thus, it is fitting that we reserve a special place for him, not only in our veneration of him but also in our effort to understand what he has to say to us Christians today.
St. Paul’s World
During this first encounter, we will reflect on the environment in which he lived and worked. It might seem as though a topic such as this might transport us far away from our time since we have to imagine the world as it was 2,000 years ago.
However, this is only partially true and is true only in appearance since we will see that, in various ways, today’s social and cultural context is not very different from what it was back in those days.
A primary and fundamental factor to keep in mind is the relationship between the environment in which Paul was born and grew up and the global context in which he subsequently worked.
He was part of the people of Israel and its tradition — a very specific, well-defined culture, which was clearly a minority culture.
In the ancient world, especially within the Roman Empire, as scholars of this era have taught us, Jews probably made up about 10% of the total population.
Here in Rome, in the middle of the first century, their number was even less, representing at the most only 3% of the city’s inhabitants.
Their beliefs and their lifestyle, then as now, clearly distinguished them from the world around them. This could have had two effects: either derision, which could lead to intolerance, or admiration, which expressed itself in various forms of sympathy, as was the case with the “God-fearing” and the “proselytes,” pagans who were associated with the synagogue and shared the faith in the God of Israel.
As concrete examples of these two attitudes, we can cite, on one hand, the cutting dismissal of an orator like Cicero, who despised the Jewish religion and even the city of Jerusalem (see Pro Flacco, 66-69), and, on the other hand, the attitude of Poppea, Nero’s wife, whom the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus remembers as a “sympathizer” of the Jews (see Antichitã giudaiche 20, 195.252; Vita 16).
Moreover, Julius Caesar himself had officially recognized the special rights of the Jews, as Flavius Josephus has recorded (see Antichitã giudaiche 14, 200-216).
What is certain is that the number of Jews living outside the land of Israel — the Jews of the Diaspora — was greater than the number living within the territory others called Palestine, as is the case even today.
Between 2 Worlds
It is no wonder, then, that Paul himself was the target of the two opposing viewpoints of which I have spoken. One thing is certain: The distinctive nature of the Jewish culture and religion had peacefully found its place within an institution as all-pervasive as the Roman Empire was.
However, the place of those, whether Gentile or Jew, who adhered in faith to the person of Jesus of Nazareth was more difficult and laden with trials insofar as Christianity differed both from Judaism and from the prevailing pagan culture.
In any case, two factors facilitated Paul’s mission. The first was Greek culture — perhaps Hellenistic is a better word — which, after Alexander the Great, became a common heritage that the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East shared together, integrating many elements from the culture of those peoples who were traditionally regarded as barbarians.
A writer from this era has affirmed, in this regard, that Alexander “ordered all people to regard the ecumene (the entire inhabited world) as their fatherland … and that there no longer be any distinction between Greek and Barbarian” (Plutarch, De Alexandri Magni fortuna aut virtute, 6-8).
The second factor was the political and administrative structure of the Roman Empire, which guaranteed a peace and stability that extended from Britain to the south of Egypt, unifying a territory of dimensions never seen before.
Within this space, people could move with sufficient freedom and safety, benefiting from, among other things, an extraordinary network of roads and finding at each destination some basic, characteristic cultural elements without any loss of the local flavor, that represented a common, super partes (neutral), unifying fabric, so much so that the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of St. Paul, praised Emperor Augustus because he “brought together in harmony all the savage peoples … thereby becoming a guardian of peace” (Legato ad Caium, 146-147).
A Universal Vision
The universal vision that is a characteristic of St. Paul’s personality — at least Paul the Christian after the episode on the road to Damascus — certainly owes it basic impetus to his faith in Jesus Christ, insofar as the risen Christ rises above any specific constraints.
Indeed, for this apostle “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Nevertheless, even the historical and cultural situation of his time and his environment influenced his choices and his work. Someone has described Paul as a “man of three cultures,” given his Jewish origins, his knowledge of the Greek language, and his prerogative as a civis romanus (Roman citizen), as the Latin origin of his name attests.
The Influence of Stoicism
In particular, we must recall the Stoic philosophy, which was prevalent during Paul’s time and which also had an influence, though marginally, on Christianity.
In this regard, we must mention the names of some Stoic philosophers such as Zeno and Cleanthes, its originators, and those who were closer to Paul in time, like Seneca, Musonius and Epictetus, in whom we find the highest values of humanism and wisdom, which were, of course, assimilated within Christianity.
As a scholar on this subject wrote in a masterful way, “Stoicism … proclaimed a new ideal, which imposed on man duties towards his fellow men, but, at the same time, freed him from all physical and national ties and made him a purely spiritual being” (M. Pohlenz, La Stoa, I, Firenze 2, 1978, pp. 565s).
Take, for example, the doctrine that conceives the universe as one great, harmonious body, leading, as a result, to the doctrine of equality among all men without social distinctions and to equality, at least in principle, among men and women, as well as to the ideal of frugality, moderation and of self-control in order to avoid any excess.
When Paul writes to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8), he is merely re-stating an eminently humanist concept characteristic of this philosophical wisdom.
A Crisis of Faith
In Paul’s time, traditional religion was also undergoing a crisis, at least in its mythological and its civic aspects.
After Lucretius had caused a controversy a century earlier when he said that “religion has led to so many misdeeds” (De rerum natura 1, 101), a philosopher like Seneca, surpassing all external ritual, taught that “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you” (Lettere a Lucilio, 41, 1).
Similarly, when Paul addressed an audience of Epicurean philosophers in the Areopagus of Athens, he said that “God does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands ... but in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 24.28).
In doing so, he certainly echoes the Jewish faith in a God that cannot be represented in anthropomorphic terms, but he was also speaking on a religious wavelength that was well-known to his listeners.
Moreover, we should also take into account that many educated pagans avoided the official temples within the city and carried out their activities in private places that were more suitable for initiating their followers. So it was no surprise that gatherings (ecclesiae) of Christians, to which St. Paul’s attests in his letters, often took place in private homes. Moreover, at that time there were still no public buildings.
Therefore, the meetings of Christians must have seemed to their contemporaries as just another variant of their common practice of a more intimate form of religious practice. Of course, the differences between pagan and Christian worship were considerable and revolved around the identity awareness of the participants, the common participation of men and women, the celebration of the “Lord’s Supper” and the reading of Scripture.
In conclusion, from this rapid excursion into the cultural environment of the first century of the Christian era, it is clear that it is not possible to understand St. Paul adequately without placing him within the context — both Jewish as well as pagan — of his time.
Seen in this way, his figure acquires a historical and intellectual depth, showing what he shared with his environment and how he introduced some original elements.
However, this also holds true for Christianity in general, of which the Apostle Paul is an model of the first order from whom we all still have so much to learn.
This is the objective of the Pauline Year: to learn from St. Paul, to learn the faith, to learn about Christ, and to learn, finally, the path for an upright life.