Paul had a seemingly insurmountable task: to make intelligible to a conservative, establishment Roman Empire the good news of a Palestinian Jewish end-time figure who had inaugurated a secret, alternative kingdom.

So Paul had to be both a conservative and radical. He was conservative for strategic reasons; to reach his culture, he learned how to communicate Christ’s message in the most intelligible forms (without compromising its content).

At the same time, Paul was radical: he inherited from Jesus a radical gospel and took the implications of that gospel to its radical conclusions.

Judaism at Its Best

Much of the aristocracy of the first-century Empire, especially in Rome, was threatened by changes in the status of women, former slaves, and foreigners. Leaders were disturbed that “Eastern cults,” like Judaism and the cult of Isis, were making converts among Roman aristocrats, especially among women. So they felt it was essential to preserve traditional religion and other elements of society if social order was to be preserved.

What was an early Christian missionary to do in such a setting? Since Christianity was born out of Judaism, one approach was to appeal to Gentiles who already appreciated Judaism. Sometimes Paul, therefore, explained that Jesus was the hope of Jewish history and prophecy; faith in Jesus constituted the right form of Judaism (Acts 13:16–49, Rom. 4, 9–11).

Paganism at Its Best

But many Romans and Greeks confused Judaism with the cults of Dionysus and Isis, which they accused of being immoral. Other Greeks and Romans detested circumcision as a form of mutilation, ridiculed the Sabbath as an excuse for laziness, and mocked Jewish food laws as utter foolishness.

So another strategy of Jewish apologists was to appeal to the highest standards of pagan philosophers (who, they often claimed, must have plagiarized Moses to get their ideas!). Jewish thinkers appealed to the popular Stoic notion of a supreme and universal God; other gods could be disposed of as merely guardian angels.

Most of what Paul says in Acts 17:24–29 and Romans 1:18–23 corresponds perfectly not only with the Bible but with Stoic thought: “The God who made the world and everything in it … does not live in temples built by human hands” would have been heartily affirmed by a follower of Stoicism. In this, Paul simply followed the lead of earlier Jewish thinkers, first establishing common ground by appealing to the best in Greek philosophy.

Over the years, Paul grew increasingly adept at interpreting his message in pagan categories yet clarifying and sticking to the essentials of the faith. The Greeks who read his first letter to Thessalonica probably misinterpreted his teaching on the end-time and death because it contrasted so starkly with their world-view. In his later letters, Paul shows more sensitivity to the way his Greek audience thought.

Paul even adapts the language of Plato to describe the soul’s state after death: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven” (2 Cor. 4:18–5:1). But neither Paul nor Judaism found the soul’s immortality incompatible with the doctrine of the future resurrection of the body (e.g., 1 Cor. 15; Phil. 3:20–21).

Also notice Paul’s cultural sensitivity regarding his teaching about the Lord’s Supper. Paul had not forgotten the significance of the Old Testament Passover for understanding Jesus’ mission (1 Cor. 5:7), but he also understood how outsiders would see the Lord’s Supper in Corinth. Business guilds, like many religious associations, would meet once a month (often in homes) to eat a meal whose meat had been offered to their patron deity. To outsiders, there was little difference between the meal of cult associations and the meal of house churches, except that the Christians’ patron god claimed to be the only true God. Paul readily adapted the language of the outsiders: instead of the “table of Serapis,” the Christians celebrated at the “table of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:20).

Drawing the Line

Then again, accommodating oneself to one’s audience could go too far. How could Christian evangelists avoid compromising the message in order to gain a hearing?

For Paul, it was important to draw the line at key places. In regard to Christians and “the table of the Lord,” for example, the tables of other gods were clearly off-limits. And like many other Jews, Paul regarded the gods behind pagan idols as demons (1 Cor. 10:20). On other moral and theological issues, Paul fought to keep the gospel message central.

Paul held the line on some social issues as well, for to him they represented the center of Jesus’ radical message. In Judaism, for example, Gentile seekers were welcome, and most Jewish people expected these righteous Gentiles to share in the world to come, but they did not reckon them as part of God’s people since they weren’t circumcised. Many Jewish Christians simply adopted this attitude, but Paul’s thinking on this matter was much more radical.

He started with the key implication of the message Christ had commissioned him to preach: faith in Jesus is the decisive issue in one’s relationship with God. Therefore, faith rather than ethnic allegiance (or other issues) should determine membership in the people of God.

This was not an issue Paul thought peripheral. In Antioch, he publicly confronted Peter and other Christians who separated themselves at meal time from Gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11–14). Paul so strongly felt the gospel was at stake, he called Peter on the carpet in front of everyone. This public confrontation showed the matter was urgent: both Jesus and Jewish tradition normally insisted on private reproof first. If Jew and Gentile come to God on the same terms—through Christ —then racial or cultural separatism violates the very gospel of Christ.

Paul develops this same thought in his letter to Roman Christians, who appear to have become divided along Jewish-Gentile lines. Paul argues that Jew and Gentile are equally damned (Rom. 1–3), that both must approach God on the same terms (Rom. 4–8), and that history reveals God’s desire to save both (Rom. 9–11).

Therefore Jewish Christians should not despise Gentile Christians whose background did not include the law or designation as the “chosen people” (Rom. 4, 7, 9); Gentile Christians should not despise Jewish Christians for observing special food laws and holy days (Rom. 14), always remembering that the gospel sprang out of Judaism (Rom. 11, 15).

Social Leveler

Paul also challenged class divisions of the ancient world.

Some well-to-do Christians in Corinth, who owned the homes in which the churches met, were embarrassed by Paul’s weak rhetoric and his work as an artisan. Their social class preferred teachers of a “higher” caliber, and they despised common labor.

Well-to-do patrons often invited those of lower social status to eat in their homes, but they segregated them in a poorer dining area, providing them inferior food and wine. Paul confronted this problem, which was typical of broader Corinthian society, on a solid theological basis: Christ’s body cannot have class divisions any more than racial ones (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:23, 29).

Subversive Conservative

The message Paul inherited from Jesus radically challenged the social structures of the day. Paul had to consider how to commend this message to the broadest cross-section of Roman society.

Therefore, he adapted the philosophers’ traditional household codes (which had also been adopted by Jews and other groups) to prove that Christians were not social subversives. Paul sought to prove that Christians were good citizens and upheld traditional Roman family values: namely, the submission of wives, children, and slaves.

While employing the codes, Paul nevertheless went beyond them. Wives were to submit to husbands (5:22) but only in the same way that all Christians submit to one another (5:21). Rather than exhorting husbands how to rule, as was customary, he exhorted them on how to love (5:25).

When viewed in the context of the times, most of Paul’s words concerning women’s roles advanced rather than inhibited their social position.

Likewise, household slaves were to serve their masters “wholeheartedly,” and then to masters he said, “Treat your slaves in the same way” (6:9)—suggesting mutual submission between masters and slaves! Paul’s few words to masters in Ephesians undercut Aristotle’s whole basis for slavery (that Nature approves of it) and placed Paul among the most progressive ancient writers on the subject.

Paul’s radical thinking and tactical conservatism stand side by side, testifying to the tightrope the early Christians were forced to walk—and the strategic brilliance of one of their most outstanding missionary thinkers.

Craig Keener is professor of New Testament at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina. He is author of Paul, Women, and Wives (Hendrickson, 1992), and The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity, 1993).