What Paul’s letters possibly reveal about the early years of Christianity
The first lecture, given by Julien Ogereau, a Ph.D. candidate in the ancient history program at Macquarie University in Australia, cited passages from Paul’s own letters to describe how Paul relied on the generous support of early Christian donors to finance his missions. The second, presented by New Testament scholar Bernhard Oestreich of Friedensau Adventist University in Germany, examined the important role of physical performance and orality in how the message and meaning of Paul’s letters were conveyed to early Christian communities.
Robin Gallaher Branch’s account of both lectures is given below.
In his lecture “Business Partnership Among the First Christians? The Funding of the Pauline Mission,” Julien Ogereau argued that Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains ample evidence that the apostle did not rely solely on his own labor to fund his mission and ministry needs, but also sought and received support from generous donors. Paul’s letter to the Philippians abounds in legal and financial language (see 1:5; 4:15-19).
While scholarship traditionally has emphasized Paul’s self-sufficiency, Ogereau believes that passages like Philippians 1:3-5 indicate Paul had ongoing business partnerships that funded his needs.
Philippians 4:15-19 indicates Paul developed a strategic network of financial supporters for his evangelism, Ogereau said. Consequently, Paul’s use of a word (in translation) like payment and his assertion that he is amply supplied (from Philippians 4:18) are not metaphorical, Ogereau said.
Ogereau gave a secular example from Egypt of a sale receipt for manumission that acknowledged the “full receipt of a payment.” Similarly, Paul acknowledges a formal transaction has taken place between him and those who sent the gift, Ogereau stated.
While Paul’s letter to his beloved Philippian friends abounds in advice, encouragement and sound teaching, it also contains commercial terminology and legal partnership language, especially in 4:15-19. The purpose of the common legal partnership is to fund Paul’s needs in Thessalonika, Ogereau said.
It would seem that the language of koinonia (communion) can include a commercial connotation, according to some epigraphic and papyrological documents, Orgerau stated. This language often denotes an idea of partnership or association in a business enterprise, he added. Paul and his supporters were mutually accountable.
Based on his research, Ogereau concluded that the letter to the Philippians presents early evidence providing “information on the process of financial administration in the emerging Christian Church.” Paul solicited and received what amounted to operating funds from a strategic network of relationships.
In his lecture “Calling Attention to the Performer’s Body and the Effects of Such a Strategy on the Audiences of Early Christian Letters,” Bernhard Oestreich called performance a mode of communication and said there is an assumption of responsibility for an audience for the way that communication is carried out. Oestreich focused attention on the ways Paul and other early Christian writers drew attention to themselves and to their own bodies; he investigated how this media awareness influenced the reception of the letters when they were performed repeatedly by different people.
Oestreich said that the performers and the audience share involvement in a presentation event. The audience is assumed to have both competence and skill, for it evaluates “the how” of a performance.
Oestreich compared a performance—like that of rendering a letter to an audience—to a musical performance. In a musical performance, the audience recognizes the character of the piece and if the performance is poor or good, he said.
In a verbal performance, the human body communicates the performance. In a good performance, for example, an audience knows when a performer hurts himself. The audience’s reaction, which involves an intellectual process, mimics what the actor (supposedly) feels. The audience, therefore, experiences the performance.
Galatians 4:13-20 is one place among several in which Paul refers to his body. Paul’s sickness, perhaps located in his eyes, must have been quite repelling. When a letter was performed, probably the performers did not have watery or inflamed eyes, Oestreich said, but nonetheless the audience was aware of Paul’s malady.
Oestreich concluded that an audience is active in evaluating a performance; evaluations mean that an audience must make decisions; a performance is based on the performer’s understanding of the letter.
It is interesting to speculate or think that a reader in Galatia may or may not have agreed with Paul. Consequently, the text’s performance may have been controlled by the writer with reference to his own body.
The stronger the performance of the one presenting Paul’s letter, the more the audience would experience the feeling that Paul was actually there, Oestreich indicated.
Robin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.