How the apostle preached the first “for everyone” religion
Ancient religions came in all shapes and sizes, but by and large they had in common association with a particular ethnic group, ties to a particular land, and their central patron gods who had specific abilities and powers. Before the fourth century BCE, wars between nations were often seen as a contest of power between two rival religions and sets of deities—something like Elijah versus the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). No one really “converted” by personal choice from one set of gods to another, though they might be forced to by war or enslavement, which just went along with “might makes right.”
Then Alexander the Great (365–323 BCE) came along, with his massive conquest, spreading throughout the lands his passion for all things Greek—literature, politics, philosophy, art, and, of course, religion. While Alexander did want his subjugated peoples to revere Zeus and the other Olympians, he allowed them to maintain devotion to their own native gods. Alexander often paid respect to them as well to invite their favor, as he did when he visited the oracle of the Egyptian god Ammon.
When the Romans came along and conquered the Greek world Alexander created, they too allowed peoples to continue with their ancestral devotion, but the Romans always had a heavier hand and wanted to ensure that whatever worship was happening was “Romanized,” fixed within a stratified cosmos below the patron Roman gods like Jupiter and Roma. Quite tellingly, Rome had a tradition (called evocatio) of standing on a hill before a siege and inviting the local patron deity to abandon the soon-to-be conquered people and find their place within the Roman religious order. This often struck such fear into the hearts of the enemy that at least one city chained the main statue of their patron god to the ground so he would not suddenly fly away! Rome wanted to expand and grow, spreading the Roman dream and religion everywhere, but the more gods that fall in line, the merrier. For Rome, Jupiter didn’t have to be the only god, he just had to be the “best and greatest” (as he was often titled).
And right there, in the first century CE, in the midst of Rome’s ambitions to take over the whole world, you have a Jew from Asia Minor, Paul of Tarsus, traveling from place to place preaching about a religious revolution focused on a crucified Jewish criminal called Jesus. A Roman soldier on patrol who happened to hear one of Paul’s public speeches might lump him together with many other religious zealots who were infatuated with a particular fringe god or demi-god. It’s a lot like someone today selling an herbal cure for headaches at a Saturday market, when the majority of folks are content to take a couple of Tylenol and have a nap. But there is something quite remarkable that many moderns take for granted: Paul was the first worldwide preacher of a “for everyone” religion.
While, yes, Paul and Jesus were both Jews interested in the fate of Israel, Paul presented Jesus as lord of all, to the point where other deities are completely incomparable, as if they don’t even exist (Romans 1:5, 16; 2:16; 6:10; 10:4). Again, a Roman reading Paul’s letter to Rome would be perplexed by a statement like this: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). There is a bewildering stratification-leveling dynamic in Paul’s proclamation that would be quite destabilizing to Roman ears. Rome invited (and demanded) all to venerate Jupiter, but this did not erase distinction and privilege. The more “Roman” you were, the closer you were to benefiting from the favor of the gods.
Precisely in this context, Paul’s bold message was a challenge to the status quo when he preached “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28). These were essential distinguishing social markers in Roman political philosophy, and behind it would be an invisible cosmic and theological order; to meddle with these categories would be to jeopardize the pax deorum, the peaceful coexistence with the gods. And perhaps most dangerous of all is when Paul makes reference to the gospel benefitting equally both Greeks (i.e., insiders) and barbarians (from barbaros, uncivilized outsiders) (Romans 1:14; cf. Colossians 3:11). Rome imagined the best world possible as a Romanized world, making allowances for different gods, but each new god was invited into the Roman pantheon to find their place in a distinctly Roman divine hierarchy. But Paul would have none of that. All peoples and nations will only be subject to the one God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27), and they can forever be Jew or Greek on equal standing.
One of the distinguishing features of early Christianity amongst the religions of the time was Paul’s emphasis on the devotion of the heart (kardia). Roman religion certainly called for piety (pietas) and loyalty (fides), but Paul operated on another level with the essential nature of the inward self, committed to God in love (Romans 6:17). Outward appearance and ethnicity were unimportant to Paul (2 Corinthians 5:12), and obedience in ritual and tradition devoid of personal investment was empty and hollow (Romans 2:29). What mattered was faith (pistis), true belief in heart and mind that this man Jesus was lord of all.
I am struck by how names of early Christians recorded in Paul’s letters are inspired by Greek gods: Hermes and Hermas (Romans 16:14), Olympas (Romans 16:15), and Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12), among others. I’m left to wonder why they didn’t change their names. Perhaps it was because they came to see in light of Paul’s gospel that their namesakes were meaningless; or maybe it was to remember the past they were redeemed from. Whatever the case, eventually they all came to be associated with the term Christianos, the devotees of Christ, or a translation more familiar to us, Christian.
Nijay Gupta is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. His research explores Paul’s theology and ethics, and he has written extensively on Paul in his historical and religious context. His latest book is Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling (Brazos Press, 2024).
Paul’s Contradictions: Can they be resolved?
Paul and Judaism: Five Puzzles
Why Paul Went West: The differences between the Jewish diasporas
Paul: How he radically redefined marriage
Collection: Historical Jesus
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