I want to try both to let in some new shafts of light on Paul, even it means carving a notch through some of the traditional ways of studying him, and to observe closely how he goes about certain tasks. Despite the tendency to sneer at Paul and to press him for answers to questions he didn't ask, I persist in regarding him as the intellectual equal of Plato, Aristotle or Seneca, even though the demands of his overall vocation, coupled with his dense style, mean that what we possess of his thought is compressed into a fraction of their written compass. Whichever angle you come at him from, there will be surprises and riches in store; again and again, just when you think you've got his measure, he chuckles and forces you to read a passage you thought you knew well in a quite different light, and then, if you dare, to attempt what he had already accomplished, to reflect on how the different viewpoints integrate one with another.

Reading Paul is a bit like climbing a mountain; there are many routes up and those who are used only to the easy tourist path sometimes forget that scaling the vertical crags is not only more exciting but might perhaps get you to the top more quickly. And part of the excitement of reading Paul is the fact that he straddled at least three worlds, so that whatever he says demands to be heard within three different echo chambers, which may or may not have been audible to one another even though Paul intended them to resonate simultaneously. Only if we bear each of them in mind will we have any chance of understanding the contours of his writing.

The first world, the one by which he ascended the mountain, was of course Judaism. Second-Temple Judaism has been studied more in the last generation than in the previous millennium, and new research continues to pour out on Scrolls, Pharisees, early Rabbis, and so on, not to mention the relevant archaeological discoveries. Yet a broadly coherent picture can and does emerge from the confusing mass of information, just as the climber can pick out the main rivers and roads without necessarily being able to see how every lane and stream join up. Second-Temple Judaism was a many-sided and vibrant mixture of what we would now call (though they would not have recognized these distinctions) religion, faith, culture and politics. But even its clashing elements were usually clashing about the same issues: what it meant to be part of God's people, to be loyal to Torah, to maintain Jewish identity in the face of the all-encroaching pagan world, and (above all in the view of some) to await the coming of God's kingdom, of the 'age to come' promised by the prophets, of Israel's redemption, hoping that when that day dawned one might have a share in the coming vindication and blessing.

This was the world from which Paul came, and in which he remained even though he said things which nobody within that world had thought of saying before and which many in that world found shocking, even destructive.

The second world was that of the Greek, or Hellenistic, culture which by Paul's day had permeated most of the recesses of the Eastern Mediterranean world and a good deal beyond. Ever since Alexander the Great 300 and more years earlier, Greek had become not only everybody's second language, like English today, but in many parts everybody's assumed framework of thought. Again, there are many varieties of first-century Hellenism, but the culture and philosophy, and not least, the rhetorical style of the Greek world was powerful and pervasive. Paul is at home in the street-level world of Hellenistic discourse, while being aware of the need, as he puts it, to 'take every thought captive to obey the Messiah'. He makes fruitful use of the language and imagery of the pagan moralists while constantly infusing it with fresh content. Nor is this simply a matter of accommodating to another culture, of playing at both ends of the field at once. Precisely because his Jewish tradition taught him that the one God of Abraham was the creator of the whole earth and that all human beings were made in his image, he, like some of his contemporaries such as the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, was able to mark out a firm platform within Jewish thought from which to address the the rest of the world.

And it was the world rulers of Paul's day, and the world which they were bent on creating, that formed the third sphere Paul inhabited. Paul, to the surprise of some both then and now, was a Roman citizen, and if we take even a moderate view of the historicity of Acts he seems to have made good occasional use of the privilege. But he was not an uncritical inhabitant of Caesar's domain. His positioning of himself within the Roman empire, with its ideology and burgeoning emperor-cult, is a theme much discussed today.

The Roman context integrates closely with the other two. Judaism had a tradition of critique of pagan empire, stretching back nearly a millennium, with Egypt and the Exodus as its ultimate backdrop. It was not hard for a first-century Jew to retell the old stories of oppression and liberation and envisage a new actor playing the lead villain. The first time I attended a Purim celebration, in West Jerusalem in 1989, it was not difficult, to the embarrassment of my Jewish hosts, to see whowas playing the role of Haman and his sons.

And when Paul believed that Israel's God had at last sent his Messiah to be the world's rightful Lord, the clash of worlds, the rebirth of images, became inevitable, generating new theological as well as political questions and possibilities. Paul remained firmly within the Jewish tradition in his response to Rome. At the same time, Roman ideology and cult drew on the Hellenistic world for its philosophical and ideological underpinnings. We should never forget that most of the Roman world, and a fair slice of the capital city itself, spoke Greek as its first and sometimes its only language. Paul lived, worked, thought and wrote within a complex and multiply integrated world. Though his phrase 'all things to all people' often now seems merely to indicate someone prepared to trim their sails to every passing wind, Paul meant it in a more robust sense. He had been entrusted with a Jewish message for the whole world, and part of the way in which the message was to get out was by his embodying, in ways that have caused some then and now to raise an eyebrow, the outreach of Israel's one true God to the wider world of the Gentiles. Paul remained a firm monotheist, and explored and exploited that belief, as we shall see, to the full.

But it was a disturbingly redefined monotheism. To Paul's three worlds we must add a fourth, already in being by the time of his conversion, a world which formed an equally disturbing setting. He belonged to the family of the Messiah, to the people of God he referred to as the ekklesia, the 'called-out ones', corresponding in some ways both to the Jewish synagogue community and to civic gatherings in the Gentile world.

A good deal of his effort was devoted to arguing, from one direction and another, that--though these people were the true family of Abraham, though the family brought together people who lived ordinary lives in the wider pagan world, and though it made its way within Caesar's empire--it was in fact a different sort of thing from any of these. It was defined neither by ethnic origin nor by social class; it was neither a club, nor a cult, nor a guild, though onlookers must often have thought it was one of these.

The church, the assembly of Jesus the Messiah, formed (in Paul's view) a world of its own, standing in a unique relation to the other three worlds, and deriving from them, in various overlapping ways, the sundry dynamics which caused Paul so many problems. For Paul, to be 'in the Messiah', to belong to the Messiah's body, meant embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar's aspiration to world domination--while being a simple combination of elements from within those three.

Paul would have insisted that there was something unique about this fourth world, and he would have traced that uniqueness back to Jesus himself and his role as Messiah. Paul's world could be described in terms of its multiple overlapping and sometimes competing narratives: the story of God and Israel from the Jewish side; the pagan stories about their gods and the world from the Greco-Roman sides; and particularly the great narratives of empire, both the large-scale ones we find in Virgil and Livy and the smaller, implicit ones of local culture. Likewise, this world could be described in terms of its symbols: within Judaism, Temple, Torah, Land and Family identity; within paganism, the multiple symbols of nation, kingship, religion and culture; in Rome , the symbols (from coins to arches to temples to military might) which spoke of the single great world empire. And we could also plot the kind of answers we could expect, within the different cultures, to the great questions which lie behind every worldview: who are we, where are we, what's wrong, what's the solution, and what time is it?

more from beliefnet and our partners