IVP - Addenda & Errata - Was Paul a Cross-Cultural Missionary?

July 25, 2008

Was Paul a Cross-Cultural Missionary?

Many have said so, including not a few missiologists. Not so fast, says Eckhard Schnabel. In his forthcoming Paul the Missionary, Schnabel does a sort of reprise—but beefier, more comprehensive and, well, different!—of Roland Allen’s venerable Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Schnabel is known for his extensive, two-volume work Early Christian Mission (IVP Academic, 2004), and this new book recasts and augments the Pauline material in the larger work. It is capped by a final chapter exploring how this all intersects with missionary work in the twenty-first century. There is much to consider and weigh in this new book, and it's sure to stir the missiological pot. Here is one interesting sample:

The cultural realities of the Greek-speaking regions in the East of the Roman Empire suggest that the notion that Paul was a “crosscultural” missionary is a modern construct that is not helpful as an analytical tool for understanding Paul’s missionary work. Most of the comments on Paul as a crosscultural missionary come from missiologists or missionaries who base their analyses on the missionary realities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without really knowing the cultural realities of the first century. The cultural distance between a missionary from Great Britain or North America and the local population in the villages of China, India or Kenya is as enormous as the cultural distance between a missionary from Korea, Singapore or Thailand and the urban centers in Africa, Eastern Europe or South America. They may all share the experience of eating in Western-style fast food restaurants, but the differences in language, political tradition, educational systems, social customs and the collective understanding of the past are so considerable that these missionaries need several years of cultural studies, including the study of the local language(s), before they can function appropriately and practically in their host culture. The cultural distance between the Greek-speaking Torah expert and Christian missionary Paul from Tarsus, and the Greek-speaking philosophers of the Epicurean or Stoic schools of thought in Athens was much shorter: Paul spoke their language, he had some experience of the same educational system, he shared the political tradition of the last one hundred years (since the reorganization of the East by Pompey between 66-62 B.C.), he understood the political administration of Greek cities, he was familiar with the urban infrastructure of the city, he knew their philosophy and their poets. Paul’s understanding of the past, being a traditionalist Jew (a “Hebrew of Hebrews”), was determined by God’s revelation to Israel from Abraham to Moses, from David to the prophets. Thus there were major differences between himself and the Athenian philosophers, and indeed the entire non-Jewish population of the city, particularly in the area of worship, religious practice and moral behavior. But such differences existed within the city between the skeptical Epicureans and worshipers of Artemis who celebrated the birth of the deity in May during the festival of Thargelion, or the devotees of the Egyptians gods who strode through the dark passageways between the inside and outside walls of the sanctuary where they observed the statues of Sarapis, Isis, Anubis, Harpokrates and Apis. The “culture” of the Jews in Tarsus, and the “culture” of the Greek speaking Jews living in Jerusalem was in many ways largely indistinguishable from the “culture” of the citizens of Antioch, Ephesus or Corinth. When Tarsian Jews conversed with their Greek neighbors about their faith in one true and living God, this was as little “crosscultural” as was Paul’s conversation with fellow Jews about faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah. (Paul the Missionary, pp. 331-32)

Looks like someone’s going to need to rewrite a missions textbook. (There are several pages of data and reasoning that Schnabel has set out before bringing us to this conclusion. If you’re skeptical of Schnabel’s conclusion, you at least need to read and digest that material before making an informed judgment.)

Posted by Dan Reid at July 25, 2008 12:06 PM Bookmark and Share


I've wondered the same thing, so I'm interested in reading more of Schnabel's analysis. It has occured to me that Paul's missionary journeys are akin to a Florida pastor planting a church in Seattle: there are differences, to be sure, even major differences, but the commonalities are even greater.

Comment by: mike at July 25, 2008 1:12 PM

Sounds like a very interesting book, thanks for posting about it. Being something of a missiologist by training and professional experience (cross-cultural missionary), not many of the classic text-books that I'm familiar with will have to be re-written. The best thinking in missiology for years has taken this perspective into account. I only reference one book, written by a man I studied Biblical Theology of Missions with in the early '80s after I was already in Brazil: Announcing The Kingdom: The Story of God's Mission in The Bible (Baker,2003) by Arthur F. Glassar. There are many others that come to mind.

Comment by: John Paul Todd at July 28, 2008 1:59 PM

Absolutely and Amen! Paul didn't last so long in Arabia. Likewise, Paul skipped over Thrace and he never tried to go into Cappadocia or the Pontus region; and when Titus was heading for Dalmatia, the southmost Balkan region had been barely pacified for less than 50 years. Who knows why Titus was the man to go, but we notice that Paul (almost certainly) did not venture into "Illyricum" at all beyond Dyrrachium, which had become very much hellenized and romanized since it's ancient Illyrian days.

Well said - er, summarzied! Thanks very much for the post and I'm thrilled to have just found this blog.

Comment by: Bill at August 8, 2008 1:58 AM

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