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Hellenism, Roman Citizenship and the Jewish Role in Apostle Paul's Background

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Tarsus was an important port about 10.2 miles up the river Cyndus from the southern coast of what is modern-day Turkey and it had a long and illustrious history, even before the time of Paul. Alexander the Great (d. 323 B. C.) had taken it over during one of his expansionist campaigns and it was granted the privileged status of a city-state in the Greek empire in 170 B. The city may well have enjoyed its connections with the Greek centres of learning and power, but it is important to remember that even in this early period the Greek domains were extremely varied in their history and worldviews.

Walbank3 argues that the Hellenistic influence in the period of Alexander the Great spread very fast into Asia Minor but in some places, it had much more of an effect on the local cultures and practices than in others. There was no such thing as a heterogeneous Greek culture, and as the empire began to contract under pressure from pagan tribes and the advance of the up and coming Roman Empire, there was in many places a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment in the old Greek ways.

Its greatest legacy, however, and one that was very evident in Tarsus, was in the field of education where Greek learning in the form of the seven liberal arts flourished. Scholars came from all across the known world, which in those days meant mostly around the Mediterranean, to study subjects such as rhetoric, philosophy, law, astronomy and so on. It was comparable with places like Egypt and Alexandria to the West, and its role was something like that of Amsterdam in the Middle Ages of Europe: a gathering places for scholars, including many Jews, and a lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere.

It has been argued by some scholars4 that Paul must have been influenced by Greek philosophers and must have had an education which contained many elements of Greek learning. Evidence for this is found in three citations from classical poets in Paul’ s New Testament writings: Acts 17:28 “ For in him we live and move and have our being” is a quote from Aratus (ca. C); I Corinthians 15:33 “ evil communications corrupt good manners” is a quote from the dramatist Menander (ca.

291); mention of a prophet from Crete who insulted his own people in Titus 12 is a third classical reference, traced back to the poet Epimenides (6th century BC). Further evidence for this line of reasoning has been found in the style of writing that Paul uses, particularly in his sermons and letters. Drane detects a Stoic style of writing and some similarities in Paul’ s theology and Stoic philosophy. The Stoic branch of Greek philosophy was quite fatalistic.  

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