3. Paul "on the Road"

Paul was, by any measure, a heroic traveler. It is estimated that he covered at least ten thousand miles, much of it on foot. He lived in a new age of travel, thanks to Roman roads-and-bridges engineering, as well as administrative military skills in the Pax Romana. Not that travel is ever entirely easy or safe. Brigands by land, pirates by sea, haughty officials, punishing weather, random chance, and dogging malice can never be eliminated—certainly not when one is on the road as much, and with as few resources, as Paul was. It has been said that Luke's Acts of the Apostles resembles a Hellenistic novel in its wonders and perils and hairbreadth escapes. Paul's own sober account is fairly hair-raising on its own:

I have been more than they—more overworked, excessively beaten, more imprisoned, closer to death. Five times I was given forty-less-one lashes by the Jews, thrice clubbed, once stoned, thrice shipwrecked, a day and a night I spent in the sea—with many trudgings of the road, with river dangers, dangers from brigands, dangers from my people, dangers from outsiders, dangers by town, dangers by country, dangers at sea, dangers from pseudo-Brothers, with toil and effort, often sleepless, with hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold, with no covering. (2 Cor 11.23-27)

That would be a heroic catalogue for the most robust of travellers. But Paul was, at least intermittently, sickly. He was laid up, the first time he went to Galatia, by an illness that could have tempted the Galatians to despise him (Gal 4.13-14): "You know that I brought you the revelation for the first time because of a bodily debility, and in this test for you, posed by my flesh, you showed no contempt or revulsion" (this latter is a strong term—"you did not spew me out," exeptysate). The passage is naturally read in conjunction with Paul's statement that he had a "thorn in my flesh" to keep him mindful of his weakness (2 Cor 12.7). 

Some plausibly argue that he was an epileptic. This is a recurring debility that can be ridiculed, as we see from the case of Julius Caesar. At any rate it was something he had to acknowledge, and which he praised others for accepting. On the other hand, it may help explain the attitude of the Corinthians who said that "his letters are impressive and strong, but in person he is physically feeble and his speech contemptible" (2 Cor 10.10). His physical debility, whatever it was, makes the catalogue of his travels become all the more heroic—as does the manual labor he performed despite this handicap. Obviously, a strong will drove a flagging body forward.

Compelling as these arduous travels are, they can be misleading. They can suggest Paul was always on the road, communicating only by letter with the Brothers he worked with and for. Actually, of course, his seven letters are exceptions to his normal way of speaking with the Brothers. 


He spent long and patient months with each community we know of. He began in the already established gatherings at Damascus and Antioch, and may have spent years there, where he was baptized, learning baptismal formularies and hymns echoed in his letters. He often stayed in one place until driven out by Jews or Romans who considered him a troublemaker. Sometimes he left one or more of his coworkers with a community when he moved on, or sent back others to continue his activity. He maintained contact across the network of gatherings through traveling Brothers who went from one place to another on business or family errands or in special delegations to call for or supply help.

Luke has contributed to the hit-and-run atmosphere about some accounts of Paul's missionary activity. He gives the impression, for instance, that Paul stayed in Thessalonica for little more than three weeks before he had to flee persecution stirred up by Jews (Ac 17.1-10). But the Anchor Bible editor of the Letters to the Thessalonians, Abraham Malherbe, points out that Paul says he more than once received financial aid in Thessalonica sent from Philippi (Phil 4.16). Since arrangements and delivery for such aid would take weeks, if not months, he obviously spent considerable time establishing this first gathering in Greece. He refers to the manual labor he and his fellows engaged in, to support themselves while growing close to the community. He speaks in the plural, since the letter comes from Silvanus and Timothy as well as Paul:

Our deep fondness for you made us ready to share with you not only the revelation of God but own our lives, so dear had you become to us. You remember, Brothers, our burdensome toil, working day and night so as not to impose on you while we expounded to you the revelation of God. (1 Thess 2.8-9)

That does not describe a brief visit but an intense commitment to the gathering.

Nonetheless, he was driven out by Jewish hostility (2.14). Though he was eager to see the Thessalonians again, his return was delayed, so he sent Timothy back to give his support to the young community (3.1-2). Far from being hit-and-run, his relations with the various gatherings were so close that he uses the most intimate terms to describe those relations. He feels always like the Brother he calls them, but also as tender as a nurse toward them (1 Thess 2.7), or a father (1 Thess 2.11), or a mother who has begotten them in pain (Gal 4.19). 

His message was one of love, which he had to practice as well as recommend. Even when he clashed with other Brothers, there is evidence he was reconciled with them— surely with Barnabas, and Apollos, and very probably with Peter. We see him angry in the letters, probably more often than people saw him showing wrath in their presence (2 Cor 10.9). Indeed, some Corinthians found him fiercer in letters, milder in person—though he tries to assure them that, in this case, it will be the opposite, that he will come in wrath if he has to come to them (1 Cor 4.21). But this storm, too, blows over.

What was he like for those who met him? Certainly he was persuasive, or he could not have won over so many people to new or enlarged gatherings. Though few people, on the evidence of the letters, would compare this fierce rhetorician with a Francis of Assisi, he must have had the kind of incandescent goodwill that makes loving ascetics so attractive. He took up menial labor among his fellows, asked for little, collected for the needs of others. Since he says he supported himself in Thessalonica, the aid he received from Philippi must have gone to help the poorer people he was calling into Brotherhood.


What kind of work did Paul labor at? It is interesting that he never tells us, only that it was hard and time-consuming ("night and day"). Luke says in the Acts that he was a tent maker, and this has generally been accepted. Some were disturbed that he would work in leather goods, which Jews did not consider quite clean. Even if he did not use pigskin, there was something contaminating to Jews about handling dead animals. Others contend that he could have worked in linen, since awnings and other shields from the sun were in great demand. Even that would have involved heavy sewing. Indeed, when Paul adds a postscript to one of his letters (which were all dictated to scribes), he draws attention to the large size of his writing (Gal 6.11). The Dominican scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor thinks this may be a reference to his gnarled fingers, toughened by drawing thread through heavy linen. Murphy-O'Connor believes that he was an artisan who carried his tool kit with him—though he acknowledges that Paul does not refer to his work in terms that reflect an artisan's pride. He calls it "burdensome toil" (1 Thess 2.9), and says, "We weary ourselves in hard labor with our hands" (1 Cor 4.12).

The belief in Paul's tent-making has led people to exercise their creative imaginations. Some suppose that Paul's father in Tarsus owned a tent-making business and Paul grew up knowing the trade. Luke more positively connects Paul's work with the tent-making business of his coworkers Prisca and Aquila (Ac 18.3). Luke seems to have good information about Prisca and Aquila, who were part of the Brotherhood before Paul was, and who traveled and knew many of the Brothers. So it is probably true that when Paul was with them he worked in their shop, along with other members of their firm, including slaves. In that case, Paul was probably speaking more than figuratively when he said, "I have made myself everyone's slave" (1 Cor 9.19).

But can we say, as many do, that tent making was Paul's trade everywhere he went? Remember that he and Silvanus and Timothy were working night and day in Thessalonica. Were they all tent makers? Could they expect to find enough tent-connected contracts for all of them wherever they went? Since Paul made much of his own labor and commended it to others, it is unlikely that his coworkers would have shirked toil. It seems far more likely that Paul and his fellows took up whatever jobs they could get in each community, however menial. For one thing, this would give them a place in the community while they made their initial contacts and began their instruction of people they found there.

If the members of the team could find work only in different shops or work yards, so much the better—they would have multiple points of engagement with others. Wayne Meeks makes the case that Paul's communities, though they covered a broad social span (omitting only the very top and the very bottom of society), had a core of mainly artisans and small-scale merchants. Working and teaching among them was Paul's way of becoming a Brother in fact as well as in profession. He boasts of his adaptability (1 Cor 9.19-22), and a willingness to take on even "slavish" tasks was one way of disarming new acquaintances.

With the Gatherings

How did he begin in any town? Since every urban center in the Empire had a sizable Jewish quarter, that was the first place where he would have had some ties and recommendations. Luke says that he normally began by arguing in the synagogue, and only when driven out did he turn to the non-Jews (Ac 9.20). Some think that beginning in synagogues would compromise Paul's vocation to the uncircumcised. Both positions are no doubt too schematic. Paul preaches the Messiah as a reconciler of all Brothers. And both positions ignore the great middle area that was Paul's obvious hunting ground—the "Reverent People" (Sebomenoi), also called "God-Revering" (Theosebeis). These are normally referred to in English as "Godfearers" because of the form Luke uses at Acts 10.2 and 13.26, Phoboumenoi ton Theon.

The people thus variously referred to were inquiring and sympathetic non-Jews welcomed in synagogues, where they could study, pray, and contribute money or advice, without being (yet) circumcised. They might go on to full membership in the faith, or they might just help create goodwill for the Jews in their dealings with the "pagan" world. The Romans of the first century were out on quest for spiritual knowledge, and they welcomed many Eastern sects or cults—principally that of Mithras. But among the exotic beliefs being entertained, the Jews had, for some, a special appeal, based on their monotheism (in a polytheistic world), their purity of life, and their ancient learning. They were feared by some Romans precisely because they could attract curious and searching spirits, drawing people away from the imperial cult. Juvenal the satirist (14.96-106) attacked a father who observed the Sabbath and let his son be circumcised. For the poet, such men undermined the ancient Roman ways.

There were more Reverent People than used to be supposed. A synagogue inscription from the Roman city of Aphrodisias in Asia Minor shows that 43 percent of the donors, along with nine members of the governing board, were Theosebeis. Admittedly, the inscription comes from c 200 C.E, but it reflects a long-standing trend in the culture. There was anti-Semitism in the Roman world, as Juvenal's poem shows, but Louis Feldman collected an astonishing number of favorable or admiring references to Jews in the ancient literature. They give force to a comment by Robert Tannenbaum, a historian studying Aphrodisias:

Judaism, by the early third century, may well have been a more popular religion among the pagans, and therefore a more powerful rival to Christianity in the race for the soul of the Roman world, than we have had any reason to think until now. This helps us to understand the tension between the Church and the Synagogue in the first few centuries A.D.

If Paul based his own mission on appeals to this body of Gentiles, his constant use of Jewish scripture in addressing them makes sense. They were interested in Moses before he offered them Jesus. This also helps explain Jewish hostility to Paul—he was drawing away people important to their own position in the Empire. Gerd Theissen, an expert on the sociology of Paul's world, is emphatic on this point:

God-fearers had already demonstrated an independence with reference to their native traditions and religion. They stood between differing cultural realms and were thus particularly receptive to the Christian faith, which crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries and offered an identity independent of inherited traditions. Judaism could not do this; within it these people would not be fully entitled. Christianity, however, especially in its Pauline form, offered them the possibility of acknowledging monotheism and high moral principles and at the same time attaining full religious equality without circumcision, without restraints which could negatively affect their social status. Seen in this light, the conflict between Christianity and Judaism is easier to understand: the Christian mission was luring away the very Gentiles who were Judaism's patrons …. Not only did their contributions now benefit the Christian community, but the Jews, as a minority, had come to depend on the recognition and advocacy of such people in a foreign Gentile world full of anti-Jewish prejudices.


There is no reason to think Paul worked exclusively with Theosebeis. But they would have given him a base originating in the synagogue, from which he could move out into their own broader network of relatives, friends, and associates. When he said he made himself all things to all people—a Jew with Jews, a Gentile with Gentiles—he was speaking of this intermediate area where he could move about bringing religion to those who were already drawn to it.

How did Paul address these people in their intimate gatherings (and not by long-range emergency missives)? It is clear that he brought them the revelation—that is, the fulfillment of the Messianic hopes in the death and Resurrection of Jesus. For expounding the Messianic tradition he was well equipped by his Pharisaic training. When he needs a clinching passage from scripture, he has it at hand, no matter where he is, on the road or away from libraries. Which raises the question of his education. 

Did he study with Gamaliel after all? Not unless he was lying when he said he was unknown in Judaea. 


There was learning in the Diaspora. But how had Paul afforded it? Was his father a rich tent maker? We simply do not know. However he managed it, he clearly got a good education—though he quotes Jewish scripture in the Septuagint Greek, not the Hebrew. That could, of course, be because he is addressing Greek speakers. But scholars find even his interpretation of passages relying more on the Septuagint than the Hebrew— another point against his having studied with Gamaliel.



What of Paul's broader education in the Greek culture of the Diaspora? Here scholars have swung from one extreme to the other over the years. When it was thought that Paul was jettisoning Jewish wisdom for Greek philosophy, many credited him with more Hellenic influence than can be sustained by careful study of his works. He never quotes a Greek or Roman philosopher. The pendulum swung decisively against the Hellenistic thesis in the influential work of E. P. Sanders, who renewed the thesis of Albert Schweitzer that Paul was a Jewish apocalyptic teacher. But this view has been tempered recently by intense work on the rhetoric of Paul, which shows a familiarity with Greek arguing styles, epistolary, didactic, and celebratory ("epideictic"). He is especially good at the competitive didactics of the Stoic "diatribe" (literally, "a wearing down"). Cynics like Epictetus taught in short bursts of simulated debate, with imagined interrogators challenging the master. 


This can produce a kind of instructive self-heckling. Here is Paul on the defensive:

Has circumcision any use at all? 

Yes, in every respect. . .

If Jews broke trust with God, does that make God abandon trust? 

Far from it. . .

Is it wrong of God to be angry (to put it in human terms) ?

Far from it. . .

Are we Jews then superior? 

Not in all ways . . .

Do we cancel the Law with faith?

Far from it. We give the Law a firm basis . . .

Is the Law itself sin? 

Far from it. . .

Was the Law, good in itself, deadly to me? 

Far from it. . .

(Rom 3.1-5, 8, 31, 7.7,13)

How he filled in the answers to this staccato drumbeat of questions shows the dialectical skills of Paul. The questions he here fires at himself are the kind he would have encouraged his interlocutors to direct at him in person. This method is the opposite of Socratic questioning. It is being questioned, an oral strategy echoed in his writing. It is easy to imagine members of his team supplying the questions if others were slow to raise them. Paul and his comrades proselytized together, as he reminds us in letters that say, " We brought you the revelation."

Paul's rhetorical skills are never clearer than when he abjures them. When the Corinthians decided that he was not as wise or eloquent as other "high-flying emissaries" who had come among them, he uses a kind of verbal judo, prevailing with a show of weakness. His critics boast of a superior wisdom and strength. He will boast of folly and feebleness:

Messiah did not make it my task to baptize you but to bring you the revelation, not in any learned words, lest the cross of the Messiah be a thing superfluous. What the cross says is to the abandoned sheer ignorance, but to those rescued it is God's miracle. For scripture says, "The learning of the learned I will obliterate, and the intelligence of the intelligent I will sweep aside." Where does that leave the learned of this age, where the scholar, where the quibbler? Has not God made the world's learning an ignorance? By the learning of God, the world's learning was useless for finding God. He chose to rescue those who trusted the ignorant revelation. So while Jews ask for miracles and Greeks seek learning, we reveal nothing but Messiah crucified—to Jews an affront, to Greeks ignorance, yet to us, the summoned, whether Jew or Greek, Messiah as God's miracle and God's learning. For God's ignorance surpasses human learning, and the trivial things of God surpass human importance.

Just think how you were summoned, Brothers—not many of you learned in human terms, not many important, not many highborn. But the ignorant things of this world God singled out to baffle the learned, and the trivial things of this world God singled out to baffle the important. The low and contemptible things God singled out, mere nothings, to baffle the somethings, so that what is human could show no pride before God. You, however, are now by his favor in Messiah-Jesus—who is our learning by God's favor, our vindication and hallowing and release, in accord with scripture: "Would you take pride, in the Lord take your pride."

For these reasons, Brothers, when I came to you I came with no pretentious speeches or teachings to announce what is established by God. I made up my mind not to display any learning to you, only Messiah, and him as crucified. For myself, I was weak and fearful and trembling before you, and my message for you, my preaching, was not persuasive by any eloquence, but in the mere presence of Spirit and miracle, so your faith would not rest on any human wisdom but only on God's miracle.

There is a kind of learning in our words, but only for those who can take it in—not a learning of this age, or of those important in this age, who are perishing. We speak of the learning God kept as a secret hidden away, as he arranged ahead of time for our glory, a secret this time's important ones never penetrated—if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of splendor. According to scripture: "What no eye saw, what no ear heard, what was never in the human heart—all that has God laid up for those who love him." This is what God has revealed to us by the Spirit, (1 Cor 1.17-2.10

We should all have so little eloquence!