Cosmopolitan Paul PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 18 February 2011 09:13

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).  Paul’s ringing declaration that the boundaries of the old world have been shattered in Christ is central to the book of Galatians, and to Paul’s gospel. It is the basis for the patristic truism that the church was a “third race” forging Scythian, barbarian, Hellene, Roman, and Jews into a single people, a unique social reality in ancient history.

It is important, though, to recognize that this vision of a single human race was anticipated in the intertestamental period. It was Alexander’s vision. According to Plutarch’s Fortunes of Alexander (329b-d), Alexander wisely rejected the advice of Aristotle, which was “to treat the Greeks as if he were their leader, and other peoples as if he were their master; to have regard for the Greeks as for friends and kindred, but to conduct himself toward other peoples as though they were plants or animals.” Aristotle’s advice would have been disastrous: “to do so would have been to cumber his leadership with numerous battles and banishments and festering seditions.”

Besides, Alexander was convinced that he had a universal mission, a mission from God. Plutarch records that Alexander “he believed that he came as a heaven-sent governor to all, and as a mediator for the whole world, those whom he could not persuade to unite with him, he conquered by force of arms, and he brought together into one body all men everywhere, uniting and mixing in one great loving-cup, as it were, men’s lives, their characters, their marriages, their very habits of life. He bade them all consider as their fatherland the whole inhabited earth, as their stronghold and protection his camp, as akin to them all good men, and as foreigners only the wicked; they should not distinguish between Grecian and foreigner by Grecian cloak and targe, or scimitar and jacket; but the distinguishing mark of the Grecian should be seen in virtue, and that of the foreigner in iniquity; clothing and food, marriage and manner of life they should regard as common to all, being blended into one by ties of blood and children.”

When the earthquake of Alexander’s conquests ended and the rubble was cleared away, the peoples of the Mediterranean discovered, to their astonishment, that he had left behind a new, cosmopolitan type of human.

Along with much else, the Romans picked up the same vision from the Greece of Alexander. In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli points out the contrast between the Athenian and Spartan treatment of strangers and the Roman. Though Sparta and Athens were “exceedingly well-armed States, and regulated by excellent laws, never reached the same greatness as the Roman Republic; though the latter, to all appearance, was more turbulent and disorderly than they, and, so far as laws went, not so perfectly governed.”

Why didn’t the Greeks conquer as successfully as the Romans?  Machiavelli answers that the Greek armies were never as large as the Roman, and traces this disparity in military power to different policies regarding foreigners: “Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan Republic, thinking nothing so likely to relax his laws as an admixture of new citizens, did all he could to prevent intercourse with strangers; with which object, besides refusing these the right to marry, the right of citizenship, and all such other social rights as induce men to become members of a community, he ordained that in this republic of his the only money current should be of leather, so that none might be tempted to repair thither to trade or to carry on any art. Under such circumstances the number of the inhabitants of that State could never much increase.” Sparta became a spindly brittle tree trunk, trying to hold branches much larger than the trunk, and soon enough the city was stripped of his boughs.

By artfully combining gentleness and force toward conquered peoples, Rome was able to incorporate a much larger population.  By “the time of her sixth king there dwelt within her walls eighty thousand citizens fit to bear arms.”  In contrast to the Spartans, the Romans were like a “skillful husbandman, who, to insure a plant growing big and yielding and maturing its fruit, cuts off the first shoots it sends out, that the strength remaining in the stem, it may in due season put forth new and more vigorous and more fruitful branches.”

Tribal consciousness of course remained strong among pagans. Blood and ancestry and tradition were still powerful social forces.  In important ways, though, barriers started crumbling centuries before the cross, during the time when Israel, bearer of the Abrahamic promise, was forcibly sown among the nations.

This puts Paul’s declaration in an intriguing context. The tribalists that Paul fought in Galatia and elsewhere were not pagans but Jews. While Jews and Judaizing Christians guarded and firmed up the boundaries of food and purity, his cosmopolitan message resonated with the best aims and aspirations of Greco-Roman civilization. When he addressed a Greco-Roman audience, he didn’t have to convince them that cosmopolitan civilization was a human good, though he did have to convince them that this civilization could be realized only under a new kurios, a divine King other than Caesar. No wonder he regularly had to move out of the synagogue into the agora.

Paul saw his mission as one of grafting Gentiles into the tree of Israel (Romans 11). At the same time, however, he was struggling to bring backward-looking Jews into the cosmopolitan world whose aims had been realized in Christ, the seed of Abraham. Cosmopolitan Paul was struggling to graft Jews, the last tribe, into the tree of the Gentiles.

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Last Updated on Friday, 18 February 2011 09:15