Growing up, I had limited experience interacting with people from other cultures. That all changed when I became a student at a university in Vancouver, B.C.—a city where fewer than half of the residents speak English as their first language. Surrounded by fellow students from unfamiliar cultures and worldviews, I was plunged into the role of the outsider. I quickly realized how difficult it was to communicate ideas when two people don’t share first languages, backgrounds or cultural reference points.
As I studied Paul’s teachings and letters in graduate school, I learned to appreciate why God selected him for the role of apostle to the Gentiles. A “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5) steeped in Old Testament traditions, Paul had to explain the gospel and its implications to people of mostly non-Jewish background. He was the perfect man for the task: Although raised a Jew, Paul was brought up in a Graeco-Roman context (e.g., Acts 21:39).
This background gave Paul an insider’s perspective into Graeco-Roman culture and the lives of those he was trying to reach. He engaged popular culture so he could better communicate the gospel.
Quoting the Greeks
Paul was familiar with the works of poets, playwrights and philosophers, and he often quotes them to make a point. For instance, he alludes to the Stoic poet Aratus while speaking at the Areopagus in Athens, the center of Greek culture and philosophy: “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’ ” (Acts 17:28). Paul uses the quotation from Aratus to make an apologetic argument for God’s existence: If the Athenians are “God’s offspring” and alive, then God also must be living.
In 1 Corinthians 15:33 Paul cites a proverb often attributed to the Greek comic playwright Menander: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’ ” Although several verses in the Old Testament make the same point (e.g., Psa 119:63; Prov 13:20; 14:7; 28:7), Paul found it more fitting to cite a popular writer to communicate with the Corinthians in familiar words. Paul did so to show them that their behavior was not based on the hope of resurrection in the future (1 Cor 15:33–34).
In his letter to Titus, Paul supports his view of the Cretan people by quoting their own prophet and teacher, Epimenides: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). Epimenides was regarded as a religious teacher and miracle-worker. By appealing to his words, Paul demonstrated his knowledge of Cretan society and his ability to communicate biblical truths within their cultural context.
Paul’s use of cultural images and metaphors made the gospel accessible to a wider audience. For example, in 1 Corinthians 3:5–15 Paul turns to architectural metaphors to clarify his role in the church. In this passage Paul likens himself to a “wise builder” (sophos architékton, σοφὸς ἀρχιτέκτων; 3:10) who laid the one true foundation—Jesus Christ—in establishing the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 Paul uses athletic imagery to describe his apostolic ministry. By describing himself as a runner and a boxer (9:24–27), Paul identifies with the Corinthians, who hosted the Isthmian games.
But literature and cultural concepts aren’t always compatible with the gospel. Some can even be corrosive to our understanding of the Christian faith. Can we still draw on such references without compromising people’s understanding of the gospel?
The writings of Paul help us out here as well. When confronted with Graeco-Roman ideas that oppose the gospel, Paul challenges his audience with Scripture and Christ’s supremacy.
In 1 Corinthians 1, he engages his audience in a debate over the meaning of “wisdom” (sophia, σοφίᾳ), which the ancient Greeks associated with philosophy and rhetoric. Paul believes that this association will lead them to hold him in poor esteem and, more crucially, discourage them from recognizing the wisdom of the cross.
Instead of accommodating this cultural concept, Paul refutes the Corinthians’ notion of wisdom. He asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” (1 Cor 1:20). He shows that true wisdom comes by God’s revelation—even when it appears to be foolishness (1 Cor 1:23)—and most profoundly through the “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18). The Corinthians’ culturally misguided notion of wisdom was the root of many of the church’s problems (e.g., divisions, jealousy and quarreling); Paul had to correct their definition before he could address these issues.
Paul used discernment to “translate” the gospel from one culture (Jewish) to another (Hellenistic). Like Paul, we must root our hearts and minds in the Bible; to reach others, we need to express the gospel through language they understand—images, concepts and stories of the places where God has called us to share the gospel. May he guide us by his Spirit and give us the wisdom to do so.
This article originally appeared in the Nov–Dec 2012 issue of Bible Study Magazine.
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