chapter  6
29 Pages

GREEK LETTERS IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH

The importance of letters in the development of the early Christian Church can hardly be overestimated. Once new communities had been founded, church leaders could by means of their letters continue to keep in touch with them, instruct them, answer their queries, chide them, encourage them and try to sort out their problems – not all of which were religious. In the New Testament twenty-one of the twenty-seven ‘books’ are in the form of letters and they contain a greater variety of subject-matter than is often appreciated, ranging from complicated theology in the making to quite individual domestic matters, and including not a little advice on community management. The dominant figure is of course Paul, who was probably born at about the same time as Jesus. For someone who was enormously influential little is known of his early life, but his background was clearly that of a Greek-speaking Jew brought up in a Hellenistic/Roman culture and to some extent acquainted with the ideas of Greek philosophical schools including the Stoics, Epicureans and Cynics; as he says himself, ‘I am a debtor both to Greeks and barbarians’ (Romans 1.14).1 Tarsus, his birthplace, was the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia and was a typical Hellenistic city with a mixed population. It had become an influential centre of Stoicism and its most renowned citizen was the Stoic Athenodorus, who moved in the highest circles at Rome, being a friend and correspondent of Cicero and a close associate of Augustus himself. Just how far Paul was himself influenced by Stoic ideas is much debated; he quotes handy Greek aphorisms from wellknown collections – ‘Bad company ruins good morals’ – and just before he delivered his famous sermon on the Areopagus in Athens he had provoked curiosity among Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who wanted to know more about his novel ideas; traces of Cynic thinking too have been detected.2

There is no doubt, though, that Jewish ideas and customs were the bedrock of his early upbringing and a proud part of his heritage – ‘I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin’ (Romans 11.1). At some point he left Tarsus to complete his Jewish education under the Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem and became a vigorous part of the Jewish opposition to the early spread of Christian groups – until, that is,

an errand of persecution turned into a life-changing revelation on the road to Damascus. But Jewish though he was, Paul lived and worked in a Greekspeaking world and Greek was his natural means of communication; so too were the conventions of Greek correspondence, and in Paul’s post-conversion evangelical fervour fusion between Greek and Jewish elements is a feature of his letters to young Christian communities.3