Politics and Religion in Paul’s World

I really am the best uncle.
I really am the best uncle.

I’ve begun working my way through NT Wright’s massive new study on Paul, titled Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  It’s very good stuff so far in the early going.  And precisely because it’s such good stuff, it’s also a slow process pushing through.

(I mentioned to someone the other day that I was just beginning chapter three, which was to say I’d already read 200 pages.)

Regardless, as I monitored my nephew’s swimming lessons last night (I’m the best uncle), I was forging ahead into the beginning of Wright’s treatment of the first century Greco-Roman world (as opposed to the first century Jewish world).  This is new territory for me, so I’m rather excited about what I might find.

And find I did!

Our Western 21st century cultural perspective puts us at a disadvantage at times when looking into the ancient world.  This is not least because we’ve compartmentalized things like “religion” and “politics” and, well, the rest of life.  In the history of the world, this is a rather new (and probably unfortunate) practice in mental gymnastics.


In the western world for the last two hundred years the categories of “politics” and “religion” have been carefully separated, each being defined negatively in relation to the other.  “Politics”, for the modern west, is about the running of countries and cities as though there were no god; “religion” is about engaging in present piety and seeking future salvation as though there were no polis, no civic reality.  “Philosophy”, in the modern western world, has maintained an uncomfortable and complicated relationship with both “politics” and “religion” (203).

But this would not have been so in Paul’s world.  For him and those around him, politics had everything to do with religion, not least because world leaders (and one in particular) were deified.  Further, philosophy had everything to do with politics because philosophy in the ancient world was first about how the world works and how to live in it (a far cry from the ethereal ivory tower).  And religion had everything to do with everything because the spiritual world (however you might see it) was inextricably intertwined with the natural world.

Even without considering the implications this has on our understanding of Paul and his letters, it certainly raises the question for us today.  Have we divorced religion from the public square to our detriment?  Have we suffered ill effects as a culture from insisting that the two neither can nor should converse (never mind that if they were to do so at this stage they would be speaking entirely different languages)?  As Christians, what might be gained from reading our Holy Book as though it had everything to do with the political world and government and, well, every other aspect of life?


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