The Apostle Paul lived in the Roman Empire. I must repeat this as often as I can. Rome spread the imperial ideology that it and it alone had the right to rule, that the Romans
were, should be, and always would be in charge. “All roads lead to Rome,” is, naturally, not strictly a saying about avenues in the ancient empire but a phrase concerning Rome’s ubiquity. Rome spread over the entire world like imperial butter on bread, flavoring everything. Paul utilized Roman imperial language such as gospel (euangelion), savior (soter), church (ekklesia), lord (kyrios), and nations (ethne) to speak of a different kingdom with a different king. This king, Jesus, the Christ, came from a rural town in Galillee and was executed in the shameful fashion of political revolutionaries and criminal slaves by being crucified. How and why could Paul claim this crucified, Palestinian peasant’s son to be greater than the Caesar himself? We need to look at Paul’s indigenous social location to discover this.
As attested to by Paul himself in his letters and in the book The Acts of the Apostles, prior to becoming a slave of Jesus, Paul went by the name Saul and was a Pharisee. The Pharisees get a bad rap in Christian history. They possessed many similar beliefs to early Christian groups. Too readily people associate them as “religious” leaders (which they were), but more importantly, the Pharisees functioned politically. For many Judean people, the Babylonian exile never ended; it merely morphed and took on new shapes. During the 1st century, the Roman occupation counted as the new breed of exile. Several types of religio-political groups formed in order to cope with what appeared to be a continuing exile. The Pharisees represented one of these groups. They believed the way to deal with the Roman occupation was Torah observance. Proper Torah observance indicated who was and who was not the people of Israel’s god, YHWH. They believed YHWH would show who the true people of Israel were at the resurrection of the dead. Along with resurrection, the Pharisees popularized Torah observance through synagogues. This is why the Sadducees, who controlled the temple, disliked the Pharisees; the Pharisees decentralized worship and therefore political power. The Pharisees were a populist group that empowered all the Judeans to participate in Torah observance with the hope of resurrection attached to that participation.
Not surprisingly, though the Pharisees were one of several factional groups within Judea, even they were not unified. Two influential Pharisaic teachers created followings. They were known as Hillel and Shammai. The Hillelites acted relativistically. They believed in a “live-and-let-live” sort of attitude, content with any social situation so long as they were left alone to practice Torah. The Shammaites were fundamentalists. At the edge of the sword, Shammaites forced Judean people to obey their interpretations of Torah. Shammaite Pharisees looked to the Maccabean rebellion as their inheritance. They wanted violent revolt against their Roman occupiers, and Saul clearly identified himself in this type of group claiming he was “violently persecuting the church of G-d and was trying to destroy it” since he was “zealous for the traditions of [his] ancestors” (Galatians 1.13-14). For this reason he tried to persecute followers of “the Way” (Acts 9.2) because they were a Judean group not properly practicing Torah.
When we know this, Saul’s encounter with the risen Jesus takes on very important
meaning. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrated to Saul the Pharisee YHWH’s vindication of Jesus’ project. Jesus was in fact “the way” to cope with the ongoing exile. Saul went to the point of collaborating with his enemies, the Sadducees, in order to persecute the Jesus movement, yet almost inexplicably, he stopped the persecution in order to join them! If resurrection proved whose way of living in exile was “correct” then only the resurrection of Jesus could change Saul’s mind to halt his way of dealing with Rome. But what shape did Paul’s Jesus-epiphany take? How did he respond to the risen Jesus and why did he respond that way?