Paul between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews, and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians

By Ascough, Richard S. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Paul between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews, and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians


Ascough, Richard S., Journal of Biblical Literature


Paul between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews, and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians, by Mikael Tellbe. ConBNT 34. Stockholm: Ahnqvist & Wiksell, 2001. Pp. xii + 340. euro30.00 (paper).

This thoroughly researched and well-presented doctoral dissertation (Lund University) warrants careful reading. Tellbe examines the tripartite relationships between Christians, Jews, and civic authorities at three major urban centers: Thessalonica, Rome, and Philippi. The common link among the three is, of course, Paul. Tellbe maintains that using Paul's letters to each of these communities, along with supplementary material from Acts, allows one to take note of interactions and tensions among the major entities in each city. Doing so allows him to determine "how interactions in this tripartite relation shaped the self-understanding and identity of the Christian communities of 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians" (p. 4). In particular, it reveals how the need for political legitimacy shaped Christian identity as early as the mid-first century C.E.

The first chapter lays out the need for this study within the matrix of previous biblical scholarship on Paul and his communities. Tellbe's primary analysis is historical, with a detailed textual analysis of Paul's letters, although he also draws upon sociological and rhetorical methods. While few would question the use of these letters as "authentic" Pauline letters (which for Tellbe are without interpolation), Tellbe is "inclined to take much of the detailed material of Acts as a credible source of information in the task of reconstructing the setting of the Pauline communities" (p. 18). His decision to do so is under-defended and, given his reliance on Acts for critical information, his choice not to defend this more thoroughly is unfortunate. Those less inclined than he to place much reliance on Acts will find that some of his assumptions about the composition of the Pauline communities and the urban interactions of Jews, Christians, and civic authorities rest on a somewhat unstable foundation.

Chapter 2 sets the stage for the remainder of the book by undertaking an analysis of "the legal status of Diaspora Judaism under Roman rule," focusing primarily on information provided by Josephus and Philo, although with some reference to Roman writers. Jewish communities were treated by the Romans much like other foreign cults and voluntary associations-left to their own religious activities as long as they did not disrupt public order, but brought under control if perceived to be unruly. Although Tellbe agrees with recent arguments against a special Jewish designation ofpolituema, he does note a "number of unusual concessions" granted only to the Jews (p. 42): "Judaism in the first century CK was thus granted a legal standing in the Roman society that in practice seems to have been more specific than what is actually conveyed by the more general Roman expression collegium licitum" (p. 59). Nevertheless, Jews in particular cities were not immune from periods of opposition by the local authorities (p. 63).

Chapter 3 gives attention to the specific situation at Thessalonica, beginning with a description of the city itself and the Roman, Jewish, and Christian populations therein. Tellbe correctly surmises that Roman imperial ideology and propaganda played a large part in civic affairs. However, he is on less secure ground in asserting that there was an influential group of Jews in the city. Here he relies only on Acts 17:1-9,1 Thess 2:13-16 (considered by many to be an interpolation), and either late or questionable epigraphic evidence. Although he acknowledges "the apparent tension between Luke and Paul concerning the composition of the Thessalonian church" Tellbe claims that it is "important not to overplay these differences" (p. 93). This seems to be understated in light of Tellbe's reliance on the elimination of the tension in order for his thesis to hold.

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