Reasons for success
Why would Gentiles have been persuaded to respond with 'faith' and leave their traditional religious practices and orientations to turn to Paul's 'gospel'? While caution is necessary about personal motives in any case, or uniformity among individuals or different locations in the empire, we can identify some contributing factors.
There is probably historical truth behind Luke's picture of Paul finding adherents to his gospel among the 'God-fearers' or 'devout,'79 Gentiles who were already in some way associated with Jews, attending synagogue, learning Jewish sacred texts and lore or serving as benefactors, but not undergoing circumcision to become full converts.80 That Paul's missionary activity intersected with the orbit of the synagogue seems confirmed by his having received the punishment of thirty-nine lashes (2 Cor 11:24), and by the urban centres he chose.81 This can also explain how a message that relies so much on scriptural interpretation for its cogency and credibility82 could have been intelligible to Gentiles who would otherwise have been befuddled by claims about 'the anointed one', 'the fulfilment of scripture', and the necessity for deliverance from divine wrath. But we need not imagine that Paul's message was attractive simply because it gave these God-fearers an easy ride into Judaism (bypassing circumcision, food laws and other restrictions), nor that it was for them simply another Hellenistic mystery cult of a dying and rising god symbolising the fertility cycles of the earth and offering an entryway to immortality (as the 'history of religions school' is taken to have argued).83 Paul's was a different pattern of religion akin to both but also unique - a self-proclaimed sui generis message fundamentally about soteriology (a means of salvation) but plotted onto the Jewish grand narrative of divine intent and election as made known in history, propelled by apocalyptic logic and, above all, centred in the utterly new figure, Jesus Christ. In exploring the meaning of this Christ being 'Lord',
79 See Acts 13:16, 26, 43; 14:1; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7.
80 Evidence, with appropriate cautions about assuming that 'God-fearer' was either a uniform or a rhetorically neutral designation, in Cohen, Beginnings, 171-4 and Lieu, Neither Jew nor Greek, 31-68.
81 Note the correspondence between Paul's itinerary and Philo's list of places where Jews lived throughout the Mediterranean (Flacc. 281-2).
82 Paul's statement ofhis gospel message in 1 Cor 15:3-4 twice repeats the formula'according to the scriptures'.
83 The most important book on Paul's religion and its ultimate divergence from the pattern of 'covenantal nomism' characterising first-century Judaism remains Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. On Paul and the mystery religions, see Klauck, Religious context, 81-152; Betz, 'Mysterien Religion', RGG4 5 (2002) and 'Religionsgeschichtliche Schule', RGG4 7 (2004); on methodological problems in comparison see Smith, Drudgery divine.
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