Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-4rdrl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-23T06:20:43.363Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Paul the Cosmopolitan?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2019

Christopher D. Stanley*
Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies, St. Bonaventure University, 3261 West State Road, St. Bonaventure, NY14887, USA. Email:


The apostle Paul has been viewed by many as a cosmopolitan thinker who called Christ-followers to embrace the ideal of a single humanity living in harmony with a divinely ordered cosmos. A close comparison of Paul's apocalyptic theology with various interpretations of ‘cosmopolitanism’ over the centuries, however, shows few points of agreement. Paul was fundamentally a Jewish sectarian whose vision for a better world embraced only Christ-followers and involved the cataclysmic end of the present world order. Those who accepted and lived by this vision were effectively relegated to the same marginal position in civic life as the local Jewish community.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


This article is a revised version of a paper that was written for the ‘Reading Paul's Letters in Context’ seminar of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS) meeting in Athens in August 2018. I wish to thank the conveners of the seminar, William Campbell and Judith Gundry, for encouraging me to explore this stimulating topic.


1 See, for example, Delanty, G., The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 28CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McMahon, D. M., ‘Fear & Trembling, Strangers & Strange Lands’, Daedalus 137 (2008) 517CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 10–11; Long, A. A., ‘The Concept of the Cosmopolitan in Greek & Roman Thought’, Daedalus 137 (2008) 50–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 51, 57; Spencer, R., Cosmopolitan Criticism and Postcolonial Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A recent Christian theologian who reads Paul through the lens of ancient cosmopolitan thought is Kang, N., Cosmopolitan Theology: Reconstituting Planetary Hospitality, Neighbor-Love, and Solidarity in an Uneven World (St. Louis: Chalice, 2013) 1314Google Scholar, 24, 130–4. For the opposite view that early Christian thought constituted a sharp break with the unified vision of Stoic cosmopolitanism (without specific reference to Paul), see Douzinas, C., ‘The Metaphysics of Cosmopolitanism’, After Cosmopolitanism (ed. Braidotti, R., Hanafin, P. and Blaagard, B.; Milton Park: Routledge, 2013) 5776Google Scholar, at 61–3. For the claim that Paul represents a form of cosmopolitanism more in line with the early Cynics than later Stoic developments of the concept, see Downing, F. G., ‘A Cynic Preparation for Paul's Gospel for Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female’, NTS 42 (1996) 454–62CrossRefGoogle ScholarDowning, F. G., Cynics, Paul and the Pauline Churches: Cynic and Christian Origins ii (London/New York: Routledge, 1998)Google Scholar; and most recently Neutel, K. B., A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul's Declaration ‘Neither Jew not Greek, Neither Slave nor Free, Nor Male and Female’ in the Context of First-Century Thought (LNTS 513; London/New York: Bloomsbury T. & T. Clark, 2015)Google Scholar.

2 I use the transliterated Ioudaioi when speaking of the people-group historically known as ‘Jews’ in order to avoid the contentious debate over whether it is better to translate the word as ‘Jews’ or ‘Judaeans’, since neither rendering is adequate for all circumstances. I do, however, occasionally use the term ‘Jewish’ in contexts where the ‘religious’ dimension of Ioudaios identity is clearly in view.

3 The term ‘sectarian’ is used here and elsewhere in the sense popularised by Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, who developed their model out of an earlier analysis by Benton Johnson that arrayed all religious groups on a continuum with ‘churches’ at one end and ‘sects’ at the other. According to Johnson, ‘A church is a religious group that accepts the social environment in which it exists. A sect is a religious group that rejects the social environment in which it exists’ (Johnson, B., ‘On Church and Sect’, American Sociological Review 28 (1963) 539–49, at 542CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Stark and Bainbridge complicate this model by adding ‘cults’ as a third point on the spectrum and distinguishing between ‘religious movements’ and ‘religious institutions’. ‘Cults’ differ from ‘sects’ in claiming to bring innovation into the religious sphere while ‘sects’ aim to purify an existing tradition. The Christ-movement could fit under either of these headings depending on the perspective from which it is viewed: it was ‘sectarian’ in relation to Judaism but ‘cultic’ in relation to the broader Greco-Roman religious world. The former term is used here to avoid the negative and confusing connotations that surround popular uses of the term ‘cult’. For more on this model, see Stark, R. and Bainbridge, W. S., The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) 1937Google Scholar.

4 This testimony comes to us from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (6.63), a work from the third century ce, but most scholars regard it as authentic due to the presence of similar ideas in other Cynic works and in the writings of later Stoic authors influenced by the Cynics.

5 While it is hard to know how far the reports are trustworthy, Diogenes is said to have slept in a large pithos that he carried around with him, eaten raw meat, and defecated and masturbated in public, among other acts.

6 For more on the ‘cosmopolitan’ thinking of Diogenes and other Cynics, see Ferguson, J., Utopias of the Classical World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975) 91–7Google Scholar; Moles, J. L., ‘Cynic Cosmopolitanism’, The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy (ed. Branham, R. B. and Goulet-Cazé, M.-O.; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) 105–20Google Scholar; Downing, ‘A Cynic Preparation’, 458–9; Downing, Cynics, 14–23.

7 In this the Stoics differed markedly from the Cynics, who eschewed involvement in civic life.

8 For more on early Stoic cosmopolitanism (including Zeno), see Ferguson, Utopias, 111–19; Richter, D. S., Cosmopolis: Imagining Community in Late Classical Athens and the Early Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2011) 5880CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mitsis, P., ‘A Stoic Critique of Cosmopolitanism’, Cosmopolitanisms (ed. Robbins, B. and Horta, P. L.; New York: New York University Press, 2017) 171–88Google Scholar; and especially E. Brown, ‘Stoic Cosmopolitanism and the Political Life’ (PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1997).

9 For more on Cicero's transformation of Stoic cosmopolitanism, see Pangle, T. L., ‘Roman Cosmopolitanism: The Stoics and Cicero’, Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization: Citizens without States (ed. Trepanier, L. and Habib, K. M.; Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2011) 4069Google Scholar; Brown, ‘Stoic Cosmopolitanism’, 302–90.

10 Richter, Cosmopolis, 4; cf. 124–5. Excerpts from Aristides (all cited by Richter) are taken from To Rome 28, 30, 36, 59, 60, 63, 64. For more on Rome-centred cosmopolitanism, see Pangle, ‘Roman Cosmopolitanism’, 44; Douzinas, ‘Metaphysics’, 61; McMahon, ‘Fear & Trembling’, 9–10.

11 For more on the history, see Douzinas, ‘Metaphysics’, 61–3; McMahon, ‘Fear & Trembling’, 10–15.

12 For more on the cosmopolitanism of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers (and the modernist project more generally), see Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 30–9; Cheah, P., ‘The Cosmopolitical – Today’, Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (ed. Cheah, P. and Robbins, B.; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998) 1744Google Scholar, at 23–4; Douzinas, ‘Metaphysics’, 61–73; Kleingeld, P., ‘Kant's Second Thoughts on Race’, The Philosophical Quarterly 57 (2007) 573–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nussbaum, M. C., ‘Kant and Cosmopolitanism’, The Cosmopolitanism Reader (ed. Brown, G. W. and Held, D.; Cambridge/Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010) 2744Google Scholar; M. P. Nichols, ‘Kant's Teaching of Historical Progress and its Cosmopolitan Goal’, Cosmopolitanism, ed. Trepanier and Habib, 119–38.

13 As described in Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 40–51.

14 Spencer, Cosmopolitan Criticism, 13.

15 On this point, see Jabri, V., ‘Solidarity and Spheres of Culture: The Cosmopolitan and the Postcolonial’, Review of International Studies 33 (2007) 715–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Douzinas, ‘Metaphysics’, 71.

17 Cf. Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 9, 18, 52–3, 67–71, 178–81; Kang, Cosmopolitan Theology, 13, 18, 31. Kang (31) describes Western cosmopolitanism as ‘a Eurocentric universalizing discourse, disembodied, unworldly discourse, a discourse wallowing in a privileged and irresponsible detachment, a discourse incapable of participating in the making of history’.

18 See B. Robbins, ‘Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism’, Cosmopolitics, ed. Cheah and Robbins, 1–9, at 1–3; C. Calhoun, ‘A Cosmopolitanism of Connections’, Cosmopolitanisms, ed. Robbins and Horta, 189–200, at 191, 196–7.

19 Noted especially by Kang, Cosmopolitan Theology, 31–4, 44–5; Werbner, P., ‘The Cosmopolitan Encounter: Social Anthropology and the Kindness of Strangers’, Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives (ed. Werbner, P.; Oxford/New York: Berg, 2008) 4768Google Scholar; González-Ruibal, A., ‘Vernacular Cosmopolitanism: An Archaeological Critique of Universalistic Reason’, Cosmopolitanism Archaeologies (ed. Meskell, L.; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009) 113–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 117–18; Prakash, G., ‘Whose Cosmopolitanism? Multiple, Globally Enmeshed and Subaltern’, Whose Cosmopolitanism? Critical Perspectives, Rationalities and Discontents, (ed. Schiller, N. G. and Irving, A.; New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015) 27–8Google Scholar.

20 For more on this point, see Lettevall, R., ‘The Idea of Kosmopolis: Two Kinds of Cosmopolitanism’, The Idea of Kosmopolis: History, Philosophy and Politics of World Citizenship (ed. Lettevall, R. and Linder, M. K.; Huddinge, Sweden: Södertörns högskola, 2008) 1330Google Scholar, at 13; Spencer, R., ‘Cosmopolitan Criticism’, Rerouting the Postcolonial: New Directions for the New Millennium (ed. Wilson, J., Şandru, C. and Welsh, S. L.; London/New York: Routledge, 2010) 36Google Scholar; C. Calhoun, ‘A Cosmopolitanism of Connections’, 190; L. Trepanier and K. M. Habib, ‘Introduction’, Cosmopolitanism, ed. Trepanier and Habib, 1–10, at 2–3.

21 The following material is summarised from ‘Cosmopolitan Criticism’ and Cosmopolitan Criticism and Postcolonial Literature. Different modes of categorisations are proposed by Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 4–5 (global, post-national, transnational and critical), 54–78 (moral, political, cultural and critical); Kang, Cosmopolitan Theology, 35–47 (cultural, market, critical, rooted, subaltern and vernacular); and Calhoun, C., ‘The Elusive Cosmopolitan Ideal’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology 47 (2003) 326Google Scholar, at 12–16 (ethical universalism, cosmopolitan democracy, urban social psychology and hybridity).

22 Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 20. Among the many authors who have embraced Delanty's views, see Haggis, J., Midgley, C., Allen, M. and Paisley, F., Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860–1950 (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Schiller and Irving, eds., Whose Cosmopolitanism?

23 Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 27.

24 Delanty, Cosmopolitan Imagination, 86–7.

25 As Pnina Werbner cogently observes, ‘Not all boundary-crossing, globally oriented groups are cosmopolitan’ (‘Introduction: Towards a New Cosmopolitan Anthropology’, Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives (ed. P. Werbner; Oxford/New York: Berg, 2008) 1–30, at 11).

26 The parallels have been discussed by Gerald Downing in several publications and more recently by Karin Neutel – see n. 1.

27 The closest literary parallels to Paul's tripartite formula in Gal 3.28 and Col 3.11 come from Cynic sources – see Downing, ‘A Cynic Preparation’ and Cynics, 14–23. More recently, Karin Neutel made this the focal point of her 2015 monograph, A Cosmopolitan Ideal, though curiously she only cites Downing twice in the entire book.

28 This is the central argument of Downing's Cynics, Paul and the Pauline Churches. Downing points to numerous passages in Paul's letters where he claims that Paul is working to counter false conclusions that others have drawn about him and his teachings on the presumption that he is a Cynic.

29 The same can be said for Paul's loyalty to the supra-local ekklesia of Christ-followers: devotion to a group that holds an exclusivist ideology can hardly be labelled ‘cosmopolitan’. Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS inspire supra-local devotion today, but no one would call them ‘cosmopolitan’. This is what Pnina Werbner had in mind when she stated, ‘Not all boundary-crossing, globally oriented groups are cosmopolitan’ (Werbner, ‘Introduction: Towards a New Cosmopolitan Anthropology’, 11).

30 He does suggest in a couple of places that all humans have the potential to know about God by attending to God's presence in nature (by applying their reason?), but he says this only to indicate that humans have failed in this task and therefore stand under God's judgement (Rom 1.19–23; 10.16–21). He also implies the creation of all humans by God (1 Cor 8.6; cf. Col 1.15; Eph 3.9), though he never explicitly states it.

31 Whether he has Gen 1.27 in mind in 1 Cor 11.7 (cf. Col 3.10) is unclear, but even if he did, he does not use it to make a ‘cosmopolitan’ point.  He does speak relatively often of God as ‘our’ father, but the context shows that he is referring only to Christ-followers, whom he elsewhere describes as God's ‘sons’. Given this fact, it seems likely that this is also what he had in mind in the handful of places where ‘our’ is omitted (1 Cor 15.24; 1 Thess 1.1; 2 Thess 1.2).

32 For Paul, the human νοῦς (cf. νοήματα) is an instrument that can be turned towards either good or evil (Rom 1.28; 7.23, 25; 12.2; 1 Cor 1.10; 2 Cor 3.14; 4.4; 10.5; 11.3; Phil 4.7). Unlike others, followers of Christ (or possibly Paul himself) can be said to possess ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2.16) and know the ‘thoughts’ of Satan (2 Cor 2.11), but ‘the mind of the Lord [God]’ is unknowable to any human (Rom 11.34; 1 Cor 2.16).

33 See the comments above under 2.2 ‘Paul and Cynic Cosmopolitanism’.

34 In recent years a number of post-colonial biblical interpreters have called attention to various ways in which Paul adopted the language and mindset of Roman imperialism/colonialism while presenting Jesus and his kingdom as a competitor to Caesar and the Roman empire. See, for example, Punt, J., ‘Pauline Agency in Postcolonial Perspective: Subverter of or Agent for Empire?’, The Colonized Apostle: Paul through Postcolonial Eyes (ed. Stanley, C. D.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) 5361Google Scholar; cf. Marchal, J., The Politics of Heaven: Women, Gender, and Empire in the Study of Paul (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008)Google Scholar.

35 On popular images of Jews and Judaism, see the collections of excerpts compiled by Stern, M., Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism: From Herodotus to Plutarch (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974)Google Scholar; Feldman, L. H., Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; and others.

36 Here I place myself at odds with scholars such as William Campbell, Kathy Ehrensperger, Brian Tucker and others who insist that Paul was not a sectarian. The difference is not as great as it might seem, however, since their conclusions were based on an analysis of Paul's relations with Judaism while mine focuses on the effects of his teachings on non-Jews. I do believe, however, that their analysis is hampered by a lack of attention to the ethnic diversity of those whom Paul labels ‘Gentiles’ or ‘the nations’. Their claim that Paul allowed ‘Gentiles’ to remain ‘Gentiles’ founders on the fact that ‘Gentile’ was a learned identity and not a pre-existing category of ethnic self-definition like ‘Greek’, ‘Phrygian’ or ‘Galatian’. ‘Gentiles’ were made, not born; one learned to think of oneself as a ‘Gentile’ through being socialised within the Christ-movement (or within Judaism). One could remain a Jew and become a Christ-follower, but one could not remain (at least not in the full sense) a Greek, a Phrygian or a Galatian. One had to pass through the (Jewish) category of ‘Gentiles’ in order to find a place in God's plan of salvation and become part of the ekklēsia, a community defined by its roots in Judaism.