Paul, A Jew to The Jews, A Greek to The Greeks?

Paul, A Jew to The Jews, A Greek to The Greeks?

Perhaps you have heard it said that Paul stated he became a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. And we can all usually point to the passage where Paul makes this assertion.

1 Corinthians 9:19-20

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.

Hey, wait a minute. Where was the part about being a Greek to the Greeks? As popular sayings often go, this one is slightly mis-quoted more often than not. In fact, I have mis-quoted it myself in the past. However, there is no passage where Paul mentions being a Greek to the Greeks.

But it must be in the passage where he says “I became all things to all men”, right?

Well, that passage is the same as the one above. That particular line comes in verse 22.

1 Corinthians 9:21-22

21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.


Where did the mis-quote come from?

I think it developed out of two different issues. First, loose translations like the Good News Translation (GNT) uses the term Gentiles, rather than “those not having the law”.

In the same way, when working with Gentiles, I live like a Gentile. (1 Corinthians 9:21 GNT)

While I am not opposed to dynamic equivalence when doing translation work, I also think it leads to some unintended consequences. The GNT eventually turned into the New Living Translation (NLT) and they too carried over a similar translation.

When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law. (1 Corinthians 9:21 NLT)

I think for many people it’s easy to confuse Greek and Gentile. While all the Greeks are considered Gentiles, not all Gentiles are Greek. But confusion persists.

I believe the second reason why this mis-quote lives on is because the idea of Greeks to the Greeks actually fits the passage quite well. Paul is speaking about becoming part of the communities that he is serving; not merely just living among them at times. He dwelt with them as he ministered to them. He knew their cultures and their needs and their way of life. He did this so that he might have a bridge to preach the gospel to them. Thus, the idea that he did so with the Greeks isn’t a far-out idea. After all, he spent a lot of time with Greek communities and he often quotes from the Greek Septuagint (OT scriptures), rather than the Hebrew OT.

Concluding thoughts

Often this idea of Greek to the Greeks is used in some missionary context. Basically, providing a theological girding for someone who believes assimilating into the culture of their mission field is necessary. Obviously, I believe that we must be part of the culture we are witnessing to, or at least understand the culture. However, there is a caveat in this idea. We must remember that some parts of that new culture will have conflicts with our Christian faith. This is where we must make hard decisions about how we ought to behave.

Inversely, if we believe we can move into someone’s neighborhood or into a new culture and witness to them without serving them and being part of their community, we are going to have an anemic affect at best. Our words will not be back by our lives and people are smart enough to see that. We must make every effort to know and understand the people we are professing to care about.


2 thoughts on “Paul, A Jew to The Jews, A Greek to The Greeks?”

  1. How much contextulisation of the Gospel have you personally had to apply in your own life? Have you ever worked with Muslims?

    Most important of these questions:
    What do you think Paul meant by the words, ” to the weak I became weak.”?

    • I’m not sure how to quantify contextualization but I’ve been reading the Bible both personally and academically since 2001 and I propose that anyone reading the Bible is practising some form of contextualization even if they are unaware of it.

      I do not have much experience with Muslims. Where in from there are not many to encounter.

      As for the weak. The Greek word used to describe the weak is very generic so we have to assume he’s most likely referring to people that are literally weak for one reason or another. Could be that they are sick or old. Not sure the reason is important though. There are a number of reasons one could be weak. How Paul “became” weak I’m not sure. I’m assuming he’s referring to his behavior and conduct becoming softer but I’m really not certain.


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