One True Life is one of the most well-written, thought-provoking, and challenging books on early Christianity and its philosophical milieu published in recent years. Kavin Rowe, Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, is well known for his two previous monographs, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke, BZNW 139 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006) and World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). In One True Life, Rowe argues the simple yet controversial thesis that ancient Christianity and Roman Stoicism are “rival traditions of life” (p. 6).
Parts I and II offer close readings of three Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) and three Christian writers (Paul, Luke, Justin Martyr) with a chapter devoted to each. These six authors are fitting representatives of the two traditions, and Rowe effectively and creatively blends quotation of the primary sources with his own “textually elaborate dialogical reflections” (p. 8). Rowe’s chapter-length treatments of major authors from the first and second centuries represent a major advance over previous comparative studies, such as Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s influential book Paul and the Stoics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), which remarkably includes only three passing references to Seneca’s writings and one each to Epictetus and Marcus.
Chapter 1 focuses on five key emphases in Seneca’s Moral Epistles: death, Fortuna, God and Nature, the passions, and philosophy. For Seneca, philosophy is “a redemptive mode of being . . . the wise way of life that enables us to die daily, to build and fortify the inward fortress against Fortuna, to become aligned with God and Nature, and to control the passions” (p. 42). Chapter two considers the influential philosophy of the slave Epictetus, preserved by his student Arrian. Rowe lingers on “five animating themes” in the Discourses and Manual: God, right judgments, philosophy, the human being, and society (p. 44). Seneca and Epictetus agree that philosophy is crucial to a wise, happy life, though the latter emphasizes trust in God and celebrates his good gifts more than the former (p. 64). Chapter three considers Marcus’s writings on death, God and Nature, human beings and right judgments, philosophy, and society. According to Rowe, “Marcus is not so much an innovator as he is a disciple” (p. 68), and like Seneca and Epictetus, the Stoic emperor presents philosophy as therapy for humanity’s woes and as a way of life, not simply a set of ideas.
Chapter four considers the themes of God, Jesus Christ, humanity’s creation and sin, humanity’s death and resurrection, and faith and community in Paul’s seven undisputed letters. Rowe writes, “Through his readings of Scripture, Paul aims to form the church that God is creating” (p. 105). Chapter five considers Luke’s contribution to the story of Israel, Jesus, God, human beings, and church and society. “For Luke,” Rowe explains, “Christian community is the necessary consequence of the total event that was Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection” (p. 134). Chapter six discusses Justin’s treatment of God, Jesus Christ, philosophy, the human being, politics and death, and Judaism in his extant works. For Justin, Jesus the incarnate Logos is the true philosophy and illustrates that “Christianity is truer even than death” (p. 171).
Following his inductive, dialogical treatment of the six Stoic and Christian authors, Rowe opens Part III by posing an important methodological question: “how should we read them in relation to one another?” (p. 175). In chapter seven, Rowe follows Alasdair MacIntyre in summarizing modern approaches to scholarly inquiry under three headings: encyclopedia, genealogy, and tradition. Encyclopedists are committed to the notions of “a single, unitary rationality,” “a unified world,” and “progress” (pp. 176–77), while genealogical inquiry fundamentally opposes each of these basic commitments. Rowe follows MacIntyre in commending a third way, “a tradition of inquiry,” which is “a morally grained, historically situated rationality, a way of asking and answering questions that is inescapably tied to the inculcation of habits in the life of the knower and to the community that originates and stewards the craft of inquiry through time” (p. 184). According to Rowe, ancient Christianity and Stoicism were traditions in this sense; however, modern scholars (such as Abraham Malherbe and Engberg-Pedersen) commonly compare the New Testament and ancient philosophy with encyclopedic aims and assumptions.
In chapters eight and nine, Rowe argues that we must study Christianity and Stoicism as “traditions in juxtaposition.” He synthesizes the major themes treated inductively in Parts I and II and stresses that while Stoics and Christians may use similar words (e.g., “God”), when understood within the grammars of each tradition these terms simply do not mean the same thing and cannot be translated. “The Christians and the Stoics are not, in the profoundest and most difficult philosophical sense, saying the same thing. They face each other with different and competing stories about all that is. . . . They are, permanently and irreducibly, traditions in conflict” (p. 235). Rowe asserts that Stoicism’s greatest lacuna is the absence of a comprehensive account of humanity’s “Fall,” while Christian discourse does not fully account for what Seneca calls “Fortuna” (p. 255). He concludes that Stoicism and Christianity are “claims to the truth of life, and knowing the things they teach requires a life that is true” (p. 257).
Rowe’s mature study raises significant questions that scholars will likely wrestle with for years to come. One may quibble with points of interpretation or emphasis here and there, but the overall thesis holds. One True Life is engagingly written, masterfully argued, and in the end convincing in its call for reframing the comparative task in New Testament studies. It is also beautifully published in hardback for an affordable price by Yale University Press. I warmly recommend this volume to scholars and theological students and plan to return to it for years to come.