Volume 44 - Issue 1

Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition

by Joseph R. Dodson, Andrew W. Pitts, and Chris Keith, eds.

The past fifty years have witnessed a revival of scholarly interest in the method of comparative analysis within biblical studies (generally) and Pauline studies (specifically). This trend—albeit, far from uniform or monolithic (p. xvii)—is evinced in seminal works such as E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), and more recently within the works of John M. G. Barclay (Paul and the Gift [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015]) and C. Kavin Rowe (One True Life [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016]). Heretofore, the trend for those within the “New Perspective on Paul” movement (NPP) has been to compare Paul primarily with Second Temple Jewish sources, whereas Greco-Roman sources have been the favored lenses of comparisons within the Lutheran tradition. Essentially, Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition (PGRPT) is an edited anthology offering a myriad of thirteen comparative analyses between Paul and various Greco-Roman philosophical texts and traditions. What is interesting about PGRPT is the diversity of scholars (some within the NPP tradition), who each see the value of reading Paul through a Greco-Roman lens. The editors, Joseph R. Dodson (Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Ouachita Baptist University) and Andrew W. Pitts (former Chair of the Biblical Studies Department and Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Arizona Christian University) are well-qualified to edit such an anthology in that they have served as authors/editors of numerous articles, anthologies, and monographs focused on Paul and his cultural milieu.

One of the primary goals of PGRPT is to “push beyond the Jewish/Hellenism divide by placing Paul in dialogue with other Hellenistic Jews and ancient philosophers” (p. xv). The purpose for such dialogue is not to commit the same methodological fallacies of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule in finding surface-level similarities or genealogical dependence between these traditions and Paul, but, rather, “to discover similarities and differences in these sources [Paul’s tertium quid] that spark new interpretive questions and kindle fresh insights” (p. xv). Perhaps, the overarching thesis of PGRPT is that Paul is relatable/comparable to these philosophical traditions, and Paul’s appropriation of this material gives one a more full-orbed understanding of Paul’s “literary and missionary efforts” (p. 11).

Structurally, PGRPT consists of a preface (Dodson), foreword (Troels Engberg-Pedersen), introduction (Pitts), thirteen chapters, and indices of biblical and ancient sources, modern authors, and ancient figures (pp. vii–viii). In his foreword, Engberg-Pedersen suggests the “endemic” praxis of comparison within NT scholarship—presenting two primary founts/rules (“lex Malherbe” and “lex Meeks”) from which contemporary comparisons of Paul and Greco-Roman philosophy have flowed (pp. xvii–xviii). Engberg-Pedersen suggests a “further consideration” is needed: after having performed the analyses suggested by Malherbe and Meeks—studying each pole of comparison on “its own premises and from within its own perspective” and then “highlighting where it is similar and differs” (p. xvii, emphasis original)—one must discern “which of the two poles has the higher degree of forcefulness … as an adequate description of the world” (p. xviii). In his introduction, Pitts succinctly sketches a helpful reception history of Paul in relation to these philosophical traditions, then briefly introduces each article (pp. 1–11).

In the opening essay, “Paul and the Militia Spiritualis Topos in 1 Thessalonians,” Nijay K. Gupta argues (contra Malherbe) against Paul’s dependence on Dio and suggests that Paul appropriates the familiar warfare imagery of Militia Spiritualis (pp. 22–23). The aim of Dodson’s essay, “Elements of Apocalyptic Eschatology in Seneca’s Writings and Paul’s Letters,” is to offer a tripartite comparison between recurring apocalyptic eschatologies and those appearing in Paul and Seneca, to ignite, as it were, new lamps of illumination (p. 53). The thesis of David E. Briones’s article, “Paul and Aristotle on Friendship,” is that the inclusion and activity of God in Paul’s portrayal of friendship in Philippians departs from Aristotelian and other Greco-Roman models. Pitts and Bahij Ajluni co-author chapter four (“Bruce Winter and the Language of Benefaction in Romans 13.3”), and argue that Winter’s portrayal of benefaction, when considered against the backdrop of philosophical discussions of benefaction and alongside Paul’s portrayal in Romans 12, is left wanting (p. 77). Niko Huttunen pens chapter five (“Powers, Baptism and the Ethics of the Stronger: Paul among the Ancient Political Philosophers”)—suggesting that Paul’s words in Romans 13:1 resonate in important ways with a “general rule” of “the Stronger” that is pervasively present within the Greco-Roman tradition (pp. 101–02). Orrey McFarland’s essay, “Divine Causation and Prepositional Metaphysics in Philo of Alexandria and the Apostle Paul,” suggests that worries regarding Paul’s use of prepositions in divine causation are “unfounded” (pp. 118–19). Runnar M. Thorsteinsson’s “Paul and Pan(en)theism” compares Paul’s “potential pan(en)theistic passages … in light of Stoic theology” (p. 136). In chapter eight, “The Wilderness Tradition in 1 Corinthians, Wisdom of Solomon and Hebrews,” Madison N. Pierce juxtaposes Wisdom of Solomon and Hebrews with 1 Corinthians (her main text)—comparing two components: the provision of divine gifts and divine punishment of human rebellion (p. 158). 1 Corinthians is again the focus of Timothy A. Brookins’s essay, “Natural Hair: A ‘New Rhetorical’ Assessment of 1 Cor. 11.14–15.” Brookins argues against Paul’s “conventional” usage of φύσις—considering the term’s ancient context (pp. 195–96). Jonathan Worthington (“Gendered Exegesis of Creation in Philo [De Opificio Mundi] and Paul [1 Corinthians]) argues that both Paul and Philo display asymmetrically gendered exegesis in these two texts. De Opificio Mundi is also the focus of Gitte Buch-Hansen’s article, “Early Conceptions of Original Sin: Reading Galatians through Philo’s De Opificio Mundi,” in which she answers the question, “Did Paul operate with a concept of original sin?” (pp. 222–23). Mathias Nygaard’s penultimate chapter, “Death as an Ethical Metaphor in Seneca’s Writings and in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” posits that both positive and negative metaphors of death can be discerned in Paul and Seneca (pp. 246–47). Lastly, Seneca is highlighted again in Brian J. Tabb’s essay, “The Nature of True Worship: Reading Acts 17 with Seneca, Epistle 95.” Tabb argues that these texts, while displaying some resonances, “reveal notable divergences when they are situated in the authors’ respective biblical and Stoic traditions” (p. 278).

Numerous strengths mark PGRPT: it is generally well-written—albeit, with a handful of typos scattered throughout its pages (e.g., p. 29 “solider”). Many of the essays make important contributions to scholarship: Worthington’s discussion of gendered exegesis roots sex and ethics in the creation account rather than culture; Buch-Hansen’s discussion of the Epicurean “cradle argument” elucidates Paul’s anthropology; and Nygaard’s comparison between Paul’s and Seneca’s views on death as a positive and negative metaphor serves as a corrective to previous studies and paves the way forward for future discussion. However, the diversity of the contributors and their approaches to Paul, is, perhaps, the greatest strength of PGRPT.

As in any anthology, there are hits and misses. Perhaps the weakest link within PGRPT is Tabb’s comparison between Paul and Seneca. Tabb’s thesis inductively appears at the end of his essay with little supporting argumentation. Furthermore, Tabb’s focus on Acts 17 seems misplaced in a study focused on Pauline (not Lukan) Christianity—though, to be fair, Pitts’s introduction to the volume does commence with a discussion of Acts 17, and there are good reasons to take Luke seriously as a witness to the substance of Paul’s preaching. The title of PGRPT is misleading also in that PGRPT focuses not on the entire Corpus Paulinum, but only on the Hauptbriefe and 1 Thessalonians. There are no chapters focused on Philemon, and Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastorals are not even referenced in the index (p. 283). There are also lacunae within the Greco-Roman sources, with preference given to Seneca and Philo (three chapters assigned to each—nearly half the book).

In sum, Pitts’s introduction, and the chapters by Buch-Hansen and Nygaard are alone worth the price of admission. Despite its flaws and imbalanced coverage of the material, PGRPT is a must-have for scholars investigating Paul’s complex thought world and Sitz im Leben.

Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory E. Lamb
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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