“Paul lived and worked, in fact, in at least three worlds at once” (p75), namely, Israel, Greece, and Rome. I’m working through N.T. Wright’s leviathanesque Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and in this first major ‘part’ (348 pages) he is first attempting to situate Paul in history before turning to his worldview and theology, parts 2 and 3 respectively.
In this chapter Wright examines the influence of Greek philosophy on Paul’s world.
Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks
This chapter was fascinating and introduced me to a new area of discussion regarding Paul and the potential influence of Grecian philosophy on Paul. Would Paul have been exposed to this philosophy in his childhood, or in his missionary journeys? Would these ideas have influenced him in any way? What was his attitude towards these ideas?
I’m getting ahead of myself, but that is why this section matters. At this point, Wright is still trying to put together the world that Paul found himself in, before looking at Paul’s responses to that world. So in this chapter the primary Greek philosophical schools are introduced and investigated, then the question of the Jewish attitude towards Greek philosophy is addressed.
I can’t possibly hope to summarise Wright’s content in this chapter, so I will offer a few comments and potential discussion points.
Paul and Greek Philosophy
Would Paul have been exposed to philosophy? Tarsus apparently was an important centre of Stoic thought (p199) and, however much philosophy entered the Jewish world, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Undoubtedly he was exposed to these systems of thought as “[p]hilosophy, in the ancient world, was ‘everyday life’, lived, reflected upon and interpreted in this or that way” (p232).
It makes sense, then, to ask, as one might of any first-century philosopher: where does Paul belong on the map? How does he position himself in relation to other philosophical schools and their leading themes and concepts? When he appears to borrow ideas or technical terms, is he endorsing, co-opting, subverting or controverting them?
The philosophers spoke of wisdom (sophia), word (logos), fellowship (koinonia), and so on. Anyone familiar with these Greek words will know that they are prominent in the New Testament. In the case of Paul’s vocabulary, what kind of relationship to these concepts should we expect? Is Paul just using the same Greek words with no intended connection to attached philosophical ideas, or is he doing something a little more complicated? As the quote above asks, what would he be doing with these terms and ideas? We won’t see Wright’s thoughts until later, but this is an interesting issue to ponder. It reminds me of the discussion regarding the similarities between ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) texts and the Old Testament. In that issue we have some who believe that the OT is so influenced by its surrounding culture that common mythology and error is found within. Then others hold that these similarities should be seen as polemic, corrective, or even taunting. What of Paul’s use of Greek philosophy?
Wright seems to hint at his conclusion, one that resonates with me, “What Paul thought he was doing was offering an essentially Jewish message to the pagan world. […] But if Paul did not derive the central themes and categories of his proclamation from the themes and categories of pagan thought, that doesn’t mean that he refused to make any use of such things. Indeed, he revels in the fact that he can pick up all kinds of things from his surrounding culture and make them serve his purposes – much as philosophers of his day could quote rival schools in order to upstage or refute them.” (p200-201). Another way of saying this is that Paul was a missionary! In seeking to communicate to other cultures, there must be some meeting-point, or we will not be understandable. Paul seems to walk the fine line of entering the surrounding culture without compromising his beliefs, and in this regard serves as an example for us.
The World of the NT and Bible Reading
At its simplest, the Epicurean philosophy insists on what amounts to a metaphysical dualism, with the gods far removed from the world as we know it. […] Here is perhaps the most important thing in this chapter for today’s readers of Paul to take to heart. Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism.
This insight is quite important for readers of Paul. How much of our Epicurean-esque culture influences our reading of Paul and the Scriptures? Are we in danger of skewing our reading of Paul by thinking he is answering the questions of one worldview when in fact he may be answering another? On a related note, how much of the surrounding culture, philosophy, and so on, must one understand to correctly read the Bible? Ultimately, however much secondary literature may help us in our reading of Scripture, I believe the Scriptures are divine revelation and sufficient in themselves. But this reminds us of something we all know we ought to do, but sometimes forget – take the Scripture on its own terms, get into the minds of the Biblical authors, and interpret Scripture by Scripture, not our current worldview. Studying Paul’s surrounding culture can help us do this very thing. On this very issue, see this discussion between D.A. Carson and John Piper. I get Piper’s point, but think overall Carson makes a more nuanced argument.
Epicureans, believing that the world was divided radically into two, with the gods enjoying their detached bliss and the physical world developing in its own way, strongly recommended a similar detachment for its adherents: hence the Garden, both as a location for their school and as a hope to be realized in a country retreat for those who could afford it. The Stoics, by contrast, never seem to have abandoned the belief that the divinity that was active within all things, themselves included, was intent upon the proper andwise governance of all things. They therefore regularly sought influence in the highest circles: Seneca with Nero, Musonius with Titus, Dio and Pliny with Trajan, Epictetus with Hadrian, and finally Marcus Aurelius giving himself advice on how best to use the supreme position to which Fate had led him.
As I hinted before, it would be saying too much to suggest that the churches which Paul founded were just like these philosophical
schools.158 But it would be saying too little to suggest that they had nothing in common. If Luke’s description of those who met Paul in Athens is anything to go by, it would have been natural for members of such schools to try to put Paul into one or other of their regular pigeon-holes. […] If the philosophers thought Paul was offering some odd kind of religion, I suspect that the religious would have thought he was offering some kind of philosophy. But to take this discussion any further we must take a deep breath and plunge into that other world, the world the philosophers so often criticized while claiming to teach the truth to which it pointed: the world of ancient Greco-Roman religion itself.
Comments are welcome!
[Many thanks to SPCK for providing a copy of this book for review. I was not required to give a positive review]