Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context; edited by Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones (IVP, 2019)
Paul proclaimed the gospel to a culture shaped by philosophical traditions. This book offers a series of very accessible studies into how he did that.
Paul and the Giants of Philosophy compares the apostle to Socrates (briefly), Plato, Aristotle, Epicureans and, of course, the Stoics. Most of the sample philosophers are his predecessors or contemporaries (e.g. Seneca) so it really does set Paul in his context.
We may wonder if Paul knew the philosophical traditions well. Several authors make the point that it is not necessary to assume he had studied the texts. Many of the ideas were “in the air.” Few Australian churches are filled with people who have read Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Sartre or Foucault (to choose a few big names), and pastors may or may not have read them. Yet our culture is shaped by their thinking and good preaching will engage with their ideas, even if the source is not identified. It was much the same in the ancient world.
Few have read Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Sartre or Foucault … Yet our culture is shaped by their thinking and good preaching will engage with their ideas.
This book offers short easily read chapters—most comparing Paul to a philosopher on a particular topic. There are chapters on both Epictetus and Seneca (both Stoics) and suffering; Aristotle on friendship; Philodemus (an Epicurean) on dealing with the weak; Seneca on slavery; Epictetus on the individual and community; Plutarch on faith; Seneca on gifts-giving and obligation. Two general chapters compare Paul’s view of the good life and the afterlife with a range of thinkers. Another two chapters compare Paul’s use of letters and his account of his heavenly vision (2 Cor 12) with representative philosophers. R. Dean Anderson considers Paul’s quote from the Phaenomena of Aratus: “For we too are his offspring.” (Acts 17:28). The closing chapter considers the challenge of making these comparisons.
Each chapter has points of interest, here I can just mention a few highlights for me…
Justin Allison shows that Paul’s discussion of the strong and weak has parallels with Philodemus. The philosopher proposes that the weak need “frank criticism” from a caring and sensitive teacher to help correct their thinking to become self-sufficient. Paul calls the strong and the weak to serve one another in dependence on God.
David Briones notes that both Paul and Aristotle value friendship (though Paul does not use the word). For Aristotle friendship is reciprocal, two virtuous people are committed to each other and do good for each other (and themselves at the same time). Paul knows a bigger reality. God creates and sustains friendships through his gifts, especially the gift of friendship with him through Christ. Christian friendship is mutually beneficial but that is not the basis of friendship.
Timothy Brookins’ chapter on slavery is the best short study I have read on the topic. He points out that as a Stoic Seneca held that slave and master share the same natural status and he suggested ways in which slaves should be treated as equals. Yet he never suggested freedom for slaves, and his Stoicism meant social status is a matter of indifference which did not need to be changed. Paul was no position to promote abolition in the Roman empire, but the gospel leads him in that direction. He told Onesimus that Philemon is now his brother, and by implication no longer his slave. He hinted that Philemon could release Onesimus , though leaving the decision for Onesimus and his church.
Briones’ second chapter is perhaps the most suprising of the book. He argues that the ideal of a ‘pure gift’ with no expectation of reciprocation is a “modern myth” and not Paul’s approach. He summaries Seneca’s view that the pattern of generous giving and grateful response is the rhythm of healthy social life. The giver thinks of the recipient’s interests first but also takes their own interest into account. He argues from Philippians that Paul’s view is similar. Believers should put the interests of others first, but that does not eliminate their self-interest. (The translation of Philippians 2:4 is a key in this discussion). Christ gave generously knowing he would be exalted. Believers have received gifts from God, and share these with one another, creating and fulfilling obligations which bind them together in unity.
Christ gave generously knowing he would be exalted. Believers have received gifts from God, and share these with one another, creating and fulfilling obligations which bind them together in unity.
Along with particular insights, the whole book helps to show Paul as a contextual theologian. He warned his readers against being taken captive by the “empty deception” of philosophy (Col 2:8). That did not mean that he ignored the philosophical milieu. There were even points of similarity and connection. Yet the gospel critiques the surrounding culture and offers a radically different view of life based on the death and resurrection of Christ. When we appreciate the alternatives of the first century, the gospel alternative shines brightly.
Paul and the Giants of Philosophy offers new insights into Paul’s message. It is also an introduction to the philosophical background of the New Testament and recommended reading for anyone interested in Christianity and philosophy. It also has the potential to stimulate preachers and teachers to follow Paul’s example and show the wonder of the gospel in relation to the philosophies of our age.