Tuesday, July 27, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 6

Paul, the Hellenist

Although, Paul was in every sense a ‘Jew,’ he was undeniably also a Hellenistic Jew who wrote in Greek, used the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and was certainly influenced by Hellenism. According to Grant, his Judaism (although he was zealously devoted to it) was not the orthodox variety current in Palestine. “Instead it was the Judaism of the Western Diaspora, already tinged with Hellenism through the use of the Greek language and the consequent adoption of certain Greek modes of thought.”(1) From his own account and as was noted earlier, Paul was born in Tarsus and would have lived in this cosmopolitan city during various intervals of his life. If the latter was true, then Paul would have grown up in an atmosphere in which he was as familiar with Greek and Roman thought as he was with the Jewish thought of his own race and nation. To what extent or in what way was Paul influenced by the prevailing Hellenistic culture? The tendency in the past was to say that a Hellenistic milieu explained the emergence of Paulinism. This view is not generally held at present. Still the thought world of Paul and that of contemporary Hellenistic culture had much in common. In his writings and speeches as recorded in Acts, Paul’s theology did contain certain elements of Greek culture as is seen in his use of concepts and ideas like freedom, reason, nature, conscience, sobriety, virtue and duty.

An example of Paul’s familiarity with Greek philosophy and rhetorical methods can be seen in his address at the Athens (Acts 17). The main arguments of the speech (17:24-29) building on the common ground of Jewish, Christian and Hellenistic sources, make a case for the nature of the one true God and a case against idolatry. Hansen argues that Paul’s connection with early Greek philosophers is strengthened by the way that Luke weaves several allusions to Socrates into his narrative.(2) Like Socrates, Paul engaged in dialogues – “… in the market place he debated every day with anyone whom he met” (Acts 17:17). Also like Socrates, he was charged with proclaiming ‘foreign gods’ (17:18). So like Socrates, Paul was put on trial to give account of his ‘new teaching’ (17:19). Luke, according to Hansen, is trying to indicate the favourable reception which the Aeropagus address should receive from his readers in the Greek world by this association of Paul with Socrates.

We also see hints of Paul’s contact with Greek philosophy in some of his writings. For example, Paul, like the Platonists before him, wrote to the Romans that human reason is a way of coming into contact with the absolute Good, but of course he gave that ‘good’ the name of God: “For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind's understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). But Paul had also to temper the thought of the Platonists. They were too pessimistic about the body and the material world. He wrote to the Corinthians: “But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? … What (the body) is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful” (1 Cor 15:12, 43). The Platonists were also too optimistic about self-knowledge. Paul wrote likewise to the Corinthians: “Any one of you who thinks he is wise by worldly standards must learn to be a fool in order to be really wise. For the wisdom of the world is folly to God” (1 Cor 3:18-19). Against Stoicism, Paul offered Christian insights into a personal God, into an eternal afterlife, and into an active love of others rather than passive self-interest. But like Stoicism, Paul also affirmed the mystery of Divine Providence and provided glimpses into the unity of the human race and of all of creation. In Corinthians, we see that he especially liked the Stoic concern for self-discipline in ethics: “Do you not realise that, though all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, only one of them gets the prize? Run like that -- to win. Every athlete concentrates completely on training, and this is to win a wreath that will wither, whereas ours will never wither” (1 Cor 9:24-25). In Thessalonica Paul found something to affirm the philosophy of the Epicureans, though, he had other purposes in mind: “… we do urge you, brothers, to go on making even greater progress and to make a point of living quietly, attending to your own business and earning your living, just as we told you to, so that you may earn the respect of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone” (1 Th 4:10-12). Still, Paul warned the Corinthians about Epicurean hedonism: “If the dead are not going to be raised, then Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be dead. So do not let anyone lead you astray, 'Bad company corrupts good ways” (1 Cor 15:33-34). Verse 33 of 1 Corinthian 15 may actually be a quotation from Menander.(3)

As important as philosophy was to culture of Paul’s cities, it was centered on the individual and gave little sense of community. To those alienated in the society – especially the freed persons and salves, but even others who were uprooted from their native lands – philosophy brought no sense of belonging or of salvation. Since the state religions were in decline, some people turned toward magic, many others toward ‘mystery religions.’ These were a way of getting control over life or to influence the powers who did have control. The Galatians and Colossians were both tempted to such practices and Paul warns them: “whereas now that you have come to recognise God -- or rather, be recognised by God -- how can you now turn back again to those powerless and bankrupt elements whose slaves you now want to be all over again?” (Gal 4:9). The people who were entering mystery religions or cults also yearned for a saviour God, for acceptance by an intimate community. Here too, Paul met their needs, preaching Jesus as the true saviour, stressing Christian life as a community in Christ with its initiation by baptism and its sacred meal of the Eucharist. Still, Paul also had to encourage them to ethical concerns beyond a feeling of salvation and to an open community without secrets. In fact, this Hellenistic influence is detected more in Paul’s ethical teaching than in his theology proper.

What of Paul’s style of writing? Certainly he was completely at home in the Greek language, which would only support the presupposition of his Hellenistic background and education. Although he does not write literary ‘koine’, his style betrays a good Greek education. In fact, Greek was the language of commerce and government in the eastern parts of the Roman empire. But although Paul’s style is individual, recent studies prove beyond doubt that Paul knew and used the methods of the Greek orators of his time. Even if Paul had not been trained as a professional rhetorician, his mode of composition and expression often reveals the influence of Greek rhetoric. Again and again the structure of his letters conforms to models set forth by Quintilian and other ancient rhetoricians. In dealings with his opponents in Second Corinthians he resorts to the types of arguments and emotional appeals that we find in Socrates and in the whole Socratic tradition. The apparent digressions that have puzzled commentators in such a letter as First Corinthians had a definite and recognized rhetorical function. In defending his policy not to accept financial support he argued like a Cynic philosopher. His writing sometimes reflects the Cynic-Stoic diatribe (Rom 2:1-20; 3:1-9; 9:19; 1 Cor 9). His catalogues are similar to the catalogues of vices and virtues put forth especially by Stoic philosophers (Gal 5:19-23). The content of his ethical teaching may be Jewish, true-and-true, and the theological basis and motivation of it are certainly Christian, but in persuading his hearers Paul often uses ‘commonplaces,’ i.e. standard topics and examples to be found in Hellenistic philosophy, such as the athletic metaphors (Phil 2:16).

The influence of a Hellenistic culture is also seen in his use of images and terms derived from a city-culture (note that Jesus uses images drawn from the rural countryside): ‘commonwealth’ (Phil 3:20) and ‘fellow citizens’ (Eph 2:19) are Greek political terms; ‘account’ (Philemon 18) is a Greek commercial term; ‘will’ (Gal 3:15) is a legal designation and ‘slave-free’ (1 Cor 7:22) is an expression drawn from the slave-trade found different parts of the Roman Empire. He employs the Hellenistic ideas of ‘freedom’ (Gal 5:1, 13) and ‘conscience’ (1 Cor 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25-29; 2 Cor 5:11; Rom 2:15), and the Stoic ideas of ‘sufficiency’ or ‘contentment’ (2 Cor 9:8), and ‘nature’ (Rom 2:14).

Though it is easy enough to underestimate the influence of the Hellenistic culture on Paul’s life and thought, it is not easy at all to define its extent. Indeed, the phenomenon of ‘Hellenisation’ was so extensive in Hellenistic Judaism (and even in the Judaism as practiced in Palestine) that it is often difficult to segregate and label concepts as either Jewish or Hellenistic. Whatever may have been the actual influence of Hellenism over his theological thinking, we cannot deny the fact that he was born and sojourned in a Hellenistic city, a crossroad of the Empire, a center of Greek learning, and that he was a citizen of Rome. These factors would certainly have contributed to a universal vision, to his becoming par excellence apostle to the Gentiles. In many ways, then Paul addressed the world of his times. He moved Christianity from its Jewish roots to the Gentiles. This would lead to great struggle between Christians of Jewish background and the Christians of Gentile background, an issue that we will see recurring in his letters and recorded in Acts.

1. Frederick C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962) , 146.
2. G. Walter Hansen, “The Preaching and Defence of Paul” in Marshall (ed),
Witness to the Gospel, 310.
3. Menander, Thais, frg. 218, Joseph Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology” in Raymond E. Brown et al (ed),
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 1382-1416, cf. 1385 n. 82:12.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent series of posts regarding Paul and his influences. You are handling a complicated subject well. I have a friend who is a college professor working on a book that will explore the Pauline references to classical Greek philosophy.

    Pardon me for the blatant self promotion, but I also deal with this subject from the perspective of a novelist in my recently released work of historical fiction entitled, "A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle." Click on my name for more information.


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