Posted by: chuckbumgardner | November 1, 2015

Paul’s Contact with the New Religions

“Paul’s Contact with the New Religions” is the heading of a section in Robert Banks’s interesting work Paul’s New Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting (rev. ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009). I was glad to come across this, as I had been considering lately whether and how much Paul self-consciously dug into trying to thoroughly understand other thought-systems of his day, and how much he self-consciously contrasted Christianity to them. That is a question which ultimately cannot be answered in a great deal of detail, I would think, although much work has been done to compare and contrast Paul’s teaching with that of other thought-systems (inasmuch as they are known) of his day, whether those of mystery religions or philosophical schools . Clearly, he was able to hold his own with Stoics and Epicureans at Athens (Acts 17), but did he delve into the mystery cults or gain a deep and abiding understanding of the various philosophical schools?

Banks suggests that (1) Paul was unlikely to have been a member of anything other than a Pharisaic fellowship (due to the restrictions of that group); (2) Paul likely made polemical use of terminology that was common coin in mystery cults or other religious voluntary associations, such as “mystery” or “knowledge” [a debated point, I believe]; (3) Acts and Paul’s epistles at times hint at possible contact Paul might have had with philosophical schools outside Acts 17 (use of the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus; reference to their activities (1 Cor 1:20; 2:4-5); echoes of their teaching (Epimenides (?) and Aratus in Acts 17:28). In summary, Banks suggests,

While we should not overlook the possibility that some acquaintance with the teachings of these groups formed part of Paul’s education in Jerusalem, it seems likely that most of his information would have been gathered on his travels in a rather ad hoc fashion, supplemented by occasional debates with their representatives and discussions with converts from their way of life. (13)

The question of Paul’s intentional study of other thought-systems intrigued me a bit and a little further research on his knowledge of philosophical schools in particular finds T. Paige (“Philosophy,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters) pointing out that Tarsus was home to a “flourishing school of philosophy” (True! see Strabo 14.673 [14.5.13]) and that “though it is unlikely that he attended, it is reasonable to suppose that Paul met with some philosophy in his youth, even if his training may have been in Jerusalem” (714); and later asserts that “as a man of his era, he was aware of intellectual currents” (718). J. C. Thom (“Paul and Popular Philosophy,” in Paul’s Graeco-Roman Context [ed. Breytenbach; BETL 277; Leuven: Peeters, 2015]) summarizes a good bit of scholarly work to note,

Recent scholarship has amply demonstrated that Paul and other New Testament authors were aware of and made use of philosophical topoi that were common in their time. It has also long been recognized that Paul in his pastoral engagement with the various congregations made use of the same psychagogical practices employed by philosophers. Paul’s use of letters to guide various early Christian communities is also similar to the way letters were used in philosophical communities. The style used in Pauline letters is furthermore strongly influenced by the diatribe style used by Cynic and Stoic philosophers. (47-48)

All the same, in spite of all of these assertions (however strong they are in the end), Thom notes that “despite these similarities in style and practice . . . it is problematic to pin down the precise nature and substance of philosophical knowledge that Paul and other New Testament authors may have had” (48). He suggests that the sort of similarities noted above between Paul and the philosophers resulted not from the formal study of philosophy, but simply from “a competency . . . in the general cultural repertoire of the period, which in turn is reflected in the popular philosophical texts [texts that made philosophical teaching accessible to a non-specialized audience]” (57). He further suggests that the likely level of rhetorical training that Paul had “may well have included exposure to popular-philosophical texts, since these were aimed at readers with a general education rather than formal training in science or philosophy” (57-58).

N. T. Wright (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [COQG 4; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013]) makes a good point, noting that after Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-29, which clearly did not endear him to the Hellenistic Jews there, the Christians extricated him from the city and “sent him off to Tarsus” (v. 30), where Barnabas—apparently some time later—eventually collected him for ministry in Antioch (11:25-26). Wright:

Granted that Saul had recently gone back to his home town fired with the dangerous message that a recently crucified Jew was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and granted all we know of his character before and after, we are bound to assume that he engaged with thinkers and scholars in Tarsus at all kinds of levels. . . . Saul’s early post-conversion stay in Tarsus allows plenty of time, not indeed to “translate” his initial “Jewish” understanding of the news about Jesus into a very different and “hellenistic” mode of thought—as we shall see, there is no reason to suppose he ever did that—but certainly for him to bump up against the major philosophical traditions of the time and to begin to work out not only possible points of convergence but also key points where confrontation or subversion would be appropriate. I regard it as highly probable that it was in this early time in Tarsus that he began to acquire the art of “tearing down clever arguments, and every proud notion that sets itself up against the knowledge of God,” resulting in his project of “taking every thought prisoner and making it obey the Messiah.” (205-7)

Wright’s comments tie back to Banks’s given above: Paul need not have spent dedicated time as a student of a particular philosophy—and “philosophy” was not quite the recondite discipline it is today; we might say “worldview”—but would have had ample opportunity in the course of his gospelizing ministry to learn of and interact with other points of view.


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