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Screen capture of p. 494 which summarizes the
6 types of interactions between rival sects in
Greco-Roman antiquity as a template for how
Paul might interact with the moral traditions of his day
This is blog post #2 following up on the first one which announced the forthcoming publication of Moral Transformation of Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind: Mapping the Moral Milieu of Apostle Paul and His Diasporal Jewish Contemporaries (some time this month of April 2020).
I’m tackling the contributions in reverse order, from its secondary purpose to its main ones, because it is probably the 2ndary purpose of mapping the types of interactions between rival philosophical and religious sects in Greco-Roman antiquity which has the most direct relevance to New Testament interpretation. The encyclopedic knowledge of Roman Stoicism and Middle Platonism and their respective developments from the old Stoa and Plato stand alone as a valuable contribution to classical and NT studies, but their relevance is not as overt. I’ll expand on this for another post.
Here I want to focus on what Troel Engberg-Pedersen has called the “Transitional Period” of the 1st century B.C. to 2nd century A.D. as a time when there is shift of intellectual and cultural influence from Stoicism to Platonism. During this period, there was considerable interaction between the two philosophical schools where the adherents of each school engaged, rejected, redefined, and appropriated select concepts from their rivals without necessarily compromising their own sectarian identity or school allegiance.
In the last chapter of my book (see the screen capture above), I do something different than simply summarize the findings of my study. I re-examine select philosophical texts as examples of certain interaction types between Stoicism, Platonism, and sometimes Epicureanism. My goal is to map out a taxonomy of interaction types between rival sects/schools, and I posit that these six basic types of interactions can provide the basis for detecting Paul’s own interactions with concepts and tenets of “rival” philosophical and religious traditions. While Paul (or more literate, more educated New Testament authors as the author of Hebrews or Acts) may not have employed all six types, the taxonomy provides a checklist of possibilities for how Paul or another New Testament author may have interacted with moral discourse of a specific sect/group, or more widely with a common ancient ethical tradition shared between several groups.
Rather than rehearse the definitions of the six interactions types listed in the screen capture above (i.e., eclecticism, refutation, competitive appropriation, irenic appropriation, concession, and common ethical usage; click on the pic above for a basic definition of each), I am going to propose quickly possible places in the Pauline letter corpus where I believe some of the above interactions occurs:
- Refutation – Where there are indications of diatribe being used by Paul (e.g., Romans 3:1-9), Paul takes the proposition/argument of his interlocutor and point-by-point presents a counter-argument to the position which the interlocutor represents.
- Competitive appropriation – Though this is still a controversial topic of debate in New Testament scholarship where some have strongly resisted reading Paul’s gospel as a critique against empire (e.g., Seyoon Kim, John Barclay; cf. my review article ), nevertheless it remains an argued thesis by many (e.g., N.T. Wright, Richard Horsley, Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Cassidy, Scot McKnight, and others; here is a nice article summarizing the issues) that Paul’s anti-imperial gospel appropriates key terms of the Empire – such as κύριος or εὐαγγέλιον — and redefines them in distinctly Christian terms.
- Irenic appropriation – Though this is a thesis to be argued in a journal article that I would like to write up in the near future, and is partially discussed in my dissertation, one example of irenic appropriation I suggest in Paul’s letters is his use of Stoic arguments in 1 Cor 6:12b (“But I will not be overpowered by anything”) to counter an Epicurean ethic of pleasure (“Food for the belly, and the belly for food”). Paul is not a Stoic but he nevertheless agrees with Stoicism that what we eat and don’t eat is not adiaphora but can become erroneous behavior if the activity is enslaving or addictive. It is a Stoic (counter-)argument that the elitist Corinthian wisdom group would have understood even if they themselves favored Epicurean practices.
- Common ethical usage – I discuss this category more thoroughly in my monograph (ch. 12) and in a separate essay “Ancient Mentors and Moral Progress in Galen and Paul” for FS Klyne Snodgrass, but to summarize quickly here, Paul’s imitation language is part of a more broadly shared tradition which Abraham Malherbe calls psychagogy and cuts across the sectarian divide. Paul, as I argue in my essay, offers his distinctly Christian understanding of spiritual mentorship and exemplum but nevertheless his language of imitation is part of a set of practices and traditions in moral instruction characteristic of his Greco-Roman cultural environment.
These are just four of the six basic interactions which I believe Paul employs in his letters. There are likely more examples of the four, and there may be more types than the six, and Paul may not utilize all the types which I catalogue in my monograph (e.g., I doubt that Paul exercises any form of concession to Greco-Roman moral traditions). But having a basic taxonomy gives the biblical interpreter a starting point for critically identifying Greco-Roman allusions in the New Testament. These are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and foundational but not exhaustive. MJL