Book Write-Up: Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, ed. Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Gospel in Greco-Roman Context. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book compares and contrasts the apostle Paul’s ideas with those of Stoic, Epicurean, and Peripatetic (i.e., Aristotle) philosophers. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy was not merely an abstract intellectual exercise but addressed how people can concretely live a happy, ethical life. The book addresses topics of this nature, including suffering, therapy, friendship, communitarianism, faith, altruism and egoism, and dealing with death. But the book also covers historical, antiquarian territory: slavery, letter writing, heavenly visions, Jewish and Pauline application of pagan poetry, and the challenge of comparing Paul with pagan philosophers.

Some thoughts and observations:

A. Dorothea H. Bertschmann and Brian J. Tabb both offer contributions about the topic of suffering. Betschmann contrasts Paul with Stoicism, arguing that Stoicism stressed the character-building utility of suffering, whereas Paul regarded it as an alien intrusion into God’s good creation. Tabb, however, contends that Paul acknowledges that suffering builds character in Christians. Bertschmann, in my opinion, does well to point out that suffering does not always produce positive moral character, for it can influence people to become bitter and self-absorbed. Tabb appears to be closer, though, to what Paul thought: that suffering can produce hope and perseverance. An added note: Bertschmann’s chapter ends with a chart comparing Paul with Epictetus. Some of the chapters in this book had such a chart, whereas others did not. The charts were helpful in summarizing and condensing the information. Ironically, Bertschann’s chart seems to go in the opposite direction from what she argues in the chapter, for the chart appears to suggest that Paul acknowledged that suffering can create good character.

B. David E. Briones has a chapter entitled “Strings Attached: Paul and Seneca on the Modern Myth of the Pure Gift.” Briones argues that altruism—-the moral value of giving a gift without any hope or expectation of reciprocity—-is a modern rather than an ancient idea. Greco-Roman society stressed gratitude for favors given, and Paul agrees with that sentiment. When I saw the title, I braced myself, for I expected it to promote salvation by works and law rather than by God’s free grace. The law and works would be incorporated into salvation, of course, under the guise of “gratitude.” The chapter has some of that, but, overall, its focus is on interpersonal relationships: how egoism and reciprocity are part of Paul’s ethics, meaning Paul is not entirely pro-altruism. That makes sense to me, for I have never understood Christians who claim that we are to think of others instead of ourselves. I doubt that they follow that principle, or that it even can be thoroughly and consistently followed, for people are naturally supposed to take care of themselves. Briones’s argument that altruism is a modern rather than an ancient idea, however, seems to be a stretch. Briones cites passages in which Seneca appears to see value in giving without hope of return, and Jesus instructed his disciples to do so in the Sermons on the Mount and Plain.

C. Ben C. Dunson has a chapter entitled “All for One and One for All: Individual and Community in Paul and Epictetus.” Dunson says that, according to Paul, there is no such person as a “lone-ranger Christian.” That is impossible, as far as Paul is concerned. Christians, as a community, are to offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God. I cannot refute Dunson’s interpretation of Paul at the moment: maybe it is correct. Still, I fail to understand why it is impossible to be a lone-ranger Christian. Maybe undesirable, but impossible? Not everyone in this day and age can fit into a Christian community. Are we to say that they are non-Christians on account of that? Can they not have a personal connection to and relationship with God, even if they are alienated from Christian community? “But being in a community helps you to love,” someone may say. Fair point, but that should not relate to whether one qualifies as a Christian; salvation is by grace, not law.

D. The tendency of many modern apologists is to argue that Christianity was light-years ahead of ancient paganism, in terms of morality and the type of God that it portrayed. Atheist scholar and historian Richard Carrier, in my opinion, presents effective counterarguments to that in his book, Not the Impossible Faith. Paul and the Giants of Philosophy is not as bad as modern apologetics, for it acknowledges that pagan philosophy believed in kindness and humility, and that some pagan philosophers even held that God was kind. James P. Ware argues that Paul thought that God conquered death, whereas pagan philosophy tended to believe that the gods could not defeat death. Ware raises important considerations. As far as I can recall from Carrier’s book (and my memory may be incomplete), pagans had stories about dead people coming back to life (bodily resuscitation), but not the bodily resuscitated coming back to life as immortal beings.

E. The more historical chapters are informative. Timothy A. Brookins has a chapter on slavery, and he has a passage about how difficult being a slave was in antiquity (i.e., having to stand all day, being whipped for sneezing). E. Randolph Richards compares the letters of Paul and Seneca with letter-writing in antiquity. The letters of Paul and Seneca were longer than typical letters, and part of that is because their aim was to educate, not merely to talk about the details of everyday life.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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