Paul and Hellenistic Philosophy

There is a great deal in Paul’s letters which seems to be interrelated with Hellenistic philosophical concepts.  We will briefly survey the two main categories of Hellenistic thought which are represented in the Pauline corpus, extract the associated theological implications, and explore ideas for their application in contemporary culture.  Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version of the Holy Bible.

Paul was a native of Tarsus, a city on the Cilician plain in the southeastern corner of modern Turkey.  As a Hellenistic city, Tarsus was originally settled by Greeks from Ionia and was deeply influenced by Greek culture, language, and institutions (Polhill 6-7).  Paul’s letters demonstrate that he was fluent in an educated style of Greek, and his citation of Hellenistic poets (1Co 15:33, Ac 17:28, Tit 1:12) points to the probability that Paul was the beneficiary of a formal Greek education (Polhill 10).

According to Polhill, “Strabo wrote that Tarsus ‘surpassed’ Athens and Alexandria in its love for Philosophy” (8).  While the degree of Hellenistic influence on Paul is a matter of debate among scholars, the sheer fact that he was reared in the Tarsian cultural milieu, makes it difficult to believe that Paul would not have been impacted by Hellenistic philosophy.  At the very least he was familiar with the philosophical zeitgeist and was able to hold his own with Greek philosophers as evidenced by his interaction with the Stoics and Epicureans in Athens (Ac 17:16-34).

Plato (427-347 B.C.) was an Athenian philosopher who began as a student of Socrates.  His system of philosophy is “perhaps the greatest philosophical edifice ever erected in the Western intellectual tradition” (Evans and Porter 804).  His teachings emphasized the immortality of the soul, the existence of a transcendental realm wherein lie the Forms, and that the material world, which is in a realm of flux and imperfection, holds copies or shadows of the Forms or archetypes (Evans and Porter 805).

As a structured philosophical system, Platonism was developed not by Plato but by his successors, and this evolution in thought occurred in phases under the successive leadership of the various scholarchs of the academy.  These developments are categorized into the four main periods of The Old Academy (347-267 B.C.), The New Academy (267-80 B.C.), Middle Platonism (c. 80 B.C.-A.D. 250), and Neo-Platonism (c. A.D. 250-600).  Middle Platonism is really something of an amalgamation of Platonic and Stoic thought and thus presents a challenge to the exegete who would attempt to trace the precise origin of the philosophical concept that Paul engages in his letters.  Due to this overlap and the historical timeline, Middle Platonism is deemed to be the most influential on early Christian thinkers (Evans and Porter 805-06).

Several parallels with the aforementioned Platonic concepts are evident in Paul’s writings.  For instance, like Plato, Paul viewed the world as temporal and transitory (1Co 7:31) and he identified with the concept of “shadows” representing a perfect archetype in the eternal realm (Col 2:17).  Accordingly, Paul explained to the Corinthians, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2Co 4:18).  This concept also is conveyed in the epistle to the Galatians where, like the author of Hebrews, Paul sees the archetype for the city of God’s people as “the Jerusalem that is above” (Gal 4:26) existing in the spiritual realm (cf. Heb 12:22).

Plato subordinated the concerns of the body to those of the soul, a concept with which Paul was in hearty agreement (Phil 4:11-13, 1Tim 6:6-8).  Plato, however, seems to be concerned with self mastery in the name of virtue and justice (Republic, IX 589a-b), while Paul was chiefly concerned with subordination of the flesh for theological reasons with an eschatological view of the retribution principle[1].  Pauline and Platonic thought also clearly diverge in the realm of epistemological deduction.  Unlike Plato who saw the essence of knowledge in the Forms, for Paul, reality was always found in Christ, and real knowledge could only be obtained through revelation, and as the byproduct of love (Phil 1:9).

Paul’s use of Stoic thought constructs was significantly more pronounced than his use of Platonism.  The aim of stoicism was “to teach people to attain happiness by being in control of their lives, emphasizing virtue as the only good to strive for, all other things being indifferent” (Evans and Porter 1139-40).  As a result it instilled a very austere, virtue based ethos in its adherents.  It focused on a systematic and comprehensive worldview based on a material pantheism in which God was seen to permeate all of nature.  God was viewed as the active principle or reason, logos, which acts upon the passive principle, matter (Sharples 43).  “Since all nature was imbued with universal reason, logos, all events form part of a goal directed rational process and a rigorous causal nexus, nothing is left to chance” (Evans and Porter 1140).

Paul certainly agreed that God was made evident through nature (Rom 1:20), yet his perception of God was of a being whom was transcendent of creation, while the Stoics believed that God existed in creation, ergo nothing existed beyond the material world.  On the other hand, the Stoics believed that God “gives everything its form and internal cohesion” (Evans and Porter 1140), a theme which clearly resonated with Paul as he speaks of Christ, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).

Since the Stoics had a deterministic worldview, they rejected the existence of evil and believed that even bad events contribute to the overall well-being of the universe (Evans and Porter 1140).  While Paul obviously acknowledged the existence of evil, he nonetheless was fully committed to the sovereignty and providence of God and believed that all things contributed to the overall well-being of the believer (Rom 8:28).  This view of God’s sovereignty also shaped Paul’s understanding of predestination.  While Paul usually links predestination with foreknowledge (Rom 8:29), it is not universally so (Eph 1:5, 11), and his view of God’s sovereignty is particularly absolute in Romans 9, which can be seen as mildly deterministic[2].

Another commonality between Paul and the Stoics is found in the aspect of moral exhortation.  The Pauline epistles routinely include a paranesis which conveys ethical admonishment (Phil 4:2-9, Col 3:1-17, 1Thes 4:1-12) and household rules (Eph 5:22-33, Col 3:18-4:1).  Many times this exhortation takes on the form of the Stoic virtue/vice list (Gal 5:19-26, Tit 3:3-8).

While there are obvious similarities in the form of Paul’s ethical admonishment, Polhill points out that the content is generally quite different.  For instance, the Stoic teaching was typically targeted at the weaker party in the social order, i.e. wife, child, slave; Paul, however, is careful to make clear that there is also ethical duty incumbent upon the dominant party (Polhill 14).

As the archetype of Christian missionaries, the apostle Paul was careful to communicate with his audience in a way that was culturally relevant.  The fact that Paul leveraged cultural, philosophical, and linguistic elements and freely adapted them to suit his audience is beyond question.  To demonstrate this, it is necessary to look no further than the epistle to the Ephesians wherein Paul uses the word mystery(musth<rion) (Thayer 420) seven times, more than in any other book of the Bible (Goodrick and Kohlenberger 777). This choice of words demonstrates Paul’s familiarity with the culture and collective psyche of the citizens of Ephesus as well as how thoroughly steeped they would have been in the mysteries associated with the cult of Artemis which occupied the center of that city’s civic and economic life (Tenney 295).  Moreover, Paul’s apologetic before the council of the Areopagus wherein he quotes pagan works by the likes of Epiminides and Aratus demonstrates his willingness to seize cultural elements and freely appropriate them for evangelistic purposes (Ac 17:16-34).  In this regard he shared the outlook of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who held that “what is best is common property” (Sharples 5).

In our zeal to explore philosophy and its interplay with the inspired text, however, a word of caution is prudent.  Although he freely used philosophical categories, Paul’s understanding of philosophy was always informed by Scripture which is evidenced by his stern warnings against being carried away by vain philosophy (Col 2:8, 1Ti 6:20) or falling prey to the wily philosopher (1Co 1:20).

This reality raises some very interesting questions in regard to application, specifically in the way the church should engage the prevailing philosophical zeitgeist of contemporary culture: postmodernism.  All too often, when confronted with postmodern philosophy, the reflexive response of the Evangelical church has been wholesale rejection.  It seems that Paul would roundly condemn such practice as overly rigid and counterproductive.  In fact, if Paul were alive and actively engaged in evangelism today (what else would Paul do if he were alive?), following his typical modus operandi, he would immerse himself in postmodern philosophy, identify useful areas of contact (e.g. deconstruction, metanarrative theory, etc.), commandeer the construct, and use it to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

Was Paul’s thinking actually influenced by Hellenistic philosophy which was mediated through Judaistic theology?  Or did he simply make use of Hellenistic philosophical categories in order to contextualize and thereby advance the gospel?  The answer is a resounding “yes!”  It would have been virtually impossible for Paul to have escaped his upbringing without being impacted by Hellenistic philosophy, yet he utilized Hellenistic philosophical constructs as part of a framework from which to present the gospel to his Hellenistic audience in a culturally relevant and contextualized way.  In fact, Evans and Porter rightly assert that, “Paul’s practice of deliberately using Stoic themes in redefined ways is an early Christian attempt at crosscultural communication, even more significant if Stoicism or a Stoicizing influence were at work in the Gentile churches” (717).

Tenney points out that the early church was in many ways the product of Jewish, Greek, and Roman influences:

The morality of Judaism was perpetuated in the standards of conduct upheld by the church.  The assiduous study of the Law which Judaism maintained was by the church turned into the study of their own Scriptures.  The Greek ability to build a philosophic system from an axiom by means of deduction supplied the means of constructing a theology out of the doctrinal teachings of Jesus and the propositional declarations of Scripture.  The order and system of Rome permeated the atmosphere of the church, making it aware of its need for organization and direction.  The warring cultures found a common ground in Christ. (90)

Interestingly, Paul seems to be something of a microcosm of this very phenomenon.  As the influence of these three great cultures came to bear on the formation of the early church, so they coalesced to shape and uniquely equip the man whom God would choose to be the apostle to the nations.

Works Cited

Evans, Craig A. and Stanley E. Porter. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

Goodrick, Edward W. and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.

Hill, Andrew E. and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

LePeau, Andrew T. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.

Plato. The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed. Trans. Allen Bloom. New York: Basic, 1968.

Polhill, John B. Paul & His Letters. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999.

Sharples, R. W. Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1996.

Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Times. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.

Thayer, Joseph, H. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1896.

[1] The retribution principle is “the idea of divine retribution based on the merits (or demerits) of human behavior.”  While the Old Testament had a view of the retribution principle that was rooted in the present world, the New Testament makes it clear that the ultimate reward to the righteous and punishment to the wicked will take place in the eschaton (Hill and Walton 324, 338, 351-52)

[2] On the surface and taken out of the fuller context, it would appear that God arbitrarily predestines certain individuals for election.  However, since God transcends time and space, it seems that one must interpret Rom 9 in light of Rom 8:29 which makes a clear link to foreknowledge.  Nonetheless this is a difficult passage and a more detailed discussion of this doctrine is beyond the scope of this paper. By “mildly deterministic” I mean that certain things are clearly foreordained by God while others are left open to human choice.

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