Paul and the Stoics

Paul and the Stoics

Harrill, J Albert

TROELS ENGBERG-PEDERSEN, Paul and the Stoics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000). Pp. xi + 435. Paper $39.95.

This is an important book. Troels Engberg-Pedersen offers a major study relevant to both NT scholarship and the history of ideas that all students of Paul should read. E.-P examines two fundamental problems-whether Paul’s ideas in his extant letters exhibit any overarching coherence and whether Paul’s thought constitutes a real option for modern Christians-and finds a positive answer to both through a particular ethical model in Stoicism. To clarify his theological goal, E.-P. presents the analogy of a modern philosopher reading the ethics of classical authors “as a real option for us, not necessarily as stating certified and convincing truths, but precisely as options” (p. 26). E.-P. hopes that his work will complement other recent interpretations that stress Paul’s Jewish profile in contributing to the current effort to read the historical Paul as both Jewish and GrecoRoman.

Engberg-Pedersen situates Paul’s thought firmly within Greco-Roman philosophy and argues that between Paul and the Stoics, in the area of ethics, there is a fundamental similarity not “just with regard to a number of particular, relatively minor topoi, but to a whole cluster of motifs that together constitute a major pattern of thought” (p. 10). That pattern of thought is the theory of appropriation (oikeiosis or “taking as one’s own”)– choosing something for its own sake because one sees it as expressing who one is-a model for ethical life inaugurated by Plato’s Socrates, developed by Aristotle, and given classic shape in Stoicism. This book reflects the wider agenda of E.-R’s research, the understanding of ancient moral philosophy, and is the third member of a trilogy by this author, preceded by Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Insight (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) and The Stoic Theory of Oikeiosis: Moral Development and Social Interaction in Early Stoic Philosophy (Studies in Hellenistic Civilization 2; Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990). Readers should also consult G. M. Styler, “The Basis of Obligation in Paul’s Christology and Ethics,” in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament (ed. Barnabas Lindars and Stephen S. Smalley; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973) 175-87, “a sort of blueprint for what [E.-P. is] trying to do in this book,” but without what he sees as Paul’s essential connection to Stoicism (p. 330 n. 13).

In the first chapter E.-P. outlines the methodology and locates the hermeneutical approach within the new perspective of current Pauline studies: Abraham Malherbe’s finding that Paul’s letters are paraenetic and use Greco-Roman moral philosophy; Wayne Meeks’s healthy distrust of the “history of ideas” approach (although E.-P. takes issue with Meeks on this point); and E. P. Sanders’s and Heikki Raisanen’s success in demolishing the dominant reading of “Paul vs. Judaism” in older Protestant commentaries. The next two chapters, devoted to Stoicism, are for their clarity and insight the best and most persuasive. They are necessary reading for anyone interested in contextualizing Paul in his Greco-Roman world, regardless of whether, in the end, one accepts E.-P.’s thesis. In the rest of the book E.-P. moves to the Pauline material by examining only three letters– Philippians, Galatians, Romans-an exegetical focus that E.-P. admits is somewhat arbitrary but is, nonetheless, suggestive of Paul’s overall thinking because of each letter’s length, complexity, and importance. The procedure, then, is first to examine the Stoic ethical model under study (chaps. 2-3) and then to interpret each of three Pauline letters within this ethical model (chaps. 4-10).

Engberg-Pedersen states his central argument as follows: “the major obstacles to finding coherence in Paul’s ideas that scholars have stumbled against throughout much of the twentieth century can be sufficiently removed once one reads Paul-the whole of Paul, not just this or that fairly restricted motif-in light of Stoicism and the ancient ethical tradition generally” (p. 1). E.-P. then advances four theses. First is a historical thesis that the single, basic thought structure of Stoic ethical tradition appears in Paul’s letters taken as a whole. Second is the exegetical thesis that Paul’s letters are documents of ethical paraenesis in both descriptive and prescriptive mode, a cogent corrective to the overly pedantic answer to the “problem” of theology and ethics in Paul (that the “indicative” sections of a Pauline letter disconnect from the “imperative” sections). The hermeneutical thesis is that Paul’s cognitive language of Stoicism offers a real option for the modern interpreter. The theological thesis is that believers today should take this option and adopt Paul’s pursuit of a theology that attempts to discern the meaning of the Christ-event for human beings, doing theology in a manner that makes immediate sense philosophically and speaks as a real option to contemporaries in this world.

A monograph on a particular ethical model invariably runs the risk of presenting an unbalanced view by overemphasizing the subject under study. This is especially true when our evidence for Stoicism is so fragmentary, a deficiency that E.-P. himself admits in his previous work (Stoic Theory, pp. 11-12). E.-P.’s thesis of Pauline consistency will no doubt be debated, and his penchant for schematic diagrams may not suit the taste of all readers; but his call to contextualize Paul in Greco-Roman thinking beyond restricted parallels to isolated topoi is, in my judgment, a persuasive and welcome contribution to NT research.

J. Albert Harrill, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 2001

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