Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context

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Editor(s): 
Joseph R. Dodson, David E. Briones
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    InterVarsity Press
    , October
     2019.
     200 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852284.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context is an introduction to Paul’s engagement with his non-Jewish world, which places Paul in conversation with the giants of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. The intended audience of the volume includes undergraduates, graduate students, and informed laypeople. The key metaphor for the work is conversation: the contributors do not argue Paul necessarily read or engaged explicitly with Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca, or Aratus; instead, each chapter illuminates how Paul might be further understood in his Greco-Roman context through the practice of comparison.

The work begins and ends with chapters on the rationale and inescapable challenges of the comparative method. In the introductory chapter, David Briones captures the benefits of the comparative approach: “Comparative studies compel us to search the Scriptures assiduously, to examine the philosopher(s) diligently as well as charitably, and to achieve an informed conclusion on the matter” (5). Comparison is a method for reading that compels the student of the text to read thoroughly and charitably, thereby coming to a fuller understanding of both Paul and the other individual(s) in question. This approach is laudable, but is it wholly possible to compare Paul with other traditions of thought?

This is the question posed by Christopher Redmon in the last chapter, in which he interacts with Kavin Rowe’s One True Life (Yale University Press, 2016). Rowe argues that since Paul and Stoic philosophy are presented as ways of life, one cannot truly understand these rival traditions without living them out on their own terms (166). While Redmon does not resolve Rowe’s critique on the act of comparison, Redmon helps the reader recognize that any act of comparison necessarily requires a translation of concepts from one frame of reference to another, and so the practice is best done cautiously.

The volume contains chapters comparing Paul with Aristotle on friendship (David Briones), Paul and Epictetus on suffering (Dorthea Bertschmann), Paul and Seneca on slavery (Timothy Brookins), Paul and Plutarch on faith (Jeanette Hagen Pifer). Additionally, other scholars address themes and practices in Paul and Greco-Roman philosophy including: letter writing (E. Randolph Richards), the metaphor of life as a battle (Nijay Gupta), and life and the afterlife (James Ware). John M.G. Barclay, whose impact on the volume can be seen through his influence as a doctoral supervisor to several the contributors, writes in the forward that the volume provides the reader an avenue to consider Paul from a unique perspective (xi). However, since the readers of this volume are likely to be more familiar with Paul than Philodemus, Aratus, or event Cicero, more focus on these ancient thinkers would have been welcome.

The chapters are short enough not to overwhelm a new student, but at times this brevity tends toward focusing primarily on Paul instead of the Greco-Roman philosopher he is being compared with (e.g., 76–77). Despite this minor criticism, the work as whole invites the reader to consider aspects of Paul’s thought, like friendship and caring for the weak, that are less than prominent in other treatments of Paul’s theology. One theme consistently runs throughout the work: In Paul’s letters the Christ-event transformed the realities of daily social life in the ancient Mediterranean world and created a new way to understand life in general.

Overall, the book achieves its aim by helping the intended audience with accessible content and helpful suggested primary and secondary sources for each chapter. Additionally, in most chapters there is a summary table to help the reader grapple with how Paul’s theology portrays similarities and dissimilarities with the philosopher or topic in question. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter also may help educators in various contexts bridge the content of the chapters with their students while at the same time help the general reader grapple with the implications of the comparison presented in each chapter.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Trey Moss is associate vice president for academic administration at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph R. Dodson is associate professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Denver, CO.

David E. Briones is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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