Paul and the Philosophers

Paul’s education prior to training in Jerusalem is also unknown, although we may infer a few things from his writings.  Polhill cites Martin Hengel – Paul had a Jewish childhood education rather than a Greek one, but it was a Hellenistic Jewish education!   For example, he cites the Greek Bible most often when quoting the Old Testament, implying a fluency in Greek.

Paul cites Greco-roman writers on several occasions, twice in Acts 17, once in 1 Cor 15:33 and once in Titus 1:12.  But there is nothing about any of these quotations that requires special training in classical literature, although if the sermon in Acts 17 is spontaneous then perhaps he was quite familiar with the types of writers that the Stoics and Epicureans were reading.  The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan (who is also cited in Titus 1:12).  The original poem no longer exists, but it is cited by a number of other ancient writers.  The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line was pantheistic, “in him we move and live and have our being,” but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

We might ask how Paul came to know these lines of poetry.  There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers!  One possibility is that he had a “secular” education which he applied to the preaching of the gospel. On the other hand, these may very well have been well known bits of proverbial wisdom that were more or less “common knowledge.”  If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.

As Enberg-Pedersen states, Paul actively participated in the moral philosophical discussion of his day, but with his own special emphasis (Paul and the Stoics, 301).  That “special emphasis” is his thoroughly Jewish worldview.  He did participate in the philosophical discussions of his day, but he did so as a Jewish thinker who believed that the new age was dawning.

We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences.  If this is true, then Paul is functioning like an apologist, quoting some popular and well known scholar in order to find some common ground for discussion.  I think that Paul probably spent a great many years working out the finer points of his theology and deciding how best to present the gospel to the Gentile world.  He did not do this in a library (or a blog!), but likely in discussion with both Jews and Gentiles in ministry.  I have in mind here not just the three years in Arabia, but also his time in Tarsus and later in Antioch.  Paul was constantly developing his thought from the moment of his conversion, so that it had maximum impact on the Gentile world.  We encounter a mature “theology of Paul” in the letters, some fifteen to twenty years in the making by the time he writes the first letters.

There is quite a bit of modern application here, especially with respect to how we educate people for ministry.  How well do we equip the young pastor or youth leader to deal with “secular philosophy” in their presentation of the gospel?  I am not talking about rolling clips of The Matrix or playing a Nine Inch Nails song for your youth group here (yep, I have done both).  How can we prepare people to deal with the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary thought?

11 thoughts on “Paul and the Philosophers

  1. It is regrettable that a great deal of our information on the background and education of Paul comes as arguments for silence at best. However, I deem it admirable and well worth the time to speculate and attempt to understand the upbringing and the influences that may have played a critical role in the life of Paul. All the information that we can know of this early history is of great avail to the work at hand in understanding Pauline literature.
    Regarding the education as well as the allusions to philosophers there are many interesting points that can be taken from Polhill’s text. Simply understanding the reputation and fervor for education in Tarsus gives a sensational aide to our concept of the ‘well roundedness’ and excellently equipped apostle. “Strabo, however, was not referring to the quality of education so much as the zeal for education. The Tarsians outstripped everybody else in their love for education.” (Polhill 8). Undoubtedly Paul received a great deal of Hellenistic education. His knowledge and frequent use of the Septuagint was a testament to this: “One thing is certain: he learned his Greek Bible well. Paul cited Scripture consistently from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Scripture.” (9). From all Paul’s writings one can observe his literary skills which is a demonstration of God’s preparation of this powerful apostle to the Gentiles.
    I found it especially interesting to observe Polhill’s suggestion of Paul’s initial burden for the salvation of the Gentiles. At an early age Paul would have been aware of the God-fearing Gentiles in Tarsus. “They were probably present in the synagogue of Paul’s youth in Tarsus. It may well have been there where he first developed a burden for the salvation of the Gentiles, a burden which would become the passion on his life.” (10). I had never thought of this idea which is very possible. It simply demonstrates that every aspect of Paul’s life was in God’s hands and He prepared him in every aspect for the ministry to which Paul was called. God set Paul apart “from birth” (Gal. 1:15).
    In response to the question posed on the blog: ‘How well do we equip the young pastor or youth leader to deal with “secular philosophy” in their presentation of the gospel?’ I believe it is apparent that there needs to be a greater thrust toward this area of equipping, yet I believe that the desire of the individual should work in such a manner that that person is continually seeking out and equipping himself in his attempt to reach the world through secular philosophy. However, another question can be posed with regards to mission work in the present day. Polhill states that: “The Jewish ideal for teachers was that they be self-supporting and not earn their livelihood by teaching. In this way they remained unencumbered and free to teach as they saw fit.” (9). Paul continually worked for this freedom and he used that freedom wisely, however, my question is: are the missionaries of today still experiencing such freedom in teaching as was practiced during the early church period? Would it be wise for missionaries to take on a ‘tent-making’ role or would that limit missions even more because of the time spent in working to provide basic needs of life?

    • The first thing that I would like to note, and I believe that this was a major point in Polhill’s introduction, was how well equipped Paul was for the position God put him in. Before Paul was even thinking about persecuting Christians, God was preparing him and prepping him to become an integral part of the spread of Christianity.
      On the very first page of this book, Polhill makes these comments. “Initially, before the Roman commander his Tarsian citizenship explained why he spoke fluent Greek. Before the Jewish crowd, Paul emphasized his Jewish heritage…In the face of an imminent scourging, Paul appealed to his Roman citizen’s rights.” Polhill outlines the zeal that the Tarsians had for education, which would easily have rubbed off on a young child. The fact that he spoke Greek was also very important because he was called to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles. He didn’t have to use an interpreter or learn a new language. He was already equipped to fulfill this part of his calling.
      He was also raised under a Jewish roof. It gave him an extensive knowledge of the Jewish text, particularly as a result of his training in Jerusalem. This gave him authority when he entered into a discussion about these texts, as well as allowed him to have the knowledge to teach people how the Jewish texts had been fulfilled in Jesus. Without his Jewish teaching, as well as heritage, he would not have been nearly as effective in his ministry.
      These two things alone contributed greatly to Paul’s ability as well as credibility when it came to things related to what he was teaching, but his Roman citizenship really was the icing on the cake. His Roman citizenship allowed him access to places that he would never have otherwise been able to gain entrance to. He was able to gain audiences with people that most other people in that time period would only dream of meeting. It also provided Paul with protection from the Jews if they got out of hand, and allowed him easy access to many means of transportation.
      Despite the period of intense persecution in Paul’s life, God had been preparing him for his task of reaching the Gentiles from his birth. Raised in a Jewish family, in a Greek city, as a Roman citizen gave Paul an advantage that can only be attributed to God and his sovereignty.

  2. In regards to Pauls use of lines of poetry I would reason that like you said, it is plausible that Paul may simply have been using common proverbial language to gain common ground with those he’s speaking too. You posed the thought that it would be similar to gain common ground in our youth group ministry by using lines from “Matrix.” If Polhill is correct in the thought that there were Gentiles of Tarsus amongst Jews in the synagogue then it would give us a good explaination as to Pauls strong desire to do anything it takes to reach the Gentiles. Even today we have the same tendencies. For instance, a christian teen who spends high-school in a real rough public school where moral standards are low, will probably have a heart for the non-saved people of the situation even later into their life. Not to say that they don’t want all people to come to know Christ, but they will likely have a stronger desire to reach out in a way that influences the problems of society they have experienced. Much like a teen who is converted after the party scene will reach out to those who are partying. The idea that Paul was using language that was common to reach out to things of his upbringing seems to be a very fitting explaination.

  3. Wow Caleb good question! Id like to agree with you when you said “It is regrettable that a great deal of our information on the background and education of Paul comes as arguments for silence at best.” Its sad that this great man of the faith has been obscured by historical legends and myths, or maybe that is better that way? As to your question however, Missionaries seem to have a big task on their hands teaching, descipling and so on. But I think that supporting missionaries as Churches and individual Christians is part of doing our part as Christians. Im not sure the Jewish tradition of self reliant missionaries works as well when there are thousands and thousands of Christians who will gladly support the spreading of Christ’s love to the world. But thats just my opinion, after all, “In this way they remained unencumbered and free to teach as they saw fit.” (polhill 9).

  4. I love taking the ministry minded approach to understanding Paul’s education. I do not think Paul had a secular education on the grounds of his education as a Pharisee. It seems that, in order to receive that high level of religious education there would be strong opposition toward secular education from Jewish religious leaders to other forms of education. Judaism was not focused on witnessing, so apologetics would not have been a priority. On top of that is the fact that there are few secular quotes in Paul’s writings. “Only rarely does Paul show any awareness of the Greek writers. In fact, there are only three instances where he quoted them” (Polhill 10). If Paul also had a secular education we should expect to hear far more quotes from the time period in his letters. Paul did not have a secular education, but he was simply quoting popular sayings of the time in order to be more effective as a teacher. Paul probably spent time around secular areas to learn his apologetics which included popular quotes.
    “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:21-23).

  5. I may be treading out on a limb here but I think that a thorough look into the background of Paul, as read here in Polhill, offers truths and methods of ministry philosophy that is more or less contrary to the traditional church of Christendom. It often seems that Christianity has an innate talent for impressing the connotation of anti-secularism. The legalism of churches within every context of the Christianity’s history has been seemingly “hell-bent” on dismissing the secular world and everything and everyone within it. Perhaps we could refer to the Jewish attitude with regards to the Samaritans that we see Jesus so boldly disregarding in John 4 as an example of likewise perspectives of Christians with regards to the secular world.

    What I may pose as a soft argument is that, as the saying goes, we can be ministers in and to the world, without being of the world. “Paul followed the form of Hellenistic moral teaching. His content was generally quite different” (Polhill, 14). What I mean to derive from this is the point that we do not have to so ignorant or so aggressively against the secular world. Perhaps if we took time to understand it, to engage it, to build bridges to the secular world rather than keeping it an arm’s length away, our ministry to such a worldview would be far better quipped for success.

    Paul was raised within the Greek culture at Tarsus, and even in Jerusalem which was fairly Hellenized. He experienced the love for philosophy that was uniquely characteristic of the Cilician area, and even the cultural activities such as the gymnasium as Polhill had briefly mentioned. Paul found his occupation prior to his conversion within the Greek context of culture, as a tent maker, which may have also attributed to his Roman citizenship, and possibly his family’s suspected wealth. Thus, we should not be so afraid of the secular world but seek to engage it and understand it just as well as Paul demonstrated within his time.

    • >more or less contrary to the traditional church of Christendom

      Good comment, Justin. I would say that Polhill is well within traditional, conservative readings of Paul and Acts, but popular preaching has demonized the Pharisees (because it is easy) and downplayed any connection with ancient philosophy (because philosophy is sinful). Good scholarship has always probed these sources for Paul’s thinking.

    • I would like to touch on the point Mr. Long made that, Paul was active in the current philosophical discussions of his time but coming from a completely Jewish perspective, and Justin’s point that, “we do not have to be so ignorant or so aggressively against the secular world. Perhaps if we took time to understand it, to engage it, to build bridges to the secular world rather than keeping it an arm’s length away, our ministry to such a worldview would be far better quipped for success.” Paul is such an excellent example of what our position to our current cultures should look missionally. He did not pretend to be someone he was not, likewise, he did not pretend the audience to which he spoke were people they were not. He used what was real and relevant to the time, not shying away from the secular world, in order that he might reach that group. Also in respect to his position as a Jew, he was highly educated, a Pharisee, in no way giving up his knowledge and belief in Judaism for his relevance to the current philosophical and secular world.

  6. Now I will admit that my history is a little rusty, but if I remember right, the majority of philosophers worked, either as teachers/tutors or as traveling storytellers to earn a living, therefore they did not need to be rich to travel. Paul himself declares that he labored so that no one would be burdened by his ministry in 1 Thess 2:9. Also Paul claims to have been in need and was supported by the brothers from Macedonia while in Corinth, 2 Cor 11:9. Paul gives no support that he was a wealthy man, but does indicate that he was not rich, but rather gifted enough to labor or relied upon other means of support.

  7. Good point Shaun, although I think the the philosophers who traveled were the cynics, who more or less had a “vow of poverty” life-style. (That is why the Jesus Seminar makes Jesus out to be a Cynic.) A philosopher would be more likely to find a wealthy patron to support him.

    What about Phil 4? I know what it is to have much, or be in want?

    I think that it is most likely he supported his travel with his own labor, but that labor paid pretty well. In addition, he may have had some personal wealth he used for some expenses, but it is not a point that is obvious from any text.

    I should also mention that hospitality is a major social feature in the ancient world, I doubt Paul stayed in an inn when he was in a city – someone would have a room and meal for him, whether a Jewish contact in a synagogue or someone in his church. I do not really see this as “getting rich off the gospel,” but his needs were meant.

  8. not much to add to the already thorough discussion here. My response to P Long’s original question regarding Paul’s relation to the world around him, and how that can inform our own preparation for missions in the modern world, would be perhaps just to enlarge on what Justin said already: Paul was formed in a world strongly affected by Hellenism, a cultural structure in which the free exchange of ideas and philosophies was highly prized. As an intelligent and educated man, he would have looked foolish if he had been unable to relate to other schools of thought into which he came in contact, and it seems likely to me that this was a part of his intellectual and social makeup before he had any thought of evangelistic work.
    I do think that we can learn from this in our own formation, not just as ministers or missionaries, but as Christians in whatever calling God has for us. We are all, to some extent, a product of the culture(s) around us, and it sometimes seems the church has tried to negate that truth in the name of not “giving in” to culture. I think Paul is proof that it is possible, and a good thing, to understand the culture around us. I even think there is a sense in which we can and should recognize that God has placed each of us in a specific cultural setting in order that we might interact with that setting. This need not be a sellout of any kind, but is in fact just simple common sense: how can we possibly expect to bring a message if we don’t understand the people to whom we’re bringing it? And if the world in which we live is to have nothing to do with who we are, then wouldn’t it be much simpler if all Christians were born in one place and were exactly the same? Why have Christians born from all over the world if not so that they can bring a diversity of cultural experience and knowledge into the church AND THEN BACK OUT TO THOSE CULTURES… I think world philosophies should be incorporated into Christian education systems – from a critical viewpoint – rather than being all but ignored as they often are.

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