Paul and the Philosophers

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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?