Book Notice: Max J. Lee, Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind

I recently received a review copy of Max J. Lee, Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind: Mapping the Moral Milieu of the Apostle Paul and his Diaspora Jewish Contemporaries (WUNT/2 515; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. xxxv+658 pp. Pb; €139,00; Link to Mohr Siebeck). Since this is a lengthy book, I thought I would do a book notice based on first impressions now, with a lengthy review when I am able to finish the book.

Max Lee, Moral TransformationLee’s goal is “to fill some important gaps in the cultural encyclopedia of knowledge which Paul and his Greco-Roman audience assumed each other knew but we modern need to reconstruct” (p. 567). For the most part, this encyclopedia of knowledge on the philosophy of mind is unfamiliar to the New Testament scholar.

Since understanding Paul’s thought in a Jewish context dominates intertextual studies, so Lee focuses on the Greco Roman environment. He therefore proposes to study models of moral transformation in Middle Platonism (part 1), Stoicism (part 2). A future volume will address Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism. The justification for using these examples is the preserved the orthodoxy of their founders with some significant innovations and were influential in the first century. Certainly, Cynics and Neo-Pythagoreans were active in the first century, but since neither were interested in controlling passions, Lee sets them aside in this book.

What is philosophy of the mind? Ancient philosophy of the mind is the study of the soul and the ethical implications of what the soul is and how it functions. This differs from modern philosophy of the mind which is interested in how the mind and the body relate. Ancient philosophy of the mind asks whether passions can be controlled. If so, what forces impede moral transformation? Is character pre-determined at birth? Or is character developed over time through training and education?

What is moral transformation? In the context of first century C.E. Greco-Roman philosophy, ethical systems were interested in transforming the “common barbarian sick with vice into a leading citizen of the Roman empire, capable of virtue” (p. 5).  Lee will focus on the language of power in each philosophical school in order to understand how passions act as forces which must be mastered. Moral transformation is there for control of the passions. What are the sources for controlling the passions? This may come through education, training, or asceticism. What is the relationship of theology and ethics? Do the gods enable moral transformation? If so, how central is this divine aid?

All three philosophical systems agree the human mind or reason is the main power source for self-mastery. But only when the human mind has been properly trained by philosophy (p. 15). Although it is not the topic this book, Lee suggests Diaspora Judaism shares much in common with Greco-Roman philosophy,  although it places much more emphasis on the role of the divine. Self-control is not merely a human action; God actively intervenes in the transformation of the soul. Late in the book Lee suggests Diaspora Judaism falls somewhere between Middle Platonism and Middle Stoicism (about where he places Epicureanism, p. 522). Diaspora Judaism has a wider range than the other philosophical schools; we must await the next volume for the details.

The first two chapters of the book introduce methodology and the components of moral transformation. With this background in mind, Lee introduces “the Body-Beating Platonist” (part 2) and the “Superhumans Stoic” (part 3). Part three includes two chapters on neo-Stoics, a chapter on the Stoic self and a chapter on the Stoic god. The final section is a retrospect of the argument of the book and a prospect for further study.

The book includes with two appendices which are absolutely critical for the philosophy specialist to read before moving into the body of the monograph. The first appendix surveys the main sources for Middle Platonism; the second the main sources for Early, Middle and Late Stoicism. Since most of this literature is not well-known to New Testament scholars, these two appendices will help navigate the massive data contained in this book.

For Lee, the main value of this study is the demonstration of Paul’s method of engaging the pluralism of his day. However, this theological payoff is only hinted in the book. Setting aside his discussion of Enberg-Pedersen’s Paul and the Stoics (pp. 25-27), there are only fourteen references in Paul’s letters in the index (there are twenty-seven to Philippians on those pages alone). This is not a criticism; the book is an in-depth study of Greco-Roman philosophical thinking on moral transformation rather than on Paul’s use (or non-use) of this material.

Paul established a precedence for patristic figures in the second century as the apologists began to engage the philosophical world with the claims of the Gospel.  Paul’s strategy has great potential for how the church in our day can engage a complex pluralistic world with diverse ideas which challenge the gospel (p. 529). This “encyclopedia of knowledge” sets the stage for examining Paul’s appropriation of the language of philosophical discourse to exhort this Gentile churches.

I look forward to further work in this important monograph. Be sure to request your university or seminary library obtain a copy!

Max Lee blogs at Paul ReDux and is active on twitter as @ProfMaxLee.  Nijay Gupta interviewed Lee about the release of this book.

NB: Thanks to Mohr Siebeck for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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