Reviews of

Paul’s Graeco-Roman Context

In Cilliers BREYTENBACH, Graeco-Roman Backgrounds, Paul, Paul Linjamaa, Peeters, Philosophy on December 30, 2015 at 2:00 pm


2015.12.24 | Cilliers Breytenbach, ed. Paul’s Graeco-Roman Context (BETL 277). Leuven: Peeters, 2015. Pp. 773. Hardcover. ISBN 9789042932715.

Review by Paul Linjamaa, Lund University.

Many thanks to Peeters for providing a review copy.

This book comprises the printed proceedings following the 62nd Colloquium Biblicum Lovaniense, which took place 16-18 July, 2013. Among the 34 essays, we find studies on broad issues, such as Paul’s Romanization (by Marie-Françoise Baslez), Paul’s use of Metanoia (by David Konstan) and Paul’s relation to wine and drunkenness (by John T. Fitzgerald). We also find more narrow studies, such as two articles on Romans 7:7-25, one by Samuel Byrskog investigating the identity of the “I” in this passage, and another by Antonio Pitta presenting a new interpretation of the passage from the perspective of Aristotle’s Poetics. Since I cannot comment upon all 34 essays, I have made a selection from essays that were presented by scholars invited to give a main lectures at the conference, as well as papers from each of the groups of accepted contributions. These papers fall into three categories: papers interpreting individual phrases in Pauline letters; papers on the rhetorical strategies and concepts underlying Paul’s letters; and papers focusing on historical questions and post-Pauline literature.

The presidential address, “Die Briefe des Paulus: Kreuzpunkt griechisch-römischer Traditionen,” was delivered by the editor of this volume, who dedicated it to C. F. Georg Heinrici (1844-1915). Apart from Erasmus, philological studies on Paul started with Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century. Breytenbach also counts Heinrici within this tradition, as perhaps the greatest pioneer in the topic of reading Paul from his Greaco-Roman context. Heinrici studied Paul thoroughly, and his methodological advances led to many new and exciting ideas (e.g., that the communities in Corinth were organized after non-Christian associations of the time). Breytenbach traces the importance of Heinrici and emphasizes his work on metaphor and rhetoric. This paper ends by mentioning the “new paradigm” in Pauline Scholarship that entails reading Paul first and foremost as a Jew. This paradigm shift could be compared to Heinrici’s methodological innovation, but according to Breytenbach is still disputed.

Another main lecture by Johan C. Thom dealt with Paul’s relation to popular philosophy, defined as non-technical philosophy directed at the educated public, often with the aim of moral formation. While, Thom notes, it is hard to demonstrate a one-to-one relation between Paul and particular philosophical traditions, he offers a shift in focus by looking at popular philosophy as a source for similarity that forms the background of much of Paul’s authorship. Thom then discusses the natural theological concept that humans must apply their minds to realize that God is made manifest by his works (see, e.g., Pseudo-Aristotles’ On the Cosmos, Cleantes’ Hymn to Zeus, as well as in Rom 1:18-32). Thom also discusses the use of prepositions as a shorthand for theological concepts. Philo uses this topos to signify God, who is “that by which, from which, by means of which, because of which” (De Cherubim 124-127). This also can be found in Hebrews 1:2, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Ephesians 1:3-5. This paper succeeds in placing Paul in relation to pagan contemporaries and illuminating similarities relevant for understanding the conceptual backgrounds of Paul’s writings.

In “Paul, Wine and the Problem of Intoxication,” John T. Fitzgerald takes us to the beginnings of the cultivation of wine during the Neolithic-revolution and onward to discuss topics from Corinthian wine-amphora to ancient medical uses of wine. Fitzgerald then stops at the “problem of intoxication” to discuss this topic from the perspective of several questions, such as: When did people get drunk? What contributed to intoxication (except the wine of course)? And what stereotypes were connected to frequent inebriation? Fitzgerald then points to five “problems of intoxication” in Pauline writings that are informed by the Greco-Roman background: (1) drunkenness and violence (Titus 1:6-7); (2) intoxication and sexual misconduct (Rom 13:12-13); (3) the stereotype of “old drunk woman” (Titus 2:3-5); (4) wine and debauchery (Eph 5:18-19); and (5) intoxication in communal gatherings (1 Cor 11).

In “‘Control over her Head’ (1 Cor 11:10): Prophetic Inspiration as Background of 1 Cor 11:2-16,” Torsten Jantsch presents a summary of the scholarship on this topic to date and then offers a new interpretation. He presents some problems with previous interpretations of this passage. For example, some think that Paul argues that women should wear a veil; however, as he notes, the term “veil” (kalumma) is never mentioned, and kata kephalēs echōn (1 Cor 11:4) has a wider semantic range than scholars have previously imagined. It does not have to mean to have “something on the head” (405), but rather is about hairstyle: Paul writes that women should exercise “control…over their head” (exousia…epi tēs kephalēs), not letting loose hair fall down from their head (kata kephalēs echōn). This interpretation is in accordance with the customs surrounding women’s hairstyle during Paul’s time and offers a better understanding of the reference to angels in this passage. Angels were guardians of proper worship, including women’s proper attire. Just as prophets should exercise control over their spirits (14:32), so women should have control (exousia) over their head (of hair). In this paper, Jantsch succeeds in contextualizing a passage that has troubled many scholars and offer a plausible interpretation well worth attention.

The last paper discussing an individual phrase in Paul’s letters is Jan Lambrecht’s “No Longer a Distinction between Jew and Greek.” Here he presents a close reading of Romans 9:30-10:13, a passage that has caused the spilling of much scholarly ink. Lambrecht divides the passage into four units (9:30-33, 10:1-4, 10:5-10, and 10:11-13), and carefully following Paul’s reasoning, contextualizes the argument from the perspective of its scriptural (OT) context. Lambrecht argues, for example, that Paul highlights the need for the saving grace of Jesus because Jews have been unable to follow all of the commands of the Law, not because it is impossible to fulfill the law. From this perspective, Greeks and Jews are both sinners, and in light of Jesus the difference between them is equalized. Lambrecht’s readings are convincing in many respects; however, how this paper fits into the topic of the book is less obvious since few references are made to Paul’s Graeco-Roman context, rather Paul as a Jew is central here.

The next paper is Lars Rydbeck’s “The Greek World of Metaphors into which Paul Was Born,” which is part of the section dealing with the rhetorical strategies and concepts underlying Paul’s letters. Rydbeck begins with a general comment on the development of metaphors in Greek prose and resolves that their proper domain in post-Christian prose was poetry and vulgar language. Rydbeck remarks on the use of metaphors of many figurative words, such as “salt” in Colossians 4:6 (“speech seasoned with salt”), a metaphor first encountered in Paul but later found in Plutarch. With the NT, Rydbeck argues, the attitude to the metaphor as part of the vulgar domain is transformed since one can find the use of metaphorical language much more freely than in its contemporary pagan prose, a style only matched by the OT and classic Greek poetry.

In “Striving for the Summum Bonum: Athletic Imagery and Moral Philosophy in Philippians,” Bradley Arnold argues the metaphor in Philippians 3:13-14 might have a central role in the argument of Philippians as a whole. First Arnold discusses “patterns of thinking” in ancient moral philosophy, pointing out that there is often a teleological goal in ancient moral philosophy, a striving after the summum bonum, often defined as “living well” (eudaimonia). What constituted a good life differed among Stoics, Epicureans, and others, but prudence (phronēsis) and joy (chara/gaudium) are often held in high esteem. Arnold goes on to compare the runner metaphor in Philippians 3:13-14 to Lucretius’ use of a similar image where Epictetus is described as “purging peoples hears” by giving them a “straight course” on which “narrow path we may press on toward” the goal (583). According to Arnold, Paul structures Philippians in a way that the single goal for people is happiness, which is attained by following the narrow road Christ sets out. Arnold’s text is an excellent example of how knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy is relevant for understanding Paul.

The first text in the section of papers dealing with “historical questions” and Paul is Eduard Verhoef’s “Elements of the Greco-Roman Context in the Christian Community of Philippi.” Here Verhoef contends that Paul was not reluctant to adopt “organizational form, words and rituals” from the Graeco-Roman cults surrounding the earliest church (614). The influence from Hellenism is clear, according to Verhoef, pointing to the adoption of Greek philosophical terms, such as the technical term for the four elements (stoicheia in Gal 4:9), and similarities with initiation rituals in mystery cults, such as the importance placed on water and blood in several cults (602-4). The pagan connection is particularly strong in the congregation in Philippi. This congregation chose to call its leaders diakonos and episkopos, rather than presbyteros, perhaps because these words were terms used in the pagan guilds and associations whom the Philippians knew. It might well have been the case that the congregation in Philippi stood close to its pagan context, but the scope for the paper (and I suspect the sources too) is unfortunately insufficient to elevate the text from the realm of innuendo.

In the next paper, “Acts and the Art of Criticism,” Clare K. Rothschild discusses the complexities of delivering critique without inducing anger in Acts. She shows, with aid from previous scholarship, how and where the author of Acts delivers critique to the ruling power, Roman officials, and the emperor. According to Aristotle, Rothschild explains, there was a writing strategy called “formidable speaking” (deinotēs), which was the opposite to “blunt expression” (parrēsia) and included subtle tactics like “emphasis,” “covert allusion,” and “double entendre” (619). This rhetorical style was effective in giving critique while at the same time not putting the writer in danger, according to Aristotle. This is also found in Acts, according to Rothschild, when the author tactfully critiques Agrippa (Acts 12), Cornelius (Acts 10:2), the official Claudius Lysias (Acts 22:26-30), and the emperor. Additionally, this strategy can be perceived when Paul’s death at Rome is indicated several times but not narrated in detail (Acts 19:21, 20:22-23, 23:11; 26:32, 27:24-25), thus depicting a “more forceful” (627) and safer death of Paul while delivering the critique of the ruling power.

The last paper in the volume is Joseph Verheyden’s “Strangers on the Wall,” which was authored for the volume and is counted among papers dealing with historical questions and post-Pauline literature. Verheyden discusses John Calvin’s interpretation of the somewhat awkward escape of Paul from Damascus in Acts. Calvin argued that Paul is heroic when lowered down from the city-walls in a basket since Paul saved the city when he escaped and not flee; however, he leaves so that there will not be any turmoil in the city when the mob comes to the jail demanding the release of Paul into their hands. In Roman times the penalty for a foreigner to climb the walls of a city was death. Calvin cites Cicero who says that one should make a distinction between the letter and the spirit of the Law, and Cicero particularly mentions the law for foreigners climbing the wall. Verheyden, though intrigued with Calvin’s reading, points to many problems. For instance, he argues that Paul undeniably is portrayed in an unfavorable way and not as a hero at all, especially compared to how other heroes (such as Jesus, Odysseus or Aeneas) act in the face of danger. Indeed, Verheyden rightly concludes that the portrayal of Paul is more complex than the mythical tales of heroes; he is not one-sided—“not a hero, but neither a coward— in short, more human” (674).

In conclusion, I commend the editor for collecting such a wide range of topics that make good sense as a whole. Any scholar of early Christianity with a focus on Paul, whatever topic, will undoubtedly find in this anthology much food for thought.

Paul Linjamaa
Lund University
paul.linjamaa [ at ]


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