Reviews of

Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature

In Brill, Comparative Projects, Eric Covington, Graeco-Roman Backgrounds, Paul ROBERTSON, Rhetorical Strategies on December 9, 2016 at 2:00 pm


2016.12.20 | Paul M. Robertson. Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature: Theorizing a New Taxonomy. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 167. Leiden: Brill, 2016. ISBN: 9789004320277.

Review by Eric Covington, University of St Andrews.

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.

 Paul M. Robertson’s Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature seeks to provide new, empirical criteria for locating Paul’s letters within the ancient Mediterranean literary world. Robertson’s study focuses particularly on the identification and comparison of formal literary characteristics to identify the “socio-literary sphere” within which Paul’s letters are to be best included, and which, as a result, would provide the most appropriate literary comparisons with the Pauline corpus. The study ultimately concludes that Paul’s writings most appropriately belong to a “socio-literary sphere” that includes other roughly contemporary ethical-philosophical texts including the Stoic Epictetus’ Discourses and the Epicurean Philodemus’ On Piety and On Death.

Robertson’s work, which developed out of his Ph.D. conducted at Brown University under the supervision of Stanley Stowers, argues that previous binary approaches to the classification of Paul’s letters specifically, and ancient literature more broadly—including the classification of literature as either high or low, rhetorical or koiné, or Jew or Greek—are “unhelpful because of their essentialized categories and are also not justified through a careful analysis of the data” (p. 3). He further argues that these oversimplified categories ultimately result in unsatisfactory descriptions of literature like the Pauline letters and skews the field of comparative literature that most closely resembles the Pauline letters.

In response to this problem, Robertson suggests framing Paul’s letters within what he terms a “socio-literary sphere,” which is “a grouping of texts that share significant elements of style, content, and social purpose, and whose authors usually share significant elements of education, social location, and social practice” (p. 16). Though the boundaries of these spheres are admittedly “fuzzy,” one of Robertson’s main arguments throughout his work is that such classification can employ empirical criteria that “reflect a text’s and author’s position that is shared with other similar texts and authors, and that reflects the intentionality of writing certain types of content in particular ways instead of implying a deficiency or lack of ability to write in a different register” (p. 21). Robertson further provides a sustained methodological defense of his literary classification that rejects “an overly formalist use of genre in the classification of literature” but also contends that “there remains substantial value in categorizing and comparing different texts on the basis of a set of shared literary characteristics” (p. 121).

In order to accomplish this task, Robertson inductively identifies a list of literary characteristics through a close reading of texts from across a wide array of ancient literature that allow for an empirical comparison of the relationship between different literary characteristics and different texts. These literary characteristics include: (1) universal claims or assertions, (2) appeals to authority, (3) conversation, (4) prosópopoiia/éthopoiia, (5) rhetorical questions, (6) metaphors or analogies, (7) anecdotes or examples, (8) imperatives, (9) exhortation, (10) caustic injunctions, (11) pathos, (12) irony or satire, (13) hyperbole, (14) oppositions or choices, (15) figurations of groupness, (16) plural inclusive addresses, (17) second person addresses, (18) first person reflection, (19) analysis of questions or objections, (20) systematic argument. Representative samples and definitions of each of these categories are provided in Chapter 4.

Based on this list of formal characteristics, Robertson then details “the location of every occurrence of each characteristic, the total number of each characteristic occurring in the text, and the percentage of total characteristics that each particular characteristic constitutes” (p. 142). The relevant data sets are presented as spreadsheets included in the book’s appendix, while a fuller compilation of data and analysis is included freely online at the author’s professional portfolio:

Robertson then provides an analysis of his data collection, which leads to some interesting conclusions concerning the formal, literary characteristics of the Pauline letters. So, for example, Robertson concludes that “several [literary criteria] were of fundamental importance to Paul’s style and occur both widely and in relative abundance across his letters: universal claims/assertions, appeals to authority, exhortation, rhetorical questions, pathos, opposition/choices, figurations of groupness, first person reflection, and both plural inclusive and second person addresses, and systematic argument. […] Other features appear prominently in some of Paul’s letters, but not in others, leading to the conclusion that they are not central to Paul’s style, and perhaps more dependent on context: imperatives, caustic injunction, analysis of questions/objections, and systematic argument” (p. 149). After a similar analysis of other texts, Robertson contends that the other contemporary works with the highest correlation of literary features with Paul’s letters are Epictetus’ Discourses and Philodemus’ On Piety and On Death.

Robertson next turns to a comparison between the Pauline letters and two control texts: Aelius Aristides’ Panathenaic, a work of advanced rhetoric from the Greco-Roman word, and the Damascus Document, a sectarian Jewish work often identified with an “apocalyptic” outlook. He suggests, “If I can show that these other works around Paul’s time, works that are often likened to Paul’s letters, differ markedly in form (and by extension content and purpose) from Paul’s letters and other works within this sphere, this fact will provide substantial evidence that these are not the proper comparanda for Paul’s letters” (p. 154). This provides a corrective, in Robertson’s view, because “Pauline comparisons based on matters of content tend to be based on essentialized categories that fail to sufficiently explain Paul’s own complex thought in a wider, nuanced, multifarious context. The comparisons of categories based on content remains a subjective endeavor, with scholars arguing fruitlessly about whether Paul’s content looks or seems to them to be Jewish, Hellenic, rhetorical, philosophical, apocalyptic, and so forth” (p. 155).

Robertson analyzes the formal differences between the texts and concludes, for example, “Where we find a fundamental departure of the Damascus Document from the sphere containing Paul’s letters is on the matter of addresses, specifically second person addresses, plural inclusive addresses, and first person reflections” (p. 164). Because of the formal differences in the advanced rhetoric and “apocalyptic” texts he examines, Robertson concludes—with some of his most significant claims for the field of Pauline comparative studies—that advanced rhetoric and Jewish “apocalyptic” texts “provide little explanatory power for Paul’s own form and content” (p. 157).

Robertson’s final substantive chapter examines some socio-historical implications of the data analysis, particularly in relation to the question of Paul’s education and social status. Arguing that “social context is fundamentally interrelated to textual form, content, and purpose” (p. 171), Robertson suggests that the literary characteristics of Paul’s letters suggest that “Paul [w]as a trained letter-writer instead of an advanced rhetorician or lower-class populist” (p. 178).

In the conclusion, Robertson summarizes his evidence and conclusions and seeks to locate Paul within the ancient literary world based on his category of “socio-literary spheres.” He ultimately concludes: “I suggest we think of Paul not as a Christian with a Jewish past and world-view paired with a Greek education, but rather (along with Epictetus and Philodemus) as a domain-specific educated, entrepreneurial, and open-minded ancient Mediterranean figure, whose life cannot be broken down into pre- and post-conversion stages, but who remained dynamic and evolving by constantly learning from, and deploying, a variety of sources and strategies in a complex, shifting, and challenging environment” (p. 219).

Robertson’s most significant contribution in Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature is the detailed description of specific, formal literary characteristics of the Pauline letters. The data helpfully compiled in the appendices and on Robertson’s website is important for the continued study of the literary characteristics of Paul’s letters and their relation to other literature from the ancient Mediterranean world. The claim, too, that the comparative task must take formal characteristics into account is a valuable reminder for the task of seeking to locate—as empirically as possible—Paul within the ancient world. As such, Chapter 4 is the heart of Robertson’s project and is the place upon which students of Paul and his letters will particularly wish to focus.

There will certainly be continued discussions concerning the identification of specific literary characteristics evident within the Pauline letters and whether Robertson’s proposed categories are representative of all the literary data of the Pauline letters. Robertson is admittedly aware of this point and welcomes further refining discussions as one of the significant contributions he hopes his work will make in the field of biblical studies (cf. p. 124).

What is sure to be more contentious in the broader field of Pauline studies is Robertson’s conflation of literary form and conceptual content and the resultant conclusions that he makes concerning the comparative value of ancient rhetoric and Jewish apocalyptic texts (cf. pp. 154–155). Certainly not all will be convinced that Robertson’s data and analysis warrant such weighty conclusions concerning the unhelpful explanatory power of Greco-Roman rhetoric and Jewish apocalyptic for Paul’s content and form (cf. p. 157).

Ultimately, Robertson’s astute analysis of his collection of relevant data contributes a significant component to the task of understanding the Pauline letters in their literary context, and his emphasis on socio-literary spheres helps advance the discussion beyond polarizing binary approaches that do not adequately account for the complexities of comparing ancient literature. Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature is aimed particularly at scholars studying the literary examination of Paul’s letters in their ancient literary context, and it deserves engagement in future endeavors in the field.

Eric Covington
University of St Andrews
ec82 [ at ]

  1. […] Robertson reviewed Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature at Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian […]

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