Paul and the Giants of Philosophy | Reflections & Notes

Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, eds. Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context. IVP Academic, 2019. (177 pages) [Download all the tables here]


In the decades of reading and studying the Bible, the most transformative paradigm for me was not discovering what was in the Bible, but what was not in the Bible. Why? Context is meaning. Period. And you only get context by reading, understanding, and immersing yourself in the world of the Bible.

It cannot be overstated how much Hellenism–specifically Greek philosophy–is a backdrop to the writings of Paul. The cultural groundwork laid by the Greeks that were stamped upon the land and psyches of the ancient Israelites must be taken into account when reading anything in the New Testament. (As A Driven Leaf is a phenomenal read about this tension in the Jewish mind). I pithily say (admittedly oversimplified): “You cannot understand the New Testament if you don’t understand Alexander the Great.” To date, I stand by the general sentiment of that claim.

At times, interaction with the Greek world is clearly articulated as in Acts 17 at the Areopagus. At other times, it is subtle, such as the many possible allusions to Plato. Sometimes it is downright snarky, as in Titus 1:12 and 1 Corinthians 1:20f. Admittedly, frequently it is unseen and opaque. Regardless, having a book sum up the large themes was really a wonderful read and will continue to be a wonderful reference.

The notes from the introduction immediately below said really well the rest of what I would also want to say about this book.


An Introduction

David E. Briones

Paul’s life and ministry was contextualized, and it is the Greco-Roman philosophical background that sets the stage for his dialogue with the giants of philosophy. (2)

But what does it mean to put Paul in dialogue with these ancient philosophers when he never actually had a dialogue with them in the first place? It means that we create the dialogue. Each chapter in this book is like a host of a podcast who invites two very different guests to be interviewed. (3)

The point is that comparison brings clarity. And yet, that doesn’t mean comparison necessitates sameness. We don’t want to be parallelomaniacs,… (3)

Like any dialogue, the parties involved will agree on some things but disagree on others. Their thoughts will both converge and diverge, especially when we’re dealing with two parties who have fundamental differences. Those who wish to ignore these fundamental differences assume that discovering parallels means we discover sameness. This is just bad historical work. It doesn’t take much effort to see that Christianity clearly differs from pagan philosophy. And yet, the opposite extreme is also wrong. Many scholars assume Christianity’s fundamental difference with ancient philosophers means they shouldn’t be compared at all. The approach of this book lands in the middle of these two pendulum swings. (4)

Descriptions of Philosophers


(ca. 310-240 BC)

A Greek didactic poet. He wrote a hexameter poem called Phenomena, which became very popular in the Greco-Roman world. Paul quotes him in Acts 17.

(383-322 BC)

Studied under Plato. Founded a philosophical school called “Peripatetic.” One of the most influential philosophers among Christian theologians. His most relevant works are Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Rhetoric, and Politics.

(106-43 BC)

A Roman politician who was a brilliant orator and well-educated in philosophy. Toward the end of his life, he penned a series of philosophical works focused on major topics in Greek philosophy. As an Academic skeptic, he argues both views on a matter but refrains from adopting either, which he considers the best option. Among his most important works are On Final ends, On the Republic, Tusculan Disputation, and On Duties.

(ca. AD 50-120)

Former slave turned Stoic philosopher. Studied under the Stoic Musonius Rufus. Arrian, his pupil, wrote down his teachings in four books (Discourses) and a handbook (Enchiridion). One of the most practically minded philosophers. He focuses primarily on ethics rather than theoretical argumentation.

(ca. 110-40/35 BC)

An Epicurean philosopher. Many of his writings were excavated from a villa at Herculaneum that was destroyed by the well-known eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Although fragmentary with stilted prose and therefore inaccessible to the armchair philosopher, his writings remain an important source of Epicurean views on a number of topics.

(ca. 429-347 BC)

Studied under Socrates and taught Aristotle. Founded a school of philosophy in Athens called “the Academy.” He was the first philosopher to promote philosophical views in dialogue and dialectical forms. Along with Aristotle, Platonic philosophy would greatly influence the Christian theological tradition and the wider Western world.

(ca. AD 45-120)

Wrote many philosophical works in addition to essays and a work on the lives of great Greeks and Romans. Promoted a standpoint called “Middle Platonism.” Although very critical of Stoicism and Epicureanism, his writings provide much insight on these two philosophical schools of thought.

(ca 4 BC-AD 65)

Stoic philosopher. Tutor to the emperor Nero, who eventually forced Seneca to commit suicide. Like Epictetus, Seneca was very much focused on the practical benefits of philosophy. He wrote several philosophical essays and letters that present Stoic moral theory in a more accessible manner than do most philosophers.

Paul and Epictetus on Suffering

Dorothea H. Bertschmann

Can suffering be an instrument to turn us into more ethical people? – Epictetus


Epictetus and his teaching. … eudiamonia–except “happiness” is a very different concept for a Stoic than for us. It is best translated as “human flourishing,” or becoming the best possible version of yourself. And this, in turn, happens when human beings live fully in accordance with their nature. But what is human nature? What singles out humans is that we are rational beings; we are able to live in a certain distance from the things happening to us; we can evaluate them and form a judgment. (9)

Epictetus teaches that all external things, whether jobs, houses, wealth, fame, health, or relationships with our loved ones must be seen as “indifferent,” and we must neither desire nor avoid them, because they are outside our control. Moreover, they do not affect the “real me” in the least bit, neither by our gaining them nor by our losing them. They do nothing for our happiness. Even your own body belongs to the externals, over which you have no control. So what does contribute to one’s happiness? According to Epictetus, being a virtuous person equals being a happy person. This does not mean, however, that you feel good about yourself after carrying heavy shopping bags for an old lady. (10)

| When Epictetus speaks about ethical goodness he speaks about “virtues,” which in Greek simply means “excellence.” (10)

Epictetus and suffering. … It is important to see that joyful events have to be scrutinized and judged by the prohairesis just as much as painful ones. (11)

Epictetus often compares life to an athletic struggle, an agōn. Hardship and sufferings play the part of a fellow wrestler: (11)

It is difficulties that show what men are. Consequently, when a difficulty befalls, remember that God, like a physical trainer, has matched you with a rugged young man. What for? Someone says, So that you may become an Olympic victor; but that cannot be done without sweat. To my way of thinking no one has got a finer difficulty than the one which you have got, if only you are willing to make use of it as an athlete makes use of a young man to wrestle with. (Disc. 1:14.1-2)

Hardships and awful circumstances have no meaning in and by themselves. … What is crucial is this mental exercise, which can feel like a strenuous effort and an arduous training. This mental struggle is, however, only one side of the coin, of which the other side is perfect calm:

The man who exercises himself against such external impressions is the true athlete in training. Hold, unhappy man; be not swept along with your impressions! Great is the struggle, divine the task; the prize is a kingdom, freedom, serenity, peace. (Disc. 2.18.27-28)

In a way, the aspiring philosopher has to come to the point of understanding that suffering is nothing at all. Epictetus very tellingly avoids the Greek word for suffering, paschein, which implies passivity (12) and powerlessness. Instead, he chooses words that can be synonymous for hardship and circumstances. The true Stoic does not suffer; he does not let hardship get to him. What we call suffering is really just a particular circumstance, which can be used as an opportunity for growth, just as the athlete uses weights to grow muscles. (13)

Epictetus often speaks about the “great day,” when the athletes will finally run into the arena, cheered on by the crowds, and show what they are made fo. (13)

[via: Hebrews 12:1?]

For Epictetus, the ultimate contest is death, and the ultimate Stoic virtue is to be able to die without fear. (13)


Paul and suffering. … Paul has, broadly speaking, two ways to refer to suffering. One frequent instance is when he narrates his own sufferings in an apologetic context. [1 Corinthians 11:23-33; 1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 6:4-10] … Paul claims that he has undergone all these sufferings in the service of Christ, either as direct persecution or as hardships related to his mission as the apostle to the Gentiles. (14)

| In a paradoxical move Paul “boasts” in his sufferings and the weakness they caused him–not because he was man enough to endure them all, but because, for Paul, salvation is closely tied to the cross, and it is not surprising if the apostle of the crucified Lord carries “the death of Jesus” in his body (2 Cor 4:10, cf. Gal 6:17 and 2 Cor 1:5). [cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10)] (14)

When Paul speaks about the sufferings the believers share with him, his tone is less polemical and more encouraging. (14)

cf. Phil 1:29; 1 Thess 3:3; 1 Thess 1:6; 3:4; 2:14

He does not hail suffering as something good, but he sees it as an inevitable experience in a fallen and dark world. [cf. Philippians 1:28; 2 Cor 4:17; 1 Thess 5:3] (15)

Sufferings then, far from annulling the promise of salvation, are the sufferings of the righteous elect and will soon end. (15)

Suffering and virtues: Romans 5:3-5. The reason for this is that sufferings (or “pressures,” the word is thlipseis again) produce patience, or rather endurance. (16)

Suffering is a “stress test,” if you like, which reveals whether you are genuine or not. And if you know that you are suffering as a genuine believer, then you have a good basis for hope. This is the hope of the righteous, who must endure tribulations, but will eventually be vindicated and rewarded. (16)

But there is yet a much deeper reason for hope. And this reason is God’s love, which he has shown in Christ and which he has poured into the very hearts of believers. (17)

…in Paul’s world there was a concept that made sense of suffering along these lines, namely that suffering was God’s fatherly discipline, meant to restrain and correct this children (Heb 12:3-11). But Paul does not go there. … They are simply there, as part of a chaotic world, turned against God’s beloved. But though they are not good in themselves, God has already pulled them firmly under his salvific goal. (17)


In Epictetus’s case, the deepest truth about the human condition is that human beings are rational and therefore equipped to be free. (18)

In Paul’s case, the deepest truth about human beings in Christ is that they are loved by God and therefore resourced with undying hope. … Sufferings are very real in Paul’s world, but they have lost their sting and power by being dwarfed by hope. (18)

For both of these fascinating and deep thinkers, sufferings, though not a direct medicine, have the potential to activate one’s “true me.” (18)


Epictetus Paul
Sufferings are not needed for ethical growth. Sufferings are not needed for ethical growth.
Sufferings can tempt a person to leave their rational judgment behind. Sufferings, especially persecution, can tempt a Christian to become weary in their faith or even leave it.
For the aspiring philosopher, sufferings are an opportunity to exercise and strengthen one’s rational judgment. Sufferings are an opportunity for “boasting,” because they will produce endurance and ultimately hope in the lives of believers.
This training can feel like arduous exercising at times but leads to complete calm. Suffering must be taken on in patient endurance, which will lead to an increase of hope.
There is no suffering for a philosophical person. External circumstances cannot affect her in the core of her being. Sufferings are real and affect the believer. They are not negated, but relativized in the hope of glory, where suffering will be overcome for good.
The philosopher trains to ultimately show calm in the face of death. This will be his greatest witness to God, who created him as a rational being. God has given a very solid foundation to hope by showing his love in the past in Christ’s death for them. This love dwells in the hearts of the believers and undergirds and empowers all their efforts to endure and hope.

Paul and Philodemus on Therapy for the Weak

Justin Reid Allison

Let no one either delay philosophizing when young, or weary of philosophizing when old. For no one is under-age or over-age for health of the soul – Epicurus

At first glance, Paul’s pastoral concern seems analogous to that of philosophers engaged in therapy for the “weak.” (22)

We will compare 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 to key passages of a treatise entitled On Frank Criticism (PHerc. 1471) written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. … First, Philodemus discusses at length how to care for weak students. Second, he emphasizes that all members of a philosophical (22) community should take part in caring for one another, much like Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. (23)


Epicureans thought that pleasure had limits, and that the greatest pleasure came from ataraxia, the complete absence of pain. (23)

Epicurus offered a “fourfold cure” for pain: “(1) God presents no fears, (2) death presents no worries. And while (3) good is readily attainable, (4) evil is readily endurable.” (24)

Achieving the most pleasurable life was not just a matter of memorizing Epicurean beliefs. It involved the arduous transformation of one’s psychological dispositions into virtuous, healthy dispositions to reason correctly, feel emotions properly, pursue desires wisely, and so forth. This transformation occurred most naturally with the constant help of friends committed to the Epicurean life. (24)

“Weak” students were those who were immature, particularly those vulnerable to harm and who struggled to improve with treatment. (25)

…but there are times when he [the immature student] will even shun philosophy, and perhaps will even hate the wise man, and sometimes he will submit, but will not be benefitted, although he [the teacher] has supposed that he will be benefited. And these things will occur, I say, for many reasons. For since they are either weak or have become incurable because of frankness… – Fragment 59


Overview of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. Paul urged that others should lovingly build up the weak, not “destroy” them by continuing their current behavior (1 Cor 8:8-13; 10:23-11:1). (27)

Similarities between Philodemus and Paul. … First, Paul was concerned with the moral lives of individual believers (including, but not limited to, their knowledge and consciousness). (27)

Second, Paul showed compassion for the weak and did not abandon or segregate them from communal life. [cf. 1 Cor 8:11; 9:19-23; 10:31-11:1] (28)

Third, Paul assumed that the responsibility of care for the weak fell to other community members in general. … (1 Cor 8:9-13; 10:23-11:1). Fourth, the central means by which Paul sought to build up the weak were (1) love (see 1 Cor 8:1) and (2) adaptation to the weak believer’s circumstances. (28)

In this view, building up the weak in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 was essentially the same process as leading the immature into maturity via frank criticism, as seen in Philodemus. (28)

Differences between Philodemus and Paul. … First, Paul rendered differences in personal knowledge and consciousness of idol food irrelevant for one’s standing before God. Philodemus, in contrast, would have assumed that these differences followed from moral maturity or immaturity, given that they were rooted in knowledge. (29)

The second difference is that the believers who build up the weak are not thereby more mature in faith than the weak. In contrast, Philodemus would assume that those who treat the weak are more mature morally (otherwise, they have no claim to do so).  [cf. 1 Cor 8:12; 8:2-3] (30)

Third, therefore, Paul’s goal in this instance was not that all believers would achieve one, “mature” state of personal knowledge and consciousness of idol food. Philodemus, in contrast, envisions salvation as the attainment of a particular state of moral character with its knowledge, emotions, reason, and so on. … For Paul, however, building up the weak did not mean curing them with therapy based on one version of knowledge and consciousness of idol food. (30)

Paul had a different understanding in this case, one that did not involve increasing the knowledge of the weak or healing their consciousness with gentle critique-therapy over time. (31)

…Paul puts less value in the achievement of specific psychological states and human knowledge, and more value in a believer’s allegiance to God whatever their psychological circumstances. Building up the weak has more to do with supporting their faithfulness to God in their weakness rather than transcending their psychological limitations. (31)


The weak’s salvation would not come from achieving a cognitive and psychological state of individual self-sufficiency. Rather, salvation arose from trusting God through dependence on others in their self-insufficiency. (32)

| The weak’s faith developed in that it operated in a renewed mode of dependence on others, and thus upon God. Embracing this dependence would evidence their maturity in faith, not their immaturity. (32)


For Philodemus For Paul
The weak were cognitively and psychologically immature in comparison to their caregivers. Unlike the other believers whose role was to build them up, the weak were relatively limited in knowledge and consciousness, but were not thereby less mature in faith.
The weak were treated by adaptive frank criticism based on Epicurean philosophy to achieve one, complete model of human knowledge and psychology. The weak were built up by receiving support from others in order to be faithful to God in their weakness, not by achieving a particular state of knowledge and consciousness through therapy.
The weak became more self-sufficient and less dependent on others as they matured through therapy. The weak’s embrace of dependence upon others, and thus dependence upon God, evidenced mature faith.

Paul and Aristotle on Friendship

David E. Briones

cf. Nicomachean Ethics.


How did Aristotle define friendship in Nicomachean Ethics? … He insists that, to be friends, two traits must be present. The first is the giving and receiving of friendly affection that, over time, grows into “love” for the other’s own sake. The second is a mutual concern to seek the good of the other person with the other person’s awareness. … Friendship requires a back and forth of affectionate concern. (37)

Virtue friendship. …he argues that there are three forms of friendship: those “[1] based on virtue, [2] on utility, and [3] on pleasure” (Eth. eud. 7.2.13; cf. Nic. Eth. 8.3). (37)

A virtue-friend will desire the good of his friends “for their own sake,” and they will love each other “for themselves.” … Plato would love Socrates, and Socrates would love Plato, not for what they do (pleasure) or provide (utility), but for who they are (virtue). And who they are essentially, Aristotle argues, is virtuous. (38)

One qualification needs to be made here. Just because Aristotle distinguishes between friendships based on utility, pleasure, and virtue, that does not mean utility and pleasure play no role in virtue friendships. … Virtue friendships promote a unique kind of mutual benefit, and what makes it unique is its basis. (38)

| The basis of virtue friendship, strangely enough, is self-love. (38)

…virtue is a prerequisite for true friendship. The perfect form of friendship, writes Aristotle, is between “those who resemble each other in virtue” (8.3.6). This requires two parties to embody virtuous qualities of the mind and life (both intellectual and moral virtue) prior to initiating a friendship. (39)

The role of God in friendship. Does he [God] play any role in Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship? The short answer is “no.” … God is entirely self-sufficient. … According to the philosopher, god is not concerned with humanity’s well-being. Relating to people would only limit his perfection. Since a self-contemplating god needs no friends, the only role this transcendent, impersonal god can play in human friendship is as a model for unequal relationships. (39)


The ideal definition of friendship. … Two traits appear in Paul’s theology of friendship. The first is a reciprocity of gifts (immaterial and material) between Paul and the Philippians, which stems from a mutual phronēsis–a way of thinking, feeling, and acting pattered after Jesus Christ (Phil 2:5-11). (41)

Paul and the Philippians reciprocate affectionate concern for one another. (41)

Moreover, Paul and the Philippians reciprocate sacrificial service for one another’s joy. (42)

Finally, Paula nd the Philippians reciprocate prayer to God on behalf of one another for present and ultimate salvation. (42)

The second relational dynamic in Paul’s ideal definition of friendship is enduring suffering on behalf of the other. (42)

…there is a third party in Paul’s theological definition of friendship. The triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit–appears on the scene as the vertical party whose presence naturally reconfigures the horizontal dimensions of friendship. (43)

The role of self-love in Pauline friendship. Does the concept of self-love appear in Paul’s writings? Philippians 2:3 suggests that the answer is “no”: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (ESV). (43)

By not eliminating self-love in Christian friendship, Paul finds a happy medium that ensures reciprocity in the church. He promotes a virtuous self-love, one that includes the interests of others primarily and one’s own interests secondarily. (43)

The role of virtue in Pauline friendship. … In this text, we find that friendship and virtue are created through faith in the gospel of Christ, making virtue a result rather than a prerequisite of Christian friendship. (46)

In the ancient world, to be called “worthy” was essentially equivalent to being called “virtuous.” (46)

For Aristotle, doing precedes being. One who does virtuous things is a person worthy of friendship. But, for Paul, being precedes doing. Only one who has become a friend of God by virtue of union with his Son is enabled to act virtuously. Doing virtuous acts confirms one’s being considered worthy by God. (47)


…Paul endorses a circular conception of friendship. (47)


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8-9 Paul, The Letter to the Philippians
God plays no direct role in human friendships. God plays an essential role in Christian friendships. He gives, energizes, and sustains every act of human generosity. He hears the prayers of his people, and he responds to their needs.
Friends reciprocate goodwill and a mutual concern to seek the good of the other person for their sake, with a shared awareness. Friends reciprocate affectionate concern for one another, sacrificial services for one another’s joy, and prayer to God for one another’s ultimate salvation. They also suffer on behalf of one another.
A friend is another self. A friend is another self.
A virtuous self-love is promoted as the basis of reciprocity or giving and receiving in friendship. A virtuous self-love is promoted but not as the basis of reciprocity or giving and receiving in friendship. God I Christ by the Spirit is the basis of reciprocity.
Virtue is an essential part of the best form of friendship. In fact, virtue is a prerequisite to choosing a friend. Virtue is an essential part of friendship in Christ, but it is not a prerequisite for friendship. It is a result of being befriended by God through the gospel.

Attitudes on Slavery in Paul and Seneca

Timothy A. Brookins

Under the Roman Empire, about one in every four people in Italy was a slave. In those days, slavery was not rooted in racial prejudice. Many people entered slavery as captives of war. Others became slaves through piracy, trade, or self-sale. Ultimately, most of the slave population was comprised of those born into slavery. (50)

Paul and Seneca were almost exact contemporaries and so represent two ways of viewing slavery within the same general cultural context. Second, Paul’s letter to Philemon and Seneca’s forty-seventh epistle were written at almost exactly the same time (both written ca. AD 60). Third, both Paul and Seneca questioned traditional social hierarchies in light of their theology/philosophy. Fourth, we have no evidence that either of them condemned the institution of slavery as a whole. (51)


Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman aristocrat and an adherent to the ancient school of philosophy known as Stoicism. As a Stoic, he viewed the universe as a living organism created and providentially governed by a divine force called Reason, Fate, Zeus, or if one preferred, God; when providence appeared random (although in reality it was not), Reason could be referred to as Fortune. Present in everything, and most of all in humans, Reason constituted both a principle of order in accordance with which all things acted in harmony and a divine faculty through which people acted in agreement with this order. It was rational agreement with this order (“life in accordance with nature”) that constituted good, and disagreement with this order (“life contrary to nature”) that constituted bad. All other things–including health, financial circumstances, and social station–were matters of indifference. (51)

Do not think of these people as slaves but as human beings (Epistle 47.1)

Undergirding Seneca’s perspective is the Stoic conviction that God, or divine Reason, is present in all people equally. If it is the indwelling of divine Reason, above all, that makes one human, are slaves not also “human beings”? Of course, they are! And if one views slaves equally as “human beings” (see also 47.5) and social status as a matter of indifference, why not also view slaves even as, potentially, “friends”? (52)

He whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourselves breathes, lives, and dies. (47.10)

Mutual recognition of each other as people creates the possibility of genuine sympathy, the ability to see oneself in another person and another person in oneself. (52)

It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

Noble birth was no sign of natural superiority, or low birth of natural inferiority. Is this not proved, Seneca asks, by the fact that social position sometimes changes? (52)

All people are slaves to something: “one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear (47.17). And moral slavery is much worse than social slavery (47.1)! (53)

Master would have less trouble with slaves, Seneca suggested, if they treated their slaves more humanely. Seneca describes with sadness the hardships they faced. While masters indulge themselves at their dinner parties until deep in the night, slaves are forced to stand on their feet, still and silent; masters whip their slaves even for coughing and hiccupping (47.2). What the guests cannot keep down after gorging themselves, the slaves mop up. THe male servants are made to dress like women and to pluck their beards smooth, the better to satisfy their masters’ lusts later in the evening. They treated their slaves dreadfully–what should masters expect? Indeed, slaves “are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies” (47.5) (53)


Paul succeeds in being splendidly obscure. (56)

First, while more than one interpretation of Philemon 16 is possible (is Paul being intentionally ambiguous?), the phrasing seems (56) peculiarly designed to point in the direction of freedom. … “receive him no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” This new relationship, Paul continues, holds not only “in the Lord” but also “in the flesh”;… (57)

(a) If Paul and Philemon are “partners,” and Philemon is to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul (Philem 17), is Philemon not to accept Onesimus too as a “partner”? (57)

(b) Paul says that Philemon once “refreshed” the “feelings” (splagchna) of the “saints” (Philem 7). He later describes Onesimus as his own heart, or literally as his “feelings” (splagchna). Finally in Philemon 20, he charges Philemon, “refresh my feelings” (splagchna). If Onesimus is Paul’s “feelings,” is this last remark code for “release Onesimus”? (57)

(c) As Paul’s own convert, Onesimus is his “son” in the faith (Philem 10); when Paul says that Philemon “owes” him his “life” (Philem 19), this almost undoubtedly means that PHilemon too was his convert; if both Onesimus and Philemon are Paul’s “sons,” do they not stand on equal footing? (57)

Several points may be made about Paul’s letter in conclusion. (1) Paul does not reject the prospect of the abolition of slavery, but neither does he raise the issue. (2) Paul does not address the legitimacy of slavery in general but rather a single case of Christian slavery. (3) Paul does not dictate orders to Philemon, but seeks to inspire him to action fitting in the Lord. (4) In addressing the letter not just “to Philemon,” but “also to Apphia…and Archippus..and to the church that meets in [his] home” (Philem 1-2), Paul treats the issue not as an individual decision only, but as a community matter. (57)

Individual and Community in Paul and Epictetus

Ben C. Dunson


…to understand his ethical system, one must first understand that for him (and almost all ancient philosophers) ethics is about the pursuit of happiness (understood not as selfish indulgence but as holistic well-being). (62)

…Discourse 2.8. Here we read that the good life consists in a “desire that is always achievable, the certainty of avoiding what is undesired, choosing what is appropriate, a thoughtful plan, a carefully considered agreement” (Disc. 2.8.29) (62)

Contrary to how our modern world thinks, happiness isn’t found in the next big move, in getting a promotion, or in entering into a new relationship. And it can’t be taken away by economic hardship, losing a job, or getting rejected by someone. It lies in something more stable than that. Epictetus uses the term “moral purpose” (see Disc. 3.2.13) to describe the individual’s inborn decision-making power to focus only on one’s own virtue, which is under one’s control, rather than to let oneself be influenced and overwhelmed by external circumstances which are (62) not under our control. Our moral purpose, in other words, is like what we mean today when we sepak of “moral compass” or “conscience.” … In essence, if our lives are dependent on how things are going outwardly, then our happiness will always be under threat, subject to chance and the whims of fortune. But if it has to do with things that are under our control, our happiness now becomes secure and stable. … The goal of happiness–the goal of Epictetus’s entire philosophical system, which is synonymous with virtue–can be secured in no other way than through the effort of the individual on his or her own. Ethics, by definition, is (and must be) centered on the individual, at least in this foundational sense. (63)

| However, for Epictetus, this focus on the individual is not at odds with a focus on community or social responsibility. … Epictetus restates the “general rule” or universal truth of human relationships: “that every living creature has no concern greater than its own interest” (Disc. 2.22.15). (63)

Family ties and friendships, for Epictetus, are “external things” that cannot guarantee happiness, since they are outside of one’s own control. … Ironically, then, seeking the well-being of others as a good in itself destroys the very possibility of true social responsibility, because such well-being becomes dependent on something external. Alternatively, communal faithfulness is assuredly preserved if–and only if–one sets his or her self-interest solely on one’s own moral purpose, which alone aligns with the moral point of view of the universe (Disc. 22.27-30). (65)

| In sum, the focus on self-interest in Epictetus’s ethics is pointedly individualistic, … For Epictetus, ethical behavior is based firmly on seeking self-benefit through self-control (65) and mental discipline. … The individual self has priority, but it is a priority that forms a foundation for the well-being and harmony of all of one’s social relationships. (66)


For Paul, there are two ways to be right with God. Put simply, you can be right with God either by doing what God says or by believing in Jesus Christ. (66)

Confession is an inherently public and social act. (68)

Faith, then, has an indispensably community-building function. (69)


For Paul, the individual (70) believer is necessarily embodied within the body of all believers, which is the body of Christ. Paul does not share Epictetus’s worry about external things affecting us. In fact, Paul believes that many external things should affect us. … Being a Christian means living a life united with the lives of fellow believers, because it means living together in union with Jesus Christ. In the church, it is all for one and one for all with no place for lone-ranger Christians. (71)

[via: This felt a bit “preachy” for an academic book. Minor observation.]

Table 5.1. Similarities and differences

Epictetus, Of Friendship (Discourse 22) Paul, The Letter to the Romans
Love of others is based on self-interest. Love of others is based on gratitude for the love received from Jesus Christ.
Only the wise person has the power to love others. Wisdom leads to discerning God’s will, which in turn leads one to love others.
One must never act because of an external obligation. Love must be chosen as an act of will. Love of others is a divine obligation placed upon a believer in Jesus Christ, but it is empowered by divine grace.
Virtue may demand a seeming sympathy with those experiencing hardship, but one must never allow one’s self to be inwardly moved by the plight of others, since this is a circumstance outside of one’s own control. Love necessarily leads to genuine sympathy for others who are experiencing hardship.
The power to love others resides entirely within one’s own power of volition (moral purpose). The power to love others truly is a gift of God’s mercy.

Paul and Plutarch on Faith

Jeanette Hagen Pifer


In the Greco-Roman world as well as in Hellenistic Judaism, the words pistis (Greek) and fides (latin), both translated as “faith” or “belief” in English, were quite common and could be translated in many ways. Fortunately, the varied definitions can be categorized in two general ways: rational and relational. On a very basic level, the rational understanding of pistis/fides depicts faith or belief as hopeful optimism. In other words, this use of pistis referred to a confidence in something else, whether an idea, a person, relationship, or thing, but it did not indicate absolute certainty. (75)

My faith extends so far, that I can believe it, but I have never put it to the test. – Sophocles (5th century BC) (Trachiniae 588-93).

Here, faith accepts something as true without requiring evidence. (75)

| Understood this way, it makes sense that philosophers began to regard faith as an intellectually weak way of relating to the world. By the fourth century BC, Plato writes of the inferiority and instability of pistis. In The Republic, Plato describes four conditions in the soul, from highest to lowest: understanding, thought, belief, and imagination (511e and 534a). In this hierarchy, pistis is just a shadow of knowledge, a less stable state of soul (505d-3). (75)

At times pistis is used with more rhetorical force to indicate a pledge, guarantee, or evidence. … Rhetoric explains that pistis is used to persuade (1.11). The word can be translated as a “convincing argument” or “means of conviction.” Plato uses pistis specifically to refer to a strong argument, or proof, for the immortality of the soul (Phaedo 70B). In the context of speaking about love, Plato employs pistis to refer to a pledge of friendship (Phaedo 256D). (75)

Under the relational category, pistis and fides were used widely to describe the trust that is foundational to all relationships. … Cicero writes that pistis “is the unswerving constancy, which we look for in friendship” (De Amicitia 65). Epictetus likewise writes about the importance of keeping “good faith” toward fathers and sons alike (Discourses 2.22.18-20). Pistes/fides in the master-slave relationship was also regarded as critical. Valerius Maximus writes of the mutual fidelity between a man, C. Plotius Plancus, and his slaves. (76)

Often, pistis indicates faithfulness or reliability, especially in its use by the Stoics. (76)

Finally, pistes/fides was used to depict the relationship between god and humans. (76)

Table 6.1. Rational and relational

Rational It refers to the varying degrees of confidence in something else, whether an idea, a person, relationship, or thing, but it did not indicate absolute certainty.
Relational Describes the trust that is foundational to all relationships, indicating faithfulness or reliability—including that between god and humans.


In his treatise Superstition, Plutarch argues that “ignorance and blindness in regard to the gods divides itself at the very beginning into two streams,” either atheism or superstition (1e). For Plutarch, atheism leads to an indifference in life while superstition reflects an emotional assumption that produces crushing fear that the gods will inflict pain (2b-c). He concludes that atheism is falsified reason and superstition is an emotion arising from false reason (2c). Religious faith for Plutarch is the more reasonable basis for living life. (77)


Paul’s rational faith.At the rational level, faith for Paul…is confident assurance in the foundational tenets of Christianity. (78)

…we see that for Paul, faith is grounded in and founded upon an event that really happened. (79)

Paul’s relational faith. [cf. 1 Cor 1:31 & 1 Cor 2:5] Together, these two concepts reveal that human faith involves rejecting all earthly forms of worth. And yet, this does not leave the Corinthians empty-handed. Paul exhorts his readers to reorient their sense of worth in Christ alone. The correlation between boasting and faith in this passage reveals one essential element of true faith: what is true of Christ is true of oneself. In this way, faith redefines the self so that what is true of Christ becomes the ground of one’s identity, hope, and value. (81)

Faith then is the human response to that power of God and thus, faith is simultaneously self-negating and Christ affirming. (81)

Relational faith in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2. First, faith inevitably involves personally receiving the gospel. (82)

The second self-involving verb that Paul employs portrays faith metaphorically as “standing on” the truth of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1). (82)

The third verb that Paul employs, “holding fast,” also conveys faith as a continuing mode of existence through Paul’s use of the present tense. Indeed, faith is not simply a decision made once in the past, but must be actively exercised. (83)

Paul, Cicero, and Seneca as Letter Writers

E. Randolph Richards

Cicero used what were supposedly private letters to navigate Roman politics, to negotiate conflict, to propagate his views, and to resolve issues. (86)

In his letters, Seneca answered Lucilius’s questions, which were questions any beginning student would ask. As the letters progressed and Lucilius grew in his understanding of Stoicism, Seneca put more advanced questions on Lucilius’s lips. The reader, then, walked in Lucilius’s shoes. (86)

Like Seneca, Paul wasn’t informing; he was persuading. Both men intended their letters to make converts. (87


Table 7.1. First table (length of letters)

Shortest Letter Longest Letter Average Length
Cicero 22 words 2,530 words 295 words
Seneca 150 words 4,201 words 972 words
Paul 334 words 7,085 words 2,487 words

Table 7.2. Second table (cost of letters)

Number of Characters Total Cost in Denars for the Finished Letter Cost Today (US Dollars)
Romans 34,232 20.68 $2,275
Philemon 1,562 0.93 $102
Ep. 94 23,677 14.29 $1,572
Ep. 62 829 0.48 $53

…we can credit Paul with up to fifteen letters over a fifteen-year period. Thus, Seneca wrote (or at least presented himself as writing) about forty letters a year, while Paul wrote about one a year. (89)

Paul’s busyness, frequent travels, greater distances, and increased expense probably account for Paul writing fewer letters. (90)


Typical papyrus letters were natural, daily, situational letters, intended to be read by the recipient only. (90)

cf. Adolf Deissemann, Light from the Ancient Near East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World

cf. Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection

Paul…remains somewhere in the middle, difficult to classify, having qualities of both epistle and letter. (91)


Seneca’s letters claim a casual style. (92)

Whereas Seneca’s claims to carelessness are a ruse and his seeming casualness is artificial, Paul actually has grammatical slips in his letters that give his letters a genuine koine (everyday) quality, reflecting the language of the street. (92)


Although Paul, Cicero, and Seneca are not literary cousins, none of the three is like the typical letter writer. Therefore, when is a letter not a letter? When Paul, Cicero, or Seneca is writing. … All three wanted to flood the world with their ideas. (93)

[via: Was this “Much ado about nothing?”]

The Good Life in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

Nijay K. Gupta

Paul used a wide variety of metaphors in his letters: sacrifice, athletics, body and head, sowing and reaping, and so on. But remarkably, martial imagery appears in almost all of Paul’s letters with interest in guiding the Christian life. (95)

In this chapter, we will compare Paul and the philosophers on four subjects: life is a battle, the good soldier’s courage, the good soldier’s obedience and cooperation, and the good soldier’s self-discipline. (96)

If life is a battle, who or what is the enemy? … Paul saw the primal “enemies” as “sin” and “death.” (98)

For many of the ancient philosophers, like Socrates, the primary concern was the war against passions. Seneca, as a Stoic, believed that one had to face the realities of “fate” and inevitable hardships, and ultimately one was called to resist temptation and control human desires (see Ep. 87.41; 95.5). (98)


…the most prominent trait of the good soldier was virtus, which means “manliness” or “courage.” (99)

…(Rom 16:7; Philem 23; Col 4:10). English translations have trouble conveying the idea that, in these particular instances, Paul uses the specific language of (fellow) prisoners of war. (101)


The common assumption here is that the good soldier is not self-focused; he sees himself as a servant of the emperor and as a piece of a whole (army unit). (102)

…but when they come to a battle, the whole army is but one body, (105) so well coupled together are their ranks, so sudden are their turnings about, so sharp their hearing as to what orders are given them, so quick their sight of the ensigns, and so nimble are their hands when they set to work; (106) whereby it comes to pass, that what they do is done quickly, and what they suffer they bear with the greatest patience. Nor can we find any examples where they have been conquered in battle, when they came to a close fight, either by the multitude of the enemies, or by their stratagems, or by the difficulties in the places they were in; no, nor by fortune neither, for their victories have been surer to them than fortune could have granted them. – Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 644). Peabody: Hendrickson.


Seneca could point to soldiers when he waxed on about the difference between virtus and voluptas (pleasure). (104)

Virtus you will find in the temple, in the forum in the senate house, defending the city’s walls, dusty and suntanned, with rough hands; pleasure you will find most often lurking and seeking shade around the baths and sweating rooms, and places that fear the magistrates, soft, effete, and reeking of wine and perfume, pallid or else painted and made up like a corpse. (Beat. 7.4)

Paul and Seneca on the Modern Myth of the Pure Gift

David E. Briones


Underlying this “pure” perspective on God’s giving is a sharp distinction between two economies: the market economy and the gift economy. (106)

…what if I told you that giving with no strings attached is a recent phenomenon? What if you discovered that no one thought this way in the ancient world? What if you learned that this way of thinking about gift giving had more in common with post-Enlightenment philosophy (especially Immanuel Kant) than biblical Christianity? More straightforward, what if I told you that the notion of the “pure” gift is a modern myth? (107)

In what follows, I will seek to show that the notion of the “pure” gift is indeed a modern myth. … Although worlds apart philosophically and theologically, they have much in common on this point. (108)


Setting his ancient context.

Seneca is convinced that giving, receiving, and returning benefits “constitutes the chief bond of human society” (Ben. 1.4.2), and for that reason, he goes to great lengths to preserve this vital practice. But he encounters many problems along the way. (108)

| To begin with, ancient society is wicked: “wicked we are, wicked we have been, and, I regret to add, always shall be” (1.10.3). … If left unchecked, the wickedness of ingratitude in society will destroy the (108) system of giving and receiving. (109)

…givers do not employ reason and discernment in their giving. (109)

Some benefactors delay their gifts (2.6.1-20). … Still others would not stop mentioning how beneficent they have been. Seneca paints an amusing picture of a man who, after being freed from the hand of Caesar by a benefactor, cries out, “Give me back to Caesar!” because this liberated person could no longer endure the egotism of his liberator. This self-absorbed blowhard would not shut up. He keeps declaring, “It is I who saved you, it is I who snatched you from death.” Annoyed with such pomposity, the freed person replies, “I owe nothing to you if you saved me [only] in order that you might have someone to exhibit. How long will you parade me? How long will you refuse to let me forget my misfortune? [Even if I were prisoner of war] in a triumphal procession, I should [only] have had to march but once [in shame]!” (2.11.1-2) (109)

…without praise and without glory, to do anyone a service because it is to our own interest. What nobleness is there in loving oneself, in sparing oneself, in getting gain for oneself? The true desire of giving a benefit summons us away from all these motives, and, laying hand upon us, forces us to put up with loss, and, forgoing self-interest, finds its greatest joy in the mere act of doing good. (4.14.3-4; my italics [underlines])

An ancient version of the “pure” gift?

…this begs the question: are total self-interest and solely other-interest the only two options when it comes to interests in giving? Seneca doesn’t think so. (111)

A virtuous other-oriented self-interest.

Let us never bestow benefits that can redound to our shame. Since the sum total of friendship consists in putting a friend on an equality with ourselves, consideration must be given at the same time to the interests of both. I shall give to him if he is in need, yet not to the extent of bringing need upon myself; I shall come to his aid if he is at the point of ruin, yet not to the extent of bringing ruin upon myself, unless by so doing I shall purchase the safety of a great man or a great cause (2.15.1; my italics [underlines])

I am not so unjust as to feel under no obligation to a man who, when he was profitable to me, was also profitable to himself. For I do not require that he should consult my interests without any regard to his own; no, I also desire that a benefit given to me should be even more advantageous to the giver, provided that, when he gave it, he was considering us both, and meant to divide it between himself and me. Though he should possess the larger part of it, provided that he allowed me to share in it, provided that he considered both of us, I am, not merely unjust, I am ungrateful, if I do not rejoice that, while he has benefited me, he has also benefited himself. (6.13.1-2; my italics [underlines])

A Virtuous reciprocal obligation.

The success of the game rests on the obligation to reciprocate or, as Seneca puts it, keeping the ball in the air. (113)

Does Seneca promote an ancient version of the “pure” gift? The answer is an emphatic “no!” He promotes a virtuous other-oriented self-interest and assumes the presence of reciprocal obligation in gift exchange. These are the very pillars of an institution that binds society together. Without them, it will inevitably collapse. (114)


A Christian other-oriented self-interest?

cf. Phil 2:4. The “not only…but also” contrast is crucial. Self-interest is not completely eradicated from the social exchange. It’s radically reconfigured. The Christian ought to look to the interests of others first, while considering one’s own interests second. Paul, like Seneca, approves of an other-oriented self-interest. The major difference, however, is that Paul roots his perspective in the Christ-event (i.e., the historical incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ Jesus). (115)

A Christian reciprocal obligation?



Table 9.1. Similarities and Differences

Seneca, On Benefits Paul, Philippians and Romans
Seneca makes a distinction between exploitative self-interest and other-oriented self-interest. Paul makes a distinction between ungodly self-interest and other-oriented self-interest.
Seneca assumes obligation is a virtuous element in gift giving. Paul assumes obligation is a godly element in gift giving.
Seneca believes that the reciprocity of gifts is crucial to a well-functioning society. Paul believes that the reciprocity of gifts is essential to the well-being of the church.
Seneca looks askance at one-way giving because it never achieves the goal of gifts: relationship. Paul never advocates one-way giving, because koinōnia relationships in Christ are give-and-take relationships.
Seneca affirms other-oriented self-interest but roots it in various acts in reason and acting in accordance with nature. Paul affirms other-oriented self-interest but roots it in the grace of God.

Life and Afterlife Among Paul and the Philosophers

James P. Ware


…all were agreed upon the impossibility of resurrection–the reversal of death through the restoration of the physical body to imperishable life. A typical ancient tomb inscription reads, “No one who has died rises up from here” (Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae 3.1406). … “A god if he wishes can easily rescue a living man, even from afar…But surely not even the gods can deliver anyone, even one they love, from death, the common fate of all” (Odyssey 3.229-38). “When once human beings die and the dust receives their blood,” the god Apollo proclaims in Aeschylus’s tragedy entitled the Eumenides, “there can be no resurrection. All other things his mighty power can do or undo with effortless ease, but for death alone my father Zeus has no divine enchantment” (Eumenides 647-49). (123)


…the Stoic doctrine of “rescurrence.” This doctrine postulated the cyclical destruction by fire and subsequent renewal, in its identical form, of the entire created order (Epictetus, Disc. 3.13.4-7; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.118; Seneca, Ep. 9.16; 36.10-11; 71.11-16). (124)


…the Stoics believed in divine providence. Their understanding of the divine was a mix of pantheism and polytheism. (125)

I have placed every good within you; your good fortune is not to need good fortune. “But,” you say, “many sad things, frightful and hard to bear, happen to us.” Because I was unable to keep you from these sufferings, I have armed you against them all–endure bravely! This is the way in which you may be superior to God: the divinity is without sufferings, you are above them. Disregard poverty: no one lives as poor as he was born. Disregard pain: it will either go away or take you away. Disregard death: it either brings you to an end or to a different place. Disregard fortune: I have given it no weapon with which it can strike your soul. Before all things I have taken care that nothing should nold you in life if you are unwilling: the exit lies open. … Let every time, every place teach you how easy it is to renounce nature and thrust its gift of life back in its face! (Prov. 6.5-8)

The words “I was unable” reflect a conception involving definite limits to the power of the divinity and the goodness of creation. In Stoic thought, (125) the necessity of fleshly embodiment, given its inherent perishability, placed constraints even on divine providence and power (see Epictetus, Disc. 1.1.10-12; Seneca, Ep. 58.27; 107.9-10). (126)

Seneca counseled noble resignation or acquiescence to death, a necessity that even the highest divinity was unable to alter. … Seneca and his fellow Stoics approved, even encouraged, suicide under the proper circumstances… (126)


cf. Is 25:6-9

In the midst of an ancient world that believed even the gods had no authority over the realm of death, the Jewish people awaited a new act of God, whereby death would be undone, and the whole created order would be restored and renewed. (127)


According to Paul’s “good news,” Jesus not only suffered and died “for us” (1 Thess 5:10; cf. Titus 2:14) but also rose again “for us” (2 Cor 5:15; cf. Rom 4:24-25; 8:34). And therefore when he rose from the dead, Jesus conquered death on behalf of all humanity. (128)


cf. 1 Cor 15:51-54

In Seneca’s philosophy, death is the necessary byproduct of creation and will exist forever in an everlasting cyclical recurrence of all things. In Paul’s teaching, death is the baneful distortion of the good creation, but has now been overthrown by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and at his coming in glory will be no more. (131)

Heavenly Visions in Plato, Cicero, and Paul

Joseph R. Dodson


cf. Plato, Resp. 10.614d-619b. (136)


Be assured of this, so that you may be even more eager to defend the commonwealth: all those who have preserved, aided, or enlarged the fatherland have a special place prepared for them in the heavens, where they may enjoy an eternal life of happiness. For nothing of all that is down on earth is more pleasing to that supreme God who rules the whole universe than the assemblies and gatherings of men associated in justice (Cicero, Resp. 6.13; LCL)

Surely all those you consider to be dead are live. Like abn inmate from a prison, they have escaped from the bondage of the body. In contrast, however, what you call ‘life’ is really death” (Cicero, Resp. 6.4; my translation)

In sum, as we have seen so far, Plato and Cicero employ the myth of Er and the dream of Scipio to underscore that virtuous souls ascend to heaven when they die, while wicked souls will be dreadfully tortured for their sins. In both stories, a hero is caught up to experience (139) a higher form of life beyond this biological existence. (1540)


…all three of these authors express hope for a better life after death. Their basis of this hope centers on ascension stories. (140)

This somewhat coheres with Paul’s proclamation that our temporary life and all its sufferings are light compared to the eternal weighted glory of God, in which believers will fully share in the next age (2 Cor 4:17; Rom 8:16-18). One of the major differences, however, is that whereas Plato and Cicero looked forward to their reward at the moment of their bodily death, Paul concentrates the hope of believers on the day of their bodily resurrection. And, just as significant, Plato and Cicero’s hope of everlasting life depends on individual virtue (if you’re good enough, you’ll make it), whereas Paul’s hope centers–not on our works–but on the righteous act of Jesus Christ. The Lod’s one righteous deed resulted in life for all people, and through his one act of obedience, the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:18-19). (140)

Plato and Cicero concern themselves with the fate of individuals at their deaths, but the apostle focuses on the large group–the entire community of believers at the final resurrection. (141)

Paul encourages people to live righteously because everyone will give an account for their actions done in the body (Rom 14:10-12; 2 Cor 5:9-10). Yet in another contrast, Paul believes that not only will humanity’s deeds be judged, but their secret thoughts and motives will be as well (Rom 2:16; 1 Cor 4:5). (141)

Paul actually never mentions a resurrection of the unrighteous dead, nor does he detail what happened to the depraved souls who have already departed. (141)


Paul did not seek legitimacy of his ministry based on his being caught up to heaven. It’s based on Christ’s resurrection from the grave. (144)

Paul and Seneca on Suffering

Brian J. Tabb

You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if Providence rules the world, it still happens that many evils befall good men (On Providence 1.1 Seneca)

First, Seneca addresses whether and how “Providence rules the world.” … Seneca likes God (Jupiter) to a glorious parent who severely disciplines his children out of concern for their true good. “He does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fits him for his service” (1.6). (147)

Second, Seneca clarifies that the calamities commonly considered “evils are not really so” (3.1) (148)

Third, the philosopher urges his friend not to pity a good person who endures hardships, “for he can be called miserable, but he cannot be so” (3.1). (148)


Parallels with the Stoic sage. Paul’s writings about his own and others’ sufferings suggest some conceptual parallels to Seneca’s work. For example, the Stoic philosopher would approve of the apostle’s appeal for readers to be unmoved by his afflictions (1 Thess 3:3) and his teaching that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Rom 5:3-4 ESV). Moreover, one can picture the Stoic sage saying, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil 4:11-12 ESV; cf. On Firmness 5.4). Seneca would likewise present his fearless hero Marcus Cato taking up Paul’s taunt, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55 NIV). (149)

First, for both writers, afflictions reveal one’s moral courage and inner peace. (149)

Second, people should learn from and imitate those who suffer well. 9149)

Third, adversities are not random but are governed by God’s plan (though the Stoic and Christian authors do not mean the same thing by “God”). (149)

Fourth, a teacher’s exemplary conduct amid hardships demonstrates his personal integrity and the legitimacy of his teaching over against pretenders. (150)

Fifth, Paul and the true philosopher are not conquered by adversity but triumph over it. (150)

Contrasts with the Stoic sage. … First, for the Stoic, God is “outside of suffering” and admires great souls like Cato whose fortitude in affliction demonstrates that they are “superior” to suffering (Prov. 6.6; cf. 2.9). In contrast, Paul declares that the Son of God “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” and the apostle longs to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 2:8; 3:10 ESV). (150)

| Second, the Stoic wise person shows his own self-sufficiency, moral strength, and superior reason when enduring adversity. … Alternatively, Paul conquers not by his own reason but by Christ’s love and power, which is perfected in his weakness (Rom 8:37; 2 Cor 12:9-10). (150)

Third, the philosopher stresses the educational value of hardships, which test, harden, and ready a person to fulfill his or her potential. (150)

However, Paul insists that he suffers for Christ, to make Christ known. Thus, there is a christological, missiological design to Paul’s sufferings. (151)

Fourth, Seneca counsels that we should be ready for future suffering but should neither fear future calamity nor hope for better circumstances (Ep. 5.7-9). He calls hope “merely the title of an uncertain blessing” (10.3) and insists that the sage “ever lives happy in the present and unconcerned about the future” (On the Happy Life 26.4). In contrast, the apostle’s convictions about the future fundamentally shape his perspective on present hardships. He asserts, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 ESV). (151)


In the end, the Stoic sage demonstrates his self-mastery in suffering, but the afflicted apostle shows that he is mastered by Christ. Suffering uniquely reveals what people believe, value, and hope for. (153)

Table 12.1. Sufferings

The Sufferings of the Stoic Sage The Sufferings of the Apostle Paul
The suffering sage is morally superior to God, who is unaffected by suffering. The apostle suffers like and for the Son of God, who suffered for his people.
Sufferings demonstrate the sage’s self-sufficiency and superior reason. Sufferings demonstrate the sufficiency and superiority of Christ, whose power is perfected in human weakness.
Sufferings have an educational design: they test, harden, and prepare people to fulfill their potential. Sufferings have a missiological design: the apostle’s suffering illustrates his message about Christ’s cross.
The sage does not fear or hope but is happy in the present regardless of circumstances. The apostle’s hope of resurrection and restoration motivates him to endure and rejoice in present suffering.

The Apostle Among the Philosophers and the Poets

R. Dean Anderson

Stoic philosophy had by far the largest following and the most influence among educated people. (155)

Paul quotes this line [Acts 17] out of the introduction of Aratus’s Stoic poem the Phaenomena. (156)


Let us begin with Zeus, whom we men never leave unspoken. Filled with Zeus are all highways and all meeting places of people, filled are the sea and harbours; in all circumstances we are all dependent on Zeus. For we are also his children, and he benignly gives helpful signs to men, and rouses people to work, reminding them of their livelihood, tells when the soil is best for oxen and mattocks, and tells when the seasons are right both for planting trees and for sowing every kind of seed. For it was Zeus himself who fixed the signs in the sky, making them into distinct constellations, and organised stars for the year to give the most clearly defined signs of the seasonal round to men, so taht everything may grow without fail. That is why men always pay homage to him first and las. (trans. Kidd)


Aristobulus draws from the poem as part of this apologetic aim to defend the antiquity of the Jews by arguing that Greek philosophers and poets gained their wisdom from the Hebrews. (157)

| Since Aristobulus quoted Aratus’s introduction centuries before Paul did, the question arises as to whether the apostle is quoting the Phaenomena directly in Acts 17 or merely Aristobulus’s quotation of (157) it. (158)



Rather than demonize their poets or discard their philosophies, these two Jews, Aristobulus and Paul, redefined and re-contextualized them. However, whereas Aristobulus did so as part of an apologetic strategy before the Gentiles to defend the validity of his people and their ancient wisdom, Paul did so from more of an evangelistic agenda. (162)

The Challenge of Comparing Paul with the Giants

Christopher L. Redmon

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

What “creation” turns out to be is instead “reassembly”: combining and recombining material in a universe that already contained it. (164)

Indeed, to make an apple pie truly “from scratch,” we need not just any universe, but a particular kind of universe with a particular story. (164)

Objects need a universe in which to be. Words need a linguistic world in which to operate. Drop a word into a different world with different rules and a different history, and it will mean something different–or nothing at all. (165)


In reality, every concept in a tradition like Stoicism or Christianity (“grace,” “nature,” “God”) is always interacting with and deriving meaning from every other, so that the full meaning of one concept is only intelligible in light of the whole arrangement. (166)

Consider an example: speech about “death” and “dying” in Paul and Seneca. (167)

The meaning of “death” is entangled with the whole Christian narrative from beginning to end. It is connected to Paul’s story of creation and its subsequent fall and enslavement to evil powers (Rom 5:12-14; 6:20-21;8:21). It is connected to how Paul talks about sin (Rom 6:7, 16, 21, 23) and to the account he gives of the Torah (Rom 7:1-6, 9-10). It is decisively shaped by its relationship to Israel’s God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 5:6-8), becoming a defeated enemy that will soon cease to be (Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:26, 54-55), and implicating Christian practice (Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 11:26; 15:29-32) and practical reasoning (Rom 6:2, 7, 11; 1 Cor 15:56-58) in the meantime. It is finally artificial to think of death as an isolatable idea in Paul. It is woven into a dense network of ideas. In the same way that we can’t create Sagan’s apple pie without first inventing the universe, we can’t get at Paul’s view of death without summoning his whole narrative world along with it. (167)


…how could Paul and a philosopher communicate? Would they have been able to understand one another in conversation if their words meant different things? (168)

| [Cavin] Rowe is pessimistic. … (168) This is because knowledge in the ancient sense was much more than theoretical–it was practical as well. Knowledge was bound up with lifestyle, so that one had to live in a tradition to learn how that tradition finally thought. (169)

But if the ancients were correct, and if what we can know is in fact dependent on how we live, we must be considerably humbler in our analyses of philosophies that are not our own. (169)

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