Monday, September 29, 2014



Please see the first part of the review here.
Please see the second part of the review here.

The third chapter in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is thus far my favorite chapter. The third chapter is called Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks and covers pages 197-243, which is a long chapter, but not overwhelming. Yet, it still suffers from the same issues as the other two chapters, and the work as a whole, which is that it is both too much and not enough.[1] What I mean by that is that the book as a whole is too long to use successfully in a course on Paul, but the chapters are not thorough and diverse enough to be used as a research volume on the various topics Wright covers.  

The wisdom of the Greeks is a topic I have covered in work both on Paul and Philo and the conjunction of Greco-Roman with Jewish and Christian thought is a deep well from which one can continue to draw seemingly without end. Wright does draw water here, but it is too shallow. He begins by dividing the study of Greco-Roman philosophy into its three parts of physics, ethics and logics and defines what these terms mean for ancients and distinguishes the differences as to what these terms mean in common usage today. Wright also notes that Tarsus, Paul’s hometown according to Acts, was a major seat of philosophy during Paul’s day and I think this is an important point that Wright makes (199). He then asks, “Was Paul also among the philosophers?” (199).

While Wright entertains a possible negative answer to this question, he rightly notes that “what Paul thought he was doing was offering an essentially Jewish message to the pagan world” (200), which I think is correct and does indicate as Wright thinks that Paul has some knowledge about the philosophical world in which he grew up and travelled. Paul adapted Greco-Roman philosophy where it served the purposes of the Gospel, argues Wright, and I am in agreement with this basic claim (201).

Wright then moves to a more problematic claim for me. He establishes that scholars from F.C. Baur to E.P. Sanders have treated Paul as if he was proclaiming a ‘religion’ (201) and Wright takes issue with this. He claims that religion had to do with Temples and sacrifices in Paul’s day and that what Paul was doing had more to do with philosophy as conceived in antiquity. He offers three major reasons which he believes place Paul among the philosophers: 1) “they presented a case for a different order of reality, a divine reality which cut across the normal assumptions” (202); 2) “they argued for, and themselves modelled, a particular way of life” (203); and 3) “they constructed and maintained communities which ignored the normal ties of kinship, local or geographical identity, or language – not to mention gender or class” (203). 

There is something to this argument, but not as much a distinction can be made between religion and philosophy as Wright wants to make here and nor can Paul be pried away from Judaism this easily. 
After spending chapter two positioning Paul as a Pharisee, now Wright wants to present him as a philosopher as opposed to a representative of religion? The Pharisees are representative of religion, are they not? One could say that arguments 1) and 2) presented above apply to Judaism as a whole within the Greco-Roman philosophical and religious world and that the Pharisees would fit nicely with respect to 2) and somewhat with respect to 3). One could also say that new religions, such as those representing Isis and Osiris and Mithras, meet all three of these conditions for philosophy. I must say, though, that I am not certain any philosophy or religion truly overcame distinctions of class and gender in antiquity (or today). It is not that I do not see a philosophical component to Paul’s thought, just that Wright’s distinctions between philosophy and religion in antiquity are drawn too sharply.

It is also interesting that much deeper in this chapter Wright states that “’religion’ in the ancient world meant submitting to someone (a god) other than oneself,” while “philosophy meant that one was autonomous” (235). Does not Wright here destruct his own argument that Paul was more of a philosopher than an adherent to a religion? Does not Paul's allegiance to Jesus Christ indicate that he was far from autonomous? of course, Paul would never have claimed he was autonomous, far from it.

Wright then moves on to give an overview of ancient philosophy. Although he says on p. 206 that it is “of course out of the question to propose even a short history of ancient philosophy at this point” that is basically what he goes on to do starting with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, then focusing on the four major philosophical schools of Paul’s day: the Academy (Platonic); the Lyceum (Aristotelian); the Stoics; and the Epicureans. He is in a tough spot here, though, as he truly does not give a thorough history, but he must set the stage. This is the dilemma at the heart of the book. Wright wants it to be a thorough introduction not just to Paul but the entire world of Paul, but in terms of the history of philosophy, even if you propose studying the four major schools in Paul’s day, you will be leaving out a lot and what you do cover will necessarily be short and incomplete. I think already that Wright should have overseen a sort of encyclopedia of Paul in which he could have drawn from hundreds of excellent Pauline scholars (and others) who could have covered all of this material more efficiently. Wright is a one man academic industry, and I do not mean this as a criticism or sarcastically, but there is only so much one man can do or should attempt. With this book the limit seems to have been reached.

So, Wright moves on to sketch a short history of Plato and Aristotle (207-211), then takes on the Epicureans and Stoics (211-219), and these short but deft overviews are lacking only more information and detail. I object as a student of Stoicism, especially, to his shorthand attempts to describe Stoic pantheism as “a kind of grown-up and reflective version of ordinary paganism” (217), which assumes an “ordinary paganism,” whatever that is, and does not take seriously the claims of Stoicism on their own. On the following page Wright also describes Stoics as “basically monotheists” (218); but pantheism is neither “grown-up paganism” nor “basically monotheism,” it is what the Stoics claim it to be: pantheism. 

The next section sees an overview of four leading Roman Stoics, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (219-229). Wright acknowledges that Marcus Aurelius lived a century after Paul, so his usefulness as an influence on or setting the background for Paul seems minimal at best, but Musonius Rufus, who lived from (circa) 25-100 AD, is given short shrift, even though his writing on sexuality and other topics, such as the equality of women and slaves, might be best suited to comparing with Paul and early Christian thought. Wright then moves on to a short survey of Cynics and Sceptics (229-232) and an overall “philosophical worldview” (232-237), none of which adds much to the chapter.  

The final section in the book is “Jewish Responses to Pagan Philosophy” (238-243) and it is here that the weakness of the chapter and the whole project is on full display. There were numerous Jewish responses to Hellenistic philosophy, such as found in Philo, Josephus, 3 Maccabees, and many other writings and authors, but Wright settles on the text Wisdom of Solomon. Jewish responses, plural? No, there was only apparently a Jewish response. How one skips the immense corpus of Philo, which is thoroughly Hellenistic, thoroughly philosophical and thoroughly Jewish, is rather bizarre.  The short survey of Wisdom does not do justice to it either, as Wright presents it as a Stoic text, but it is something more complex. As David Winston describes it in his Anchor Bible Commentary volume on Wisdom, “the Stoicising Platonism  of Wisdom is the characteristic trademark of Middle Platonic scholasticism” (33), but we learn nothing of “middle Platonism” in Wright’s survey. This section on “Jewish responses” gives one of many responses as the only one and then handles Wisdom in a way which serves the needs of Wright’s book, but not an in depth understanding of Wisdom itself in its philosophical context. On page 242, Wright says that “the whole second half of the book of Wisdom is a retelling of the ancient story of Israel,” which it is, but Wright gives us none of the philosophical depth of the text itself and it does not situate it properly in its historical time period or location. It is too much, but not enough.

John W. Martens
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[1] This was not a reference to the song “Too Much Ain't Enough” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers often overlooked second album, You’re Gonna Get It, but I suppose it could be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apFi8QJfDCQ.