Daily Archives: 2017-05-31 18:03:13 UTC

Early Christianity Looked Like a Philosophical School

Continuing from the previous post on Stanley K. Stowers’ chapter, “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” . . .

To pre-empt predictable objections Stowers begins with three riders:

  1. His comparison study does not make claims about origins; he is not arguing that Christianity began as a Hellenistic philosophy.
  2. Comparison or similarity does not mean sameness; he is not arguing that Pauline Christianity was a philosophy.
  3. Similarities with philosophical schools do not exclude similarities with other social groups.

With that ground cleared, following are seven similarities Stowers identifies.

1. Hellenistic philosophies saw themselves as distinctive sects, each focused on a central value/good

There were, for example, Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans. Each of these had its own attitude toward life and idea of what is the single umbrella good to which one must strive.

Stoics taught that virtue was “the answer” to the question of life. Everything else, all the other values and attachments deemed to be good were subordinate to “unitary good” of virtue. Family, possessions, would always take second place in the event of any conflict in following the ideal of virtue.

For Epicureans the ultimate good was freedom from pain and friendship. And so forth.

For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”. Other values such as marriage, the household, business, ethnicity, were secondary. Even the commandments of God in the Jewish scriptures were superseded by Christ.

Yes, Paul’s stress upon worship of only one God and not many, and his “apocalyptic intensification” of these beliefs was Jewish, but Paul ripped them away from their ethnic, cultic and legal Judean contexts.

2. Hellenistic philosophies were contrary to conventional thinking

Ordinary civic virtue and conventional values were not the way to “happiness” or the “good life” according to Hellenistic philosophies.

The philosophies taught new ways of thinking, new motivations and desires to cultivate. Asceticism was valued.

In this context Stowers believes it no accident that the founders of the Hellenistic schools were not married and that Jesus and Paul were not married either. Paul challenged both Gentile and Judean norms of culture. The wisdom of God was set in opposition to both Greek and Jewish values.

Again, the structural similarities with the philosophies are obvious. (p. 91)

3. Hellenistic philosophies led to a new life, a new orientation of the self, a conversion

Stoics taught that the conversion was instantaneous.

For a more detailed discussion of the similarity between Paul’s idea of conversion to a life in Christ and the Stoic conversion see:

  1. Paul and the Stoics – 1 (2009-11-04)
  2. Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy (2009-11-08)

Other philosophies apparently ridiculed this Stoic idea of the way to attain virtue and taught, on the contrary, that virtue could only be attained gradually, over time, through a series of graduated steps.

Stowers adds that there is, moreover,

a literary tradition that becomes most prominent in the early empire in which writers give vivid descriptions of the turmoil and changes in the soul of those who convert to philosophy. Paul uses exactly the same language for conversion to the gospel. (p. 92)

4. Hellenistic philosophies required techniques to master and remake one’s self

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Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »

Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion

I have long been intrigued by the second century “church father” Justin Martyr identifying himself as a philosopher, not a “priest” or elder or bishop or other ecclesiastical type of title. He left it on record that he came to Christianity after surveying a range of other philosophies, not religions.

Time-warp forward to 2001 and the chapter titled “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” by Stanley K. Stowers in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and we find a rather solid explanation for Justin’s identification, I think.

Stop thinking of the “Jewish Synagogue” as the model for Paul’s churches

One of the first points Stowers sets down is that

We must remember that first-century Jews were Judeans. Interpreters should not, in principle, segregate Judeans from Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on by creating something suspiciously like a modern religion called Judaism. Even Jews who lived permanently in Rome or Alexandria were Judeans living outside of their traditional homeland and therefore similar to Syrians, Greeks, or Egyptians who lived abroad. (p. 83)

(Steven Mason makes the same point with his preference for the word Judeans in place of Jews in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74.)

What Stowers is trying to get through to us is that we need to jettison any notion that when Jews were meeting in synagogues they were in some sense being astonishingly different from anyone else, and it therefore follows that scholars should be very careful before suggesting that Paul’s churches (and gentile Christianity itself) grew out of the synagogue.

A synagogue is a meeting place or meeting practices of Judeans. In our language Judeans were an ethnic people. Unfortunately the idea of “the synagogue” as a Jewish church still haunts much scholarship. (p. 83)

Judean worship was similar to the worship of other gods

Stowers argues that before 70 C.E. Jewish worship, even in the Diaspora, was centrally focussed on the temple in Jerusalem. The great temple festivals, tabernacles, pentecost, passover, were celebrated by Judeans throughout the empire. These were agricultural festivals that celebrated the gifts of produce and livestock that God gave his people, of success in trading and in acquiring the blessings of children.

Temple time with its agriculturally oriented calendar shaped the calendar of the Jews (sic) in general. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices was a major feature of the period. Many Judeans of the Diaspora directly participated in the temple cultus sometime during their lives. The temple tax that supported the daily sacrifices in the temple and the first fruit offerings that signified the ancient pattern of reciprocity and divine giving of productivity were among the major yearly efforts of Diaspora communities. (p. 84)

What of the place of the scriptures? It is generally agreed that the reading of scriptures was a very important for the religious life of Judeans. For Stowers,

The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are . . . absolutely dominated by the centrality of the temple, priesthood and cult. The epics and myths of Judeans were about land, people, and socio-economic reciprocity with God and other Judeans. . . For Judeans, unlike for Christians, to study scripture was to be oriented toward an actual temple, a place where reciprocity with the divine was enacted in the imagined exchange of produce from the land and shop, womb and market. (p. 85)

Judean religion was focused on the idea of reciprocal exchange with God. God blessed his people; his people offered sacrifices and gifts and communal worship in return. And the temple was the focus of this exchange. Stowers writes that the religion of a Judean living 500 miles from Jerusalem differed little in principle from the one living 20 miles away.

Other cultural groups, those from places other than Judea, throughout the empire, recognized these Judean religious customs as counterparts to their own.

The dominant activities of the temple were sacrificial offerings of grain and animal products. Judeans shared these practices with Greeks, Romans, and most peoples of the Mediterranean world. Josephus proudly proclaims that Judeans share the practices of sacrificing domestic animals with “all the rest of humanity” (Ag. Ap., 2.137). (p. 85, my bolding)

Pauline Christianity did not look like a typical religion

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