Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

Chrysippus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Paul’s gospel is the revelation of Christ in the scriptures. What God has revealed “in these last days” to Paul is an understanding of the mystery of Christ long hidden in the Law, Psalms and Prophets.

The saving event that Paul continually exhorted his readers to grasp for themselves was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — especially the death part. He could say he was determined to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.

I have found a very complex discussion by Troels Engberg-Pedersen (EP) of the relationship between Paul’s theology and the argument of contemporary Stoicism particularly interesting. EP does not attempt to explain every aspect of Paul’s thought as derivative of Stoic thought.  That obviously cannot be done. But EP does attempt to demonstrate through a detailed analysis of Romans, Galatians and Philippians in Paul and the Stoics that the basic structure and pattern of Paul’s Christ-event focus, and how it relates to conversion and new life among believers, follows the same logical argument that Stoics used of Reason or the Logos. (I use the term “Christ event” here to refer specifically to the death and resurrection of Christ.) (Other posts on EPs thesis are filed under the Engberg-Pedersen category linked above.)

To dangerously oversimplify, the similarity is this. Paul’s Christ performs the same function as Stoic’s Reason or Logos.

What happens is that the nonbeliever or self-centred “natural” person who lacks any awareness or comprehension of the Logos/Reason (for the Stoic) or Christ (for Paul) is living a benighted and vain life that leads nowhere worthwhile. Continue reading “Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus””


Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a continuation from Paul and the Stoics – 1, a look at Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s thesis.

The previous post introduced a model which enables us to see the stark similarities of the very structures and foundations of Paul’s theological thought with the Stoic philosophical teachings of his contemporaries. The source of these Stoic (and Pauline) concepts is traceable — not to a Palestinian itinerant or a blinding vision on a road to Damascus — but back to Aristotle.

The following synopsis is an overview of what Engberg-Pedersen’s model is all about. My discussion of it comes from me alone and is not part of E-P’s thoughts at all. Details will come in future discussions.

Aristotle’s Happiness :: the Stoic’s Reason :: Paul’s Christ

Whenever Paul in his letters turns to ethical discussions it is clear that he is intensely engaged in thought about the best form of human living, indeed, about the only right, overall shape of human life and behaviour in the here and now. When he bases his ethical discussions on the foundation of a full knowledge and grasp of Jesus Christ and the gospel, he is attempting to establish a general scheme or structure for the ideal and only right goal (ultimate point – telos) of how to live.

To this end Paul was engaged above all with practical thoughts and reasonings that lead to right actions or behaviours.

In doing this he is following in the footsteps of the Stoics who in this respect borrowed from Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that the good to which all aspects of one’s life should be directed was something final, perfect, indeed the most perfect thing. This “end” or “purpose” of a human life alone makes one’s life complete and self-sufficient. One reaches “perfection” in the sense of “being complete” and “having reached one’s end or goal” as a result of having lived a life in conformity with right behaviours, and right th0ughts that led to those right behaviours.

Aristotle and the later Stoics were strongly focussed on engaging in practical reasonings to understand how particular good acts could all be found to emanate from, and in turn be directed back towards, a single grasp or understanding of the “goal” or “directed end” of one’s life.

For Aristotle, this “end” was “happiness”. For the Stoics, it was “reason”. For Paul, it was “Christ”.

The Good in Relation to the World, Self and Others

For Aristotle the “good” that was the “end” of a human life consisted not only of justice (first of all), and moderation, courage, magnanimity, and more, but also of fundamental worldly goods that are needed to sustain life. Note that these qualities include not only “individualistic” virtues, but also “altruistic” ones too.

The Stoics modified Aristotle at this point, and excluded those worldly goods from the essence of what was “Good” for a human. The consequence of this was that Stoic philosophy extensively explored the question of how a “good” person was to relate to the material things of the world. But like Aristotle, Stoics also saw a virtuous life as consisting of qualities pertaining alone to an individual (e.g. moderation) as well as qualities that governed a person’s relations with others for the good of others (e.g. justice, magnanimity).

Paul clearly reflects the Stoic’s philosophy of ethics here.

To Know, To Will, To Do or Not To Do

Intellectual insight is of paramount importance to Aristotle when describing the moral person. For Aristotle, moral insight at the cognitive level is the key to controlling one’s desires and emotions. This intellectual insight is an ability to grasp what one’s life ought to be about and to accordingly understand the right acts one ought to do in order to achieve that end.

For Aristotle virtue is a state of mind that may not always be active. But thoughts — right understanding — can activate it and lead to perform right actions and behaviour.

This “activation” of virtue is Aristotle’s word “energeia”, and it is found in the same context in Paul’s address to the Galatians:

For in Christ Jesus . . . faith works (=is active; “energoumene”) through love (5:6)

Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 about mental conflicts over knowing what to do, knowing “the good”, yet failing to do it despite desiring to do what one intellectually knows to do, follows in the train of the same discussion initiated by Aristotle and developed by the Stoics.

Aristotle’s discussion concluded that there were three states of virtue:

  1. a fully virtuous person is one who has a state of desire and intellectual understanding that leaves no room whatever for a divided mind. By definition a fully virtuous person will always do what is required;
  2. a person who understands cognitively what is to be done, and desires to do it, but who simultaneously has countervening desires and thus has a divided mind, is the person who struggles against these pulls of the flesh and overcomes to do what is right;
  3. a weak-willed person is also of a divided mind, but gives in to their base desires.

Stoics placed even more emphasis on the cognitive understanding of the “end” or goal of one’s life and associated moral virtues than found in Aristotle. For the Stoics,

everything hangs on coming to see the good, on getting a proper rational grasp of it. Then all ‘passions’ will be blotted out. There will be no weakness of will. And one will always and only act upon one’s (new) insight. (p. 53)

That does not rule out the fact of human weakness or a life-long seeking after and growing in “perfection”. But the relevance of this Stoic teaching to Paul’s thought is surely obvious. E-P states

That is why the basic structure in Stoic ethics comes very close to describing a case of conversion. That that is one further reason why it is particularly relevant to Paul. (p. 53)


Much of what is described above may sound like bland truisms to some readers, but that is because we have been immersed in a culture rooted in Christian and Aristotelian traditions.

It is the cognitive foundation of Christian ethics and its related view of their place in the world, vis a vis God, other Christians and nonbelievers, that deserves examination and critique. A humanist (and more humane?) ethic, on the other hand, surely must be grounded in an integrated view of the whole person — thoughts and emotions, understanding and feelings. By pitting parts of our nature against other parts, I believe that our cultural and religious traditions have invited mental and emotional dysfunctions and abuses. I do not deny that some have also been led to lead better lives than they would otherwise have done also as a result of this tradition. But the tree needs examination for all the fruit it has borne, the good and the bad.

By reading Paul in the context of the ethical philosophical discussions that were part of his heritage one also potentially gains a clearer perspective of the nature of Christianity and its relevance for today. Do we really want to cling to an ethical, anthropological and cosmological system that is in excess of 2000 years old? Have we not made at least some progress morally since then?

I am also interested in viewing Paul through this perspective because of what it might well explain about the dichotomy between Paul’s letters and the Gospels. Paul’s Christ is surely a heavenly entity without any ties to this world apart from those of the core gospel message (his incarnation, death and resurrection). Paul’s ethics and Christ derive from reflection, thought, and a philosophical tradition, not from sermons on mounts or ministries of healing.

The Details

This introduces the overview of what E-P’s model is all about. Details of what happens at each point of the diagram to follow.


Paul and the Stoics – 1

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by Neil Godfrey

In Paul and the Stoics (2000) Troels Engberg-Pedersen, building on major scholarly perspectives of Paul, argues for three new ways of understanding Paul’s thought and “theology”.

1. Historical reading

Following Malherbe (Paul and the Popular Philosophers, et al), E-P insists that Paul should not be seen as “against” some Greco-Roman background, but as “being ‘ part of a shared context’: a shared Greco-Roman discourse in which he participated as a Hellenistic Jew.” For E-P this means much more than compiling a stock-take of the points where Paul’s thought compares and contrasts with its religious-historical background. E-P goes much further than Malherbe by arguing that Paul’s overall thought shares the ancient ethical traditions of moral philosophers of his day.

In brief, the present work argues for similarity of ideas between Paul and the Stoics right across the board and fundamentally questions the widespread view that [there is a] basic, intrinsic difference between the perspectives of Paul the (Hellenistic) Jew and the ethical tradition of the Greeks. (p.11)

The basic similarity between Paul and the Stoics, argues E-P, is “not just with regard to a number of particular, relatively minor topoi, but to the whole cluster of motifs that together constitute a major pattern of thought.” What does Paul share with the ethical view of his day, in particular with his contemporary Stoics? E-P argues that they both share “the idea of a ‘conversion’ or ‘call’ understood as a change in self-understanding“. More specifically, they share the idea of an ethical change as

a move away from identification with the self as a bodily, individual being,

via an identification with something outside the self,

and to a perspective shared with and also directed towards others,

[and this perspective will then also] issue immediately in practice.”

2. The validity of Paul’s discursive arguments apart from ideological critique

E-P describes his approach to Paul as a complement of Meeks’ study in The First Urban Christians. While Meeks interprets discrete ideas of Paul and metaphors he used through the actual community practices in relation to their wider social world, E-P focuses entirely on the discursive — sequential and logically knit — ideas of Paul. These, he believes, tell their own valid story without having to be subsumed under attention to arguments about social practice.

3. The consistency of Paul’s thought

Thirdly, E-P embraces the “Paul-was-positive-about-everything-distinctly-Jewish” arguments connected with Sanders and Räisänen. But where S and R see Paul struggling, even psychologically, from letter to letter to work out a consistent argument to accommodate a godly law with the saving power of faith in Christ, E-P, on the other hand, argues that there is far more consistency than S and R realized. This consistency is brought to light when the letters are read with an ancient Stoic’s perspective.

The Paradoxical Junction

So for all of Paul’s apocalyptic and religious terminology, Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s study of Paul’s epistles has concluded that, at core, Paul expresses a message that mirrors what contemporary Stoic philosophers understood as the human situation and the processes required for this to be exalted to an ideal norm.

Paul’s Christ, for example, serves the same function as Reason or “Logos” in the Stoic philosophy of Cicero and Seneca. One’s life is ideally to be found “in Reason/Christ”, conforming one’s life to that of the nature of Reason/Christ, with one’s fleshly desires and passions mortified, and in the process being found in a new community (whose polity is from above, not of this earth) of like-minded others.  Both Stoicism and Paul’s Christianity are normative. That is, both teach that one’s conduct is to be governed by clearly defined standards.

To take a trivial example, where the Stoics spoke of rationality and reason (though also identifying this with God), Paul speaks of God and Christ. Still, the claim is that it is the same basic structure that holds together Stoic ethics and Paul’s comprehensive theologizing. Only, where they set forth the structure in its transparent nakedness, Paul made use of the same structure, but in a welter of ways of speaking that were partly philosophical and partly metaphorical (though Paul himself probably considered them eminently ‘realistic’ and directly referential). (p. 47)

Of course there are differences. Paul’s communities (churches) are more every-day realities than sought-for ideals; Stoic philosophy consistently enjoins compassion for a wider circle of humanity than do Paul’s letters.

Paul and the Stoics argues that the primary differences do not touch on the common substance underlying both Stoic and Pauline views of human nature and its transformation via a higher agent. The differences very often come down to being matters of expressive metaphors and presentation styles. Paul’s apocalyptic and religious language smokescreens the fact that his thought draws on the repository of Stoic philosophy. For all of Paul’s asserted concern for a time and event that is not yet here, but nonetheless imminent, and for “the Christ event” having initiated the time towards that final event, Paul remains committed and most concerned about the here and now, in particular about the cognitive understandings, self-identities, and behaviour and conduct of individuals and communities in the here and now.

The Model

E-P uses a diagram to illustrate his model to help readers follow the common thread in both Paul’s and Stoic writings. I have drawn a much-simplified version of this:

E-P calls it the I-X-S model. Keep in mind that I have simplified E-P’s original diagram. I will also be compelled to somewhat simplify the explanation of the model.

The I box represents the individual before being converted (to either Stoicism or Christianity). This individual values and follows the basic self-centred desires, such as for food, clothing, pleasure and so on. It does not matter if this individual belongs to whatever other social groups, or even if he or she lives a life of isolation from others, the basic values of this person relate to the person’s bodily needs and interests.

The X box represents God, identified as Reason by the Stoics and with (sometimes as) Christ by Paul. When the individual (I) is “struck by” Reason/Christ (X) he attains a cognitive understanding of the nature of X, and responds with a desire to reach towards X. The individual begins to conform one’s values to those of X. This means that he comes to have an “objective” view of himself as a result of seeing himself in the same way X sees him. The individual’s desires and values now conform to those of X. The individual becomes of “one mind” with X.

The S box represents the quintessential social community. After the individual is “struck by” and reaches upward towards Reason/Christ, he or she is placed via X into this community of like-minded persons. This community is the one the individual comes to identify with, no matter what other attachments to former communities or groups remain. The individual now has the same values and objective outlook on himself and the world and all others in it. The individual now has the same concern for fellow community members as does X. He/she no longer primarily values her own interests, but the interests of all members equally. The community also reaches up towards X as it continues to seek to identify more with X and the values and mind of X.

The I box is placed lowest in the diagram to represent its “far removed from, or far below, the X” state in the cosmology. It is also placed on the left as an indicator that it is a condition that exists prior to its mutual relationship with X and being placed into the X-designated community.

Once an I is “in X” and then “in S”, one is “in” these absolutely, completely, as surely as black is black and white is white. In another sense, one is also progressing towards a fuller grasp of X and a one-ness with S.

That’s enough for one post. Will continue with some specifics in another posting soon-ish.

Continued in Christian conversion — an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy


Did Paul wish he could be cursed from Christ for sake of Israel?

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by Neil Godfrey

Reading Troels Engberg-Pedersen (Paul and Stoic teaching techniques etc) and studies in rhetorical/literary analyis (narrative voices and all that) have led to a different perspective on that famous passage in Romans where Paul writes:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh…. (9:1-3)

It’s a pretty flamboyant expression that certainly has the effect of getting readers’ attentions and getting them to gawk in some awe at their superior apostle. I wonder if the author is rhetorically identifying himself with Christ or the interceding Spirit, which is the theme of the preceding chapter.

Continue reading “Did Paul wish he could be cursed from Christ for sake of Israel?”


Paul and the Stoics 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Have got the basic content from my past reading of Engberg-Pedersen’s Paul and the Stoics tidied up and am finally placing the first part of this on the web for central access. The formatting, I notice, is still rough and very stark around the edges, but that will be fixed before part 2 gets up. This is one more step in a long journey I am undertaking in getting up all my notes and reviews and thoughts from biblical studies up in web format. Who knows how long the whole project will take….