From New Perspective to Fresh Perspective to … what’s next?

From New Perspective to Fresh Perspective to … what’s next? October 8, 2013

In N.T. Wright’s earlier work on Paul he advocated a pioneering orientation we now call the New Perspective, in part because Wright himself used that expression but even more because J.D.G. Dunn called the whole movement that. Then less than a decade ago Wright wrote a little book on Paul that added to the new perspective and he himself called it the “fresh” perspective. What Wright added to the NPP was anti-imperial themes: Paul was not only extending Judaism but he was intentionally provoking the idea that confessing Jesus as Lord was consciously saying “Caesar was not.”

What happens now in Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and I have not worked it all the way through, will yet again advance the new and fresh perspectives. What happens here is a renewal of Paul’s Greek and Roman worlds as more central to the mission and message of Paul. In effect, Paul becomes in part a “philosopher” — of the Greek sort — not your ivory tower university theoretician but an on-the-ground and concerned-with-the-world kind of philosopher. The kind we see in Socrates and Plato perhaps more than in Aristotle, but Wright’s focus here is toward the value of the Stoics — Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. To this mix Wright adds a little bit of the great Roman, Cicero — and a sketch of the Wisdom of Solomon as a Jewish predecessor of just this kind of interactive thinking.

So, we get a Paul of two worlds — the Jewish world and the Roman world, now not two worlds but one world, mixed together and not separate as one might have on a library categorization. The days of Hengel’s famous studies of Judaism and Hellenism have come to fruition in a fresh synthesis in this new work by N.T. Wright. The days too of superficial parallelisms are also over: here we find a more robust set of worldview ideas being compared to one another.

The Paul of Acts 17, then, the one who could stand on the same dais as the philosophers of Athens, is a thoroughly Jewish and at the same time a Hellenized Jew, a Jew who could do philosophy in the modes of that day, particularly of that day, the Stoics. He was not unlike the Wisdom of Solomon, then. The old-fashioned Jew OR Greek, then, is broken down in this new edition of Tom Wright’s through on Paul. I give now samples of the progress of his chapter on this very topic…and we are just getting started in a book that goes on more than 1500 pages.

So Paul has been studied in ‘departments of religion’, though neither in ancient nor in modern terms do his letters, or the communities which he founded, belong primarily in such a category (203).

Where do we locate Paul’s world, Paul’s audience, and so Paul’s angles? Wright says in Stoicism.

Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism. Observing the differences between the two, particularly at the level of assumptions, is therefore vital if we are to ‘hear’ Paul as many of his first hearers might have done. If, when someone says the word ‘god’, we think at once of a distant, detached divinity – as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do – we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos.

Stoicism, after all, was the classic form of pantheism, the doctrine that sees divinity in everything. Saying this to someone today might appear to suggest that ‘everything’ is therefore in its essence ‘spiritual’, pointing back to some kind of Platonic vision of a ‘real’ world beyond space, time and matter. Stoicism, however, went in the opposite direction: everything, including the divine force or presence indwelling all things and all people, was ‘material’ or ‘corporeal’, not far from what we would normally call ‘physical’ (though all these terms are slippery with age and varied usage) (213).

An example: Paul can sound at times like the Stoic Epictetus.

Epictetus, more than any other whose writings have come down to us, exemplifies the ‘diatribe’ style, which emerges most obviously in the New Testament in some passages in Paul’s letter to the Romans. There are times, indeed, when it sounds as if Epictetus and Paul had grown up in the same street:

What then? (ti oun) Do I say that man is an animal made for inactivity? Far be it from me! (mē genoito). But how can you say that we philosophers are not active in [public] affairs? For example, to take myself first: as soon as day breaks I call to mind briefly what author I must read over . . .

What then? Is it we philosophers alone who take things easily and drowse? No, it is you young men far sooner. For, look you, we old men, when we see young men playing, are eager to join in the play ourselves. And much more, if I saw them wide-awake and eager to share in our studies, should I be eager to join, myself, in their serious pursuits.

The subject-matter is of course different; but nobody who has an ear for Paul’s cadences, especially in letters like Romans and 1 Corinthians, can doubt that he and Epictetus were, to this extent, employing a very similar method of argument, which traced its ancestry back to Socrates and was to be located, within the disciplines of ancient philosophy, as part of ‘logic’. This was a way of ensuring that one was working steadily towards the truth, and not being deceived by faulty impressions or rhetorical trickery (224).

The result of all this – flying in the face of some recent suggestions to the contrary – is that, for Epictetus, the primary task of the would-be philosopher is in fact theology:

Now the philosophers say that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in every- thing he says and does, he must act as an imitator (zēlōtēs) of God.

Here, for Epictetus, is the heart both of ‘physics’ and of ‘ethics’, and all to be argued out strenuously according to his own practice of ‘logic’. Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active voca- tion: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not.121 Philosophers, to return to our opening image, are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted. Paul had a different message, but might well have agreed with the outline of the vocation as Epictetus articulated it (227).

And Cicero, too:

Cicero, in fact, provides us with evidence of two things which are worth bearing strongly in mind when contemplating the philosophical climate of the world in which Saul of Tarsus grew up and in which Paul the apostle travelled about announcing Jesus as Messiah and lord. First, philosophy was a topic of widespread discussion and debate right across the greco-roman world, particularly among the literary and cultured elite but also – as Epictetus reminds us a century or more later – very much at street level. This was already true before the first century BC, but the events of that highly disturbed period, particularly the terrible convulsions through which the Roman world passed in the middle decades of the century, contributed substantially to a fresh opening of ultimate questions:

These troubled times, which are reflected in the poems of Virgil and Horace, were a significant influence on the Roman turn to philosophy. As long as the main fabric of the Republic was intact, leading Romans had chiefly defined themselves by reference to family tradition and the renown that civic and military service could promote. With the state in complete disarray and no ethical or emotional support to be derived from official religion,we begin to find a more reflective and ascetic mentality, that would become still more prominent in the Empire.

That was the world of Paul.

Second, Cicero’s mixture of the ‘Academic’ position with several significant elements of Stoicism is a reminder that, granted there was no creedal or dogmatic structure or policing of the different schools and opinions, the influence of Plato himself remained massive throughout the period. Much of his thought – for instance, on the immortality of the soul – had passed into Stoicism, just as much of the Socratic method which he made famous had opened the door for the questioning which led some to Scepticism. The explicit revival of the study of both Plato and Aristotle, which we noted earlier, combined with the teachings of both Stoic and Academic thinkers (the Epicureans alone maintaining, as they would, a dignified detachment), to form a general climate of opinion, at least as to the spectrum of possibilities. In particular, when we ask what Paul might have supposed his hearers would be thinking when he spoke or wrote about a being he referred to as theos, about a powerful pneuma through which this ‘god’ might perform new deeds in his people, about the creation and recreation of the cosmos, and many other things besides, we must assume, and we must assume that he assumed, that the default mode for their thinking would be somewhere in the region of the Stoic development of Plato’s thought (231-232).

Here is where we have a sketch of all of this in terms of worldview from 10,000 miles high:

Above all, the worldview-questions give us a sharp insight into the world of the philosophers – and into the possibility of a comparison, when we have studied him in his own right, with Paul. Take them first as addressed to more or less the entire ancient philosophical world. Who are we? We are humans, part of the world but trying to understand it and live wisely within it. Where are we? In the world of space, time and matter, but a world which some think teems with divine life as well. What’s wrong? Most people, even most philosophers, do not see clearly enough in the darkness of the world,do not penetrate its secrets, and so do not live in the best possible way. In particular, they lack ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia), both in the normal sense that their circumstances trouble them and in the philosophical sense that, in seeking for normal happiness in outward circumstances, they are ignoring the real happiness that philosophy can help to produce. What’s the solution? Why, study philosophy, of course, and then you will (gradually) accustom your eyes to the darkness of the world so that you can grasp the truth and live in accordance with it. Part of the result will be that you come at least to resemble the divine, and possibly to be transformed into a divine being yourself. Ironically, whereas ‘religion’ in the ancient world meant submit- ting to someone (a god) other than oneself, philosophy meant that one was autonomous; either because, with the Epicureans, the gods are not concerned with what we do, so that we are only responsible to ourselves, or because, with the Stoics, the divinity is within us, so that responsibility to god and responsibility to self seem to be the same thing viewed from two different angles. Death itself will either be a return to absolute nothingness (Epicurus) or a transformation into a better life (Plato); as we have seen, some highly regarded Stoics kept this question open. What time is it? That’s the sort of question, our philosophers might say, that a Jew might ask . . . (The Stoics might have said that it was time for moral effort; the Academics, that it was time for more thought; the Peripatetics, that it was time for more research; the Epicureans, that it was time for a drink . . .)

And now even more narrowly, the reconstructed “worldview” of the Stoics:

A Stoic would, of course, give sharper answers to the questions. Who are we? We are creatures composed, as is the whole world, of a mixture of the elements, with the physical element of fire indwelling us in the form of the human psychē. We are therefore part of the divine, and the divine is part of us. Where are we? Within the Universe, the Cosmos, Nature, to pan – which is itself composed of the four elements, with fire and air acting upon earth and water to produce manifold forms of life. The same logos is at work in the world as within each of us. What’s wrong? Nothing is wrong with the world itself (the Epicureans would have disagreed strongly at this point). However, most people, deceived either by false impressions or by sloppy thinking or both, do not realize the truth of the matter, and so spend their time in futile pursuit of a mirage they think of as happiness. Even philosophers find it difficult to get it right all the time. What’s the solution? No surprises: study philosophy, start off on the path that might make you a sage, and continue to discipline yourself, to examine your own life and to take yourself in hand. All the virtues are within your grasp through the divine life within you, so co-operate with it and nerve yourself for the moral struggle. This will result in the appropriation (oikeiōsis) of what is in fact natural to ourselves. The end result (surprisingly similar, this, right across the philosophical board): a calm, untroubled life, free, self-sufficient, self- controlled. (The Stoics aimed to achieve this by refusing to regard pleasure and pain as important; the Epicureans, by regarding them as guides, but in a sophisticated fashion which looked for the real, calm, pleasure behind the mask of mere hedonism.) What time is it? For the Stoic, we are somewhere on the cycle between conflagrations; the fiery pneuma, which is the very breath of the divine, of Zeus himself, is at work in the world, and will one day transform everything into its own life of total fire before setting it all in motion yet again (233-235).

Well, this promises to set Paul in a Roman context in a way mostly ignored in the new perspective studies. In fact, ignored by most Pauline scholars today. But I do have to say I’m now wondering (aloud) if Paul would have been seen as a philosopher. So I ask a long-ish question:

Let us imagine our way into the elite circles of Ephesus or Corinth or Athens when a report circulates among them about a man named Paul. Would the reports of his activities — synagogue attendance, synagogue teaching, Scripture reading and explaining, division creating, debate ensuing, persistence in his point of views… then add to this that he worked with his own hands at tentmaking, whether of leather or cloth doesn’t matter much, that he was using such places to gospel and continue his debates and was gaining adherents… and add to this that his new groups were called “churches” (ekklesia, not schools, clubs, not associations) and that he and others were “appointing” leaders called “elders” and “deacons” and that they, too, were reading and commenting on Scripture… now add the big one: it all about this Jew named Jesus, whom they called Messiah of Israel, which drew all the attention to the Bible to see if it predicted that story … now I ask, Would such a man be called a “philosopher”? or something more Jewish? Like apostle? Pastor? Gospeler? Teacher? Would the elites have seen him as one of themselves, a philosopher schooled in the right books and ideas and methods of communication, or would they have said, “Not one of us?”

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  • Rory Tyer

    Perhaps the answer to your final question depends on “which elites” and which activities of Paul they were considering. I wonder whether different people wouldn’t have felt more strongly different sides of Paul (e.g. tentmaking vs. reading Scripture aloud in synagogue) depending on in what social circles they overlapped. A person who knew Paul through one sort of circle may not necessarily have immediately associated him strongly with all the things that others, in other circles, knew about him.

  • KentonS

    Hmm… I think you answer your own question when you said “now not two worlds but one world, mixed together and not separate as one might have on a library categorization.” I don’t think Paul saw it as “either/or”, but “both/and”. Isn’t that what I Cor 9 is all about? Isn’t Paul saying, “When the Torah folks want to talk Torah, I talk Torah. When the philosophers want to talk philosophy, I talk philosophy”?

  • In my mind, Paul’s simple life and traveling around would make him look just like a traveling Stoic philosopher gathering followers, but his visiting of synagogues and talking of a Jew, would make him look like a Rabbi. But the Jews didn’t have an evangelistic mindset, so though the elites would have understood a Stoic philosopher, he would have been a bit unusual in that he would appear as a Stoic Rabbi, I think?

    It’s interesting that Wright speaks of Epictetus, who Wikipedia says was born in 55AD, which would make him an adult after Paul’s letter-sermon to the Romans with their primarily Gentile church. Does Wright consider the possibility of effects on Roman Stoic thought from Paul and the Church’s influence upon Rome when Epictetus began to teach his philosophy in Rome after the death of Nero?

  • mshipman

    Paul was a smart, well-educated Jew and related to all sorts of people as a well-educated person should be able to do at some level to whatever degree. Also, Paul was Pharisee by his own admission and the Pharisees were a rather “outreach” oriented group. Jews that were Pharisees did evangelize (if I can use that word) in Paul’s time. I think Paul was accustomed to it.

    They would have known him as a Jew with some smarts with a Jewish-oriented message about a Jewish Messiah and Israel’s God.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Thank you for this piece. I have been looking forward to your take on Wright’s new work.

    I particularly appreciate your laying Paul’s work over and against that of Epictetus and others here. You highlight how Paul’s style drew and and contrasted with those of the Greek philosophers and Cicero.

    My particular interest is in how much Wright is shifting in laying Paul’s work over and against that of the philosophers of virtue and arete in his work “After I believe.” It seems to me that there Paul is working not so much against the Empire, even implicitly, as he is showing up the moral system that held much of Greco-Roman society together as a weak second to the Fruits of the Spirit as Jesus presented them.

  • Mark Pixley

    I find it rather interesting that your question does not include any of the miraculous that Paul claims as part of “fully preaching” the gospel (in mighty signs and wonders, by the Spirit of God Romans 15:18-20) and frankly his debate with the philosophers at the Aeropagus rates as one of his low points in his itinerary, because when he landed in Corinth he changed his approach due to the lack of impact he had just witnessed in Athens (my own assumptions based on his letters).

    I think a good parable would be you smashed CS Lewis into Yishrael Ariel and perhaps Oral Roberts…hard to ignore the empty wheel-chairs even if you disagree with his yoke.

  • Just a brief note on terminology. Ekklesia language was used for collegia, associations, and clubs. See especially the recent work on associations by Kloppenborg and Harland.