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Paul as a Culturally-Relevant Bridge-Builder: Paul the Philosopher (Part II)

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul affirms the goal of becoming “all things to all people” when communicating the gospel.  Providentially, Paul’s own cultural background enabled him to speak with credibility in Athens—one of the Roman Empire’s cultural centers (Alexandria and Tarsus being the other key cultural hubs at this time). According to Ben Witherington, “Paul was in the upper 1-2 percent of well-educated people of his day.”[1]  For one thing, Paul had studied under the noted rabbi, Gamaliel I (Ac. 22:3). Also, being from Tarsus—“a citizen of no insignificant city” (Acts 21:39)—Paul could speak to the cultural élites of his day.  

Why was Tarsus so significant philosophically, politically, and culturally?

  • ·         It was the native city of various famous philosophers, including Zeno (the founder of Stoicism), Antipater, Athenagoras, and Nestor.
  • The Stoic poet Aratus (whom Paul cites [Acts 17:28]) was from Soli in Cilicia, near Tarsus.
  • The noted orator Cicero governed Tarsus in the mid-50s BC.
  • Mark Antony met Cleopatra here in 41 BC.
  • Josephus said that the Jewish community here was quite prominent. He called it “the noblest city” the Cilicians had (Antiquities 1.6.1). It had prominent Jewish community.  Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has observed: “As a centre of learning [stagnant Athens] had been surpassed even by Tarsus.”[2]

Because of his background, Paul was a Tarsian, a well-educated Jew, and a Roman citizen—a noteworthy convergence of influences vital to Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.  Being an extremely well-lettered and –credentialed man (2 Cor. 11:21-22; Phil. 3:4-6), God strategically used him as an instrument in cultural centers such as Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. This is in contrast to, say, Peter, James, and John, who would work primarily amongst the circumcised/Jews (Gal. 2:9).  Again, as Witherington points out,

No doubt [Paul’s background] provided him with a broader view of Jews and Greeks, women and men, slaves and free persons (cf. 1 Cor. 9:18ff.) than would be the case if he had been raised in a cultural backwater somewhere in the rural parts of the Holy Land, as some of the early Jewish Christians apparently were.[3] 

When Paul encountered Stoics and Epicureans at Athens, he was by no means out of his element. In fact, he has greater theological sympathy with the Stoics than the Epicureans. On the one hand, the Epicureans were atomistic materialists (all reality is comprised of atoms). Whereas Paul believed that we came from Adam, the Epicureans maintained that humans come from atoms. We come to know through our sense perceptions (and we formulate “concepts” based on those perceptions). Also, the Epicureans were concerned with a life of pleasure and an avoidance of pain. Theologically, they believed that the gods exist, but they are utterly uninvolved in the world (a perspective somewhat resembling the deistic viewpoint).  There is no such thing as an active, engaged divine providence. According to the Epicureans, religion is detrimental in that (a) it creates an unhealthy fear of post-mortem uncertainties and (b) a preoccupation with the prying, interfering gods, which terrorizes humans and destroys their happiness.  In terms of eschatology, there is no final judgment; death is the last word. 

By contrast, the Stoics were materialistic pantheists (e.g., Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus).[4]  The divine pervaded everything and (in the form of fate) governed all.  God was considered the Soul of the universe and the universe as the body of God.  Unlike Epicurean pursuit of pleasure, the Stoics pursued self-preservation through contemplative, practical, and rational reason.  There was for them a kind of divine providence, but no real judgment. At death, the individual soul was reabsorbed into the ever-living Fire. 

In what ways did Paul try to connect with the Stoics?  Paul was truly a discerning Christian thinker.  He embraced the view that all truth is God’s truth, which meant sorting out the intellectual and spiritual wheat from the chaff.  For example, like Seneca the Stoic, Plutarch viewed humanity in its diversity and urged it to think of itself as one community, “even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field.”[5] Likewise, Paul tells the Athenians, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.  He Himself gives to all people life and breath . . .” (25-6). Paul here affirms both the unity and diversity of humanity.  He refers to the “harmonious patchwork of diversity” of human cultures that cover the face of the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 7; 10:5, 20, 31-2) under God’s governance.[6] 

On the other hand, though Paul quotes Aratus, the Stoic Cilician poet, he does not quote him fully.  Notice how he cites the second part without quoting the first: “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring.”[7] Also, unlike the Stoics’ belief in an impersonal fate, Paul’s affirms the biblical message of a personal providence.  Furthermore, Paul outdoes the Stoics of his day by sending them back to their original sources and earliest beliefs.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, rejected the building of temples to the gods.  Later Plutarch would mock the Stoics for doing the opposite of what their founder said: “The Stoics, while applauding this [anti-temple building] as correct, attend the mysteries in the temples, go up to the Acropolis, do reverence to statues, and place wreaths upon shrines, though these are works of builders and mechanics.”[8]  The Stoic Dio Chrysostom at the end of the first century would even defend the use of images.[9]  Again, Paul is calling his Stoic hearers back to their philosophical roots—roots that are much closer to biblical revelation. 

Finally, Paul’s belief in the resurrection is quite a different view from that of his audience, and Paul isn’t going to compromise on this fundamental point either. For Greeks, especially Epicureans, the idea of a bodily resurrection was impossible. Aeschylus said that at the inauguration of the Areopagus court, Apollo stated, “Once a man is slain, there is no resurrection.”[10]  By contrast, Paul is not unwilling to say something that is philosophically out of vogue or disagreeable because of his commitment to the cross of Christ.

Paul’s ministry at Athens reminds us that some worldviews may more closely resemble the biblical worldview than others. For example, Islam’s view of God has greater similarities to the Jewish-Christian faith than Buddhism or animism. Such similarities often make for easier bridge-building in certain respects. It appears that the mocking of Paul’s being a “babbler” probably comes from the Epicureans (with whom Paul has the strongest disagreement); it is likely the Stoics who are open to hearing more of what he has to say.[11]

Paul does this in a Jewish context as well.  For example, Paul says that he was on trial because he affirmed his “hope of the resurrection of the dead” (23:6-7). In doing so, he sides with the Pharisees against the Sadducees before the Jewish Sanhedrin.  

As witnesses for Christ, we should be prepared to utilize philosophical and cultural tools to build bridges while offering good reasons for our faith—just as the apostle Paul did. 


[1] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Narrative Thought World (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 216.

[2] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 108.

[3] Ibid., 216.

[4] There were three phases in the development of Stoicism: the Early Stoa (300-200 BC), Middle Stoa (150-1 BC), and the Later Stoa (AD 1-180).

[5] Plutarch, Moralia 329B.

[6] William Larkin, Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 257-8.

[7] Aratus, Phaenomena 5; cp. Cleanthes (c. 331-233 BC), Hymn to Zeus 4.

[8] Plutarch, Moralia 1034B.

[9] Oration 12.

[10] Aeschylus, Eumenides 648.

[11] G. Walter Hansen, “The Preaching and Defence of Paul,” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, eds. I.H. Marshall and David Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998),  313.

5 Responses to “Paul as a Culturally-Relevant Bridge-Builder: Paul the Philosopher (Part II)”

  1. CMP wrote “As witnesses for Christ, we should be prepared to utilize philosophical and cultural tools to build bridges while offering good reasons for our faith—just as the apostle Paul did.”

    I think it goes without saying (is inferred) but I would add … ” with tact and diplomacy and respect toward others and dignity as the Holy Spirit leads with the purpose of bringing people to Christ and assuming that is thier destiny. Certainly, I say thanks for helping people to be more prepared. I am enjoying your posts and the subsequent comment discussions and am learning a lot … even from the disagreements.

    I’m very sensitive about these issues of tact because I think an insensitive person sent my own mother on a strange journey away from the truth because of a callous tone on a theological point (Calvinistic) that could have been avoided. I am still in discussions with her to try to mend fences from something that happened to her in the church years ago.

    Paul was amazing and I love the story in the book of Acts probably because it is more history and less theology but nonetheless learning about how Christ used him so effectively under such trying circumstances. Inspiring to say the least. And to think it continues today … awesome!

  2. GoldCityDance June 18, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Wait a minute… You mean to tell me Paul didn’t thump his Bible and proclaim that the Epicureans and Stoics are going to burn in hell because they’re atheists (Epicureans), Devil-worshipping, Eastern religion New Agers (Stoics), hedonists (Epicureans) and intellectuals (Stoics)?

    Are you sure you’ve been reading the authentic Luke’s “Book of Acts”?

  3. I feel like such an idiot when I comment on this blog site sometimes. Make so many mistakes … Way out of my league ;-) … I’m such a newbie and I’m much older than I should be for that status. In any case, I just realized this post was from Paul Copan … not CMP … so my reference to and thanks for the post and willingness to teach is to Paul. Actually also to CMP and to all the people that post and comment on this blog.

    I just went back and read the Part 1 of this post too. Very interesting … I too wondered if the Athens speech was a failure or just an illustration that we never know what the response to the message of Christ is going to be. Along with Part 2, I conclude if we go into a scenario to share our Faith with the right heart (led by the Holy Spirit) and preparation (knowledge and understanding of the audience) we can simply trust God with the rest.

    GoldCityDance

    I honestly can’t tell if you are at odds with something I said about Acts or just supporting in a “tongue in cheek” manner. I have a saying “My joke flag is up” meaning “I’m joking”. I can’t tell if your joking or not.

  4. One minor correction needs to be made; the founder of Stoicism Zeno was actually a Cypriot from Citium on the island of Cyprus. Zeno from Tarsus was a stoic philosopher but was born 130 years later.

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