Paul and Stoicism: Engberg-Pedersen Lecture
Yesterday, Professor Troels Engberg-Pedersen (University of Copenhagen) favoured us with an invited lecture: “Paul, Stoicism, and the Material Spirit.” He is an established scholar in Pauline studies, of course, and very well versed also in ancient Greek Philosophy. The main emphasis in his line of publications on Paul over a number of years now has been to urge that there are elements in Paul’s thought that derive from, and make for interesting comparison with, terms and concepts that likely come from Stoicism.
In this lecture, Engberg-Pedersen focused particularly on Paul’s use of the word “spirit” (Greek: pneuma). He noted that in popular usage today, “spirit” and “spiritual” tend to signify an immaterial thing, and (probably rightly) he judged that this reflects the general (albeit, now highly diluted) Platonism that is one of the intellectual tributaries of Western culture. But in Paul’s usage, “spirit” seems always to refer to something that is more substantial, and can be referred to as acting and having a real property. Engberg-Pederson offered that in Stoic thought as well, “spirit” is more a highly refined substance rather than totally immaterial. So, he proposes, Paul’s use of “spirit” makes for interesting comparison with Stoic usage.
Maybe. But I wonder if we aren’t missing something else. We don’t know, and (as Engberg-Pedersen granted) it’s unlikely that Paul had ever studied Stoicism or any of the writers connected with it. We do know, however, that Paul was a devout and intensive reader of his Jewish scriptures (the oodles of citations and allusions alone should make that clear). So, isn’t it actually a much more straightforward approach to consider similarities and connections between Paul’s use of “spirit” and the use of the term in those writings? And, if we do so, I submit that we have a good deal of the basic view of what a “spirit” is that Paul seems to draw upon and develop. You didn’t have to be (or be influenced by) a Stoic to imagine that a “spirit” was some kind of highly refined “material” or reality.
Moreover, if we take account of the apparently increasing interest in the divine/holy Spirit in Jewish writings of the period roughly contemporary with Paul (e.g., the Qumran texts), that, too, helps us understand better why the notion is so prominent in NT writings. (As I noted in my book, God in New Testament Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010, 73-95.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s clear that Paul reflects some terms and concepts that likely derived originally from Stoicism. Paul’s references to a human “conscience” (Greek: syneidesis) give us a cogent example (e.g., Romans 2:15; 9:1, and other references in Paul and other NT texts). But in these cases, we’re likely dealing with things that, by Paul’s time, had long-since become simply part of the intellectual furniture (or cultural “groundwater”) of the day. In short, lots of people came to think that people had a conscience and wouldn’t have been aware that to do so was a Stoic notion. There’s a danger of something like the etymological fallacy, if we aren’t careful.
So, with great admiration of Engberg-Pedersen’s knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy, and with a full readiness to read Paul in his historical context, I have to say that I find his emphasis on things Stoic to wander a bit into exaggeration. Moreover, as evident in some of the discussion after the lecture, I was still more puzzled at some of his readings of Pauline texts.
For example, do we really have an ascetic Paul arguing against sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7? Actually, in 7:1-7, Paul gives directions for marital sex that seem rather forthright and affirming, including the radical notion that the wife has her own conjugal rights and that her husband’s body belongs to her, just as hers belongs to him.
Granted, to “the unmarried [Greek: agamoi] and the widows,” Paul suggests (NB: suggests) that they remain so; but then freely advises re-marriage if they are unable to handle singleness (7:8-9). In the following verses, Paul conveys a “command” from “the Lord” (Jesus), however, that married partners should not abandon their marriage (7:10-11), and then even urges that believers married to unbelievers should also treat their marriage as valid (7:12-16). This doesn’t sound very ascetic at all, actually.
I certainly support Engberg-Pedersen’s emphasis in his lunchtime talk to students that we must go to the sources themselves, and read them again and again to ensure that we understand as well as we can. I also genuinely acknowledge the body of work of this most cordial and engaging colleague. Comparison’s with Stoic thought can often help us to see more clearly the specifics and distinctives in Paul’s teachings. I reserve judgement, however, on the question of whether Paul was particularly indebted to Stoicism. I rather doubt it, and the limits of what can be gained from comparing Paul and the Stoics may be more narrow than Engberg-Pedersen might urge.