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Paul and Stoicism: Engberg-Pedersen Lecture

April 17, 2015

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.

  1. Paul boasts of his suffering stoically. A major motif in Christianity, is to bear it. To be a suffering servant.

    • Paul’s references to suffering aren’t Stoic-inspired. There are no references to Stoic thinkers or philosophers. The “suffering servant” is an Old Testament motif, not Stoic. Do read things more carefully.

  2. I have written an extensive reply to Troels Engberg-Pedersen and his predecessors in the first half of my monograph The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul (Mohr Siebeck 2010, 2013; Fortress 2014). You can access it via my page. There you also find a summary article for download (“Ethics and the Spirit in Paul (1): Religious-Ethical Empowerment through Infusion-Transformation?,” in: Expository Times 125 [2014], 209–219), as well as other materials relating to pneumatology and Stoicism.

  3. Dear Larry, thank you for your summary of this line of Pauline research. I recall Engberg-Pedersen’s lecture here in Szeged, Hungary a couple of years ago. I had the same feeling: a lot depends on how and from which viewpoint you want to read a text. NT is written in Greek after all. No suprise that words and concept shared with Greek philosophical texts come up here and there. On the other hand, when you mention syneidesis, I would call Paul a more creative thinker. As far as I remember from my readings, syneidesis had been a popular concept only before Aristotle, then for several decades has been missing from sources and suddenly showed up again at Paul and Seneca, almost contemporaries. If this is true, Paul has a credit as a re-developer of this important Greek philosophical term. What do you think?

    • I am sure that you are right that Paul developed the notion of “conscience” (and I suspect that Engberg-Pedersen would not disagree).

    • G. Gaddie permalink

      Sounds valuable. I am currently trying to find the origin of psychology. Or the heightened awareness of the interior self, and thinking, as distinct from perceptions of the external world. Conscience and “spirit” and Paul seem part of that.

      The escape to this interior world may have been viewed by stoics or Paul as a – even the – promised “kingdom.””

      • Er, no “escape to this interior world” in Paul! Paul refers to an inner transformation, but only as the first stage of what is to be a wholesale and bodily transformation of the redeemed. That’s hardly Stoic or Greek in any way.

  4. Dante Aligheri permalink

    I’ve read some Bogdan Bucur on the conception of the Spirit in early Christianity in its relation to God, the Logos figure, and soteriology. But what are some good starting resources for the role of the Spirit in Second Temple and/or apocalyptic Judaism, especially in eschatology?

    I’ve also read a fair amount of Andrei Orlov’s work, some of Crispin Fletcher-Louis (I need to get around to reading more), on Jewish conceptions of anticipatory angelomorphism/theosis in the World to Come, but the Jewish apocrypha cited does not seem to mention the Spirit explicitly or use the Spirit in a similar way that Paul does in bringing about the eschaton or the resurrected life.


    • On the divine/holy Spirit in ancient Jewish and Chistian texts, see: John R. Levison, Filled with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

  5. conorhanson permalink

    Appreciate your comment that Etymology isn’t semantics, that is very true. It seems too easy a place to make a sensational claim.

    Do you have some advice on how to avoid conflating faith/doctrinal questions with historical questions when studying Scripture or ancient texts that have similarities to Scripture?

    Also, thank you for your blog! It is very helpful and I must say, prior to finding your blog my reading wish-list was much shorter than it is after finding it!

    • If you mean how to avoid one’s own faith-doctrinal stance influencing one’s historical/exegetical conclusions, that requires some self-discipline. You need to be candid about what your faith-doctrinal concerns are, which can help you detect when they’re distorting things. You have to be clear about your questions: Are you trying to understand this or that text in its/his own terms, or are you trying to engage it with modern questions in mind, etc.
      And you must decide whether you’re comfortable with a truly historically conditioned biblical text.

      • conorhanson permalink

        Thanks for that insight. My question was more geared toward seeing historical similarities between Christianity and surrounding religions/cultures in antiquity, and distinguishing those historical questions from the content of such beliefs (the faith questions). Everett Ferguson’s “Backgrounds of Early Christianity” makes this distinction.

        While the historical fact (and I agree, the intellectual furniture of Paul’s day was shaped by what came before him) may stand, how would you go about distinguishing the historical similarities/connections from the semantic content of “spirit” in Paul and the semantic content of “spirit” in Stoic writings? Is Paul infusing the word “spirit” here with a distinctly Christian meaning? Thanks for your engagement, I apologize if my questions are not a clear as they could be.

      • Conor: A Key principle of linguistics: THe key semantic unit is the sentence (not the individual lexeme/word). Words/lexemes acquire particular meaning in sentences. So, e.g., Paul refers to the human spirit, with certain functions & attributes, and also to the divine Spirit, the latter with quite distinguishable attributes. Engberg-Pedersen’s observation was that Paul seems to write about the human and divine spirits as if they are real, “material” in a special sense, and not merely principles or ideas. That’s correct. But it’s debatable whether this comes specifically from Stoicism, as the biblical texts that were Paul’s scriptures already refer to the divine spirit in similar ways.

  6. Patrick Stefan permalink

    Thanks for this, Larry. It does seem to me that Paul is using the ‘spirit’ concept from Jewish apocalypticism, rather than Stoic thought. But could we say that he is also being influenced by ideas in Graeco-Roman culture in general (since all Judaism seems to be Hellenized to some extent or another)? I am thinking about Dale Martin’s compelling (in my estimation) read of medical texts that show the pneuma as a kind of ‘material’ stuff that gives shape and quality to external objects. I suppose I see that going on in Paul as well as the spirit is referred to as the divine apportioned spirit that enables Christians to cry ‘abba’ (Rom. 8.16) yet there are times were the divine spirit is called ‘your spirit’ (Gal. 6.18).

    Yet, when he moves into using the soma Christou concept, it does seem like he is borrowing off of Stoicism to an extent since there are no previous Jewish examples of a group being called someone’s body. So I suppose I am more inclined to see Paul as a Jewish apocalyptic thinker who has some serious eclecticism going on.

    • Patrick: I honestly doubt that Paul thought he was “borrowing” anything from Stoics in referring to the ekklesia as “the body of Christ”. We may say that the origins of the notion of a collection of people as forming a “body” lie somewhere in Greek thought. But by the time we get to Paul we’re over 300 yrs into the cultural and linguistic meeting of “Greek” and other peoples/languages/groups in the eastern Mediterranean. Even Aramaic came to use an equivalent for “body” (gupa), likely reflecting origins of this notion in Greek thought, but showing also that the notion (and usage of the term “body”) had by then become commonplace.
      So, what are we trying to do when we say: “Hey, this or that word/notion I can show had its waaaay back there origins in X or Y”?? It may be an interesting historical note, but it’s not necessarily any key to understanding better the actual usage of the term/notion in whatever text it is that we’re trying to read. I repeat: Etymology isn’t semantics.
      If you can show that a word is otherwise bereft of meaning unless we take account of this or that “comparison” text or prior usage, OK. But it’s not clear to me that this is the case with “spirit”.
      I’d say that Paul was a Jewish activist-thinker of his time, and so (likely largely unconsciously) heir of the preceding centuries of cultural and linguistic developments that for him were simply part of the religious and intellectual tradition in which he lived.

      • Patrick Stefan permalink

        Thanks for the reply, Prof. Hurtado. I suppose ‘borrow’ was a poor term, I wasn’t trying to say that the body concept as social group. In fact, I think Robert Jewett is compelling in his connection with the body of Christ and the guf Adam tradition in Merkabah Mysticism. But that idea didn’t include the shaping of one’s identity based on inclusion in the body — whereas Paul’s body of Christ does. The only other example of connecting a body with an individual person that I can think of is Seneca in de Clementia who associates Rome as the body of Nero.

        Granted, I don’t suppose Paul saw Seneca’s association and thought ‘that’s a good idea’ — but perhaps familiarity with this Stoic idea led to a similar appropriation in early Christian thought that had no other precedent. I suppose why it seems Paul is appropriating this Stoic idea is because he doesn’t say something like ‘the church is like a body’ or ‘the church is a body like Christ’ (both of which have precedent) — rather, it is a pretty unique claim outside of de Clementia that the church IS in fact the body of Christ.

        But, as you say, I don’t think there was any intentional or conscious appropriation of Stoic thought — perhaps just a tendency to work with ideas that were ‘in the air,’ some of which likely were Stoic.

      • But often the semantic field of a word remains tied to its origin to a very high degree. When say a source text for original usage survives, and is even cited as authority in later texts.

        In such cases, semantic continuity can remain high.

      • Not really. Semantics is properly established solely on the usage of a term and in specific sentences. If there happens to be a connection to word-origin, that could be an interesting sidelight, but it’s not semantics.

  7. Crispin Fletcher-Louis permalink

    Larry, what about Acts 17:28 where Luke says Paul quoted from the Stoic poet Aratus? Others have argued that other parts of Paul’s speech on the Aeropagus, where Paul is speaking to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (v. 18) shows knowledge of stoic arguments. Do you consider Luke’s portrayal of Paul at that point implausible?


    • Crispin: I was simply going on the basis of Paul’s letters. I don’t recall that Engberg-Pedersen draws on the speeches ascribed to Paul in Acts for his case.
      Whatever the relationship of Acts 17 to Paul, I would say that it’s not implausible for a first-century, decently-literate person (such as Paul) to have picked up a couple of one-liners that derived from this or that poet/writer but, by Paul’s time, had become commonplace expressions. E.g., many today would refer to this or that person as “a Good Samaritan” without any awareness of where the expression comes from. The question is not whether Paul may have known this or that aphorism but the degree to which his thought is materially illuminated by reference to Stoicism.

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