Paul and the Popular Philosophers

Abraham Malharbe (1989), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

‘Early Christianity developed out of a culture which was more Greek and Roman than Jewish…. Preaching Christians borrowed their arguments and forms of address from Greek philosophers’ (p 2).  ‘Paul’s followers and interpreters took his familiarity with moral philosophy for granted….  He addressed some of the issues Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics and Platonists raised; not their metaphysical systems but their concerns  aimed at moral reformation….   He remains Paulus christianos without making him less Paulus hellenisticus (p 5, 9).

Malherbe takes key Pauline concepts and shows how they were used by his contemporary moral writers, so phrases such as ‘by no means’, ‘gentle as a nurse’, medical imagery, ‘in season and out of season’, ‘not in a corner,’ are key Pauline concepts that are traced back to their philosophical perspectives.  Eg, me genoito, by no means, has several formulations and is used in the diatribal literature of the philosophers. 

It’s a fascinating study of an early Christian thoroughly familiar with the traditions of his philosophical contemporaries, but using these for pastoral emphases (eg ‘nurse’ and ‘father’ in 1 Thessalonians) (p 53).  Paul’s use of the traditional hortatory philosophical tradition is marked by profound change as he reshapes the material to express his experience of G-d working in him or uses traditional Christian material to address issues of concern to pagan philosophers (p 66).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.