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Greek Philosophy for Bible Exegetes

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IT’S GOOD to see when a Christian is so consumed with zeal to understand the New Testament that he or she resolves to learn Greek to better understand its message. For some, this same kind of zeal might motivate an interest to learn about the Greek philosophy circulating at the time the New Testament was written.

St. Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy. He was raised in Tarsus (a philosophical center), studied in Jerusalem at Gamaliel’s rabbinical school, and when in Athens discoursed intelligently with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The better-educated of those to whom he directed his letters would have been familiar with Greek philosophy and accustomed to thinking about morals and religion in such terms. St. Paul, who was willing to be “all things to all men, so that some might be saved,” would have found many ideas and principles of Greek philosophy helpful in approaching Gentiles and Hellenized Jews with the message of Christianity.

The writers of the Gospels, too, show every sign of being well-educated Greek-speakers, who might easily have been familiar with elements of Greek philosophy.

Jesus himself probably spoke Greek, and may have lived in the large community of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria during his childhood, where he might have come into contact with Greek learning.

Therefore, for such practicing Christians as may feel inspired to plunge into Greek philosophy to further their Bible study, below is a list of suggested primary texts sufficient to give one a good understanding of the subject.

Diogenes Laërtius (180 – 240 AD), Lives of Eminent Philosophers selections.

Perhaps the best single resource on the lives of ancient Greek philosophers.  Much better than modern texts!  The main chapters (“Lives”) of interest are as follows:

Plato (428 − 347 BC), selected dialogues, in suggested reading order shown

It is widely believed today that St. Paul was influenced by Stoic thought. However, many of the ideas present in Stoicism are found earlier in Plato’s writings.  Stoicism, in fact, could be considered a branch of Platonism.

  • Charmides (an easy introduction to the writing of the greatest Greek philosopher)
  • Apology (background on the historical Socrates)
  • Phaedo (Socrates’ final conversations before his execution)
  • Symposium (On love)
  • Phaedrus (includes Plato’s famous chariot myth)
  • Republic (contrary to common opinion, this is not a literal treatise on civil politics, but an inspired allegory for the governance of ones soul; the subtitle is On the Righteous Man.)

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)

Cicero (106 − 43 BC)

In Cicero (a Roman who wrote about Greek philosophy) we see a kind of humanism emerging that is almost Christian.  Also, Cicero transmits to us the philosophical ideas of Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135 – c. 51 BC) and Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 − c. 110 BC), whose versions of Stoicism would have likely influenced St. Paul and his contemporaries.

Seneca (Seneca the Younger; c. 4 BC – 65 AD), selections 

Seneca was the brother of Gallio, proconsul of Achaea, who handled St. Paul’s case in Corinth. It’s remotely possible that St. Paul met Seneca in Rome, or that among his contacts in Caesar’s household were some who knew Seneca well.

As an example of later Stoicism, one might read either Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Epictetus (55 – 135 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121 − 180 AD) 

Finally mention should be made of the great Platonic-Jewish exegete, Philo of Alexandria  (c. 20 BC – 50 AD).  The three books of Allegorical Interpretation supply an introduction to his sublime thought.  In some ways Philo is the most relevant of all these philosophers for Christians, but as his writing style is somewhat difficult, it’s perhaps better to first gain a solid foothold in Greek philosophy by reading the other authors.

John Uebersax
1st draft (sorry for any typos)

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On Dogmatic Agnosticism

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Many people who call themselves agnostics are arguably dogmatists.  Why do I say this?  Because today atheistic-materialism is a received opinion, a dogma.  And the dominant cultural assumption, as expressed in higher education and mass media, is that Christianity is obsolete, disproven, and all but finished as a paradigm.  Someone like the comedian, Bill Maher, can get on television and make snide jokes about Christians, and imply by innuendo that all Christians are basically stupid bigots, and everyone accepts these statements as completely ordinary, or even ‘cool’.  Nobody expects him to defend his accusations with intelligent arguments.

The problem is that this so-called conclusion is very far from the truth. Christianity has not been refuted or debunked.  Rather, the logical fallacy of ‘demolishing a straw man’ has been committed on a massive scale.  The poorest examples of Christianity (e.g., fundamentalists) are held up as the examples, and these are ridiculed.

The problem is that Christianity is not defined by it’s poorer examples.  In the same way, if we wanted to ridicule democracy as a principle, we could easily find examples where democracy is abused, ridicule those, and thereby conclude that all democracy is bad.  The same principle applies to any ideology or institution.  The simple truth, evident at least since the time of Socrates, is that *most people* are deeply confused.  Christianity is no exception to this rule.  In fact, one could argue that confused people *should* join a religion — since the express purpose of religion is to un-confuse people.  But no religion claims to do that without a long process.  Hence, it is perfectly consistent with the principles of Christianity that, at any given point in time, most Christians are poor Christians!

A true agnosticism would embrace the principle of intellectual humility.  An intellectually humble person doesn’t follow the scenario outlined above. Intellectually humble skeptics or agnostics would recognize their  ignorance as a liability, and therefore make a determined effort to investigate all plausible possibilities that might lead them to a definitive, or at least probable, opinion.

The first prerequisite of such an orientation, therefore, would be to struggle heroically to divest oneself of prejudice — for all people, being inclined to self-interest, habitually distort and select evidence in self-serving ways.  Next, a virtuous skeptic, in the Socratic tradition, would seek out not the worst examples of an opposing viewpoint, but the best.

Here then is my challenge to skeptics or agnostics who want to exert themselves manfully (or womanfully).  I propose that the work of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, titled On Moral Duties (De officiis) expresses, even though it is not an explicitly Christian work, essentially the same religious world view on morality as Christianity does.  What I’m suggesting is that the work is something extraordinary, sublime, beyond the merely rational, or, if you will, inspired.  Cicero’s eclectic synthesis of Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian ethics was integrated into Christianity via the later writers such as Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, and many others. The spirit of Christian morality is in it.  That is, Cicero’s philosophical writings contain much of what is best in the Christian moral tradition.  Yes, Christianity assimilated it from a non-Christian writer, but this was done, for the most part, in conscious recognition and admiration of Cicero.

Cicero’s work is also extremely interesting and entertaining to read.  It is a literary masterpiece, and ought to be read by everyone.   Nor can I imagine anyone reading without their feeling edified.

That is the proposal I would make to the sincere skeptic or agnostic.  Read this work, and having your mind placed on a higher plane, as reading the work should do, then in that light you will have a more solid and unprejudiced basis for evaluating the plausibility of the Christian tradition.  If the moral principles advocated by Cicero in the work, for example, are laudable and socially constructive, that would be something to factor into an evaluation of the merits and truth of Christianity, which has preserved this moral tradition, and taught it to countless millions of people.

This page has links to several translations of On Moral Duties that can be read online or downloaded.  The Peabody translation is excellent.

Written by John Uebersax

March 29, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Timeline of Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers

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I made this timeline to help with my research and am uploading it in case others might fight it useful.  Several birth or death dates are conjectural.

Second draft

Neostoicism

Errata.  (1) Cicero is more of an Academic Platonist, but deserves honorable mention as a major transmitter of Stoic doctrine; (2) need to add Attalus, a teacher of Seneca, to figure.

For more information :

Stoics

Epicureans

Written by John Uebersax

September 3, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Posted in philosophy, Stoicism

The Socratic Schools of Philosophy

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Often when we think of Socrates we think of Plato almost exclusively, and forget that Socrates’ other pupils made important contributions. Each of these schools emphasized some important aspect of Socrates’ teachings. Rather than focus on one school, such as Platonism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism, exclusively, we do well to study them all, seeking  to integrate the insights associated with each.


For more information:

Written by John Uebersax

August 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Evagrius Ponticus, antirrhēsis, and the Stoic concept of first movements

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From:  Evagrius of Pontus: Talking Back, A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons. Translated with an Evagrius Ponticus - Antirrhetikos (Talking Back)Introduction by David Brakke.  Cistercian Publications, 2009

pp. 23-24

In the prologue to Talking Back [Antirrhêtikos] he [Evagrius Ponticus] cites Qoheleth: “No refutation [antirrhésis] comes from those who perform evil quickly; therefore, the heart of the children of humanity has become confirmed with them for the doing of evil” (8:11)  [Ecc. 8:11. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.]

Evagrius interprets this and related verses (Ezek 18:4; Prov 26:4-5) to mean that one should refute an evil thought as soon as possible after it occurs to one, before “it is firmly set in one’s thinking”; if the monk does so, “sin is easily and swiftly handled.” But if the thought is allowed to persist, it leads the soul from merely thinking about sin to actually performing sin and thus to death (Prol.2). By repelling the evil thought, antirrhēsis prevents the monk from performing the evil deed.

Evagrius inherited the idea behind this practice fiom his predecessor Origen (ca. 185-254) and his contemporary Didymus the Blind (ca. 313-98), both of whom adapted to Christian ethics the Stoic notion of a“proto-passion” (propatheia) or “first movement”58

In the Stoic view morally culpable passions such as anger or lust result from our making poor judgments and assenting to an impulse or impression beyond what is natural or reasonable. All people are subject to involuntary “first movements,” which we may either control and use to good ends or allow to develop into a morally culpable passion. For example, I may have a visceral rush of anger when I learn of some injustice (first movement), but I can control it and respond appropriately by, say, calmly rebuking the offender.  But if I assent to the impulse unreasonably and allow the full-blown passion of anger to develop, then I become guilty of the passion. First movements may come from the movements of the body (for example, the sexual urge), but they may also arise as responses to external stimuli (for example, the news of some injustice), which Stoics sometimes called “impressions” (phantasiai). The Stoics argued that we encounter a wide range of impressions, incoming images and ideas, which we must sort out as true or false, leading to virtue or vice, and the like. However a first movement arises, it is the persons rational faculty, the intellect, that forms a judgment about the movement and either arrests it or allows it to develop into a full-fledged passion.

58. On this topic see Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Margaret R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 85-108; Richard Layton,“Propatheia: Origen and Didymus on the Origin of the Passions,” Vigiliae Christiansae 54 (2000): 262-82; Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk, 38-41, 54-56.

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Evagrius of Pontus: Talking Back

A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons

Translated with an Introduction by David Brakke

Cistercian Publications, 2009

http://www.cistercianpublications.org/Detail.aspx?ISBN=9780879073299

In the prologue to Talking Back [Antirrhêtikos] he [Evagrius Ponticus] cites Qoheleth: “No refutation [antirrhésis] comes from those who perform evil quickly; therefore, the heart of the children of humanity has become confirmed with them for the doing of evil” (8:11)  [Ecc. 8:11. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.]

.

Evagrius interprets this and related verses (Ezek 18:4; Prov 26:4-5) to mean that one should refute an evil thought as soon as possible after it occurs to one, before “it is firmly set in one’s thinking”; if the monk does so, “sin is easily and swiftly handled.” But if the thought is allowed to persist, it leads the soul from merely thinking about sin to actually performing sin and thus to death (Prol.2). By repelling the evil thought, antirrhésis prevents the monk from performing the evil deed.

{p. 24}

Evagrius inherited the idea behind this practice fiom his predecessor Origen (ca. 185-254) and his contemporary Didymus the Blind (ca. 313-98), both of whom adapted to Christian ethics the Stoic notion of a“proto-passion” (propatheia) or “first movement”58

In the Stoic view morally culpable passions such as anger or lust result from our making poor judgments and assenting to an impulse or impression beyond what is natural or reasonable. All people are subject to involuntary “first movements,” which we may either control and use to good ends or allow to develop into a morally culpable passion. For example, I may have a visceral rush of anger when I learn of some injustice (first movement), but I can control it and respond appropriately by, say, calmly rebuking the offender.  But if I assent to the impulse unreasonably and allow the full-blown passion of anger to develop, then I become guilty of the passion. First movements may come from the movements of the body (for example, the sexual urge), but they may also arise as responses to external stimuli (for example, the news of some injustice), which Stoics sometimes called “impressions” (phantasiai). The Stoics argued that we encounter a wide range of impressions, incoming images and ideas, which we must sort out as true or false, leading to virtue or vice, and the like. However a first movement arises, it is the persons rational faculty, the intellect, that forms a judgment about the movement and either arrests it or allows it to develop into a full-fledged passion.

58.

On this topic see Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Margaret R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 85-108; Richard Layton,“Propatheia: Origen and Didymus on the Origin of the Passions,” Vigiliae Christiansae 54 (2000): 262-82; Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk, 38-41, 54-56.

http://books.google.com/books?id=mSxlPx7_V1QC

http://books.google.com/books?id=s14KOKLUsvUC

http://books.google.com/books?id=pLoNUFJaIHAC

Written by John Uebersax

March 10, 2010 at 6:40 am