After my article on “quoting pagans” the other day, some people were quick to point out the obvious: “But Paul!” Even Dr. Jones, whose article sparked the discussion, responded to my demand for what he would call “biblicism” only with a wry, “Poor Paul.” Of course, Paul did actually quote from pagan sources, so I need to provide some explanation for how this fits with my Scripture-centric program. That answer is quite easy, actually.
The problem centers generally on why Paul quotes to the Athenians what “some of your own poets have said” (Acts 17), and likewise in other places as well.
In a nutshell, Paul quoted Pagan authors for the purposes of critiquing and bringing judgment upon pagans. The basis from which he did this was always the Bible, a biblical worldview, and a biblical methodology—that thing proponents of modern scholasticism derisively label “biblicism.”
How does this work? It just so happens that I wrote about Paul’s use of pagan references and his biblical background in my first book Manifested in the Flesh. Below is the excerpt.
Now, some of you will read this and think I have automatically contradicted myself about quoting pagans because . . . I favorably quote from N. T. Wright. Suffice it to say that a few things have changed in the eleven years since I published this, and I am not sure I would be so quick to use Wright as the right source for conveying some of this info, though I have not fully kept up with his latest to make my own informed judgment as to whether or not he has lapsed into heresy and/or paganism. That aside, I stand by the points made by him here because—to my overall point—they faithfully express what I see in Scripture. Paul was a Biblicist bringing his biblical worldview to bear upon pagans. He quotes pagans to show they are inexcusable in their idolatry.
In short, if a pagan says something that lines up with Scripture, then he’s just caught up to where God expects us all to be according to the Bible. If a pagan says something that is true, and Christians have not realized it yet, that is no argument to go scrambling after pagan sources, but a strong suggestion that we have not understood our Scripture as well as we need to yet, or have forgotten it along the way.
More on scholasticism and its dangers later; for now, my few old notes on poor Paul:
To begin with Paul must have been a very well cultured and educated man. His ability to travel the entire Roman Empire preaching the Gospel, planting churches, training leaders, interacting with all types of people, arguing in courts and before philosophers, operating in prison and from house arrest, writing letters, settling disputes, etc., shows him to be a multi-talented, versatile genius of thought and social skill. Few people could compile such a resume without a great amount of character.
Not only this but Paul exhibits specific knowledge of local cultures in many of his letters and in the accounts about him. For example, when confronting the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on Mars’ Hill, Paul quotes their own poets—Epimenides and Aratus—to them (Acts 17:28), and thus appears to be versed in more than one pagan writer.1 He shows familiarity with Stoic vocabulary, style, and thought in Romans 1–22 and again quotes Epimenides in Titus 1:12. From such usage it appears that Paul must have spent lots of time in the Greek literature of his day.
Getting below the surface, however, provides a somewhat different picture. The context of Paul’s confrontation in Acts 17 begins with him being moved at the great idolatry of the city of Athens: “While Paul waited for [Silas and Timotheus] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16). Paul was not merely playing philosopher as an intellectual game, but he “disputed” first with the Jews and then with anyone in the market who would listen (Acts 17:17). The subjects were idolatry, false worship, and superstition. Once he drew the attention of the philosophers, he confronted them also on the same charge. But he was able to quote from their own poets to drive the point home.
Why was Paul the Jew so quickly able to recite pagan poetry? Aratus’ poem enjoyed wide circulation, since he wrote one of the most popular textbooks on astronomy for his day.3 Every student in Greek and later in Latin would have read his verses. The book was read as widely as Homer in the schools. If Paul was schooled during his early years in Tarsus then he, too, might well have memorized it. It would naturally have come to mind when trying to relate to the Greek thinkers. In their culture, “Everyone would have known Aratus’s poem.”4 This understanding makes Paul’s argument all the more powerful: he undermined the proud professional philosophers of his day with what every school-child would have known! Paul simply used well-known Greek poetry to challenge the misguided thinking of the Athenians.
Furthermore, Paul gave his challenge in an unmistakably Jewish-Christian manner. So much attention has been given to the fact that he actually quoted Greek literature that scholars have often missed the larger picture of Paul’s speech. “What a Stoic audience might not realize is the extent to which Paul draws on Old Testament creation and temple theology (Gen. 1:1–25; Exod. 20:11, 1 Kgs. 8:27; Is. 42:5; 57:15–16; Amos 5:12–23).”5 The entire meeting at Mars’ Hill represents a typically Jewish attitude against pagan idolatry. Paul simply commandeered their own language to preach the Gospel to them.6 Far from showing Greek influence in Paul’s thought, the scene depicts Greek thought under the judgment of the conquering King Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30–1).
Paul and Old Testament Theology
We have to immediately suspect, then, those arguments that would force Paul into a Greek mold over against a Jewish background. This is not to say that Paul was not familiar with Hellenistic culture—he certainly shows that he was. Arguments, however, that force Paul to be primarily a Hellenistic thinker have to ignore or radically redefine too much of what he said. Thankfully, recent times have seen a blossoming of thought regarding the Jewish origin and background of everything about the Apostle Paul. This new and welcome emphasis in Pauline studies complies more with the apostle’s own words. He said, “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus . . . yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers” (Acts 22:3). He also emphasized his Jewish background to the Philippians. He wrote that he was, “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). Paul’s ready identification of his roots directs us to the source of his world-view, and it is not pagan.
In this respect, the most recent New Testament studies have provided the Christian world with some of the finest scholarship in decades.
- T. Wright follows a precedent set by W. D. Davies in his 1948 Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, which sees Paul primarily as “a Jewish rabbi who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah,”7 and, “Rejects outright the attempt to derive Paul’s thought from Hellenism.”8 Working from this viewpoint—which has been greatly developed since Davies—Wright proceeds to exegete sections of Paul’s letters that leap out with a fresh clarity.9
In many places we can see Paul referring to the classic Jewish tradition of monotheism. This tradition includes all the obvious features of the Old Testament doctrine of God: it confronts any idea of God that does not include him as the good Creator of the physical universe, and thus it contradicts the dualists, Platonists, and gnostics. It confronts any earthly ruler who would make a claim to sovereignty or divinity, and thus it rejects Caesar as lord. Likewise, it rejects the whole spectrum of pagan gods and myths both as nonsense and as idolatry. This teaching is summarized in that foundational confession of Judaism, the shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:4–5 NKJV).
It is just this verse that Paul draws upon when he confronts idolatry in Corinth, but he adds a new twist: he elevates Jesus to the status of one Lord as well.10 He begins in 1 Cor. 8:1–3 by teaching that the worship of God is not a matter of mere knowledge, but of love (“Love the LORD your God. . .”). He then reveals a typically Old Testament attitude toward pagan idolatry: “We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). Then he drops the bomb on every theory that tries to paint him or early Christianity as Hellenistic: against the so-called “gods many, and lords many” of the pagans, Paul quotes the Shema: “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we in him” (1 Cor. 8:6). In order to see how Paul places Jesus within the monotheism of the Jewish tradition, Wright places the verses side-by-side:11
The Lord our God / One God . . . the Father . . . (Deuteronomy 6:4)
The Lord is One / One Lord . . . Jesus Christ . . . (1 Corinthians 8:6)
Now we have a true parallel! Paul’s mission to the Corinthians was one of a Jew, convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, prosecuting that message against the idolatry of the pagan world. Right when we would expect Paul to try to find some common point of departure with his pagan audience (as sometimes he does), he falls back upon the most basic of Jewish Scriptures and places Jesus squarely in the middle of it.12 Wright adds, “This verse is one of the most genuinely revolutionary bits of the- ology ever written.”13 Paul at once surpasses Judaism with Christianity, and rejects pagan polytheism and idolatrous practices. . . .
(From Joel McDurmon, Manifested in the Flesh, pp. 70–74.)
- See Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 260–262. [↩]
- Richard J Gibson, “Paul and the Evangelization of the Stoics” in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission, eds. Mark Thompson and Peter Bolt (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 316, 323. [↩]
- Everett Ferguson. Background of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 356. [↩]
- Ferguson, Background of Early Christianity, 356. [↩]
- Gibson, “Paul and the Evangelization of the Stoics,” 320. [↩]
- Gibson, “Paul and the Evangelization of the Stoics,” 323. [↩]
- N. T. Wright. What St. Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 16. [↩]
- N. T. Wright. What St. Paul Really Said, 16. [↩]
- The following section is taken from Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said, 63–75. [↩]
- N. T. Wright. What St. Paul Really Said, 65–67. [↩]
- N. T. Wright. What St. Paul Really Said, 66. [↩]
- N. T. Wright. What St. Paul Really Said, 67. [↩]
- N. T. Wright. What St. Paul Really Said, 67. [↩]