Scripture, Hellenism, and Hebraism: Biblical Philosophy and Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: A Review

Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments by Dru Johnson, Cambridge University Press, 2021, $34.99, pp. 340.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context, edited by Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, $28, pp. 172.

The Greek philosophical tradition looms large for two reasons: first, it has shaped the history of Western thought, famously summarized by A.N. Whitehead as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Second, it has shaped Christianity, with Greek substance metaphysics, faculty psychology, and virtue ethics becoming parts of traditional Christian theology. Yet this influence has not passed without objection. The biblical faith originated before Greek philosophy; the Hebrew Bible is innocent of Greek philosophical concepts; and Christian thinkers ever since Paul in Colossians 2:8 have warned their readers not to be “taken captive by deceptive philosophy” that “depends on the basic principles of this world.” From Tertullian’s “what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Harnack’s “Hellenization thesis ,” philosophical theologians have long had to fend off charges of syncretism.[1] Can we speak of a biblical philosophy that is (1) truly philosophical and (2) not already Greek? And if so, what is its relation to Greek philosophy? These are the questions addressed by two recent books, Dru Johnson’s Biblical Philosophy: A Hebraic Approach to the Old and New Testaments and a collection of essays edited by Joseph Dodson and David Briones, Paul and the Giants of Philosophy.

In the 1960s, Thorlief Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek attempted, by means of a Sapir-Whorf method (i.e. hypothesizing that language affects perception rather than vice versa), to characterize its two titular systems at a conceptual level. Thus, Hebrew thought is dynamic and full of motion, while Greek thought is static and rational; Hebrew prioritizes the sense of hearing, Greek the sense of sight and so on.[2] Boman was savaged by the liberal Oxford scholar James Barr,[3] such that his work is now unfairly ignored, and the attempt to contrast Hebrew and Greek thought has been jettisoned along with the fallacious linguistic arguments that Boman used to do so. Accordingly, we do not find Dru Johnson appealing to linguistics to establish “Biblical philosophy” as distinct from Greek. Nor does he mainly contrast the specific concepts of Greek and Hebrew thought—their different eschatologies, cosmologies, or anthropologies, for instance. Instead, his project characterizes the Hebrew Bible and the Greek tradition as distinct “philosophical styles.”

Johnson characterizes the Hebrew Bible’s mode of argument as “networked” and “pixelated,” by which he means that the Bible does not ordinarily offer precise definitions of terms, but that the biblical authors “define the contours of a second-order abstraction” through “pictures and episodes… through iterations and reiterations across narrative, law, and poetry” (84). By “pixelated,” Johnson does not mean that the resulting terms are fuzzy, like low-resolution JPGs or censored videos, but that the larger picture emerges from particular elements (“pixels”) that must be viewed together, as in a pointillist painting. By “networked,” Johnson means that the mode of argumentation is intertextual and distributed over an entire corpus of literature, not laid out comprehensively in a single locus. Johnson proposes four other distinctives of Hebraic philosophical style: it is mysterionist (i.e. denies the possibility of comprehensive knowledge for humans, contrary to logical positivism and similarly reductionist philosophies), creationist (i.e. the Hebrew Bible pervasively assumes a metaphysical structure derived from Genesis 1-3); transdemographic (i.e. the Bible aims to create a “discerning social body with diverse but mutually enriching perspectives on reality,” in contrast to the Hellenic ideal of a mature or elderly male philosopher, Socrates or a Stoic sage, standing defiant against hoi polloi); and ritualist (i.e. the Bible assumes embodied knowing via rituals practiced by the community, as Johnson has argued in other works).[4]  

These six criteria of Hebraic thought are heuristic devices, reminiscent of John M.G. Barclay’s six “perfections of grace” in his much-lauded Paul and the Gift[5], and they exhibit some of the same methodological problems: they are etic, somewhat Procrustean, and defined in deliberate contrast to six characteristics of the Greek philosophical style: “linear, autonomist, domesticationist, abstractionist, classist, and mentalist.” That there are certain characteristic traits of Greek philosophical thought seems uncontroversial, and I can readily agree with most of these descriptions. Greek philosophers do tend to reason by abstraction, and in a linear manner (e.g. the logical train of dialectic in one of Plato’s dialogues, or the definitional investigations of Aristotle—both in stark contrast to the scattered intertextuality of the Bible that Johnson so convincingly demonstrates); philosophy was indeed exclusively the preserve of men of leisure, not of slaves or women. And it is indeed “mentalist,” by which Johnson means an activity done by the mind rather than by ritual or embodied knowing. Even Johnson’s hedging concession that Parmenides is an exception to his characterization of Greek thought as “domesticationist” rather than “mysterionist” because of his claim to have been led by a goddess seems too cautious. The goddess herself exhorts Parmenides to “Judge by reason the much-contesting refutation [elenchus] spoken by me” (DK 28B7). Indeed, Parmenides, more than perhaps any other Greek philosopher, is responsible for the idea that philosophical thought is legislative for what can be, and that nothing is beyond human thought (“domesticationist”).

But if we examined “non-philosophical” Greek literature—Homer, Aeschylus, etc. rather than Plato, Aristotle, etc.—who is to say that we would not be able to come up with “networked,” “pixelated,” and “ritualist” second-order thinking? There is rich intertextuality between the Iliad and Odyssey and Greek tragedy and lyric. Moreover, one could well derive second-order conclusions from inspection of scattered (“pixelated”) passages in these authors. The role of “mysterionist” revelation and rituals in Greek life (the oracle of Delphi, the omens, the Panathenaea, the city Dionysia, etc.) might not be that different from biblical revelation and rituals like the Passover or Shavuot or the Day of Atonement. I suspect that if we examined non-philosophical Greek thought, we might find that it hit nearly as many of the traits of the “Hebraic philosophical style” as the Hebrew Bible itself. As Johnson recognizes, he is dealing here with entire societies and with ways of thinking that are used by all members of these two societies. We must therefore recognize the greatly preponderant place of pre- or non-philosophical thinking.[6] Johnson’s criteria of “philosophical style” often appear to be a way to make philosophy out of non-philosophical Hebrew texts, and he does not apply them equally to both cultures.

It is part of Johnson’s argument that he must distinguish biblical philosophy from Greek, while at the same time vindicating it as genuinely philosophical, that is, containing “prescriptive second-order thinking regarding the usual field of suspects: political thought, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics” (37). This contrasts with the thought of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, which he characterizes as “speculative, but not necessarily philosophical,” since it engages in some second-order thinking, but not enough and not about the right topics. Some of Johnson’s arguments for this latter point are not convincing. One of his proofs of the Hebrew Bible’s pixelated and networked style of philosophizing is precisely the method of parallelism that characterizes all Hebrew poetry. But the techniques of Hebrew poetry originated in earlier Semitic languages, so that scholars like Wilfred Watson and Scott Noegel adduce numerous examples from Akkadian poetry in their discussions of Hebrew literature.[7] I suspect that if we approached Akkadian literature with Johnson’s generous criteria of philosophical argument (“pixelated and networked”), we might well come away more impressed.

Similarly, Johnson presents Babylonian fortune-telling as though it were simply a matter of knowing the formulas with which to interpret the “textualized” and pre-encoded world of omens, in contrast to Hebrew prophecy and divination, which is dependent upon God as the source of knowledge. This strikes me as a selective caricature; Johnson does not seem to be aware of Matthijs de Jong’s Isaiah Among the Ancient Near Eastern Prophets,[8] nor does he reckon with, e.g. Enkidu’s apotropaic reinterpretations of dreams in Tablet IV of the Epic of Gilgamesh (reminiscent of Eteocles’ reinterpretation of the symbols on the shields in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes). This is creative interpretation, not mere reading-off of textualized meaning from lists of omens. I suspect that members of the Assyriology guild would push back against Johnson’s ranking of Mesopotamian literature as sub-philosophical. Johnson does interact with Marc Van De Mieroop’s Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia,[9] but Martin West’s Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient does not appear to have been consulted.[10]

Despite my doubts about Johnson’s central contention about the Bible being truly philosophical, there is much of value here, especially the examples with which Johnson illustrates the Bible’s deployment of this philosophical style. The interpretations of these biblical texts are, hands down, the best aspect of the book.  Readers of Scripture will come away with new understandings of many passages. For instance, Johnson points out that the phrase “marrying and giving in marriage” in Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees (Luke 20:35), far from being a point about marriage in the resurrection, is elsewhere always used of the activities of “those who are blind to the coming judgment,” as in Sodom and Gomorrah or in the days of Noah (Luke 17:27). Jesus is thus using networked argumentation to turn the Sadducees’ question against them: they want to debate the resurrection, but are unaware of the judgment bearing down upon them. There are many such examples, and Johnson is to be commended for them.

Particularly interesting is Johnson’s extended argument in the later chapters of the book that the New Testament’s philosophical style is basically a continuation of the Hebrew Bible, and not a Hellenized style such as is seen in intertestamental literature. This seems to me precisely right; Johnson’s book should give pause to anyone claiming that Christianity “needed” Greek philosophy in order to complete or explain the teaching of Scripture.

On the whole, Johnson’s Biblical Philosophy is a needed catalyst for a staggeringly interdisciplinary conversation. Even if we might not agree that the Bible is a philosophical text, we can certainly grant that it has powerfully shaped the philosophical thought of Jewish and Christian thinkers, and philosophers would do well to take seriously the second-order thinking that arises from a people formed by Scripture.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy approaches the question of philosophy and Scripture from a different starting point. Without asking what counts as philosophy, the authors of the book’s fourteen essays are united in taking the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition as a given. Each of the essays takes up a comparison between a Greco-Roman philosopher and the Apostle on a particular topic: so, “Attitudes on Slavery in Paul and Seneca” (Brian Tabb), “Paul and Philodemus on Therapy for the Weak” (Justin Reid Allison), “Paul and Aristotle on Friendship” (David Briones), “Paul and Plutarch on Faith (Jeanette Hagen Pifer), and so on. 

The theme of the essays is this: “superficial similarities… will reveal the substantive differences” (87) between Paul and the philosophers. Again and again, shared diction or genre or imagery, when pressed, reveals a “great gulf fixed” between Paul and the Greco-Roman authors to whom he is compared. Thus, in Allison’s essay, though Philodemus and Paul both speak of “the weak,” their solutions are poles apart, with Philodemus using “frank criticism” to push the weak toward self-sufficiency, while Paul urges the strong to support the weak and promotes dependence upon others and upon God as the mark of mature faith (33). Or again, in his discussion of gift-giving, Briones concludes that “for all their points of agreement, Paul and Seneca still clash… for Seneca, god is an inseparable component of one’s being, but for Paul, God is a separable being who radically reconfigures human relationships” (119-120).

The essays are judicious and well-balanced, avoiding “parallelomania” and clearly distinguishing Paul’s concepts from those of the philosophers who deal with the same topics (slavery, faith, community, friendship, suffering, the good life). Nijay Gupta is typical of the entire collection in the careful distinction he draws between mere familiarity with the main ideas of philosophers which Paul would have had as a cultured person, and the stronger claims that are sometimes made by other scholars: “That is not to say Paul himself intentionally studied the works of philosophers to imitate their styles of discourse. After all, he never mentions any philosophers by name in his writings, nor does he appear to quote them explicitly” (96).

The best essay in the volume is the concluding one by Christopher Redmon, which presents and defends Kavin Rowe’s “incommensurability” thesis from his One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (Rowe’s work is also commended in Dru Johnson’s book). Redmon urges that “we can’t get at Paul’s view of death without summoning his whole narrative world along with it” (167). Because knowledge is bound up with one’s way of life, “in the end, what Christian-Stoic influence amounts to in Rowe’s view is not a clean translation of ideas—as if concepts could be isolated and moved from a Stoic life into a Christian one—but a transformation of words” (170). This means that we cannot seize upon Greek words and assume that they carry with them entire concepts from Greek philosophy, as some do with logos in the Johannine prologue, or hypostasis in Hebrews 1:3. Rather, the authors of these essays give us a detailed understanding of Greek philosophical concepts in their own context, contrasted with Paul’s ideas in their own context within his own highly narrative Jewish worldview. What emerges is a greater clarity about what Paul had to do to present the truth of the gospel in a culture in which philosophical concepts were “in the air” — and thus, also, a pattern for us to follow as we seek to distinguish the claims of Christ from those of our own culture and its philosophies.

Rev. Dr. Matthew Colvin (Ph.D Cornell University) is a presbyter in the Reformed Episcopal Church. His published works include articles on Heraclitus, a translation from Latin of the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, and The Lost Supper: A Study of the Passover and Eucharistic Origins (Fortress Academic, 2019). He is currently working on a book on women’s ordination and the origins of ordained office in the early church. He lives on Vancouver Island.

[1] Fred Sanders is unduly optimistic that the battle is over at the academic level. Some have appealed to the work of Martin Hengel, whose works on Hellenism in Judea are adduced as proof that all Jews were already “Hellenized” in the period of the New Testament—as though that meant that all philosophical concepts were fair game. See M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1975).

[2] Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, trans. Jules L. Moreau (Library of History and Doctrine 1: London: SCM, 1960).

[3] James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

[4] For examples of Johnson’s arguments in other works, see Knowledge By Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology (Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplements 13; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016) and Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).

[5] John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

[6] Owen Barfield’s discussion of figuration, alpha-thinking, and beta-thinking in the opening chapters of Saving the Appearances might be helpful here. See O. Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1988).

[7] Wilfred G. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984) and Scott B. Noegel, Wordplay in Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2021) and Puns and Pundits: Wordplay in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Potomac, MD: CDL Press, 2018).

[8] Matthijs de Jong, Isaiah Among the Ancient Near Eastern Prophets (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2007).

[9] Marc Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[10] M.L. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).


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