Book Notice: Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context

Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, eds. Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. 200 pages. $22.00 (paperback).

Have you ever wondered why Paul quotes two Greek writers in Acts 17:22–28? What is the relationship between Paul and his Greco-Roman contemporaries? Do references to “secular” writings somehow diminish the authority of Paul’s writings? Joseph Dodson (associate professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary) and David Briones (associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary) have edited an excellent work that seeks to answer these questions by highlighting the similarities and differences between Paul and the giants of philosophy in his day.

The book contains fourteen brief chapters written by an international cast of scholars. Each author sets out to “write about their comparative research on Paul and Greco-Roman philosophers for seminary and undergraduate students as well as interested laypeople” (xiii). There are essentially two concurrent arguments throughout the book. On the surface, each chapter provides a wonderfully engaging treatment of comparative research that aims to help the reader understand that Paul did not write his letters in a vacuum. The book succeeds in illuminating the social and cultural milieu in which the apostle wrote. For example, the comparison between Paul and the likes of Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, and Seneca is both delightful and enlightening. The deeper argument of the book is an apologetic for “more scholars to track, plot, and assess ‘the many lines and levels of Paul’s engagement with his complex non-Jewish world’” (xiii, quoting N. T. Wright). This survey provides a smorgasbord for students to delve deeper into this underdeveloped field of study. Readers will also enjoy the “for further study” sections, which include lists of both primary and secondary sources.

The topics covered include Paul and Epictetus on suffering (Bertschmann), Paul and Aristotle on friendship (Briones), the good life in Paul and the giants of philosophy (Gupta), and heavenly visions in Plato, Cicero, and Paul (Dodson). Each chapter contains helpful charts for comparison and discussion questions for further reflection. The book is eminently readable, and enlightening discoveries are present on every page. The weaknesses of the book are relatively minor: the contributors often lean on Seneca for comparison, and some chapters might have benefited from a broader scope. Readers pursuing graduate work in New Testament could have also benefited from more intentional engagement with the “deeper argument” of this book—a few more references to the theory behind comparative analysis would have situated the conversation within its scholarly context more effectively. These minor quibbles aside, Paul and the Giants of Philosophy stands out as an enjoyable entrée into Greco-Roman comparative research.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Mark Baker (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), Dean of Faculty at Paideia Academy in Knoxville, TN.


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