dianoigo blog

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Greek philosophy and early Gentile Christianity

I have been listening to some teaching material delivered recently by Christadelphian teacher Dave Burke, apparently at a series of youth weekends in Australia and subsequently posted to his blog. One of my reasons for listening was that Dave and I have interacted for years over the internet on discussion forums and more recently on Facebook, but have never met face to face. Unfortunately we have disagreed more often than we have agreed. One of my personal goals is to behave more nobly in religious dialogue, even when there is disagreement, and particularly when the dialogue takes place on the Internet. It helps when one is able to perceive his dialogue partner as a real human being as opposed to a cyber-theologian. Listening to Dave's disarming Aussie accent and dry sense of humour certainly helped in this regard.

From what I've heard so far, the series of talks Dave delivered entitled, The Servants of the Lord was very impressive. In what amounted to an introduction to biblical scholarship, the sheer volume of material that Dave has able to cover is staggering. I doubt there are many attendees of Christian youth camps who walk away so well equipped with background and tools for biblical exegesis.

Taken in the context of that overall assessment, I hope Dave won't mind if I offer some criticism. When it comes to his comments on early Gentile Christianity, and Justin Martyr in particular, his tendency to view church history through a Christadelphian lens clouds the facts.

Gentile Christianity

In a subsection of his series entitled 'Gentile Christianity', Dave gives following account:
We're going to move into the second century now. The second century takes us into the realm of Gentile Christianity. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, the Jews dispersed far and wide and so did the Christians. And Christianity had already spread into Gentile lands by the 50s and 60s, but now Christians who originally had been quite happy to remain in places like Jerusalem were forced out and had to go much further afield. Some of them went to Antioch, a lot of them went even further. And this actually had the effect of spreading the Christian message to places which had not heard it before. But unfortunately it also had a side effect and this was that increasingly now there were more Gentile converts than Jewish converts. Jerusalem was no longer the headquarters, the nexus, of the Christian community. The Spirit-guided leadership which they had once relied on had passed away for the most part. And now Christians were finding that as Gentiles were converted, they brought their own worldview, some of their own preconceptions and assumptions and philosophies and theologies with them. And they didn't always leave those ideas behind. Some of them sought to amalgamate Christianity with their pre-existing ideas.1
Now, it may be that Dave just made a poor choice of words here. However, as it stands, he has described the fact that Gentile converts came to outnumber Jewish converts in the early second century as an unfortunate side effect of the dispersion of Christians throughout the Empire!

When Jesus commanded his disciples, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19; cf. Acts 13:47), did he envisage Jewish disciples remaining in the majority? Given that Gentiles outnumbered Jews by about 9 to 1 in the first century Roman Empire,2 would it not be a natural and desirable consequence of the Great Commission for Gentile converts to outnumber Jewish converts?

When Jerusalem ceased to be the headquarters of the church, and Christians were dispersed throughout the Empire following the destruction of the temple, was this 'unfortunate' from a divine point of view? How could it be, when this dispersion of Christians had the effect of advancing the gospel to a great number of Gentiles (as in Acts 11:19-21)? Note also that the Lord Jesus himself had foretold the destruction of the temple as an act of divine judgment (Matthew 23:34-24:2). Yes, in one sense it was unfortunate inasmuch as judgment brings sorrow to God (Ezekiel 33:11), but was it not also part of God's plan for the growth of the church which was itself God's temple (2 Corinthians 6:16)?

Dave paints a very bleak picture of the early second century church. We won't contend in detail here with his assumption that the leadership of the church was no longer Spirit-guided; but if true, this cessation of Spirit activity must have been God's will. Thus, the set of circumstances in which the church found itself in the early second century (no more temple; dispersion leading to many Gentile conversions; [allegedly] no Spirit guidance) can all be linked back to the will of God. Bear in mind as well that Jesus himself had promised to be personally present in the church's growth until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). In what sense then can these developments be deemed 'unfortunate' for the church? And what does Dave think ought to have happened?

Dave highlights that Gentile converts brought their own ideas with them when they came to Christianity, which replaced the Jewish worldview that had previously dominated the church:
as we go through the second century A.D., we will see Gentiles misinterpreting Scripture because of the preconceptions they bring to it, and their failure to understand the cultural and historical context of these writings.3
Now Dave is able to produce some excellent second-century examples in which the confluence of Greek ideas and a low view of the Old Testament (and, in particular, its God) did result in apostasy, such as Marcion and Valentinus. However, he doesn't seem to see much of a qualitative difference between these writings and others such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the works of Justin Martyr. These latter writings are critical of Judaism but show great valuation and esteem for the Old Testament and familiarity with Jewish methods of exegesis.

The Epistle of Barnabas

There is no disputing that the Epistle of Barnabas contains some strange ideas, particularly concerning the Law of Moses and the covenant with the Jews. However, these are not necessarily the result of Gentile failure to interpret Jewish texts. In fact, Paget, arguably the pre-eminent scholarly authority on this document in our generation, emphasizes the "Jewish character" of the work and describes it as a "Jewish-Christian epistle."4 Paget regards it as unclear whether the author was a Jew or a Gentile (leaning guardedly toward the Gentile view), but emphasizes the author's "knowledge and use of Jewish exegetical methods."5

Dave takes issue with the Epistle of Barnabas' Christological interpretation of Genesis 1:26 (Barnabas 5:5), pointing out that such an interpretation has no precedent in Judaism and is also not regarded as plausible by modern scholars. However, this is again not simply a case of Gentiles misunderstanding a Jewish text, but of the early church reading Scripture Christologically; a hermeneutic also found in the New Testament. There are numerous Old Testament texts which the New Testament writers interpreted Christologically in a way unprecedented in ancient Judaism and which modern critical scholarship does not regard as the original meaning of the text (e.g. Isaiah 7:14, Hosea 11:1 or Psalm 102:25-27). Arguably in Barnabas 5:5 a similar Jewish hermeneutic is at work. While Paul does not go as far as the Epistle of Barnabas and suggest that God's words in Genesis were originally spoken to Christ, he does use "christocentric language reminiscent of Genesis 1:26-27" in Romans 8:29.6 7 It is thus not as non-Jewish as Dave might think for the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas to see a Christological sensus plenior in Genesis 1:26-27.

With regard to the issue of authorship of this work, Dave rightly notes that no scholars today attribute the Epistle of Barnabas to Paul's companion of that name. Dave cynically states that it got its name because that is what people did in those days when they wanted to gain credibility for something they had written five minutes earlier. However, the body of the Epistle of Barnabas nowhere mentions Barnabas by name. Some scholars have suggested that the ascription to Barnabas was secondary, i.e. not something the author himself claimed.8 Thus, this is not necessarily a pseudonymous work.9

It should be added that an unfortunate feature of Dave's dialogue at this point is his disregard of the later church consensus regarding which writings from this period were good and which were bad. He moves through Marcion, the Epistle of Barnabas, Valentinus and Justin Martyr. Further along, Dave refers to the Shepherd of Hermas and 2 Clement in a list of no particular order which also includes the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of Basilides. While Dave does emphasize that Marcion was rejected by the church, he does not for the most part distinguish between those writings which were rejected as Gnostic heresy (e.g. Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Basilides) and those which ultimately gained acceptance among the 'Apostolic Fathers' (Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Clement). Dave appears to paint most of these writings with the same brush (i.e. as reflecting the corruption of the church by Gentile thought), without exploring the reasons why some came to be accepted by the church and others came to be rejected.

Justin Martyr the Philosopher

Commenting on Justin's background in Greek philosophy, Dave comments:
Justin Martyr, however, brought his pagan Greek preconceptions and philosophical preconceptions to the gospel message, and when he read the New Testament he interpreted it through a pagan Hellenic filter.10
He goes on to criticize Justin for retaining his philosopher's robe after converting to Christianity:
Justin continued to wear his philosopher's robe even after converting Christianity. This is a huge contrast to the men of Ephesus, who when they were converted, scooped up all their magical and philosophical scrolls and burned them, and put that behind them. But Justin Martyr retained many of his former ideas, and he still considered himself a philosopher, and he considered Christianity the highest form of philosophy.11
In the first place, the passage about the men of Ephesus to which Dave is referring (Acts 19:18-19) makes no mention of philosophical writings but only of magical writings. Indeed, the whole pericope has nothing at all to do with philosophy. And when Paul does interact with Greek philosophers (Acts 17:16-34), he engages them on their own terms, even quoting from their writings. As Sterling explains, the author of Acts
sets the scene for Paul’s Aereopagetica by presenting him in debate with certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who charge the Christian missionary with the crime for which Socrates was executed (Acts 17:18, 20; Xenophon, Mem. 1:1:1; cf. also Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 5:3; 2 Apol. 10:5). This is not the first time in Acts that a disciple or group of disciples appears in a role reminiscent of Socrates (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29; and Plato, Apol. 29d). The speech which follows is an argument that Greek philosophy is a forerunner to Christianity. The author even cites a line from Aratus of Soli who learned his Stoicism from Zeno, the founder of the Stoa (Acts 17:28; Aratus, Phaen. 5).12
The use of Hellenistic philosophy was not an innovation of second century Gentile Christianity. To the contrary, it can be found in pre-Christian Jewish writings, and there are also elements of it in the New Testament (as we saw in Acts 17). So Sterling tells us, "Jewish authors such as Aristobulus, the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo used Hellenistic philosophy to restate their own understandings of the divine"13 and, "For those who attempt to bring the human experience of God to articulation through critical reflection, philosophy is a natural resource; at least a number of New Testament writers thought so."14 There appear to have been different views in the early church concerning Greek philosophy. For instance, Tertullian in the Latin West did not regard Greek philosophy as being of any use to the church (De praescriptione haereticorum, ch. 7).

As to Justin Martyr himself, while he obviously knew and used Hellenistic philosophy, the way he used it was not as simple as combining Hellenistic philosophical preconceptions with Christianity:
While it is true that he grants a certain legitimacy to some of the opinions of the philosophers, it would be wrong to assume that Justin’s main intention is to reconcile Christianity to Greek philosophy...On the contrary, the similarities Justin enumerates clearly are intended to prove the superiority of Christianity.15
Justin's appeal to philosophical sources can be explained as a rhetorical device, like Paul's in Athens.
Both Apologies and Dialogue operate on a common strategy, of justifying Christianity by appealing to texts, Jewish or Gentile, which the intended reader will grant to carry authority.16
The idea that Justin interpreted the New Testament through a pagan Hellenic filter is even less credible. Dave here fails to recognize the very low esteem Justin had for pagan religion:
Notoriously, Justin’s thrust is directed towards splitting apart religion and philosophy. Towards pagan cult and myth he is vehemently negative: They are crude, superstitious, and immoral both in content and in practical influence.17
We should also be wary of exaggerating the influence that philosophy had on Justin's theology. For instance, in Edwards' study of the background to Justin's Logos concept, he argues that Justin's notion of the Logos is rooted in the biblical tradition and not in Stoic or Platonic philosophy as earlier scholars had generally supposed.18 In a similar vein, Price writes,
The easy and frequent use of "Logos" as a title of the Son came to Justin not from Greek philosophy but from the constant mention of the "word of God" in the Old Testament, as transmitted to him in the Greek of the Septuagint and developed by such Jewish biblical commentators as Philo.19
Furthermore, before censuring Justin for trying to develop a synthesis between Christian and Greek philosophy, Dave needs to ask himself whether he does not, in effect, do the same. A recent article in a publication edited by Dave, commenting on the difficulties that the fossil record presents for a traditional interpretation of early Genesis, expresses the need for "a resolution to this problem that respects both the scientific and Biblical evidence."20 In other words, the writer advocates seeking a synthesis between Scripture and modern science. Indeed, physical sciences aside, the exegetical methods which are used by scholars today in their study of Scripture are fundamentally scientific. Now, "the English word 'science' refers to a practice that to a large extent can be traced back to the early Greek philosophers."21 It was by "revitalizing Greek thought" that medieval philosophers were able to set in motion forces that would ultimately overturn the medieval worldview and create modern Western thought.22

Similarly, Christadelphian apologists like Dave are well known for use of logical arguments in the form of syllogisms in theological deliberations. Whom do they have to thank for this? "The first explicit theory of propositional connectives was developed by a collection of thinkers known as the Stoics" and "The Stoic definition of argument is strikingly modern."23

So Dave faults Justin for practicing Greek philosophy while he himself is quite content to appeal to modern science and logic, both of which have Greek philosophy as their ancestor. The major difference between Justin and ourselves is that human knowledge is far more advanced today than it was in the second century. But to fault Justin on this basis amounts to mere chronocentrism. In fact, those of us who value the role of science and logic in the church today should probably be grateful that Justin and other early Christian intellectuals didn't burn their philosophy books as Dave implies they should have done.

In summary, Dave's criticism of Justin Martyr for using Hellenistic philosophy is unfair on three counts: (1) this was not an innovation of second-century Gentile Christianity; instead he was following precedents set by pre-Christian Hellenistic Jews and, at least to some extent, the New Testament writers. (2) The idea that Justin interpreted the New Testament through a pagan Hellenic filter not only exaggerates the influence of Greek philosophy on his theology, but also ignores Justin's very negative view of paganism. (3) Justin Martyr's attempt at a synthesis of Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy is not fundamentally different from contemporary attempts at a synthesis of Christian beliefs with modern science and logic - methodologies which themselves developed from Greek philosophy and which Dave endorses and uses.

In a follow-up post we will look more specifically at Dave's claims regarding Justin Martyr's theological positions.

1 Burke, D. (Producer). (2014). Servants of the Lord NSW 2014, Session 8 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.milktomeat.org. Emphasis added.
2 Pasachoff, N.E. and Littman, R.J. (2005). A Concise History of the Jewish People. Rowman & Littlefield, p. 120.
3 Burke, op. cit.
4 Paget, J.C. (1996). Paul and the Epistle of Barnabas. Novum Testamentum 38(4): 359-381. pp. 378-379.
5 Paget, J.C. (2006). The Epistle of Barnabas. Expository Times 117(11): 441-446. p. 442.
6 Grenz, S.J. (2006). The Social God and the Relational Self: Toward a Theology of the Imago Dei in the Postmodern Context. In R. Lints et al (Eds.), Personal Identity in Theological Perspective (70-94). Eerdmans, p. 82.
7 See also Beale, G.K. (2007). Colossians. In G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson (Eds.), Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (841-919). Baker Academic, p. 852)
8 Paget, J.C. (1994). The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background. Mohr Siebeck, p. 7.
9 The same is true of 2 Clement. This work does not claim to have been written by Clement (in fact, neither does 1 Clement). Far from being a pseudepigraph, Tuckett suggests that the anonymity of 2 Clement's author is "a reflection perhaps of his somewhat self-effacing modesty" (Tuckett, C. (2012). 2 Clement: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Oxford University Press, p. 17.)
10 Burke, op. cit.
11 Burke, op. cit.
12 Sterling, G.E. (1997). Hellenistic Philosophy and the New Testament. In S.E. Porter (Ed.), A Handbook to the Exegesis of the New Testament. BRILL, p. 313, emphasis added.
13 Sterling, op. cit., p. 314.
14 Sterling, op. cit., p. 342.
15 Droge, A.J. (1987). Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy. Church History 56(3): 303-319. pp. 306-307.
16 Chadwick, H. (1993). The Gospel a Republication of Natural Religion in Justin Martyr. Illinois Classical Studies 18: 237-247. p. 247.
17 Chadwick, op. cit., p. 238.
18 Edwards, M.J. (1995). Justin's Logos and the Word of God. Journal of Early Christian Studies 3(3): 261-280. p. 261.
19 Price, R.M. (1988). 'Hellenization' and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr. Vigiliae Christianae 42(1): 18-23. p. 20.
20 Gilmore, K. (2014). The Bible is not a science textbook. Defence and Confirmation, Vol. 1. Retrieved from https://app.box.com/s/9ym4rw6c2le092pco7u0. p. 16.
21 Preus, A. (2007). Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Philosophy. Scarecrow Press, p. 233.
22 Perry, M. et al. (2012). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, Volume I: To 1789. Cengage Learning, p. 260.
23 Bonevac, D. and Dever, J. (2012). A Short History of the Connectives. In D.M. Gabbay, F.J. Pelletier and J. Woods (Eds)., Logic: A History of its Central Concepts (175-234). Newnes, p. 177.