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Paul and Stoicism December 3rd 2012 Ben Woodring

In this paper, I’ll be exploring the possible influence that Hellenistic philosophy, specifically, Stoicism, may or may not have had on the apostle Paul. First, I will offer a short description of Stoic thought. Then we will explore one of the words or concepts that both Stoicism and Paul’s corpus have in common and whether or not the use of this word or concept constitutes a borrowing or influence on Paul’s part. We will then look more deeply at a particular text in Paul’s corpus and explore how our reading of this text might be shaped by a Stoic influence. Finally, we will attempt to come to a conclusion about the possibility of such influence, and discuss the effects this influence might have on our views of the development of Christianity. To begin, it is of first importance that we have a short introduction to Stoicism so that we may better identify its features in our exploration of Paul. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stoic doctrine is divided into three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. Stoicism is essentially a system of ethics which, however, is guided by a logic as theory of method, and rests upon physics as foundation. Briefly, their notion of morality is stern, involving a life in accordance with nature and controlled by virtue. It is an ascetic system, teaching perfect indifference (apathea) to everything external, for nothing external could be either good or evil. Hence to the Stoics both pain and pleasure, poverty and riches, sickness and health, were supposed to be equally unimportant.1


"Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy." Stoicism. June 18, 2008.

and does not imply the incorporeality of God. the physics of Stoicism: “The fundamental proposition of the Stoic physics is that “nothing incorporeal exists. However. Ibid. There is. Both are summed up in the famous Stoic maxim. thus. then. “Live according to nature. they said. and this is a point of cardinal importance in connection with the Stoic ethics. 5 Ibid. . that the universe is governed by absolute law. The mind is a blank slate. and second. and will not be denied. in Stoicism was a kind of divine fire. How are we to know whether our ideas are correct copies of things?” The Encyclopedia goes on to conclude that for the Stoics “the sole criterion of truth is this striking conviction. 2 3 Ibid. “All knowledge.”4 God. which admits of no exceptions.””3 In this sense. first. the Stoics were materialists. they believed that God “the Stoics declared that God is absolute reason.”” For the Stoic. like all else. and. whereby the real forces itself upon our consciousness.It would be helpful. no universally grounded criterion of truth. This is not a return to idealism. truth is simply the correspondence of our impressions to things. that the essential nature of humans is reason. Hence it is a rational soul. For reason.”5 This leads directly into the Stoic view of ethics. and proceeds into humans from God. but on feeling. upon which sense-impressions are inscribed… Since all knowledge is a knowledge of sense-objects. It is based. to give a short description of the Stoic conception of these three parts of their doctrine. First is Stoic logic. enters the mind through the senses. not on reason. “The human soul is part of the divine fire. 4 Ibid. “The Stoic ethical teaching is based upon two principles already developed in their physics.”2 Secondly. they still believed in a God. simply put. is material.

The term syneidesis and its cognates were used in reference to both ethical and non ethical matters. 4:4). which "corresponds accurately to that of his Stoic contemporaries. 3 (December 01. 2:15. The term is found in the New Testament only in Paul's letters. 10:29). I Cor.: 178.. or. Marietta. I Cor. The ethical and non-ethical aspects (which are distinguished by the English word "conscience") were conveyed by the same word. conscience. and I Peter. in Hebrews. Conscience. Through this one 6 7 Ibid. in fact. ζυνείδηζις in Greek. in his helpful article Conscience in Greek Stoicism. we can move on to an examination of some of the terminology that Paul and the Stoics have in common.“Virtue. . conscientia. The Greeks did not distinguish between conscience and consciousness as speakers of English do.”6 Now that we’ve given a summary of Stoicism." the word has a somewhat wider significance than our "conscience" (e. I Cor. and determinism. Don E. among the Roman Stoics. then.g. 1970): 176-87. In Paul's use. Gilbert goes as far as to say: But practically far more important was Paul's introduction into Christian thought of the Greek (Stoic) conception of "conscience" (ζυνείδηζις). It is the universal reason which is to govern our lives. 8:8-10. suggests that: The Hellenistic concern for ethics and the individual's inner attitudes fostered the development of the concept of conscience. "Conscience in Greek Stoicism." Numen 17. yet in general it has an ethical sense and denotes the faculty or power of judging the moral quality of actions (Rom. no. doi:10. is a common part of Stoic philosophy. that this usage of the word is exactly what Paul has in mind when he is writing. Marietta. and only the context indicated the moral quality of the object of the consciousness. comp. logos. The two words I want to look at are.1163/156852770X00027. Morality is simply rational action. not the caprice and self-will of the individual.7 The suggestion is. is the life according to reason.

10 1 Cor 8:7-11 (ESV) . James. if a Christian brother. That supposition is reinforced by the New Testament. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. not all possess this knowledge. will he not be encouraged. where does modern scholarship stand on this question? In Gaffney’s Matters of Faith and Morals. 8 Gilbert. 1987. is defiled. Kansas City. no. 10 Here. But some.8 Now.9 It would be appropriate now to examine some of Paul’s uses of suneidesis and examine them in light of what we now know about the word. he states: Only in the Wisdom of Solomon do we find a plain case of suneidesis meaning conscience. Matters of Faith and Morals. The first passage I’d like to examine is 1 Corinthians 8:7–11: However. being weak. to see if there is conflict. MO: Sheed & Ward. through former association with idols. so the question presents itself. writings." The Biblical World 33. especially Pauline.: 116. or not.: 117. and its usage in Stoic thought. and the strongly Hellenistic character of that work only confirms a supposition that the idea of conscience is a legacy from Greece. we see the assertion reiterated in 1987. eat food as really offered to an idol. 2 (February 1909): 11322. for one whose conscience does not forbid him.term Paul has made us heirs of one of the noblest achievements of Greek thought. Gilbert is writing in 1909. Paul argues that eating meat offered to idols. and no better off if we do. "The Greek Element in Paul's Letters. We are no worse off if we do not eat. to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed. Food will not commend us to God. and their conscience (suneidesis). however. is acceptable. the brother for whom Christ died. whose suneidesis is weak will be compelled to fall because the stronger brother has exercised his Christian liberty. George Holley. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple. where it is entirely absent from the Gospels but present thirty times in other. 9 Gaffney. if his conscience (suneidesis) is weak.

which could be thought of as . that this usage by Paul of suneidesis does in fact fit within the semantic range of the Stoic understanding.It seems.