Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.34

Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to a Julio-Claudian Movement. Second Edition.   Grand Rapids/Cambridge:  Eerdmans, 2002.  Pp. 302.  ISBN 0-8028-3977-0.  $32.00.  

Reviewed by Jay Twomey, University of Cincinnati (
Word count: 1413 words

Bruce Winter's Philo and Paul among the Sophists is a useful inquiry into the complex nature of the sophistic movement in the 1st century C.E. Organized into two major sections, Winter's book reads the Second Sophistic in Alexandria and Corinth principally via philosophical and theological critiques of the movement in Philo and Paul, while also drawing upon a variety of other sources and documents, from Dio of Prusa and Epictetus to the reflections of a student upon the sophistic scene (P. Oxy. 2190, the text and translation of which are provided in an appendix). In this second edition, Winter has not altered the organization of his text extensively, and so I will not repeat J.R.C. Cousland's excellent discussion, from his BMCR review, of the text's basic arguments and structure. Indeed, one finds it hard not to agree wholeheartedly with Cousland's assessment that "Winter's (re-)examination of sources not commonly introduced in the discussion of the Second Sophistic does open up a whole new avenue of approach to the question, particularly in his careful consideration of Philo's oeuvre, where he makes use of materials that have often been overlooked or undervalued."

Winter, in his preface to the 2002 edition, explains that a second edition was necessary, in part, to incorporate recent advances in the scholarship on rhetoric and education relevant for New Testament studies and particularly for a reading of Paul's letters. Later, in Chapter 8, it becomes clear that Winter also wanted to respond to direct criticism of his understanding of Paul's use of a technical rhetorical vocabulary (160). The second edition, then, is itself witness to the fact that the first edition's understanding of Paul's engagement with the Corinthian sophists was, at the very least, controversial. Readers may find that the same is true of the second edition as well, and therefore in what follows I will comment upon Winter's treatment of the Pauline material.

Given that in Part I, which culminates with a look at Philo, Winter focuses upon what can be gleaned from critics like Philo about the rhetorical skills and public reputation of sophistic orators, his task vis-à-vis Paul, it seems to me, is similarly two-fold. In order to claim that Paul was, in some sense, "among the sophists," he needs first to show that Paul, like Philo, was aware of sophistic rhetoric. Secondly, he needs to show that Paul was aware more generally, as was Philo, of how the sophists functioned in the social arena.

On the first count Winter succeeds quite effectively. He provides valuable insights into the probable interest on the part of some in the Corinthian community to frame a response to Paul, Apollos and others in terms of their more general appreciation of oratorical skills. Reading the evidence of 2 Corinthians 10-13, Winter claims that Paul had "been assessed as a public speaker [in the sophistic tradition] by the canon of ὑπόκρισις, and has been found wanting" (223). Winter makes extensive use of manuals of rhetoric, such as Philodemus' On Rhetoric, to argue that Paul, in responding to his critics in Corinth, knowingly drew upon the technical vocabulary of such manuals in order to show that he could employ, but chose to reject as theologically inappropriate, the sophistic style his critics seemed to value. Hence the reference to ὑπόκρισις, for instance, or "rhetorical delivery," to understand the complaint preserved in 2 Corinthians 10.10 that Paul was weak "in bodily presence" and that "his speech [was] contemptible" (NRSV). Winter makes similar claims about other key terms and issues in the Corinthian correspondence -- about Pauline v. sophistic "boasting" for example (232) -- to suggest that Paul explicitly takes into account sophistic concepts in order to get at the heart of the criticism against him, again in terms of the quality of his rhetorical presentation. And, generally, Winter develops a convincing argument in this regard, especially when he clarifies that his claims about Paul's anti-sophistic invective are primarily valid with regard to the idea that "preaching standards had risen dramatically subsequent to his departure, most especially through exposure to Apollos" (227-8). Reading the Corinthian correspondence in part as an extended but quite unexpected Pauline apologia directed to certain individuals or groups who had come to expect from their teachers something more akin to a sophistic style of presentation adds another dimension of richness to our understanding of Paul and his ministry.

Winter's work is less effective, it seems to me, when it moves beyond this limited claim to a broader one, namely that Paul, more or less from the beginning of his time in Corinth (and Thessalonica, according to evidence Winter has culled from 1 Thessalonians for the second edition), actively and consciously "adopted an anti-sophistic posture to eliminate any confusion of his message with that of the sophists" (164). Here again Winter draws upon an array of sources, this time with regard to the general modus operandi, rather than the rhetorical skill, of figures like Herodes Atticus, "the sophist and benefactor of Corinth" (134). Winter seems to suggest that Paul, from the very moment he entered a city like Corinth, knew that he was at risk of being taken for a sophist. In his discussion of "the coming of a sophist" (144-147), Winter explains, the entry of a sophist into a city involved a not insignificant amount of public pomp and ceremony, not to mention expense, in order to "establish his reputation as a speaker" (147). Paul, Winter argues, consciously "rejected these conventions when he came to Corinth" (ibid.) precisely in order to avoid being identified as a sophist. But just why Paul should have been thought of as a visiting sophist by the Corinthians is not obvious. On the evidence Winter presents, the analogy would probably hold only if, like a Herodes Atticus, Paul had been recognized as a "power-wielding" (134) individual, someone whose political affiliations, financial means, and rhetorical ability combined might have earned for him the status of a benefactor. Although Paul's "entry" into Corinth might be understood in a variety of ways, Winter probably ought to have taken into consideration reconstructions of Paul's actual practice upon arrival in a new town. If, as seems plausible, Paul's strategy was to begin more or less quietly, and eventually to establish himself through a network of contacts,1 then one would need a more nuanced interpretation than Winter provides of why it should have been necessary for Paul, in his immediate social context, to have been performatively anti-sophistic, at least in the very early stages of his ministry in Corinth. While the insight that the atmosphere of Corinth had been "contaminated by a culturally determined understanding of terms drawn from the sophistic movement" (179) certainly can help to clarify why Paul eventually responds to the Corinthians as he does, especially to the development of sophistically-inclined factions in Corinth, it does not allow us to assume, even given 1 Corinthians 2.1-2, that Paul was, from the start, intentionally subverting the pro-sophist expectations. The factions of 1 Corinthians 1.12ff are likewise understood by Winter in 'terms drawn from the sophistic movement.' And yet while one might make a good case that sophistic conventions lie behind the choice on the part of some Corinthians to follow, i.e., to consider themselves students of, Apollos or Paul or Cephas, one is still left with the problem of how to explain the presence of "Christ" among these other teachers -- something Winter does not adequately do (173-179).2 Thus, Winter, in trying to fulfill the second of the two tasks mentioned above, namely that of showing Paul's very active familiarity with extra-rhetorical sophistic conventions, probably assumes more than the evidence of the letters will allow, especially since he seems to take that evidence as an essentially unmediated recollection of Paul's experiences in Corinth.

Philo and Paul among the Sophists is a fascinating contribution to the scholarship on rhetoric in the Pauline letters. It is especially strong, I think, in showing that Paul responds to his critics in their own sophistic terms, and its argument about Paul's anti-sophistic tactics, whatever their final merit, will certainly stimulate debate on Paul's missionary strategies. One of the most interesting conclusions to be drawn from this discussion is that Paul is perhaps to be counted among the philosophers, at least insofar as his anti-sophistic stance, like Philo's, parallels what has come to be understood as the traditionally disdainful attitude (an attitude our understanding of which is quite nicely complicated by Winter) of the philosopher toward the sophist.


1.   See, for example, Ronald F. Hock's The Social Context of Paul's Ministry, (Philadelphia 1980) pp. 41-42. Winter criticizes Hock (171) because of Hock's suggestions that Paul followed the model of the working Cynic. Beyond thinking of work as part of Paul's overall anti-sophistic stance, however, Winter doesn't really address the basic issue of the role Paul's labor may have played in establishing his ministries. On the question of how Paul might have set up shop in places like Corinth, see: Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's Paul: A Critical Life, (Oxford 1996) pp. 85-89; and E. P. Sanders' pithy Paul: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford [1991] 2001) p. 24.
2.   A. D. Clarke, in Serve the Community of the Church (Grand Rapids 2000), sensibly, though perhaps not wholly successfully, seems to adapt Winter's claims about Paul's response to sophistic affiliations and rhetoric in Corinth within the broader contexts of the "patronage" system and a "preoccupation with wisdom and proficiency in public speaking" (176-180), emphasis added.

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