Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.29

Abraham J. Malherbe, Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity. Collected essays, 1959-2012 (2 vols.) (Edited by Carl R. Holladay, John T. Fitzgerald, James W. Thompson, and Gregory E. Sterling.) Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 150.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. xl, 596; xvi, 370.  ISBN 9789004253391.  $329.00.  

Reviewed by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, University of Copenhagen (


This two-volume set is a monument. It is a monument to the care shown by the publisher, Brill, in producing genuinely handsome (although terribly expensive!) books which it is an enormous pleasure to have in one’s hands. It is a monument to the quite extraordinary care with which the four editors – helped by an army of graduate assistants mentioned at pp. xxii-xiii – have undertaken their task. The publisher, the editors and their helpers are to be congratulated and thanked most warmly for their endeavours. Finally, and most importantly by far, it is a monument to Abraham J. Malherbe’s scholarship and the substantial advance it constitutes in the scholarly understanding of, in particular, the apostle Paul and his heirs in their Graeco-Roman cultural environment. There is no doubt that his work, in this new presentation, will be a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί. And it will also be of special interest to readers of this journal looking for insights into the classical world.

What one gets in formal terms

The two volumes (continuously paginated) contain 53 essays (pp. 13-972) preceded by an Introduction (pp. 1-8) written by Malherbe himself, and dated 24th July, 2012 – just two months before his death, at the age of 82, on 28th September that year. Editorial matter includes information on original page numbers (most helpfully given throughout the set), and on cross-references between articles reprinted in these volumes. After the last essay come five exceedingly full indices (141 pages!): of modern authors, names and subjects, ancient sources, and Greek and Latin words. Malherbe himself always adamantly insisted on full indices: his editorial colleagues and pupils have complied: the master himself would have rejoiced, had he lived to see it.

From the editorial matter a number of things become clear. First, the essays published here do not include every article from Malherbe’s pen. In particular, a selection has been made – in agreement with Malherbe himself – among the earliest publications (p. xx), many of which were published in the 1950s and 1960s in Restoration Quarterly. On the other hand, the set happily does include a number of works that one might perhaps not have hoped for: Chapter 2 of Malherbe’s book Social Aspects of Early Christianity (“Social Level and Literary Culture of Early Christianity”) (83-106);1 the famous book-length ‘report’ for ANRW 2. 26.1 (1992), 267-333 (“Hellenistic Moralists and the New Testament”: 675-749); and all the seminal essays that were collected in 1989 in Malherbe’s book, Paul and the Popular Philosophers.2

Secondly, the essays are, within each of the four parts, arranged in chronological order of their first appearance, in order to make clear to the reader how Malherbe’s scholarly interests developed over time.

Thirdly, the essays have undergone some revision -- not of substance; but bibliography has been updated, footnotes extensively standardized, and a Greek font reintroduced. Malherbe himself managed before his death to read and sign off on all but three of the updated essays (p. xxii).3 So this is not merely a collection of Malherbe’s principal essays in their original form: rather, it presents them in an updated and improved version.4 The standardization of the footnotes, in particular, adds immensely to the volumes’ unity and their usefulness.5

Fourthly, the essays have been grouped together in four parts. ‘Part One: Neotestamentica’ makes up two-thirds of the collection (Vol. 1) and comprises 32 essays: two early ones, on ‘The Corinthian Contribution’ (i.e. the Pauline ‘collection’ of money for the poor in Jerusalem) from 1959, and “The Task and Method of Exegesis” from 1961, followed by 30 essays, from 1968 onwards, when Malherbe had had his scholarly breakthrough: these focus at first on Paul, then gradually move on to the Deutero-Pauline letters, including the so-called Pastoral Epistles. ‘Part Two: Philosophica’ (which opens Vol. 2) comprises 5 essays: on pseudo-Heraclitus, Epistle 4; self-definition among the Cynics; Heracles; the Hellenistic moralists and the New Testament; and the Graeco- Roman world as the cultural context of the New Testament. ‘Part Three: Patristica’, includes 11 essays, focusing mainly on apologetic and philosophy in the second century, and in particular the apologist Athenagoras. Finally, ‘Part Four: Theologica and Miscellanea’, contains 5 essays, including three major reviews, and accounts of the work of three professors of New Testament at Yale (Nils Dahl), Chicago (Hans Dieter Betz) and Harvard (Helmut Koester), all of whom – although they were, like Malherbe himself, immigrants to the United States – came to exert decisive influence on American New Testament scholarship. An amusing and thought-provoking discussion “On the Writing of Commentaries” (957-72) from 2011 concludes the collection.

What one gets in substantial terms

As here collected, Malherbe’s life work provides an utterly convincing demonstration that both the apostle Paul himself and his successors, the unknown author(s) of the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ in the New Testament, were thoroughly familiar with a wide range of ideas and practices from Graeco-Roman ‘popular philosophy’ of their own time: these they incorporated seamlessly into their writings to serve their own specific purposes. The key notion here is that of ‘paraenesis’ (‘moral exhortation’), which is both a style of writing, and an exercise involving the articulation of a large number of concepts (like virtues and vices) and topoi (e.g. on wealth).6 To demonstrate the practice of paraenesis, Malherbe draws extensively on the works of writers he characterizes as ‘moral philosophers’, whom he himself identifies as follows (2): “Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, Maximus of Tyre, Plutarch, Lucian of Samosata”.7 What he does in essay after essay is to take up an individual passage in either Paul or the Pastoral Epistles and elucidate its meaning in the light of those writers (plus a host of other Graeco-Roman material). In a way, this was all intended as preparatory exercises for exegesis: for Malherbe’s magisterial (dare one say ‘definitive’?) commentary on Paul’s First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians,8 and for the commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (planned for the prestigious Hermeneia series) on which Malherbe was working at his death. In themselves, however, the essays give Classicists access to an extensive discursive practice that is utterly characteristic of the 1st-2nd centuries CE – and biblical scholars to a cultural setting for Paul and the Pastoral Epistles, of which nobody had an inkling before Malherbe’s work.9

Two remaining issues

One issue that runs through the whole collection is the question of how, precisely, to characterize the relationship between the Christian writers and the Graeco-Roman authors with which they fit. Malherbe quite often speaks of ‘similarities’ and ‘differences’ between them. Quite often he also traces the ‘differences’ to the more ‘theological’ stance of the Christian writers, even claiming that this type of ‘difference’ might mean that the two sides did not after all ‘mean the same thing’ when they used the same concepts etc.10 I am skeptical about this. It is certainly true that different authors had different ways of connecting their ‘practical ethics’ with their overall outlook (if they had such a thing). But it seems highly questionable that when, for instance, they spoke about wealth in relation to the good life, they did not all ‘mean the same thing’. Fortunately, throughout these essays Malherbe gradually moves towards an ever better understanding of the relationship: from seeing the Graeco-Roman material as a “background” to a “context” to an “environment” to a form of “ecology”, the role of which Malherbe then ably spells out and exemplifies in the last few pages of his Introduction to the volumes. Of Paul’s use of the notion of αὐτάρκεια (‘self-sufficiency’) in Philippians 4:11 he there concludes: “I suggest . . . that the notion of αὐτάρκεια [in Phil 4:11] not be viewed in isolation or in light of a [specifically] Stoic view, but that the range be extended to include various options proposed in the moral discourse of the day. That places Paul in his ecological environment, where he is one among other moralists. As they conceived of the virtue in terms of their own commitments, so does Paul make sense of it within his theological framework” (7, my italics).11

Another issue is Malherbe’s general aversion to ‘theory’ of almost any kind. Personally, I find that Paul’s knowledge of Stoicism, in particular, is so extensive that one may employ the whole of Stoic theory to elucidate Paul’s ‘theology and ethics’, that is, his ‘religion’ in all its aspects. Malherbe, by contrast, prefers to stay at a much more concrete, fine-grained and less ‘abstract’ level. Perhaps rightly so (in view of the result), but there is a whole range of theoretical perspectives that might be applied to the Christian texts precisely in the light of Malherbe’s own discoveries that he was not prepared to entertain. Even Clifford Geertz’ by now almost hackneyed notion of ‘thick description’, which would otherwise fit so well with what Malherbe is actually doing, is not mentioned. 12


Anybody who reads these essays will immediately see that they represent the very best in scholarship, with roots going straight back to what Classics had become in Germany more than a hundred years ago: (1) there is the total command of the primary source material, which Malherbe had studied in extenso and for its own sake; (2) there is the total command of all the relevant secondary literature in German, French and of course English, stretching back again to the beginning of the 20th century; and (3) there is the utter precision, not just in the questions raised and answers given, and in the use of primary material, but also in his scholarly style. Of Abraham Malherbe himself one can say with complete truth what he had written of Nils Dahl, his predecessor as Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale: “His writings, always mercifully free of jargon, have a common-sensical element about them that have made them, for a large part, useful to non-specialists” (935). Would that Brill will produce a paperback edition that may make the present set available to young scholars. It is, in so many ways, a model of its kind.


1.   Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (1977), 29-59.
2.   Minneapolis: Fortress (1989).
3.   We are not told, though, which three essays did not receive his blessing. Did he himself miss the misspelling of σῴζειν at 427 (without the iota subscriptum), or the reference to Galen at 790 n. 66 as the author of Marcus Aurelius’ In semet ipsum? Probably not.
4.   Thus the fact that the collected essays are page-referenced to the original publications should be taken cum grano salis. For example, footnotes have been added, either based on a later publication of the piece or on the present revision.
5.   Again, however, there are omissions. For example, at 410 n. 15 there is no cross-reference to the “Hellenistic Moralists and the New Testament”, which we fortunately do get at 675-749.
6.   Compare one of Malherbe’s books, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook (Library of Early Christianity 4) (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986).
7.   This fits the Index of ancient sources, where these writers loom large. However, Cicero should be added to the group.
8.   The Letters to the Thessalonians (Anchor Bible 32B) (New York: Doubleday, 2000). To the chagrin of the present reviewer, Malherbe opted for taking 2 Thessalonians to be genuinely Pauline.
9.   There were predecessors, of course, particularly in German scholarship of the first half of the 20th century. Malherbe himself was always keen on referring back to this.
10.   Compare the claim on 1:67 that: “to point out that Paul had the same practical concerns as Dio [Chrysostom], and that he used the same language in dealing with them, does not imply that he understood these words to mean the same thing they did in Dio.” Fortunately, Malherbe immediately continues: “As we have seen, the Cynics differed among themselves as to what they meant by the same language.”
11.   Here too belongs what I have elsewhere called the lex Malherbe, the content of which he himself articulates as follows: “I have sought to respect the integrity of both sets of sources, Christian and non-Christian alike” (2).
12.   Another example is Malherbe’s use of one of his favourite terms when he speaks not only of Paul’s methods and practices as a ‘pastor’, but even of “the philosophic pastoral methods current in his day” (!) (198), without ever (to my knowledge) defining the key term of ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral’. Note also that Pierre Hadot’s conception of ancient philosophy, which in itself is highly relevant to Malherbe’s concerns, is virtually absent from his work.

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