Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.37

Joseph R. Dodson, David E. Briones (ed.), Paul and Seneca in Dialogue. Ancient Philosophy & Religion, 2.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 340.  ISBN 9789004341357.  $159.00.  

Reviewed by Dominik Wolff, Stade (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The question “What if?” elevates historical studies from a mere descriptive level to a true Geisteswissenschaft. The reviewed collection of fourteen essays undertakes just this approach by putting two contemporaries of the 1st century CE, the Christic 1 apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca, into dialogue, although the two of them actually, to our knowledge, never met.2 As such, this compilation follows in the footsteps of J. N. Sevenster’s seminal book “Paul and Seneca” (Leiden: Brill 1961), and extends the path of its predecessor.

It is a positively minded approach the editors take up, since one must not forget that the few comments of Seneca on Jewish life—and he would have viewed Paul as a (albeit deviant) Jew—are not very polite or open-minded (cf. Ep. 95,47; Aug., Civ. Dei 6,11). Also, Paul’s utterances on non-believers (e.g. 1Cor 5:13) lack courtesy as well. But in times like these, when so many people live in non-communicating bubbles, acknowledging “otherness” as a fruitful contribution to one’s own thinking and thus undertaking to construct a dialogue between two distinct thinkers (even from antiquity) in order to learn from both equally, is honourable, and in this case worthwhile, too.

For the editors, the incentive to put Paul and Seneca in dialogue stems from their being contemporaries in the same environment, writing on similar topics, and being representatives of their respective schools of thought (p. 5). The demand for a true dialogue between the two is reflected in the methodology of the bulk of the essays: initially, a certain topic that both thinkers have in common is reviewed from the respective perspectives of Seneca and Paul, so that one receives something like two separate, but thematically identical monologues.3 Only then are Seneca and Paul brought into a dialogue about that topic. These conclusding parts take different forms, depending on the essay’s author, sometimes only listing the results, but sometimes creating indeed the protocol of a conversation (cf. the contributions by Briones, Dodson, Lee-Barnewall, Nigh Hoghan). Here, the compilation truly fulfils the promise of its title. Finally, the epilogue by Joshua Richards, a short story about Seneca encountering Paul in Rome and inviting him to Trimalchio’s house, offers a real dialogue between both protagonists.4

The epistles of Paul and Seneca serve as the main source for making their voices being heard in the conversation. Seneca’s treatises come quite heavily into play, too, but sadly his dramatic works do not. Maybe his tragedies (and even his metaphysical satire Apocolocyntosis) would also shed some light onto certain topics in comparison (and dialogue) with the apostle’s convictions. Concerning Paul’s letters, on the other hand, there is no consensus among the different authors of this volume as to which of his writings are to be regarded as authentic or disputed. All in all, this leads to no greater problems, but nevertheless diminishes a rounded-out, complete picture of Paul. Especially concering the question of Paul’s overall view on women and slavery it makes a difference, whether one counts only seven, nine or even thirteen letters as Paul’s genuine oeuvre.

On the essays at a glance:

Harry Hine begins with an overview of the literary dialogues between Seneca and Paul that have appeared over the past two millennia. It is a well-informed and informative piece on the subject, and its subtitle (“The first two thousand years”) makes one hope that this whole volume is just an intermediate step (although a major one) on a long and ongoing way.

Randolph Richards reflects on Paul and Seneca as letter writers, providing a dense treatise on and comparison of the environment and circumstances of their respective letter writing. Although it comes as no surprise, it is still an insight worth noting that Paul’s letters were much more scarce and financially expensive than Seneca’s and were thus probably viewed as very precious by him and his churches. Although Richards states that Paul’s letters should be regarded as more personal than Seneca’s, one could argue that Paul’s letters are still official writings of an apostolos to certain ekklesiai and as such, not thoroughly personal in the modern sense of the word.

Runar Thorsteinsson’s essay deals with the figure of the sage (a commonplace in Hellenistic popular philosophy) and its connections to Paul and Seneca. He argues convincingly that Jesus Christ fulfils this role in Christic thinking, whereas for Seneca it is performed by persons like Zeno, Socrates, or Cato. Both agree that the sage as a role model should be imitated by human beings. Here the question arises as to who the sage in the Christic context actually is, since Paul also calls upon his churches to imitate himself (as in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and 1 Thessalonians). In this regard, one can wonder if Paul’s letter to the Romans as the main document for Thorsteinsson’s thesis is well-chosen, since here Paul writes to a congregation unknown to him. This said, there would be little to no possibility of imitating him through personal knowledge.

Brian Tabb provides a fascinating approach to both Seneca and Paul by applying James Olthius’s worldview model to each one’s concept of suffering. Both agree on the need to suffer for one’s convictions and also on death’s insignificance, but although they sometimes even use the same words (e.g. “sin”), their meaning differs fundamentally.

John Barclay’s essay on altruism in Seneca’s and Paul’s thinking shows that both of them would agree in rejecting a modern conception of altruism because of the prevailing ancient concept of reciprocity. Nevertheless they differ in their distinct Christic or Stoic worldviews.

Close to that essay, the idea of the self-gift provides the theme for David Briones’ article. He establishes that Seneca recognizes giving as fundamental for society, but also advocates a shift in thinking: a gift-giver should always discern the worth (dignitas) of the recipient and possess a willing mind (animus) in giving. This resonates with Paul in many respects, again with differences due to his specific theological worldview.

As a triplet to the two preceding essays (also because the main source for Seneca’s thoughts in all three is his De beneficiis) comes David De Silva’s thorough contribution in which he reflects on different obligations in the processes of reciprocity (both human and divine). Therein he shows that Seneca and Paul share very much a mentality of do quia dedisti rather than one of do ut des.

Timothy Brookins addresses Paul’s and Seneca’s views on slavery and puts them into a larger sociological context. Whereas both perceive slavery as a social norm and thus do not revolt against it, their reflections on it hold the possibility (although not the need) to overcome it.

Pauline Nigh Hogan offers a very insightful reading of Paul’s and Seneca’s views on women. The only weaknesses I see are in the lack of a reference to Chloe as a major player in Corinth (1Cor 1:11) as also of an awareness that the prominent Christic women mentioned in Rom 16 inhabited Seneca’s Rome, too. What would Seneca have said, meeting them directly? By including them, the dialogue of the two men could be widened. And again: How “personal, heartfelt” (p. 212) were Paul’s letters, being official apostolic writings?

Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s essay on the body metaphors in Seneca and Paul is also done very well, offering one of the strongest dialogic parts within the compilation. Minor complaints include not identifying the sources of the Stoic understanding of bodily unity (p. 235) and a quotation from Romans to strengthen an argumentation solely about 1 Corinthians (p. 240).

Joseph Dodson’s article deals with the two letter-writers’ views on crucifixion and their use of metaphors of the cross. Although well researched it does not provide very much surprising news: The theologia crucis is the basis for the Christic (and later Christian) belief and thought system, whereas for Seneca the cross serves as a negative image for sinful desires. The crucial point of this essay lies in the insight of how one can apply the same image (in this case: the cross) for a totally different metaphor.

Troels Engberg-Pedersen explores the notion of death with both authors. Whereas for Seneca (Ep. 93) death can truly be coped with by living as a sapiens (and as such already having a life with the gods), Paul is driven by the hope for an afterlife with Christ that regards this earthly existence just as a passing state. In a meticulous analysis of certain passages in 1Thess, Rom, and Phil, Engberg-Pedersen indicates the development in Paul’s thinking, in which a moral life before death becomes more and more important, thus connecting and combining present and future existence. To this, for me, the question arises: Are there also developments in Seneca? If so, what effect would that have on a Paul-Seneca dialogue?

In the final full-fledged article of this compilation James Ware deals with the eschatological concepts of Paul and Seneca. He opposes Seneca’s Stoic convictions that human beings (along with creation) will be restored and renewed incessantly to Paul’s Jewish, linear conception of the course of the world. Ware finely carves out the distinctiveness of both Seneca and Paul within their own larger schools of thought. He sees an overlap of both their thinkings in the assumption of a corporeal resurrection as a transformation of substance (rather than a mere ethereal existence).

All in all, this compilation is a worthwhile read. Of course, we do not know what Paul and Seneca would have said to one another, had they met. However, one can assume that they would have approved of the enterprise to make their own thoughts clearer, even if it means taking another person’s thoughts as a backdrop, which is not the least lesson to learn nowadays.

Authors and titles

C. Kavin Rowe: Foreword
David E. Briones and Joseph R. Dodson: Introduction
Harry Hine: Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years
E. Randolph Richards: Some Observations on Paul and Seneca as Letter Writers
Runar Thorsteinsson: Jesus Christ and the Wise Man: Paul and Seneca on Moral Sages
Brian J. Tabb: Paul and Seneca on Suffering
John M.G. Barclay: Benefiting Others and Benefit to Oneself: Seneca and Paul on 'Altruism'
David E. Briones: Paul and Seneca on the Self-Gift
David A. deSilva: 'We are Debtors': Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca
Timothy Brookins: (Dis)correspondence of Paul and Seneca on Slavery
Pauline Nigh Hogan: Paul and Seneca on Women
Michelle Lee-Barnewall: Paul and Seneca on the Body
Joseph R. Dodson: Paul and Seneca on the Cross: The Metaphor of Crucifixion in Galatians and De Vita Beata
Troels Engberg-Pedersen: Paul in Philippians and Seneca in Epistle 93 on Life after Death and Its Present Implications
James P. Ware: The Salvation of Creation: Seneca and Paul on the Future of Humanity and of the Cosmos
Joshua Richards: Epilogue: The Stoic and the Saint


1.   By "Christic", I mean "belonging to Christ" or "believing in Christ". I avoid the term "Christian" in the context of Paul's letters, since Christianity as a fully-formed religion had not appeared on the scene by then.
2.   In that regard, the fictive letter exchange of Seneca and Paul from the 5th century (cf. Alfons Fürst, Therese Fuhrer, Folker Siegert, Peter Walter (ed.), Der apokryphe Briefwechsel zwischen Seneca und Paulus: zusammen mit dem Brief des Mordechai an Alexander und dem Brief des Annaeus Seneca über Hochmut und Götterbilder. Sapere Bd. 11. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006 BMCR 2010.09.03) appears as a precursor to this book, were it not written from a blunt Christian perspective that undermines it being a true dialogue.
3.   One can wonder if it is a matter of Christian politeness (since all the authors have a background as biblical scholars) that Seneca is always the first one invited to speak up in the essays. After all, the title of the book mentions first Paul, then Seneca. Or is there an underlying feeling of foreignness to Seneca that is tried to overcome by handling him first?
4.   Unfortunately, this smart and cheeky piece suffers from too much cliché and historical inaccuracies: Paul is not only described by Seneca as looking like a “schlub” (if at all, then Paul as a Jew would have used Yiddish slang), but also as being an old man, although Seneca was probably older.

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