Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.16

Anders Klostergaard Petersen, George van Kooten (ed.), Religio-Philosophical Discourses in the Mediterranean World: From Plato, through Jesus, to Late Antiquity. Ancient philosophy and religion, 1.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. viii, 420.  ISBN 9789004341463.  $177.00.  

Reviewed by Joseph Lipp, Monmouth University (

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

This volume, the first in a new series on Ancient Philosophy and Religion by Brill, aims to “examine the potential for engaging in dialogue about the intertwinement of ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy and religion (here confined to Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian religion)” (2). The time period covered is Plato to Julian, and the evidence is entirely textual. The editors cite two recent trends in early Christian studies and Classics, respectively, as scholarly context: first, the growing work on Graeco-Roman philosophy in the New Testament and, second, recent studies on the religious nature of ancient philosophy. Dissatisfied that these developments were occurring independently of one another, the editors organized two colloquia to bring them together, at the universities of Aarhaus and Cambridge in 2012 and 2014. They invited New Testament scholars, classicists, and historians of ancient philosophy, and this volume is based on the colloquia.

The book contains an introduction by the editors, 14 papers separated into four ‘Parts’, and three indices (Ancient Sources, Modern Authors, and Subjects). Bibliography is cited in footnotes.

The papers are so varied in their content and often so technical as to render generalizations futile; I will, therefore, briefly summarize each one and then assess the volume.

Part 1 features four papers about religious topics in Plato’s dialogues. First, Anders Klostergaard Petersen argues that “Plato’s innovation does not lie in the turn towards ‘philosophy’ but in the introduction of a new form of religion” (9). Relying heavily on eight features of Axial-Age religion identified in Platonic texts, Petersen concludes that Plato’s oeuvre is a religious specimen.

Second, Frisbee Sheffield looks at the connection of piety and eros in Plato’s texts. Previous work on Platonic piety, Sheffield points out, has looked at “Socratic piety” in the Euthyphro and the Apology, and at godlikeness in the Theaetetus and Timaeus; in this paper, Sheffield argues that eros in the Symposium supplements these texts because eros contemplates the divine and helps us know what the gods love (wisdom).

Third, Nicholas Denyer’s paper is a close reading of the Euthyphro and a careful analysis of its central challenge, the so-called Euthyphro Problem or Dilemma: is something good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is intrinsically good? Denyer claims that Socrates’ and Euthyphro’s arguments about the dilemma are circular, but that this circularity is problematic only if one assumes that we are forced to choose between pious-because-loved or loved-because-pious. In fact, we can have it both ways, by distinguishing between natural kinds (e.g. water), which have both an ousia and a pathos, and social kinds (e.g. money, piety), which have only a pathos. That is, social kinds such as piety lack an essential ousia; they are what they are because we make them that way. Thus, pious acts such as giving gifts to the gods may seem irrational, since gods do not need such things, yet what matters in these social kinds is symbolism: the gift to the god symbolizes the pious person’s esteem for the god (Denyer compares, from the Hebrew bible, Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:10-17; and Amos 5:21-24, and pseudo-Plato, Lesser Alcibiades 149e).

Fourth, Lars Albinus aims to undermine the tendency to detach Greek science and philosophy from its religious background by looking at the ways that the Platonic discourse appropriated daimons and their religious connotations. The paper also problematizes a clear, linear break between mythos and logos, showing how both forms of discourse are reliant on the mythological daimon.

Part 2 features three essays. First, Helen Van Noorden looks at Stoic ideas in the Sibylline Oracles, especially eschatological visions of destruction and paradise, and argues for caution regarding Stoic influence. Van Noorden concludes that the Sibyl does not seem to draw on Stoic ideas consciously, but that many of the similarities may be part of a common cultural currency. Moreover, the Sibylline Oracles are not internally coherent, like a system from a philosophical school; instead, the Sibyl has her own take on biblical ideas, Hesiodic traditions regarding progress, and allegorical readings of Homer and Hesiod.

Second, Anders Klostergaard Petersen (who also authored the first paper in the volume) argues that the religious and philosophical discourses in 4 Maccabees are inseparable. Such a view runs contrary to the history of scholarship on the text, which has tended to view the philosophical aspects of 4 Maccabees as a mere veneer over a more essentially religious document. In the course of the argument about 4 Maccabees in particular, Petersen makes more general claims about ancient philosophical discourses (they were all religious: 129), Judaism and the Hellenistic world (the Judaism- Hellenism dichotomy should be dissolved: 130), cultural interaction (we should employ a Venn diagram to understand cultural criss-crossings: 127), and human evolution and the Axial Age (ancient philosophy and religion should be situated in the context of Axial Age religions: 141).

Third, Christopher Jedan seeks a “rapprochement” between religion and philosophy and aims to offer a new set of conceptual tools for the task. For case studies, Jedan looks at ancient consolations as persuasive speech acts (that is, as “arguments”), demonstrating that a common philosophical framework is at play in Seneca’s Ad Marciam, Paul’s epistles, and other consolatory texts. Given the similar philosophical frame, therefore, it is difficult to differentiate philosophy from religion or theology; what we see instead in the ancient sources is a spectrum of philosophical and religious interplay. Jedan suggests that we refer to this overlap with the term “theo-philosophy.”

Part 3 features three papers. First, Bernhard Lang lays out the evidence for Cynic influence on ancient Judaism generally and on Jesus and the early traditions about him specifically. The heart of the paper is seven observations linking ancient Judaism and the early Jesus traditions to Cynic philosophy: (1) numerous receptions of Cynic philosophy in Hellenistic Judaism including, inter alia, Ecclesiastes and Philo; (2) Cynic poverty practiced by Jesus and his disciples; (3) distinctively Cynic view on the freedom and happiness of animals, also expressed by Jesus (e.g. “consider the birds”); (4) Cynic-style diatribes in the Gospels; (5) “love your enemies” as a Cynic commandment; (6) similarities between the god of the Cynics and the god of Jesus; and (7) Cynic and Jesuanic criticisms of ritual acts. The paper also includes an appendix of references to Cynic philosophy in the works of Philo.

Second, George van Kooten argues that the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo and found them useful for his portrayal of Jesus for his Greek audience. After a lengthy introduction to the reception of Plato in early Christian authors up to and including Augustine, van Kooten examines similarities between John’s Gospel (he deliberately leaves out the synoptic gospels) and the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo in chronological order. Given the similarities that van Kooten identifies and the plausibility of contemporary Jewish engagement with Plato’s dialogues and Socrates’ trial, van Kooten finds it likely that John used this set of Platonic texts to depict Jesus as the aspiration of both Jews and also Greeks.

Third, Daniele Pevarello looks at Jesus’ critique of the “polylogia” of pagan prayers in Matthew 6:7, and argues that “Matthew’s discourse on prayer is deeply embedded in the philosophical piety of the Graeco-Roman tradition” (275). Pevarello demonstrates how Matthew’s Gospel positions Jesus alongside other pious sages, such as Socrates and Pythagoras, by having him voice a long-standing philosophical critique of loquacity.

Part 4 features four papers. First, Simon Gathercole explores the reactions of second-century “pagan” philosophers to Christians. Gathercole surveys the following individuals: Epictetus, Crescens, Apuleius, Marcus Aurelius, Galen, Celsus, Justin, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras, and Pantaenus. Gathercole finds no neat, singular narrative in his exploration; rather, he sees the stories of three types of individuals: first, those who basically ignore Christians (e.g. Epictetus, Apuleius, Marcus Aurelius, and Galen); second, those who see Christians as a threat (e.g. Crescens, Celsus); and third, those who convert (e.g. Justin, Tatian).

Second, Niko Huttunen claims that several passages in Epictetus’ Discourses refer to Christians, that Epictetus knew about their teachings, and that Epictetus even borrowed some of their expressions. Specifically, the paper looks closely at Discourses 2.9.19-21 and 4.7.6. (Gathercole, in the previous chapter, considers 2.9.19-21on p. 282 n. 13, and 4.7.6 on pp. 280-2.) Huttunen aims to prove that Epictetus holds a “moderately positive” view of Christians, especially as compared to Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny; this is probably due to Epictetus classifying Christians somewhere between the (base) commoners and the (sage) philosophers.

Third, Harold Tarrant looks at how several Platonist authors of the third century argued over language for the One and for god using Plato’s texts. Tarrant focuses on Plotinus, Origenes (not to be confused with the Christian philosopher of the same name), and Proclus. Such hermeneutic quibbling among Platonists is parallel to exegetical challenges faced by Christians and their texts. In the course of the discussion, Tarrant aims to advance our understanding of the authorship of an anonymous commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, and suggests that it was authored by Origenes or another student of Ammonius.

Fourth, Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler looks at the philosophical discourse on materiality and the divine in Iamblichus’ De mysteriis and Life of Pythagoras and Julian’s Against the Galileans. The topic comes into view not only with regard to the Christian-pagan polemic on the Christian incarnation (best seen in the prologue of John’s Gospel), but also with regard to debates within Neo-Platonic circles on how matter should be regarded, and to what extent the divine can manifest itself within a material body. Tanaseanu-Döbler claims that, based on Iamblichus and Julian, the Johannine incarnation would appear problematic to Neoplatonists in at least three respects: (1) it contradicts the hierarchy of beings in Neo-Platonic ontologies; (2) it is permanently located in a human being, whereas Neo-Platonic thinkers allow divine presence in matter only in limited ritual contexts; and (3) it makes claims about a historical figure of the near past.

The essays are of very high quality, the bibliographical citations are multi-lingual, and there are no typos worth mentioning. However, a comprehensive list of works cited in the appendix would have increased the book’s usefulness. I found the following essays outstanding for their arguments and contribution to the volume’s stated purpose: Van Noorden on Stoicism in the Sibylline Oracles; Petersen on 4 Maccabees; Lang on Jesus and Cynicism; Pevarello on Matthew 6:7; and Gathercole on second-century philosophers. Petersen on Plato and 4 Maccabees (e.g. 16-17 and 129-30), Albinus on daimons (76), and Jedan on consolation (161-2) all attempt to employ a definition of religion in their arguments, and so scholars interested in the academic study of religion per se will want to analyze those essays. The book surely succeeds at pulling together academic strands that are typically separate, especially classics and early Christian studies. There are, of course, many other strands, and I look forward to future volumes that incorporate, for example, Greek material before Plato, discourses after Julian, various types of evidence in addition to texts, and other traditions.

Finally, despite the dangers of semantic pedantry, a note on definitions. The editors do not define religion or philosophy, and only a few contributors do so. One nearly dismisses the attempt at relying on definitions: “I do not think the debate can be reduced to a matter of favoured terminology” (9). Yet, definitions do matter, especially in the case of abstract objects of inquiry such as “religion” and “philosophy”, for without a definition to tell us what counts as an appropriate topic of study, we are lost—or we simply trust that everyone knows “religion” and “philosophy” when they see it. I understand the impulse by which the editors were guided, to allow the contributors to use their own conceptions; and yet it would be exciting to see a further volume in the series that more explicitly engages ancient and modern conceptions of religion and philosophy, if not as objects of study themselves, then as theoretical backbones on which to build a skeleton of common essays. I recommend Jensen 2014 (also cited by Petersen in this volume) and Lincoln 2010 (ch. 1) as good starting points. 1

Titles and Authors

PART 1: Plato
Plato’s Philosophy—Why Not Just Platonic Religion? / Anders Klostergaard Petersen
Platonic Piety: ‘Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again’ / Frisbee Sheffield
The Real Euthyphro Problem, Solved / Nicholas Denyer
Religion, Philosophy, and the Demons in Between / Lars Albinus

PART 2: Explorations in an Emerging Common Discourse
Philosophical Traces in the Sibylline Oracles / Helen Van Noorden
Philosophy and Religion and Their Interactions in 4 Maccabees / Anders Klostergaard Petersen
The Rapprochement of Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Consolation: Seneca, Paul, and Beyond / Christoph Jedan

PART 3: Placing Jesus among the Philosophers
Jesus among the Philosophers: The Cynic Connection Explored and Affirmed, with a Note on Philo’s Jewish-Cynic Philosophy / Bernhard Lang
The Last Days of Socrates and Christ: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo Read in Counterpoint with John’s Gospel / George van Kooten
Criticism of Verbosity in Ancient Philosophical and Early Christian Writings: Jesus’ Critique of the “Polylogia” of Pagan Prayers (Matthew 6:7) in its Graeco-Roman Context / Daniele Pevarello

PART 4: Reconsidering Early Pagan-Christian Relations
Christians According to Second-Century Philosophers / Simon Gathercole
Epictetus’ Views on Christians: A Closed Case Revisited / Niko Huttunen
Plotinus, Origenes, and Ammonius on the “King” / Harold Tarrant
Neo-Platonic Readings of Embodied Divine Presence: Iamblichus and Julian / Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler


1.   J. S. Jensen, What is Religion? (Routledge, 2014); B. Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, 2nd edn. (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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