BMCR 1999.02.13

Philo and Paul among the Sophists. Society for New Testament Studies 96

Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists. Monograph series / Society for New Testament Studies ; 96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xvi, 289 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780521591089 $59.95.

One of the encouraging features of New Testament scholarship over the last two decades has been the tendency to interpret the NT within the larger confines of the Classical world. Since Betz’ s groundbreaking commentary on Galatians (1979), Paul’s letters, for instance, have been increasingly scrutinized and interpreted in light of the rhetorical handbooks and canons current in the First Century CE. Winter’s book represents a welcome addition to this line of study; instead of restricting himself to the literary form of the epistles, he sets out to situate Paul himself and his ministry within the framework of first-century Sophism, and extends this mandate to include Philo. The purpose of the work, he tells us, is to determine in what sense “Paul and Philo are among the sophists” (1). Naturally, such an agenda presupposes that there were sophists to be among, and a considerable part of Winter’s project is, therefore, taken up with an exploration of the roots of the Second Sophistic. W. begins by building on Bowersock’s well-known observation that the Second Sophistic was “a culmination, not a sudden burst or fad”.1 The reason for this, W. contends, is that in the East the movement was already flourishing in the early part of the First Century, particularly within the cities of Alexandria and Corinth. Using these two cities as test cases, the first half of the book addresses the situation of Alexandria, and the second half, Corinth.

For the sophistic movement in Alexandria, W. draws on a number of sources. Not unexpectedly, one of them is Dio’s Oration 32, which, he argues, does not indicate that there was a dearth of sophists in the city, but simply that the sophists were reluctant to involve themselves in the affairs of the city. W. adduces other, more recherché, sources, one of which is P. Oxy. 2190, a student’s letter to his father (helpfully included in the Appendix), which W. provisionally dates to the reign of Vespasian. The student complains that he is unable to find a suitable teacher because of “a shortage of sophists,” a remark that W. interprets as an indication that the Alexandrian sophists were in considerable demand. While his inference is, perhaps, open to question, he finds further corroboration for it within the Philonic corpus. W. determines that Philo’s use of the term “sophist” is neither pejorative nor imprecise. Rather, Philo uses it in a consistent and predictable fashion to denote a “virtuoso speaker”. As Philo several times alludes to a contemporary “throng” ( homilos) of sophists, it is evident that the Sophists figure as a numerous and influential group in Alexandria at a period earlier than is commonly supposed. The assumption implicit in Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists, namely, that the Second Sophistic began in earnest with figures like Herodes Atticus in the time of Nero’s principate, warrants reconsideration.

The discussion of the sophistic movement in first-century Corinth likewise draws on a variety of authorities including Paul, Dio, and Epictetus. One of Epictetus’ discourses (3.1 “Of personal Adornment”) is invoked to demonstrate that the sophists emerged from the families of the wealthy and the powerful. A second (3.23 “To those who read and discuss for the purpose of display”), while not normally regarded as a commentary on sophism does, in fact, implicitly reveal Epictetus’ anti-sophistic stance. Dio not only reveals that the sophists were commonplace in Corinth, but also something of the emulous conflicts that took place between different sophists and their followers. W. contends that it is this sort of rivalry that helps to elucidate Paul’s situation with regard to the Corinthian congregation. Paul’s readers were, in W.’s view, well aware of the conventions practised by sophists and rhetors, and expected as much from Paul. The Corinthian church had developed a sophistic understanding of discipleship (aggravated in some measure by Apollos’ flashy rhetorical style), and were disenchanted when he failed to perform. Paul’s own response is recorded in I Corinthians 1-4, where he flatly condemns the sophistic tradition. The Corinthians, in their turn, appoint church leaders familiar with Greek oratory, who use Paul’s own words to condemn him (cf. 2 Cor. 10:10; 11:6), and part of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13) is Paul’s rejoinder to these leaders. Here he employs the rhetorical technique of sygkrisis to show that he is also an adept, even if he regards rhetorical skill as ultimately unimportant. Paul has “renounced its use as the appropriate medium for the message” (230).

Winter capably demonstrates, therefore, that the sophists were alive and well and active in Alexandria and Corinth in the first century of the Common Era. Ultimately, however, neither Philo nor Paul can be said to have figured in their number, even if they had both participated in Greek paideia. Philo, if admiring of the sophists’ rhetorical ability, is nevertheless unimpressed by the moral tenor of their lives. Paul has even less regard for them, and may even be described as anti-sophistic in his categorical rejection of sophistic values.

All told, it has to be said that W. performs a valuable service in limning the context of the Sophistic movement in the First Century. His (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. Similarly, his attempts to understand Paul in relation to the sophistic circles of Corinth provide a plausible and most interesting matrix in which to contextualize Paul’s ministry. Winter actually succeeds in making Paul come alive, and much the same can be said for the pictures he provides of Alexandria and Corinth.

It is scarcely surprising that a work of this order should generate a number of further questions. One demanding a volume on its own is how the term “sophist” is used in the First Century. W. dilates on how some of his individual sources use the term, and devotes several more pages to identifying the sophists (3-5), but unresolved aspects of the question linger. Is the use of the term at the turn of the Common Era really as uniform as he suggests? Is it — as his rather precipitate dismissal of Jones ( The Roman World of Dio Chrysostom 9) would suggest — never used as a pejorative term? Further, how do the sophists differ from the rhetors and the philosophers? An additional question concerns Paul’s familiarity with rhetoric. W. though he cites with approval Forbes’ judgement that the second epistle to the Corinthians demonstrates Paul’s deployment of rhetorical skills (238), is rightly cautious of imputing a “grand style” of rhetoric to Paul (240). Paul has been trained in rhetoric, but is quite content to keep his light under a bushel, so long as his congregations persist in preferring style to substance. Yet is Paul quite as au fait with rhetoric as W. would have us believe? Certainly other recent work in the area is less confident. Stanley Porter’s analysis of scholarly attempts to isolate the rhetorical species or genres of Paul’s epistles concludes that many of these attempts are “not apparently consistent with the conventions of ancient rhetoric or with each other (584).”2 While W.’s analysis undoubtedly helps to explain why this should be the case, it does not quite allay the suspicion that that these conventions are largely absent from Paul’s epistles for the simple reason that Paul was not conversant with them.

It is to be regretted that this particular volume fails to demonstrate the care and attention that this monograph series usually lavishes on its productions. The Greek is frequently faulty, the bibliography rife with errors, and even the indexes are wanting (e.g., p.276: “Athanaeus: Deiopnosophistis vi.380-2″ where author, title, and reference are all incorrect). We can only hope that this represents an uncharacteristic glitch in an otherwise fine series.


1. G.W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) 9.

2. Stanley E. Porter, “Paul of Tarsus and his Letters,” in Stanley E. Porter (ed.) Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period 330 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 533-85.