BMCR 2007.04.71

Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe

, , , , Early Christianity and classical culture : comparative studies in honor of Abraham J. Malherbe. Supplements to Novum Testamentum, v. 110. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 1 online resource (xx, 740 pages).. ISBN 1423714261. $211.00.

[The reviewer sincerely apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

This festschrift for Abraham J. Malherbe, the Buckingham Professor of New Testament (Emeritus) at Yale Divinity School aims to deploy “new ways” to explore the relationship between Christianity and Greco-Roman culture, between Jerusalem and Athens. Taking as its starting point papers delivered at the meeting of a special session of the Society for Biblical Literature’s 1998 International Meeting in Krakow, Poland, and integrating the work of other scholars active in the fields of Hellenistic moral philosophy and early Christianity, the collection of essays uses Malherbe’s scholarship as a touchstone around which to explore the themes of graphos (semantics and writing), ethos (ethics and morality), logos (rhetoric and literary expression), ethnos (self-definition and acculturation), and nomos (law and normative values). In particular, the authors have striven to explore Greco-Roman texts contemporary with New Testament writings in an effort to elucidate the meaning of the latter. This is a perennially interesting and important topic, particularly now when scholars have become increasingly sensitive to the dynamic, give-and-take relationship between early Christianity and the cultures in which it was embedded, whether Jewish, Greek or Roman.1

Unfortunately, the volume as a whole is a disappointment. With 27 contributors, not to mention the editors’ introductory essays, the book is too long (740 pp.) and too expensive (a shocking $211.00). If it were a superb reference book, the cost might be justifiable for a research library. But the authors do not, in general, set out either the significance of their own individual projects, nor the broader importance of their topics overall. Instead, the book’s contributors, addressing themselves to one another, make little or no effort to make connections between their own concerns and those of scholars with related interests. While such a focus is entirely appropriate for the panels that gave rise to the volume, it limits the book’s usefulness as a collection and means that its primary utility will be as a source for someone whose own scholarship addresses themes in one or two chapters.

With these limitations in mind, readers of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review will be best served by a brief description of each section with an equally brief description of each author’s contribution.

The first section, Graphos, addresses semantics, lexicography, and composition through the study of the broader context in which New Testament terms, concepts and “modes of expression” might be situated. In this section Dieter Zeller’s “The θεῖα φύσις of Hippocrates and of other ‘Divine Men'”, argues (unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with the language of the later empire) that “divine man” was a “valid category” in Greek use, and thus an apt characterization of Jesus in the New Testament. Harold W. Attridge’s “Making Sense of Paul” explores the relationship between the sensual images of perfumes used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 and the use of unguents in religious processionals to communicate the presence of the deity. The essay “‘In Those Days:’ Some Remarks on the Use of ‘Days’ in Matthew 2:1, 3:1, and Luke 2:1,” by Gerard Mussies argues that the phrase can cover a range of time as narrow as a harvest and as broad as a lifetime. David E. Aune’s essay takes a similar approach in “Distinct Lexical Meanings of ἀπαρχή in Hellenism, Judaism, and Early Christianity” to conclude that since the word was used solely to speak about crops, not animals or humans, scholars who read it metaphorically in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers are mistaken. The last two contributions address issues surrounding epistolography: Hans-Josef Klauck’s “Compilation of Letters in Cicero’s Correspondence” compares how partitions might be determined in Paul, based on the conventions in Cicero’s collected letters. Finally, Duane F. Watson’s “A Reexamination of the Epistolary Analysis Underpinning the Arguments for the Composite Nature of Philippians” concludes that the document is probably one letter, and not a composite.

In the second section, Ethos, papers take up ethical terms, concepts and perspectives that associate early Christianity within its broader Greco-Roman and Jewish milieu. Accordingly, Ronald Hock’s chapter, “The Parable of the Foolish Rich Man (Luke 12:16-20) and Greco-Roman Conventions of Thought and Behavior,” links Jesus’ parable of the rich fool with broader conceptions of greed drawn from Greek novels and Cynic philosophy. At the other end of the spectrum, Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s “Radical Altruism in Philippians 2:4” compares Paul’s views with two Ciceronian passages on self-sacrifice from De finibus as well as the contemporary philosophical perspectives of S. Scheffler and T. Nagel. Less closely connected with ethics are papers by Luke Timothy Johnson, James W. Thompson, and Cilliers Breytenbach. The first (“Transformation of the Mind and Moral Discernment in Paul”) situates Paul’s discussion of the human psyche in an Aristotelian context (specifically the discussion of phronesis in the Nicomachean Ethics). The second (“Creation, Shame and Nature in 1 Cor. 11:2-16”) argues that the way in which Paul distinguishes gender roles fits within the view of creation as a “chain of being” articulated by Philo among others. And the third, “Civic Concord and Cosmic Harmony: Sources of Metaphoric Mapping in 1 Clement 20:3,” explores the Stoic and Jewish contributions to this text.

Rhetoric is the function of the third section of the collection, Logos, beginning with Edgar Krentz’s essay on “Logos or Sophia: The Pauline Use of the Ancient Dispute between Rhetoric and Philosophy,” a study of how Paul taps into the debate between sophists and philosophers in portraying himself as a purveyor of true wisdom, not some mere techne. Most of the other essays in this section also analyze Paul’s rhetoric, from Bruce W. Winter’s comparison of the Corinthians’ response to Paul and to the orator Favorinus (“The Toppling of Favorinus and Paul by the Corinthians”), to L. Michael White’s study of Paul’s use of the rhetoric of friendship to rebuke the Galatians (“Rhetoric and Reality in Galatians: Framing the Social Demands of Friendship”), to Stanley K. Stowers’ “Apostrophe, Προσωποποιία and Paul’s Rhetorical Education,” a response to criticisms that R. Dean Anderson had levied against the author’s earlier analysis of Paul’s rhetoric in Romans. The two final essays in this section, Thomas H. Olbricht’s “Analogy and Allegory in Classical Rhetoric,” and Everett Ferguson’s “‘The Art of Praise’ Philo and Philodemus on Music,” take up the subjects of allegorical reading in Jewish and Christian tradition, and the relationship between rhetoric and music, respectively.

In the fourth section of the book, the authors consider the question of self-definition, or Ethnos by situating Biblical texts into their broader Greco-Roman and Jewish context. Once again, Paul is a popular focus of attention, with Carl R. Holladay’s essay on “Paul and His Predecessors in the Diaspora: Some Reflections on Ethnic Identity in the Fragmentary Hellenistic Jewish Authors” and Leander E. Keck’s “The Jewish Paul among the Gentiles: Two Portrayals.” The former compares Paul with Philo in their consciousness of being Diaspora Jews; the latter argues that Paul may have carried out his mission to the Gentiles after facing early rejection within Jewish communities. The last three essays in this section look at Christian culture more broadly, with David L. Balch’s “The Cultural Origin of ‘Receiving all Nations’ in Luke-Acts: Alexander the Great or Roman Social Policy?” arguing this policy was influenced more by Romanization than Hellenization, and E. A. Judge’s “Did the Churches Compete with Cult Groups?” exploring the trans-national aspects of Christianity. The final chapter in this section, Hanne Sigismund Nielsen’s “Men, Women and Marital Chastity: Public Preaching and Popular Piety at Rome,” an essay that explores the extent to which fourth century Christians lived up to the church’s teaching regarding moral conduct, might better have been placed in the “Ethics” section.

The final group of chapters, Nomos, purports to explore the relationship between early Christianity and law or normative values. The essays themselves are a bit narrower in scope. For example, J. Louis Martyn’s “Nomos Plus Genitive Noun in Paul” The History of God’s Law” is more concerned with the grammatical use of the term “nomos” in Paul, arguing, however, at the end that he uses it in a positive way in referencing the Torah. Similarly, Benjamin J. Fiore’s “Household Rules at Ephesus: Good News, Bad News, No News,” is really an exploration of where the household rules begin in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. A better example of the theme is John T. Fitzgerald’s essay, “Last Wills and Testaments in Graeco-Roman Perspective,” an analysis of the crafting of testaments in Jewish and Christian tradition. Two of the essays in this section might better have been placed elsewhere. For example, Johan C. Thom’s essay “‘The Mind is Its Own Place:’ Defining the Topos” really explores the use of the term “topos” in the New Testament, and so could have been put in the first section on semantics. The essay, “The Washing of Adam in the Acherusian Lake (Greek Life of Adam and Eve 37.3) in the Context of Early Christian Notions of Afterlife” by Marinus de Jonge and L. Michael White also seems a bit out of place in this section.

As can be seen from this necessarily brief review, the book’s primary focus is on terminology and concepts. While such focused scholarship is, of course, useful for scholars with similar concerns, it is much less edifying for the reader searching for the overarching themes linking early Christianity as a social, cultural and religious movement with the broader, dynamic cultures within which it grew.


1. See, for example, Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography (Cambridge, 2004), Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (Columbia, 2004) and the recent work of Daniel Boyarin, including Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity (Stanford, 1999).