BMCR 2023.09.41

Divination and philosophy in the letters of Paul

, Divination and philosophy in the letters of Paul. Edinburgh studies in religion in antiquity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022. Pp. 248. ISBN 9781399503570

As someone who professed to communicate and interpret the words of God, the Apostle Paul presents what might be considered valuable, if challenging, evidence for the theory and practice of divination. It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, that few scholars until recently have been invested in interpreting Paul’s letters alongside evidence for Greek and Roman divinatory practices. In this book, Matthew Sharp seeks to scatter the clouds of Judeo-Christian theology and tradition that have, in his view, overshadowed a clear appreciation of Paul in his historical context as a diviner. In so doing, he seeks to move beyond previous attempts,[1] which have been limited to classifying Paul’s divinatory activities, and toward an understanding of his letters given these classifications. Sharp’s attempt to view Paul within the context of Greco-Roman divination is hampered by its less than careful treatment of the chronologically and generically varied evidence he uses to establish that context, but the book nevertheless shows the utility that such an investigation has for understanding the apostle’s activity and his position within early-Christian communities.

In the introduction, Sharp defines divination as “the reception or interpretation of knowledge that is believed to have a divine, or superhuman, source” (2). The definition seems a sensible one, but, despite his thorough unpacking of a very difficult problem, challenges quickly arise. He draws a distinction between discourses of the first-order (direct accounts and descriptions of the matter), second-order (emic classifications and reflections upon the matter), and third-order (etic classifications and reflections upon the matter). But while acknowledging that his definition of divination is a third-order construction, he desires to draw conclusions about how Paul’s access to divine knowledge “was understood by the broader Hellenistic culture,” which concerns emic classification (7). Thus, Sharp treats his definition of divination as a heuristic tool that can be safely “dispensed with” after selecting the evidence “so that the actual task of comparison can take place” (8). However, as discussed below, any conclusions he reaches about an emic classification after such a selection are necessarily tinged with whatever values are embedded in his etic definition.

Sharp situates Paul alongside Platonic, Stoic, and Peripatetic theories about how divination worked. Paul’s thinking, as Sharp admits in the first chapter, cannot be mapped onto any one of these theories, nor should his letters be read as a philosophical defense of his thinking. However, by tracing the rough outlines of these schools of thought through Cicero’s De divinatione and Plutarch’s Delphic dialogues and then reading Paul (mostly importantly 1 Corinthians) in a similar way, Sharp argues convincingly that Paul’s thoughts on divination may be understood as a coherent explanation of the phenomenon. Essentially, he explains, the pneuma of God combines with the innate human pneuma such that the now pneumatikos person becomes receptive to knowledge from God, whether directly or through an intermediary angel. Less convincing, though, is Sharp’s argument that a shared terminology—like soul, mind, pneuma(ta), and daimones—with these philosophical schools indicates shared concepts (60). Sharp’s own references to several different meanings in Greek literature given to pneuma, for instance, prove that there was no single concept evoked by the word. Further, such a conclusion assumes that all discussion of divination must (rather than may) be understood as a specifically philosophical and (meta)physical explanation. Sharp’s reading might have interesting consequences for debates over the meaning of flesh, mind, soul, and spirit in Paul’s anthropology, but the comparison does not seem to me as decisive as Sharp thinks in proving that Paul viewed these as physically distinguishable parts of the human person (201–2).

In the second chapter, Sharp treats Paul’s appeals to visions, most significantly the manifestation of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Sharp is careful here to distinguish content and interpretation, and so his comparison with Greek and Roman evidence for the divinatory importance of dreams, waking visions, and epiphanies goes beyond just listing reports of similar experiences from a different tradition. Rather, the comparison confirms the relative normativity of Paul’s claim to authority for advancing a new cultus and gives hypothetical shape to the apostle’s divinatory experience where he himself is vague. Thus, while Paul refers to a revelation of the Gospel and commission, Sharp suggests that Paul’s preference for indicating meaning over message might be masking more than one revelatory experience or a more complicated one whose full meaning required further interpretation.

Sharp’s investigation of divinatory speech in Chapter Three illustrates well the variety of ways in which the apostle understood the spirit’s involvement in expressing its meaning: from wordless groans and speaking in tongues to predictions and prophecies. Sharp tries to distinguish prayer and glossolalia from divination on the grounds that “the flow of communication remains from humans (via pneuma) to God, not vice versa,” and because it seems to make little sense to communicate divine knowledge back to (an all-knowing?) God (105). The strict distinction, though, is not entirely convincing. First, glossolalia is a gift of God’s pneuma, and without it we would be left to wonder whence came the grasp of any eschatological mysteries, for example, to be spoken to God. Second, all prayer might be excluded as nonsense on the same grounds, since God’s divine knowledge may even include for what we will pray. Finally, whatever the informational content of glossolalia—and contrary to Sharp’s claims (e.g., 20), it must have some content to be translatable—it has an edificatory effect for the church when translated, just as prophecy does. There may be some workable distinction between prayer and divination along the lines that Sharp lays out (see Plato, Symposium 202e–203a), but, in the case of glossolalia, the boundaries seem fuzzier than Sharp’s definition of divination and framing allow. On the other hand, the following discussion on prophecy helpfully uses contemporary texts to sharpen Paul’s view of divine inspiration and argues effectively that Paul’s own predictions, various “word[s] of the Lord,” and divine mysteries are part of prophecy. Most interesting here is Sharp’s claim that Paul himself functioned like an oracle for the early churches to which he wrote. His support comes from a comparison of the questions about life that Paul and ancient oracles like Dodona answered. Even if the argument from verbal comparisons is too forced, as Sharp himself seems to acknowledge, the general one is enough to demonstrate Paul’s status among these communities as a person like an oracle with special access to divine knowledge.

The books of the Old Testament were obviously an important source of divine knowledge for Paul. In examining Paul’s use of these texts in Chapter Four, Sharp encourages us to interpret the apostle’s activity alongside those who employed oracle collections like those of Musaeus and the Sibylline Books. First, Sharp covers the basic ground by taking Romans 15 as a case study and locating the past and impending fulfillment of five scriptural oracles (Ps. 68:10, Ps. 17:50, Deut. 32:43, Ps. 117:1, and Isa. 11:10) in the insults Jesus received in his life and the future allegiance owed by Gentiles to Jesus as God’s anointed. However, the most illuminating discovery comes from Sharp’s discussion of the way oracles were studied as timeless sources of wisdom about the nature of God. On this point, Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles and similar tendencies noted from Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch make for thought-provoking comparison to Paul’s use of God’s first-person statements from Genesis and Exodus (Romans 9:6–18) for interpreting the nature of God’s election—His free choice to call humans to faithfulness and holiness and to show them mercy through salvation. By promoting a keener appreciation of the pronounced texture of divine oracles within Paul’s letters, this chapter goes a long way toward proving the usefulness of interpreting Paul in the context of ancient divination.

In the final chapter, Sharp argues that Paul also interpreted certain events and social phenomena as signs of God’s hand in human affairs, whether indications of His presence, approval, or judgement. These signs serve more of an evidentiary than communicative function, from which Paul then determines what to think. Sharp usefully compares the apostle’s use of these signs to that of prodigies in Rome. By applying the model of “prodigy and expiation” to Romans 1–3, he shows how Paul interprets homosexuality as a sign that God has “handed over” Roman society (really all pagans) because of its idolatry and thinks of Gentile circumcision as a failed expiatory ritual. The only acceptable sacrifice to Paul is, of course, the redemption that Christ offers through faith in his blood. As Sharp observes, given Paul’s classification of homosexuality as παρὰ φύσιν and the association of things contrary to nature with omens and prodigies of divinatory significance, Paul might have been able to “touch the nerve of Roman divination” in this letter while offering a solution to placate God’s wrath.

Sharp’s intended readership is scholars in Biblical Studies, and those in Classical Studies may find some challenges and drawbacks. A strong background in the epistles is taken for granted. Words, phrases, and short sentences within passages of interest are scattered throughout, and sometimes paraphrases stealthily fill in the blanks, but more significant use of block quotations prior to close analysis would have greatly assisted non-specialists in engaging with the argument. Also, a significant amount of space is assigned to treating issues of special interest to the scholarship on biblical exegesis and to engaging in debates with theologians that may seem unnecessary or distracting to those outside of these fields.

It is also disappointing that, when it comes to his use of non-Biblical Greek and Latin texts, Sharp paints a historical background for Paul in very broad strokes. The primary sources he cites range from the seventh century BC to the third century AD, poetry to prose, philosophy to history, and even pagan to later Christian. For the most part, these sources come in where they may sharpen focus on specific aspects of Paul’s thought, but their connections to the Pauline epistles can seem tenuous—as Sharp feels compelled at times to admit—and the whole background of Greco-Roman divination can appear patchy and blurred. Ultimately, this tendency to bring in evidence differing widely in time, genre, and social context raises an important question about whether such an overview effectively contextualizes Paul historically. In adopting his etic definition of divination and broad range of evidence, Sharp presents us with the way a disinterested (even unsympathetic) cosmopolitan everyman of the ancient world could have read Paul. Such a person could perhaps have existed but certainly would not have shared Sharp’s etic assumptions about divination. Further, Sharp’s synchronic and etic perspective pushes aside other meaningful aspects of the emic perspective at issue. For example, questions about which sources of divine knowledge were legitimate or illegitimate or which terms were proper for each were an important part of Paul’s historical context, too. The fact that the apostle never calls what he did “divination” but affirms the possibility of the communication of divine knowledge to humans shows that he was both contributing to the contemporary discourse and concerned with how answers should be given to these questions. So, while Paul’s letters might have come across as the work of a mantis, beggar-priest, or oracle-monger to Sharp’s everyman enthusiast of divination, this only represents one possible ancient reception. Paul presented himself in language that supported his legitimacy to transmit and interpret divine communications—an “apostle” of the risen Christ who had received a revelation of the Gospel and a commission to share it—and many, both from his time and since, have believed him.

Nevertheless, Sharp’s book deserves praise for taking an approach to divine-human communication that challenges well-established schools of thought in the field. Taking cues from the recent work of classicists like Peter Struck,[2] Sharp objects to an “irrationalist premise” that seeks to understand divination in terms of its social function or of the psychology of an ancient (prescientific) mindset. Thus, the reader feels throughout the volume that Sharp is taking Paul’s beliefs and claims about divine messages seriously and sincerely, not as mere rhetorical positions for advancing his own social agenda, which is a refreshing take amid the usual critical work.



[1] Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates (Oxford, 2016); Jennifer Eyl, Signs, Wonders, and Gifts (Oxford, 2019).

[2] Struck, Divination and Human Nature (Princeton, 2016).