Hellentistic and Roman tradition in Paul.

Potential backdrops for various Pauline statements.


At various times throughout his epistles, the apostle Paul seems to refer to concepts that are not immediately familiar to the modern reader. Sometimes, perhaps, those concepts would not have been familiar to the ancient reader, either (since Paul is not always crystal clear), but I think that usually there can be found some precedent for the concept in the cultural heritage behind Paul, and sometimes that heritage will be his Hellenistic side or his Roman side (though more usually it will be his Jewish side that peeks through).

Pagan poets.

At times Paul, pseudo-Paul, and Paul as presented in the Acts of the Apostles will quote from pagan poets (the term pagan, by the way, is a bit of an anachronism in this context, but it simply means neither Christian nor Jewish, nor, in later times, Muslim).

In 1 Corinthians 15.33 Paul quotes from fragment 218 of the lost Tha´s by Menander. This quotation, however, is essentially a proverb (bad company corrupts good morals), and it may not be original even to Menander.

Paul also refers to the Roman (Augustan) slogan pax et securitas (peace and security or peace and safety) in 1 Thessalonians 5.3.

It appears that, to follow Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1.14, Epimenides (of Crete) penned the lines about Cretans that we find in Titus 1.12, including the part about laziness and gluttony. But sometimes one will find this verse attributed to Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus (English translation available online); however, Callimachus appears to lack the part about laziness and gluttony, so Clement is probably right about the attribution to Epimenides, and Callimachus is probably quoting Epimenides in his own work. (Refer also to Isho'dad of Merv below.)

Acts 17.28a (in him we live and move and exist) is found in substance, though not precisely, in the early going of Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus (English translation available online). However, Isho'dad of Merv (century IX) attributed this to a quatrain from the Cretica by Epimenides:

They fashioned a tomb for you, O holy and high one,
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Acts 17.28b (for we also are his children) is found in line 5 of Aratus, Phaenomena (English translation available online).

Acts 26.14 (it is hard to kick against the spurs or against the goads) uses a saying also found in Euripides, Bacchae 794.

I might add that all of these quotations are so short and sweet that Paul, pseudo-Paul, and Luke might not have actually consulted the texts in question; they may be simply quoting from memory or from popular lore.

Runaway slaves.

In Philemon [1.]10-12 Paul makes apparent that Onesimus, slave to Philemon, has run away from his master and sought refuge with Paul, who was a prisoner at the time. The question naturally arises: Why would a fugitive slave go anywhere near an imperial prisoner like Paul?

The answer may be found, I think, in Roman custom. A slave was allowed to seek asylum at the temple (or statue) of a god or with a potential protector. In this case Onesimus has chosen Paul as his protector. (Doubtless there is a backstory here of which we are unaware.)

Seneca the younger, On Anger 3.40.2-4 (translation slightly modified from that of John W. Basore):

Castigare vero irascentem et ultro obirasci incitare est; varie adgredieris blandeque, nisi forte tanta persona eris ut possis iram comminuere, quemadmodum fecit divus Augustus, cum cenaret apud Vedium Pollionem. fregerat unus ex servis eius crustallinum; rapi eum Vedius iussit ne vulgari quidem more periturum: murenis obici iubebatur, quas ingentis in piscina continebat. quis non hoc illum putaret luxuriae causa facere? saevitia erat. evasit e manibus puer et confugit ad Caesaris pedes, nihil aliud petiturus quam ut aliter periret, ne esca fieret. motus est novitate crudelitatis Caesar et illum quidem mitti, crustallina autem omnia coram se frangi iussit conplerique piscinam. fuit Caesari sic castigandus amicus; bene usus est viribus suis: E convivio rapi homines imperas et novi generis poenis lancinari? si calix tuus fractus est, viscera hominis distrahentur? tantum tibi placebis ut ibi aliquem duci iubeas ubi Caesar est?

He shall pay the penalty; keep that well in mind. When you can, you will make him pay for the delay as well. To reprove a man when he is angry and in turn to become angry at him serve only to increase his anger. You will approach him with various appeals and persuasively, unless you happen to be an important enough person to be able to quell his anger by the same tactics the deified Augustus used when he was dining with Vedius Pollio. When one of his slaves had broken a crystal cup, Vedius ordered him to be seized and doomed him to die, but in an extraordinary way he ordered him to be thrown to the huge lampreys, which he kept in a fishpond. Who would not suppose that he did this merely for display? It was really out of cruelty. The lad slipped from his captors and fled to the feet of Caesar, begging only that he might die some other way, anything but being eaten. Caesar, shocked by such an innovation in cruelty, ordered that the boy be pardoned, and besides that all the crystal cups be broken before his eyes and that the fishpond be filled up. It was so that it befitted Caesar to rebuke a friend; he employed his power rightly: Do you order men to be hurried from a banquet to death, and to be torn to pieces by tortures of a kind unheard of? If your cup was broken, is a man to have his bowels torn asunder? Will you vaunt yourself so much as to order a man to be led to death in the very presence of Caesar?

Seneca the younger, On Mercy 1.18.2 (translation slightly modified from that of John W. Basore):

Servis ad statuam licet confugere; cum in servum omnia liceant, est aliquid, quod in hominem licere commune ius animantium vetet. quis non Vedium Pollionem peius oderat quam servi sui, quod muraenas sanguine humano saginabat et eos, qui se aliquid offenderant, in vivarium, quid aliud quam serpentium, abici iubebat? O hominem mille mortibus dignum, sive devorandos servos obiciebat muraenis quas esurus erat, sive in hoc tantum illas alebat ut sic aleret.

Even slaves have the right of refuge at the statue of a god; and, although the law allows anything in dealing with a slave, yet in dealing with a human being there is an extreme which the right common to all living creatures refuses to allow. Who did not hate Vedius Pollio even more than his own slaves did, because he would fatten his lampreys on human blood, and order those who had for some reason incurred his displeasure to be thrown into his fishpond, or why not say his snaketank? The monster! He deserved to die a thousand deaths, whether he threw his slaves as food to lampreys he meant to eat, or whether he kept lampreys only to feed them on such food.

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed point to these passages on pages 107-110 of In Search of Paul.