life with paul and epictetus

25 August 2007

the life of paul

more historiographical words
As it will be seen in what follows, there are a number of interesting similarities between the life of Epictetus and the life of Paul. These connections are not necessarily limited to specific details of their respective lives; the troubles that confront historical reconstructions also parallel the lives of these two men. Due to the fact that my academic pursuits center on the life and work of Paul, this post might be considerably longer than the one on Epictetus. For that, I apologize (sort of).

Not only like Epictetus, but also like Jesus,[1] the early life of Paul is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Unlike both Epictetus and Jesus, however, there are no external sources that confirm or add to what can be known about Paul. In other words, once we step outside of the New Testament, there is no data available to us; whereas, Jesus and Epictetus are mentioned in other historical texts.[2]

This immediately (and obviously) creates serious problems for reconstructing and/or analyzing the life of Paul. The only sources available are his own letters, which comprise about two-thirds of the New Testament, and the book of Acts, which is (obviously) also a part of the New Testament.[3] The overall difficulty is compounded by the fact that even these two sources provide little (if any) detail about Paul’s early life.

the early life of (Saul) Paul
What can be known, from Acts and Paul, is that he was born in the northwestern corner of the Mediterranean region in a city known as Tarsus. The city of Tarsus was a port-like city in the province of Cilicia, which received its renown from various Roman emperors.[4] It was also known for being a formidable place for philosophical learning. The early historian, Strabo, said Tarsus was in academic competition with the well-known schools in Athens and Alexandria.[5] He also notes that Tarsus was equally well-known for its Stoicism and rhetorical instruction.[6]

The time of Paul’s birth in Tarsus is unknown. The best guess is that he was born in and/or around the time of Jesus. Most scholars are comfortable with placing the time of his birth somewhere between 5 and 10 AD. The way they get to this range is by taking known events in history and working backwards chronologically, using clues from Paul’s comments and details found in Acts, until they arrive at a plausible date. This, right now, is the best working model for recreating Paul’s early; though, it should not be seen as ironclad in its conclusions, for certain necessarily variables are not always available to do the math.

Religiously and culturally, Paul was a Jew. He was born into a Jewish home, and he was apparently raised by a devout Jewish family. Some have argued that Paul’s claim to be “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3.5) is a result of this devout upbringing. This commitment to remaining faithful to Judaism was deep enough that Paul left his home in Tarsus in order to be educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22.3) in Jerusalem.[7] The time of this move is also disputed among scholars; though, it is likely that it took place in his pre- or early-teen years.

the transitional years—part 1
The fact that Paul made such a move and was able to study under such an esteemed teacher/Pharisee has led some scholars to conclude that Paul came from a wealthy family. Whether or not this is the case is not a primary concern here; though, it does provide an interesting point of contact with the life of Epictetus. The concern here is that the decision to learn under the supervision of Gamaliel was made and acted upon (seemingly) without hesitation. This opportunity could be seen as a pivotal turning point in Paul’s life.

Briefly, Gamaliel was a leading Pharisee in Palestine and he was the student of another famous Pharisee named, Hillel. Hillel would later become the chief representative for one Pharisaic school of thought within Judaism. (His conceptual opponent, Shammai, was the chief representative for the other school of thought). Part of Hillel’s renown came from his method of interpretation. To oversimplify things: Hillel’s method (or, “hermeneutic”) was flexible or lenient in applying the Law to a given situation—especially to the “grey” areas. For example, if a situation arose that was not explicitly stated in the Law, but common sense could solve the issue (based on what the Law does say); then use common sense.[8]

Paul, it seems, took this opportunity (and this rich heritage) seriously and committed himself to upholding not only the teachings of Gamaliel but also—more importantly—the traditions of his Jewish heritage/religion. In a brief retelling of his early life, Paul openly states that he was far “advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] contemporaries” (Acts 22.3) and that he was “more extremely zealous for [his] ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1.14); so much so that he saw himself as “blameless” with respect “to the righteousness which is [defined] in the Law” (Philippians 3.5). Nothing could shake Paul from his allegiance, and nothing would be allowed to threaten what fueled his passion. (Or so he thought).

the transitional years—part 2
The cloud of mystery begins to lift when we deal with Paul’s life as a persecutor of the church. (The key phrase here is, “begins to lift”). In Acts, we are introduced to “a young man named Saul” (7.58), who is witnessing—if not endorsing (cf. Acts 8.1)—the mob-stoning of Stephen. From there, Acts provides a dark and grim description of how Saul (or, Paul) “began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (8.3; cf. Acts 22.4; Galatians 1.13).[9]

The next chapter in Acts does two things: 1) it reveals that Paul’s desire to extinguish the church had grown to the point where he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9.1); and 2) it answers the question of: is there anything that could possibly stop this man? The answer to the latter question became blindingly obvious: the risen Christ is the one who can stop (and change) this vociferous man. On the road to Damascus,[10] Paul was confronted by more than just Jesus. Paul is brought face to face with the reality that he was trying to extinguish what God was ultimately trying to accomplish. He had become so impassioned with being zealous for the traditions of his fathers that he failed to recognize where those traditions were leading.

This Damascus road experience has become known as the point of Paul’s “conversion”.[11] There are some, however (e.g., Krister Stendahl), who are not happy with the term “conversion” being applied to Paul’s experience. On a simplistic level, though, the idea of “conversion” means a change in form but not necessarily in essence. It seems that on this level, it would be appropriate to speak of Paul’s experience as a “conversion”. He never abandoned his Jewish heritage and he never abandoned the core of his Jewish theology (i.e., the essence). As he himself notes, he ardently “changed” (used loosely) the form though which he understood the essence. For Paul, this “conversion” epitomized freedom and the remainder of his life has been rightly labeled, “the life of a heart set free”.[12]

the literary years
The writings of Paul could be seen in light of this newfound freedom in Christ. They not only were a vital part of his missionary career, they were also vital to his theological expressions. Paul had traveled widely in the latter half of his life—so widely that he felt as though he had traversed the entire (Roman) world. In his travels, he established churches whose purpose (among many) was to advance the kingdom of God in the world so that all may have freedom. One function of his letters was to monitor the progress of this and to provide encouragement and/or clarity when needed. (The bulk of this correspondence took place in just over a decade—c. 51-64 AD).

Latent within these letters is Paul’s theological (and philosophical?) prowess. He was not afraid to confront some literalist notions of interpretation—this probably stemming from his more “lenient” style of hermeneutics. He was not afraid to wrestle with issues and/or concepts that would have been otherwise controversial. The letters of Paul are filled with the expressions of a mind and heart wanting to know the depths of the infinite—no matter the cost—and with words of encouragement for others to share in the same. Central to this twofold expression was the idea that in Christ all things are new. What this “newness” meant for Paul was defined throughout all of his letters.

The impact of Paul’s literary contribution has been far-reaching and used (or abused) for many different purposes. In fact, as EP Sanders pointed out, “People who would later be branded ‘heretic’ cited [Paul] in their favour, as did the defenders of ‘orthodoxy’.”[13] The diversity of adherents does not end with the heretical/orthodox question; there are various writers within the so-called orthodox position who use Paul’s writings to combat the teachings/doctrines of other within the same category. There have also been those who, apart from any allegiance to orthodoxy, have studied Paul’s ideas/theology through social and/or cultural lenses.

the final years
The cloud of mystery returns the moment we seek to examine Paul’s final years. The book of Acts is entirely silent about what happened to Paul after his “imprisonment” in Rome. The only that can be known from Acts is that Paul “stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (28.30f).

Traditions abound as to what happened after these two years of house-arrest. Some say that Paul was released from Rome and then traveled to Spain in order to preach the gospel, which was his desire in the first place (see, Romans 15.24, 28). The traditions continue with the idea that Paul was again arrested upon trying to return to Jerusalem (via Rome), and that it was during this imprisonment that he met his end under Nero (c. 67 or 68 AD).
[1] Jim West has recently pointed out the emergence of yet another Jesus film—one that deals with the mysterious early life of Jesus in Egypt.
[2] For Jesus, see: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1 (even though this text is disputed in what it purports, it nevertheless is an external source confirming the life of Jesus); Tacitus, Annals, 15.44; Pliny the Younger, Epistles, 10.96; Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4. For Epictetus, see: Origen, Contra Celsum, 7.53 (cf. 6.2); Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 1.2.6; cf., Lucian, Demonax, 55.
[3] I am going to side-step the debate concerning the historical credibility of Acts with respect to the life of Paul. That debate is well beyond the purpose of this blog and, personally, I am not convinced by the arguments those (e.g., FC Baur, Gerd Lüdemann, et al) who claim that Acts should not be used as a primary source.
[4] The famed visit between Mark Antony and Cleopatra took place in Tarsus.
[5] Strabo, Geography, 14.5.13.
[6] Strabo, Geography, 14.5.14.
[7] Though, EP Sanders doubts that Paul ever took up residence in Jerusalem to train under Gamaliel (see, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, 9-22).
[8] This method would be later turned into Hillel’s Seven Rules, which can be found here and elaborated upon here.
[9] I will side-step the discussion concerning who the recipients of Paul’s wrath were. To lay out the arguments for this would take me well beyond the limits of this simple biographical sketch of Paul. If you want to know my thoughts on this matter, contact me and I would be happy to discuss it with you.
[10] EP Sanders takes issue with this idea (Paul: A Very Short Introduction, 10f). I personally think Sanders’ conclusions are weak in this regard and I see no problem with this event taking place on the road to Damascus.
[11] Alan Segal’s book (Paul the Convert) is built entirely on this idea.
[12] To borrow the title from FF Bruce’s work on Paul.
[13] Paul: A Very Short Introduction, 21f.

27 May 2007

the life of epictetus

a word on historiography
Ask nearly anyone who has tried to reconstruct the life of any historical figure, and they will tell you that it is certainly not a novice activity. This endeavor becomes fraught with danger when the additional variable of "ancient" is thrown into the equation. The danger quickly induces a mental exhaustion when one finds the necessary historical data for such a reconstruction to be scant at best.

This is the dilemma when considering the life of Epictetus, and this is especially the case with the apostle Paul. The present post will attempt to reconstruct the former while the next post will focus on the latter. It should be noted right up front: what is provided in these two posts is simply a general survey of what can be (tentatively) known about both individuals based on the available material.

the early life of epictetus
These are the aspects of Epictetus' early life that are widely held to be "historical". He was born in a city known as Hierapolis, which, for some time, was a no-name city in the region of Phrygian region. Some scholars will point out that, after the Persian invasion of this area, Phrygia became synonymous with submissiveness and stupidity;[1] though, others will argue that it received a new reputation after it was obtained by the Greeks (and Romans).[2] This renown was one of religiosity due to the excessive worship of imperial gods and/or emperors. Phrygia also became recognized as one of the primary seats of Stoic philosophy during the Graeco-Roman period.

Epictetus was born (c. 55 AD)[3] as a slave and remained as such for a fair amount of his formidable years. While this environment would seem to be anything less than ideal, Epictetus was fortunate enough to have as an owner a close associate of the Roman Emperor, Nero. The fortuitousness of this is the fact that the owner, Epaphroditus, once he recognized Epictetus' intellectual abilities, had the means to send him to Rome for higher education. Yet, for every mountain there must be a valley; and the valley in this case was the treatment given to Epictetus by his owner. Epaphroditus is said to have beaten Epictetus so severely that he remained crippled for the rest of his life.[4]

the transitional years
As was just noted, Epictetus, at a very young age, surprised his owner with his wisdom and philosophizing--an ability not commonly expected with slaves.[5] The result of this was that Epaphroditus (essentially) paid the way for Epictetus to travel and study in Rome in order to enhance his natural abilities. Once in Rome, Epictetus came under the supervision of an imminent Stoic philosopher named, Gaius Musonius Rufus. It is believed by many that Epictetus was able to gain his freedom through his connection with Gaius. The thinking is that Gaius was so impressed with Epictetus' abilities that he somehow leveraged his freedom.

Under the tutorage of Gaius, and backed by his inborn intellectual prowess, Epictetus became a teacher of Stoic philosophy in Rome for some time. Neither the beginning of this career nor its duration can be known with any certainty; yet, the point at which it came to a grinding halt can be tentatively ascertained. (However, scholars are not in full agreement on this issue). Gaius was banished from Rome in 66 AD due to his alleged involvement in a conspiracy against Rome and the emperor.[6] He is believed to have returned to Rome during the time of Vespasian (c. 68 AD) and was able to remain there for some time. Supposedly, there was another banishing that occurred during the time of Domitian. It was during this time that nearly every philosopher was exiled from Rome, which either occurred in 89 or 94 AD.[7] Epictetus would have been subjected to this massive exile.

final years of epictetus
Immediately following his exile, Epictetus found himself (in more ways than one) in the northwest region of Greece in a town called, Nicopolis--a city of great renown. By remaining true to his Stoic foundations, Epictetus did not view this forced transition negatively--he unwaveringly sought the good and quickly obtained it. While in this new environment, Epictetus "created" a Stoic philosophical school and successfully promoted his teachings until the end of his life, which was c. 135 AD. It was during this time that much of his literary career took shape; though, it must be noted that he is believed to have not written anything himself--he may have dictated much of his material.

One of Epictetus' students, Flavius Arrian, is the individual who is generally accredited with composing much of Epictetus' writings. The Discourses is a collection of notes taken by Arrian while he learned at the feet of Epictetus; and the Enchiridion could be viewed as a primer, again written by Arrian, for the material found in the Discourses. Supposedly, Arrian wrote a biography (of sorts) on his favorite teacher; yet, this work is largely unknown--if not missing altogether. It might be safe to say that the material found in the two above mentioned works serves as an intellectual biography of Epictetus, for they represent the more profound and effectual teachings of this great philosopher. These instructions were powerful enough that they came to be revered by the great emperor Marcus Aurelius.[8] In fact, much of the philosophy latent within Aurelius' Meditations could be easily connected with the thought processes of Epictetus.

HT Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898).
[2] E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed (2003).
The introductory chapter of the "Classics Club" edition of Epictetus' Discourses, has the birth at 50 BC, which is odd, and his death at 30 AD, which is even more odd. The primary reason for the oddity of this chronology is that the writer states the Epictetus "was brought up as a slave in the home of a freedman of Nero" (x). The problem is that Nero began his reign in 54 AD.
[4] There is a story told by the early church father, Origen, that implicitly links the torture of Epictetus with his later physical state.
[5] See the ancient Egyptian story, The Eloquent Peasant, which speaks to the same idea.
[6] The Roman historian, Tacitus, states the Gaius went into exile because of his name "Rufus"; for another "Rufus" was the true target of Nero's attack--Gaius left in order to avoid being confused with the real culprit (see, The Histories, 15.70-71).
[7] Some suggest that Gaius was able to remain in Rome during this exile due to his relationship with Vespasian; though, this suggestion is built on the assumption that Vespasian was the one who performed this exiling process. The above given dates are probably the more likely; though, it is not for sure which date is the more likely.
Some say that Marcus Aurelius was a student of Epictetus (S. Lebell, The Art of Living: Epictetus [1995]); yet, the evidence to support this contention is surprisingly lacking. It is better to see that Marcus Aurelius was "indirectly" taught by Epictetus via his writings.

13 April 2007

starting over

Late last year, this blog was created with the hope of trying to find common-ground connections between the apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. This hope has not changed; but hopefully(!), what will change--aside from the ascetics of the blog--will be the frequency with which posts are given. I admit that I failed in my past attempts to post regularly and in keeping with the subject at hand. One of the controlling reasons behind the failed attempts has to do with the subject itself and the time required from me. I simply just did not have the time I wanted to give it. My sister blog, found here (if you really want to read it), was easier for me to maintain simply because it did not require much deep-thinking. The whole tenor of that blog was nothing more than "shooting-from-the-hip". This one, however, is a bit different and cannot be maintained with such cavalier audacity.

As mentioned before, the intent of this blog will remain the same: to consider the approaches to life as defined by Paul and Epictetus with special concern for the intriguing connections between them. What I mean by this is quite simple: while both Paul and Epictetus have their own presuppositions from which they define how life is to be understood and lived; there are several points of overlap (or, agreement) in their presentations concerning life. These points of overlap are the primary concern for me in this blog. This does not mean that the points of distinction will be ignored, for to do so would be to miss how and why there is overlap in the first place. Therefore, while the common-ground is the chief concern here; the respective starting points for each person will be given due attention.

Three more things (in no particular order) and then I will close out this post:
  1. From time to time, other Stoic philosophers will be considered for clarity sake or for the sake of providing additional insight missed by Epictetus. When only Epictetus is in mind, however, I will be drawing mostly from two separate works: The Discourses of Epictetus, which can be found here in basic form;[1] and The Enchiridion, which can be found here. Whenever I happen to quote from either of these two works, I will try and keep the reference simple so that you can easily find it in the sites noted.
  2. I have removed the previous posts from this blog so that the whole notion of "starting over" is complete. I have copied the posts to a Word file, so if you really want to see them, just ask. They really were not anything major, however--only rantings about the theory that Jesus walked on an ice-shelf instead of actual water. (Oddly enough, there has been [to my knowledge] absolutely no coverage of the article since it hit the media last year).
  3. The outline for how this blog will proceed is quite simple: first, a brief historical overview of each person; second, a brief explanation of defining terms; and third, the intent of this blog will be carried out by considering the contributions made by Paul and Epictetus. I welcome additional insight from anyone (who happens to be reading this) with respect to details and/or ideas I may miss along the way. I make no claim to be an expert on either Paul or Epictetus, so the process of learning has only begun for me.
That is all I have for now. Thank you for your patience and I look forward to doing more with this blog, which I hope will generate fruitful dialogue. Have a great weekend.

By "basic form" I mean the translation itself as well as the overall presentation. (This version lacks the divisions that would be found in other editions such as the one found in the Loeb Classical Library). The same site that holds The Enchiridion also has a version The Discourses, which is a bit more nuanced in its translation than the other site noted.