Tuomas RASIMUS, Troels ENGBERG-PEDERSEN, and Ismo DUNDERBERG, editors. Stoicism in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010. pp. xiii+301. $40.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3951-5.
Reviewed by Christopher DENNY, St. John’s University, Queens, NY 11439

This collection of thirteen essays claims that Christians in the first two centuries of the common era “adopted philosophical ideas in the first and second centuries, and that it was specifically Stoicism that influenced their views, often to a degree greater than Middle Platonism” (vii).

Readers familiar with Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s 2000 book Paul and the Stoics will recognize here the reemergence of his earlier contention, namely, that Stoic philosophy provides a hermeneutical key that can unlock problems of biblical and historical interpretation in ancient Christian writings. Engberg-Pedersen’s other recent books—Paul Beyond the Judaism-Hellenism Divide and Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul—press this philosophical exegesis of Pauline epistles into the service of a revisionist interpretation where the one-time Pharisee from Tarsus emerges as a philosopher whose materialist understanding of pneuma is borrowed not only from Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus but also from the Stoa. Co-editors Tuomas Rasimus and Ismo Dunderberg specialize in non-canonical Christian texts.

Engberg-Pedersen’s introductory essay tries to reconcile two claims not easily harmonized. First, he correctly notes that the timeframe under examination is characterized by philosophical eclecticism. Secondly, his contribution emphasizes the eventual victory of Platonism over Stoicism in Christian thought during these centuries. If the book had devoted more than one essay to the post-Plotinian era, the latter assertion would be more easily defended. Engberg-Pedersen’s too tidy distinction between philosophical schools in earlier Christian texts, however, minimizes the relative priorities accorded to ethics and metaphysics in canonical and non-canonical Christian literature respectively. The triumph of Platonism over Stoicism in Christian thought should be understood as a much longer process than is sketched here, once exegetes give due weight to ethical practice relative to cosmological speculation, a distinction admittedly giving greater emphasis to Jewish influence upon early Christian literature than these contributors do. The non-canonical literature examined in this book gravitates more towards cosmology, but Christian literature from the first two centuries at least supports Engberg-Pedersen’s simpler first claim of a variegated philosophical landscape.

The volume’s strongest contributions eschew ambitious genealogical claims in favor of detailed comparative exegesis, beginning with a group of essays treating New Testament texts. Runar Thorsteinsson’s essay provides a good juxtaposition of Romans 12-15 with Seneca and Epictetus in order to imagine how a first-century Roman Christian might have understood Paul’s epistle, while Niko Huttunen and Stanley Stowers locate possible Stoic sources for Paul’s teachings on circumcision and Matthew’s ideal of moral interiority that explain how these texts depart in important ways from Jewish precedents. While these essays emphasize similarities in Stoic and Pauline texts, Harold Attridge notes the irreducible differences between the apatheia of the Stoic sage and the portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, so that Gitte Buch-Hansen must use caution in hinting that “these emotions do not a priori rule out an interpretation of this Gospel from a Stoic perspective” (112). Returning the volume to the cosmological themes in Engberg-Pedersen’s opening essay, J. Albert Harrill eschews source-criticism in a proposed merger of the apocalyptic soteriology of 2 Peter and Stoic natural philosophy.

The second group of essays moves beyond individual New Testament texts towards broader ethical themes. John Fitzgerald contributes an essay that stands alongside those of Thorsteinsson and Attridge as one of the best in the book. Recognizing that neither Stoics nor early Christians were abolitionists, Fitzgerald examines how representatives of each group focused upon the interior disposition of both the slaveholder and the enslaved. Nicola Denzey writes of a similar contrast between free will and determinism in her comparison of Seneca and Justin Martyr, hearing echoes of the former’s teaching in early Christian martyrs’ fashioning of selfhood in the face of execution.

The next three essays from Esther de Boer, Ismo Dunderberg, and Takashi Onuki argue for the influence of Stoicism on Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Truth, and the Apocryphon of John, while Tuomas Rasimus concludes the volume by arguing that Porphyry’s being-life-mind triad has pre-Plotinian antecedents in Sethian Gnostic texts.

Each essay in Stoicism in Early Christianity contains a bibliography, and the volume as a whole has separate indexes for authors, subjects, and ancient sources. Its critical apparatus alone is reason enough to recommend the book for scholars in early Christian literature seeking an accessible overview of recent research comparing Stoic and Christian texts. All current respectable scholarship in early Christianity is now post-Harnackian in rejecting impermeable boundaries between Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, leaving interpreters to sort out the relative importance of Jewish, Platonic, and Stoic influences on early churches. Whatever relative weight interpreters accord to these streams of influence in Christian history, this book provides a helpful window into the current state of research on one of those influences.


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