C. Kavin ROWE, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. 320. $40.00 hb. ISBN 978-0300180121. Reviewed by Jeffrey MORROW, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ 07079.


C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions is a truly marvelous book. With his 2009 World Upside Down, Rowe has established himself as an impressive New Testament scholar whose works hold great promise for shifting paradigms within New Testament scholarship. In this present book, Rowe seeks to show how “in order to deal seriously with the relation of Stoicism to Christianity we have to deal with it as a relation of rival traditions of life” (6). The language and categories Rowe employs throughout—like “rival traditions”—suggest the profound influence of Alasdair MacIntyre (especially his 1990 Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition), an indebtedness Rowe makes explicit later in his volume, especially in chapters 7-9. Rowe clarifies the implications of his thesis in his appendix when he writes, “the central problem in understanding a rival religious/philosophical tradition is not a lack of knowledge but the fact that rivalry is rooted in different lives” (259).

One True Life begins with a brief preface (ix-x), preparing readers for thinking about “philosophical” traditions as distinct “ways of life” (ix). In his introduction (1-9), he continues this preparatory phase wherein he urges for rereading anew Stoic and Christian traditions, and their relationship, as distinct and incommensurable “traditions of life” (2). The theoretical framework for Rowe throughout the book is shaped in part by thinkers like MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The volume is divided into three major parts, each including three chapters: Part One treats Stoics; Part Two deals with Christians; and Part Three juxtaposes the two (Stoicism and Christianity) to show how they represent rival traditions of life. The first three chapters on Stoics are: “Seneca” (13-42); “Epictetus” (43-65); and “Marcus Aurelius” (66-82). The next three chapters on Christians are: “St. Paul” (85-111); “St. Luke” (112-142); and “St. Justin Martyr” (143-171). Finally, the remaining three chapters, pitting the two traditions face-to-face, are: “Can We Compare?” (175-205); “Traditions in Juxtaposition” (206-238); and “The Argument of Rival Traditions” (239-258). Rowe concludes the volume with his, “Appendix: Objections and Replies” (259-262), endnotes (263-316), and select bibliography (317-325). He treats specific themes—like death, philosophy, the human person—in the authors he examines, which is helpful in order to see their fundamental differences.

The volume is remarkable in a number of ways. For starters, Rowe successfully applies MacIntryrean insights to the study of the New Testament, early Christianity, and Stoicism. Biblical scholars as a whole, for example, are not accustomed to using MacIntyre. Secondly, as opposed to an unwieldly attempt exhaustively to cover all of Stoicism and Christianity, Rowe has opted for selecting exemplars. This enables him to bring an added depth to the discussion through his focus on specific texts. Furthermore, when he comes to St. Paul and St. Luke, Rowe is able to cut through so much of the misguided assumptions of many New Testament scholars. Examples of this abound: in 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul “inserted Jesus into the middle of the fundamental confession of God’s oneness” (90); St. Luke’s Gospel was a form of ancient biography; “the entirety of the birth/infancy story [in Luke] is written in a diction almost identical to that of the (Greek) Old Testament, and there are echoes of the Old Testament in virtually every line” (115); at the outset of Luke’s Gospel, Luke, like Paul, clearly uses Kyrios for God, and thereby shapes “Readers’ expectations…to understand ‘the Lord’ as God” (120); for Luke, “the new [Christian] society cannot flourish without orders of authority that guarantee both the movement’s continuity with the earthly Jesus and the pattern of life that is its ethic” (139); and especially that “the ancients did not distinguish between politics and things such as religion or family life” (232). One of the persistent problems in biblical scholarship that Rowe underscores is “that of mistaking traditions for entries in an encyclopedia” (191). I think Rowe rightly identifies the present hegemony of “encyclopedic inquiry” in New Testament studies, and I think this could be applied to biblical studies more broadly.

I would push Rowe a bit further on one point: the role of Sacrament and Liturgy for the earliest Christians. There are very few references to Baptism in his book, and fewer to the Eucharist (as the Lord’s Supper). With good reason Rowe emphasizes the importance of practices and the devotional life of the early Christians. He understands Christianity as a particular way of life. Priesthood and the liturgical cycle of sacrifice was essential to the life of ancient Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. The same was true for earliest Christianity, as Bryan Stewart demonstrated in his 2015 Priests of My People. For the early Christians, the Eucharist was an incredibly important practice. St. Justin Martyr, on whom Rowe devotes an entire chapter, left us a quite detailed picture of what the Eucharistic liturgy looked like in his day, and its importance for early Christians. Perhaps no one has shown the importance of liturgy for early Christian life and thought as well as Robert Wilken in his 2003 The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (which Rowe cites on 195 and 315 n. 8). Wilken’s second chapter, “An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice,” underscores the essential context that the Eucharistic liturgy played for the earliest Christians; liturgy was the wellspring of their life, practice, theology, and biblical interpretation. I found this to be the one glaring lacuna in Rowe’s otherwise stunning work.