Out of the 27 books, epistles and letters that make up the New Testament, 13 have been authored by the Apostle Paul (This does not include the book of Hebrews which some believe he wrote). One of the most influential people in the 1st Century Church, a former Pharisee, he took the gospel or Good news of our Messiah to the Greek speaking world of his day. This was no easy task. The peoples of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Phillipi, Colosse & Thessalonica which he wrote to, were all part of the Greek speaking world educated in Greek literature and philosophy, with their own gods, traditions and opinions.
If you have read Paul’s epistles, inevitably, a thought such as “Why is Paul so hard to understand?” would have crossed your mind at some point. It is true that some of his letters are not that easy to read or understand. And interestingly, this has been the case even in his day, as we see Peter saying “… even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2Pet 3:15,16)
Today, I present to you some research into Paul’s words and why we have such a hard time understanding most of it. As you will see listed below, Paul uses the words, ideas and Greek philosophy presented by such philosophers as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Seneca and many more intellectuals of his day, to help the people who he was talking to, better understand his teachings.
1Cor 15:33 Evil communications corrupt good manners. Quoted from Thais, a work done by “Menander“, a writer from the 3rd Century BC, who in turn is supposed to have quoted from another Scholar named “Euripides”.
Titus 1:12 The Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. In writing to Titus Paul quotes a description of the Cretans taken from “Epimenides“. Paul calls Epimenides “one of themselves, a prophet of their own”.
Acts 17:24-29 In Acts 17:18 Paul is encountered by Epicureans and Stoics. Paul’s first sentence struck directly at the “Epicurean” theory (the origin of the world by mere coincidence and of atoms) and arrayed himself with the “Stoics” in their doctrine of the (Divine Wisdom and Providence creating and ruling all things). His speech is made up of words quoted from a Roman Stoic Philosopher called Lucius Annaeus Seneca as mentioned below.
Acts 17:24 Paul went on to say, “God dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” Seneca, the most prominent contemporary representative of Stoicism, had put their doctrine into these words, “The whole world is the temple of the immortal gods,” and “Temples are not to be built to God of stones piled on high. He must be consecrated in the heart of every man.”
Acts 17:25 Paul said, “Neither is God served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” Seneca put the same truth in this form: “God wants not ministers. How so? He himself ministereth to the human race.”
Acts 17:26-28a Paul said, “God made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.” Seneca agrees, “We are members of a vast body. Nature made us kin, when she produced us from the same things and to the same ends.”
Paul said, “God is not far from each one of us; for in him we live, and move, and have our being.” Seneca wrote, “God is at hand everywhere and to all men.” and again, “God is near thee ; he is with thee ; he is within.”
Acts 17:28b Paul says, For we are also his offspring. In Paul’s speech at Athens, he quotes from “certain of your own poets”. The poet he is talking about is Aratus, and this is a line found in the Phaenomena of Aratus
Acts 17:29 Then Paul proceeded, “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think the godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art or device of men.” Seneca parallels the thought again: “Thou shalt not form him of silver and gold: a true likeness of God cannot be molded of this material.
Gal 5:23b Paul says, Against such there is no law. Roman 2:14b Paul says, Are a law unto themselves. Paul’s words are eerily familiar to Aristotle‘s saying of men eminent for wisdom and virtue, “Against such there is no law, for they themselves are a law,”
1Cor 9:24a Paul says, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? Plato says, “But such as are true racers, arriving at the end, both receive the prizes and are crowned”
Rom 7:22,23 Paul says, “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Plato says,”There is a victory and defeat – the first and best of victories, the lowest and worst of defeats – which each man gains or sustains at the hands not of another, but of himself; this shows that there is a war against ourselves – going on in every individual of us.”
Phillip 3:19 Paul says, “Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things“. Plato gives a vivid description of those gluttonous and intemperate souls whose belly was their God, in Plato’s work called “the Republic”.
Rom 8:5 Paul says, “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh;” Gal 6:8 Paul says, “For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption” Plato speaks of “to be carnally-minded was death” in Phaedo
2 Cor 4:4 Paul says, “In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” Plato speaks of “the God of this world blindeth the eyes of his votaries” in Theaetetus In the book Paul and His Epistles – D.A. Hayes writes “Plato would have pictured for him the truth that the God of this world blindeth the eyes of his votaries, and Paul never could have forgotten the picture when he had once read it.” – Theaet., 176; Rep., 7, 514 (Please note that the above point has been corrected as rightly pointed out by dear brother, Dan Angelov – my sincere apologies for misquoting it before) I wish to thank Angelov for re-checking the post and communicating this correction.
Php 1:21 Paul says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Plato says, “Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain.”
2Tim 4:6 Paul says, “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand To be with Christ, which is far better.” Plato says, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways, I to die and you to live. which is better God only knows.
1Cor 13:12 Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” Plato says, I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existences through the medium of thought, sees them only “through a glass, darkly,” anymore than he who sees them in their working effects.
1Thess 5:15 Paul says, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man.” Plato says, Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.
1Co 8:2 Paul says, “And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. Socrates says, For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know. (Apology, 21d – kindly submitted by Brother Joseph)
1Cor 9:16 Paul says, “For necessity is laid upon me ; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” Plato says, But necessity was laid upon me – the word of God I thought ought to be considered first.
Acts 14:15 Paul and Barnabas say, “We also are men of like passions with you“. Plato says, I am a man, and, like other men, a creature of flesh and blood, and not of ” wood or stone,” as Homer says.
2Cor 7:2 Paul says, “I speak because I am convinced that I never intentionally wronged anyone“. Plato says, We have wronged no man ; we have corrupted no man ; we have defrauded no man.
Rom 12:4 Paul says, “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office“. Socrates says “To begin with, our several natures are not all alike but different. One man is naturally fitted for one task, and another for another.”
Eph 1:22,23 Paul says, “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Plato says “First, then, the gods, imitating the spherical shape of the universe, enclosed the two divine courses in a spherical body, that, namely, which we now term the head, being the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us; to this the gods, when they put together the body, gave all the other members to be servants.”
1Cor 12:14-17 Paul explains that “a body is not one single organ, but many. … Suppose the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, it does still belong to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as he chose.” Socrates asks Protagoras, “Is virtue a single whole, and are justice and self-control and holiness parts of it? … as the parts of a face are parts-mouth, nose, eyes and ears.” Socrates then probes into the metaphor further by asking Protagoras if they agree that each part serves a different purpose, just as the features of a face do, and the parts make the whole, but each serves a different purpose–“the eye is not like the ear nor has it the same function.”
1Co 12:25 Paul says “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” Socrates says, that the best-governed city is one “whose state is most like that of an individual man. For example, if the finger of one of us is wounded, the entire community of bodily connections stretching to the soul for ‘integration’ with the dominant part is made aware, and all of it feels the pain as a whole”
Paul’s use of Greek Philosophy of his day and age, cannot be overlooked or dismissed. He used the words of intellectuals of his day to his advantage in taking God’s word and the good news to the Greek speaking Gentile world. The evidence provided above cannot be passed off as mere coincidence. He wrote and spoke these words to a particular people who would have understood and would have been very familiar with the metaphors and ideas which he was using. One of the main reasons that we have such a hard time understanding Paul’s words is that we are so much removed from the world Paul was living in, and talking to. The above verses are only a few I could find in my attempt in researching this subject. But I am sure that there are many more instances where Paul would have used Greek Philosophy to his advantage.
This study would be somewhat of a shock to some who depend on Paul’s words alone as the epitome of Scripture. (This is not in anyway, an attempt to demean his writings or his work) Paul was and still is one of the greatest apostles of God. But as Peter said in 2Pet 3:15,16, “there are some things in his letters that are hard to understand”. It is better for us to take this warning seriously, and not fall into the category of “ignorant and unstable people who distort Paul’s teachings to our own destruction”. We must always remember that God’s Word cannot have confusion or disorder. Paul’s words(The actual meaning of his words, and not what we read into it) cannot disagree with any other author in the Bible. His words have to co-exist with all of Scripture in harmony.
I hope this study has helped you to understand Paul, his letters and his ministry a bit better. If you know of any more parallels or ideas that Paul adapted from Greek Philosophy, please note it down as a comment. Thank you & may you be a blessing to others!
Works Cited The life and letters of Paul the Apostle – Lyman Abbott Paul and His Epistles – D.A. Hayes Paul the Apostle: At the Edge by Faith – Stuart H. Merriam