Paul and Middle-Platonism
Gentiles entering the new movement brought their culture with them, and Hellenism had already significantly affected Jewish culture both at home and abroad. Paul's Gospel… was at home in this milieu; and his universe, despite the foreshortened perspective he sees it in, is still very much the universe of late Hellenistic science.
What was the substance of this late Hellenistic science to which Fredriksen alludes? While it had different varieties, one of its signal characteristics was a capacity to absorb and synthesize ideas from originally distinct philosophical traditions. Thus, for example among the philosophers known as the middle-platonists, both Aristotelian and Stoic logic were combined and considered platonist. It is not inconsistent, moreover, to find in one person elements of Cynic style combined with elements of platonistic thought. The general outlines of the type of platonistic thinking which I ascribe to Paul have been delineated by John Dillon, one of the leading scholars of middle-platonism:
We shall see throughout our period the philosophers of Middle Platonism oscillating between the two poles of attraction constituted by Peripateticism and Stoicism, but adding to the mixture of these influences a strong commitment… to a transcendent supreme principle, and a non-material, intelligible world above and beyond this one, which stands as a paradigm for it. The influence of Pythagoras and what was believed to be his doctrine was also dominant throughout our period.…Despite all the variations in doctrine that emerge, we can observe in this period the growth of a consistent body of thought, constituting a Platonic heritage that could be handed on, first to Plotinus and his followers, and thence to later ages. (Dillon 1977, 51 [emphasis added])
This philosophical tradition was widespread throughout the entire Mediterranean cultural area. There were prominent middle-platonists in Ascalon in Palestine, in Southern Anatolia, and in Syria. Thus, whether Paul got his education in Jerusalem, Tarsus, or even Damascus, the likelihood of his exposure to the central ideas of the platonistic philosophy current in his day is not at all implausible. Currently there is great resistance to the concept of a Paul nurtured by these philosophical traditions, resistance which Abraham Malherbe has described as belonging to an apologetic tradition (going back to Tertullian) for the absolute distinctiveness of Christianity. As Malherbe pithily remarks, “Why the New Testament, on a priori theological grounds, should have been kept safe from the taint of Hellenism requires a more cogent explanation than has been offered since early Christianity has become the object of modern historical research” (Malherbe 1989, 2). Indeed, the question is why should Hellenistic philosophy be considered a taint if it be found in Paul? Malherbe himself documents the extent to which Paul was attuned to the style and methods of the popular philosophers of his day. The influence of this central platonistic notion of a higher world which stands as paradigm for this one and the importance of this conception for the reading of Paul will constitute a major claim of this book. The uniqueness of Paul—and I do think that he is unique—is not established by the lack of cultural input into his religious thought and experience but rather in the sui generis way that the different elements—Pharisaism, Hellenism, and belief in Christ—are combined to produce something absolutely new.