Recently, in one of my Scripture classes, we addressed the similarities and differences between St. Paul and the Greek philosophers. The philosophers of his day (Stoics and Cynics, for example) would often meet their audience in private and semi-private places and speak to them about how to live well. This included convincing them of the need to reform their lives, and how to do it. The Stoics believed that ignorance of what is good is the only source of evil in a person; they claimed that people only do bad things because they do not know any better. Education, they thought, would cure people of their vices. The Cynics believed that people chose to be bad even if they were educated about right and wrong, and therefore needed to be both strongly exhorted and disciplined harshly and consistently to effect positive results in their lives. Furthermore, in both groups, the philosopher was expected to be the exemplar and preeminent illustration of a well-lived, virtuous life.
In many ways, Paul would have looked like a Stoic or Cynic to his audience in Thessalonica or Corinth. He probably used a format similar to their semi-private meetings. He even used the same ‘buzz words’ in his letters as the philosophers of his day, like “conversion” for Stoics, or the use of his harsh words at times like the Cynics (“You stupid Galatians!”). He also appealed to the testimony of his own life as truly living what he was calling his listeners to live.
However, as an apostle, Paul felt that he was commissioned by God to give the Gospel to others, and that this “good news” was not his own, but belonged to another, namely God. Furthermore, he stresses that he has come not to deliver clever speeches, but rather the message that Jesus has brought the power of God to them in the form of salvation. Unlike the Stoics or Cynics, he knew that evil cannot be eradicated by knowledge or discipline alone, but only through Jesus. This is why he refers to himself both as a father (who is firm but loving) and a mother (consoling and patient) to his listeners. Furthermore, unlike the philosophers, Paul has come as a representative of something and someone who is much greater than himself. He only lets himself be “puffed-up” by the knowledge that he is in Christ, and Christ is in God. Paul even rebukes the Corinthians for trying to form allegiances to one or another apostle, as if they were competing philosophers:
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1: 12-13).
We, as Christians, are called to imitate this great apostle when sharing Christ with others: to meet non-Christians in ways they can understand, always offering Jesus, and never ourselves. Moreover, the way we live our lives is the first testimony to the validity of the Gospel. And lastly, we must always be both firm and unapologetic in our faith and convictions like St. Paul, while at the same time being kind and loving.
Br. Chrysostom Mijinke, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE