Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Why Did Paul Quote Pagan Philosophers?

            There is a common argument that the Old Testament is reliable because the New Testament affirms the Old Testament. If this is the case, would Paul’s quote of pagan (non-christian/unbelievers) philosophers affirm the reliability of the pagan works? Alternatively, would the inclusion of pagan work in the Bible undermine the reliability of the Bible?

            Did Paul quote pagan philosophers? Yes, here’s an excerpt from CARM:1

Paul quoted Menander in the book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians.  He quoted Epimenides in the book of Titus.  Let's take a look.
·  Acts 17:28, "for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.'"
o "The first part of verse 28 comes from Cretica by Epimenides, and the second part of the verse from Hymn to Zeus, written by the Cilician poet Aratus. To be sure, both of these lines were directed at Zeus in Greek literature, but Paul applied them to the Creator of whom he spoke."1
o Paul quoted "the first half of the fifth line, word for word, of an astronomical poem of Aratus, a Greek countryman of the apostle, and his predecessor by about three centuries. But, as he hints, the same sentiment is to be found in other Greek poets. They meant it doubtless in a pantheistic sense; but the truth which it expresses the apostle turns to his own purpose—to teach a pure, personal, spiritual Theism."2
·  1 Cor. 15:33, "Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.'”
o"a current saying, forming a verse in MENANDER, the comic poet, who probably took it from Euripides [SOCRATES, Ecclesiastical History, 3.16]."3
o "The words “Bad company ruins good morals” are found in a play by Menander (4th-3rd century B. C.) but may well have become a common saying by Paul’s time."4
o "Evil communications corrupt good manners. An iambic line from the ‘Thais’ of Menander, and perhaps taken by Menander from a play of Euripides. More accurately it means “evil associations corrupt excellent morals."5
· Titus 1:12, "One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons."
o "Epimenides of Phaestus, or Gnossus, in Crete, about 600. He was sent for to purify Athens from its pollution occasioned by Cylon. He was regarded as a diviner and prophet. The words here are taken probably from his treatise “concerning oracles.” Paul also quotes from two other heathen writers, ARATUS (Ac 17:28) and MENANDER (1 Co 15:33), but he does not honor them so far as even to mention their names.6
o "A prophet of their own; viz. Epimenides, a native either of Phæstus or of Cnossus in Crete, the original author of this line, which is also quoted by Callimachus. Epimenides is here called a prophet, not simply as a poet, but from his peculiar character as priest, bard, and seer; called by Plato θεῖος ἀνήρ and coupled by Cicero with Bacis the Boeotian prophet, and the sibyl (Bishop Ellicott); described by other ancient writers as a prophet (Alford)."7

            Would these quotations affirm the reliability of the works of pagan philosophers?

            Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in their work The Big Book of Bible Difficulties respond to this question (p.507-508):2

PROBLEM: Christians believe that only the Bible is the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet the Apostle Paul quotes pagan poets on at least three occasions. But in so doing he seems to give assent to the sources he quotes as inspired, just as when he quotes OT Scripture as the Word of God (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10).

SOLUTION: Paul is not quoting this non-Christian source as inspired, but simply as true. All truth is God’s truth, no matter who said it. Caiaphas the Jewish high priest uttered a truth about Christ (John 11:49). The Bible often uses non-inspired sources (cf. Num. 21:14; Josh. 10:13; 1 Kings 15:31). Three times Paul cites non-Christian thinkers (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12). Jude alludes to truths found in two non-canonical books (Jude 9, 14). But never does the Bible cite them as divinely authoritative, but simply as containing the truth quoted. The usual phrases, such as, “thus saith the Lord” (cf. Isa. 7:7; Jer. 2:5, kjv) or “it is written” (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10) are never found when these non-inspired sources are cited. Nonetheless, truth is truth wherever it is found. And there is no reason, therefore, that a biblical author, by direction of the Holy Spirit, cannot utilize truth from whatever source he may find it.

            Here’s another response from Phillip J. Long, the Chair / Professor of Biblical Studies at the Grace Christian University:3

Paul quotes two Greek writers as support for his case that the creator God does not need temples or temple services from humans. The use of this material has always prompted discussion among readers of Acts, especially with respect to application. Is Paul modelling how Christians ought to present the gospel in a non-Christian, non-Jewish environment?
The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but fragments appear in other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.
In other words, he ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank (or possibly just a biblio-blogger). In some areas of scholarship, authorial intent is not important, so perhaps Paul is not out of line here. Can Paul legitimately pull this line out of context and reapply it to prove the God of the Bible is superior to the other gods?
A second problem is how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is Paul had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.
While I do not think this kind of cultural education is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources (or, Luke’s point in presenting Paul as using these sources). These lines may have been well known proverbial wisdom, common knowledge. If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.
Or better, this is an example of a modern pastor quoting lyrics of popular songs to make a point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well).  This comes down to knowing your audience.  I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.
In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to demonstrate his thinking is not too far from the culture the audience understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor were they inclined to listen to philosophy drawn Jewish texts.
Does this mean Acts 17 gives permission for Pastors to quote Bob Dylan lyrics or use Simpsons clips in their sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible.  It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.), but this can be very dangerous if it overwhelms the Scripture.
If the message of the Gospel is obscured by the using Fifty Shades of Grey as a sermon title, or by playing U2 songs during your worship, or hosting a Dancing with the Stars night at church, then you have missed Paul’s point in Acts 17.

            These responses are terse as well as comprehensive. Therefore, quoting unbelievers would neither affirm their reliability as divinely inspired nor undermine the reliability of the Bible. 


2The same material is also found here: https://defendinginerrancy.com/bible-solutions/Titus_1.12_(2).php


Websites last accessed on 29th October 2019.

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