In his introduction to the New Testament, N.T. Wright (along with Michael Bird) begins his overview of the NT with at attempt to answer the question: What is the New Testament? Their answer, which is hinted at in the cover, is that it is history, literature, and theology. Any adequate understanding of the New Testament needs to account for the history it testifies to, the form the New Testament is written in, and what the New Testament says about God.
In regards to the last category of theology, Wright puts forward the following forward about New Testament theology:
To put it simply, New Testament theology is necessary to describe what it is about the New Testament that is authoritative and to define the activism that should characterize the church as a participant in God’s plan, namely the intention (as in Eph. 1.10) to sum up in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth. Or, as Jesus himself put it, the intention that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done ‘on earth as in heaven’. God has promised to put the world to rights; the early Jesus-followers insisted that this project had been launched in Jesus himself, particularly in the events of his death, resurrection, and ascension; the New Testament, bearing witness to this intention and these events, thereby fuels and energizes the present stage of God’s ongoing plan and purpose.1
In observing closing this picture of New Testament theology, we can notice a few things that are implicit or in the background. Firstly, God’s agency and intentionality is central in this characterization of New Testament theology. Secondly, there is a concern the theological descent of heaven. Finally, there is a concern for narrative, both in the events of Jesus’ life and also the future of God’s work and purposes.
There is one point of agreement with this characterization of New Testament theology that I do find to be important: this is certainly the cognitive backbone/worldview of the discourse of the New Testament when it comes to how the early Christians understood God in Jesus Christ. If one pays attention to how the discourse and reasoning flows in the New Testament, one could certainly see importance and centrality of a theological emphasis on God’s agency and action to bring about His plan in history through the life of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, in affirming this, I also share another concern of Wright to recognize that the Bible needs to be understood theologically and not simply historically or literarily.
However, at this point, I would suggest that reading the New Testament as theology as it is presented above does not go far enough to make sense of some important features of the New Testament, which neither history nor literature can do either. For instance, if one were to read Romans 6-8, it is hard to really make coherent sense of this whole discourse by reference to history, literature, and, as outline above, theology. Paul’s focus on the believer’s union with Christ’s death and resurrection certainly implies the history of both the Exodus in the baptismal imagery and the recent events of Jesus death and resurrection. Likewise, the focus on Torah and the person’s struggles with sin in Romans 7 hearkens back, respectively, to Sinai and to Adam in a faint paradigmatic echo. Furthermore, one can understand Romans as, for instance, a piece of protreptic literature. Then, we can certainly see the way Romans 6-8 as a whole develops into a highlighting of God’s purposes in the resurrection and the redemption of creation. However, even with these three pieces in mind, there is something that is inadequately accounted for in what Paul writes: it is an account of human life in light of the narrative of Christ. It doesn’t just provide a descriptive and prescriptive account of human life under baptismal union with Christ and under Torah, but Romans 6-8 is absolutely, thoroughly, and entirely drenched in concerns about human life and experience.
In more modern categories, we would say that Romans 6-8 is a universal anthropology (distinguishing it from cultural anthropology). However, anthropology was not an available category in the ancient world. In the 1st century AD Roman Empire, the closest category for understanding Romans 6-8 would be as a piece of ancient philosophy. Ancient philosophy, especially the Stoics, aspired to concern itself with all things that exist on earth and the gods, being willing to move from what they understood the purposes of the gods to be towards understanding what type of creates humans were created to be. Yet, ancient philosophy was preoccupied with human life in the form of ethics: how is it that we as humans should responsibly and wisely live and how is it that we will be able to achieve this goal of wisdom? Especially when you see the comparisons and contrasts between Romans 7 and 4 Maccabees, a work of religious philosophy, one is left with the stark impression that Paul is doing something that looks a lot like ancient philosophy.
In the past couple of decades, Troels Engberg-Pedersen has written a series of monographs on the similarities and overlaps between the Pauline epistle and the Gospel of John with ancient philosophy, particularly the Stoics. Much of Engberg-Pedersen’s conclusions I can not abide by, as I feel he makes a regular mistake, especially in Paul and the Stoics, of seeing too much continuity between the thinking between Paul and Stoicism. For instance, in my research in 1 Corinthians, I am left with the conclusion that Paul share employed some shared vocabulary and concepts with the Stoics, but that you can not adequately make coherent sense of what Paul in light of ancient philosophy unless you emphasize the discontinuity between Paul and Stoicism. Nevertheless, what Engberg-Pedersen has brought to the table is the value of understanding the New Testament as it relates to the conventions of ancient philosophy.
While I can only present this premise forward here as a possibility, with no hope of being able to decisively verify this conclusion here, I would put forward a couple forms of evidence which, if available, would validate the importance of ancient philosophical conventions for understanding the New Testament. Firstly, the higher the degree of shared vocabulary and concepts would be suggestive of the New Testament being understood philosophically. To be clear, such a shared vocabulary does not equate to shared meaning, as the systems of meaning for the early Christians were developed with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center, whereas the meaning that Greek philosophy pulled from was the worldviews expressed in the mythological narratives of ancient paganism. Nor, would a share vocabulary necessarily entail some sort of highly syncretistic blend of ancient philosophy and Judaism as we see in 4 Maccabees or Philo of Alexandria. Nevertheless, even as the underlying meanings could diverge between the most ancient philosophies and the New Testament, the social and relational expectations of philosophical discourse would remain, in which is reputedly wise teacher would give an account of the states of affairs of life and the world and they would give general ethical prescriptions, both to help people know what is wise to do and to help people to understand how they can be the type of people to be able to realize this wisdom in their lives. The extent to which there is a shared vocabulary of important philosophical concepts, is the extent to which we can consider the documents fo the New Testament to fit within the social conventions of ancient philosopher.
This leads to a second piece of evidence that could be offered in favor of this philosophical thesis that is decidedly focused on Paul: the more Paul’s letters can be understood rhetorically against the backdrop of philosophical forms of instructions, such proleptic discourse, the more confident we can be that Paul’s letters are to some degree written with the social and communicative conventions of ancient philosophy in mind. Most rhetorical criticism of the New Testament and Paul have focused on the three traditional, Aristotelian species of rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. If, however, Paul’s discourse can be shown to fit better with the philosophical discourse of protreptic rhetoric, which I think good arguments can be made for both Romans and 1 Corinthians, then we have a good reason to consider reading the Pauline letters, at least, as a form of ancient philosophy.
If all this is the case, this leads to a specific conclusion of vital interpretive importance: Pauline theology expressed in His epistles is a form of ancient philosophy. Or, perhaps more precisely stated, Paul’s epistolary theology is actually best understood as theological philosophy in which the narrative backbone of God’s faithfulness to His promises through the death and resurrection of Jesus provides the given, axiomatic assumptions by which human life lived in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be then rationally expounded upon and understood. Paul’s letters as a whole are theological as this narrative backbone is crucial to understanding them, but in terms of the entire content of his discourse, they are better understood to be philosophical.
Granted, I have yet to find anything like Paul’s exposition on Abraham in Romans 4 in 1st century Stoics like Epictetus or Seneca. Paul was working with the narratives of Israel’s scriptures in the way that you might only find the Stoics doing if they were explicitly trying to connect their philosophy to ancient myth and rituals, such as Cornutus’ Compendium of Greek Theology. This doesn’t undermine the philosophical thesis, however, but only points to the importance of cultural hybridity. Paul’s letters may be construed as a hybridization of what we might expect to be a more traditional Jewish exposition on the Scriptures and the pattern of reasoning and ethical instruction from ancient philosophy. While not casting a hybrid between the worlds views of Greek philosophy and the Jewish way of life, Paul’s letters can be understood as a hybridization of Jewish and Hellenistic styles of instruction and discourse.
Theologically speaking, this should not be problematic for one reason: the Incarnation. In fact, the shape of Paul’s Christology that *emphasizes* Jesus humanity more than His divinity, even as does have a high Christology when one looks closely, almost necessitates a focus on the human element. The primary focus on the human element in traditional Judaism would have come through exposition and application of the Torah and its commandments, which is not an option for a Paul, who minimizes, but not entirely abandons, the Torah as a source of ethical reflection. Thus, the best way to present a direct inferential connection between Jesus and he faith and life of believers is through the discursive patterns and conventions of ancient philosophy.
However, because Paul’s letters are not the presentation of the Gospel about Jesus Christ itself, but rather an exposition on various circumstances and issues raised among the churches with the Gospel narrative and way of life in the background, we do not need to make the mistake of thinking a theological philosophy is at the heart of Paul’s own faith in Jesus, or is the center of what the proclaimed Gospel is. Rather, on the narrative backbone of the Gospel as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures that his various audiences have accepted to various degrees, Paul engages in discourses of theological philosophy.
This does not mean that all of Paul’s epistles must be reductively treated as theological philosophy, but only that in order to understand the discourse of the Pauline epistles, we need to take seriously this philosophical element to make coherent sense of much of Paul’s discourse.
I would also put forward in my briefer studies in the Gospel of John that this philosophical thesis may also be applicable to that Gospel (although this is in a very early form) in which Jesus can be understood as the perfect “perception”/light of God2 who epistemically makes known God’s (covenant) love for the world and the love that is thus to be shared for each other. This is all too hypothetical and tentative to be put forward as anything reliable at this present juncture, but if this case can be made, then we may have grounds to consider the a significant portion of the New Testament through the lens of a (theological) philosophy.
Nevertheless, if all this is to be the case, it will be important to understand the philosophy of the New Testament with NT Wright’s portrayal of theology provided above, lest we assume too much of a continuity between other ancient philosophies and the New Testament that would be at the risk of understanding the New Testament against the backdrop of pagan worldviews and values. It is one thing to suggest that the byproducts of Hellenism influenced the early Christians through the social and communicative conventions of ancient philosophical discourse, but it is a much more astounding thesis in need of similarly astounding evidence to suggest that the hybridity between Hellenism and Judaism went beyond communicative, discursive forms to the content of meaning and understanding about God, the world, and human life. This is a type of evidence that is, to much knowledge, just not present anywhere in the New Testament, even among Paul, the most Hellenistic and Roman of the New Testament authors.