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Abraham Malherbe: Light from the Gentiles. Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity. Collected Essays, 1959-2012 (= Supplements to Novum Testamentum; Vol. 150), Leiden / Boston: Brill 2014, 2 Bde., XXVII + 1113 S., ISBN 978-90-04-25339-1, EUR 254,00
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Rezension von:
Mark J. Edwards
Christ Church, University of Oxford
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Matthias Haake
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Mark J. Edwards: Rezension von: Abraham Malherbe: Light from the Gentiles. Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity. Collected Essays, 1959-2012, Leiden / Boston: Brill 2014, in: sehepunkte 14 (2014), Nr. 11 [15.11.2014], URL:

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Abraham Malherbe: Light from the Gentiles

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This formidable collection of 54 articles and reviews illustrates not only the erudition and versatility of its author but the unfailing tact with which he approaches questions that have been all too apt to divide the world of biblical scholarship into hermetic parties. The majority are practical applications of the principles expounded in his articles on the task of exegesis (27-40) and the writing of commentaries (957-972). While it has long been a truism that the key to the understanding of any document in the New Testament is its setting in life, it is rare to find a scholar who, like Malherbe, can examine in one place the liturgical presuppositions of the Corinthian correspondence (13-26), in another the medical imagery of the pastoral epistles (117-134), in another the distinction between the overweening conduct of Diotrephes and the authority claimed by the elder who denounces him (69-82), and in another the internal evidence that 1Thessalonians is an answer to a previous missive from the Thessalonians to Paul (247-260). Above all, however, Malherbe is known for his studies of the cultural milieu in which the first Christians developed the tools of persuasion and a code of ethics more durable than the apodictic preaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

In a review of a book by Hans Dieter Betz, Malherbe remarks that parallel-hunters often forget that the absence of absence of parallel features is often the most important discovery when we compare two bodies of literature (950). Accordingly, he does not resort to Procrustean measures in order to force Paul's letters into categories that the ancients applied to quite different forms of writing. In a shrewd essay on the "social level and literary culture" of the first Christians, he observes that Paul may not have known the provenance of the few adages that he cites from the classical poets (93). Yet since it is also true that the tropes of rhetoric are often acquired informally by those who have not frequented the schools, Malherbe is not afraid to maintain that the writings of the primitive church owe something to the diffusion of both philosophy and literary artifice through popular channels of communication. Taking up Bultmann's case for the importance of the diatribe as a model ("Hellenistic Moralists and the New Testament"), he remarks that the study of Latin texts would help to enhance our knowledge of this demotic appropriation of classroom teaching, which he elsewhere styles the "philosophical koinê" ("The Cultural Context of the New Testament", 760ff). In style as in temper, Paul bears a closer resemblance to the slave Epictetus than to the elegant sophists, as his use of the exclamation mê genoito reveals on close analysis (107-116).

Among adherents of this koinê, the Cynics are often defined in a very protean sense by those who wish them to match the early Christians in every feature, and in a very narrow sense by those who deny the affinity. In a series of important articles, Malherbe has distinguished sharply between the Cynics and their Stoic eulogists without reducing the portrait of the Cynic himself to a monochrome. Thus, while "Cynic-Stoic" might be the best description for a particular avatar of Heracles (654), the fourth epistle of pseudo-Heraclitus is Cynic, not Stoic (633). "Cynic self-definition" can embrace both mild and harsh types, both of whom made a profession of philanthropy (643-646). An unprepossessing sketch of the apostle's appearance in the Acts of Paul may have taken Heracles for its model (897-901); fighting with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15.32) is a metaphorical emulation of this hero's labours (50-52). Paul's defence of himself suggests an acquaintance with traditions first exemplified in the apology for Odysseus by Antisthenes (165); his pride in being a slave to God is as redolent of the voluntary self-abasement of the Cynic as of Stoic determinism ("Determinism and Free Will in Paul", 307-311). Nevertheless, in his studies of particular texts in the Pauline corpus, Malherbe repeatedly demonstrates that the ethical and pastoral philosophy of the author is informed but not restricted by the "conceptual framework" that he shares with his pagan contemporaries (430).

The belief in the salvific power of education is one of these shared conceptions, but the salvation is "effectuated by the appearance in history of certain qualities of God" ("Soteriology in the pastoral epistles", 457). Elements of philosophical teaching on the treatment of the elderly and the virtues of women are evident in the first epistle to Timothy, but the new mosaic created from these tesserae (477) does not replicate the morality of any pagan school. The conjunction of justice and piety in this letter is a convention of Greek literature (532), but its theological exhortation cannot be reduced to a Stoic or Cynic recipe for autarkeia, or human self-sufficiency (556). To preach in season and out of season (187-196) and to be gentle as a nurse (41-52) were Cynic precepts before they were Pauline injunctions; yet when he outdoes the Cynic in autarkeia and the Stoic in friendship his language lacks the "anthropocentric connotations" of the philosopher's lexicon ("Paul's Self-Sufficiency", 338). He forms his bond with his readers not "in the way the moralists did" but through "the gospel, the word of the Lord" ("Ethics in Context", 583). At the same time, the salience of Hellenistic motifs in the Pauline letters is "extraordinary" ("Hellenistic Philosopher or Christian Pastor?", 207); Malherbe draws his own comparison with Odysseus, perhaps a little too frequently, by quoting Tennyson's line from Ulysses, "I am a part of all that I have met" (208, 751, 958, 972). It may be that more attention should be paid, by Malherbe and others, to the oddity of writing to whole communities when one is not the Emperor: the process by which the churchman's letter superseded the sophist's oration is not well understood. This oddity would appear to have escaped the author of the correspondence of Paul and Seneca if, as Malherbe opines, the fictitious Seneca voices the current tenets of "epistolary theory" in his criticisms of the apostle's style (911).

A second-century author who displayed more art in converting rhetorical theory into practice was Athenagoras, to whom five pieces are devoted in the second volume. In "Athenagoras on the Location of God" (842-848) Malherbe shows an erudite grasp of Middle Platonic cosmology, while in "Athenagoras on the Poets and Philosophers" (849-865) he notes that this successor to Justin perceived the value of Plato as an ally against the mythographic tradition. An essay on Justin himself warns us not to overestimate our knowledge of his relations with Crescens the Cynic (883-894), while a highly original article treats the Apology of Peter as an inchoate specimen of the transition from kerygmatic discourse to apologetic (867-882). In a review entitled "Towards understanding the Apologists" Malherbe contends that we cannot draw a strict antithesis between the fideism of early Christian thought and the rationalism of the philosophers (804-5); even the boast of Paul that "the thing was not done in a corner" echoes conventional strictures on the philosopher's retreat from public life ("Early Christian Apologetic in Acts 26:26", 218-9). For many today the word "academic" signifies just such a retreat, but Malherbe's reflection on "Theological interpretation" (916-933) reveals that his goal as a scholar is to ascertain, for himself and for contemporary Christians, what it means to be "A People under the Word".

Mark J. Edwards