St. Paul’s Letters and Classical Culture


  • Warren S. Smith



Paul in his Letters drew on conventions that would have been familiar to anyone receiving a rudimentary Greek education. The persona used at the end of Romans 1 to denounce the sinners in contemporary culture is based on the alazon or boastful man familiar from satire and the diatribe philosophical style of Bion, Seneca, and later Epictetus. The persona in Romans 7 who prays to be delivered from “this body of death” goes back to Greek tragedy and can be paralleled in the tragic tone of such poets as Ovid and Catullus. The beautiful hymn to love in I Corinthians 13 goes back to Socrates’ speech in Plato’s Symposium and also owes much to the pattern for an  encomium used  in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and followed by Isocrates and Cicero. Paul’s discussion of “the Married and Unmarried Man” in I Corinthians 7 and “The Weak Man’ in Romans 14 are consistent with stereotypes introduced by Aristotle and Theophrastus and found on stage in comedies such as “The Bad Tempered Man.” All these passages are based on cultural commonplaces that would have made Paul’s arguments come alive to a Greek speaking audience.

Warren S. Smith is a retired Professor of Classics at the University of New Mexico. Among his books is Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage from Plautus to Chaucer (Michigan, 2005). His articles on Apuleius and the New Testament have appeared before inAncient Narrative. His church service includes teaching stints in the Philippines and Kenya, and  weekly visits to a prison in Los Lunas, N.M.