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De-Spiritualizing Pneuma

Modernity, Religion, and Anachronism in the Study of Paul

Paul Robertson

This paper is one of several presented at the 2010 sbl naasr session in Atlanta concerning anachronism and translation in the study of early Christianity. It argues that the concept of pneuma’s central importance to Paul’s thought makes it a prime candidate to remain untranslated in scholarship. Most scholarship on pneuma translates this word ‘Spirit’, which imports normative Christian theological implications. This reflects a modern, Western understanding of religion that is derived from thinkers like Kant and Descartes, which privileges dualisms of mind/body and material/spirit, and which foregrounds the importance of a private, internal, subjective religious experience anachronistic relative to Paul. I redress this through a theoretical shift toward contextualizing Paul’s understanding of pneuma as a physiological process with analogues in ancient Greco-Roman medical thought. This approach is briefly compared to other influential accounts of pneuma in New Testament studies, and subsequently treats several Pauline passages within this new lens.

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Paul Robertson

Abstract

This chapter explores how to visualize the polythetic classification of ancient literature, specifically around Paul’s letters, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Philodemus’ On Piety and On Death. Building on previous research, the notion of polythetic classification is explored with respect to texts. Specific application then occurs with respect to Paul’s letters, showing how hand coding data in spreadsheets is necessary to capture the shape of a given piece of literary data. Such hand coding facilitates visualization of data, in the form of bar graphs and line graphs. These forms of visualization then allow for an empirical, transparent form of comparison between texts. Qualitative analysis can productively supplement this quantitative analysis, matching specific literary and conceptual context with second-order data analysis.

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Paul Robertson

In this volume, Paul Robertson re-describes the form of the apostle Paul’s letters in a manner that facilitates transparent, empirical comparison with texts not typically treated by biblical scholars. Paul’s letters are best described by a set of literary characteristics shared by certain Greco-Roman texts, particularly those of Epictetus and Philodemus.

Paul Robertson theorizes a new taxonomy of Greco-Roman literature that groups Paul’s letters together with certain Greco-Roman, ethical-philosophical texts written at a roughly contemporary time in the ancient Mediterranean. This particular grouping, termed a socio-literary sphere, is defined by the shared form, content, and social purpose of its constituent texts, as well as certain general similarities between their texts’ authors.

Paul Robertson

Abstract

Bardaisan of Edessa’s Book of the Laws of Countries contains many elements of Greco-Roman ethical philosophy, ranging from loose allusions to fairly clear instances of direct borrowing. The influences from Greco-Roman philosophy are diverse, including Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, and the nebulously-defined “Middle Platonic” material that drew and innovated from both Platonic and Stoic sources. Specifically, we see in Laws several ethical concepts derived from Greco-Roman philosophy: the ideal human attitude to external forces, particularly the evils of society; the link between divinity, inner moral character, and proper ethics; the innate goodness of human character that can be improved and perfected based on an ideal of nature; and (closely aligned with the first concept) an understanding that moral virtue is determined by one’s individual, free will decisions, implying an innate valuation of the internal at the expense of the external.