Thursday, December 3, 2015

Highlights from Philo, Plutarch, and Paul (Nov 21-22)

Here in this post, I'm going to cobble together highlights from papers read from Saturday through Sunday (Nov 21-22) from various different sessions. Again, I won't be discussing every paper but just the ones of personal or wider interest. 
Joint Session of the Philo Seminar & Corpus Hellenisticum NT Section

On Sat. afternoon (Nov 21) I attended the joint session of the Philo of Alexandria Seminar and the Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti Section (S21-28). The focus of the joint session was mapping where Philo and Plutarch overlapped in their view of religion. At times, there was very little said in connection with the New Testament, despite the theme: Philo, Plutarch, and the New Testament. The papers, rather, appeared to outline the religious milieu of the New Testament rather than address NT texts themselves.
   That said, I did find a few papers of personal interest. Gregory Sterling presented on "When East and West Meet: Eastern Religions and Western Philosophy in Philo of Alexandria and Plutarch" and made the convincing case that behind the ritual observance of cultic festivals and animal sacrifice practiced by Philo (as a Jew) and Plutarch (as a priest) was a philosophical monotheism: i.e., the doctrine that there is a divine cause to all reality and this cause may not necessarily need to be referred to as "god." Sometimes addressed as the First Principle (Eudorus), other times the First Cause (Aristotle), God nevertheless was understood as completely transcendent, immovable, eternal, indescribable, unspeakable, inconceivable and providential. While differing in the details (e.g., Philo believed the Eternal Forms to be thoughts of God, while Plutarch did not), both Philo and Plutarch's philosophical monothesism are remarkably similar.
   It begs the question, then, why Philo, as an pious Jew, and Plutarch, as a priest of Delphi, would participate in cultic activity when a transcendent God should be above ritual, sacrifice, and ceremonial traditions. In an attempt to answer this question, in part, was Zlatko Pleše's paper on "Ritual, Idolatry, and the Rational Norm in Plutarch and Philo." Examining a number of treatises, including Philo's Special Laws and Plutarch's Isis and Osiris, Pleše summarizes the pedagogical, psychological and symbolic reasons why philosophers continue to observe cultic traditions even though a transcendent God does not require sacrifice. Pedagogically, philosophers, by participating in the cult, provide an example to the wider masses against the dangers of impiety. Psychologically, cultic participation alleviates fear (of what? divine punishment?) and inspires the emotion of joy among its worshippers. Lastly, though the gods are nothing but human daimons, the symbolic import of religious practice points to the real, unseen, divine cause beyond the visible and sensible world.
   What I find fascinating about the papers is the common practice among philosophers (with the exception of the Pythagoreans) to provide a philosophical rationale for continued participation in cultic events even though the religious beliefs behind such events contradicts their philosophical monotheism. I myself read a paper way back at the 2009 SBL-AAR meeting in New Orleans on the reasons why Epicureans worship the gods even though they did not believe in them at all. The practice of philosophers for continued ritual worship of the gods despite their commitment to monotheism provides an interesting analogue and point of comparison with the practices of the Corinthian wisdom group at Corinth who were monotheist yet ate idol food and participated in the pagan cult (1 Cor. 8-10). 
   It just so happens that the uniqueness of Paul's teaching on idol food was the subject of another paper at the 2nd Pauline Epistles session (S22-140) on Sun. morning (Nov 22) by Sonja Anderson entitled: "Are Idols Real? Demons, Christians and the Rabbis." In Paul's day, ambiguity among early Christians and Jews concerning idol food was common. Paul himself seemed to allow for the permissibility of idol food consumption in certain social locations (e.g., sacrificial meat sold in the market place and brought home) but not in other settings (e.g., as part of pagan veneration of idols during cultic worship). I actually wrote a short essay on Paul's ethic on idol food that understands Paul's approach as dependent on Scripture yet nuanced and applied to diverse social settings (here). By the 2nd century A.D., however, Christians and Jews had parted ways on this issue.
   For Christians (e.g., Tertullian and Tatian), any idol food consumption was wrong on any occasion and was to be avoided at all times because of an idol's association with real demons. While idols are only stone and metal, the demons or demonic reality behind idolatry are dangerous. The Christian abstains so as not to commune or provide a pathway for the demonic. 
   For Jews of the 2nd century and onward (e.g., Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah), an idol only had a demonic hold on a person if he or she believed in the idol. If a person knew an idol was nothing mentally, then the pious Jew could handle some objects previously associated with idolatry. They practiced a mental exercise which Anderson called "idol nullification" where things or places previously unclean because of their association with idols could now be handled or entered. One intriguing example was the case where Rabbi Aqiba was found in a bathhouse where a famous statue of Aphrodite stood. When questioned why Aqiba, a Jew, could occupy the same space as an idol, Aqiba responded that even the Gentiles in the bathhouse do not treat the statue as an idol as they urinate in front of it all the time! 
   So if a Jew knows a statue or object is not an idol, there is no danger of religious compromise or ceremonial contamination. Holiness is maintained. 
   All of this is to say that these two trajectories, Christianity's absolute prohibition and Jewish nullification practices, emerged from an earlier period where there was ambiguity on how to deal with idol food during the 1st century, the latter of which Paul was a part and offered his own unique ethic. 
   In my next and final post on SBL-AAR 2015, I am going to highlight some fantastic papers read at the Intertextuality in the New Testament session (theme = Intertextuality, Paul and Rhetoric), over which I presided.

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