Paul’s Message of the Cross and the Philosophers
They were the “rock stars” of their day. Traveling orators who espoused a variety of philosophies were commonplace in the central marketplaces of ancient Greek and Latin cities. The apostle Paul met up with them in Athens. He went toe to toe with the Epicureans and Stoics who gathered in the agora to peddle their philosophies. In the debate, they derided the apostle: “What does this babbler want to say?” (Acts 17:18) They tagged him as a “seed picker” (translated “babbler’) who espoused random ideas gathered from here and there.
Paul’s message of the cross of Christ seemed incoherent to them. A crucified and resurrected Jew is the Savior of the world?! The claim seemed preposterous. The great Roman senator and orator Cicero had said that “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things but the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man” (Rabirius Perd. 16). Yet Paul’s preaching was just this: “We preach Christ crucified,” a message that was “foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Paul’s Method and the Philosophers
Paul was not very impressive when he spoke either. His public speaking was unlike the polished rhetoric which people celebrated during the day. In 2 Corinthians he recounts how some, even in the church, thought his speaking was just not up to par: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptable’” (11:10). People expected orators to look good and sound good. Lucian (Lover of Lies 34) criticized Pancrates who spoke “imperfect Greek” and Epictetus derided a student because he was “ugly” (3.1.41). You had to have physical presence and a golden tongue to get a hearing in the agora. But Paul showed up in Corinth without “lofty words or wisdom” and came “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Paul didn’t measure up by the day’s standards; his message was wrong, his looks were wrong, and his speech was wrong, all wrong.
Paul’s presence and delivery contrasted sharply with contemporary orators. Look at Dio Chrysostom, one of the greats of his day. When coming to a city, he was “escorted with much enthusiasm and respect, the recipients of my visits being grateful for my presence and begging me to address them and advise them and flocking around my door from early dawn, all without my having incurred any expense or having made any contribution, with the result that all would admire me and perhaps some would exclaim, Ye gods! how dear and honoured is this man to whatsoever town and folk he comes” (47.22). Instead of being celebrated like that, Paul often got run out of town!
Rivalries Among Disciples
Diogenes of Corinth tells how his city was known for rhetorical displays and how the disciples of popular orators would face off against one another: “That was the time, too, when one could hear crowds of wretched Sophists around Poseidon’s temple shouting and reviling one another, their disciples, as they were called, fighting with one another, many writers reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting their poems while others applauded them” (8.9). The Corinthian church imitated their contemporaries, regarding preachers of the gospel as nothing more than celebrity orators. Believers became sharply contentious in their rivalries saying, “‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas.’” Paul would have none of this (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).
Fame and Fortune
Some orators who spoke in the agoras were in it for the praise or the money. Dio Chrysostom distanced himself from such folk saying, “Gentlemen, I have come before you not to display my talents as a speaker nor because I want money from you or expect your praise” (35:1). Dio derided the Cynics who declaimed publicly because they were “like gorgeous peacocks, sophists in great numbers, men who are lifted aloft as on wings by their fame and disciples” (12:5). Paul contended that he did not preach because he was looking for fame or finances (1 Thessalonians 2:5-6). He was commissioned by God to preach Christ crucified, not for his own gain but for God’s honor.
The Core Problem: The Cross of Christ Emptied of Power
According to Paul, to regard him and other preachers as rival orators or to evaluate his work by the oratorical standards of the day was a sign that the church had misunderstood and distorted the gospel of Christ. The gospel was not just another philosophy to be debated nor were its ministers oratorical masters who swayed the crowds by their speech and presence. The gospel was about the cross of Christ and its persuasive power lay in the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul was committed to the premise that people’s faith should not rest on the philosophical or oratorical finesse of the preacher but on “the power of God” demonstrated in the message of the cross and driven home by the Sprit.
Method and Message
Today we live in a highly image-driven society which relies on catchy sound bites, flashy graphics, audio and visual branding, and persuasive media marketing techniques that draw audiences, receive approval and acclaim, and result in financial gain. The medium’s goal is to grab attention and increase market share. What happens when the church buys into these methods with cool graphic images, moving colored lights, booming sound and billowing clouds to create an illusion of spiritual power? When the goal is market share to the extent that scandal of the cross takes a back seat to the emotional appeal of a feel-good message, what happens to believers’ understanding of the gospel? And when leaders are chosen, supported and celebrated because of their personality and popular appeal rather than their faithfulness to the gospel in word and deed, what happens to believers’ commitment to Christ and their understanding of the gospel?
What would Paul see and say today?
Dr. Gene L. Green is the Dean of Trinity International University – Florida. Visit them at tiu.edu/florida
Read last month’s article by Dr. Gene L. Green at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/phoebe-and-the-sisters/