Thoughts on “The Ethics of Paul” by Morton Scott Enslin

The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin

I can tell a book is somewhat obscure when there aren’t any publisher photos on Google image search.  I can tell a book is over my head when there is a Greek, Hebrew, or Latin word on almost every page.  Both were the case with this book, yet I really enjoyed it.

Enslin was a relatively unknown biblical scholar and author in the twentieth century.  That said, this book itself is quite old compared to what I normally read, but that’s part of its charm.  Because the author is writing about the first century, the content is more or less timeless.  He goes to great lengths to compare the writings of Paul with contemporary teachers from various philosophical schools such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, and also with Eastern mystical cults which were prevalent at the time.  I actually found this intriguing. From a certain perspective, some may feel this undermines the writings of Paul and early Christian thought in general, but Enslin is quick to point out that co-existence of ideas or expressions does not imply dependence.

Truthfully, I learned as much about the competing ethical systems and their writers as I did about the views of Saint Paul.  Many Stoic themes, such as “standing firm” in values, find parallels in the Pauline epistles of the New Testament, but they fall short of the glorious, eternal view brought by the Gospel.  To the Stoic, pursuing virtue in this life was the reward in itself, challenging though it was.  To the Christian, it is a testimony to usher in the perfect age to come.  Similarities with mystic cults were not as striking to me.  Many stress the apprehension of some “secret knowledge” as the means of initiation and salvation, though I found it a little more difficult to draw out these facets of early Christianity in what Paul wrote.  Regardless, the modern reader with access to the full cannon of scripture can easily see that, while Christianity does involve pondering some mysterious truths such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, it did not borrow these ideas wholesale from contemporary religions.

One of the most striking points for me was the emphasis on the Jewish background of Paul in his ethical system.  Hailing from Tarsus, he would have likely been familiar with many aspects of Greek thought, but he was a Jew from birth until death.  For him, religion and ethics were inseparable.  For the Greek, this was not the case.  For sons of Abraham, God was the basis for all virtue.  Again, this stands in contrast to the Stoic for whom reason was the ultimate basis for that which was considered virtuous.

It can be seen in some passages that Paul borrowed literary devices and catch phrases from his contemporary settings.  While some point to this as evidence that he patterned his ethics after those already in place, the subtleties indicate otherwise.  Often he would use an expression found in Stoic writing, but twist it ever-so-slightly.  Other times he employed lists of vices to be shunned (e.g. hatred, malice, jealousy) or virtues to pursue (e.g. love, joy, peace), only partially overlapping with sets commonly known in Greek culture.  It was the differences that set Christianity apart from every other.

Enslin goes into great detail covering many facets unique to Paul’s ethics, including his emphasis on unity of believers, motivation by love, and paradoxical expectation of joy in the face of hardship.  The contrasts drawn out in each chapter served to further distance the apostle’s thought from the other systems until the uniqueness of Christianity stood apparent.  It was a rather long book for me, and definitely one intended for the scholar, based on the copious footnotes and usage of in-line Greek and Hebrew.  I’m certain I missed some of the richness of the text by lacking knowledge of those languages, but the overall message of each section was easily comprehensible.

I would recommend this book to anyone desiring a deeper understanding of the world in which Paul lived and wrote.  I learned much about the competing ethical systems in the first century, including parts that I admire and agree with, even if they fall short of the truth of the Gospel.  You can find The Ethics of Paul at a used book store or borrow it from me, because apparently it’s not even on Amazon.

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