Torres, M. (2006). Felix's Refusal to Further Listen to Paul as a Statement of Philosophical Superiority. PHILICA.COM Article number 70.
Felix’s Refusal to Further Listen to Paul as a Statement of Philosophical Superiority

Milton Torresconfirmed user (Faculdades Adventistas da Bahia, Faculdades Adventistas da bahia)

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During a private interview when the apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, Felix did not let him finish his remarks, but abruptly sent him back to his quarters. According to Luke, Felix was disturbed by the subject of the conversation and by the fact that Paul did not offer him a bribe (24:25-26). My purpose is to propose a philosophical context for Felix’s reply to Paul’s discourse by trying to establish a connection between Felix’s words to Paul and Socrates’ response to Euthyphro in the homonymous dialogue by Plato, and show that Felix could also be rejecting Paul’s exposition on philosophical grounds.


After Paul's imprisonment in Jerusalem, the apostle's enemies tried to intimidate him by threatening his physical integrity. As a result, he was sent to Caesarea where he was to be protected by Felix - the governor - until he could undergo proper trial procedures (Acts 23:22-27). He was then kept in Herod's judgment hall (praitorion) awaiting trial (23:35). Five days after his relocation, the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea along with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus. After obsequiously flattering the governor, they brought their charges against Paul. According to them, he was a troublemaker who stirred up riots among the Jews all over the world - a ringleader of the Nazarene sect who even tried to desecrate the Jerusalem temple (24:5-6). Paul stated - in his own defense - that he was ceremonially clean when they found him in the temple courts, that there was no crowd with him, and that he had not taken part in any disturbance (24:18). When Paul told Felix that the real reason why he had been brought to him was that he believed in the resurrection of the dead, Felix decided to adjourn the proceedings until he might get better acquainted with the subject (24:22).


Several days later Felix sent for Paul and listened to him privately - with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. The apostle spoke about his faith in Jesus Christ (24:24). Despite the fact that Paul chose his subject carefully - presenting his views on righteousness (dikaiosune), self-control (egkrateia), and the judgment to come -, Felix did not let him finish his remarks, but abruptly sent him back to his quarters. According to Luke, Felix was disturbed by the subject of the conversation and by the fact that Paul did not offer him a bribe (24:25-26). Luke may have been able to see beyond the governor's actual words because what he actually said was, "That's enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient (kairon), I will send for you" (24:25).


My purpose here is to propose a philosophical context for Felix's reply to Paul's discourse by trying to establish a connection between Felix's words to Paul and Socrates' response to Euthyphro in the homonymous dialogue by Plato. There may be more to the governor's reaction than mere trepidation. Felix could also be rejecting Paul's exposition on philosophical grounds. According to Luke, Felix was afraid (emphobos), and that led him to dismiss Paul. But since Paul had addressed him philosophically, Felix may have responded likewise. The question of parallels of New Testament passages and other early Christian and classical literature has been a scholarly issue since the seventeenth century,[1] and this provides a good justification for the bringing together of these two texts. Nonetheless, due to the recent contention that parallelisms go too far sometimes,[2] it is now necessary for scholars to provide a good explanation for the reason why these parallels every so often exist.


Philosophical Topoi in Paul's Discourse Before Felix


Justice (or righteousness) and self-control were common topoi in ancient philosophical expositions, and this fact sets Paul's conversation with Felix in a philosophical context as much as in a religious one. The philosophical nature of these concepts is shown by the fact that they are widely discussed by the Greek philosophers. Aristotle, for instance, worried about legal justice (dikaiosune dikaste) in Politica 1291a27), defining it elsewhere as the virtue that leads each person to have what he owns (Rhethorica 1366b9ff). Plato defined justice as "minding one's own business" (Republic 433a), seeing it, in Phaedo 82a,b, as "a democratic and political virtue" (demotike kai politike arete).


Self-control is likewise a most important concern of these philosophers. Plato discussed it in the Republic (390b) and Aristotle talked about it in the Ethica Nicomachea (1145b8). In fact, according to Grundmann, self-control played an important role in the philosophical ethics of classical Greece and Hellenism.[3] The Stoics saw it as the main virtue of the ideal free and independent man. For Philo, it meant superiority to every desire related to food, sex and the use of the tongue (Det. Pot. Inst. 101ff; De specialibus legibus II 195). In fact, as Hankinson puts it, self-mastery is an idea that "has a long philosophical pedigree; it is common to the Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean traditions, and is consequently one of the few genuine commonplaces in ancient moral thought."[4] Since self-control played such a strikingly small part in biblical religion (the word is totally absent from the gospels),[5] the fact that Paul chose it as a subject for his meeting with Felix shows that he was intent in framing the dialogue in philosophical terms.


The word krima, however, was not commonly seen in philosophical arguments, although it had clear legal implications, since it meant judgment or sentence. The fact that it was introduced last indicates that Paul was aware that if he so desired to maintain Felix's philosophical interest on, he had first to entice him with some philosophical lure and then try and introduce matters of a more religious nature. The "judgment to come" theme was probably introduced last and it was at this point that Felix decided to break off the conversation.


Socrates' Response to a Philosophical Remark by Euthyphro


Plato's dialogue Euthyphro describes the philosophical discussion in which Socrates engaged Euthyphro just before the famous trial which convicted him of impiety and of corrupting the young. We know very little about Euthyphro. Hare calls him "a professional in matters of religion, a soothsayer, and an authority on the ways of the gods."[6] The dialogue is set in 399 b.C., when Socrates is seventy years old. Since the famous philosopher claimed that he did not know what piety (to hosion) was, he took advantage of Euthyphro's presence at the same court - the Royal Portico - to ask this supposed authority about its meaning. The dialogue - written within twelve years of Socrates' death - is thus structured around Euthyphro's five attempts to propose a viable explanation for the concept: to hosion is what Euthyphro himself does (5d8),[7] what the gods love (6e10), what all the gods love (9e1), the part of justice concerned with service to the gods (12e5), and knowledge of how to pray and sacrifice (14c5).


Socrates asked Euthyphro if he really believed that the gods fought with one another, and had dire quarrels, battles, and the like, as the poets said. He also asked the religious man if he really believed that the gods behaved as the Athenians saw represented in the works of great artists, notably the robe (peplos) of Athena, which was carried up to the Acropolis at the great Panathenaea (6b7). Euthyphro replied, "Yes, Socrates; and, as I was saying, I can tell you, if you would like to hear them, many other things about the gods which would quite amaze you." Socrates then politely declined the offer, and said, "That would not surprise me; and you shall tell me them at some other time when I have leisure (schole). But just at present I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given, my friend, to the question, What is ‘piety'?" With that, Socrates was definitely setting the boundaries of the philosophical discussion that the two sages were carrying out.


The Areopagos Oration and Philosophical Dismissal


Paul's appearance before a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (the two rival practical philosophies of the day) in Acts 17 frames a philosophical discussion, as it is suggested by the word sumballo, "to debate" (v. 18). These philosophers invited the apostle to present them his philosophical standpoint on the different aspects of Athenian religion and society that he was probably thrashing out in the agora, the city's civic center. They appointed the Areopagos as the place for the conference. This so-called "Mar's Hill" was the most respected law court at Athens - one which was responsible for handling such offenses as those that deserved capital punishment.


Again we have here the topos of a philosophical dismissal of a supposedly lesser philosopher by those who considered themselves to be superior to him. That these Epicureans and Stoics thought much more of themselves than they did of the apostle is made clear by the fact that they refer to him as a "babbler" (spermologos) in v. 18. This word, which means "picker up of seeds," is an important key to understand these philosophers' true valuation of the apostle's rhetoric. Used by Plutarch in relation to crows that pick up grains in the field (De tranquillitate animi 473a3), and by Eusthatius in relation to a man hanging around in the marketplace picking up snippets of food that fell from the carts, the word came to be applied to rhetoricians and plagiarists who picked up scraps of wisdom from others.[8] Demetrius of Phalerum, a Greek orator and politician from the late fourth century b.C., thus used the word when he compared the disbanding of worthless speakers to the use of stones and pebbles to force fowls to take flight. Plutarch did - in fact - show a special preference for this word, which he often used. He coupled it with "ribaldry" (bomolochia) in Quomodo adulator ab amico internoscatur 65b6 and Quaestiones convivales 712e7. He also listed spermologia rhemata together with intemperate (akolasta) and bitter (pikra) words thus showing spermologia as particularly defiling to a speaker (De cohibenda ira 456c12). Besides, he saw spermologia as a trait peculiar to greedy people (Quaestiones convivales 730b4). Dionysius of Halicarnassus, rhetorician and historian who lived and taught at Rome for many years from 30 b.C., related the word spermologia to gossip instead, using it to qualify "the gossipiest and most unlearned men in town" (Antiquitates Romanae The word is even applied to a shortcoming peculiar to those who speak in public: babbling. For that reason, Aristotle complained that even a king could fall prey to it (Historia animalium), while Demosthenes saw it as an orator's handicap (De corona 18.127).


It is not extraneous that the Epicureans and Stoics dismissed Paul while he was elaborating on the notion of a resurrection from the dead: "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject'" (17:32). The Greek sentence was a virtual dismissal of the matter. The resurrection of the dead was as foreign a theme to the Athenians as the idea of a coming judgment. So, here again, those who considered themselves to be among the sages called for the adjournment of a philosophical debate that they were holding with someone whom they deemed to be less wise. Here again the subject seems to have been unpalatable to the establishment. Philosophical authoritativeness gave the Athenian philosophers the prerogative to act as they did.




Although the actual phrasing of Felix's rejoinder is not the same as Socrates', one just cannot help wondering at the similarities of the two accounts. The context of both stories is a conversation preceding a formal trial - as a matter of fact, even the Areopagos oration had a law court as its background. The two interactions revolve around philosophically-stated religious concerns. In both cases one of the parties redefines the scope of the debate by postponing the inquiry regarding a specific theme proposed by the other party. Since Felix pronounced his statement more than four hundred years after Socrates' trial, and since that trial is one of the most famous episodes of classical antiquity, the governor's procrastination strikes me as being an intentional allusion to the incident that took place at the Royal Portico.


If Felix was deliberately referring to Socrates' words, why would he do that? In actuality, Felix's refusal to further listen to Paul was a statement of philosophical superiority. He decided to knowingly play the role of Socrates, a master of philosophy. By stating his intention to defer the discussion to a later time, he reminded Paul that - like Socrates - he should be the one to define the topic of conversation - and not the apostle. Luke interpreted the fact that the governor called the discussion to a halt as evidence for Felix's apprehension concerning the judgment to come, and this indicates - beyond any shadows of doubt - that the expression "the coming judgment" does not refer to Paul's approaching trial but had eschatological dimensions. However, one cannot judge - by what Felix actually says - that it was anxiety only that led him to put off the apostle's philosophical exposition. My proposal, here, is that - perhaps in a vain attempt to hide his apprehension concerning the subject under discussion - he tried to make Paul believe that he was the superior philosophical mind and that - for that reason - he should be the one to choose the topic of the conversation.

[1] White, L. Michael & Fitzgerald, John T. (2003). Quod est comparandum: The Problem of Parallels. In John T. Fitzgerald, Thomas H. Olbricht & L. Michael White (Eds.), Early Christian and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe. Leiden: Brill. 15.

[2] Sandmel, Samuel. (1962). Parallelomania. Journal of Biblical Literature, 81, 1-13.

[3] Grundmann, Walter. (1964). Egkrateia. In Gerhard Kittel (Ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Volume II. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 340.

[4] Hankinson, James. (1993). Actions and Passions: Affection, Emotion, and Moral Self-management in Galen's Philosophical Psychology. In: Jacques Brunschwig & Martha C. Nussbaum (Eds.), Passions and Perceptions: Studies in Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind. Proceedings of the 5th Symposium Hellenisticum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 206.

[5] Id., p. 341. "The reason for this is that biblical man regarded his life as determined and directed by the command of God. There was thus no place for the self-mastery which had a place in autonomous ethics," id., p. 342.

[6] Hare, John E. (1981). Plato's Euthyphro. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr.

[7] The reason why Euthyphro came to the Royal Portico was to prosecute his own father whom he accused of murder. He claimed that this decision to prosecute any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime - whether he is one's father or mother, or whoever he may be - was a good example of his piety and sense of duty.

[8] Robertson, Archibald T. (1932). Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman.

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Published on Friday 29th December, 2006 at 02:48:23.

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Torres, M. (2006). Felix’s Refusal to Further Listen to Paul as a Statement of Philosophical Superiority. PHILICA.COM Article number 70.

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