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Many are well aware of Galatians 5:22–23, where Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit. Yet, very rarely do we make connections between that passage and a popular philosophy that reigned in Paul’s day, namely, Stoicism.

While Stoicism was a school of philosophy that included several perspectives, a popular consensus among these Stoic philosophers was the notion of the unity of virtues. Within Stoicism, it was widely accepted that if one did not possess all the virtues, one did not possess any of them. This sounds odd to modern ears since it seems to imply the necessity of perfection in order to be truly virtuous, but even the Stoics acknowledged that such perfection was nearly unattainable in this life. Yet while in the pursuit of the virtuous life, the Stoics believed that if one claimed to have possessed some virtues but did not possess others, then it would be questionable as to whether the Stoic sage possessed any of them. I believe that a similar notion could be part of the backdrop of Paul’s ideas when he uses the singular “fruit” to describe the fruit of the Spirit. So, a greater awareness of the Stoic idea of the unity of the virtues might help us better understand the wider context of Paul’s thought. And properly understanding Paul has profound pastoral implications.

Stoicism

Many commentators on Galatians note similarities to the Hellenic philosophy in the vice list immediately preceding Paul’s discourse on the fruit of the Spirit. Many commentators say, however, that the parallels are incidental, having no formal connections. While it is true that the virtues and vices of the Greco-Roman world differed from Paul’s list, Paul’s vice and virtue lists cannot be easily dismissed as unrelated from his larger context. Paul’s thought is shaped primarily by the Old Testament; however, the Old Testament, while ethical in nature due to Israel’s covenantal relationship with Yahweh, does not have lists delineating specific virtues and vices. Such lists were common in Hellenistic writings. As Martin Hengel noted in his well-known two-volume Judaism and Hellenism, Greek influence had infiltrated Palestine about 360 years before the time of Jesus. The spread of Greek culture that started with Alexander the Great’s conquests had lasting effects. This is evident in many Jewish writings, often referred to as Second Temple Literature, that reflect Greek ideas. For instance, the Jewish author Philo includes catalogs of virtues and vices in his writings.

While Aristotle’s thought was certainly popular in Paul’s day, the more prevalent philosophy was Stoicism. Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great hundreds of years before the New Testament was written, but the Stoic philosopher Seneca was tutor to Nero, emperor of Rome during the middle of the first century AD. Hence, the New Testament scholar Runar M. Thorsteinsson is right to say that Stoicism was one of the major philosophies that attained hegemony during Paul’s day. And, though Paul went to Jerusalem at an early age to begin his rabbinic training, Paul’s hometown of Tarsus was well-known for hosting discussions of Stoic ideas. Furthermore, the early third-century Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius states that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was the first to catalog lists of virtues and vices. Such discussions can also be found, for instance, in Seneca’s treatise De brevitate vitae (Shortness of life) and also in the works of the later Stoic Epictetus. For our purposes, I will home in on the Stoic idea of the unity of virtues found in Zeno.

Paul—who was a trained rabbi but also a Roman citizen—used familiar ideas to teach the believing community the nature of love and the fruit of the Spirit.

Zeno critically adopted Plato’s four cardinal virtues—prudence, moderation, justice, and courage. The greatest among these was prudence or wisdom (phronēsis). The reason why wisdom was supreme or first was because the other virtues were considered to be extensions or related to wisdom. For instance, courage was “wisdom in things to be endured” and justice was “wisdom in things to be distributed.” Without wisdom, according to Zeno, one could not distinguish between foolhardiness and courage. And certainly, one could not properly mete out justice without wisdom. According to the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, Zeno believed that these virtues were inseparable, though they were distinct from one another in regard to their sphere of activity.

Paul’s Fruit of the Spirit and Their Pastoral Implications

Paul extolled different virtues than Zeno did. And Paul certainly differed from Aristotle, who contended that retaliation is just. For Paul, the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. While there are vast differences between Paul’s fruit and the virtues of his Hellenistic counterparts, there are some parallels that are instructive for our reading of the Pauline letters. In commenting on Galatians, Martin Luther notes that for Paul, love was the central virtue from which all the other virtues are derived. Luther was right in his reading of this passage in Galatians. While the other virtues are certainly distinct, they are inseparable from the virtue of biblical love (agapē). Galatians 5:22 uses the singular Greek word for “fruit” (karpos). It stands in contrast to the “works of the flesh” in verse 19. What is interesting is that “works” is plural in the Greek while “fruit” is in the singular. This deliberate contrast denotes that acts of the sinful nature are multitudinous, while the fruit of the Spirit has many aspects, but they are inextricably related to one another.

The notion of the four loves—storgē (love of family members), philia (intimate friendship), eros (physical love), and agapē—is well known, hence I will not rehearse them here. Yet, it is worthy of mention that for Paul agapē is distinct from erotic love. Anders Nygren rightly states that while eros desires self-good, agapē, the Greek word Paul uses in Galatians 5:22, is a self-giving love that seeks the good of the other. It is not mere emotional attachments but a sacrificial love that places the interests of the other ahead of one’s own. Thus, for Paul, the singular fruit indicates that one cannot truly love without the other virtues. John Calvin, for instance, notes that joy in the Holy Spirit conveys the notion of a cheerful attitude toward one’s fellow man that stands in distinction to sullen behavior. Can one love while ill-tempered? We can also say that one cannot be loving in the biblical sense without the spiritual virtues of peace and patience. Love without patience falls short. And surely one cannot love without kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This is pastorally important, since many who live with confusing ideas of love, forgiveness, and trust place themselves in harmful situations and in extreme cases remain in abusive relationships. They are led to believe that they are loved, but there is no gentleness, faithfulness, or self-control on the part of the person who claims to love them. Or, many who claim to love—and certainly the ones who genuinely believe they do love are legion—may not understand that love requires all the stated virtues. Domestic violence, addictions, bursts of rage, extramarital affairs, and the like are common in our culture. Yet, too often we hear these individuals say that they genuinely love their family even though their behavior clearly shows otherwise. For Paul, the absence of one virtue jeopardizes the legitimacy of the whole. This is why Calvin in his commentary notes that the exhibition of a single virtue is not enough to conclude that a person has attained spiritual maturity.

Conclusion

Once again, there are vast differences between Paul and the Stoics. Paul’s list of virtues and vices is dissimilar to that of the Greek philosophers. To say that Paul is borrowing or dependent upon the Stoics is unsupported by the evidence. Nevertheless, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit did adopt writing styles that were common to his culture. The listing of virtues and vices were common in Hellenic writings, and Paul gave a similar list to instruct the early church concerning the new life in Christ. Furthermore, Paul—who was a trained rabbi but also a Roman citizen—used familiar ideas (e.g., unity of virtues) to teach the believing community the nature of love and the fruit of the Spirit. Understanding the similarities and dissimilarities can deepen our knowledge of Paul’s writings, which in turn can have profound pastoral implications for today.

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