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Gift-Giving and Friendship: Seneca and Paul in Romans 1–8 on the Logic of God's Χάριϛ and Its Human Response

  • Troels Engberg-Pedersen (a1)

In this article I aim to address two questions that might initially appear independent, but are really connected. One is about twentieth century thought, the other is about Paul. Seneca will act as a mediator between the two.

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1 An excellent introduction to the field is The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (ed. Schrift, Alan D.; New York: Routledge, 1997).

2 On Derrida's analysis, the “conditions of possibility of the gift . . . designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift”; they even “define or produce the annulment, the annihilation, the destruction of the gift.” Jacques Derrida, “The Time of the King,” in The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (ed. Alan D. Schrift; New York: Routledge, 1997) 128.

3 “If one adopts the standpoint of a philosophy of mind, by asking about the intentional meaning of the gift, and . . . wondering whether the gift, conceived as the free decision of an isolated individual, is a real gift, is really a gift . . . then this is indeed sufficient to raise insuperable antinomies (a gift is really a gift only if neither the giver nor the receiver sees it as such) that force one to conclude that a gratuitous gift is impossible.” Pierre Bourdieu, “Marginalia—Some Additional Notes on the Gift,” in Gift,” in The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (ed. Alan D. Schrift; New York: Routledge, 1997) 231–41, esp. 233–34. This short presentation summarizes quite well Bourdieu's far more extensive treatment in Le sens pratique (Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1980) 167–231, also basically extracted in Schrift, The Logic, 190–230.

4 Bourdieu, “Marginalia,” 233.

5 Ibid., 232.

6 This is the legacy from Marcel Mauss. Compare British social anthropologist Mary Douglas in the Times Literary Supplement for 21 January 2005: “On my own version of what Mauss was telling us, no gift is merely the interaction of individuals. We should understand them as part of a total system of exchange.” Similarly, the basic idea in Mauss's book was to ask “how we ever acquired the idea that the true nature of a gift is to be free, without any strings” (15).

7 Bourdieu himself notes this in relation to Derrida: “Jacques Derrida formulates in new terms the old Kantian question of duty . . . .” (“Marginalia,” 241 n. 5).

8 In addition to the most recent treatment by James R. Harrison (see below), substantial recent discussions include Danker, F. W., Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (St. Louis, Miss.: Clayton, 1982); Zeller, D., Charis bei Philon und Paulus (Stuttgarter Bibelstudien 142; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1990); Peterman, G. W., Paul's Gift from Philippi: Conventions of Gift Exchange and Christian Giving (MSSNTS 92; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Joubert, S., Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological Reflection in Paul's Collection (WUNT 2/124; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).

9 John M. G. Barclay, “Gift and the Circle of Charis in Pauline Theology,” 22 (unpublished). I am grateful to Barclay for allowing me to see the paper.

10 “Response to John Barclay on Derrida, Paul, and the Gift” (unpublished). I am happy to acknowledge here that Martin's response strengthened my own initial skepticism about the purity of gift-giving.

11 Harrison, James, Paul's Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context (WUNT 2/172; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003).

12 Ibid., 114–33 (on Philo); 133–46 (on Josephus); 167–210 (on the Greek and Roman philosophers); 211–34 (on Paul).

13 Curiously, as rightly stated by Brad Inwood, it is also “a somewhat neglected work in the corpus of an often undervalued author”; see his article on “Politics and Paradox in Seneca's De Beneficiis,” in Justice and Generosity: Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy (ed. A. Laks and M. Schofield; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 241–65, esp. 244. To my mind, the De Beneficiis easily beats another candidate, Cicero's De Officiis, as the best Stoic representative in the triad of Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and Seneca's De Beneficiis. One attempt to rescue the work from its undue neglect should be mentioned: François-Régis Chaumartin, Le De Beneficiis de Seneque, sa signification philosophique, politique et sociale (Paris: Les belles lettres, 1985).

14 Two recent articles on the De Beneficiis by well-known Senecan experts show this clearly, each in their own way. Thus Inwood, “Politics and Paradox”: throughout the treatise “Seneca begins from an apparently paradoxical and rigorously ethical thesis and concludes with a position which makes a serious contribution to social thought while still maintaining a consistency with the technical Stoic position” (258). And Griffin, Miriam, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003) 92–113: though “more systematic and self-conscious in his thinking than most of his contemporaries, Seneca was not challenging and unmasking the morality that policed the activity of gift exchange in the upper orders,” but rather “reinforcing the code at its most demanding level” (113).

15 This topic was a central theme in my own work on Aristotle's ethics: Aristotle's Theory of Moral Insight (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983). It is also at the heart of Julia Annas's fine book, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). I have yet to see anyone address and emphasize this particular side of the De Beneficiis as strongly as I think it should be.

16 The following analysis is not controversial in itself. What matters here is seeing Seneca's analysis in connection with the modern problem from which we began—how to understand gift-giving. This I do by identifying three basic motifs in Seneca's theory.

17 I have used the LCL edition and translation of the De Beneficiis (Moral Essays III; trans. J. W. Basore; Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935 and later). I quote from this edition with a few changes and Latin key phrases added.

18 More material may be found in the discussions of De Beneficiis given by S. Joubert, Paul as Benefactor, 40–51, and Peterman, Paul's Gift from Philippi, 52–74. Joubert rightly emphasizes, as I will also, that Seneca's analysis of gift-giving focuses on the “ interpersonal level ” (41, Joubert's italics): “For a service to qualify as a benefit it must have been undertaken because of a specific individual, and not just bestowed on him as one of the crowd ” (51, Joubert's italics). This aside, Joubert's discussion of what he calls “this long treatise,” “not his best-known, and certainly not his most outstanding work” (40), suffers from a somewhat disparaging tone toward Seneca (“the idealist,” 42), whom he apparently sees as basically adopting a moralizing position. (Compare Ramsay MacMullen's talk in 1986 of Seneca's “high-minded nonsense,” quoted by Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” 94.) Peterman's analysis and the articles by Inwood and Griffin referred to above are far more genuinely appreciative of Seneca's efforts.

19 Joubert explicitly rejects the connection with friendship: “neither friendship nor patronage form the interpretative framework within which benefit-exchange is understood by Seneca” (Paul as Benefactor, 50). Against this, Peterman rightly speaks of “[b]enefits as the foundation of friendship” (Paul's Gift from Philippi, 66). Griffin, too, is far more appreciative of the connection with friendship: For Seneca, as for other ancient philosophers, “acts of beneficence are presented as creating a relationship of amicitia ” (“De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” 97–99, esp. 97, Griffin's italics).

20 The aim here is, of course, not to provide anything like a full exegetical account of the line of argument in Romans 1–8. For this see, e.g., my own account in Paul and the Stoics (kEdinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000) 196–255, 358–71, or any of the many excellent commentaries that are available. (A particularly clear one on the line of Paul's argument is Brendan Byrne, S.J., Romans [Sacra Pagina 6; Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press 1996].) What is new in this article with regard to Romans is mainly the attempt to bring the various individual passages in Romans 1–8 together in a logical grid that corresponds to and reflects the Graeco-Roman gift-giving system as analyzed for us by Seneca. In the two cases where I, to some extent, differ from traditional readings (partly on chapter 4 and on 5:5), I provide a fairly extensive defense.

21 Note here already that the theme of the “wrath of God” is “linked . . . to the covenantal relationship of God with Israel” both in the Hebrew Bible and in Paul (thus J. A. Fitzmyer [Romans (The Anchor Bible 33; New York, N.Y.: Doubleday 1993) 107]).

See, e.g., Zeller, Charis bei Philon und Paulus, 150–51.

23 It is generally recognized that Paul here is drawing on ideas that are also found in the Wisdom of Solomon 13:1–19 and 14:22–31 (see Fitzmyer, Romans, 272). But this account, in its turn, has close affinities with the Stoic argument for the existence of God as developed, for instance, in Cicero's De Natura Deorum, Book II. (For a judicious discussion of the many vexed issues surrounding the concept of “natural theology,” see Fitzmyer, Romans, 272–74.)

24 See Fitzmyer, Romans, 327.

25 For a good summary of the Hebrew Bible understanding of God's δικιοσύνη as a covenantal quality of God “manifested in judicial activity”, see Fitzmyer, Romans, 105–7, esp. 106.

26 Πρὸς τὴν ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνηζ αὐτοῦ

27 Note how Fitzmyer (Romans, 348) in fact recognizes this implication of Paul's language in 3:24—without at all locating it in the gift-giving “system” that we are considering—when he comments as follows on “by his grace” (3:24): “He [Paul] is not merely thinking of the OT notion of ḥesed, ‘steadfast kindness,’ the gracious root of Israel's covenantal relationship with God, but rather of the new dispensation stemming wholly from a merciful benevolence of God the Father” (my italics).

28 I suspect that this is one place where the reader will feel that in some way or other there must be a difference between gift-giving between human beings, and between God and humans. Though I am in general skeptical about the argument of “onus of proof,” I think it is proper to use it here. The critic must show, for instance, that God's “wrath” is not an emotion that is ascribed to God—and similarly for his love.

29 I shall discuss below whether Paul is actually speaking of a mutual love here.

30 I read διὰ τοῦτο as pointing forward to ἵνα like in 2 Cor 13:10 (Διὰ τοῦτο . . . ἵνα) and εἰςτὸ in a final sense.

31 To speak of an “ethnic” logic in this text hardly needs any defense in the wake of the development of Pauline scholarship since Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders.

32 Commentators, of course, note the way Paul spells out the character of Abraham's πίστις, but they rarely reflect on its special character of a complete, even manifestly counterintuitive trust that in its logical form corresponds exactly with God's act of χάριϛ the other way around and in fact meets it.

33 This point, which is very important for the following argument, was brought out wholly convincingly a long time ago by Dahl, Nils Alstrup, “Two Notes on Romans 5,” Studia Theologica 5 (1951) 37–48. Compare also my own discussion of the structure of Romans 5–8 in “Galatians in Romans 5-8 and Paul's Construction of the Identity of Christ Believers,” in Text and Contexts: Biblical Texts in Their Textual and Situational Contexts (ed. T. Fornberg and D. Hellholm; FS Lars Hartman; Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1995) 477–505, esp. 479–82, 490–92.

34 E.g., Kuss, O., Der Römerbrief (Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 1957) 205–7; Schlier, H., Der Römerbrief (2nd ed.; Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1979) 150–51; Wilckens, U., Der Brief an die Römer (EKK VI/1; Zürich/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Benziger Verlag/Neukirchener Verlag, 1978) 292–94, 300–5; Fitzmyer, Romans, 398.

35 All the commentators mentioned come down strongly on this side; e.g. Wilckens, Der Brief, 294: “Die vor allem durch Augustin begründete Interpretation von Röm 5,5 im Sinne der durch den Heiligen Geist eingegossenen Liebe zu Gott wird in der gegenwärtigen Exegese nur vereinzelt vertreten. Sie ist zweifellos verfehlt.”

36 Thus Paul repeats here in very short form the fundamental step from God's wrath (covenant) to his love (gift-giving).

37 Byrne (Romans, 167) states: “Paul makes a first and rather fleeting allusion here. . . to a key aspect of Christian experience that will later (8:1–30) emerge as a central theme.” I would strengthen the claim, however: he distinctly anticipates the later development.

38 I do not discuss 8:19–22 on the whole of creation, which is closely paralleled by the account of believers in 8:23–25. While 8:19–22 is very important in other respects (e.g., as showing more concretely how Paul imagined the final salvation), it neither speaks of the πνεῦμα nor of ἀγάπη.

39 It is curious that commentators do not regularly see the “Abba cry” as distinctly reflecting the baptismal ceremony. (See Wilckens [Der Brief, 138]: “Vielleicht erinnert Paulus von V15 her (ἐλάβετε) speziell an den Taufgottesdienst.”) Wayne Meeks is far clearer when he says the following in his account of the ritual of baptism: “From his new Lord he [the “novice” or baptized person] received certain gifts: the Spirit, adoption as God's child, power. He responded with the cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983] 156). The close connection of Rom 8:14–17 with Gal 4:5–7 and 3:26–27 confirms this understanding.

40 Wilckens (Der Brief is quite right when he claims that “Paulus auch in Röm 8,15 mit der δουλεία die Situation sub lege meint und mit πάλιν εἰς φόβον den Rückfall in die Furcht des Sünders vor dem unaufhebbaren Zorn gericht Gottes.” (See also my remarks above on ἐγκαλεῖν and ἀνακρίνειν in 8:33 and 34.) In 8:15 Paul is precisely contrasting the previous emotional state of fear of God (cf. both Plutarch and Seneca) with the present experience of “sonship,” which is one of love.

41 Schlier (Der Römerbrief, 271 on 8:28, my italics) at least has this fine sentence: “Die ‘Heiligen’, die Gott lieben, lieben ihn in der Antwort auf Gottes ewigen Ruf der Liebe in Jesus Christus.”

42 I thus end up finding Fitzmyer's comment on 5:5 too one-sided (Romans, 398): “It is not ‘our love of God,’ as many older commentators, following Augustine (De Spiritu et littera 32.56 . . .), understood it, but ‘God's love for us' (subjective gen.), as the following phrase makes clear, and as most modern commentators have interpreted it (Cornely, Dunn, Käsemann, Kuss, Lagrange, Nygren, Prat, Schlier, Sickenberger, Zeller).” Rather, 5:5 anticipates 8:14–30/39, where Paul is in fact also talking of “our love of God.” When Fitzmyer also writes on 5:5 that “[t]he human ‘heart’ is singled out as the seat of human love; it is seen as the receptacle for the reception of the poured-out love of God” (my italics), it seems to me that the two halves of this statement cry out to be combined.

43 I cannot find any serious discussion of this twice repeated idea of not “separating.” Commentators regularly take it in the “objective” sense that against any possible intervention from the outside, Christ's and God's love will be able to keep believers within the sphere of operation of that love. Nobody seems to consider the possibility of an additional, “subjective” sense of the claim that nobody or nothing will be able to “separate us ” from that love. But is it not noteworthy that Paul in both cases emphasizes the “us” by placing it before “separate”?

44 For a few texts in Seneca that contain the idea of love, see, e.g., Ben. 2.18.3, 3.19.4 caritas), 4.5.1 (amari), 4.21.2, 6.42.1 (verus amor). In the light of Paul's dual version of the human response to God's χάριϛ as one of both πίστις and ἀγάπη, one might ask whether there is a similar duality in Seneca. The second response is evident throughout in Seneca, but what about the first one? In particular, does Seneca speak of fides on the part of the receiver? In fact yes, though not with the regularity with which Paul (for reasons of his own) speaks of πίστις. For instance, at the very beginning of the work Seneca asks whether it is more shameful to repudiate a benefit (on the part of the potential receiver) or to ask for its repayment (on the part of the giver). The latter is wrong since we have a right to receive back only what is voluntarily returned. But the former is wrong too, for instance if somebody repudiates a benefit by declaring that he will not be able to pay it back, for “in order to discharge the trust placed in one (ad liberandam fidem) what is needed is not resources (facultates) but the mind (animus; for if a benefit is acknowledged, it is returned (reddit. . .beneficium, qui debet)” (1.1.3). Here “acknowledging” a benefit (Basore's correct rendering of debere), as it were by fides (trustworthiness) on the receiver's part, is said to be sufficient to discharge or fulfill liberare) the trust (fides) placed in the receiver by the giver. Thus fides in Seneca seems to combine the giver's trust in the receiver and the trustworthiness on the part of the receiver with which he meets the giver's trust. May we find here an idea that explains Paul's enigmatic ἐκπίστεως [God's] εἰς πίστιν [believers'] in δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ [sc. τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ] ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν in Rom 1:17? After all, Paul's God too has πίστις in human beings even where they meet it with ἀ-πιτία (Rom 3:3).

45 In the light of my identification of the three basic motifs in Seneca and the logic of their appearance in Romans 1–8 (see 5:2 and 5:5, not least the ὅτι of the latter verse), it would be pre-ferable to speak of the triad as one of faith, love and hope. It is noteworthy, however, that Romans 1–8 end in a way (8:38–39) that emphasizes the theme of God's love for believers. If one may then also take the idea that “nothing will be able to separate us from God's love” as implying the notion of a mutual love, then the traditional form of the triad, which of course goes back in Paul to 1 Thess 1:3 and 5:8, may be seen as raising its head here, too. This, however, is also in perfect agreement with the Senecan logic since in Seneca, too, the theme of mutual emotional involvement receives so much emphasis.

46 For the direct relationship between χάριϛ (or χάρισμα) and εὐχαριστία, see, e.g., 2 Cor 1:11.

47 Compare Gal 2:21: “I do not annul (ἀθετεῖν) God's gift (χάριϛ); conversely, if justification is acquired through the (Mosaic) law, then Christ died gratuitously (δωρεάν in the bad sense: for no purpose).” Incidentally, one may speculate whether in using δωρεάν in this sense (namely, as a gift which was empty) Paul is not precisely playing on the gift-giving character of God's act, compare Rom 3:24 where δωρεάν is again used together with χάριϛ, but now in its positive sense.

48 See, e.g., Fitzmyer, Romans, 108.

49 The same point could be argued, I believe, for other passages in the New Testament that make a pointed use of the term χάριϛ. See, for instance, Luke's Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain (esp. 6:32–35) in comparison with the parallel passage spoken by Matthew's Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. 5:46–48), where χάριϛ is not mentioned.

50 This was a constant concern of the British philosopher Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana/Collins, 1985); Shame and Necessity (Sather Classical Lecture 57; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); and Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). In Williams's case, however, the step went back even before Socrates.

51 I celebrate this element here since it is likely to be forgotten by people who are—in itself quite rightly—animated by a hermeneutics of suspicion like the one that underlies Bourdieu's analysis of gift-giving. To give another, but closely similar example, the reintroduction (from Ernst Troeltsch) by Gerd Theissen in the 1970's of the notion of “love patriarchalism” Liebespatriarchalismus)greatly helped to lay bare the power mechanisms involved in Paul's handling of the theme of ἀγάπη. (See Theissen, , “Soziale Schichtung in der korinthischen Gemeinde,” in Studien zur Soziologie des Urchristentums [2d ed.; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1983] 231–71, esp. 268–71.) But this operation should not of course be understood to turn all the talk of ἀγάπη in Paul's letters into a sham. Paul was concerned with establishing and maintaining a space of sharing and community within his congregations.

52 This is a thoroughly reworked version of a paper I gave at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2004 (San Antonio) in the Hellenistic Moral Philosophy and the New Testament Group. A later version was given in February 2005 to the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences (Copenhagen), and in Spring 2006 at New Testament seminars in Durham, U. K. (March 2006) and Aberdeen (May 2006). I am grateful for comments from participants on all those occasions as well as for excellent written comments by two readers for HTR.

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