I ended a recent post, which discussed the New Testament’s use of the word “foreknow”, with the question of what kind of view Paul is most likely to have had on the issue of free-will. After all, it’s one thing to see different ways in which a text might be interpreted, or has been interpreted in Christian history. But if, to give one important example, the Renaissance notion of libertarian free-will did not exist in the New Testament world, to interpret the word “freedom” that way would be anachronistic. So knowledge of Paul’s religious culture would be valuable.
Providentially we have a relevant first century Judaean source in the historian Josephus, who actually discusses this very issue in several passages, particularly in those describing the various Jewish parties of his time. These he refers to as “philosophical sects”, which tells us about his intentions as an author: he is writing to a Gentile audience after the defeat of his nation in the Jewish War, to persuade them of the wisdom and worthiness of the Jews.
For this reason, he uses the word “fate” (εἱµαρµενη), though as Steve Mason points out in his exhaustive study Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees he generally uses this word not as pagans used it, but in the sense of “providence”, since it usually appears in proximity to “God”. For example, “offering advice in despite of fate” is paralleled with “struggling to save those whom God has condemned.” And of the destruction of the temple in 70AD, “God had long sentenced it to flames, but now had arrived the fated day.” So Josephus’s idea of fate is not some separate power, but the execution of God’s decree, and hence providence (as which it is sometime translated).
The first passage is from Jewish War Bk 2 ch 8:
2. For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees; of the second, the Sadducees; and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essenes.
After a lengthy section on the Essenes, with whom he has greatest sympathy, he goes on:
14. But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.
But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades…
So far that accords with the biblical picture of the two parties: the Pharisees are careful about Scripture and believe in eternal life and resurrection, whereas the Sadducees don’t. We’ll look at fate and freedom later. A second passage in Antiquities Bk 18 ch1 adds more:
3. Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years; nor are they so bold as to contradict them in any thing which they have introduced; and when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a combination, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously…
4. But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity…
5. The doctrine of the Essenes is this: That all things are best ascribed to God.
And in Antiquities Bk 13 ch5
9. At this time there were three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essenes. Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate.
But the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination.
And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.
An editorial note on this passage in the edition I consulted gives Josephus’s own bias thus:
However, our Josephus, who in his heart was a great admirer of the piety of the Essenes, was yet in practice a Pharisee, as he himself informs us, in his own Life, sect. 2.
It seems Josephus spent some time with the Pharisees, and even longer with the Essenes, so his picture of the three shades of belief is likely correct. The Essenes were divine determinists or fatalists, the Sadducees what we would now call libertarian free-willers (or even Pelagians), and the Pharisees somewhere (slightly confusing, from the three passages cited) in between.
Bearing in mind he was writing history and apologetics, not philosophy or theology, Josephus’s imprecision is understandable. It might seem from the last passage that to the Pharisees most things are caused by God, but not human acts which are free. But that would be a misinterpretation. The last passage, having seemed to suggest that our acts are in our power, adds that they are still “liable to fate”, but not “caused” by it.
The previous passage is a little clearer. All things are done by providence, he says, but so as not to take away man’s freedom of action. It has pleased God, say the Pharisees, to “make a combination, whereby what God wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously.” Without engaging in longwinded philosophical reasoning, that’s as close to an Augustinian or Thomist position as one could get.
The first passage, which is more of a brief summary on this matter, says once more that the Pharisees “ascribe all to fate, and to God,” yet put moral actions “principally in the power of men,” with providence in a “cooperating” role. Yet in the previously discussed passage, the will of God is the first in logical order, rather than bringing up the rear, still less having no part in human acts, both good and evil.
Josephus’s own position emerges in his writing on a the death of King Herod’s two sons. He is evidently closest to the Pharisees, and this is his clearest expression of it – which gives a better insight into the Pharisaic understanding. Having discussed whether their death was due more to their own intransigence or to Herod’s megalomania, he then suggests (Antiquities XVI.11.8) that the real cause is Fortune:
…who has a power greater than all prudent reflection. For which reason we are persuaded that human actions are dedicated by [Fortune] beforehand to the necessity of taking place inevitably, and we call her Fate on the ground that there is nothing that is not brought about by her… it will be enough, so I think, to weigh this tenet against that which attributes something also to ourselves and renders us not unaccountable for the differences in our behaviour, and which has been philosphically expounded before our time in the Law.
After that, he goes back to discuss the human, historical, causes. Here, as we see, he attributes his view of free will, qualified by the antecedent, overarching power of God’s providence and yet held in tension with it, to the Scriptures – a view presumably attributable to what he learned from the Pharisees’ “exact explication of their laws.” You may remember it is a conclusion also attributable to me in the second post of the Freedom and autonomy series.
Which of these views, then, is closest to the New Testament writers, and particularly to Paul in Romans? Clearly Paul is neither a simple determinist like the Essenes nor a total denier of God’s providence in human choices like the Sadducees. Like the Pharisees he’s “somewhere in between.” That would not be surprising as he was brought up a Pharisee, and studied theology under one of the two greatest of his day, Gamaliel. But did he perhaps renounce his Pharisaism on his conversion? In some respects clearly “Yes,” since he now interpreted Scripture with reference to Jesus, renounced the legalism he had known and, in fact, counted his whole past “loss” compared to knowing Christ.
Yet that does not mean he would toss out his basic theological foundations, for as Josephus says the Phrisees were the most skilled expositors of the Scriptures. Jesus himself (in Matt 23.3) told his disciples to heed their teaching (cautiously, one assumes, given 16.12) though not their example. In fact, even as a Christian Paul continued to self-describe as a Pharisee. Acts 23.6:
“I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”
So I would argue that one needs to find very good reasons why Paul would dissent from the picture of God’s sovereign will in relation to human freedom given by Josephus – and especially why he would move in the direction of the Sadducees, of all people, to deny God’s providence in human choices. Though I suppose one could always, like the self-confident Evangelical accordion-player I talked to in a coffee-shop once, simply say, “Paul got that one wrong.”