Paul’s use of Wisdom and Aristeas on Idols

I am researching something unrelated to this, however, as I was reading the Letter to Aristeas, I came across a familiar refrain:

Beginning from this starting point he went on to show that all mankind “except ourselves” believe in the existence of many gods, though they themselves are much more powerful than the beings whom they vainly worship.

For when they have made statues of stone and wood, they say that they are the images of those who have invented something useful for life and they worship them, though they have clear proof that they possess no feeling.

For it would be utterly foolish to suppose that any one became a god in virtue of his inventions. For the inventors simply took certain objects already created and by combining them together, showed that they possessed a fresh utility: they did not themselves create the substance of the thing, and so it is a vain and foolish thing for people to make gods of men like themselves. (ARI 1:134-136)

We find something similar in the 13th Chapter of Wisdom, which begins:

For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; (Wis 13:1 RSV)

And picking up in verse , we read:

But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are the men who give the name “gods” to the works of men’s hands, gold and silver fashioned with skill, and likenesses of animals, or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand. skilled woodcutter may saw down a tree easy to handle and skilfully strip off all its bark, and then with pleasing workmanship make a useful vessel that serves life’s needs, and burn the castoff pieces of his work to prepare his food, and eat his fill. But a castoff piece from among them, useful for nothing, a stick crooked and full of knots, he takes and carves with care in his leisure, and shapes it with skill gained in idleness; he forms it like the image of a man, or makes it like some worthless animal, giving it a coat of red paint and coloring its surface red and covering every blemish in it with paint; then he makes for it a niche that befits it, and sets it in the wall, and fastens it there with iron.

So he takes thought for it, that it may not fall, because he knows that it cannot help itself, for it is only an image and has need of help. When he prays about possessions and his marriage and children, he is not ashamed to address a lifeless thing. For health he appeals to a thing that is weak; for life he prays to a thing that is dead; for aid he entreats a thing that is utterly inexperienced; for a prosperous journey, a thing that cannot take a step; for money-making and work and success with his hands he asks strength of a thing whose hands have no strength. (Wis 13:10-19 RSV)

Finally, we turn to Paul writing to the Roman Christians,

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (Rom 1:20-23 RSV)

We know that Paul would have been intimately familiar with Wisdom and other 2nd Temple documents of his community (the Pharisees) and as he used the Septuagint, I would assume that he might know something of the apocryphal Letter of Aristeas. This letter is purportedly from the second century before Christ which defended the Septuagint as a valid translation of the Hebrew, among other things.

We can find a similar thought which no doubt survived for several hundred years until reaching Paul – that the Gentiles were a people who simply could not know God. We find the idea proposed by Aristeas, promulgated by the author of Wisdom, and finally summarized and used by Paul.

Post By Joel Watts (10,048 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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