On Paul and Cicero

You may have noticed things are a little quieter than normal here… there are various reasons for that. The big one is that we’re in the throes of moving house (we have to find a new rental before next weekend). Robyn and I are both also working on our Masters projects. Which are pretty time consuming.

I’m not sure how much the Internet wants to read my thoughts as they develop (I’m pretty excited – but I realise pouring over classical texts looking for relatively obscure parallels to bundle together isn’t everybody’s cup of tea). So I’ll try to keep project related posts to a minimum…

But here are some cool bits about the connection between Paul and Cicero that I’m trying to establish… from James May’s “Cicero and His Life” in Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric.

For the record – my thinking is that Paul borrowed from Cicero in his critique of the sort of oratory that was popular in Corinth – particularly in heavily emphasising ethos to the point of embodying his message.

There are a few connections between Paul and Cicero – Paul was a Roman citizen from Tarsus – one of the big three cities for a rhetorical education. Cicero was governor of Tarsus for a year (well – Cilicia, the province that Tarsus is the capital city of), around the time that he wrote a couple of his more famous rhetorical handbooks. I read one tangent in one article somewhere that suggested Paul’s grand daddy may even have received his Roman citizenship for helping Cicero in a military campaign. Here are some details about Cicero in Tarsus…

But in March of 51 B.C., much to his dismay, he was sent as proconsul to the large province of Cilicia in Asia Minor. Upon his arrival, he found matters, both civil and military, in much disarray. He set about restoring order, fixing reasonable interest rates, and fighting extortion. Faced with the threat of a possible invasion by the Parthians, he shored up his military forces and undertook a small campaign against the hill-tribes of Mt. Amanus. After a siege of 46 days, he captured the stronghold, and was granted a supplicatio (a public thanksgiving) by the Senate. Although he long cherished hopes for a triumph, these were never realized.

There are some cool connections with how Paul describes his approach to public speaking and some stuff Cicero commends (eg a weak entry when your topic is substantial and overwhelming), but none more than the idea that to be truly persuasive a speaker should not just believe in their cause, but embody it.

Both men – Cicero, and Paul – were essentially speaking against the Roman empire and the sweeping, blasphemous claims of the emperors who believed they were gods on earth. So there’s a connection there too. Both were martyred for their opposition to the empire.

Both arguably made ethos a much more substantial aspect of persuasion than it had been, or than it was considered by opponents who would do and say anything for status. Here’s a quote from Cicero on ethos and persuasion (De oratore 2.182)…

“Well then, the character, the customs, the deeds, and the life, both of those who do the pleading and of those on whose behalf they plead, make a very important contribution to winning a case. These should be approved of, and the corresponding elements in the opponents should meet with disapproval, and the minds of the audience should, as much as possible, be won over to feel goodwill toward the orator as well as toward his client. Now people’s minds are won over by a man’s prestige, his accomplishments, and the reputation he has acquired by his way of life. “

Here’s a bit from May on how Cicero embodied his position – even to the point of suffering…

“In stark contrast stands the character of Cicero the patriot, true and unfailing, ready and willing to put his life on the line for the survival of the state—in fact, he is in a way the symbol, even the literal embodiment of the Republic. Nearly twenty years after his consulship, Cicero finds himself once again leading the Senate and the state in the midst of an internal crisis. Two decades earlier, he had fashioned himself as the imperator togatus (the civilian commander ), the pacis alumnus (the nursling of peace), who would go to any length—including voluntary exile—to save the state without recourse to arms. Now, on the contrary, he presents himself as the princeps sumendorum sagorum, ‘the leader in the putting on of military cloaks,”

For Cicero the pursuit of the Republic meant fashioning, and refashioning the understanding of his character as he rose through the ranks – always making sure his life matched his message as a visual.

Paul takes this principle, and adapts it to the unchanging message of sacrifice and the deliberate giving up of status for others that is part of speaking about the crucified King.

Here’s some key bits from 2 Corinthians, where I reckon Paul hammers this cross-shaped ethos thing.

Chapter 4

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from Godand not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

Chapter 5

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Chapter 11

“Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiledand have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 

Cicero was an impressive guy. He wanted people to follow him – imitate him – and be equally impressive. He was an incredible communicator. Paul was, in my mind, more impressive (while, paradoxically, being deliberately unimpressive) – and he called people to follow a more impressive guy. Jesus. His communication, from a PR point of view, has been much more impressive than Cicero’s. Cicero’s campaign basically died with him – Paul’s has lasted two thousand years, and essentially changed the Roman Empire for the better.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.