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Paul and the philosophers’ faith

Suzan Sierksma-Agteres defends her PhD thesis on discourses of 'faith language' in the Graeco-Roman World
03 December 2022
Suzan Sierksma-Agteres

PhD candidate Suzan Sierksma-Agteres wrote a thesis on Paul’s usage of the Greek word group pistis/pisteuō –often translated as ‘faith’/’believing’ in English –in light of the ancient discourses and the language use of his time. ‘Paul uses pistis language to describe the early Christian movement as a philosophical and reasonable kind of religion. Such usage is diametrically opposed to modern psychological and fideistic notions such as a “leap of faith” or “blind faith”’,' thus Suzan. On Thursday 12 January, she will defend her PhD thesis in order to obtain her doctoral degree in Theology at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Paul’s faith language

The apostle Paul of Tarsus played a crucial role in the early development and spread of the early Christian movement in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in Asia Minor and Greece. Suzan Sierksma-Agteres explains that pistis (trust, good faith, conviction) was a notion that permeated a variety of ancient pagan discourses and was not particularly ‘religious’ in its definition. By using concepts such as ‘reasonable worship’ and thinking according to a divine ‘measure of pistis’, Paul presented the Christ-followers as a ‘reasonable’ and relatively philosophical ‘religious group’, which shaped the way we currently think about ‘faith’ as a religious concept -only we seem to have lost sight of the connection with this ‘reasonable’ or philosophical dimension.

As an example of her research's more striking results, Suzan gives the following: ‘The apistoi, whom Paul mentions in his letters to the Corinthians, are shown to be not general “unbelievers”, but people in the vicinity of the congregation who serve multiple gods. This makes Paul's language, for example when he states: “do not be unequally yoked with an apistos”, less of an advice to avoid close contacts with outsiders, but more of an advice on how to deal with near-insiders who are religiously unfaithful. The variety of contexts at play in different passages demonstrates the creativity and cultural embedding of Paul's language and helps to interpret “faith” as a versatile and relevant concept in the present.’

Versatility of the concept of pistis

Pistis is a term par excellence that breaks through formal and legal boundaries,’ she continues. ‘You can also observe this in “pagan”/non-Jewish discourses: through mutual “good faith”, covenants can be maintained between nations, each having their own laws. The ideal society for Romans is one in which the virtues of faithfulness and righteousness are embodied by a good ruler, whose subjects mirror these virtues. In this way we can also understand Paul's concept of “justified by faith”; a loaded concept, especially since the Reformation, when it has been conceived very individually and legally. For Paul, this phrase stands for his vision of a “justified” community, faithful to the One God, without boundaries between ethnicities, classes, or sexes. A way of living together that has now, through Christ's coming and a universal “law of faith”, become possible, which shows God's faithfulness (also: pistis) to the whole world. Contextualisation within ancient discourses thus confirms but also challenges certain interpretations of Paul’s thought by modern and present-day philosophers, among whom Paul has become a surprisingly popular source to explore questions about universality, time and also “faith”.’

Suzan Sierksma-Agteres hopes that her research will contribute to the fields of classics and theology, as well as to the more methodical question on how to correlate semantic word research and comparative text research: ‘I combined insights from the field of cognitive linguistics with the more literary approach of discourse analysis. By distinguishing semantic domains, it becomes evident how versatile the language of pistis is. And, by focusing on specific literary and cultural discourses in each domain, I demonstrated how a Jewish author like Paul actively participated in the major debates of his time and culture. Non-Jewish and more philosophically oriented classical literature is thus essential to understanding his letters, yet this aspect had so far received relatively little attention.’

Background

Suzan Sierksma-Agteres completed a Master’s in Classics at Leiden University in 2012 and received an additional Bachelor’s degree in Theology from VU University Amsterdam. In 2012 she was appointed PhD researcher at the University of Groningen in the NWO-funded project ‘Overcoming the Faith-Reason Opposition: Pauline Pistis in Contemporary Philosophy’. In 2017, Suzan was appointed lecturer at the Protestant Theological University (PThU) in Amsterdam, where she teaches courses on New Testament Greek.

Future plans

Having finished her PhD thesis, she now hopes to expand her work for the PThU. Suzan: ‘Besides that, I’d like to see how specialistic knowledge can be of service to contemporary society, through my involvement in the Foundation of Christian Philosophy and in the Scientific Institute of the ChristenUnie. Finally I have more time to say yes to such wonderful side activities! I’m also looking forward to go sailing in the weekend, or play games at the table with my little sons without thinking about “that book I still need to finish”…’

PhD ceremony

On Thursday 12 January at 16:15, Suzan Sierksma-Agteres will defend her dissertation titled Paul and the philosophers’ faith: Discourses of pistis in the Graeco-Roman world during a PhD ceremony in the presence of her promoter Prof. dr. Geurt Henk van Kooten, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, and previously Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, and second promotor Prof. dr. Gert-Jan van der Heiden, Professor of Metaphysics at Radboud University Nijmegen.

When: Thursday 12-01-2023
Starts: 16:15
Where : Academy Building

Last modified:05 December 2022 09.01 a.m.
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