I was reviewing an old post, "Does the New Testament quote extrabiblical writers?", and mentally linked it to a question on Mi Yodeya: "Is studying Greek culture a sin?".

Paul, in giving an autobiographical reference, declares:

"I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today." (Acts 22:3)

and so notes that he was not only zealous for God (and I would assume by implication the Jewish faith), but that he had studied in the House of Hillel under Hillel's grandson Gamaliel. If this is the case would he have been aware of the prohibition on studying Greek culture (poets and philosophers) which he quotes on several occasions; or does this prohibition post-date Paul?

This raises the following sub-question. A response in a previous post mad the claim that

. . . during his quiet retreat at Tarsus (see Acts 9:30), Paul gave himself to the study of Greek literature, which given his calling as an apostle to the Gentiles may have been conscripted to be used as fodder for future sermons. [rhetorician]

Yet, in Paul's own retelling of of the Damascus Road conversion he adds the phrase "kick against the pricks" (Acts 26:14).

The phrase “kick against the pricks” “comes from Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.), Agamemnon, line 1624--or lines 2341 & 2342 at (see Stewart Custer, Witness to Christ, BJU Press, p.164). We do not readily think of the risen Christ quoting a Greek playwright (in Hebrew, no less!), but since Paul's educational background likely included the study of the "Greek classics," Jesus used Paul's familiarity with the work of Aeschylus to reveal to Paul the futility of resisting His grace. [rhetorician]

Rhetorician's argument suggests that Paul would have recognized the passage before his journey to Tarsus thereby implying he already knew the Greek literary reference.

Therefore the question is: "Did the religious zeal of Paul (and Gamaliel, et al; Acts 22:3) preclude them from studying Greek literature and philosophy?" And the potential sub-question is: "If so, is Paul's knowledge of them an example of freedom from the law (and its commentaries) post Acts 22?"

  • I hope this hasn't been framed as a bad question, if so please give me guidance on how to better frame it.
    – r m
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 16:15
  • 1
    This is a fascinating question, but I don't think it presently fits within the scope of the site as described in the help center - "Questions that do not arise from a Biblical text are off-topic...". The best approach would be to re-frame this around a specific Bible passage - probably your Acts 22:3 reference, and from that the question could be re-worded around asking whether the 'zeal' of Paul/Gamaliel et al would have included a prohibition from studying Greek literature, or whether this prohibition occurred after the events of Acts 22
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 16:29
  • Coulld you focus this on understanding a specific passage? As is it's quite broad. Also, please confine to a single text. Acts doesn't line up with everything Paul says about himself in his letters, so trying to harmonize it with Paul's letters is not always a helpful approach (for instance, compare Galatians 1 with Acts 9ff).
    – Dan
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 16:39
  • 1
    @Dan, I have limited this now to Acts quotations.
    – r m
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 18:16

1 Answer 1


We can infer that Paul had a sound education in the Greek system and would therefore have known the major Greek authors and have been able to refer to the Greek literature when he chose. In Stanley E. Porter says in 'Paul and His Bible: His Education and Access to the Scriptures of Israel', published in As It is Written, page 104:

Recent rhetorical studies of Paul's letters attribute to him the ability to use a number of the stylistic characteristics that were commonly taught in the [Greek] grammar school curriculum. The natural place for Paul to have learned these techniques was in the local grammar school ... It is worth noting the secular authors whom Paul cites or alludes to in his letters or is depicted as citing or alluding to in Acts.

Somewhat at odds with having received his education in the Greek system, Acts 22:3 depicts Paul as having been educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel the Elder. It is certainly possible that Paul's parents had him receive an education in both the Greek and Jewish systems, but Gamaliel would have taught Paul from the Hebrew scriptures, whereas Paul consistently refers to the Greek Septuagint scriptures. Raymond E. Brown says, in An Introduction to the New Testament, pages 425-6 that his letters "do not suggest that Paul had seen Jesus during the public ministry or at the crucifixion, and so implicitly cast doubt on Paul's continuous presence in Jerusalem in the years 26-30/33." Walter F. Taylor (Paul, Apostle to the Nations, page 56) briefly examines the cases for and against Paul having studied under Gamaliel, finding a number of good reasons to doubt that he did. He concludes:

It is unlikely, then, that Paul studied under Gamaliel. What we can say, with Roetzel, is that Paul "probably grew up in a Judaism that was strongly Pharisaic and apocalyptic." But it was a Judaism that was strongly Hellenistic.

With it far less likely that Paul really studied under Gamaliel than under the Greek system, we can conclude that he probably did not know of any Jewish prohibition on studying Greek poets and philosophers, a finding that is consistent with his use of the Greek authors.

Would Paul really have described his conversion experience in terms of what Aeschylus or Euripedes wrote? If Paul's conversion, as described in Acts was a literal event, the account would not so clearly appear to be based on the Greek classics. The alternative must be that the author of Acts was using some literary licence in portraying the event. In support of this alternative, it has long been noted that Galatians 1:16-24 appears to describe a rather different itinerary than does Acts in the period immediately following Paul's conversion. Thus, the account attributed to Paul in Acts 26:12-20, was not based on Paul's actual experience nor could it have originated from Paul's own recollection of the event.

In the light of this, when we consider Paul's use of the Greek classics it is safer to restrict our study to his undisputed epistles, where he does indeed make allusions to the classics he would have learnt in grammar school, but does so more clearly in support of the Christian message.

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