The Paideia of God – Some Classical References

In the previous posts I listed some biblical references of the use of the Greek word “Paideia”.  In this post I will look at some classical uses of the word.

The simple translation of “paideia” in the classical Greek is “education”.  But the word encompasses a great deal more than what we typically think of as education.  It was not simply the teaching of information or skills.  For the ancient Greeks, paideia was about bringing citizen boys into the polis, the independent city-state as virtuous and well-rounded citizens.  A better translation might be “enculturation”.  Author Tracey Lee Simmons puts it this way, “Paideia was about instilling core values, enunciating standards and setting moral precepts.” (Climbing Parnassus:  A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, pg. 40)

The purpose of Paideia was not just educational, political and moral, but spiritual as well.  “The supreme goal of education was happiness, which was conceived of as health of the soul.” (Simmons, pg. 54)  Plato defined education as a process by which the learner is “rightly trained in respect of pleasures and pains, so as to hate what ought to be hated, right from the beginning to the very end, and to love what ought to be loved” (Simmons, pg. 56)  The Romans adopted the Greek model wholesale.  The word that the Romans used to describe this process, educatio, covered pretty much the same ground.  It referred “not to schooling and intellectual progress but to the physical rearing of the child and his or her training in behavior”.  (Stanley F. Bonner “Education in Ancient Rome”, pg. xi)

In effect, what Paideia in the ancient world was bout was the initiation into membership of a particular culture (in this case the culture of the Greek city-state and later, the culture of the Roman empire).  It involved physical training, the learning of language skills, the memorization of poetry commemorating the deeds of mythological and historical heroes, moral instruction, mathematical and musical instruction.  It was a concerted and specific effort to hold before students, “the habitual vision of greatness”, or the best that the culture had to offer.  (Simmons, pg. 45)

This is the background of the word that the biblical authors (be it the Apostle Paul or the anonymous writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews) used when describing the training, discipline or instruction of the Lord in the life of the believer.  It is not merely about the conveying of facts or modification of behaviors.  It is about membership in the culture of the Kingdom of God.  It is about the training of one’s soul to to love what God loves and hate what God hates.  It is about holding before our eyes the transforming vision of Jesus Christ and the renewing of our minds into conformity to the mind of Christ.  The readers of these biblical works (be it the letter to Ephesians or Hebrews or Luke-Acts) would know something of full weight and cargo of these words.  These words would call to mind for them images of what schoolboys of their day experienced as a part of their schooling.  They would also understand the counter-cultural implication of these words as well.  Like them, we are being called to be initiated into an entirely new way of thinking and living, the embracing of a completely different set of standards as to what was good and bad, right and wrong.  And to use the word that is a keyword to the entire letter to the Hebrews, it is a better way.

The next post will be about what some of the differences between the Paideia of our culture and the Paideia of God look like.



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