Suffering in Ancient Worldview: Luke, Seneca and 4 Maccabees in Dialogue

Written by Brian J. Tabb Reviewed By Alan J. Thompson

Brian Tabb begins this insightful monograph on suffering (a revision of his PhD thesis completed at the London School of Theology and Middlesex University under the supervision of Steve Walton) with an invitation to imagine a conversation in a private home between a Roman Stoic (Seneca), a Hellenistic Jew (the author of 4 Maccabees), and the first Christian historian and author of much of the New Testament (Luke), on the perennial, complex, and difficult subject of suffering. The potential for such a conversation to help us better appreciate the ancient historical context for Luke’s writings and better understand Luke’s own emphases on the theme of suffering quickly becomes apparent when one remembers the frequent encounters with Hellenistic Jews in Acts and the encounter with Stoic philosophers in Acts 17. More specifically, Seneca (tutor to Nero and brother of Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia who is mentioned in Acts 18:12–17), “writes considerably about his own and others’ suffering and he relates suffering to larger questions of providence, virtue, and ethics” (p. 3). Likewise, although the theme of suffering is treated “in many intertestamental Jewish writings, 4 Maccabees stands out for its extended reflection on the graphic suffering of nine faithful Jews and the significance of their deaths” (p. 4).

Tabb recognizes the differing readerships, concerns, and genres of these authors and proposes a series of worldview questions that will serve as a “heuristic tool for summarizing and synthesizing” the authors’ perspectives and provide a “common standard for analyzing” each of the authors and their texts (p. 18). These worldview questions are:

  1. Who is God, and how is God involved in our suffering?
  2. How does suffering relate to our nature, task, and purpose in the world?
  3. How does suffering clarify the world’s basic problem?
  4. How does suffering relate to the solution for the world’s problem?
  5. How does suffering relate to our expectations for the future?

Thus, the central question that the book seeks to answer is, “How does suffering function in the worldviews of the Roman author Seneca, the Jewish author of 4 Maccabees, and the Christian author of Acts?” (see e.g., p. 20).

After a survey of scholarship on the theme of suffering in Seneca, 4 Maccabees, and Acts, Tabb helpfully defines key terms such as suffering, persecution, and worldview. The following six chapters analyze the three authors with two chapters devoted to each author. The first chapter in each pair begins with an introduction to the author and text and then provides an exegesis of key passages on suffering. The exegetical chapter on Seneca focuses on Epistle 67 and On Providence, the exegetical chapter on 4 Maccabees focuses on 4 Maccabees 6:1–30 (the martyrdom of Eleazar) and 17:7–24 (summarizing the achievement of the martyrs), and the exegetical chapter on Acts focuses on Acts 6:8–8:4 (Stephen’s speech and death) and 9:1–30 (Saul’s conversion and call). The second chapter in each pair synthesizes the teaching of that author by providing the answers each author would give to the worldview questions. The final chapter takes us back to the introductory invitation to imagine a conversation between these three authors and Tabb actually provides one such hypothetical conversation made up of what each author would say on the basis of their writings (in the tradition of Cicero’s ancient dialogue between an Epicurean, a Stoic, and an Academician in his On the Nature of the Gods). This is followed by a final summary of what each author’s response would be to the worldview questions. A brief evaluation of the monograph’s contribution to scholarship and a summary of the contemporary relevance of the study complete the volume.

The strengths of this volume are many. The introductions to each work are informative, and readers of Acts will find in this monograph a succinct and judicious overview of issues such as authorship, date, genre, purpose, and a summary of previous scholarship on suffering in Acts. Readers are treated to an informed investigation of a wide range of other topics related to Seneca and 4 Maccabees along the way (e.g., regarding Seneca: fate [pp. 49–52], and the right worship of the gods [pp. 54–56]; regarding 4 Maccabees: the meaning of ἱλαστήριον and the martyrs’ deaths [pp. 93–96, 111–13], the role of endurance [ὑπομονή; pp. 105–6], and the eschatological hope of a bodily resurrection [pp. 116–18]).

Tabb builds on earlier studies of suffering in Luke’s writings and brings much clarity to matters of definition and broader context. As I indicated above, for readers of Acts to listen in to what the Stoic philosopher Seneca and the Hellenistic Jewish author of 4 Maccabees say on suffering is a valuable exercise in recognizing the similarities and differences of each author. In this regard, the highlight for me was the imaginary conversation Tabb provides in his final chapter. Although hypothetical, it builds on the hard work of the previous pages and is supported with numerous references in the footnotes. In fact, I would love to see this conversation expanded a little more into a booklet and published separately for a wider audience (perhaps along with the concluding summary postscript). I think many would find this section of Tabb’s work fascinating and encouraging as the hope of the gospel is brought to bear on life’s struggles.

I have no significant criticisms of this fine work and just have two general queries. First, some might wonder if the exegesis chapters might have been omitted or subsumed into the corresponding worldview chapter. Although the exegetical chapters help to show that Tabb is treating each author carefully and contextually, in each worldview chapter either different texts are treated or conclusions from the earlier exegesis chapter are restated. Thus, apart from the discussion of date, authorship, etc., the exegetical chapter doesn’t seem necessary for the following worldview chapter. Second, although the worldview questions provide clarity and a common standard for analyzing the different authors, the questions relating to humanity in general seemed better suited to Seneca and Luke than 4 Maccabees (e.g., pp. 110–14 and the world’s problem).

Brian Tabb’s Suffering in Ancient Worldview is a careful and perceptive treatment of a topic that is always relevant. Scholars and students of Acts will especially find this monograph richly rewarding, complementing previous studies of suffering in Luke–Acts. Pastors will find much here that will strengthen and deepen pastoral application in ministry.

Alan J. Thompson

Alan J. Thompson
Sydney Missionary and Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

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