In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Virtues and Vices: New Testament Ethical Exhortation in Its Graeco-Roman Context

  • Introduction
  • Virtue and Vice Lists in Early Christianity and the Graeco-Roman World
  • Graeco-Roman Virtues and the Vices: Collections and Translations of Ancient Texts
  • Graeco-Roman Ethics
  • Christian Ethics and Graeco-Roman Morality
  • The Vices in the Graeco-Roman World
  • Imperial Virtues
  • Popular Philosophy and the Virtues
  • The Household Codes and Virtue
  • Benefaction Ethics and the Virtues
  • Civic Ethics and the Virtues
  • Honor and Shame in Ethics
  • Mimesis and Virtue
  • Paideia and Virtue
  • Speech Ethics and Virtue
  • The Seven Sages and the Virtues
  • The Cynics and the Virtues
  • The Stoics and the Virtues
  • Philodemus the Epicurean and the Virtues
  • The Neopythagoreans and the Virtues
  • Seneca and the Virtues
  • Musonius Rufus and the Virtues
  • Dio Chrysostom and the Virtues
  • Plutarch and the Virtues

Biblical Studies Virtues and Vices: New Testament Ethical Exhortation in Its Graeco-Roman Context
James R. Harrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0236


The issue of the origins of New Testament ethics continues to be a controversial area of scholarship. The teaching and example of the historical Jesus, the moral boundaries of Torah-loyal Judaism, and Graeco-Roman moral philosophy have all been nominated as the dominant influence in shaping early Christian ethics. Too often, however, either the Jewish or the Graeco-Roman background has been preferred at the expense of the other in discussions of the influences determining moral viewpoints. Such polarizations are simplistic, given the rapid transition of early Christianity from a Palestinian milieu to the eastern Mediterranean basin in its mission, including, of course, the world of diaspora Judaism. Something more complex is happening here. There arose a variety of overlapping communities with overlapping conceptions of morality throughout the Mediterranean basin, but, nevertheless, each community also had its own distinctive ethical and social traits, determined location by location and culture by culture. The issue is well exemplified in the discussion of virtue and vice in antiquity. Lists of vices and virtues were common place in the ancient Near East, in the Graeco-Roman literature, and in the writings of the Old Testament, Second Temple Judaism, and the rabbinic corpus. Similar lists of vices and virtues appear in the New Testament, prompting the question whether these lists were directly appropriated from the Graeco-Roman world or indirectly through the traditions of Second Temple Judaism, or both. Consideration has to be given to the degree to which these traditional ethical materials, whatever their source, were adapted and changed in the rhetoric and theology of the early Christians. It is also important to realize that the discussion of the virtues and vices in antiquity was not confined to their appearance in the rhetorical lists of ancient authors. The social outworking of the virtues and the vices garnered intense interest in popular philosophy, civic ethics, honor and shame culture, the household codes, and the paideia (education) of the classical and late Hellenistic world. All these complex arenas of moral discourse in Graeco-Roman antiquity will be examined in the following sections.

Virtue and Vice Lists in Early Christianity and the Graeco-Roman World

Discussion of the virtue and vice lists in the Graeco-Roman world and their relation to the New Testament ethical lists has resulted a wide variety of interpretative stances. While the Jewish and Graeco-Roman parameters of the lists were clearly articulated by all sides in the debate from the outset of research last century (Vögtle 1936; Wibbing 1959), some scholars regard the paraenetic usage of the materials as uniformly “conventional,” irrespective of the context (Easton 1932). Other scholars, however, consider that the lists acquire a “catechetical” function across differing contexts (Charles 2000), or propose that they were entirely “marginal” and “peripheral” in comparison to the theology articulated in particular contexts (Engberg-Pedersen 2003), or, more positively, conclude that they were now a legitimate expression of the lifestyle of the heavenly community living on earth (López 2011a; López 2011b). Another group of scholars reduce the lists to mere polemic aimed at “gnosticizing” opponents, viewing them as instruments of ecclesial and social control with the gradual emergence of “early Catholicism” in the Pastoral epistles (Martin 1978) or in the Petrine epistles (contra, Charles 1997). Remarkably, there has never been a scholarly consensus emerge on the issue, and it looks like that there is little chance of one emerging in the near future. There are a host of presuppositions at work here that might explain how such divergent interpretations have arisen: the suggestion of the emergence of early Catholicism and incipient Gnosticism in early Christianity as factors; the priority of theology over the ethics in discussing the lists; the priority of the Jewish background over the Graeco-Roman background, and so on. But, at the very least, this rich diversity of viewpoint challenges scholars to reconsider their presuppositions through a closer investigation of the historical background, both Jewish and Graeco-Roman, along with a renewed appreciation of the distinctiveness of the apostolic tradition in its cultural, social, and ecclesial context.

  • Charles, J. Daryl. Virtue Amidst Vice: The Catalog of Virtues in 2 Peter 1. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

    As opposed to being highly derivative in character because of its alleged “early Catholicism” and its material common with Jude, 2 Peter provides insight into the moral and philosophical world of Graeco-Roman paganism when the epistle’s ethics and virtue are compared with the Stoic and Jewish ethical catalogues.

  • Charles, J. Daryl. “Vice and Virtue Lists.” In Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, 1252–1257. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2000.

    An introduction to the ethical catalogue in antiquity: the Socratic–Platonic schematization of virtue; the Stoic schematization of vice and virtue; ethical catalogues in the Hellenistic Jewish literature and the New Testament. The New Testament lists function paraenetically in different contexts, but they acquire a catechetical function in the apostolic ethical tradition.

  • Easton, B. S. “New Testament Ethical Lists.” Journal of Biblical Literature 51 (1932): 1–12.

    DOI: 10.2307/3259843

    Easton argues that the New Testament ethical lists are conventional, with the “sins” enumerated often having little to do with the context. With the exceptions of Romans 1:29–31 and 2 Timothy 3:2–4, the New Testament lists have Jewish lists as their ancestors, especially the anti-idolatry text of Wisdom 14:25–26.

  • Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. “Paul, Virtues and Vices.” In Paul in the Graeco-Roman World: A Handbook. Edited by J. Paul Sampley, 608–633. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2003.

    Paul’s engagement with Graeco-Roman virtues and vices was marginal and peripheral, whether it was Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, or the early Hellenistic “virtue system.” But Paul drew extensively from the virtue system in Galatians 5:13–16, reflecting not just traditional or parenetic approaches but rather a theological worldview.

  • Fitzgerald, John T. “Virtue/Vice Lists.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6, Si−Z. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 857–859. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    After introducing the function of the catalogues of virtue and vice in the Graeco-Roman world, in the ancient Near East, and in the Hebrew Bible and noncanonical Second Temple literature, Fitzgerald discusses their role in the New Testament and early Christian literature, highlighting German classics of scholarship in the genre.

  • López, Réne A. “Vice Lists in Non-Pauline Sources.” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 (2011a): 178–195.

    The vice lists in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Peseudepigrapha, Second Temple Judaism (Philo, Josephus, Qumran), and the Graeco-Roman world (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero), Rabbinic literature, Apostolic Fathers, and Gnostics are discussed. The lists are devised to motivate ethical behavior appropriate for the new community belonging to the “world to come.”

  • López, Réne A. “Views on Paul’s Vice Lists and Inheriting the Kingdom.” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 (2011b): 81–97.

    The article is a survey of the exegetical history to vices lists associated with the words “inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–11; Gal 5:19–24; Eph 5:3–8). Six scholarly interpretations are identified.

  • Martin, Ralph P. “Virtue.” In Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 3. Edited by Colin Brown, 925–932. Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1978;

    Martin focuses on aretē (virtue) in its Socratic, Platonic, and Stoic expressions, before devoting his remaining discussion to the household codes: these ethical codes represent Paul’s attempt to counter Corinthian gnosticizing enthusiasm and later Pauline orthodoxy’s strategy in the Pastoral epistles to keep the social fabric intact. Originally published in 1971 in German.

  • Vögtle, Anton. Die Tugend- und Lasterkataloge im Neuen Testament. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1936.

    This classic work discusses the function of the virtue and vice catalogues, arguing that the New Testament ethical lists are indebted to Stoicism. The breadth of Vögtle’s coverage of the ancient sources remains authoritative today, but readers should be aware, and therefore cautious, that Vögtle writes before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  • Wibbing, Siegfried. Die Tugend- und Lasterkataloge im Neuen Testament und ihre Traditionsgeschichte unter Besonderer Berücksichtigung der Qumran-Texte. Berlin: Töpelmann, 1959.

    After examining the catalogues of virtues and vices in their Stoic, later Judaic, Qumran, and New Testament contexts, Wibbing proposes that the ethical catalogues of the Qumran Rule of the Community, along with those of Paul, drew upon the dualist theology of Iranian religion, rejecting Vögtle’s earlier Stoic thesis (Vögtle 1936).

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