Reviews of

Stoicism in Early Christianity

In Baker Academic, Early Christianity, Ismo DUNDERBERG, New Testament, Samuli Siikavirta, Stoicism, Troels ENGBERG-PEDERSEN, Tuomas RASIMUS on August 1, 2013 at 5:01 pm


2013.08.17 | Tuomas Rasimus, Troels Engberg-Pedersen and Ismo Dunderberg (eds.). Stoicism in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010. 320 pages. (PB) ISBN 9780801039515.

Review by Samuli Siikavirta, University of Cambridge.

Many thanks to Baker Academic for kindly providing us with a review copy.

Stoicism in Early Christianity is a collection of essays on a variety of topics suggesting that Stoicism rather than Middle Platonism was the predominant philosophical influence on early Christian texts. The emphasis on Stoic influence is seen as a neglected area in New Testament scholarship, which the book wants to change. Nearly half of the book’s thirteen essays are written by Nordic scholars (as one may expect of a book edited by two Finns and a Dane), but other authors range from universities in the USA, the Netherlands, Japan and South Africa. The early Christian sources under scrutiny include the Gospels, Pauline and Petrine letters, Justin Martyr and a selection of noncanonical texts. Each essay contains a comprehensive bibliography, making the book an excellent resource for further study on the subject.

In this review, I shall focus primarily on the essays that deal with New Testament texts and give a briefer account of the arguments contained by the others.

Troels Engberg-Pedersen opens the book with a helpful introductory essay on Stoicism and Platonism in the transitional period of 100 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. Engberg-Pedersen clearly lays out the shift of the philosophical centre from Athens to Rhodes, Alexandria and Rome, listing the major philosophers of time and giving an account of the history of the “victory of Platonism over Stoicism both in Neoplatonism (third century) and in Christian thought” (p. 3). What Engberg-Pedersen and the whole book wants to emphasise, however, is that before the end of the second century C.E., New Testament and other Christian texts were primarily influenced by Stoic thought. Both Platonism and Stoicism were influential, but the book’s agenda is to show that the latter should be given more attention than it has previously been granted. It is clearly argued that no early Christian writer was a Platonist or a Stoic per se but adopted such ideas into their own Christocentric worldview. Plato had absorbed some Stoic material into his thinking yet remained loyal to his own philosophical identity, and both Middle- and Neostoicism were open to recycling certain ideas from Platonism. The fact that early Christian writers did the same in borrowing the language of the reigning Greco-Roman philosophy of the transitional period was, therefore, no exception to a common practice, in which allegiance to an authoritative founding father (in the early Christians’ case, Christ) was what mattered. Furthermore, Engberg-Pedersen stresses that “elements from alien philosophies that were absorbed into one’s own need not be understood in exactly the way they were understood as part of the philosophy from which they were taken” (p. 8). This is also true of the early Christians’ use of Stoic philosophy.

The following two essays in the book look at Stoicism’s influence on Paul. Runar M. Thorsteinsson presents Stoicism as the key to understanding Pauline ethics in Romans 12-15, providing the reader with a collection of parallels from those first-century Roman Stoics who do not simply show what had been written by Stoic authorities in the past but who “express the actual views of first-century C.E. Stoics” (p. 17), i.e. Seneca (ca. 1-65 C.E.), Musonius Rufus (ca. 25-100 C.E.) and Epictetus (ca. 55-135 C.E.). It is noteworthy that ever since Cicero’s systematic summary of Stoic thought to the Romans in Latin around 50 B.C.E., Stoicism had provided the Romans with “the most prominent teaching on ethics and morality”  (p. 19). When Paul wrote to the Roman Christians around 55-58 C.E., Seneca was an influential imperial counsellor who wrote extensively on ethics. Musonius was a teacher of philosophy, whose teachings were recorded by his students. From Epictetus, a former slave and student of Musonius, we have his Discourses that were written down by his student Arrian, when he had moved to teach in Nicopolis (western Greece). Because Paul addresses Rom. 12-15 to the situation in Rome, Thorsteinsson argues that Stoicism functions as the hermeneutical key to understanding it. He does so through an analysis of Paul’s and the aforementioned Stoics’ texts. Suggested parallel ideas with Stoic thought include the logikē latreia (Rom. 12:1-2), presentation of the body as a sacrifice, transformation of the mind, phronein – (cf. phronēsis, one of the four Stoic virtues), social moderation, imagery of the body as an interdependent whole, blessing one’s persecutors and not repaying evil with evil (12:14, 17), being at peace with all people, viewing earthly authorities as divine instruments (13:1-7), the distinctly Stoic notion of adiaphoron, the emphasis on love (13:8-10) and the adaptability of ethics with regard to the strong and the weak. Thorsteinsson references the Stoic parallels clearly. I, however, would need some more convincing to accept the suggested parallelism between Paul’s idea of putting on Christ (13:14) and Epictetus’ exhortation to imitate Socrates. The author helpfully lists differences, too, between the Stoics and Paul. The former are more optimistic about one’s ability to live virtuously than Paul. The idea of God’s retaliating in our stead (12:19) has no parallel in Stoicism. It would also have seemed out of place for Stoics to give such a positive treatise of joy and grief (12:15) as Paul does.

In the second essay on Paul, Niko Huttunen hones in on Paul’s teaching on the law from the Stoic perspective. He begins by stating how Diaspora Jews (e.g. Philo) interpreted the Torah in philosophical categories. The essay focuses on a comparison between Epictetus (Encheiridion and Discourses) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:17-24 and Rom. 1:18-32). Huttunen’s way of laying out the arguments of both texts is systematic and helpful. He juxtaposes Paul’s teaching on the indifference of social positions with the Stoic theory of value, according to which external things such as one’s social position are indifferent (adiaphora), but their use (chrēsis) is not. This leads Paul to use the Stoic technical term chrēsthai in 1 Cor. 7:21, Huttunen maintains. Both Paul and Epictetus encouraged people to stay in their divinely given social positions and make the best use of them. Huttunen finds one major difference between the two authors, however: for Paul, it is Christ who “secures the indifference of social positions” (p. 46) and grants equality between Christians in different statuses and not between all people as Epictetus teaches. Thus Huttunen admits rightly that Paul’s view “is not Pure Stoicism but rather a Christian adaptation of it” (p. 46). When it comes to Rom. 1:18-32, Huttunen reads it as a Stoically coloured story of the Gentile lapse that is not without Jewish parallels either (e.g. Wis. 13-14). For Epictetus, passion (pathos) such as wrong desire (epithumia) is the result of a wrong value judgment, an intellectual lapse. Natural law guides right judgments and deeds (Diss. 1.26.1-2). For example homosexual relationships are not in accordance with nature (kata phusin) as they are not in line with the natural desire (prothumia) to use one’s organs for the created purpose of intercourse between male and female (Diss. 1.6.9.). Very similarly to Paul’s argument in Rom. 1, homosexual practice contains its own punishment: it destroys manhood by depriving it of a purpose (Diss. 2.17; cf. Rom. 1:24, 27). Paul also uses same-sex relationships in a rather Stoic-sounding way as an example of a theological lapse (resulting from a darkened understanding of God’s existence, 1:21f.) that leads to idolatrous deeds (1:23) and an ethical lapse (1:24). Idolatrous deeds (1:25) lead the Gentiles to passions (1:26) and shameful deeds (1:26f.), just as an intellectual lapse in theology (1:28) leads to a debased mind (1:28) and shameful deeds (1:28-31). Huttunen’s suggests interestingly that “God’s decree” in Rom. 1:32 also refers to something close to the Stoic understanding of natural law (mentioned in 2:14), but he does not rule out the possibility of “clear ties with Jewish covenantal nomism” either (p. 55). What may make some disagree with Huttunen’s conclusion is the way he follows Heikki Räisänen’s idea of the ambiguity of Paul’s use of legal terminology: “The relationship between the commandments of God and the Torah remains unclear in Paul. Possibly, he thinks that the Stoic ideas that he presents can somehow be drawn from the Torah.” (p. 55) Also Huttunen’s suggestion that death in Rom. 1:32 should be taken as a “rhetorical exaggeration” rather than “a real or spiritual sentence of death” (p. 55), simply because vices already involve their own punishments, is not fully convincing.

After this, the book moves on to the gospels. Stanley K. Stowers finds in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus a reshaping of the Markan Jesus into the model of a Stoic sage-teacher. He finds similarities between Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and the depictions of the Stoic sage in e.g. the notions of pneuma and perfection, the emphasis on inner attitudes as opposed to outer hypocrisy and the love of enemies. Stowers maintains that the Stoic sage model would explain why Jesus can express strong emotions (e.g. in the temple scene of Matt. 21:12-13) while teaching that all anger is wrong: the sage’s mission was indeed to (1) use exceptional means to get his message across and to (2) have good emotions based on true values. All in all, Matthew modelled Jesus after Stoic ideas, Stowers claims, to give him a place among the great moral teachers unlike Mark had done. Stowers’ reading is interesting but sounds at times slightly forced. For a religious leader showing anger while teaching the Golden Rule, one need not necessarily look farther than to Moses and the prophets after him.

Harold W. Attridge looks at the figure of the Johannine Jesus similarly through the lenses of a Stoic sage. He holds that this reading explains John’s high but naively Docetic christology. Is the emotional Jesus anti-Stoic, Attridge asks. The beginning of John stresses knowledge in a Stoic manner, and his notion of pneuma may also be Stoic (p. 78). Similarly, John’s Jesus has a duty to preach the divine message and experiences a noble death, but his emotions seem not to match with this otherwise Stoic depiction. As an attempt to solve this conflict, Attridge stresses that the Stoic concept of apatheia does not equal emotionless but how one controls the physical impulses of emotions with one’s reason. Jesus’ love for his disciples and their eschatological hope in him provides them with an escape from passions, the author suggests. It is not difficult to agree with Attridge’s conclusion: with regard to the Stoic sage, John’s Jesus is similar yet also clearly distinct.

Gitte Buch-Hansen approaches the emotional Jesus of the Fourth Gospel from a similar perspective and proposes that his emotions could simply be taken as pre-emotions (cf. Seneca) which he controls and which quickly pass away. She concludes that according to Philo, virtuous lament is a good thing (eupatheia) and suggests that Jesus, even when he gets stirred up at the death of Lazarus, therefore befits the contemporary Stoic model at least as adapted by Philo.

J. Albert Harrill’s essay focuses on 2 Peter and the Stoic notion of ekpurōsis (eruption into fire). Harrill believes that this concept of universal conflagration lies in the background of the eschatological scenario of 2 Peter. First, he explains the Stoic conflagration physics, according to which the wise, who have a holistic and stable self, are preserved until the end. In the second part, Harrill exegetes 2 Peter 3, reading it as an account of how believers are led towards a higher morality via their knowledge of the physical properties of the universe, cosmic bonds and eschatology. The Stoic theme of psychophysical stability or instability was used freely in Roman literature, and in 2 Peter, too, it is the stable self that survives through the conflagration, the author maintains. He accuses those who emphasise the Old Testament background of disregarding this popular Stoic background, but in so doing he runs the risk of going to the other extreme. Nevertheless, Harrill’s essay is a good survey of possible Stoic parallels for 2 Peter 3.

The longest essay of the book is written by John T. Fitzgerald and surveys some Stoic and Christian texts on the treatment of slaves. He argues that Christian and Stoic ideas about slaves had a lot in common with the majority ancient Mediterranean view, e.g. on the point that slaves should obey their masters. Both sources do also share some minority views (e.g. that slavery was intrinsically indifferent to one’s well-being), and some ideas about not using threats (Ephesians) or corporal punishments (Seneca and Lucilius) were radical in their time. Fitzgerald’s general conclusion is that both sets of sources contained some diversity, and that some individuals in both groups tried to make slavery a more humane phenomenon, even if they never sought to eliminate it altogether.

After this, the book moves on to noncanonical texts. Nicola Denzey reads Justin Martyr from the Stoic perspective, focusing on freedom of the will and martyrdom. Denzey argues that “Christians pursued a complex relationship with Stoic philosophy, rejecting it overtly while nevertheless embracing elements of it in a complicated pattern of rebuttals, refutations, and ultimate assimilation of Stoic ideals, even while deliberately repudiating them” (p. 177). She sees social respectability as the main reason for such borrowing of ideas. Comparing Paul (esp. Rom. 6-8) with Epictetus, Denzey shows well how there was no idea of ontological freedom in late first-century and early second-century Rome: “the only, true choice was whether one would serve one’s master willingly or not” (p. 180). Everybody was considered to be in servitude to something, which was to be understood in order to “realign oneself into a position of ethical freedom—then to assent to this servitude willingly and joyfully” (p. 181). In the case of martyrdom, to show heroic self-control in the face of the uncontrollable was seen as a choice that Roman society respected. Thus neither the idea of intrinsic servitude (or slavery) nor the fate of martyrdom was deterministic: the virtuous thing was to realise these bounds and to face them willingly.

Esther de Boer’s essay is, as the title suggests, ‘A Stoic Reading of the Gospel of Mary’. Comparing the text with both Stoic and Jewish parallels, de Boer argues that it lacks the alleged physical-spiritual division of Gnosticism and is best read as a Stoic reworking of early Christian thought in its Greco-Roman context. “The Gospel of Mary is not just another Gnostic writing; rather, it seems to present unique testimony to the early effort to understand the meaning of Jesus’ gospel in contemporary popular Stoic categories”, de Boer proposes (p. 216).

Ismo Dunderberg, in his turn, argues for the preference of Stoicism as the context in which to read Valentinian texts. He bases this claim on the contemporary popularity of the philosophy and on the similarity of Valentinian ideas of condensation and dissolution, emotions, moral progress and blending of matter with Stoic thought.

Takashi Onuki analyses the critical reception of the Stoic theory of passions in the Gnostic text called the Apocryphon of John. It condemns the Stoic theory of passions on account of its radical intellectualism and demonises Stoic apatheia  and the governing part of the soul by identifying them with matter, which was the chief evil in Gnosticism. In this way, however, Stoic thought influenced the Apocryphon’s imagery.

The final essay by Tuomas Rasimus argues that the Sethian Gnostics created the Neoplatonic triad of beling-life-mind in the second century under the influence of Stoic ideas. It is not, Rasimus claims, simply a creation of Stoic-minded Porphyry in the third century, as has often been claimed.

Stoicism in Early Christianity manages to present the reader with a thorough overall survey of possible Stoic influences on an admirably wide variety of early Christian (and pseudo-Christian) texts. Despite focusing on an analysis distinctly from the Stoic perspective perhaps at times to the dismay of those more inclined to stress other influences such as the Old Testament, the book is an invaluable resource on the topic of the interaction of Greco-Roman popular philosophy with early Christian texts. Both students of biblical and early Christian studies requiring a general picture of the recent discussion around the influence of Stoicism and scholars interested in the detail of the arguments and the supporting bibliographical references will find the book useful.

Samuli Siikavirta
University of Cambridge
mss43 [ at ]

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