Scholars widely accept that historical Christian thought has been highly influenced by the works of the Stoics. But what about the central figure of Christianity-- was Jesus a Stoic?
Thousands of years after the fact, there is only so much we know about who Jesus was and what influenced him. While some have argued that he was aware of Cynicism and other Hellenistic philosophies, any answer to this question is, ultimately, purely speculative.
What we do know is that there are some remarkable similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the ideas of the great Stoic philosophers. On topics including love, revenge, anxiety, and living in the present, we find substantial overlap.
Let's take a closer look at the places where early Christianity and Stoicism find common ground.
Jesus of Nazareth was a religious leader during the 1st century. The central figure of Christianity, most Christians believe that Jesus was the awaited messiah and the incarnation of God the Son.
While it is certainly not a part of traditional scholarship that Jesus was a Stoic, there have been some biblical scholars that have suggested that Jesus was influenced by Hellenistic thought.
Some of these academics argue that the teachings of Jesus were essentially a bridge between Judaism and Cynicism. Others have noted the parallels between what Jesus taught and the ethics of Stoicism and Aristotelianism.
The truth is, there is only so much we can really know about who Jesus was and the ideas he was influenced by. At the same time, there are certainly some notable points of overlap between his teachings and the ideas of the most prominent Stoics.
"Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness."
- Seneca the Younger
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
A New Testament Studies scholar from the University of St. Andrews, Dr. Jonathon Pennington, describes Jesus in the following way:
"This combination of philosopher and prophet can be seen most clearly when Jesus reasons with the Jewish leadership of his day. Whether it was with the political leadership in Jerusalem or, more commonly, with the professional teachers of Torah, Jesus embodied this combined role of prophet and philosopher. Or maybe better said, he showed up in dialogue with his fellow Jewish teachers as a prophetic-flavored philosopher, not entirely unlike Socrates, and with a similar result—annoyance, trial, and forced death. Jesus was a prophetic philosopher, a Jewish thinker among Jewish thinkers in a Hellenized Jewish world, prophetic in his tone and philosophical in his reasoning."
This is one of those questions that we simply don't know the answer to with any certainty. Stoicism originated in ancient Greece around 300 BC and was popular in the Roman Empire during the life of Jesus.
In fact, Seneca the Younger-- one of the best-known Stoics-- was born right around the same time Jesus was circa 4 BC. When you think about it, it's truly incredible to realize that these two incredibly profound figures walked the earth at the same time.
Whether or not Jesus was intimately familiar with Stoicism and other forms of Hellenistic philosophy-- or at least marginally aware of it-- is something we can only speculate about. We really only know so much about Jesus, with the four canonical gospels serving as the primary sources for his biography.
Complicating things even further, there are eighteen years that occurred between Jesus' childhood and when he started his ministry that doesn't show up in the New Testament. You'll often hear this period of time referred to as:
Most scholarly literature takes the stance that Jesus was probably just working in Galilee as a carpenter during the time that is unaccounted for in the Gospels. However, there have been a number of theories that typically show up in esoteric literature that Jesus was actually traveling during this time. Here are a few of the theories that have emerged over history about what Jesus was up to between the ages of 12 and 29:
In some of the theories about the unknown years of Jesus, he travels across India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt. While these types of notions are largely rejected by modern scholarship, it's worth throwing out there when we're talking about whether or not Jesus would have directly bumped into Stoicism, Cynism, and other Hellenistic schools of thought.
Stoicism is a school of thought that was founded around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium. I have written at great length about the philosophy, including a number of guides for beginners:
If you're new to the philosophy, I'd recommend checking out some of the above guides to help you get a sense of what it really means to be a Stoic.
In brief, though, Stoicism is a philosophical school that argues that virtue is the highest good. We can understand what it means to be virtuous through wisdom, and we can all attempt to become wise and live in harmony with Nature. There are four Stoic virtues-- wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance-- that we can use to guide us as we go through our lives.
Early Christianity is the term that is used to describe the first historical era of Christianity leading up to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The first Christian followers were Jewish Christians-- Jews that converted to the faith.
It is said that the beliefs of early Christians come from the Gospels, the New Testament epistles, oral traditions (such as parables, teachings, and sayings attributed to Jesus,) and potentially texts that have since been lost. For example, there is a hypothetical written collection of Jesus' sayings known as the Q source, which is thought by some to have been a text that was used as a source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but not the Gospel of Mark.
An early creed can be found in Corinthians, with some scholars dating it to no later than the 40s AD:
"For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles."
Let's take a look at some of the beliefs that were held by early Christians in the first few hundred years after the life of Jesus and some of the rituals they are known to have practiced.
Christianity originally emerged as a sect of Judaism after Jesus' death and resurrection. This sect appeared in Judea, a Roman Province. All of the first Christians were Jews.
Some Jews believed that Jesus was the resurrected messiah and Lord. Beyond that, he was seen by some as the eternally existing Son of God.
As a part of the belief system, there was an expectation that Jesus would return and God's Kingdom would begin. Early followers of Jesus are said to have pressed other Jews to follow the Lord's way and prepare for the coming events.
It was prophesized in Jewish scriptures that a messiah would appear, and early Christians believed that Jesus was that messiah. These early followers held the Jewish scripture to be sacred and authoritative and followed the Torah faithfully.
There is some disagreement about what early followers believed would happen eschatologically.
Some scholars believe that they thought the Kingdom of God would occur immediately. However, over time their beliefs changed when this didn't occur. The idea is that the belief that the resurrection indicated the Kingdom of God was imminent transformed into a belief that the resurrection served as confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah.
According to this theory, the belief turned into a sense that Jesus would return in the future at an indeterminate time. Christian belief changed gradually to focus on receiving rewards in heaven after death rather than experiencing the Kingdom of God on earth.
Early Christians believed in angels. In the New Testament, we find discussion of angels ministering to Jesus while he was on earth, heralding his birth, resurrection, and ascension, and eternally singing the praises of God.
The depictions of Satan in the New Testament share similarities with those in the Old Testament. The figure of Satan (aka the Devil, Lucifer, etc.) is found in Abrahamic religions and is said to seduce humans into falsehood or sin.
Early followers are said to have attended Temple daily and continued to practice traditional Jewish home prayer. This is according to The Book of Acts. Beyond that, it is said that they continued to use sacred music in hymns and prayers.
There are other passages in the New Testament that point to traditional Jewish piety being observed by early Christians. This includes observance of Jewish holy days, reverence for the Torah, and fasting.
Some scholars argue that the views of early Christians surrounding baptism probably emerged before the New Testament was written. It is a widely held belief that Jesus' disciples and potentially a number of Jewish sects practiced baptism.
Of course, John the Baptist was already baptizing individuals before the practice was done in the name of Jesus.
Rooted in the Jewish Passover, Seder, Siddur, and synagogue services, the Liturgical ritual continued during the first three centuries of Christianity.
The earliest followers of Christianity would worship alongside Jewish believers. However, it is said that Sunday became known as the Lord's Day within twenty years of the death of Jesus and became the primary Christian day of worship.
Communal meals were another known ritual of the early Christians. An agape feast or love feast is a Christian communal meal. The word agape is a Greek word that refers to "the love of God for man and of man for God" and "the highest form of love."
The Lovefeast often contained the Eucharist rite. However, these two rituals began to be practiced separately as time went on.
Judging from the list of beliefs and practices held by the early Christians, it's clear that there are some stark contrasts between Stoicism and early Christianity.
However, when we look at the teachings of Christ, we certainly find many notable points of overlap with the writings and lectures of the Stoic philosophers.
One concept that we frequently talk about in regard to Stoicism is the notion of amor fati. This is a Latin phrase that means to love your fate.
A classic quote from Marcus Aurelius illustrates the notion of truly embracing your fate and accepting the cards you were dealt in life:
"Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart."
- Marcus Aurelius
In Corinthians 7:17, we find a quote with a similar message:
“Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.”
Another place where we find some similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Stoics is in the realm of recognizing our mortality and overcoming the fear of death.
“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.”
Death is touched upon again and again in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testament. In Romans 14:8, we find the following line:
"For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."
Psalm 23:4 also references death and overcoming fear in relation to it:
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."
The realm of contentment is another place where we find similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Stoic philosophers.
Here is a quote from St. Paul about learning to be content no matter what else is going on:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
- Saint Paul
Next, look at the following quote from Seneca. The sentiment is remarkably similar, touching upon the ability to be content with one's circumstance regardless of their material reality:
“It is the attitude [not the circumstance] that must be appraised: we must investigate whether the rich man can be content if he falls into poverty and whether the poor man can be content if he falls into riches.”
— Seneca the Younger
If you're at all familiar with the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the great Stoic philosophers, you may have noticed an overlap in how they relate to the notion of revenge.
One of the best-known sayings of Jesus has to do with how to respond when someone (metaphorically or otherwise) hits you in the face.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
When you imagine this circumstance, it really is a remarkable idea. We are all so eager to get revenge when someone has wronged us. However, Jesus asks his followers to not just not seek revenge but to offer a new canvas upon which the enemy can cause violence.
Aurelius says the following in his Meditations, a personal journal that we are lucky to have thousands of years later:
“Kindness is invincible, but only when it’s sincere, with no hypocrisy or faking. For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and, if given the chance, you gently point out where they went wrong—right as they are trying to harm you?”
— Marcus Aurelius
Here is an equally powerful quote from Seneca on the topic:
"How much better to heal than seek revenge from injury. Vengeance wastes a lot of time and exposes you to many more injuries than the first that sparked it. Anger always outlasts hurt. Best to take the opposite course."
Marcus Aurelius makes it clear that there is no point in stooping to the level of the person that has injured you in the following quote:
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
– Marcus Aurelius
We also find a point of overlap between these two schools of thought on the topic of anxiety.
In the Book of Matthew, we find the following quote from Jesus:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
A very similar sentiment is reflected in a number of Stoic quotes, including the following from Seneca:
“For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”
Jesus taught that there were two commandments that were the most important of those that had been passed on to Moses:
It is very clear that Jesus taught us that we should love one another, even those we think of as our enemies. In the gut-wrenching song Lungs by Townes van Zandt, he sings that "Jesus was an only son and love, his only concept."
In John 15:12, Jesus says:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you."
Peter reminds us again that loving each other is more important than just about anything else:
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.”
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reflects on the fact that he can't hate the people he is around despite their failings. He sees that all people are of "the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine:"
"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions."
- Marcus Aurelius
Here's another quote from Musonius Rufus that carries very Christian undertones:
"For mankind, evil is injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of your neighbor."
We've already touched upon Jesus' teaching that 'sufficient unto the day' are the troubles of the day. This is a theme that appears several times in Biblical texts that we must be present today because we don't know what tomorrow will bring.
The following quote is found in James 4:14:
"Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."
We find a very similar idea in the writings of Seneca and the other Stoic philosophers. Seneca, in particular, wrote about the importance of actually being present at the moment rather than stuck in the past or future.
“You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire…
How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”
- Seneca the Younger
Another point of overlap appears when discussing the concept of enemies and judging other people. It is so easy to criticize other people for things that we ourselves are guilty of.
Perhaps one of Jesus' most famous teachings is as follows:
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”
Jesus' contemporary, Seneca, made a note of a remarkably similar notion. These two quotes aren't just touching upon the same concepts, but are structured in a similar way and simply use different metaphors to make their point.
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.”
– Seneca the Younger
The teachings of Jesus and those of the Stoics also find some common ground in the realm of living virtuously and practicing self-control.
In the New Testament book Titus, written by Paul, we find the following quote:
"For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined."
This description practically sounds like something that could have come out of Aurelius' Meditations. In this seminal Stoic text, Aurelius writes:
“A man should be upright, not be kept upright.”
- Marcus Aurelius
He also makes a similar list of how to act, writing only to himself about the type of person he is trying to be:
"How to act: never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings."
– Marcus Aurelius
Finally, here is one more Marcus Aurelius quote that drives home the point:
"To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there, delight and stillness."
- Marcus Aurelius
It really is fascinating to peer back through time and try to discern whether Jesus was directly or indirectly influenced in his teachings by the works of the Stoic philosophers. Though opinions vary between scholars, and researching this concept leaves us with more questions than answers, it is a powerful idea to think that Jesus could have been influenced by the first few hundred years of Stoic thought.
Though Christianity has arguably had a larger impact on our modern world than Stoicism, it's incredible how often you find the influence of the Stoics lurking under the surface. It is known that the Stoics had a notable influence on Christian thought as it has unfolded over millennia, particularly in the realm of Christian ethics.
Of course, there are a number of important places where Christianity and Stoicism diverge. However, it's also practically impossible to truly understand the historical development of Christian thought without considering the influence of Stoicism.
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