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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Was Jesus a Bad Stoic?

The last several years have seen an explosion of research on the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus has recently been described as a magician (Morton Smith), a social revolutionary (Richard Horsley and John Dominic Crossan), a charismatic Jew (Geza Vermes), a wise sage (Ben Witherington), a Cynic philosopher (F. Gerald Downing), a religious ecstatic and mystic (Marcus Borg), an advocate of covenantal monism (E. P. Sanders), a marginal Jew (John P. Meier), an apocalypticist (Bart Ehrman), and a prophet (Paula Fredriksen and N. T. Wright). It seems like the historical Jesus is malleable enough to be squeezed into the shape of any of the prophets, revolutionaries, exorcists, sages, militarists, fanatics, politicians, and philosophers who populated first century Judea. With the proliferation of so many options, I want to conduct a simple experiment. I want to ascertain if there is any common character-type from the menagerie of the ancient world to which we can confidently assert the historical Jesus bore no significant resemblance. In other words, what was the historical Jesus clearly not like?

My thesis is that the historical Jesus was not a good Stoic. At first glance, this thesis—as minimalistic as it is—may not seem terribly interesting. However, Stoicism was the dominant philosophical tradition of the Greco-Roman world and was being quite eagerly embraced by many of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries. If the historical Jesus was not a good Stoic, then he was significantly out of sync with one of the dominant cultural trends of his day.

In this experiment, I wish to examine 4 Maccabees, which appears in many copies of the Septuagint and is included in the appendices of Bibles in Orthodox Christianity. In keeping with the cultural trends of the first century, 4 Maccabees clearly wished to portray its central characters as good Stoics and to close the gap between the Jewish and Stoic traditions. I will contrast the thematic concerns within 4 Maccabees with the themes within a few authentic gospel sayings, the accusation that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:16-19/Luke 7:31-35) and Jesus' cry of forsakenness on the cross (Mark 15:34/Matt 27:46).

Fourth Maccabees on Gluttony, Drunkenness, and the Fear of Death

Fourth Maccabees, a first-century tale of Jewish martyrdom, is commonly recognized as a synthesis of Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish piety. It narrates how an elderly priest, a Jewish mother, and her seven sons use reason to master their passions and how they face death as living examples of the wise person. The purpose of 4 Maccabees is clear from the beginning. The author explains:

"The subject that I am about to discuss is most philosophical, that is, whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. So it is right for me to advise you to pay earnest attention to philosophy. For the subject is essential to everyone who is seeking knowledge, and in addition it includes the praise of the highest virtue—I mean, of course, rational judgment (1:1-2; NRSV)."

Fourth Maccabees' stated purpose was to teach the importance of philosophy. In the subsequent text, however, it becomes clear that "philosophy" for this author is primarily ethics—how one ought to live—and that the ethical system here is primarily Stoic. The text's central concern, the quest to make reason sovereign over the passions (a more accurate translation than the NRSV's "emotions"), was, of course, the highest goal of Stoic ethics. The author of 4 Maccabees clearly valued Greek (Stoic) philosophy and was seeking to reconcile it with Jewish thought by demonstrating how the Jewish Law satisfied the central concern of Stoic ethical thought. This reconciliation often looks like blatant accommodation of Judaism to Stoicism. The value of Greek philosophy is presumed (at least for rhetorical purposes) throughout 4 Maccabees and it is the value of Judaism which must be proven to the reader. The merit of the Jewish law (which is never doubted by the author) is vindicated (to the reader) by a demonstration of its compatibility with Greek ideals. As Moses Hadas has noted, the author of 4 Maccabees is "at home in the Jewish tradition...but the philosophic structure of his thought is Greek."[1] Thus when Eleazar, the book's first martyr, is admonished by his accuser to abandon his "foolish philosophy" of Judaism (5:11), Eleazar's reply treats Judaism as essentially a form of Greek philosophy like Stoicism: "You scoff at our philosophy as though living by it were irrational, but it teaches us self-control, so that we master all pleasures and desires" (5:22-23).

The equation between the Jewish cultural imperative to obey the law and the Greek cultural imperative for reason to master the passions is nearly complete in 4 Maccabees. The narrator's encomium for Eleazar even seems to equate Mosaic law and Greek philosophy with the epitaph: "O man in harmony with the law and philosopher of divine life!" (7:7). For our purposes, however, it is important to notice how 4 Maccabees proves that its central characters have fulfilled the imperatives of Greek philosophy. According to 4 Maccabees, a person's mastery over the passions is demonstrated by that person's self-control to overcome "gluttony and lust" (1:3) and "gluttony and solitary gormandizing" (1:27). Through reason, even "a glutton...or a drunkard can learn a better way" (2:7). For 4 Maccabees, the evidence that one possesses virtue, that one's reason had mastered one's passions, is the absence of the vices of gluttony and drunkenness. In 4 Maccabees, therefore, the primary goal of ethics was to control one's passions. In these early chapters, the failure to attain such control is marked by the habits of gluttony and drunkenness.

In the subsequent chapters, the Maccabee martyrs demonstrate their mastery over the passions by facing death with calmness and bravery. In keeping with a long tradition of philosophers extending back at least to Socrates, the martyrs of 4 Maccabees nobly face death as philosophers par excellence. Fourth Maccabees demonstrates how its martyrs use reason to master their emotions—even in the face of death. The narrator explains:

"I could prove to you from many and various examples that reason is dominant over the emotions, but I can demonstrate it best from the noble bravery of those who died for the sake of virtue, Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother. All of these, by despising sufferings that bring death, demonstrated that reason controls the emotions" (1:7-9).

With his dying words, Eleazar, the first of the nine martyrs, addressed personified law and philosophy, declaring "I will not play false to you, O law that trained me, nor will I renounce you, beloved self-control. I will not put you to shame philosophical reason, nor will I reject you, honored priesthood and knowledge of the law" (5:34-35).

This dying declaration not only again affirms the correspondence between Jewish and Greek ideals, but it also portrays Eleazar bravely facing death as a good Stoic. The narrator even explains that Eleazar's brave death as a Jewish martyr provides conclusive evidence in favor of the Stoic contention that "it is right for us to acknowledge the dominance of reason when it masters even external agonies" (6:34).

Eleazar's Stoic boldness in facing death is imitated by each of the seven Maccabee brothers. The oldest brother taunted his tormentors by blasting out, "You abominable lackeys, your wheel is not so powerful as to strangle my reason. Cut my limbs, burn my flesh, and twist my joints; through all these tortures I will convince you that children of the Hebrews alone are invincible where virtue is concerned" (9:17-18). In all his torments, he "did not groan" (9:22). The second of the Maccabee brothers dies with similar words on his lips, "How sweet is any kind of death for the religion of our ancestors?" (9:29). The third martyr dies uttering, "'We, most abominable tyrant, are suffering because of our godly training and virtue..." (10:10). The fourth boasts that "gladly, for the sake of God, we let our bodily members be mutilated" (10:20). The fifth tells his executioners that "through these noble sufferings you give us an opportunity to show our endurance for the law" (11:12). The sixth says "it is not the guards of the tyrant but those of the divine law that are set over us; therefore, unconquered, we hold fast to reason" (11:27). The final brother even seeks a blessing for Israel at the occasion of his death, proclaiming, "I do not desert the excellent example of my brothers, and I call on the God of our ancestors to be merciful to our nation" (12:16-17).

In commenting upon their noble deaths, the narrator again calls upon the philosophical categories of his introduction and asks the rhetorical question: "How then can one fail to confess the sovereignty of right reason over emotion in those who were not turned back by fiery agonies?" (13:5). For the author of 4 Maccabees, the martyrs' bravery in the hour of death proves that reason can master the passions, that is, their bravery proves the validity of Stoic ethics. For our purposes, however, it is important to note that even in their deaths, the Maccabee martyrs never questioned God. Reason continued to reign over their passions. In their deaths—especially in their deaths—they are portrayed as ideal philosophers. They died as good Stoics.

Awkward, Embarrassing and Uncomfortable, Therefore, Authentic

Within the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus, one of the most widely accepted criterion for determining the authenticity of a gospel account is awkwardness or embarrassment. As Mark Powell has noted:

Matters that are reported in the Gospels might be judged historically accurate if they are likely to have caused some discomfort among the early Christians who treasured these stories and wrote them down. The point, quite simply, is that Christians would not have made up stories that caused problems for the church. [2]



Although the chaos of the current quest ensures that unanimous consent remains elusive on virtually every issue, the clear majority of historical Jesus scholars accepts some version of this embarrassment criterion.

Not surprisingly, therefore, most reconstructions of the historical Jesus assume the authenticity both of the accusation that Jesus was a drunkard and a glutton (Matt. 11:16-19/Luke 7:31-35) and of Jesus' cry of abandonment on the cross (Mark 15:34/Matt 27:46). The rationale for such acceptance is clear and compelling. Why would any follower of Jesus invent an accusation of drunkenness and gluttony against him? and why would any Christian believer create a saying in which Jesus announced that God had forsaken him? It is difficult to imagine the church being motivated to invent either of these accounts. Therefore, both of these sayings have a very strong claim to authenticity.

The authenticity of these sayings is significant in light of the themes which we have discovered in 4 Maccabees. In 4 Maccabees, gluttony and drunkenness demonstrate one's lack of reason and self-control. To be accused of gluttony and drunkenness—as Jesus was—was to be accused of having one's reason dominated by one's passions, that is, of failing to achieve the ethical goals of Stoic philosophy. It seems probable, therefore, that the accusations against Jesus in Matthew 11:16-19/Luke 7:31-35 give voice to his critics' perception that the historical Jesus failed the central ethical test of Stoicism. Jesus had failed to master his passions.

Likewise in 4 Maccabees, the martyrs' willingness to die bravely and without complaint proved that their reason had mastered their passions, that is, they were good Stoics. To cry out in abandonment—as Jesus did—demonstrated an inability to withstand the assaults of one's passions, that is, to fail the ethical test of Stoicism. The martyrs in Maccabees died as good Stoics. Jesus did not. Apparently the historical Jesus could not be squeezed into the mold of a good Stoic.

So What If Jesus Was a Bad Stoic?

If the historical Jesus lacked virtue by the standards of Stoic ethics (and apparently he did), he would have been forced to exist on the margins of the dominant cultural trends of Roman Empire. Of course, there were many ways to exist on the margins of Roman Judea—ranging from militant zealotry to ascetic piety. One thing is sure though, Jesus' perceived lack of virtue—at least when judged by the standards most dear to the culturally elite of his day—undoubtedly made it easier for the Romans (and their Hellenized clients) to hand Jesus over for crucifixion. Those on the margins tend to be expendable.

Thomas E. Phillips co-chairs the Book of Acts Consultation and is Associate Professor of New Testament at Colorado Christian University.

[1] Hadas, Third and Fourth Books of Maccabees (New York: KTAV, 1953), 113-14.

[2] Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 47.

Citation: Thomas E. Phillips, " Was Jesus a Bad Stoic?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=334

 
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