‘Jewish Stoicism’: Analyzing the Evidence of Stoic Influence in Judaic-Christian Thought

‘Jewish Stoicism’: Analyzing the Evidence of Stoic Influence in Judaic-Christian Thought, from Josephus to Paul of Tarsus.

As with any religion, there are always vigorous discussions and debates on whom influenced whom. In Judaism and Christianity it is no different, with a host of claims coming from the camps of Greek Philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Mesopotamian Polytheism, Paganism, Egyptian religion, Roman cults and more. This paper in particular will explore the potential influence of Stoicism within Judaic-Christian thought, emphasizing evidence within Jewish and Christian thinkers and writings, and conclude with a judgment as to the size of the role Stoicism played in the progression of this Judaic-Christian religious tradition.

Before we attempt to analyze the evidence of Stoicism in Judaic writing, we must first briefly define what is considered Stoic Philosophy. Stoicism originated in Athens with a man named Zeno of Citium (336-263 B.C.). This school of Hellenistic thought, which found popularity amongst the rich upper Roman classes, emphasized a moral and ordered purpose of the universe (Harris 43). Within this order, ultimate purpose and meaning was found within Reason. This ultimate Reason, in which the Stoics attempt to plug into, was identified as the Logos (Λόγός).[1] Although this paper will touch further in depth regarding the word Logos, it is an important term to underscore, because late Jewish thinkers and New Testaments writings borrow both the terminology and its Stoic usage freely. This Universal Wisdom/Reason “unifies the world and makes it intelligible to the human intellect,” (Harris 43). Man finds within himself a spark of this divine Logos, which takes a fiery-like substance, and the purpose of the Stoic is to connect to his individual reason with the source of cosmic Reason, which is done by elevating himself from worldly experiences (lust, anxiety, pain), and refining oneself bodily and intellectually to a degree of disciplined harmony with Nature (Logos).

Man, a part of this divine order, was capable of understanding it and its laws through the reason possessed by all men. Virtue depended on knowledge, and knowledge was obtained through reason. The golden rule was ‘follow nature,’ live consistently with nature, obey the universal law of nature [Logos]. (Curtis 104).

The focus of the Stoic was thus self-control, discipline, self-sufficiency, distance from emotional experiences (pain, pleasure), rational thinking, and an understanding of this cosmic-governing Nature (Logos).

Before Hellenistic influence is discussed regarding Josephus and others, it is worth mentioning when the two cultures came into contact. Although it is suggested that they may have been in trade as early as the 7th century B.C., it isn’t until 332 B.C. that Alexander the Great conquers the Orient, thus bringing the two cultures close enough to spur cultural exchanges and conversations (Brunschwig & Lloyd 873). From this conquering, the Jews were mostly required to learn the Greek language, as well as adjust to the pressure of Hellenistic culture. From here, we are given an idea of the interchange and communication in which Josephus and others later took part. Josephus himself was a 1st century Jewish thinker, apologist, and historian who gave important historical accounts of the destruction of the temple and other 1st century events. Some of his most famous works include The Jewish War (75 A.D.) and Antiquities of the Jews (94 A.D.).

Our first sign of Stoic influence found within the writings of Josephus is in his comparisons of Jewish sects to schools of Greek Philosophy, where he compares the Pharisees to the Stoic School (Life 12) and the Essenes to the Pythadorean model (Ant 15.371) (Felman 190). In comparing the Pharisees to the Stoic school, and having arrived within the Pharisaic camp after trying the others, it wouldn’t be an error to suggest that this connection offers evidence of Josephus’ favorability towards Stoicism (Felman 190). With this Pharisee-Stoic connection drawn, we can now pursue evidence of Stoic ideas in his writings, by focusing next with his redressing of the story of Isaac’s attempted sacrifice, his perspective of Moses as a Stoic sage, and his view of law and authority.

The first proposed evidence of Josephus’ Stoic leanings is in his redressing of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Knowing that his Stoic-inclined audience would find action out of ‘blind-faith’ unfavorable, Josephus redresses his telling of the story as depicting Abraham “in the guise of a kind of Stoic philosopher, who reasons that ‘all that befell His [G-d’s] favored ones’ was ordained by his providence (προνοιασ) (Ant 1.225),” (Felman 194). The Greek word προνοι[2] is itself a Stoic term, in which Josephus uses 74+ times in the first half of Antiquities (Felman 194).

A second source of Stoic influence is in Josephus’ presentation of Moses as a Stoic sage in Antiquities 2.229. Here we find Josephus complimenting Moses as being “remarkable for his ‘contempt for toils’ (πονων καταφρονησει) (Ant. 2.229), a typically Stoic phrase,” (Felman 194). In addition to the Stoic attitude of despising toils, Josephus explains that Moses’ “emphasis on law (νομοσ[3]) is in accord with the Stoic view that regarded νομοσ as the expression of the cosmos and that viewed man as a κοσμοπολιτησ[4] who must order his life in accordance with universal law,” (Felman 194). From Josephus’ comparison of his Pharisee sect as similar to that of the Stoic school, to his redressing of Abraham’s sacrifice, to his usage of key Stoic terms and ideas with Moses, it is clear that in his attempts to target a Greek-cultured audience, Josephus’ understanding and explanation of scripture carried a Stoic influence and tone.

In addition to Josephus, a second Hellenized Jewish thinker who displayed Stoic influence was Philo. Philo Judaeus was a Hellenistic Jewish scholar writing in the 1st century from Alexandria. Although Philo included in his work similar Stoic views of matter, death and God, what is most important in our comparison is the inclusion of Greek Wisdom and Hebrew religion in his Philosophy, “which he sought to fuse and harmonize by means of the art of allegory that he had learned from the Stoics,” (Toy, Siegfried & Lauterbach 1). In traditional Stoic fashion, Philo examined the Hebrew bible with a philosophical lens, dividing it between a literal understanding that focused on human need, and the allegorical sense that needed a special understanding (Toy, Siegfried & Lauterbach 1).  As the Sage brought about union with his individual logos (reason) to the supreme Logos (Nature), Philo advocated an understanding of this allegorical level of the Hebrew Bible in which to achieve Wisdom. One of these most important philosophical ideas is that of the afore-mentioned Logos, and how Philo attempts to reconcile Hellenistic logic and reason with the wisdom and revelation of Hebrew scripture.

Probably influenced by the author of Wisdom of Solomon, “Philo used the Hebrew concept of Wisdom as the creative intermediary between the transcendent Creator and the material creation,” (Harris 219-220). Philo as well focused on borrowing the very Stoic Greek term of Logos to explain this understanding. Although there exists a separate word for wisdom in Greek (σοφια, so-phi-a), Philo’s usage of Logos instead emphasizes his Stoic influence.  “Philo’s interpretation can be illustrated by an allegorical reading of Genesis 1, in which God’s first act is to speak—to create the Word (Logos)—by which power the Cosmos is born.” (Harris 219-220). Although Philo also emphasized Stoic ideas of virtue, cosmology and other ideas, the usage of the Greek Logos as personified by the allegorical reading of the Hebrew tradition of Wisdom (as found in Proverbs), is our most distinctive and valuable Stoic idea. With it, Philo attempts to package Logos as initiating with Yahweh and His word. By coming to an understanding of the allegorical level of the Hebrew Bible, one can use this gained knowledge to connect with God (true Cosmic Reason & Wisdom), fulfilling one’s purpose of the Stoic concept of becoming a complete rational being. In this scenario and understanding, Logos (God’s word) acts as the intermediary that brings one to ultimate Reason (and Wisdom). As this paper will further develop, this concept of Logos is also central in identifying Stoic influences in the Apocryphal work of the Wisdom of Solomon and the writings of John.

Although it is easy to find Stoic and Hellenistic influences with late Jewish thinkers (post 300 B.C.), it is increasingly more difficult to find, if any, Stoic influence within the writings of the Hebrew Bible. This is understandable, given a lack of intellectual and cultural communication between the two camps pre-Alexander’s conquests. The Hebrews themselves are interesting in their distinctive and internal culture, and although signs of trading between the Greek and Hebrews were evident as early as 700 B.C., the two don’t engage in an intellectual and cultural exchange until after Alexander the Great’s conquests. After this point, we find such Jewish Hellenized writers as Philo, Ben Sira, Josephus and others trying to communicate the message of Hebrew revelation in Hellenized terminology. In addition, we find apocryphal writings around this time that either attempt to communicate Hebrew ideas in Stoic terminology, or simply show Stoic influence. With Scholars dating a majority of the Hebrew texts before the 3rd century, and without any in-depth exchange besides mundane trade between the two, the Hebrew identity pre-Alexander remained intact and special. This is extremely important in understanding the influence Stoicism brought to Judaism. Books from the Hebrew Bible may contain some ideas that can be stretched to appear Stoic, as is the case with the constant personification of Wisdom as found in Proverbs 8:22-30, but this is more so a case of internal progression of Hebrew ideas than a borrowing of the Stoic concept of Logos. For that reason we must admit that Stoic ideas, with their relative absence in early and middle Judaism, account for no real influence on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament, a.k.a. Tanakh). The value then, is in taking this introverted Hebrew tradition, and comparing it with ideas promoted by Christianity and late Jewish thinkers. With that in mind, we will now analyze Stoic influence in the later Apocryphal writings, and after analyzing Stoic influence in Christianity, we will conclude with a summary of Stoicisms role in Judaic and Early Christian thought.

Although timing and the relative independence of Jewish literature from Hellenized influence was a real factor that kept the Hebrew Bible distinct and original, the same cannot be said of the works of the Apocrypha. These documents were written, usually by an anonymous author claiming authorship of great Hebrew thinkers (Saul, David, Solomon, etc.), after Israel was conquered by Alexander the Great around 332 B.C. For this reason of timing, Hellenized ideas were present, possible and popular. The first of two apocryphal works worth mentioning because of their possible Stoic influence is the Wisdom of Solomon. Wisdom of Solomon is an apocryphal work written probably by an Alexandrian Jew in Egypt. The writing’s purpose appears to be the attempted synthesis of Greek ideas with Hebrew history and religious thought, as made evident by a familiarity and usage of Greek philosophical concepts (Harris & Platzner 357).[5]

In Wisdom of Solomon, the author attempts “to demonstrate Judaism’s ethical and religious superiority” by arguing that “his tradition offers a view of the world history and divine justice that will appeal to the moral and rational Gentile.” (Harris Platzner 357).  In the second to last chapter of the book, he continued this attempt by drawing contrasts to the popular idea of Wisdom in Greek thought and the Hebrew tradition. “He describes Wisdom as God’s ‘all-powerful word’ leaping down ‘from heaven, from the royal throne,’ to take up residence in a ‘land that was doomed.’… This cosmic figure ‘touched the heaven while standing on the earth,’ linking the realms of matter and spirit,”[6] (Harris & Platzner 358). This concept of divine word is reflective of the Logos comparisons drawn by Philo about a century or so after the Wisdom of Solomon. It is interesting to note that this idea of personified wisdom, linking the spiritual and physical world, is similar to the notion of divine cosmic reason, Logos, found in Stoic philosophy and the writings of Philo Judaeus. It is also interesting to follow these similarities to the later writings of John in his self-named Gospel in the New Testament.

Like the Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees also remains as an apocryphal work. Unlike the previous three historical Maccabean books, this one takes a philosophical tone that attempts to argue how reason rules over the passion of the body. The author uses distinctly Greek vocabulary, style, and Stoic ideas in his explanation of reason and it’s role, yet also borrows distinctly Hebrew ideas of Wisdom and the root of true knowledge as being found in the “Torah and absolute fidelity to its principles,” (Harris & Platzner 375).[7]

The author of the book uses the example of the Jewish people’s faithfulness under the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV to argue how the Jewish people’s reason (their understanding of the Torah), allowed them to control the physical desire to disobey their Hebrew traditions and submit to their oppressive ruler. The evidence of the Stoic idea of suppressing one’s emotional desires and anxieties, in this case the desire to toss aside truth and survive physically, is clearly reflective of the Stoic idea of controlling one’s passions and desires. In addition, the author “demonstrates the values of Stoic qualities (duty, endurance, self-control, and service to family and state) through their application to the lives of such biblical models of faith as Joseph (2:2-3), Moses (2:17), Jacob (2:19), David (3:6-18), and the martyrs of the Maccabean period (Chs. 5-17),” (Harris & Platzner 374). In the end, the author makes the case that the Greek virtues are mere devices used to explain the true reality of wisdom known to the Jews’ through God and the Torah (17:19-18-24).  To the author, Yahweh is this true source of wisdom and virtue.

Having explored different Jewish authors, the Old Testament, and Jewish Apocrypha, our discussion of Stoic influence in late Judaism would only find completion by exploring its influence with Jewish Christian thinkers, and evidence of Stoicism in New Testament writings. First amongst these Jewish converts to Christianity, and one of the most important thinkers of Early Christianity, is that of Paul of Tarsus. Paul’s interaction with Stoics is even directly referenced in Acts 17:18-34, where Paul engages in debate with Stoics and Epicureans. Although this experience is nothing to explain Stoic influence on Paul’s thinking, he does provide Stoic tones in several of his writings and ideas. One idea in particular is his concept of “self-discipline or the ability to endure want or plenty,” that he echoes in Phil. 4:11-14 (Harris 44). This idea was extremely popular and commonplace amongst Stoic thinkers and Roman upper-classmen, and it is no stretch to assume that Paul expressed such influence in this letter.[8]

In the letter to Galatians, Paul defensively explains the concept of Christ-given freedom against the Church of Galatia’s abuse.[9] In Galatians, Paul conjures forth a definition of Freedom similar to that of Stoic teaching. “Quoting lists of vices and virtues typical of Stoic ethical teaching, the apostle notes that the Spirit will enable believers to transcend their natural selfishness and to act generously (Galatians 5:13-26).” (Harris 336).[10] [11]

A third Stoic influence that Paul potentially elicits is the “Stoic view that the state exists to maintain public order and punish wrongdoing,” (Harris 343-344).  In Romans 13, “Paul argues that the Roman Empire is a ‘divine institution,’ ” (Harris 343-344).  The Stoics, especially those of the Upper-Roman classes, carried the view that adhering to the Nature of government was part of the goal of the Stoic, and this idea provides additional evidence that Paul used a similar justification of government that the Romans used “as a rationalization of the need to live under oppressive rule,” (Curtis 104).[12]

Our second source of potential Stoic influence in found in the Apostle John. As mentioned previously, Logos plays a significant point in relating the ideas of Stoic thought with the early Christian writing and late Judaic ideas. The clearest example of Logos’ important usage is found in the opening of the Gospel of John, where John relates a pre-human Christ to creative word (divine wisdom, cosmic reason), and thus explains how God uses this Logos, that is personified as Christ, to bring the world into existence (Harris 219).[13] [14] “In the Greek philosophical tradition, Logos is also a divine concept, the principle of cosmic Reason that gives order and coherence to the otherwise chaotic world, making it accessible to human intellect,” (Harris 219). However John may not have only borrowed from the Hellenistic philosophical usage, as there exists a strong Hebrew tradition of wisdom as an accompanying force that aided Yahweh in the world’s creation (Harris & Platzner 300).[15] To add to this, it is also undeniable that the beginning of the Gospel of John echoes the beginning of Genesis, “which records that God created simply by speaking (e.g. ‘Let there be light’ in v. 3). That is, God created by means of his word,” (NIV 1721). Even as this Hebrew wisdom tradition continued to grow throughout late Judaism, it is undeniable that the Stoic idea of Logos, or a divine reason that sustained and ordered the universe, played a substantial role in influencing later Jewish and Christian philosophies.[16]

After having analyzed the potential influence of Stoicism with late Jewish thinkers, Jewish works of the Apocrypha, and early Christian authors, one is left judging the weight of influence Stoicism had. Although it is undeniable these different Jewish authors and thinkers clearly borrowed Stoic terminology and language, it is debatable whether this reflects clear Stoic influence, or simply a method used to communicate the revelation of the Bible and Yahweh to a Greek audience. Regardless of whether they were inwardly influenced or whether they merely spoke the Stoic language of their times, one is forced to compare the fundamentals of Stoicism with those of Judaism and Christianity, and arrive to a conclusion. Having mentioned the relative isolation and authenticity of Hebrew ideas, given the time and lack of intellectual exchanges between Greeks and Jews, one is left analyzing Judaic-Christian fundamental ideas such as Man, God, and Human nature to determine the relative size of Stoic influence. Firstly, in Judaic-Christian thought, Man is made in the image of God, but he is not identical with God. However in Stoicism the primal substance is this fiery Logos (Stub 219).  This exists in both ‘God’ and man, and both are identical. Man is God and God is man, or as Seneca says, “Reason is nothing else than a part of the divine spirit immersed in the human body,”[17] (Stub 219).  However, in the New Testament and the Hebrew bible nowhere is man explained in such divine terms. His humbled status to a personal God is merely reinforced, while Stoics attempt to explain man’s equal synthesis with this impersonal Logos. In addition to the contrasting nature of God, and the identity of man, we also find a vast difference in the idea of human nature. To Paul, man is desperately wicked (Rom. 5:12-21 & 1 Cor. 15:22), yet as explained above, to the Stoic it is divine (Stub 220). “The essence of the whole Stoic ethic is to live according to nature; the essence of the Christian ethic of the New Testament [and the Judaic Laws found in the Hebrew Bible] is to live according to the supernatural. Therefore, whatever apparent agreement there may be in terminology, the fundamental aims and ideal are different,” (Stub 221).

In conclusion, it is clear, given the Hebrew’s early cultural isolation from the Greeks, that the Jews were given ample time to develop distinctly Judaic ideas (personal God, human nature, personified wisdom, sinfulness, the fall of man, revelation, etc.). Given this authentically Jewish source, the later Jewish writers (Philo & Josephus), as well as early Christianity (John, Paul, etc.), are centrally grounded within these original Jewish ideas. Although we find clear evidence of Stoic language and influence, it is arguably more a product of the Hellenized language of their days, than a force that influenced Judaic-Christian fundamentals. Rather, it would appear that these Judaic-Christian forces brought their authentically Jewish roots and presented them in such a way as would appeal to their Stoic-leaning audiences (Philo and his personified wisdom, John and his Logos personified as Christ). We may then conclude, that although late Judaism and early Christianity clearly borrowed Stoic ideas and language, it is more so a product of their environments and efforts at communication, then a glimpse into the foundations of their core beliefs.

Works Cited

Harris, Stephen L. The New Testament A Students Introduction. Sacramento, McGraw-Hill, 2002. 

 

Harris, Stephen L, and Platzner, Robert L. The Old Testament An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Sacramento, McGraw-Hill, 2003.

 

Feldman, Louis H. Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible. University of California Press, 1998

 

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1997). Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism. The Journal of Political Philosophy, Volume 5, Nr 1, pp. 1-25

 

Holy Bible. New International Version Archaeology Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005.

Toy, Crawford Howell. Siegfried, Carl. Lauterbach, Jacob Zallel. “Philo Judaeus.” Jewish

Encyclopedia. September 29 2008. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=281&letter=P&gt;

Curtis, Michael. The Great Political Theories Volume 1. New York, Avon Books, 1981.

Greek New Testament. Greek NT: WH / NA27 / UBS4. <http://biblos.com/john/1-1.htm&gt;

Stob, Ralph. “Stoicism and Christianity.” JSTOR. The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4. The

 

Classical Association of Middle West and South Inc, 1935. September 29 2008. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3290087?seq=2>


[1] The Greek word Logos has two meanings: first is its normal Greek translation as ‘words’, and second its Philosophical and Stoic translation as “cosmic wisdom” (Harris 43).

[2] Pronounced ‘pro-noi-as’, and means God’s providence and the source of utopia, similar to that of Nature or Logos. Heavily used by the Stoics.

[3] Pronounced ‘no-mos’

[4] Κοσμοπολιτησ derives from the Greek words for Cosmos (κοσμοσ) and City (πολισ), emphasizing a person as being a citizen of the world. This concept was heavily emphasized and grown within Stoic thought, stating that individuals “dwells[ed] in two communities – the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration” (Nussbaum 1-25).

[5] Wisd. Of Sol. 8:7, 19-20; 12:1)

[6] Wisd. Of Sol. 18:15),”

[7] 4 Maccabees 1:15-17

[8] “11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I 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. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength. 14Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” (NIV Phi. 4:11-14).

[9] They were accused of practicing antinomianism, which was using the new spiritual freedom to indulge any desire and appetite.

[10]16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Galatians 5:16)

 

 

[11] 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

[12] “1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)

[13] 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (NIV John 1:1)

[14] “εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος” (John 1:1)

[15] Wisdom is personified as a female in Proverbs 8:22-31

[16] The idea of Logos was initiated in Greek thought by the Philosopher Heraclitus (born 540 B.C.) He used it to mean ‘an ordering principle for the universe’.

[17] Seneca, Ep. xlvi, 12

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2 thoughts on “‘Jewish Stoicism’: Analyzing the Evidence of Stoic Influence in Judaic-Christian Thought

  1. Leonard, Great paper!! Only thing I disagree with is in the next to last paragraph you seem to overlook John 10:34, wherein Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, i.e. “I say, you are gods!”. Also, if God is Spirit, and Man is made “in his image”, then man is basically a Spirit and not a body; see 2 Peter 1:4–“These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature…”. I think if one looked further, one could find plenty of other quotes to support this argument, which seems to be a perennial point of contention in Greek, Jewish, and all religions& philosophies, thruout Man’s history. Are we basically Spirit or Matter/Body? Seems to me that Satan would prefer we believe the latter; makes us more submissive to him, instead of God.

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