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Stoicism, Platonism, and the Jewishness of Early Christianity

The last few decades have taught us that speaking of Stoicism, Platonism, and Judaism as constituting a single context for understanding Early Christianity is not a contradiction (Stoicism and Platonism here; Judaism there), but rather entirely correct. The roots of Christianity are obviously Jewish, but in the Hellenistic and Roman periods Judaism itself was part of Greco-Roman culture, even though it, too, had its roots way back in history before the arrival of the Greeks. Thus the borderline between Judaism and the Greco-Roman world that has been assiduously policed by theologians speaking of Early Christianity has been erased. Similarly, the borderline between Greco-Roman ‘philosophy’ and Jewish and early Christian ‘religion’ has been transgressed. Hellenistic Jewish writers like the author of the Wisdom of Solomon (around 30 BCE) and Philo of Alexandria (ca. 30 BCE-45 CE) unmistakably drew quite heavily on both Platonism and Stoicism to express their Jewish message. The same has been argued––with special emphasis on Stoicism––by the present writer for the Apostle Paul and (most recently) the Gospel of John. And the Platonic colouring of another New Testament text, the Letter to the Hebrews, has been known for a long time. Thus Early Christianity no longer stands in opposition to Greco-Roman ‘philosophy.’ On the contrary, they belong in the same pool, at the same time as Early Christianity also retains its Jewish roots.

This new understanding raises a question that may be worth pondering: is Stoicism better suited than Platonism to capture, express, and articulate the Jewishness of Early Christianity? That is, can one understand why early Christian writers, like Paul and John, may have felt that Stoic ideas were more congenial than Platonic ones for bringing out their own understanding of God, Jesus Christ, the ‘Spirit’ and the meaning of these three entities for human beings?

Against this idea stand a number of considerations. First, it is far from settled that Paul and John are in fact best understood in Stoic terms. For instance, I have myself argued that Paul’s idea of the “resurrection body” as a “spiritual body” (a sôma pneumatikon) is best understood in terms of the specifically Stoic understanding of the “spirit” (pneuma) as a bodily phenomenon. This reading extends also to explaining  Paul’s views of how human beings should live in the present, as prematurely informed by the pneuma (only to be fully present in them at their resurrection). Here I find a basically monistic understanding pervading all of Paul’s cosmology and anthropology. Others, however, have argued for some extent of Stoic colouring in Paul’s cosmology and ontology, but a much more Platonic colouring in his anthropology, e.g. when Paul (“dualistically”?) contrasts “our inner (human) being” with “our mortal flesh.” This is argued, for example, by Stanley Stowers in From Stoicism to Platonism.

Is Stoicism better suited than Platonism to capture, express, and articulate the Jewishness of Early Christianity?

As for John, I have myself argued, that the conjunction of logos (“rationality”, “plan”) and pneuma in John 1 is best elucidated in Stoic terms, where these constitute two sides of the same coin, one cognitive and one material––once again with wide implications for the rest of the Gospel. Others, however, have argued for a much stronger Platonic colouring of John: C. H. Dodd back in 1953 (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel), but also quite recently––and in a very different manner––Harold Attridge ( in From Stoicism to Platonism), who read John along a trajectory, going from the fundamentally “Platonizing” Philo of Alexandria via John to the so-called “Valentinian” (and “Gnostic”) writings from the 2nd century. So, perhaps these scholars are right?

Secondly, there is an issue of how to understand the situation within Greco-Roman philosophy in the period itself, just before and during the writing of the New Testament texts. Is it correct to see Stoicism as the leading dogmatic philosophy (at least as relevant to the Jewish and early Christian writers) and thus the type of philosophy with which writers like Paul and John might most “naturally” interact––with Platonism only gradually coming into taking that position, as it clearly did from the 2nd century onwards?

It is clear that the implications of these issues are momentous. For if a “Stoicizing” reading of Paul and John is better than a “Platonizing” one, then we must basically situate the Platonic understanding of Christianity later than the two mentioned central New Testament writers themselves. And then, apparently, there was a type of Christianity before that which was not informed by “dualistic” Platonism.

Here, however, the question to be raised is whether a “Stoicizing” reading of Paul and John is not in fact better suited than a Platonic one to capture specifically the evident Jewishness of their message? Dodd’s contemporary, the German master Rudolf Bultmann, contrasted both Paul and John with a Platonically inspired, dualistic “Gnosticism” by referring back to the Jewish roots of Early Christianity. An example is Bultmann’s reading of Paul’s use of the term “body” (sôma) as standing for “the whole person”, which Bultmann took to be a specifically Jewish idea. But it is also Stoic. So, perhaps––that is the challenge here––Stoicism is in fact better suited than Platonism to capture the very Jewishness of Early Christianity. And perhaps there in fact was a pre-Platonizing Christianity.

Featured image credit: Christ Jesus religion mosaic by Didgeman. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. David Glidden

    I wonder whether Posidonius has a role to play in this story regarding the importance of Stoicism in 1st century Christianity, since he fused elements of Stoicism and Platonism together. The big obstacles regarding early Stoic influence are Stoic views on the afterlife where sages’ pneuma fuse with God, and personal identity ceases, a notion that later proved attractive to medieval mystics. Augustine’s bitter hostility to Stoicism suggests some sort of ontological antipathy that must have had early roots.

  2. Patrice Ayme

    Very interesting.

    Fascism gave birth to Stoicism, a case of a madness and exploitation creating the own mental environment it needed.
    How do we know this?

    One can look at the dates: Stoicism was created and taught 35 years after the fascist plutocracy was imposed on Athens.
    More generally, fascism advocates a shrinking of (free) thinking, and that’s best implemented by a shrinking of the emotions (viewed as noble).

    Christianity went further in all this intellectual fascism, as only thoughts validated by the fascist god were allowed. Conclusion? Books were destroyed, libraries burned, intellectuals terrorized, chased down, and assassinated. Civilization collapsed. In great part because of the infamy and corruption all too much of a stoic attitude enabled to thrive, unimpeached.

  3. Mark Vernon

    I’m sure you discuss this elsewhere, but I’m not sure the stoicism of the 1st century can be neatly separated from the platonism of the time. Hence the modern notion of “middle platonism”.
    Also, and although you use scare quotes, I’m wary of any understanding of ancient platonism that resorts to the notion of dualism. It’s a word that didn’t exist for millennia, until well after Descartes, and conceals more than it reveals – the ancient assumption being of a continuity of being from the manifest material to the invisible spirit. That’s across platonism and stoicism alike.

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