Saturday, March 6, 2010

Was Jesus a Cynic?

A real Cynic well prepared will not be satisfied with having been well-trained himself. He must realise that he has been sent as God's messenger to his fellow humans, to show them where they've gone astray over what is right and what is wrong. (Epictetus III xxii 23)

The material common to both Matthew and Luke (designated as Q) lacks any reference to an historical Jesus, yet some scholars believe Q is where the teachings of the genuine historical Jesus are to be found. However, as we shall see, the sayings found in Q are quite similar to the teachings of the Greek Cynic philosophers.

Cynicism was a philosophy popular between the 5th century BCE through the 5th century CE. The Cynics believed in living a life of virtue according to nature. They scorned possessions and often lived as beggars, traveling from town to town preaching their message.

The Cynics desired to do away with traditional societal structures, including the family. Luke 14:26/Mattew 10:37 expresses a very Cynic idea: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

F. Gerald Downing has compiled numerous examples of Cynic ideas found in the Gospels in his book Christ and the Cynics. I'll list a few of them below:

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20/Matthew 5:3)
Only the person who has despised wealth is worthy of God. (Seneca EM XVIII 13)

Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves. (Matthew 10:9-10).
Wearing only ever one shirt is better than needing two; and wearing just a cloak with no shirt at all is better still. Going bare-foot, if you can, is better than wearing sandals. (Musonius XIX)

Salute no man by the way. (Luke 10:4)
Keep to yourself, quite unsociable, exchanging greetings with no one, neither friend nor stranger. (Lucian)

Seek, and ye shall find (Luke 11:9/Matthew 7:7)
Seek and you will find. (Epictetus)

For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. (Luke 12:2/Matthew 10:26)
The Cynic [...] ought to have nothing of his own that he wants to hide. Otherwise [...] he's begun to feel the need for concealment. And he couldn't possibly keep anything concealed even if he wanted to. Where or how could he possibly hide himself? (Epictetus)

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. (Matthew 10:28/Luke 12:5)
What tyrant or thief or court can frighten anyone who does not care about his body or its possessions? (Epictetus)

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. (Matthew 10:29/Luke 12:6)
Isn't God such that he oversees everything, and is present there with everything, and is able to be in touch, in some way, with everything? (Epictetus)

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:6)
God brings into balance aspects of things that are out of true, he puts together again what has been broken apart, he hurries to press down what has started to slip out of place, he collects together again what has been scattered (Psuedo-Herclitus 6.3-4)

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30)
When someone has God's kind of peace proclaimed by God through his reasoning mind (not by Caesar - how could he effect it?) hasn't he enough to satisfy him? ...Now no evil can happen to me... Another takes care to provide me with my food and my clothes, my senses, and the structures of my mind. (Epictetus III xiii 12-14)
Hunger, cold, contempt? Poverty doesn't necessitate any of these. Not hunger, for lots of things grow from the earth and can satisfy hunger; for the dumb beasts go without clothes and don't feel it. (Psuedo-Diogenes)
Practice reducing your needs, and so come as close as possible to God. (Crates 11)

And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? (Luke 12:22-24)
"Good God, that's all very well, but I'm a poor man without property. Suppose I have lots of children, where am I going to get food for them all?" "Well, where do the little birds go to get food from to feed their young, though they're much worse off than you are--the swallows and nightingales and larks and blackbirds...? Do they store away food in safe-keeping?" (Musonius)
Why not consider the beasts and the birds, and see how much more painlessly they live than humans do, how much more pleasantly and healthily. (Dio)
The philosophic wise man...without being concerned or anxious about more than the bare necessities, will give his stomach and back what's due to them. Carefree and happy, he'll laugh at people busy with their riches, and at others scurrying around trying to get rich, and he'll say, "Why postpone being yourself into the distant future?" (Seneca)

Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. (Luke 18:22/Matthew 19:21)
Crates sold up all his property--he was from a prominent family--and realized about two hundred talents. This he shared among his fellow citizens. (Diogenes Laertius)

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. (Matthew 6:20/Luke 12:33)
Our soul knows, I tell you, that wealth does not lie where it can be heaped together. It is the soul itself that we ought to fill, not our money-chest. It is the soul that we may set above all other things, and put, god-like, in possession of the universe...when it has taken itself off to the great heights of heaven. (Seneca)

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. (Luke 13:19)
However small a seed is, once it's sown in suitable ground, its potential unfolds, and from something tiny it spreads out to its maximum size... I'd say brief precepts and seeds have much in common. Great results come from small beginnings. (Seneca)

And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27/Matthew 10:38)
If you want to be crucified, just wait. The cross will come. If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right, then it's to be carried through, and your integrity maintained. (Epictetus)

Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. (Luke 17:33/Matthew 10:39)
Socrates cannot be preserved by an act that is shameful... It is dying that preserves him, not fleeing. (Epictetus)

But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24/Matthew 6:2)
The King, said Diogenes, was the most wretched person there was, surrounded by all that gold, yet afraid of poverty. (Dio 6.34)

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other as well... Love your enemies, and do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. (Luke 6:27-29/Matthew 5:39-44)
A rather nice part of being a Cynic comes when you have to be beaten like an ass, and throughout the beating you have to love those who are beating you as though you were father or brother to them. (Epictetus III xxii 54)
How shall I defend myself against my enemy? By being good and kind towards him, replied Diogenes. (Gnomologium Vaticanum 187)
Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall. (Seneca, de ira II xxxiv 5)
It's a pitiably small-minded person who gives bite for bite. (Seneca, de ira 11 xxxiv 1)
Socrates said, Follow these instructions, if you are willing to listen to me at all, so that you may live happily, letting yourself look a fool to others. Let anyone who wants to, offer you insult and injury... If you want to live happily, a good man in all sincerity, let all and sundry despise you. (Seneca EM LXXI 7)

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. (Luke 6:31/Matthew 7:12)
Take care not to harm others, so others won't harm you. (Seneca EM CIII 3-4)
If you want to be loved, love. (Seneca EM IX 6)

Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch? (Luke 6:39/Matthew 15:14)
You can no more have a fool as a king than a blind man to lead you along the road. (Dio 62.7)
Some people prefer to be provided with a blind guide rather than a sighted one. They're bound to take a tumble. (Philo)

For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil. (Luke 6:44-45/Matthew 7:16, 12:33-35)
Who would think to be surprised at finding no apples on the brambles in the wood? or be astonished because thorns and briars are not covered in useful fruits? (Seneca de ira II x 6)
Evil no more gives birth to good than an olive tree produces figs. (Seneca)

And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. (Luke 9:58/Matthew 8:20)
I've no property, no house, no wife nor children, not even a straw mattress, or a shirt, or a cooking pot. (Epictetus)

And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:59-60/Matthew 8:22-23)
A little while before Demonax died someone asked, "What instructions have you given about your burial?" "No need to fuss," he said. "The stink will get me buried." (Lucian)

Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. (Luke 10:3/Matthew 10:16)
Crates said that people living with flatterers were in as bad a way as calves among wolves. (Diogenes Laertius)

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
And you, are you at liberty to examine others' wickednesses, and pass judgment on anyone...? You take note of others' pimples when you yourself are a mass of sores... It's like someone covered in foul scabs laughing at the odd mole or wart on someone of real beauty. (Seneca)
When the Athenians do philosophy in your way they are like people promising to heal others of ills they've not managed to cure in themselves. (Pseudo-Diogenes)

As you can see, the wording isn't exactly the same, but the ideas are similar. Since the Cynics preached amongst the land for centuries before Christ was allegedly born, it's not surprising that Jesus would have absorbed many of their ideas. However, isn't it also possible that the sayings attributed to Jesus were really the sayings of a community?

Alexander the Great conquered the known world in the fourth century BCE. Greek philosophy, including Platonism and Cynicism, greatly influenced Jewish culture at the time Christianity emerged. In fact the word "synagogue" (refering to a Jewish congregation) is a Greek word. By 200 BCE some Jewish worship services were actually conducted in Greek. The gospels were written in Greek, and in fact, several of Jesus' disciples had Greek names such as Andrew, Philip, and Simon.

The epistles of Paul read like they were written by a Platonic Jew, while the sayings of Jesus have more than a passing similarity to Cynicism. Jesus was both Jewish and Hellenistic. In one instance, Matthew even quotes from Aesop's fable of the Fisherman Piping ("We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced." Matthew 11:17).

In the end, Christianity seems to be nothing more than the result of Jewish and Greek cultures merging together. According to some scholars, there were 80 different factions of Jesus followers including Marcionism, Ebionism, Encratism, and Gnosticism. The fact that there were originally dozens of versions of Christianity speaks quite loudly against the single founder hypothesis. There is no need for a single great man to have started the Christian movement when the simple collision of cultures is explanation enough.


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agnostic deist said...

Why not? If Gadara not far from Nazareth was a center for cynics in those times, isn't likely that a historical young Jesus would have encountered some cynics, and liked them, and picked up from them, perhaps because he himself had a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak in him?

Just because Paul has a completely different philosohy/theology than Jesus doesn't mean that the historical Jesus didn't exist, it only means that Paul, as he admits, never met him. He seems to have met his brother James, though, who might have had yet another interpretation. But the fact that James was known to Paul as Jesus brother indicates strongly that Jesus was a historical person.

The cynical influence on the historical Jesus also explains why some more traditionalist jews would have seen him as a heretic, and wanted him dead for it, while Pilate was hesitant to crucify him, because normally the romans wouldn't crucify somebody for just being a cynic.

Amandarrell said...

To Anonymous: Glad I could be of some help. I don't know why blogger originally flagged your comment as spam, but I finally realized that it was there and allowed it.

To Agnostic Deist: You're right, Jesus could have existed and simply been influenced by the Cynics. However, I don't think James being the brother of Jesus is quite so cut and dry. A good case can be made for Galatians 1:19 being an interpolation, but even if it isn't, why refer to James as "brother of the Lord" instead of "brother of Jesus"? Also, Paul seems to use "brother" to refer to all Christians, not just literal brothers (see 1 Cor. 9:5 and 1 Cor. 16:12 for just two examples).

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Rursus said...

Right! It could be sayings of a community. Perhaps one community called "essene" or "nazoraean" then, but on the other hand perhaps not. The Gospels are aggregations of statements upon a sketch of a "biography", which in its turn is probably based on two lists of sayings collected by two early literate adherents of the movement. How cynic the real Jesus was, depends on in what aggregation layer the cynic teachings reside. Jesus could also have been a crazy throne pretender that believed that his incitement of violence in the Jerusalem tempel would have made God send his angels to incite a rebellion against the Romans and the Herodian upper class collaborating with the Romans, thereby providing a base story -- later on the Essene minded gospel writers of "Matthew" redacted the founding material of "Mark" and added suitable wisdom words that they have translated from their Greek cynic friends.

Avigdor Liberman said...
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