Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.11

Tuomas Rasimus, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Ismo Dunderberg (ed.), Stoicism in Early Christianity.   Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.  Pp. xiii, 301.  ISBN 9780801039515.  $39.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kelly Gerald, The Phi Beta Kappa Society (


Stoicism in Early Christianity is a collection of thirteen scholarly essays dedicated to exploring the relationship between Greco-Roman philosophy and the development of Christianity in the first and second century. The editors acknowledge in their introduction that the influence of Middle Platonism upon early Greek and Latin church fathers and the interaction between Platonism and Stoicism are important to elucidating early Christian texts; however, the editors assert that the research presented in their collection shows that Stoicism often bears a more significant influence on early Christian writers than Middle Platonism.

Stoicism in Early Christianity is the most recent and complete survey of scholarship on a topic that has been long neglected. The essays are exceptionally rigorous, far-ranging, and represent a high standard of scholarship, making this collection an essential resource for anyone interested in this area of research. For readers with a limited understand of Stoicism, the book provides an excellent introduction to some of the philosophy’s most important concepts. Stoicism in Early Christianity greatly enriches the appreciation of Christianity as part of the cultural fabric of the Greco-Roman world, and it offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between this popular philosophy and Christianity in its earliest years.

The essays contained in this volume are arranged in a roughly chronological order, beginning with contributions on New Testament authors and concluding with examinations of second century Christian texts. The essays are described below in the order in which they appear in the book.

The opening essay by Troels Engberg-Pederson, “Setting the Scene: Stoicism and Platonism in the Transitional Period in Ancient Philosophy,” provides historical and philosophical context for the essays collected in this volume. In the period from about 100 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., the Greco-Roman world experienced a gradual ideological shift from the predominance of Stoicism to the predominance of Platonism. The more fluid negotiation of philosophical ideas typical of this period was a trend that included Jewish and early Christian writers who, like other thinkers, followed the pattern of maintaining allegiance to their founding ideologies while also incorporating alien material.

In “Stoicism as a Key to Pauline Ethics in Romans,” Runar M. Thorsteinsson argues that a basic understanding of Stoic ethics informs Paul’s moral teachings in Romans 12-15, which includes Stoic allusions and analogies that would have been recognizable to his intended readers and important in helping them to understand Paul’s message. Examples from Epictetus, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus (Paul’s Roman contemporaries) are included in Thorsteinsson’s analysis.

Niko Huttunen's “Stoic Law in Paul?” examines how Stoic ideas provide an essential background for Paul’s thinking in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 1. . The notion that a person’s social position should be maintained is part of a value system common in Roman Stoicism; in the passage from Corinthians, Paul appears to consider that the same conceptcan be drawn from the Torah, but that relationship remains unclear. Huttunen’s analysis of the passage from Romans shows that Paul’s incorporation of Stoic ideas coexists with Jewish covenantal nomism, and the two approaches should be considered together.

In “Jesus the Teacher and Stoic Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew,” Stanley K. Stowers proposes that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew adapted elements of Stoic thought in creating his portrayal of Jesus as a sage and a teacher of ethics. Stowers limits his discussion to a few of the most distinctive elements of the Matthean Jesus – the idea of a universal ethic based on divine law, the demand for perfection, and the concept of intentionality.

Was the Gospel of John informed in some ways by Stoic thinking? Harold W. Attridge’s “An ‘Emotional’ Jesus and Stoic Tradition” considers the descriptions of the serene and detached Jesus as traits common to the Stoic sage. The Stoics had a highly developed taxonomy of emotions, and those attributed to Jesus and his disciples would have been familiar to readers with a background in Stoicism. While the Fourth Gospel reveals a Stoic influence in the description of emotion, the means of overcoming passions and developing positive emotions is through Christ, and thus the Stoic formulations are made to bear a new meaning.

The emotional Jesus in the later chapters of the Gospel of John, and the possible contrast between these emotions and the Stoic ideal of apathy, is examined by Gitte Buch-Hansen in “The Emotional Jesus: Anti-Stoicism in the Fourth Gospel?” In Origen’s reception of this Gospel, Jesus’ emotional upheavals correspond to the Stoic theory of preemotion as described by Seneca. Lamentations that represented common human interest and a concern with virtue were hallmarks of the philosophy of emotions developed by Philo (who was himself influenced by Stoicism). The same ideas are also found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

“Stoic Physics, the Universal Conflagration, and the Eschatological Destruction of the ‘Ignorant and Unstable’ in 2 Peter” by J. Albert Harrill provides a fascinating look into the conflagration physics common to many cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world, specifically comparing descriptions of the final judgment in 2 Peter to the survival of sages derived from the Stoic idea of a stable, holistic self. From the Stoic’s perspective, a person’s ethical character and physical state bore a direct correspondence to one another, so that those who live virtuously and have achieved wisdom survive the conflagration; those who, by contrast, have an unstable character do not endure. In 2 Peter, the believers are seekers of true wisdom and survive the end times by proper knowledge, the ignorant and the opponents of Christianity pass away.

While both Christians and adherents of Stoicism accepted slavery and most of their views were commonplace for the time, Christian and Stoic writers called for fair treatment of slaves and believed the condition of slavery was indifferent to the individual’s well-being. John T. Fitzgerald’s “The Stoics and the Early Christians on the Treatment of Slaves” offers a broad survey of the literature on this topic. Corporeal punishment and other forms of abuse inspired by passion or wrong feeling were discouraged by Stoics like Seneca and Lucilius, though more for the sake of the master’s improvement than concern for the slave. Christian writers, on the other hand, tended more often to approach discussions of slavery and right conduct from the perspective of the slave.

The Stoic position on determinism and free choice as expressed by Seneca, and also by second century Christian martyrs, is explored by Nicola Denzey in “Facing the Beast: Justin, Christian Martyrdom, and Freedom of the Will.” The choice of martyrdom as a form of suicide was a display of courage and offered the means to control one’s final encounter with the pain and suffering of life. Going peacefully to meet one’s death was also a display of strength and the ultimate assertion of free will. Martyred Christians were demonstrating these typically Roman and Stoic values in order to subvert the political and moral authority of the state and to gain respectability for the Christian movement, winning many converts among Romans.

“A Stoic Reading of the Gospel of Mary: The Meaning of ‘Matter’ and ‘Nature’ in Gospel of Mary 7.1-8.11” by Esther de Boer discusses Platonic and Gnostic interpretations of the Gospel of Mary in which involvement with and attachment to the material world must be avoided as a source of evil. The author contrasts this with a Stoic interpretation – that the material world was created by the Good, through Nature. If the cosmos is unstable and confused, according to the Gospel of Mary, it is because the world is being influenced by a force acting against Nature. The Savior does not liberate the world by destroying matter, but by restoring Nature to the Good by destroying that which acts against Nature. When compared to other early Christian sources (Philo and Clement of Alexandria) Gospel of Mary more clearly belongs to a context in which Stoic ideas were used to explain evil.

In “Stoic Traditions in the School of Valentinus”, Ismo Dunderberg makes the case for the Valentinian's use of Stoic philosophy by showing how a Stoic reading helps to bring forward certain points with greater clarity than readings from the perspective of other philosophical positions. It is reasonable to assume that Valentinian teachers would have had a philosophical education; it’s also plausible that they would have absorbed Stoic ideas from the popular philosophy of their time. The mythic discourse preferred by the Valentinians remains a problematic area, but it does indicate that the use of Stoicism, along with other sources, was part of a creative palette of innovation, and not a straight-forward adaptation.

In “Critical Reception of the Stoic Theory of Passions in the Apocryphon of John,” Takashi Onuki provides a careful exegesis of two of the four extant copies of Coptic manuscripts of the Apocryphon of John: NHC II, 1 and BG 8502, 2. These versions contain additional material that Onuki calls “the Great Interpolation.” This “Interpolation” involves descriptions of the creation of human beings, part of a greater salvation myth, that reflect Stoic epistemology and character theory. The representation of Stoicism is distorted by the Gnostic viewpoint; the purpose of the “Interpolation” appears to be to demonize Stoic theory, in spite of author’s expressions of a possible affinity for the Stoic ideal of apathy.

“Stoic Ingredients in the Neoplatoinc Being-Life-Mind Triad: An Original Second-Century Gnostic Innovation” by Tuomas Rasimus considers the possible Neoplatonic and Gnostic origins of the being-life-mind triad, later employed by Christians to defend the doctrine of the Trinity. While Plotinus is generally considered the founder of Neoplatonism, it has been argued that his student Porphyry should also be considered a founder of the movement for his improvements to Plotinus’ work; the being-life-mind triad in several variations is the product of Porphyry’s synthesis of Plotinus’ metaphysics with the Middle Platonic Chaldean Oracles. While Rasimus offers an analysis of the Stoic background of Porphyry’s triad, the author points out that Porphyry, who was working in the third century, could not have been the original innovator because the triad, including aspects of the formulation attributed to Porphyry, already existed in Gnostic texts predating his work.

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