BMCR 2020.09.25

Cynicism and Christianity in antiquity

, Cynicism and Christianity in antiquity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2019. xvii, 278 p.. ISBN 9780802875556. $75.00.

This English version of Dr. Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé’s French book[1] is a scholarly monument on the complex relationships between Cynicism and Christianity—and Judaism as well—in Antiquity. It aims at determining the possible impact of Cynicism on Christianity since the early Jesus movement, as one of its earliest literary artifacts known as the Q Gospel source—a hypothetical collection of alleged Jesus’s sayings assembled after his death—as well as apparent close similarities in their ways of life. Was Jesus a “peasant Jewish Cynic”, as it has been claimed?[2] The book provides a detailed examination of the most recent literature on this topic, based on the author’s previous works on ancient cynicism.[3] Unfortunately, it is impossible within the confines of this review to do justice to its meticulous reading of first and secondary sources, but only to provide a sketch of its global architecture.

The book has four chapters. The first one is an overall presentation of cynicism under the Hellenistic Era and the Roman Empire. The short biographies of the early cynics and their followers, as well as the synopsis of their doctrinal aspects provide nothing new with respect to the author’s interpretation of ancient Cynicism in her previous books: she sees it as a radical practical movement aiming at a life according to nature, understood as the rejection of civilization. Laying stress on the huge diversity of this Cynicism due to is connection to other philosophical movements and the various characters of the Cynics themselves, the author gives this chapter a methodological purpose, using it as a standard to measure the similarities and differences between the two movements at stake in the next three chapters.

The second chapter focuses on the contacts between Cynicism and Judaism, as an historical step required to arrive to Christianity. Cultural and personal contacts between Cynicism and Jews of Palestine and from the Diaspora, who were Hellenized, have been established from the third century onwards. This is evident in the works of Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus, who learned about the nature of Cynic asceticism through his readings, and in the Talmud too. Those contacts were also made possible through the early circulation of the chreiai about Antisthenes, Diogenes and Crates throughout the Mediterranean basin.

The relations between Cynicism and the Jesus Movement are the core topic of chapter three. Starting with a close discussion of Jesus’s knowledge of Greek language, it follows with the two main reasons of the possible relations of the Q texts to Cynicism: because some of them adopt the form of the chreia, and because they appear to parallel the model of the Hellenistic Lives or bios genre, as those of Diogenes Laertius. This parallel has nonetheless its limits, as these “lives” are deprived of the usual sarcasms of the cynics. It then remains difficult to assess the exact nature of the relationships between the early Jesus Movement and Cynicism. The main purpose of this chapter is probably the author’s cautious scrutiny on whether Jesus might have been a Cynic or not. She puts to the test the too quickly assessed assimilations of Jesus to a Jewish Cynic, and takes Kloppenborg’s side:[4] if not a Cynic, at least Q shows us a cynic-like Jesus.

The fourth and last chapter deals with the relationships between Cynicism and Christianity under the Roman Empire. Close contacts are attested from the second to the fifth century BC, and oscillate between mutual hostility and sympathy, whether it is from their respective perspectives, or from an external point of view: the pagan Aelius Aristides, for instance, both approves of them and condemns them. The sometimes fierce mutual opposition between Cynics and Christians led to persecutions and martyrdoms, as in the case of Justin, whose public attacks against the cynic Crescens might have been responsible, at least in part, for his martyrdom around 165. Christians criticized the Cynics’ indifference to the judgment of the others, their alleged immorality and lack of shame. But at the same time, the Christians admired the Cynics’ poverty, frugality, and asceticism, to the point where individuals like Peregrinus and Maximus Hero were able to be both Cynics and Christians. The author’s careful study of the sources of these two cases leads her to the conclusion that their twofold membership was only at the level of superficial commonalities between the two movements, like poverty, asceticism, and frankness of speech. These two movements might have considered each other mostly as rivals. The last section of this chapter states that, although Christian monks wore the cynic equipment, the question of whether they were “the Cynics of Christianity” (p. 238) is difficult to answer for lack of evidence of direct influence of Cynicism on monasticism. If these two movements have certain points in common, their differences are nonetheless more important.

The comparisons that give the book its focus of discussion rest on an initial interpretation of ancient cynicism that can be questioned, with possible impacts on the author’s conclusions, mostly regarding the political sides of the two movements. Absence of consideration of the political dimension of ancient cynicism possibly prevents her from seeing more points of contact between Cynicism and Christianity. For instance, according to her, Paul “was a founder of communities, and so he didn’t share the Cynics’ individualism” (p. 191). But how are we to accept this alleged “individualism” for a philosopher who claimed to be a “cosmopolitès”, that is, precisely, the founder of the largest political community ever conceived? Another example of the author’s apparent ignoring of the political stance of the ancient Cynics is her claim that they considered the invention of civilization and its irrational conventions as a perversion of nature. But far from aiming to return to a state of nature, the ancient Cynics rather advocated for correcting our political commitments by changing our mutual relationships.

The book sheds new light on the relationships between Athens and Jerusalem and so these remarks do not undermine its overall value and its methodological contribution to the field.


[1] Cynisme et christianisme dans l’Antiquité. Paris: Vrin, 2015. Translated by Christopher R. Smith.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991. Quoted by John S. Kloppenborg, Foreword, p. xii.

[3] Mostly: L’Ascèse cynique. Un commentaire de Diogène Laërce VI 70-71. Paris: Vrin, 1986. The Cynics: The Cynic Movement and Its Legacy. (ed with Robert Bracht Branham). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. Le Cynisme, une philosophie antique. Paris: Vrin, 2017.

[4] John S. Kloppenborg, Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.