Early Christianity Looked Like a Philosophical School

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post on Stanley K. Stowers’ chapter, “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” . . .

To pre-empt predictable objections Stowers begins with three riders:

  1. His comparison study does not make claims about origins; he is not arguing that Christianity began as a Hellenistic philosophy.
  2. Comparison or similarity does not mean sameness; he is not arguing that Pauline Christianity was a philosophy.
  3. Similarities with philosophical schools do not exclude similarities with other social groups.

With that ground cleared, following are seven similarities Stowers identifies.

1. Hellenistic philosophies saw themselves as distinctive sects, each focused on a central value/good

There were, for example, Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans. Each of these had its own attitude toward life and idea of what is the single umbrella good to which one must strive.

Stoics taught that virtue was “the answer” to the question of life. Everything else, all the other values and attachments deemed to be good were subordinate to “unitary good” of virtue. Family, possessions, would always take second place in the event of any conflict in following the ideal of virtue.

For Epicureans the ultimate good was freedom from pain and friendship. And so forth.

For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”. Other values such as marriage, the household, business, ethnicity, were secondary. Even the commandments of God in the Jewish scriptures were superseded by Christ.

Yes, Paul’s stress upon worship of only one God and not many, and his “apocalyptic intensification” of these beliefs was Jewish, but Paul ripped them away from their ethnic, cultic and legal Judean contexts.

2. Hellenistic philosophies were contrary to conventional thinking

Ordinary civic virtue and conventional values were not the way to “happiness” or the “good life” according to Hellenistic philosophies.

The philosophies taught new ways of thinking, new motivations and desires to cultivate. Asceticism was valued.

In this context Stowers believes it no accident that the founders of the Hellenistic schools were not married and that Jesus and Paul were not married either. Paul challenged both Gentile and Judean norms of culture. The wisdom of God was set in opposition to both Greek and Jewish values.

Again, the structural similarities with the philosophies are obvious. (p. 91)

3. Hellenistic philosophies led to a new life, a new orientation of the self, a conversion

Stoics taught that the conversion was instantaneous.

For a more detailed discussion of the similarity between Paul’s idea of conversion to a life in Christ and the Stoic conversion see:

  1. Paul and the Stoics – 1 (2009-11-04)
  2. Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy (2009-11-08)

Other philosophies apparently ridiculed this Stoic idea of the way to attain virtue and taught, on the contrary, that virtue could only be attained gradually, over time, through a series of graduated steps.

Stowers adds that there is, moreover,

a literary tradition that becomes most prominent in the early empire in which writers give vivid descriptions of the turmoil and changes in the soul of those who convert to philosophy. Paul uses exactly the same language for conversion to the gospel. (p. 92)

4. Hellenistic philosophies required techniques to master and remake one’s self

The philosophies agreed that false beliefs about the world led to people having base desires. They agreed, furthermore, that with right instruction and knowledge adherents could conquer their passions and reorient or reconstitute their souls.

Epicureans, for example, believed that the culprits responsible for misery were fear of death and fear of the gods.

Eradicating these false beliefs and destructive desires might begin with a dramatic reorientation, but typically also required a sustained and conscious process of rehabituation with the help of fellow Epicureans. The early empire seems to have been a time that saw an increasing specification of techniques for self-care and self-scrutiny. (p. 92)

Paul was all a part of this philosophical interest when he admonished his followers to strive for mastery with the determination of athletes seeking to win a prize, to be like him just as he himself imitated Christ. And all of this was done for the sake of the one overarching good, the furtherance of the gospel.

5. Hellenistic philosophies developed the notion of the wise man

Socrates became an early model. He epitomized the ideal man who could stand up against conventional society and demonstrate remarkable self-mastery. Likewise, the founders of Pyrrhonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism were renowned for their exemplary lives and self-control. As we would expect, myths arose around such figures — Pyrrho, Epicurus, Diogenes the Cynic — to increasingly highlight their excellence of mind and character. Recall the story of Peregrinus who threw himself into the flames to prove how a wise man could remain tranquil even under extreme pain.

Paul, we know, was not beyond listing his own many trials and sufferings to make the same kind of point. And of course we can see the development of the same

6. Hellenistic philosophies were essentially intellectual activities, renewing the mind

Teaching, learning and moral training were central to both Hellenistic philosophical schools and Pauline Christianity.

The existence of Pauline social groups depended on his textual skills, his expertise in forms of esoteric knowledge, and his teaching abilities. In this regard, Paul resembled the teacher of a philosophical school. (p. 93)

Both the schools and Paul’s churches were also vitally concerned with the reading, writing, transmission and interpretation of founding texts. Both were focused on the cerebral sphere. In normative religions the minds were more concentrated on analysing the meaning of the entrails of a sacrificed animal, for example. But in Paul’s churches the central sacrificial meal was the Lord’s Supper and converts were required to examine themselves, their motives, their practices.

Paul instructed his readers to present themselves as living sacrifices; to become anew with the renewing of their minds.

7. Hellenistic philosophies tended to develop nontraditional (radical) social formations

The focus on both a single principle of good and on mind or character transformation in the different Hellenistic philosophical schools could give rise to experimental and alternative social groupings.

Epicureans looked to the ideal of the originally simple life of the garden, a time when human relations were based on friendship as opposed to the patriarchal and other hierarchical structures that evolved later with urban civilization.

Early Stoic philosophers appear to have been behind a number of political revolutions that attempted to establish more egalitarian societies. Thus, for example,

Zeno’s state had no slavery, marriage, or traditional families. Men and women performed the same occupations, wore the same clothes, exercised naked together, and had sex and children in common. Zeno abolished temples and large public buildings, traditional Greek education, and money. People took common meals, and the glue that held the city together would be rational eros and friendship. 

The second-century Christian, Epiphanes, who tried to institute a community similar to Zeno’s, believed that he was following Paul. 

Later Stoicism shifted to the idea of a world society that transcended cities and might be interpreted in either a conservative or a radical way. 

Philo and Josephus cast the Essenes and Therapeutae as radical philosophical communities. (pp. 94f. My formatting)

Comparing Paul’s Christianity with the Hellenistic Philosophical Schools

The above seven characteristics

are not just incidental, but relate to what the philosophers and Paul himself understood to be the goods internal to their central practices. . . .

[T]he network of practices that Paul conceived as assemblies of Christ had structural similarities to the Hellenistic philosophies because both organized themselves by similar practices and goals. (p. 95, my bolding)

The core similar practices they shared were intellectual activities relating to the mind, the self, the character, as per #6 above. Those practices were all directed to one tightly focused and unitary idea of “the good”, as per #1 above.

I have some reservations about Stowers’ discussion of Paul’s treatment of Jesus vis-a-vis what we read in the gospels but it would take too long to discuss those points here. (In summary, I can’t help but suspect despite his disclaimer to the contrary Stowers is reading too much of the gospel Jesus into Paul’s message: I don’t think that Paul presents Jesus as a model of human excellence in supreme self-mastery in the face of death at all.) So suffice it to say that Paul does present the mind of Christ as the highest good to be emulated or even imbibed. Like the Hellenistic philosophers, Paul inculcated in his followers a single idea of goodness or virtue to which they must always strive and beside which nothing else in life mattered.

Comparing the Jewish philosophical schools

Josephus portrays the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes as philosophical schools that stand alongside the gentile Hellenistic philosophical schools. Those Jewish sects, too, are depicted as intellectually focused since they study and interpret sacred texts and teach certain doctrines. Like those other philosophical schools they are each mutually exclusive, distinct from one another as a consequence of being directed totally towards different ideas of “the good” expressed in different core doctrines.

The Pharisees resembled dogmatic Stoics attributing everything to fate and providence;

the Sadducees, like the skeptical Epicureans, made humans free and removed God from dealings with the world (Ant. 2.162-166). (p. 96, my formatting and bolding)

We need to keep in mind that Josephus is keen to present his fellow Judeans in the best intellectual light to other nations so we do need caution in how we read his accounts.

“Material goods” versus “mind goods”

Recall from the first post in this series the central place of economics in normative Greek and Roman religions. Worship was an act of reciprocity: the deity bestowed material blessings and the devotees expressed gratitude with offerings and sacrifices at celebratory festivals.

Paul, on the other hand, taught that the acceptable sacrifices to God were “a disciplined body and a renewed mind” (Rom 12:1-2).

Sacrifices and offering in both gentile and Judean worship were typically described as objects of sublime beauty. All the fruits and other produce set out in decorous ways, the animals adorned with ribbons and garlands, the magnificent processions, these were inspiring spectacles.

By contrast, however,

Philosophers were known more for their ragged dirty clothes and their foul smell than an aesthetic. If one wants to call it an aesthetic, then theirs was one of dialogue, books, self-mastery, and endurance in suffering. (p. 98)

Take the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Paul reminds his readers that it is not even about eating or feasting. Eat at home if you are hungry, he says. The food consumed at the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic. The ritual was an occasion to reflect, to examine oneself, to cultivate appropriate judgment and social bonding through meditation on the teacher’s words.

The Lord’s Supper does not even have an offering or an offerer. In the foundational story, Jesus does give thanks for the food, but no food is given back. Words and thoughts are enough. Philosophers knew that the gods did not need food. . . .

Paul’s social formations resembled those of Hellenistic philosophers because they were productive of “mind goods” in a way that subordinated other goods. In sum, Paul’s groups were constituted by social formations that “exalted” discursive practices over nondiscursive practices and tended to treat nondiscursive practices and affects as valuable to the extent that agents could attribute discursiveness to them (e.g. that eating bread symbolizes X; one’s sufferings indicate that Christ will soon return). (p. 98)

Paul’s ideal did not survive as Christianity grew, as we well know. The conflict of the two ways of life, the material and the intellectual or discursive, was resolved with the “Church” accepting two classes of Christians. There would be the majority who accepted the limited good and were content to follow a conventional lifestyle; and there would be the small elite who lived as monks and ascetics who devoted themselves entirely to the ultimate good and its intellectual practices.

Thus we live with the vestiges of the Hellenistic revolution up until this day.

Three caveats

Stanley Stowers rounds off his chapter with three caveats.

1. “Pauline Christianity was not a neat package, fully integrated and consistent.”

Stowers is thinking here of Paul’s shifting back and forth between Jewishness and “Greekness” as we read in his Epistle to the Romans. Presumably Paul’s Christianity would be far more akin to a Hellenistic philosophy in the view of the gentiles given that they were required to give up much more (idolatry, porneia) than Judeans. One imagines that the “Judean Christians” (presumably led by James) may not have recognized anything resembling a Hellenistic philosophy in their worship.

(It might be an interesting exercise to re-read Paul’s letters with both Stowers’ chapter and the arguments for the various substantial interpolations into Paul’s letters in mind.)

2. “Hellenistic philosophers tend to associate as friends. In Pauline Christianity, however, one finds the language of fictive kinship.”

Stowers suggests the difference between a Hellenistic philosophy and Paul’s communities here may be more apparent than real. If a family relationship is fictive then it is not a real family relationship. Paul uses throughout the language of friendship to describe ideal relations, so in practice, when Christians called one another “brother” and “sister” they were in fact relating more as close friends than genuinely genetic family.

3. “Specific rituals play an intrinsic role in Pauline Christianity that they do not for the Hellenistic philosophies”

For evidence of the Epicurean rituals Stowers cites Glad, Paul and Philodemus, 8-9 and n. 14; Richard A. Wright, “Christians, Epicureans and the Critique of Greco-Roman Religions” (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1994), 83-95.

I do not have access to either of these so would be very appreciative if anyone can point me to (preferably) digital versions.

Nonetheless, Stowers does even here indicate that there were some exceptions and that there is evidence for the Epicureans developing rituals, and also the pre-Hellenistic Pythagoreans and Platonists.

Hellenistic philosophical schools, moreover, did not always completely abandon the religious rituals associated with local civic worship practices. Their discursive practices enabled them to embrace such rituals with a more refined understanding.

Further diluting the caveat is the fact that

Christian rituals dispensed with animal sacrifice and almost all of the other practices central to ancient ritual, except for public prayer and ritual washing. But in traditional religion, the latter only had its sense in relation to temples and sacred places, where purity had to be maintained in order to sacrifice. Christian ritual in the first two hundred years was an odd sort of ritual by ancient standards. Its form decisively broke the link with land and lineages of peoples that was intrinsic to traditional Mediterranean ritual. (p. 101)

One final point

Stowers concludes with the observation that what we see with the rise of Hellenistic philosophies is the emergence of a specialist class of teachers and interpreters who appeared to understand specialist knowledge relating to the soul and mind, and the ways to live “the good life”. These specialists replaced the aristocratic leaders of the traditional ways of worship.

Christianity was a new form of religion based on the new shape of knowledge that depended on expert interpreters and teachers like Paul. It is not surprising, then, that Pauline Christianity might in many respects have more in common with the Hellenistic philosophies than with the traditional religions based in the landed aristocracies of Rome, Greece, and Judea. (p. 102)

Stowers, S.K. (2001). “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” in T. Engberg-Pedersen (ed.) Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press.




  • Tige Gibson
    2017-05-31 18:20:14 UTC - 18:20 | Permalink

    Greek philosophies aren’t like philosophy today, they were more like motivational speaker cults. There just isn’t a lot of difference between a motivational speaker and a Christian preacher. If you are interested in changing your life, then you must already regard your life as broken, and with that in mind you can pretty much be sold any bill of goods.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2017-05-31 18:34:52 UTC - 18:34 | Permalink

    One point Stowers addresses that I bypassed in these posts was the distinction between those philosophies categorized as Hellenistic on the one hand and other ancient philosophies such as Aristotle’s on the other. He also refers to psychogogy (iirc) as distinct from psychology. See the paragraph at the end of http://www.learning-knowledge.com/maslow.html

  • Gavin
    2017-06-02 02:48:49 UTC - 02:48 | Permalink

    ‘For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”.’

    This is practically tautological if Paul’s Jesus was originally the “Chrest” (the Good), not the “Christ” (the Annointed). All reliably datable ante-Nicene inscriptions of the appellation – including the Marcionite synagogue of Deir Ali – spell it with an eta rather than an iota. In early scriptural manuscripts, it’s always abbreviated to nomina sacra; but the Codex Sinaiticus still refers to Jesus’ followers as “Chrestianos” – the same term Justin seems to explicate, talking about their goodness, with no reference to messianism. AFAIK, it’s not until Tertullian that proto-orthodox authors start insisting that “Chrestos” is a mispronunciation by the ignorant.

    I find replacing the term “Christ” with “the Good” in the letters of the Apostolikon makes them much more clear and consistent, in line with Classical rhetoric and philosophy, and obviating all the forced arguments over Paul’s supposed “christology”.

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