2011-06-14

Jesus and Socrates

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is another snippet here from classicist scholar John Taylor’s book, Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. This time it is from a decontextualized comparison between Jesus and Socrates. I have only extracted those elements that relate most directly to Jesus as found in the Gospels themselves, and left behind those that relate to a more generic image of Jesus that embraces the descriptions of various Church Fathers and the apostle Paul.

I have not included discussion of any of these points of comparison. I have simply listed them as dot-points, so do with them what you will. I had once hoped to discuss them more meaningfully, but can see that I will not have an opportunity (given my balance of interests) to do that for at least twenty years.

I have given more online references to Socrates than to Jesus because I assume that most interested in such a topic would already know more about Jesus, and sources for references to Jesus, than Socrates.

The comparison falls in two parts, though these may seem contrived to many. The first is comparing Jesus and Socrates per se; the second list compares the sources of each, or as each is found particularized in specific sources, and scholarly reactions to each.

The comparisons of the deaths of each in the second bracket (#5, accounts of the last days or each) probably should really go in the first set of comparisons, but I have kept Taylor’s sequence to save time, even though Taylor makes this a part of a larger discussion about scholarly reactions to same.

Socrates and Jesus in history:

  1. The two most famous and influential trials in history
    • In both, the precise grounds for sentence have been endlessly debated; and combination of religious and political factors variously estimated
  2. Their deaths in Athens and Jerusalem have been emblematic of the two cities since the church fathers
  3. Neither Jesus nor Socrates wrote anything (at least nothing survives)
    • Socrates stressed the limitations of written texts (Phaedrus 278a) and Jesus is said only to have written in the dust (John 8:6)
  4. “The Apology challenges us to pass judgement on Socrates as the gospels challenge us to form a verdict on Jesus.”
  5. Like the gospels, the story of Socrates funnels inexorably towards the death of its hero
  6. The parable of the Cave is a story about philosophical understanding, but it is also a parable about Socrates who brings a message from another realm, is disbelieved, and executed; we have similar parables about Jesus in the story of Dives (the rich man) and Lazarus, and about the son of the owner of the vineyard who is executed by the wicked tenants.
  7. Both Socrates and Jesus deal in homely metaphor and radical paradox:
    • Socrates compares his mother’s job as a midwife with his activity of helping people bring ideas to birth; and when talking about the moulding of souls he alludes to his father’s task as a stonemason and sculptor; Jesus speaks of yokes and being fishers of men;
    • Jesus says the one who desires to be the first must be the least; and to win life one must lose it; Socrates says it is better to suffer wrong than do it, and not to mind (forego revenge) if someone insults or hits you; Socrates is indifferent to conventional rewards of success; Jesus says the widow’s two mites are of more value than a rich man’s gold.

The sources describing them:

  1. In both cases a new literary genre was created: Socratic dialogue and gospel (and each of these incorporates multiple slivers of various other genres)
  2. In both cases we ask which of the several portraits is most true?
  3. In both cases it is sometimes said the historical figure is irrecoverable
  4. It is tempting in both cases to contrast a straightforward account (cf Mark and Xenophon) with a meditation tending towards mysticism (cf Plato and John)
    • But in both cases this model quickly breaks down: Mark as much as John has a theological agenda; and Xenophon is really creating a Socrates in his own image and one (a mere dispenser of homely advice) whose execution makes no sense
  5. The accounts of the last days of Jesus and Socrates are remarkably alike:
    • Both took place at the time of an important religious event (Jesus is cast as a new Moses delivering believers at Passover; Socrates is held in prison at the time of the state’s galley’s annual sacred mission to Delos, and is implicitly cast as a new Theseus delivering the Athenians from ignorance as the original Theseus delivered them from the Minotaur
    • Socrates and Jesus are renowned for their calm acceptance of death
    • The jailer of Socrates and the centurion at the cross of Jesus pay high tributes to their victims (Socrates is said to be the noblest and best and gentlest of men that ever came his way; Jesus is said to be truly the son of God or a righteous man)
    • Both Jesus and  Socrates reassure those with them: Jesus reassures the penitent thief on the cross that he will be in Paradise soon; Socrates continually expresses concern for those about him and also speaks of a journey into the next world
    • Jesus’ death is narrated with irony (e.g. mocked as a fake king when is a real king; Socrates’ death is also rich in irony — his last words are striking and unexpected: he calls for the sacrifice of a cock to Asclepius, suggesting he really is pious though condemned for impiety, yet also ironical because he is accused of opening the way for new cults though it was the state that allowed the worship of Asclepius only 20 years earlier; and Asclepius is the god of healing, though Socrates is about to die.

John Taylor draws out many other parallels between Socrates and Jesus, or at least between the narrations and philosophical/religious meanings of each, since some of these extend to Paul’s writings where these overlap with Socrates’ metaphors in delivering philosophical/religious messages. Taylor also discusses in some depth the nuances of scholarly debates over the developments and interpretations of the evolving thought of Plato expressed through Socrates (how much is the historical Socrates and how much is really Plato?), comparing this with similar scholarly discussions on the sayings and portrayals of Jesus.


Related posts:

Christianity won over paganism by epitomizing pagan ideals

Subtext of Jesus’ family relationships #1

Subtext of Jesus’ family relationships #2

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2011-06-15 21:37:01 GMT+0000 - 21:37 | Permalink

    Another similarity between Socrates and Jesus Christ is that their deaths were compelled suicides.

    Since Jesus Christ willingly accepted God the Father’s commission to descend to the Firmament for the purpose of enacting the foreordained crucifixion and burial of himself, Jesus Christ acted to cause his own death.

    • 2011-06-18 04:59:08 GMT+0000 - 04:59 | Permalink

      We could do this all day. They both had dedicated bands of followers; their followers had questionable understanding of their teachings; the accounts of their deaths are said to be written by one or more of those followers and be eyewitness testimony at least secondhand. The symbol associated with their death is also the method – hemlock for Socrates, the cross for Jesus.

      The parallels don’t prove anything, though, any more than similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy.

  • 2011-06-22 09:31:23 GMT+0000 - 09:31 | Permalink

    The point of these sorts of similarities is not to suggest crude copy-catting. What we see is a common perspective on certain models and heroes. Such similarities inform us of “types”, “motifs”, “mythemes”, “topoi” etc. They alert us to the possibilities that we are not necessarily reading history. We might be, but if so, it is shaped and dressed in a certain set of constructs that are not readily discerned for what they are by us today. But equally likely, we are dealing with fabrication custom-made to express certain theological or “humanistic”(?) ideas and problems.

    In other words, the way the story is constructed is evidence of a certain way of thinking, certain sets of values, of that day.

    If it is anything more, then we need to have more reasons than the story itself for believing so.

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