We have recently seen how Hector Avalos argues for the irrelevance of biblical ethics in today’s world but this post looks at how and why Jesus emerges for the first time as a supremely ethical figure in the Gospel of Matthew. Stanley Stowers (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Brown University) argues that the author of this gospel refashioned the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark into a Stoic sage and thereby was responsible for giving the Christian world its figure of Jesus as the defining moral teacher of all time. And a Stoic sage, a truly godly person, might at times appear to act against worldly understandings of right and wrong but nonetheless maintain a truly virtuous authority.
So what is a Stoic sage? A Stoic Sage was a most rare phenomenon. The ancient Stoics
either doubted that a sage had ever lived or thought that maybe one or two had existed — perhaps Socrates, Heracles, or the earliest humans. Philo of Alexandria makes Moses into such an authority, a sage who embodies the law.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1658-1659). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
That’s not exactly a definition of a Stoic sage but it does prepare us for the distinctive portrait of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. Before we can plunge into more details about this sage we need to grasp the broader argument that Matthew was creating an idealistic Stoic teacher figure for his gospel despite sometimes being challenged by some very unStoic Jesus passages in his Gospel of Mark source.
Since reading Stowers’ argument I have come to think that this explanation potentially accounts for a significant number of the differences between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that till now have widely been understood as evidence of differences in the ways two authors have used a common source, Q. But I am jumping ahead of myself here.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the Jesus in our earliest records. (I’ll speak of Matthew as the author of the Gospel of Matthew for convenience even though this traditional attribution is questionable at the very least.)
Jesus emerges for the first time as a teacher of ethics in the Gospel of Matthew. Before this Gospel we meet Jesus in the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark where he is portrayed in a quite different role. Stowers explains:
In the earliest sources, the only sources that precede and are not definitively shaped by the Roman destruction of the Judean temple and Jerusalem, one cannot even determine that Jesus was a teacher of ethics. If Paul knew that Jesus was such a teacher, he does not use either the teachings or the idea that Jesus was a teacher of ethics, even though the teachings from the later Matthew and Luke would be very relevant and overlap with his own teachings.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1597-1601). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
We find the same observation in Stevan Davies’ book (Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity) that we recently discussed,
We do not know what those teachings were. Our sources are as confused as we are and two of them, Mark and Thomas, indicate that they thought his public teachings basically incomprehensible. Paul shows no interest in them, nor do the other letter writers of the New Testament, and Jesus’ teachings play no role in the spread of the Christian movement according to the Acts of the Apostles. John freely makes up teachings for Jesus to teach. . . .
Two of our principal sources of information about Jesus did not believe in Jesus the Teacher at all. Paul refers on occasion to teachings, generally as proof-text support for his own opinions, but Jesus the Teacher is otherwise of no interest to him. Paul swears to the Galatians “Before God I am not lying!” that he made no effort to learn about Jesus and his teachings from the eyewitnesses easily accessible to him (Gal. 1: 1-2: 15). John’s gospel, similarly does not contain the teachings of Jesus as that phrase is understood in contemporary scholarship. . . .
It might be argued that Jesus was a great teacher but, thanks to radical changes in his followers’ view of him after his death, his teachings were no longer relevant to their enterprise. But Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (in the Gospel) do give us teachings; indeed, it may well be that the very idea that Jesus was primarily a teacher came into being only after his death.
Davies, Stevan (2014-12-19). Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (pp. 21, 45, 46). Kindle Edition. (Italics original; bolding and formatting mine in all quotations)
Matthew’s main source was the Gospel of Mark. We know this because he reproduced the bulk of it in his own gospel. Mark’s Jesus, however, was more dark than light:
Mark presents Jesus as a teacher of mysterious teachings about the coming kingdom of God, a mystery so obscure that none of Jesus’ disciples are able to understand it. Jesus in Mark is about as remote from a guide about how one ought to live day to day as one can imagine.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1604-1605). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Matthew’s other source in Stowers’ argument is Q, the source for much of Jesus’ teaching material. Q is coming under increasing questioning in now but I don’t think the removal of Q makes a significant difference to Stowers’ larger argument. (Stowers compares sayings in Q with Matthew’s modifications to argue for Matthew’s intent to make Jesus a Stoic teacher, but since the “more primitive” Q sayings are derived from the Gospel of Luke, one can also argue that Luke was opposed to the Stoic ethic found in Matthew’s Jesus.)
What is the evidence that Matthew was inspired by Stoic philosophy when he decided to shape a new Jesus out of this material, one who both teaches and personifies the essence of the highest morality imaginable?
Philosophy at the Roots of Christianity
There is a scholarly group that has been focused on a project called Philosophy at the Roots of Christianity, main base University of Copenhagen. Attridge writes that the issue of the extent to which the earliest Christian writings were “at least engaged with the philosophical milieu of the first century . . . has . . . been raised anew by a series of sophisticated analyses by young scholars associated with the research project Philosophy at the Roots of Christianity (University of Copenhagen). . . Kasper Bro Larsen (Aarhus University). . . . Gitte Buch-Hansen (University of Copenhagen) . . .” — and no doubt others.
Quotation from Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1969-1979). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
See also the University of Oslo’s Philosophy at the Roots of Christianity and the volume, Philosophy at the Roots of Christianity.Stoicism was much more than today’s popular image of suppressing one’s emotions and facing all manner of hardships without flinching. In fact Stowers argues that the ancient Stoic ideal of the Roman era did permit certain kinds of emotions, and even allowed the true sage to sometimes appear to be acting contrary to ethical principles in the eyes of lesser mortals. The author of the next chapter (“An ‘Emotional’ Jesus and Stoic Tradition”) in the same volume, Harold W. Attridge, argues a similar case in relation to the dispositions of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
When I list its key ethical features as found in Stowers’ chapter you’ll recognize Matthew’s Jesus easily enough, but the argument is sealed (I think) by showing how Matthew created this Stoic sage Jesus by means of identifying subtle changes he made to Mark’s wording.
Before the details we should note Stowers’ point about why Stoicism would have been such an appealing philosophy for an author who wanted to create a god-like ethical character.
The reasons why the author of Matthew drew upon Stoic ethics seem clear. That writer inherited a Jesus who was known as a teacher but had no clear and elaborated ethical teachings that would make him like, or rather, superior to, the other great teachers of the culture. Stoicism was the most prominent and widely respected philosophy of the day. Furthermore, it had a reputation for being both rigorous and popular. It was popular in the sense that it was directed at everyone and focused upon those who were sinners and those who were trying to make moral progress. But it also held up the nearly impossible ideal of the sage and urged people to measure themselves against this model of human perfection. The rigor fit well with Matthew’s harsh apocalyptic ideas about an exacting and vengeful God who would consign all but a faithful few to eternal torment.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1901-1907). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
1. Stoic thought presented its ethical theory as the universal law of Zeus or God.
That is, in Stoic thought ethics were sourced in law. Law was the expression Stowers writes:
[T]here was enough similarity between Stoic and Judean conceptions— the latter being extremely diverse and untheorized— that a Judean thinker could find adapting some Stoic thought to his own purposes possible and congenial.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1622-1624). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Stoic author Chrysippus wrote of the law as the “right reason and will of Zeus”. Cleanthes composed a hymn to Zeus that has been compared by some scholars to the Lord’s Prayer. Replace “Zeus” with “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and there is nothing Matthew disagrees with. The law expresses the wisdom of God. The sage follows not a set of precepts like civic codes but the will of Zeus expressed in universal law.
Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.
2. Stoics used the language of “the perfect” and “perfection” when they talked about that full potential for humans.
Because Stoic ethics began with the idea of common ordinary morals natural to humans as a foundation for complete human development, Stoics used the language of “the perfect” and “perfection” when they talked about that full potential for humans. Archedemus (second century B.C.E.) even formulated the human end as “to perfect all appropriate actions in one’s life.” Stoics defined the kind of action that a sage performed, a κατόρθωμα, as a perfectly appropriate action (τέλειον καθῆκον).
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1662-1667). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And of course we have Matthew’s Jesus commanding perfection in 5:48. Yes, Matthew is quite likely alluding to the commands in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, but Matthew’s “perfect” is quite different from “holiness”.
For the Stoic it was not enough to perform the right actions. Right actions had to be done with the “right moral disposition” in order to be doing God’s will. Only by acting with the right frame of mind could one be said to be imitating Zeus or God and perfectly fulfilling his law. So when in Matthew 7:11-12 we read
11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
we are seeing a synopsis of Stoic concepts: mortals can do good acts but remain evil in nature while only God (and those who are god-like) can be perfect in their good deeds, and this ethic is the law, the law of God.
All of these Stoic concepts cast a new understanding on Jesus’ claim that he came not to destroy the law but to “fulfill it” and how the righteousness of the follower of Jesus must “excessively exceed” the righteousness of the Pharisees (5:17-20). This
Notice the ways Matthew has modified Mark’s story of the rich man who came running to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to attain immortality. Matthew adds a command for him to love his neighbour but even more significantly changes Mark’s
Then Jesus . . . said unto him, One thing thou lackest . . .
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect . . .
Matthew’s message through Jesus is not that the rich man has to keep just one more commandment to become perfect (there is no command to give away one’s possessions), but rather, as if straight from a Stoic manual, the rich man needs to understand that his possessions in no way affect his goodness, happiness or wisdom. Like most mortals he thinks of wealth as a good thing. The Stoic is not affected by material gain or loss.
This interpretation ties in with Matthew’s addition of the command for the man to love his neighbour: that is, giving away possessions is not an act that must be done mechanically but must be done “perfectly”, with the mind of God, with the spirit of love.
Another significant change is from Mark’s
And Jesus said to him, `Why me dost thou call good? no one [is] good except One — God;
And he said unto him, Why askest thou me concerning that which is good? One there is who is good
Furthermore, Matthew changes the issue from one about Jesus being good to a question about the nature of good in a moral sense.
The writer seems to be playing on the Socratic and philosophical idea of the good by introducing a reference to “the good” and by creating ambiguity. This ambiguity that could refer to both divine and human character makes sense for an author who thinks that humans ought to have a perfection like God’s (Matt 5: 48).
I tentatively suggest that Matthew’s reinterpretation of the story alludes to the Stoic doctrine of the unity of virtue. The virtues entail each other, and one must have them all as a unity to have virtue at all. For Stoics, there is no such thing as possessing some of the virtues and not others. Matthew’s version of the story goes on to show that the young man does appropriate acts but not perfectly appropriate acts due to his lack of wisdom, indicated by false values regarding the good.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1721-1728). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3. What God requires for righteousness is not simply the performance of actions that in themselves are generally accepted as morally good, but rather that such actions be done with the right spirit.
Stowers begins with a comparison of the Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew. In Luke we read that the poor are blessed; in Matthew the blessed are the poor in spirit, etc. With the Q model it appears that Matthew has shifted emphasis from a class of people to a quality of character, Stowers notes. I wonder if it is just as likely that Luke is protesting against Matthew’s impossible (for most people) ethic.
Certainly the Sermon on the Mount expresses a coincidence of Stoic thought: merely resisting the act of adultery or murder is not enough; these must be accomplished with the truly godly mindset. Stoic teaching held that people are responsible for their emotions and must learn to master them. Wrong acts begin in the mind and must be overcome at the point of that source.
But don’t be misled into thinking that all that is being talked about here is “intention”. Both a wicked person and a Stoic sage can borrow money from another with the intention of repaying it but only the sage will act truly virtuously. This is a point I am still in the process of trying to understand so I will quote Stowers at length.
It is important to understand Stoic thinking here in order to distinguish it from modern, often Kantian ethical theories that make morality depend upon the agent’s intentions, and the appeal to good intentions sometimes in instances of ancient moral thinking.
The point is not that the sage did not have the right intentions, but that the more restricted modern focus misses the larger point that the Stoics wanted to make. It is not that the sage needs to have thoughts about virtue or acting virtuously or altruistically or to will that the principle guiding one’s action apply to all humans. Both a sage and a wicked person can borrow money from a friend with exactly the same intention to pay it back, but the sage acts virtuously and the non-sage with moral error.
The sage will, of course, characteristically have altruistic thoughts and motivations, but the sage’s character organized around the knowledge that virtue is the only good so as to choose and act skillfully in everyday life, not correct thoughts as an ethical subject, is what makes the difference.
For Matthew, I suspect that righteousness involves a character that is constituted by total commitment and obedience to God and his law in a way that is similar to the Stoic conception. Perhaps even closer to Stoic formulation, Matthew holds that righteousness, like virtue, is the consistent expertise in discerning and obeying God’s will amidst the details of everyday life. Righteousness is the only good for humans, and Jesus is the only one in the Gospel to display that quality of character.
A Stoic-like conception of righteousness would explain why only Matthew of the Synoptic Gospels develops the concept of “the will of God.” As John Cooper says of Stoicism, “even fully virtuous persons (so-called sages) experience virtuous action as something imposed on them by Zeus,” and even though one cannot know all the reasons why things happen, one knows that there are divine reasons, which “gives emphasis to the idea that in living virtuously one lives in obedience . . . or by the will of Zeus.” Whereas obedience to the commandments of the Mosaic law might be seen to concern particular matters, obeying the will of God and being righteous are comprehensive. The two concepts give a distinctive shape to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew.
(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1773-1790). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
So the Stoic was to aspire to be like God to the extent of caring for creation and fellow humans with the same providence administered for the common good by God.
To this end Stoics taught repaying evil with good and loving one’s enemies. Stowers cites a scholar who writes that “only Socrates and Roman Stoics recommended never taking revenge”. Epictetus said a true philosopher will love one who flogs him as if he were their father or brother. Seneca admonished repaying one who is angry with you with kindness, and that we ought always to work for the common good even to the extent of helping our enemies. Seneca also wrote:
“If you are imitating the gods, you say, ‘Then give benefits also to the ungrateful, for the sun rises also upon the wicked, and the sea stands open to pirates.’”
. . . which sounds a lot like Matthew 5:45.
The Sermon on the Mount also addresses the need to not be bothered by cares of this world — another Stoic value.
Stowers goes into more depth than I can in this post because some of the argument goes back to technical concepts and arguments of the Stoics of the Roman period and discussion would make this post way too long indeed. Perhaps I can address some of these points from time to time in the context of other posts in future. I hope the general idea is conveyed accurately enough for now.
But now I come to the main point of the title of this post — explaining why Jesus appears to act contrary to his own teaching when he calls the Pharisees “fools” and acts violently in the Temple — and I see I am already fast approaching 4000 words. It is also getting late and I need to work tomorrow so I will conclude this in the next post.
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