Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving

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by Neil Godfrey

This is the continuation of the previous post, Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging.

We have already seen how his teachings conform to Stoic concepts but what about his behaviour? Is he a hypocrite for teaching his followers to call no-one a fool only to subsequently turn around and call the Pharisees fools? And what about that infamous “temple tantrum” (Fredriksen, 2000)? How did Jesus in Gethsemane feel about facing the crucifixion?

This post will conclude by explaining how the author of the Gospel of Matthew may have shaped Jesus as a Stoic sage, sometimes by subtly modifying aspects of Jesus’ behaviour in the Gospel of Mark. If I don’t answer your questions I hope at least to have left a few more questions.

Before we start, however, we need to be sure we have a basic understanding of what Stoicism in Roman times taught about law, emotions and the Stoic sage.

Divine Law

We spoke of the law of God/Zeus in the previous post. For the Stoic philosopher divine law was not a set of precepts nor even a set of principles as we might expect.

socratesI’m reminded of the time I came to believe that “people are more important than principles” — meaning that even the noblest of principles (e.g. never lie, never use violence), followed wholeheartedly, can sometimes cause more harm to people than the breaking of them. Some of us who have read several of Plato’s dialogues will recall Socrates arguing the same thing. Socrates accosts a well meaning young man and asks him a question about virtue; the young man might enunciate a principle that is an absolute virtue; then Socrates proceeds to unravel this view with a series of questions raising all sorts of situations where the principle is clearly not a virtue at all. Example,

Courage will sometimes require standing one’s place in battle, but sometimes will require retreat or some other action; justice will sometimes require returning deposits, but sometimes will forbid it. (Brennan, T 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, p.194)

Tad Brennan explains:

Thus in Stoic parlance, ‘law’ does not refer to a system of general principles, but to the particular injunctions of ethical experts. This is clear from their official definition of ‘law’.

Nothing about the standard Stoic definition of law says anything about generality or universality; it simply says that a law is a prescription or imperative (prostaktikon) that prescribes (prostattei) or forbids action. [The Stoic concept applied] not to the orders codified in the general and ‘law-like’ principles that are followed in the second-best constitution, but to the exceptional, anomalous over-riding prescriptions of the kingly expert. The essential nature of the law, in Stoicism, is that it prescribes, that is, issues imperative orders or commands, and the act of prescribing carries no assumption of generality or ‘law-likeness’; a reader . . . would assume that a prescription is an imperative or order, which, if anything, is more likely to be an ad hoc, one-off order that contravenes a standing system of general principles. Thus the centrality of ‘law’ to Stoic ethics has nothing to do with any interest in general, universal, or ‘law-like’ moral principles. (Brennan, T 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, pp.193-194)

The Stoic Sage

Heracles one one of a very rare few considered to have been a Stoic sage
Heracles one one of a very rare few considered to have been a Stoic sage

Recall from the previous post that only a Stoic sage, that most rare of persons, is the only one who is truly capable of living such a godly life. The sage follows not a set of precepts like civic codes but the will of Zeus expressed in universal law. And that universal law is not a set of rigid principles nor even a mind-set on ‘intentions’ to do right. One might say that even the Pharisees followed biblical principles and the wicked could borrow money with every intention of repaying it. The Stoic sage, like Zeus or God, embodied a far higher ethic.

One can see where this Stoic view is leading in relation to our theme of the Stoic Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. A Stoic sage-like Jesus is vulnerable to being accused of violating righteous principles and law even though the reader can see he is the true embodiment of the highest law.

One might also understand at this stage that Jesus’ own commands can only be truly understood and followed if one possesses godly wisdom and true virtue. That is, one is not spiritually mature if one reduces a teaching of Jesus to an ‘inviolate principle’ for all time and circumstances.

The above helps us understand more clearly the following explanation by Stowers in relation to Jesus:

Ultimately, there is only one way to know what is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance or what Zeus requires: consult a sage. According to circumstances, the sage might even go against what convention and local law deemed to be appropriate actions in order to perform an appropriate and perfect action. The sage’s action, obedient to reason/Zeus, ultimately defines what constitutes a perfectly appropriate action in any particular circumstance. On this view, moral authority requires a perfect moral expert. Only the sage, then, stands as an authoritative interpreter of these common norms, codes, and local laws. . . . . 

I suggest that Matthew’s Jesus, who, unlike the traditional Judean experts on the law, interprets the law with total authority and embodies God’s own wisdom, is a figure shaped by the Stoic idea of the sage.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1653-1661). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And again,

[T]he sage’s action, although always following the will of God, the universal law and reason, might in particular circumstances be contrary to what the accepted moral norms of non-sages indicated was right, even for sages.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1844-1845). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But isn’t a Stoic supposed to have the full emotional range of Startreck’s Spock? Again, another learning curve I’ve been taking on since Stowers’ chapter and his various references.

Second, contrary to popular and scholarly conceptions of the Stoic, the sage was to be a highly “passionate” person who had and expressed strong feelings.(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1853-1855). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“Impressions”, Pre-emotions

By the end of this post we will see just how important this concept is.

stoicismemotionThe emotions of mere mortals (those of us without the full understanding of the Stoic) are said to derive from false values. These emotions are responses to self-interested events and attachments to ephemeral possessions and are therefore not “good”. Stowers finds a more rounded picture, however, in the work titled Stoicism & Emotion by Margaret R. Graver. Graver explains that for the Stoic anyone, even a sage, could be suddenly “struck” against their will by an initial feeling for a situation — an “impression” (i.e. a pre-emotion, a preliminary awareness of the emotion), but the wise will deflect that “impression” be means of right reason and will power; the foolish will assent to it. Experiencing the initial “impression” of the emotion is not itself a wrong.

Normal human emotions can be either good or bad: delight and desire are better than distress and fear. But even good emotions are mundane because they arise out of false values. One is delighted to see a poor person being given a generous gift, for example, yet this is an emotional response over an entirely transient material gain.

The Stoic on the other hand will learn to embrace the “corrected” version of these emotions, or “proper feelings” that have been trained by right reasoning and understanding. (The term for these higher Stoic emotions is “eupathic” responses.) Rather than delight at seeing a poor person receive a handful of money the true Stoic will have joy (chara) in seeing the act of generosity itself, not the money in the hand of the poor. The corrected emotion is towards the “genuine good” and not the false good.

I use the example of joy because it is “preeminent among eupathic responses” for the Stoic.

An “ignorant” person will express the bad emotion of fear (of death, say). The Stoic on the other hand will rise above this emotion — after all, death at a certain time may in fact  be God’s will — and correct it into “caution”.

The unreasoned emotion of “desire” (which includes anger as a subset of desires in the Stoic taxonomy) will have its higher counterpart in the Stoic’s “wish” for the true values and the true good.

The evidence, I believe, following recent scholarship, shows that these good emotions might involve intense feeling such as in joy, religious reverence, and even erotic love. A sage would never have grief, anger, or fear. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1861-1863). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Stoic sage interpretation of Jesus

So with this understanding of law, emotions and the sage in Stoic thought, let’s have another look at the behaviour of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. 

Matthew was stuck with a certain kind of Jesus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark who was “extremely grief-stricken even to the point of death” and acted violently in the Temple.

However, Matthew also inherited from Mark “Jesus’ ability to teach and act with unique authority.

Thus, Matthew’s narrative gives the sense that only Jesus was rightly able to teach what he taught and act in the often dramatic and unorthodox ways that he acted. Of course, this is because he is the Son of God, the Messiah, and the Son of Man. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1846-1848). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

However, Stowers continues by pointing out that “Son of God”, “Messiah” etc have specific meanings that will mislead us in this question. Matthew is creating a new figure of Jesus that includes these roles and more, or that adds a new dimension to these roles.

But to put it in these terms [“Son of God”, “Messiah”, “Son of Man”] is to be anachronistic and to fail to imagine the possibilities that readers contemporary with the author could have brought to their reading. As is well known and widely accepted in contemporary scholarship, “son of god,” for example, was a common expression for individuals thought to have a special relationship with the divine, from King David to Roman emperors and beyond. The Gospels are in the process of inventing the “Christian” idea that the Jews were looking for “the messiah.”

In order to avoid anachronism, the historian has to ask what culturally available components Matthew drew upon to construct this strikingly new, yet conventional, figure. My claim is that the Stoic sage and aspects of Stoic ethics should be added to the mix. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1848-1853). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Calling the Pharisees “fools”

Jesus-and-the-PhariseesViewing Jesus as a Stoic sage enables Stowers to explain Jesus calling the Pharisees fools (the very word Jesus taught his disciples not to throw at others) like this:

Matthew seems to present Jesus as sinless, the only living righteous one in the story and the embodiment of God’s wisdom.[Matt 3:15; 27:4, 19] So Jesus can, without hypocrisy, call the Pharisees fools because he knows with certainty that they are fools and he is consistently wise. It is just and righteous censure. The unrighteous, the imperfect, on the other hand, cannot justly censure others in this way. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1864-1866). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Confronting the money changers in the temple

jesusTempleHow might the “Temple tantrum” be explained as the act of a Stoic sage? Following the Gospel of Mark Matthew was probably compelled to include this episode in some way since it opens the way for the confrontation that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion.

There are three Stoic interpretations: Stowers’, Attridge’s, Kalimtzis’s, and in those little side-boxes my own thoughts (for what they’re worth).

Stowers suggests (naturally enough) that Matthew was most likely influenced by “contemporary treatments of God’s frequent displays of anger in the Hebrew Scriptures”. We think of the Jewish philosopher Philo. Philo flatly denied that God was literally angry. When the Scriptures spoke of God’s wrath they were using an metaphor of sorts to enable sinning mortals to grasp some approximation of how God was really feeling.

“Anger” is not associated with Jesus but there is another somewhat related word that has had “proto-Stoic” approval. That is “indignation” (nemesis). Aristotle lived prior to the Roman era but later Stoics did view him as a father-figure.

Evidence of reshaping can be seen also in the way the Stoic list treats Aristotle’s trio of indignation (nemesis), envy, and rivalry in Rhetoric 2.9–11. For Aristotle, both indignation and rivalry are good emotions, such as are felt by good persons: indignation is distress at undeserved good fortune in others, rivalry distress which motivates us to obtain the goods others have. (Graver 2007, p. 58)

Later Stoics dropped “indignation” from their list of emotions. Nonetheless, is it not of some interest that indignation had a positive record? (Envy and rivalry were reinterpreted by Stoics as a bad emotions.)

Another point of potential significance is that Matthew adds to Mark’s scenario a much more positive outcome to Jesus’ action. Unlike Mark, Matthew concluded with Jesus’ action preparing the way for amazing good and abundant praise:

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. 15 . . . [T]he chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children that were crying in the temple and saying, Hosanna to the son of David . . . 16 . . . And Jesus saith unto them, . . .  Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou has perfected praise?

Stowers points out the not insignificant detail that the account of Jesus “cleansing the Temple” or “the temple action” (as it is more commonly called now) nowhere uses the word for “anger”.

The episode of Jesus’ confrontation with the money changers in the temple does not use the word “anger.”

A sage, knowing that no other person can truly cause unjust harm to the sage’s good (virtue), has no anger. Stoic theory might make it seem that the good emotions would only concern the sage’s own good — what was up to him — and for the most part they do. But sources for the subspecies of the good emotions also have good emotions that express concern for the good of others. Pseudo-Andronicus, in On Emotions (SVF 3.432), for instance, defines good intent (εὔνοια) as “a wish for good things for another for that person’s sake.” One then might conceive of Jesus’ action as an expression of his just indignation that the money changers were causing harm to their good and the good of others by devaluing a place where only the model of God’s perfection ought to be exhibited.  (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1869-1876). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Harold Attridge offers in the next chapter (“An ‘Emotional’ Jesus Stoic Tradition”) a Stoic interpretation of Jesus’ temple action in the Gospel of John:

The narrative does not describe his emotional state during his action in the temple (2: 12– 16), but the narrator comments that his disciples later remember words from Ps 69:9: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” By implication, Jesus was motivated by “zeal” (ζῆλος [2: 17]), which might appear to be something akin to anger. (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 2040-2043). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Since Stowers’ and Attridge’s chapters there has appeared another work, Taming Anger: The Hellenic Approach to the Limitations of Reason, (2012) by Kostas Kalimtzis, in which we find the following about Philo’s take on God’s anger:

On the question of anger Philo made the all-important step of blending Stoic doctrines with disparate selections from Plato’s writings, and then tying these to allegorical interpretations of Scripture. Steeped in the Hellenised culture of Alexandria, he made use of whatever Greek philosophical writings were in vogue to assert the primacy of the Law (Torah) as a guide to belief and praxis. One of the enduring accomplishments of this undertaking is that his writings introduced into Hellenised philosophical literature the Hebrew Bible as the model for understanding and controlling anger.

Following the Stoics, Philo also thinks of anger as a ‘pernicious disease of the soul’ (Alleg. Interpr. III, 124.6), but in a departure from them he holds that this evil passion is to be removed by God’s grace. Exercises, no matter how refined, are secondary to belief and will not work without the aid of God’s providential will.

Graver in an earlier section of her book listed thumos (heatedness) as one of the emotions that falls under the more general Desire. She describes thumos as “anger at its inception” (p.56).

That definition sounds to me very much like the “impression” of an emotion, or a pre-emotion that Stowers explained. See above. Recall that these “impressions” are not wrong but are involuntary experiences of even the Stoic sage.

If I am not being misled by piecing together these three different works in this way — Kalimtzis, Glover, Stowers — then it looks to me as if the Stoic can view Jesus’ actions in the temple as “Heatedness” (thumos), which may be understood as a “pre-emotion” that falls short of anger.

I am learning, though. This is a question I would like to ask specialists in the Stoicism of the early Roman era.

Using Plato’s concept of a tripartite soul, Philo argues that anger, which exists in the thumos, is controlled only when it submits to the reins of a deified logos. This enlightenment comes to humans in one of two ways:

(1) complete removal of anger or

(2) a second-best condition whereby anger continues to subsist though controlled by logos.

Both moderation and elimination are realised through God. The model for complete elimination by the grace of God is Moses, as interpreted by Philo. The second best, the person who moderates anger through effort and exercises, is personified by Moses’ brother, Aaron, whom Philo describes as one of the prokoptôn (132.2 and 3.140.2), a Stoic word for the person who is making progress towards virtue. Aaron has the Holy Word of the Law placed over his thumos. God places the logos ‘on the breast of Aaron … so that it may be … in the first place harnessed .. .’ but Moses’ anger is ‘completely extirpated … root and branch’, an excising that was ‘received … as a gift from God without any labour or difficulty’. Indeed, Philo says God ‘distributed to the wise man the best [quality of all], the power to cut out all his passions’ (131). Anger is subdued by God’s Law either incompletely, where anger continues to exist but is subject to the restraint of his Law, or completely eradicated, effortlessly, as a gift coming from His grace. In both cases, though, the cause of the mastery over anger is God. Whereas the Stoics reduced anger to a faulty judgment that could be corrected by reforming one’s judgments, Philo moved the entire problem of subduing the passions to the realm of religion. God is the source of the Law. Once this step was made two results followed: (1) taming wrath was possible by submitting oneself to the word of God, and (2) God’s providential wrath, as interpreted by humans, could become the reference point for the righteous deployment of anger.

There exists a divine anger that is unlike normal human anger. This anger is by definition intrinsically just; and Philo is perhaps the first to call this species of wrath ‘just wrath’, i.e. orgês dikaias and dikaian orgên (de Vita Mosis 1.302.6 and 2.279.2). This alone would be sufficient to make Philo a pivotal figure in the cultural transformation that was occurring. Even if he was not the first, his work appears to be the source of this concept for later Christian writers. This distinct species of ‘just anger’ is not to be inquired into; it is God’s will in the form of a corrective that ensures the viability of the Covenant. Those who betray the covenant are smitten by it. Accordingly, Moses will order the Levites to slaughter the idol worshippers: ‘Yea, slay them, though they be kinsmen and friends .. .’ This deed comes as a command; it is executed as a duty and is pleasing to God. Others feel pity, but Moses honours the Levites for carrying out the bloody order. The Church Fathers will make Philo’s treatment of this passage from Exodus into the exemplar of ‘just anger’, and it will become a commonplace reference for how human anger, once recast, can serve righteousness.

Also of lasting importance will be Philo’s assertion that God’s wrath in the Hebrew Bible should not be taken literally, for in truth God is free of passion. Staying close to Stoic doctrine, he argues that God is free of all passion. His wrath in the Scriptures is for causing fear among non-believers and immature minds.” Philo is not always consistent with this doctrine. He is more than willing to jettison this view when confronted with sin against God. Anger then is portrayed as a mighty destructive force and Moses himself becomes swept away with it when he orders the Levites to slaughter the idol worshippers. This contradiction is one the Church Fathers will have to work on, but Philo is too close to the sources of his own religious belief to offer a consistent solution to this anomaly.

From the perspective that anger should come from an infallible judgment in the form of a corrective to sinners, Philo revised the Stoic doctrine of duties so as to sever it even further from any social or political context. The Stoics’ rational ordering of duties is replaced by duty to God. An impenetrable divine will, one that is by nature inscrutable, is now made the source and the model for correct expressions of anger.” The measure for righteousness in anger, something that entails social relationships between men, was now placed outside society. (Kalimtzis 2014, pp. 141-143)

As an aside but complementing that final paragraph that places a “just anger” that is not human anger into the mystery of that “impenetrable divine will” there is the following quotation I have taken from Runar M. Thorsteinsson’s Roman Christianity & Roman Stoicism (2010):

Thus there is no actual violence in God, and the quotation, ‘‘vengeance is mine, I shall repay’’ must, therefore, be taken loosely.’ Jewett himself ends up with the solution that the divine wrath spoken of in Rom 12.19 ‘belongs in that arena of unsearchable mystery celebrated at the end of Rom 11’ (Romans, 777). (Thorsteinsson 2010, p. 170)

Kalimtzis’s exploration above of Philo’s views on anger places any Stoic interpretation of Matthew’s Jesus in a richer context. Philo lived from 25 BCE to 50 CE.

Grieving in Gethsemane

Again Matthew was obliged to work with an episode from the Gospel of Mark: Jesus experiencing emotional turmoil in Gethsemane. This is not how a Stoic was supposed to face death.

Gospel of Mark 14:32-39

Gospel of Matthew 26:35-46

. . . began to be greatly amazed (ἐκθαμβεῖσθαι), and sore troubled.

. . . and began to be sorrowful (λυπεῖσθαι) and sore troubled.

And he saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death: abide ye here, and watch.

Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: abide ye here, and watch with me.

And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass away from him.

And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible,

And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; remove this cup from me: howbeit not what I will, but what thou wilt.

let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.

And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest thou not watch one hour?

And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

And again he went away, and prayed, saying the same words.

Again a second time he went away, and prayed, saying, My Father, if this cannot pass away, except I drink it, thy will be done.

Stoic influence was strong among many of the second and third century Church Fathers who accordingly believed that grieving was morally wrong. One of these, Origen, like Philo (both lived and worked in Alexandria, Egypt), was familiar with the same Stoic authors as were read by the prominent Stoics Cicero, Seneca and Epictetus (Graver 2007). Both shared similar views on “impressions” or “pre-emotions” that we met earlier. These were depicted as “bitings”, “preliminaries”, “unplanned movements”. They, undoubtedly indebted to earlier Stoics, explained these “pre-emotions” as “involuntary”, dependent on “rational impression” and as continuing to abide in the persons of the wise.

gethsemaneMeanwhile it is instructive to see how useful the Alexandrians found this Stoic concept to be in their own work of scriptural exegesis. The task was challenging: readings had to be discovered which not only had plausible textual support but could accord with the prior theological commitments of the exegete and serve the purposes of religious instruction.

In the Christian writers, there was a need also for Scripture passages to be interpreted in such a way as to support a position in the Christological controversies of the day. With much at stake, the exegetes were philosophical opportunists, ready to lay hands on any philosophical tool they found sharp enough to carve a fine psychological distinction and robust enough to maintain that distinction under dialectical pressure. Consistency by the canons of Greek philosophical debate was not a major concern: concepts taken from Platonist philosophy, including the Platonist standard of moderation in emotion (metriopatheia), could be deployed alongside or even combined with Stoic ideas.

However, Philo, Origen, and other authors in this tradition did share certain broad presuppositions with the Stoics in matters of ethics. Anger, fear, grief, and the like, because of their commitment to the value of externals, are considered in their works to be unnatural and improper, not compatible with virtue or wisdom and by the same token not attributable to the divinity. Further, all these authors share with the Stoics a strong interest in describing the perfection of human nature.

In Philo, the exemplar of virtue is found especially in Abraham; in the Christian authors, in the incarnate Christ. Scripture passages which appear to validate ordinary emotions or to attribute them to God, to Abraham, or to Jesus Christ were therefore of particular concern. The involuntary ‘preemotion’ could sometimes be called upon to resolve the difficulty. (Graver 2007, pp. 102-103)

Stowers relies heavily on Graver here so I am detracting from none of his argument by adding the following:

Like Philo, Origen assumes that ordinary human emotions, grief and fear as well as anger, always imply some moral error, so that no emotion can be attributed to the deity or to any virtuous human. For this reason he devotes special attention to New Testament passages which seem to attribute emotions to the incarnate Christ.

A key passage is Matthew 26:38–39, which tells how Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane“ began to be grieved and agitated . . . and said, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’” Origen is concerned that some who read this verse may seize upon Jesus’ example as a way of defending ordinary human emotions. Also, he is concerned that Jesus’ apparent distress may lead some readers to believe that Jesus was not truly divine but merely human, the error, he says, of “certain heretical sects.” In his own comment on the passage, he therefore emphasizes the word ‘began.’ There is a big difference, he says, between beginning to grieve and actually grieving. Jesus did experience the beginning of grief and fear, but he did not grieve “with the grief of emotion itself.” This is exactly the interpretive strategy that enabled Philo to maintain that Abraham did not mourn for Sarah. (Graver 2007, p. 106)

Matthew also changed Mark’s word for “great amazement” to the more neutral “sorrowful”. Stowers comments:

Matthew changes this to the common word for grief that the Stoics used, λυπεῖσθαι, which connects Matt 26: 37 to the word for grief in the quotation from Ps 42 [41]. Matthew then can be read in this Stoic way: Jesus had the initial “biting contraction” of grief that is natural to all humans, including sages, accompanied with his proclamation of the Scripture that predicted it, but he never allowed the natural preemotion to develop into an evil and unnatural emotion that construed his impending death as an evil.(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1884-1888). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Finally Matthew adds a more Stoic line as a conclusion to Jesus’ prayer:

In Stoic thought, life is a preferred indifferent. Life ought to be desired, pursued, and preserved, but one is not to think that who one truly is and what is truly valuable will be harmed by that natural and universal state of death that is another part of God’s plan. In Matthew, the prayers of Jesus that follow can be read as expressing this attitude. At the end of the scene (26: 42) that starts with the “pre-grief,” he calmly says to God, in effect, “If my death cannot be avoided, then your will be done.” (2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1888-1892). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The famous Stoic Seneca in his letter On Consolation to the Bereaved wrote that a sage will involuntarily weep and shake with sobs at a funeral. He will also go beyond that feeling and express joy on “remembering the goodness and companionship of the loved one.”

That a major Stoic figure can go this far shows that Matthew’s author and ancient readers could quite easily construe Jesus’ grieving in a way that would be consistent with the Stoically inflected teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 1898-1900). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Problems Stoicism Solves

Very briefly:

Stoicism was the ideal tool at hand to mould Jesus into a, rather THE, superior teacher. Stoicism was a well respected philosophy; it was popular; and it had a reputation for rigour. Popular appeal and high moral standards — impossibly high as it taught the path of progress to human perfection.

It helped explain how the Jews could have been so blind, so evil, that God had to destroy their nation. Though they were preserving the Mosaic religion, the laws of God, Stoicism enabled the charge to be leveled at them that they were following “mere principles”, “rules”, and failed to understand the need to be “pure in heart” or virtuous in the highest Stoic sense.


Attridge, H.W. 2010, “An ‘Emotional’ Jesus and Stoic Tradition” in T. Rasimus, T. Engberg-Pedersen and I. Dunderberg (eds), Stoicism in Early Christianity, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.

Brennan, T. 2005, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate, Oxford University Press, New York.

Davies, S. 2014, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity, Bardic Press, Dublin, Ireland.

Graver, M.R. 2007, Stoicism & Emotion, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kalimtzis, K. 2012, Taming Anger: The Hellenic Approach to the Limitations of Reason, Bristol Classical Press, London.

Stowers, S.K. 2010, “Jesus the Teacher and Stoic Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew”, in T. Rasimus, T. Engberg-Pedersen and I. Dunderberg (eds), Stoicism in Early Christianity, Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.

Thorsteinsson, R.M. 2010, Roman Christianity & Roman Stoicism, Oxford University Press, Oxford.


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72 thoughts on “Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving”

  1. Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t appear to be a “stoic sage” on the cross. Matthew 27:46 maintains Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as a desperate, emotional wreck on the cross shouting out ‘My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke apparently picked up on this and corrected it by having Jesus say: 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

    1. But that’s more because whoever “wrote” Matthew was mostly just copying and also whoever wrote Matthew recognized some of the parallels with the Hebrew scriptures and left them in place when he was aware of them. Whoever wrote Matthew knew that “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” came from Psalm 22 and left it there in order to preserve the “evidence of prophecy fulfillment”.

      The author of Luke, however, was completely oblivious to all of the scriptural references and that’s one reason he made many more changes to the original narrative. He made changes to many literary allusions because we was unaware of what they were. He clearly had little knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and wasn’t fixated on setting up prophecy fulfillment scenarios like “Matthew” and “John” were.

        1. He certainly made use of Jewish scripture, but I don’t think he was intimately familiar with it, i.e. had much of it committed to memory. This because, of the dozens of references to the Jewish scriptures made in Mark, the writer of Luke shows no sign of recognizing any of them, just as in the Psalm 22, crucifixion example. He also make no literary allusions himself, as the writers of Matthew and John clearly did.

          1. Regardless of the fact that he was citing scripture, Matthew wanted to portray Jesus in the cross as desperate and abandoned, and Luke wanted to portray Jesus on the cross as calmly going into His Father’s arms.

              1. So it hasn’t occurred to you that Matthew copies the cry of desolation from the cross in Mark, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me,” because Matthew agrees with Mark that Jesus on the cross was terrified and desperate? The most parsimonious explanation would seem to be that Matthew copied Mark here because he agreed with Mark on this point.

      1. What the recent studies into the possible influence of Stoicism on the New Testament (esp the gospels) invite us to do is to rethink passages like this — My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — and to ask if they can be explained within the Stoic framework.

        This is a relatively new line of inquiry and requires a bit of a learning curve to understand what, exactly, Roman Stoicism did teach and how the likes of Philo applied it to the Jewish Scriptures.

        It doesn’t mean forcing an interpretation to make it fit but a genuine effort to see if and how it might be understood within the context of Stoic thought in relation to emotions and the Stoic sage.

        I think I have included a few small details in these two posts to give us some lead into thinking this one through in relation to the cry from the cross. But I did not cover it in these posts because it is not discussed in the narrow areas of readings I am posting about here. It’s worth another look, however.

        (A more general comment … keep in mind that this is not “a mythicist blog” though I do post sometimes articles that relate to mythicism, and it is not an “anti-Christian” blog though I do sometimes post on scholarly research and verifiable claims about some aspects of religion from time to time. In posts like this — with most of my posts on the New Testament — I am primarily interested in understanding the nature and origins of Christianity and in sharing with anyone else with the same interest.)

        1. I see what you’re saying but in my reading of the Gospels I always viewed the author of Luke to be thoughtful if naive and the author of Matthew to be crude and crass.

          I also think understanding where the narrative elements came from has a lot to do with understanding the other authors’ versions of a narrative.

          For example, if you assume that this event was real, and something that really happened, then the other authors’ versions may be based on “information” they learned about the real events. If this were “real” then perhaps Matthew’s version is “more accurate” or based on a different set of “testimony”.

          Also, if you assume the “oral tradition” view, i.e. that these narratives developed orally over time in the early Christian community (whether real or not), then perhaps Matthew’s version is just a different telling of those oral traditions.

          It also informs our understanding of the possible motivations and methods of the other writers. For example, if Jesus were a real person and the other Gospel writers were writing about him because they had experience with him or knew of him personally or knew of him at least indirectly through real world experiences with real people who clearly had firsthand knowledge of him, then their motivations and methods would surely have been different than if Jesus never existed and was thus a blank canvas onto which anything could be painted.

          Likewise, the methods and motivations of the other Gospel writers would surely have been impacted by whether or not they themselves knew that Jesus was fictional or not.

          My view is that the writer of Luke definitely thought that Jesus was a real person. I think “Luke” must have been writing in the very late 1st century and Luke was using multiple sources of written material and oral material and trying to piece it all together to make a coherent narrative that made sense and fit into a certain established theological framework.

          I’m not so sure this was the case with the author of Matthew. My reading of Matthew is that Matthew was written much earlier than Luke (and influenced Luke) by someone who was an opportunist trying to take advantage of a popular story. I.e., the Gospel of Mark had come out, it was somewhat popular, and whoever wrote Matthew was someone who saw its popularity and wanted to make a “better version” of it, perhaps for profit, like to sell the stories or something. I don’t view “Matthew” as a theologian, I view Matthew as a story teller.

          Did the author of Matthew know that Jesus wasn’t real? Did he even care? This is an important question that very much colors our interpretation of Matthew.

          My view is, the author of Matthew almost surely knew that GMark was a fictional story. If that is true, then it is hugely important to understanding and interpreting Matthew.

          My view is that whoever wrote GMark was intentionally writing a fictional story. That writer obviously knew that Jesus wasn’t a real person. But did the writer of Matthew know that? I think so. The reason I think so is because the writer of GMatthew was clearly trying to emulate the style of GMark and even went so far as to fabricate new story elements. Obviously they fabricated the whole birth narrative, which was clearly written with the goal of making the story more exciting. But when they fabricated that part, they tried to emulate the style of Mark, with similar use of both literary allusions and direct scriptural quotes.

          So if the author Matthew thought that Jesus were real (even if he weren’t) then surely they would have taken a different approach than if they knew he weren’t real. If you think he was real, then you surely have some need to conform to existing knowledge or beliefs about the person. If you know he’s not real, then you are free to create whatever narrative you want. What was “Matthew” doing, trying to convey existing ideas from others, or making up his own narrative? This all depends on our understanding of the origins of the Gospel narrative and the nature of Jesus.

          Now, when we get to the analysis of Stowers et al., it clearly isn’t informed by the understanding of literary allusions, and the author of Matthew’s knowledge of them. The original scenes are the way they are because of how they were making allusions to other texts. This is true in the temple scene (which is based on Hosea) as well as Gethsemane, which is based on the letters of Paul. Likewise, “Jesus’ original actions” were all “motivated” by the fact that he was a character in a story about the war that destroyed the temple. Everything about “Jesus’ actions” is explained by the fact that Jesus is guiding the reader through a series of scenes meant to show that the Jews deserved the destruction of the war. You can’t explain the character or the narrative without understanding that, and if you don’t understand that very core fact, then you are just making shapes out of Rorschach tests. This is why so-called “mythicism” is important and has to color every element of how we understand these texts.

          But what about Matthew? With Matthew you first have to establish when the author of Matthew recognized the literary allusions and when he didn’t. This builds on the understanding that the narrative of Mark is a running series of literary allusions. And the author of Matthew was at least partially away of this fact. The author of Matthew recognized many, but not all, of the allusions. When he did he went back to the well and expanded his scenes through the use of those same allusions. He also preserved the allusions in his text. When he didn’t he often jumbled the allusions and didn’t make use of them.

          The temple scene is a case where the author of Matthew didn’t recognize the allusion. So that explains how and why it was treated differently than other such passages. Was Matthew in this case trying to make Jesus out to be a Stoic? Perhaps, but I see his changes as less about Jesus and more about the audience. I don’t see him making Jesus a Stoic as much as I see him putting the priests and people in a better light.

          I then see his change to the fig tree as trying to make Jesus look more powerful, as in, he kills the tree on the spot in front of the eyes of his followers, it doesn’t happen over time while they are away. This is typical of Matthew’s style of trying to make the story more exciting (part of why I consider Matthew a story teller, and not a theologian). Of course the original telling was done that way because that was the structure of the allusion, which Matthew was unaware of.

          Also, in regard to Gethsemane, I think that the writer of Mark was using Paul, but the writer of Matthew had never read Paul. That’s why we see these big differences in personality ascribed to Jesus by the two writers. Mark is patterning Jesus on Paul, who was clearly no Stoic (but was rather a blustering emotional basket case, like Mark’s Jesus), and Matthew had no idea who Paul even was. I do think, yes, the author of Matthew was trying to Make Jesus a more rational and honorable and “good” person than the character in Mark. So it could be that he was trying to intentionally make him out as a Stoic, or it could simply be a case of “convergent evolution”, i.e. that by simply making Jesus less of a blustering idiot he seems more Stoic like.

          So I see your point, and think this analysis is interesting, but my personal take on this stuff is, unfortunately for some people, to see it all as much more mundane than many scholars try to read into it.

          My view of the Gospels is simply: Some guy wrote a totally fictional story using a cool methodology with lots of hidden textual references in it. The story was pretty exciting and popular, so then other people started making their own versions of it too, some with more thought put into it than others. Lots of people ended up believing these stories were literally true, despite the fact they were totally made up.

          Every single scene and word of Jesus in these stories wasn’t well thought out or part of any grand vision. In some cases the writers were just making it up as they went along and in some cases changes happened due to copying errors. The writers of the other Gospels themselves didn’t even understand the story they were copying from to begin with. The development of the Gospels is mostly just a case of massive misunderstanding and mistakes.

          1. Do you have evidence to support any of these interpretations, though? There is substantial evidence that Matthew was himself writing “midrashically” — weaving stories out of other literary texts, especially the OT. His style is very different from Mark’s and he creates a very different theological Jesus from Mark, and flatly rejects many of Mark’s theological ideas — as some of my other links above show. There is a wealth of evidence that points to where the various gospel stories originated.

            The evidence is also against the gospels being the products of oral tradition. One can see this from both the works of oral historians who explain how “oral history” works (e.g. Jan Vansina) and also by those who study the gospels themselves and test them for oral as opposed to literary underpinnings.

            I don’t think the evidence points to the gospels simply being believed and being more believed with more exciting retellings. They do not appear in the historical record until well into the second century. Before then there were many other ideas about Jesus and Christian origins.

            Paul’s theology was also arguably based on Stoic ideas. I have posted on some of the arguments for this in my treatment of Engberg-Pedersen.

            The scholarly literature contains much apologetic rubbish we know, but there are also many nuggets of gold there, too.

            1. That’s not exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying that I think whoever wrote Matthew was trying to the story from Mark more exciting, in part. Yes “Matthew” was writing “midrashically”, because he was trying to copy the style from Mark. By style I mean, making use of literary allusions as the basis for scenes.

              However, the two were doing it in different ways. The author of Mark was using allusions to craft a clever narrative that contained hidden political meaning. The allusion were interpreted as “prophecy fulfillment” by “Matthew” and others.

              The author of Matthew was using allusions to try and create “prophecy fulfillment” scenarios. In other words, Mark did it to embed hidden political meaning. Matthew did it to make it look like “Jesus was fulfilling prophecies”. Hence, Matthew’s structuring was more crude. Whereas Mark was subtle, Matthew was overt and gaudy.

              Paul’s idea may have had things in common with Stoics, but Paul was clearly no Stic himself. He wrote his heart on his sleeve and was very emotional He clearly had a kind of wild a raving personality, just as Mark’s Jesus does, because Mark’s Jesus is patterned on Paul.

              Matthew, of course, tries to back off of this wild behavior in his Jesus character. Was Matthew making Jesus a Stoic? Maybe, or maybe he was just making him less of a maniac, which of course makes him seem more stoic in comparison.

              Quite honestly I think 90+% of the scholarly material on Jesus and the Gospel origins in rubbish. Yes, there are nuggets out there, but I think the general frameworks within which most scholars operate are just completely off base.

              But again I get back to my central question: Knowing that GMark was created as a fictional story, and that Jesus never existed, did the author of Matthew know this himself, or did Matthew think that GMark was a generally factual account of the life of a real person?

              For me, this is the question I have about the other Gospel writers. And I can’t really approach analysis or interpretation of their writings without also addressing that question. Did these writer know they were writing fiction, or did they think they were recording history?

              And I, probably more than just about anyone, ascribe most of the unique text of the various Gospels, as originating from the minds of the writers. In other words, unlike most scholars, I don’t think these writers (except Luke) were recording things, I think they were inventing things. I thin the writers invented most of what they wrote themselves, they weren’t passing on oral traditions or other people’s ideas.

              1. The only Jesus we can know is the literary one in the gospels and and epistles. To understand the origins of the different literary and theological versions of this Jesus we only have other Second Temple literary-theological sources. Any attempt to imagine what the authors might have known about a historical figure is entirely speculative and without any evidence, in my view, and thus cannot be addressed in terms of the evidence available. I don’t know of any question about the literary-theological figure of Jesus in the gospels or epistles that cannot be answered without clear evidence in the wider literature. In fact the very nature of the gospels itself makes it highly unlikely that their narratives are retellings of historical events: that can be known from comparative literary analysis. So to me it is superfluous to introduce any additional speculative possibilities.

                To the extent that scholarly works also address the literary-theological figure in relation to the contextual evidence we have before us I generally find them of serious value.

                But in any sort of literary analysis like this the most important external historical details to understand are those in which the author himself was familiar and that means the circumstances post 70 for our evangelists. That is standard and valid procedure when it comes to explaining what impact historical events might have had on the composition of the documents.

              2. The idea that Mark’s Jesus is based on Paul resonates with me. The argument between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2 appears to be the model for the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7 with Jesus playing Paul’s role.

                I agree with you that Mark was writing an allegory. I have been mulling over whether Matthew was, too. But I think you are right that Matthew mistook Mark’s allusions to scripture as fulfilled prophecy and added his own.

                Matthew does tone down Mark’s Homeric allusions. The name of the Cyclops, “Polyphemus”, has the roots of “polygon” and “blasphemy” so the literal translation is “many speak about”, which equates to “famous”. Mark uses “polys” in “for we are many”. Mark uses the Latin term “Legion” for many soldiers because it looks like “lego” which is translated as “said” and arranged them so “lego” is immediately before “Legio”. Mark tried to make it as obvious as John Goodman’s eyepatch in O Brother! Where Art Thou? that the character was the Cyclops. Matthew dropped the name and made it two men, a common alteration in Matthew. Luke used a different word for “said”.

                I think Matthew wrote no earlier than the mid-nineties because I think he used Antiquities of the Jews 2.9.2, 3, & 4 for Joseph’s dreams, especially about the pregnant wife, and the Slaughter of the Innocents plus AJ 17.2.4 for the wise men with foreknowledge and Herod committing murder out of fear.

                Matthew may have based his Jesus not only on Mark’s Jesus but James, too. The Sermon on the Mount Site: James and the Sermon on the Mount by Robert I. Kirby shows an overwhelming amount of correlation though Kirby doesn’t consider that Matthew may have used James as a source for Jesus’ words and teachings. I don’t think his list is exhaustive, for example James 2:6-7 & Matthew 5:25-26, James 2:10 & Matthew 5:19, and James 2:18 & Matthew 5:16. If Matthew reworded James, then Luke copied Matthew and there is no need for the Q hypothesis.

              3. Great points Greg G. Thanks for point that out too, I hadn’t read that on the Sermon on the Mount, but ti makes some sense. I definitely think that Luke had at least heard an oral telling or Matthew or was influenced by Matthew in some way. But I don’t think Luke copied from Matthew. Good stuff.

        2. I had to reply here to your above question because there was no link to reply directly below your comment.

          Neil Said: ” How do you think Stowers might respond to this?”


          The article I posted points out that Jesus was likely a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:16-19/Luke 7:31-35), and had very un-stoic cry of abandonment by God at the time of his death. Doesn’t seem very stoic to me. lol

          Moreover, as I said, Jesus doesn’t really seem like a very good teacher/master in Matthew when he viciously chastises the disciples for not being able to cast out a demon. In this case he is mean, and completely loses his temper: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? (Matthew 17:14-17)

          And, as I said, Jesus saying “Get behind me, Satan” seems harsh, especially when addressing Peter, one of His most devout disciples

          Beyond this, your examples of the “temple tantrums,” “name callings,” and “grieving” are just further evidence that Jesus is not a stoic sage.

          1. Yes, but what is the opposing argument? It appears to me that you are imputing emotions into a text that can be interpreted different ways.

            From what we know of Stoicism and the Stoic Sage concerning emotions what would be the Stoic interpretation of such passages? Or “what was Matthew thinking?” From what we know of his work does he seem like the sort of writer who would leave blatant contradictions in his narrative?

            There is nothing in the dialogue that necessitates the hostile viciousness or loss of temper that you seem to impute. If we look at how a Stoic sage was understood we can surely see alternative attitudes underlying the text. Do you have reasons/arguments to disagree with this?

            1. In Matthew 17:14-17 Jesus calls the disciples “faithless” and “perverse.” Jesus says here that putting up with the disciples is an unpleasant burden he has to “bear.” I guess you could say Jesus is not losing his temper here, but it sure seems that way to me. That’s what the language suggests to me. How do you read it?

              1. I would have thought passages like these were covered in my post. Clearly the points about the Stoic sage, pre-emotion and what it potentially means for Jesus to be a Stoic Sage did not persuade you.

  2. Over analysis. See my other comments here: http://vridar.org/2015/07/08/saving-jesus-from-hypocrisy-explaining-jesus-temper-tantrum-and-mudslinging/#comment-71956

    #1 It’s clear that the temple incident is completely fabricated and never happened.
    #2 I don’t think the author of Matthew was this astute or intentional. Whoever wrote “Matthew” was simply an opportunist taking advantage of a popular story and trying to amp it up a bit. Matthew is by far the crudest of the Gospels and I think think parsing it to much gives the author way too much credit. It’s making shapes out of the clouds.

    1. It is not “clear” that the Temple incident is “completely fabricated” to other writers of various persuasions who have seen some such event as one of the few sure things in the narrative leading to arrest and crucifixion.

        1. I had read your interesting analysis (fig tree &c). I would try to distinguish between probable historical events and theological and/or legendary and/or metaphorical embellishments. We can always start with the assumption that Jesus never existed at all, and therefore never caused trouble to anyone, and of course never died in any way at all, and that Paul and everyone else made up the execution myth for some inexplicable motives of their own. We can always heap the Pelion of elaborate fictions upon the Ossa of a complete vacuum.

    2. This post has nothing to do with the question of the historicity of Jesus or any events in the gospels. My interest is in understanding the nature and origin of the gospels. You might say my primary interest is in investigating what we can discern from the evidence to tell us about the origins of the Biblical literature and Christianity itself. Everyone knows (well, every critical scholar knows) the Jesus of the gospels is a theological construct and is by definition a literary figure. That’s the only one that is of interest when studying the nature of the texts.

      (If you are interested in my views on the historicity of the temple episode see Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.)

      As for Matthew’s literary interests and competence I defer to those studies that have demonstrated the author’s theological agenda in the way he has reshaped Mark and the skill with which he has woven allusions to a range of other literature to achieve this end. His modifications to Mark are far from crude. A few of my posts along these lines:

      Why Matthew changed the way Mark wrote about Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman

      Why Matthew and Luke changed details of Mark’s sabbath dispute

      Matthew’s “misunderstanding” of Mark’s miracle stories

      The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer

      Hans Dieter Betz and Norman Perrin: The Sermon on the Mount and the Historical Jesus

  3. The question always is a conflict between in theory and in practice. Stoicism as it is described in this post, practically speaking, in actual human beings seems like a straightforward recipe for classic hypocrisy more often than not. “It’s not wrong when *I* do it.” Of course *you* do x with the right mindset, but when everyone else does it, it’s a sin. That’s pretty much how I already viewed the bits where Jesus veers off his own script. If everything is going to be taken care of on Judgment day, then why in the world does zeal need to consume him before then on any given issue? It’s just hypocrisy, and prophetic opportunism (gotta catch em all!), and not taking his own advice. Would it have been okay for Peter to have excused himself with the rationalization, “Zeal for my lord consumed me and I had to chop off the ear of the guy trying to arrest Jesus”? Probably not.

    The authors of the gospels were a mixture of conflicting, poorly sorted passions like every other human ever, who wrote their “ideal” character unevenly. And of course there are huge, glaring faults of Jesus hiding in plain sight that miraculously never manage to characterize his status as ideal. Wanting to torture virtually everyone forever is normally the purvue of comic book supervillians. But when good guy Jesus does it, it’s not even a blemish.

    I don’t see Jesus as any kind of actual ideal anymore than any philosopher who spouted some theoretical stuff and then misapplied it all over the place. More often than not the ideal is imposed back on Jesus’ shitty teachings from the standpoint of rosy Jesus glasses he didn’t earn (as Hector Avalos’ book for example aptly demonstrates over and over again). I see modern culture retconning Jesus with the assumption that there’s something particularly ideal about him that must explain the success modern Christianity culturally enjoys. But the two don’t have to be connected. Especially since most Christians couldn’t critically describe the contents of the gospels anyway if at all. Jesus can’t be much of an inspiration if hardly anyone really knows what he’s really about play for play in the gospels.

    Stoic thought may well be some kind of percentage of influence. I’m not sure that it was a rigid formula trying to be followed with merely some minor conflicts with other influences. I think the Jeremiah 31:31-34 prophecy in context of Jesus believing he’s bringing about the end of the world is harder at work here, but maybe that’s just the Jewish apocalyptic flavor of Stoicism. Was Zeus supposed to be actively participating in enabling perfection in the same way that Jesus claimed only Yahweh could do the impossible and enable humans to truly follow the divine law? I could not discern this from this post.

    Thanks for doing this series. It has been helpful to me in clarifying my own ideas.

    1. It is “politically correct” for “left-wing” atheists ignorantly to cite “Jesus” as an historic exemplar of universal altruism, the welfare state and unlimited mass-immigration (from mainly non-Christian regions), and to exploit the residual “guilt” that this religion has left as its closing contribution to the western world.

  4. Jesus doesn’t really seem like a very good teacher/master in Matthew when he viciously chastises the disciples for not being able to cast out a demon. In this case he is mean, and completely loses his temper:

    14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him said, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? (Matthew 17:14-17)

    1. “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you?” But this is copied from Mark, and the author of Mark is referencing the letters of Paul. The reality is that the author of Matthew added virtually nothing to the story other than the birth and extended death scenes, and everything in Matthew that isn’t directly copied from Mark is patterned on Mark’s style, trying to emulate Mark. The only thing Matthew really does to the story is go a little easier on the Jews than Mark did.

  5. It is easy to impute attitudes into certain dialog but what I try to do is learn how the text itself can be demonstrated to tie in with other texts of the period and to find evidence for how the authors and original readers are likely to have interpreted them. The results can be quite different from the way we have come to routinely read the texts ourselves.

    Stowers and others cannot be said to have “proved” the Stoic influence in the Gospel of Matthew but they have presented evidence-based arguments that are worth serious consideration and that force us to read the texts with fresh eyes. Our ways of reading and understanding the gospels have inevitably been shaped by centuries of cultural heritage — both religious and sceptical — that is no doubt all very far removed from the matrix of the gospels’ origins. Recovering those origins is laborious work, but also very rewarding — even if the results at any one time turn out to be a mere stepping stone towards something more secure in the long run.

    1. That’s pretty much the dictionary definition of today’s word. But Stoicism was a philosophy, much more than a slogan. I have touched very briefly on aspects of the philosophy as it relates to emotions in these two posts and in earlier posts have written about its meaning as discerned in Paul’s theology.

      1. Nice stuff, if unconventional. Would be corroborated by the modern Stages of Grief or reaction as to death etc.. Which start out with Denial. Later, Anger. Finally, stoic Acceptance. By Elizabeth Kubler Ross, or someone.

        1. Which in the present model would be say, the Stages of Stoicism.

          The five stages of reaction to dying, by the way, are Denial, then Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Rather like Paul and Jesus in fact.

          Very amusing and insightful.

        2. Mmm … nooo…. Nothing like the modern psychological construct at all, really. It’s about registering in involuntary emotion and then being either wise enough to hold it in check so it did not lead to a “human” emotion based in false values or foolish enough (like most) to let it grow into something “bad”. It’s about how the human can attain to perfection and conformity with divine law. Stoics saw this as Logos/Reason, “Jewish Stoics” or those wanting to reconcile Stoic values with the Bible saw it as conformity to the mind of God as (re)interpreted in the Bible. This God could assist one to control the emotion so it did not deepen into something “bad” or even better, remove it entirely from a true sage.

          1. Interpreting Matthew’s Jesus in the light of stoicism seems to be more of a pseudo-scientific unfalsifiable theory rather than a genuine hermeneutic framework. Apparently recalcitrant evidence like that Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:16-19/Luke 7:31-35), his mean-spirited chastisement of the disciples (Matthew 17:14-17) , his cry of abandonment on the cross, his berating of Peter (Matthew 16;23), as well as “temple tantrums, name calling, and grieving” – all this is absorbed into the theory even though the evidence would be exactly the same if Jesus was not a stoic sage. So the question is: what evidence could disprove that Jesus was a stoic stage. In this case, none, since the theory is too all encompassing, and so is of no explanatory value.

            Matthew 27:46 seems to be the key passage in all this. From the cross Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end of his life, Jesus did not die the calm death of a stoic sage, But rather felt panic-stricken, terrified, and cut off from his God.

            1. The primary argument for Stoic ideas came in the first post of this series and relates to the ethical teachings. From there Stowers asks if the actions of Jesus can be explained this way, too, for that is what we would expect of the author. The problem was that Matthew was stuck with the Gospel of Mark and so had to work with those narrative details for Jesus. If Stowers is correct we would expect to see modifications to Mark to shave off clearly anti-Stoic overtones and turn the actions towards compatibility with Stoic understandings.

              But he also cites Philo and Origen who show us how the Second Temple Jews modified Stoicism to allow for the God of the Bible to replace Zeus/Logos and for Stoic values to be harnessed to the service of beliefs we now include within “Judaism” and “Christianity”.

              1. If Matthew disagreed with the portrayal of Jesus on the cross as one of emotional desperation that Mark showed, he probably just would have changed the words from the cross like Luke did (46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”)

              2. If we accept the Stoic thrust of the gospel then he clearly did not believe these words contradicted his theme.

                No doubt the words are important because of their fulfillment of scripture, but I simply don’t know enough yet about Philo, say, to know how philosophical themes could be accommodated to biblical passages.

                There certainly does appear to be a contradiction here with our understanding of the Stoic ideal, but then I thought the temple action or calling the Pharisees “fools” could ever be accommodated with Stoicism — until I learned more about the Stoic sage and how Stoicism was shaped to serve “Judaism” and “Christianity”. It’s a good question I’d like to explore further.

                (Without opting for any cop-out, we also always have in the back of our minds the question of manuscript reliability.)

            2. “his cry of abandonment on the cross”

              But Matthew most probably recognized it as a scriptural reference (Psalm 22:1), apparently something he can’t get enough of, so for example he adds the earthquake. That is a good reason for preserving it, even if he wants to make Jesus more like a stoic sage. On top of it just because he (possibly) wants to make him more similar to a stoic sage doesn’t mean that he has to be completely consistent or thorough in this job, i don’t regard Matthew as a literary mastermind, and even if he was he most probably had to work within a constrained framework.

              Regarding the case for a stoic Jesus i wonder if the book discusses the parable of the “birds who do not sow or reap” in Matthew 6, which is remarkably similar to a saying of Musonius Rufus in discourse 15 of Epictetus:

              1. Stowers does refer to that Matt. 6 saying and cites both Musonius Rufus and Epictetus in abundance. I suppose I tended to skip over much of the discussion on the Stoic theme of the ethical teachings in Matthew because it seemed so obvious after highlighting just a handful of Jesus sayings.

  6. Neil,

    I really appreciated this article because it represents an attempt to understand the text as it might have been understood at the time it was written. Even if you consciously seek to avoid doing so, reading an ancient text necessarily involves retrojecting the readers modern viewpoint into the meaning of the text.

    My thesis about the origins of the Primary History started with trying to understand how educated Greeks in the 3rd century BCE would receive the recently translated Pentateuch, and the story of Moses struck me as a distinctly Aristotelian discourse on ethics. And then there are the much more obvious similarities to Plato.

    Quick question: Does Ted Brennan cite to underlying scholarship in support of his conclusion that “in Stoic parlance, ‘law’ does not refer to a system of general principles, but to the particular injunctions of ethical experts. This is clear from their official definition of ‘law’?” I would like to determine if Aristotle and Plato had a similar understanding (Aristotle distinguishes between laws and ethics, but I cannot exclude the possibility of some nuance that my modern eye cannot detect.) Thanks.

    1. Here is the text from Tad (not Ted :-)) Brennan from which I took those points about “principles” and “law”. It’s a quick copy and paste from a pdf — bolding is mine, of course.

      To see how the Stoics might have arrived at a different conception of the law, we should consider the lessons that the Stoics might have drawn from a reading of Plato’s Statesman.19 That dialogue argues that we cannot have two beliefs that are antecedently attractive:

      (1) The law is a system of general principles.
      (2) The law is always correct.

      The Statesman argues that human affairs are so variable, so subject to ‘the winds, and whatever else comes from Zeus, contrary to expectation and the usual events’ (Statesman 295d), that systems of general principles will inevitably support the wrong prescription for action in some circumstances, and so must sometimes be over-ridden by the particular injunctions of ethical experts, in particular the ‘kingly ruler’ (Statesman 294a). This figure has a complete knowledge of the good in every circumstance, and is compared to a god. In a conscious paradox, Plato described the expert who over-rides the general principles as someone who ‘establishes their expertise as law’ (Statesman 297a); not the general regularities, but the particular prescriptions of the expert, are the true and genuine law. Since expert and kingly rulers of this sort are hard to find—they are in fact as rare as Stoic Sages will later be—Plato argues that the second-best system is to have rulers who follow established laws, not attempting to override them with inexpert improvisations

      In line with this dialogue, the Stoics opted to retain the view that the law is always correct, and rejected the view that the law is a system of general principles. Thus in Stoic parlance, ‘law’ does not refer to a system of general principles, but to the particular injunctions of ethical experts. This is clear from their offcial definition of ‘law’. Nothing about the standard Stoic definition of law says anything about generality or universality; it simply says that a law is a prescription or imperative (prostaktikon) that prescribes (prostattei) or forbids action.20 There is strong lexical and philological evidence to think that the Stoics took this idea from the Statesman.21 In the Statesman, the word ‘prescribe’ (prostattein) is exactly the word that is repeatedly applied, not to the orders codiWed in the general and ‘law-like’ principles that are followed in the second-best constitution, but to the exceptional, anomalous over-riding prescriptions of the kingly expert.22 The essential nature of the law, in Stoicism, is that it prescribes, that is, issues imperative orders or commands, and the act of prescribing carries no assumption of generality or ‘law-likeness’; a reader of the Statesman would assume that a prescription is an imperative or order, which, if anything, is more likely to be an ad hoc, one-off order that contravenes a standing system of general principles. Thus the centrality of ‘law’ to Stoic ethics has nothing to do with any interest in general, universal, or ‘law-like’ moral principles.23

      This outcome may surprise us less if we keep in mind the experience of Socrates, whose depiction in the Platonic dialogues had such an important influence on the Stoics. His ethical inquiries led him to believe that virtuous action cannot be produced merely by acting in accordance with general rules phrased in observational terms. The only rules that we might bring with us into a new situation will either be exceptionless but too vague, as for instance ‘be courageous’, and ‘don’t commit injustice’, or adequately determinate but no more productive of virtue than the opposite, as for instance ‘never retreat in battle’ or ‘always return deposits’. Courage will sometimes require standing one’s place in battle, but sometimes will require retreat or some other action; justice will sometimes require returning deposits, but sometimes will forbid it.24

      And the footnotes:

      19. An incidental piece of evidence that the Stoics were familiar with the Statesman may be found in Origen Contra Celsum 1.37 = SVF 2.739, which seems to report a Stoic reworking of the myth of the Earthborn from Statesman 271a.

      20. Cicero de Legibus 1.6,18 = SVF 3.315; Philo de Joseph ii.46 = SVF 3.323; Stobaeus 2.7.96 = SVF 3.613. And compare the purely linguistic discussions of the imperative mood (prostaktikon) in DL 7.66 = SVF 2.186 = IG2 ii–3, SE AM 8.70 = SVF 2.187, where the examples are of the emphatically non-law-like sort, e.g. ‘you now, go the river Inachus!’ ‘come here, dear lady!’

      21. Sedley (1999b), 129 mentions the Statesman’s discussion of the failure of universal laws, but draws precisely the opposite conclusion from the comparison. He claims that no one in the Hellenistic period was worried about the adequacy of general principles. ‘The Stoics, certainly, held that the virtues are exact sciences . . . and therefore had no trouble in supposing that ethical norms could be followed all the way down into sets of exact rules for every situation-type.’

      22. Statesman 294de, 295a, 295b, 295c, 295d, 296a, 305d. Contrast the use of epitattein at 294b and 294d to refer to the covering-law generalizations that turn out to need amendment. That Zeno had read the Statesman is also suggested by his description of the human race as a ‘herd’ (Plut. De Alex. virt. 329a = SVF 1.262 = LS 67a).

      23. Given the Stoic fondness for near-etymologies, it may also be that the description of law as a prostateˆs in the fragment of ‘On the Law’, is a further reflection of Statesman’s influence, so that it should not be translated ‘overseer’ as above but e.g. ‘prescriber’. So too, perhaps, with the claim in DL 7.86 = SVF 3.178 = LS 57A = IG2 ii–94 that reason exercises prostasia over impulse because it is the ‘craftsman’ (tekhniteˆs) of impulse—as in the Statesman 297a, the techneˆ of reason, knowing the good in detail, produces particular prescriptions (prostattei) that over-ride the second-best law of mere animal impulse. Neither prostateˆs nor prostasia is genuinely derived from prostattein, i.e. ‘to prescribe’, but the Stoics may have wanted to suggest a connection, i.e. that ‘law must be the prescriber of fine things and base things’ in the fragment of ‘On the Law’, and that ‘reason exercises imperative/prescriptive control over impulse’ in the Diogenes Laertius passage. Plato himself puns in this way, treating forms of epitattein (to prescribe) and epistates (overseer) as equivalent at Statesman 260b
      and 292b, and juxtaposing them at 261c.

      24. Laches 191c, Republic 331c.


      IG2 Inwood, B. and Gerson, L. (eds.) (1997) Hellenistic
      Philosophy. Introductory Readings, 2nd edn (Indianapolis:

      LS Long, A. A., and Sedley, D. N. eds. (1987) The
      Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge
      University Press)

      SVF Arnim, H. von (1903–5) Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta,
      vols. 1-3 (Leipzig: Teubner); vol. 4 (1924),
      indexes, by M. Adler (Leipzig: Teubner)

      DL Long, H. (ed.) (1964) Diogenis Laertii Vitae Philosophorum
      (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

      SE AM Mutschmann, H. and Mau, J. (eds.) (1961) Sexti
      Empirici Opera, vols. II and III Adversus Mathematicos
      (Leipzig: Teubner)

  7. Neil:

    This is a bit off topic, but I was wondering if you agree or disagree with the “Q” hypothesis? I know Richard Carrier thinks Luke just copied from Matthew. Robert M. Price, on the other hand, agrees with “Q.” What are your thoughts?

    1. I have long preferred to think that Luke knew and responded to Matthew.

      (But I also suspect Tyson is correct in arguing canonical Luke arose out of two stages: an “ur-Luke” and then an anti-Marcionite redaction.)

      But I do not completely shut the door on Q as a possibility, either. All hypotheses are tentative.

      1. “All hypotheses are tentative” – how true, especially in view of the lack of extant documentation from the first century for comparison, and the misleading “simplicity” (!!) of arranging the first three gospels in a direct interdependent copyist sequence. However, can we ever “dispense with Q” while this hypothetical material looms over any “debate” and is a source of endless speculation (ideological as well as literary)? See e.g. David Neville, “Mark’s Gospel – Prior or Posterior?” (2002) – only £1.67 from Amazon, folks!

        Then there’s the Lukan priority alternative from Jerusalem School people (Young, Bivin, Lindsey).

        Talk about “synoptic fatigue”! A lifetime spent chasing this particular hare round the maze could perhaps be better spent on other questions.

              1. OK, I read the basic argument, and am not inclined to read further. Besides being based wholly on the desire to reconcile patristic sources, it completely ignores the “clincher” for Markan priority among the synoptics: its sophisticated chiastic structure, of which only fragments remain in Luke and Matthew.

  8. “But isn’t a Stoic supposed to have the full emotional range of a Dr Spock?”

    I assume you don’t mean the pediatrician; the Vulcan is always referred to as “Mister”.

  9. As already indicated, the “Synoptic Problem” is not something I expect or wish or am qualified to solve in my remaining lifetime, and enthusiastic specialists must examine the multitude of alternative proposals on their own comparative merits or demerits, including arguments about the place of Mark from Catholics (Butler, Orchard, Vaganay &c) and non-Catholics who argue from internal evidence against Markan priority.

  10. PS. Give this old dog a much-chewed bone (from A Level RE) he cannot leave alone!

    For just one of these non-Catholic revisionists, Google “John Wenham. Priority of Matthew” (first 3 pages, including Douglas Moo’s critique). Some Vridar supporters may not welcome the view that Jesus had followers who recorded their experiences of him between his execution and the fall of Jerusalem. So consider Wenham’s literary arguments separately from his biographical speculations which, like Butler’s suggestion that Peter used an ur-Matthew to assist his preaching in Rome with personal additions and omissions recorded by Mark, regard the NT characters as fact not fiction.

  11. Here is another possible path of investigation that would contribute to knowledge of the early environment of Christianity:

    St. Paul and Epicurus – Prof. Norman Wentworth Dewitt (1954)

    “Through his scholarly investigation into the Epicurean source of certain portions of the Epistles, Professor DeWitt provides new explanations or translations for seventy-six biblical verses. The close scrutiny of biblical passages is carried out, not in a spirit of vandalism, but in a quest for accuracy, and the result is a challenging, readable, and absorbing book.”


    “The present study is a sequel to the author’s Epicurus and His Philosophy and it aims at making good the thesis there enunciated that Epicureanism functioned as a bridge of transition from Greek philosophy to the Christian religion. It is hoped by this means to have opened up
    a new window on the New Testament, a window walled up by prejudice long centuries ago.”

    1. also

      “One item of information may also be mentioned for future reflection: Paul seems to display far too much affinity with the cheerful and friendly Epicureans to have ever been enamored of the censorious Stoics, who revered as their founder “the sour and scowling Zeno.”” (p.37)

      1. jesus christ, son of nazareth goes around calling people fools, dogs, snakes…
        i was trying to see if there are others who took different approach then him when dealing with adversary.

        1. What are the probable sources of the parables, wit, imagery and pronouncements attributed to One Named but Non-existent Person by several equally inventive but anonymous existing persons?

          How explain apparent anachronisms like Matthew 10.23b or Luke 9.27?

          Note also e.g. the train of thought in the perorational sequence of related images in Matthew 23.23-36: garden food – swallowed impurity – cups – tombs – old prophets – murderers – new prophets – first to last in national history – blood vengeance.

  12. Hi, this description of a Stoic sage sounds remarkably like the Orthodox (i.e. Byzantine) concept of the ideal Christian. For example, Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima in The Karamazov Brothers.

    On “pre-emotions”, the distinction between the natural will (driven by semi-conscious impulses) and the gnomic will (which makes decisions based on right understanding) was formalised and endorsed in the 7th century by the Sixth Ecumenical Council as a refutation of the Monothelite heresy. It was also an important element in a system of ascetic theology developed by the Desert Fathers in Egypt (early 3rd century onwards). Obviously, as you show, the underlying concept is much older. Despite being part of “official” Christianity, it has effectively vanished from Western consciousness, along with all the other desert stuff.

    As for divine anger, I wonder if it could better be viewed as a destructive force which arises when two incompatible things, the profane and the divine, are present together? Rather like matter and anti-matter, although obviously that comparison wasn’t available to Philo. (Many religions regard holy things as highly dangerous objects which need to be kept at a safe distance and should only be approached after taking elaborate precautions to avoid being zapped)

    Finally, much mention of Matt. 27:46 in the comments but for what it’s worth, Patristic interpreters did not see any difficulty here: for them, it showed that Jesus, as well as being truly God, was truly man, with a natural human thirst for life. More interestingly, some see him speaking as a Jew on behalf of his fellow Jews, prophesying the sense of being abandoned by God and handed over for destruction that the entire Jewish people would experience.

  13. As Derrida demonstrated, we always have to be careful about drawing conclusions about the sources for stories based on the content of those stories. For example, consider the Temple Cleansing story and the plethora of possible source-explanations for it:

    (1) Maybe the story is accurate and Jesus caused a disturbance at the temple.
    (2) On the other hand, maybe the episode never happened, because there would have been guards there to prevent such a disturbance. Maybe Mark was part of an anti-temple sect similar to the Qumran sect and so was presenting in the story the idea that just as it was no longer the season for figs (the withering of the fig tree story), so too was it no longer season for the temple (the temple tantrum being sandwiched between the fig story).
    (3) Maybe the story started out as a sermon Jesus liked to give about the corruption of the temple, and that sermon simply morphed over time into the temple cleansing episode that Mark inherited.
    (4) Maybe the temple cleansing episode started out as a dream someone had about Jesus, which morphed, over time, into the temple tantrum story that was passed down to Mark.
    (5) Maybe Mark was apologetically justifying after the fact that the Jews really didn’t need the temple, in the wake of its destruction by the Romans
    (6) And this could go on indefinitely …

    Anyway, Derrida’s point is that when we draw conclusions about sources that lie behind narratives we need to be very careful, because often times our analysis can just be wishful, lazy thinking.

  14. There’s nothing wrong with calling someone a hypocrite, it’s a call out for expressing hypocrisy. He called them hypocrites precisely in a precise manner. Secondly I’m pretty sure that if someone did something against your culture or your father you would be angry enough to do something “shocking”. This feels like an easy way to spread a biased negative perspective on him. What about all the other things that he did? He helped people. He wasn’t appreciated by everyone, but many did. The Pharisees did nothing but criticize. Their reputation was earned and that doesn’t make Jesus a bad person. I have called out people myself and that doesn’t make me dramatic or bad in any sense. I have called bad people bad.. so what? This article sounds hypocritical. So when someone else does it, it’s wrong but if it were your turn let’s see how good your reactions will be. He had emotions and so everyone. Perhaps try working at a gas station or at a retail store for a few days and then come back and edit your silly article, I’m thinking you’ve never dealt with people who misjudge you every day and talk badly about you to others. There’s no such thing as not reacting, everyone reacts at some point.

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