Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

From LivingStyles (labelled for reuse on Google Images)

In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)

The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:

ἄρα οὐχ ὅτι προσήκει τὸν ἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶ προφήτην [=prophet] τῶν θείων, ἀφ οὗ καὶ
Ἑρμῆς ὠνόμασται, τὰ ἀγαθὰ διαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good] (Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)

— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.

Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.

— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.

I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].

1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [hoacharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [ho logos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [erein mēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.

— Logos is translated Reason but note its close association with “the word”, in particular the spoken word, a word that brings life-giving benefits as we will see. Continue reading “Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes”


Jesus the Logos in Roman Stoic Philosophers’ Eyes

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by Neil Godfrey

Wilfred Knox

This post derives from my reading of Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity by Wilfred L. Knox (1942).


For other posts on various aspects of a relationship between Heracles and Jesus see Heracles, A Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ.

Let’s once again imagine the canonical gospels in the thought-world of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Specifically, this time let’s focus on how Stoic philosophers thought about gods like Hermes (the Roman Mercury) and Heracles (the Roman Hercules) and then imagine what those philosophers might have thought about Jesus as they listened to a reading of the gospels.

Jesus is not the sort of messiah we normally think of when we think of “the Jewish messiah”. He is centred in heaven and acts as sustainer of the universe and the source of all spiritual wisdom, and so forth, rather than a Davidic king sitting on a throne in Jerusalem with all nations coming to bow to him. (We have addressed the various ideas of Jewish messianism several times before but here we are focusing on Knox’s interesting explanation for this more spiritual or heavenly concept of Jesus as messiah.)

Knox points out that Jesus is not explicitly described as a “saviour” (even though he clearly is a saviour) until the very latest books in the N.T. For Knox, this avoidance of the label can be explained by a reluctance to associate Jesus with the many other divine and human “saviours” that populated the Hellenistic landscape.

It is well known that the general desire of the hellenistic age was to find gods who were ‘saviours’. ‘Salvation’ might take many forms. . . . even Philo can describe Augustus as Soter [=Saviour] and Euergetes [=Benefactor], though normally such titles are reserved for the God of Israel and only applied sarcastically to rulers. . . .

[Flaccus] arrested thirty-eight members of our council of elders, which our saviour and benefactor, Augustus, elected to manage the affairs of the Jewish nation after the death of the king of our own nation . . .  (Philo: Flaccus 74)
In Syll 347 (= 760)8, an Ephesian inscr. of A.D. 48, the Town Council of Ephesus and other cities acclaim Julius Caesar as θεòν επιφανή … καί κοινòν του ανθρωπíνου βíου σωτήρα, and in a i/A.D. Egyptian inscr. … reference is made to Nero as τώι σωτήρι καί ευεργετηι (cf. Lk 2225) τή[ς] οίκουμένης : cf. the description of Vespasian … tòv σωτήρα καί ευεργετην.  (Voc. Gr. N.T. p.621 σωτήρ )

Jesus the Logos; comparing Heracles the Logos

Here we come to an interesting point, one that I had “sort of” known for some time, but Knox makes its significance clear:

Knox adds a detailed discussion of two examples (Asclepius and Sarapis) of this identification of a saviour god with the supreme God (Zeus) and of the descriptions by Aristides of this highly exalted god that match Philo’s account of the Logos. Cf. Wisdom 9:18ff.

But at its best the cult of a saviour could rise above man’s immediate needs of peace, health, and prosperity; a particular deity could be regarded as the manifestation of God in the cosmos, and be addressed by the votary in more or less monotheistic language as the saviour both of the worshipper and of the whole universe or one particular aspect of it. As a saviour in this sense he could be equated with the Logos or one of the Logoi through which the supreme deity ordered the universe, or with the supreme deity himself; which position was given him depended on his traditional position in the Pantheon or on the extent to which the worshipper was concerned to observe the proprieties of Stoic-Platonic theology. (38)

And then a detail even less expected for many of us who are not professional classicists:

Heracles is a particularly interesting specimen of this theology. (39)

[Destroying tyrants and establishing kingdoms was] what made him Saviour of the earth and of the human race [τῆς γῆς καὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων σωτῆρα] . . . (Dio Chrys. 1.84)

Saviour and Logos

Heracles was not only a “saviour” who delivered the world from barbaric tyrants and introduced civilization through the good governance of kings. But he was also the Logos who gave “strength and cohesion to the cosmos”. Thus the philosopher Cornutus identifies Heracles with the Logos that is the power and mind responsible for sustaining the universe:

‘Heracles’ is universal reason [= Ἡρακλῆς δἐστὶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς ὅλοις λόγος], thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well, and it also gives strength and power to its various parts. The name comes, perhaps, from the fact that it extends to heroes [hērōes] and is what makes the noble famous [kle(izesthai)]. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. ….. Both the lion skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility; for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer because he extends everywhere and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering—and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Coans have an apposite tradition according to which he lives with Hebe,198 as one more perfect than her in intelligence—as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.”203 I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to ‘Omphale’ refers to him [the god]; through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice [omphē] (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labors as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day. (Cornutus, Greek Theology, 31)

Seneca, also a Stoic philosopher, appears to have taken the same Stoic idea of the Logos (or head) spreading its health through the whole body when he instructed the young Nero, substituting Nero for the Logos of the empire:

To a great extent, Caesar, we may hope and expect that this will come to pass. Let your own goodness of heart be gradually spread and diffused throughout the whole body of the empire, and all parts of it will mould themselves into your likeness. Good health proceeds from the head into all the members of the body: they are all either brisk and erect, or languid and drooping, according as their guiding spirit blooms or withers. Both Romans and allies will prove worthy of this goodness of yours, and good morals will return to all the world . . . (Seneca, Of Clemency, 2.II.1)

Stoics sometimes wrote of God as if he/it were an immanent force permeating all; other times, though, they spoke of God as a first cause and transcendent ruler over all. Seneca declared God to be the

divine reason [= logos] which permeates the whole world and all its parts. . . . [A]ll things stay in place thanks to him, because he is their stayer and stabilizer. . . . [H]e is the first cause of all, the one on which all the other causes depend. (On Benefits 7.1-2)

Seneca also identified Logos with Heracles: Continue reading “Jesus the Logos in Roman Stoic Philosophers’ Eyes”


Argument for God — part 3, final (arguments against atheism)

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by Neil Godfrey

Barrett next raises what he sees as “reflective problems for atheists“. (For Barrett’s meaning of the term “reflective beliefs” see the opening post in this series: Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) and its specific application to belief/nonbelief in God, Argument for God — part 1.)

Barrett appears to be suggesting that an atheist must in some sense fight against his or her nature in order not to believe in god/s:

In addition to reinterpreting nonreflective beliefs that suggest superhuman agency, atheism requires combating conscious, reflective arguments for theistic thought. In some ways, the burden for certainty is greater for atheists than for theists. (111)

That last sentence is also problematic. “Burden for certainty”? But let’s continue.

Barrett quite rightly points out that the thrust of his explanations for why people believe in god/s or the supernatural of some kind indicates that belief is fundamentally easy. It would hardly be an explanation for the universal belief in the supernatural otherwise, though, would it! People do not need to “work hard” to figure out reasons why they believe. But then,

Given the sort of experiences they have, including the suggestion from others that God does exist, belief enjoys such rich intuitive support that no justification seems necessary. (Perhaps this is why some believers are such easy marks for those college professors that are hell-bent on dissuading them of their faith. They have few if any explicit reasons they can articulate for belief.) Atheism, on the other hand, has less in terms of intuitive support but brings more explicit rationale to the table. As a more reflective belief system, frequently intellectually discovered, atheism has more reflective opportunity for being challenged (as well as encouraged). Hence, explicit reasons for theism generally require some attention from the atheist. (111 – my bolded highlighting)

I can agree with all of that; I can even agree with those “college professors that are hell-bent” on demanding intellectual rigour from their students. In my journey out of belief, the last bastion I was left to face was my conviction that the Bible was “true” in some theological sense. Yes, I needed to address the explicit reasons for that belief just as I had had to address the explicit reasons for each other grounds for belief up till that point.

Reasons believers typically advance for their conviction that God exists are the need for agency to explain the existence of the universe and design in the world around us. Until the arrival of “Darwinism”, Barrett notes, atheists had no real “satisfying defense against their own intuitive sense that the world was designed and the congruent claims of theists.” That may be so. But I am reminded of a time when thunder was universally believed to be the noise of divine or spirit activity of some sort, according to some of our ancient records. And how for a long time planets strangely wandered in their idiosyncratic pattern — as if (how else?) moved by some divine or spirit agent.

Meanwhile, Barrett points out that Darwinism does not address “the origin of life or the mechanical fine-tuning that many astronomers and physicists have recently noted… (Leslie 1982, Leslie 1983, Carter 2002)”. Yes. There is still more to learn. Explaining thunder was but one of the first steps.

Then Barrett returns to his concern for “certitude”:

Atheists may also have epistemological difficulties that theists (depending on theology) do not have. Theists may confidently hold reflective beliefs operating under the assumption that their mind was designed by an intelligent being to provide truth, at least in many domains. For the atheist, another explanation for the certitude of beliefs must be found, or certitude must be abandoned. If our very existence is a cosmological accident and our minds have been shaped by a series of random mutations whittled by survival pressures (not necessarily demanding truth, only survival and reproduction, as a rat, fly, or bacteria can pull off with their “minds”), then why should we feel confident in any belief? And if we can’t feel confident in our beliefs, why do we go through life pretending we can? These questions may have satisfactory answers. The point is that unlike the theist, the atheist has far more explaining to do. This, too, makes atheism harder. (112 — again, my bolding)

I certainly have no problem accepting that our brains have not evolved in such a way that will enable them to grasp a complete understanding of everything we would like. I know quantum physics and even advanced maths are beyond my abilities to comprehend fully. I am quite prepared to accept that the noises I hear my old wooden house at night are the result of contraction from temperature drops, but I am not going to launch a crusade if one day we discover some other mechanism for the noises. In other words, all “certitude” is provisional — we are always open to learning more, revising the old, even discarding it, and moving on. That kind of provisionality as the bedrock is what has enabled us to survive at all, I suspect — not any unqualified or unquestionable “certitude”.

Returning to thunder. Yes, a naturalist has much more explaining to do than the person who attributes the noise to Hephaestus or Zeus or some other divine activity. Why should that be a problem? A child can readily imagine a monster at night; it takes some “reflective activity” to think of plumbing and other noises as the temperature drops. Not every rustle in the grass is caused by a stalking tiger.

Fighting Back Theism

“Fighting Back Theism” is a heading chosen by Barrett. For me it conjures images of the rebellious, renegade atheist fighting wilfully and desperately against the God he “knows” (or “wishes not”) to exist yet also hates. For Barrett,

Atheism just requires some special conditions to help it struggle against theism.

Continue reading “Argument for God — part 3, final (arguments against atheism)”


Argument for God — part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Argument for God — part 1.

. . . .

I will try to refrain from commenting on Barrett’s argument this time. My wordy part 1 post was met with succinct comments that said all that needed to be said then. I hope those and other commenters do not desert me now.

Barrett’s argument in his chapter titled Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?

In this chapter, I argue that atheism (the disbelief in any gods) as a shared worldview arises only under special conditions and is indeed the exception to the rule. Compared to theism, atheism is relatively unnatural and, unsurprisingly, a very uncommon worldview. (108)

Barrett’s view is that the psychological factors, or the mental tools, that encourage us to believe in god/s present special challenges for atheism. For these reasons, he explains, atheism is “relatively unnatural” and a “very uncommon worldview.” True, he concedes, some atheists have no mental difficulty, no angst, over being atheists, but he attributes this situation to special environments that he will address towards the end of his chapter. Meanwhile, he chooses to address four mental tools that he believes post serious challenges for atheism. (Those mental tools were discussed earlier in this series, beginning at Gods – 2.)

1. Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) and Theory of Mind (ToM)

Barrett asks readers to turn back to an event described earlier in the book.

Silo explosion – HarzardEx

Consider the following event. A coworker of my wife once performed maintenance tasks on a farm. One day, Doug was working in a grain silo when leaked propane exploded. The first explosion rushed all around him and out the second- level windows high above him. Stunned by not being harmed by the blast, he tried to get out the door, only to discover that the explosion had jammed the doors. Knowing that a second, larger explosion was coming and he had no way out, Doug muttered hopelessly, “Take me home, Lord.” He distinctly heard a voice say, “Not yet,” and then felt some invisible hands lift him a dozen feet in the air and out of a second-story window, then safely to the ground below. Once he landed outside the silo, a safe distance away, the silo and attached barn exploded into rubble. He stumbled to the farm office, where coworkers took him to the hospital. At the hospital, Doug told the doctor that God sent angels to save him. The dumbfounded doctor reluctantly agreed it was a possibility given that the amount of propane gas in the man’s lungs should have been fatal, yet he was not only alive but also conscious and talking. Doug, the doctor, and all staff of the farm believed this event to be caused by supernatural agency. In each of their minds, HADD played a major role in forming this belief. (34 — you can read this particular passage in context and with further discussion by Barrett at slideshare.)

Barrett imagines the questions that might be asked and the answers of theists and atheists:

Who [what agency – it’s our HADD prompting the question] saved him? God or angels. (theist responding)

Who saved him? A coworker saved him. (atheist answering)

But ToM then asks: Why did Doug not see the coworker?

Naive Physics asks: How did the coworker lift Doug out of the second story window?

The atheist has another possible response:

But the atheist has another option, rejecting the detection of agency: HADD was wrong, and no agent or agency was present. Some unknown physical property protected Doug from the initial explosion and propelled Doug out of the second-floor window unharmed, or it happened just by chance.

To which Barrett responds:

But this type of explanation is no explanation at all. What it amounts to is a promissory note: I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m sure there is an explanation that has nothing to do with agency. (109)

Barrett says that the atheist’s deliberate choice to reject HADD is not at all easy:

One of the strengths of the human mind is its ferocious desire to explain, make sense, and find meaning. If we tell HADD that it has misexplained something, it demands that we come up with a satisfactory counterexplanation. Finding such a counterexplanation is not always simple: it requires conscious, reflective thought; it is slow; and it may require tapping our long-term memories for knowledge we incompletely hold. Even if this cumbersome reasoning process yields a counterexplanation that seems satisfying to the self, others, not sharing the same knowledge base, may find it dissatisfying . . . (110)

Note the life-threatening urgency at the heart of Doug’s story:

Recall that HADD’s insistence that it has detected agency may increase under conditions of urgency, as when survival or physical well-being is on the line. Similarly, denying HADD and settling on a satisfactory counterexplanation in urgent situations may be all the more difficult. 

Stories like Doug’s are, Barrett acknowledges, “relatively uncommon” and

the more clever and creative you are, the more likely you are to hit on some counterexplanation that has a ring of plausibility to yourself and others.


But HADD experiences are common, occasionally occur when rapid explanation is required, and often cannot be easily explained in purely naturalistic terms.

I am reminding myself that I promised to bite my lip and not comment. Continue reading “Argument for God — part 2”