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:

Our school also thinks of him as Father Liber and as Hercules and as Mercury: as Father Liber because he is the parent of all and the first to discover the seminal power that provides <for life>through pleasure; as Hercules because his power is invincible and because, when wearied by the labours he has accomplished, it will return to fire; as Mercury because to him belong reason and number, order and knowledge. (On Benefits 8.1)

Heracles died and ascended to the heavens by fire. Knox explains the significance of this manner of death and ascension:

. . . in virtue of his [Heracles’] death on Mount Oeta he could be the pure principle of fire through which God proceeded out of Himself into the creation of the cosmos, to return at the end of each world period into Himself. (p. 39)

Overcoming the crudities of myth

If the more common myth of Heracles depicts him as somewhat less than worthy of being “the/a divine Logos”, the Stoic philosophers, both Seneca and Cornutus, showed his readers a way to bridge that gap:

If the contrast between the mythical figure and the divine Logos was felt to be too strong, it was possible to prove from ancient mythology the existence of a divine Heracles as distinct from the human ; the latter was the son of Alcmena, who had earned the right to the divine name by his noble deeds. (p. 39)

Here are passages explaining the relationship between the two Heracles figures:

Of Heracles the myths relate that he was sprung from Zeus many years before that Heracles who was born of Alcmenê. As for this son of Zeus, tradition has not given us the name of his mother, but only states that he far excelled all others in vigour of body, and that he visited the inhabited earth, inflicting punishment upon the unjust and destroying the wild beasts which were making the land uninhabitable; for men everywhere he won their freedom, while remaining himself unconquered and unwounded, and because of his good deeds he attained to immortal honour at the hands of mankind. The Heracles who was born of Alcmenê was very much later, and, since he emulated the plan of life of the ancient Heracles, for the same reasons he attained to immortality, and, as time were on, he was thought by men to be the same as the other Heracles because both bore the same name, and the deeds of the earlier Heracles were transferred to the later one, the majority of men being ignorant of the actual facts. (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 5.76.1-2)

There is no need to be disturbed by the more recent story: the son of Alkmene and Amphitryon was deemed worthy of the same name as the god because of his virtue, so that it has become hard to distinguish what belongs to the god from the stories about the hero.The lion skin and the club may have originated with ancient theology and been transferred to the latter—it cannot have seemed right that a good military leader who launched powerful attacks on many parts of the earth would have gone around naked, armed only with wood; rather, then, the hero was decorated with these badges of the god when his services had earned him apotheosis. (Cornutus, Greek Theology, 31)

But even apart from the constructing a double Heracles any crudities could be purified by means of allegory. That, of course, is a discussion of its own.

Jesus the Logos — from Philo or . . . . ?

Knox juggles both Philo’s discussion of the Logos and the Stoic view, in particular the Stoic view as illustrated through the likes of Heracles. Knox further cannot imagine that the author of the Gospel of John knew the complex and highly literate philosophy of Philo:

the same allegorical symbolism — the Logos of Philo is also the Truth, the Light, the Life, and the Bread from heaven; he is also the Living Water, the Vine, and the Shepherd. (p. 44)

[The Gospel of John] is written in singularly poor Greek with a very limited vocabulary; the peculiarities of the Greek suggest that the writer was at least more at home in Aramaic.1 Hence it has been argued that, since the writer knows little Greek, he cannot have been influenced by Greek ideas. And so it is held that we have a document produced by an early stage of Palestinian Christianity, with high claims to be regarded as the story of an eyewitness of the earthly life of Jesus. For some unexplained reason the writer identified Jesus with the rather shadowy Memra or word of God which plays a somewhat unimportant role in the Targums as a periphrasis for the divine name. Now it is perfectly possible that the Memra once played a much larger part in Jewish speculation than the extant Jewish literature suggests, and that rabbinical Judaism was once quite prepared to speculate about a Memra-Logos. We know singularly little about Judaism before the codification of the Mishnah after the fall of Jerusalem. What is certain is that such speculations, if they existed, were due to hellenistic influence. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus as the Logos fulfils the same function as the Logos of Philo, and a large part of the Gospel is devoted to an exposition of His life and work in terms of the same allegorical symbolism as that which Philo habitually employs, and reads into that symbolism the same conventional conceptions of theistic philosophy.

On the other hand, nothing could be more fantastic than to suppose that the writer of the Fourth Gospel had read Philo’s works and deliberately substituted the figure of Jesus for the Philonic Logos. It would be inconceivable that the freshness and spontaneity of the Gospel were derived from the laborious pedantry of Philo. (pp. 43-44)

So where does the Gospel of John’s Logos idea come from?

But the resemblance between them is easy to understand if both are drawing on a common stock of midrashic tradition, intended in the first instance to prove that the imagery of the O.T., if properly understood, revealed beneath a cloak of allegory the truths at which the great thinkers of Greece had only guessed and so to convert the Greeks or to preserve the educated Jew from apostasy. The Fourth Gospel uses the same imagery to prove that Jesus is the Logos of Greek philosophy manifested on the stage of history. But the author derived both his imagery and his not very extensive philosophy not from the pages of Philo but from the general tradition of the schools in which the Jew was trained to commend his faith to the Gentile; it is at least possible that when he learnt that tradition it had been translated from Greek into Aramaic. In any case, he is like St. Paul the product of the mixed Greek- Jewish culture of the first century a.d. But this culture was to be found anywhere in the Jewish world and was taken over by the growing Christian culture of which St. Paul is the first literary representative. (p. 44)

From Logos to Saviour?

We began this discussion with Knox’s observation that Jesus was not explicitly labelled a saviour in the earliest Christian documents. Knox works with a range between ca. 90 and 100/120 for the date of the composition of the Gospel of John.

On the whole it seems difficult, though not impossible, to date the Gospel before A.D. 90. Any date after A.D. 100 involves great difficulty, rising to impossibility by A.D. 120. (p. 90)

Though Christianity was a religion of salvation Jesus is not described as a ‘saviour’ until the latest books in the N.T.

Ephesians 5:23 —  “a fairly late book where Jesus as the saviour of the body distinctly suggests such deities as Sarapis and Asclepius.” (p. 42)

Otherwise the term is mainly used in the Pastoral Epistles dating from a time when the Church was sufficiently sure of its position to use the language of Gentile religion without endangering the faith of its members. It is at least possible that ‘the grace of God which bringeth salvation’ and teaches us to look for the glorious epiphany of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Tit. 2. 11 ff., cf. 2 Tim. 1. 8 ff.) is a deliberate application of the conventional language of the imperial cultus applied to Jesus as a contradiction of all that cultus implied. (p. 42)

Yes, Knox does acknowledge that the word is found in the Gospel of Luke (i.e. the infancy narrative – 2:11)

We do indeed find it in Luke’s infancy narrative, where we have a thoroughly Jewish document, representing the Jewish version of that expectation of salvation which was common to the Mediterranean world at the time. We find it also in Acts 5. 31, which seems to contain a very primitive Jewish-Christian Christology, and in Acts 13. 23, where He is specifically the Jewish Messiah of the house of David in St. Paul’s address to the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia. (pp. 41-42)

I happen to think that our canonical versions of Luke-Acts are very late writings, as late as the mid-second century. See Joseph Tyson’s arguments for this case.

Another exception Knox cites is Philippians 3:20. Again we confront uncertainty. John Sturdy’s list of scholars who have argued for interpolations in Paul’s letters include two names for this specific passage: W. Bruckner and K.C. Clemens. F.C. Baur and A. Schwegler considered the entire epistle to be non-Pauline. Nil homini certum est.

Otherwise, the term “saviour” for Jesus appears only in John 4:42

They [= the Samaritans] said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Upon which Knox comments

The title ‘saviour of the world’ is here applied to Jesus; the fact that it is applied by believers means that it is perfectly right as far as it goes, but the fact that the believers are half-heathen Samaritans shows that it is only a very partial apprehension of the true character of the divine Logos which it is the purpose of the Gospel to expound. (p. 42)

It follows, if we go with Knox’s line of thought, that Jesus was represented as the Logos in the Gospel of John before he was more generally assigned the sobriquet of Saviour.

But there is more . . . . we return to the Gospel of Mark in the next post.

Knox, Wilfred Lawrence. 1980 (1942). Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity. Schweich Lectures. Munchen: Kraus Reprint.

Sturdy, John. 2007. Redrawing the Boundaries the Date of Early Christian Literature. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox.

. . .

Cornutus, Lucius Annaeus. 2018. Compendium de Graecae Theologiae Traditionibus. Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana. Boston, MA: De Gruyter.

Dio Chrysostom. 1932. “The First Discourse on Kingship.” LacusCurtius. 1932. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/1*.html.

Siculus, Diodorus. n.d. Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Books 4.59-5.84. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/.

Seneca. n.d. “Of Clemency (De Clementia), Book II.” Wikisource.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. 2010. On Benefits. Translated by Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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3 thoughts on “Jesus the Logos in Roman Stoic Philosophers’ Eyes”

  1. In Genesis, creation begins with God speaking it into existence. The similarity to John’s gospel is obvious, but the word before translation is Logos, which carries all these various meanings (divine reason, fire, etc.). As in the insert window from p. 44, above, Logos comes to be emblematic of the process of allegory or symbol-creation, a quintessentially human function. The aspect of Logos which to me seems most significant is that the concept must be imposed on phenomena. It is not something observed. “Fire” comes closest to being something observable. “Divine Reason,” in the abstract, is not. The truth derivable from Logos is going to be a quintessentially human truth, and not one generally applicable to nature, in all likelihood.

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