2021-06-03

Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Think of the world from which Christianity emerged and mystery religions easily come to mind. That may be a mistake. A more relevant context, influencers and rivals were the popular philosophers and their schools in the first and second centuries.

The Jew and the Christian offered religions as we understand religion; the others offered cults; but their contemporaries did not expect anything more than cults from them and looked to philosophy for guidance in conduct and for a scheme of the universe. (Nock, Conversion, 16)

Any philosophy of the time set up a standard of values different from those of the world outside and could serve as a stimulus to a stern life, and therefore to something like conversion when it came to a man living carelessly. (Nock, 173)

Further, this idea was not thought of as a matter of purely intellectual conviction. The philosopher commonly said not ‘Follow my arguments one by one: . . . but . . . Believe me, those who express the other view deceive you and argue you out of what is right.’ (Nock, 181)

A mystery evoked a strong emotional response and touched the soul deeply for a time, but [conversion to] philosophy was able both to turn men from evil and to hold before them a good, perhaps never to be attained, but presenting a permanent object of desire to which one seemed to draw gradually nearer. (Nock, 185)

As an introduction to the view that popular philosophers had a more profound role than mystery cults in shaping Christianity, I’ve distilled biographical details from one ancient biographer of those philosophers. Spot the similarities to what we read about Jesus and Paul.

Follow Me

Socrates

Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow passage way and accosted him with questions. Xenophon was confused, so Socrates told him, “Follow me and learn”, and from that moment on Xenophon became his disciple.

Diogenes

Someone came to Diogenes and asked him to tell him how to live, what do do …. Diogenes told him to “follow him”. Unfortunately Diogenes also imposed a humbling condition on the would-be follower who was too embarrassed to comply.

Zeno

Now the way he came across Crates was this. He was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day he became Crates’s pupil.

Ethical Teachings and Example, a Physician of Souls

Chilon

“I know how to submit to injustice and you do not.”

The tale is also told that he inquired of Aesop what Zeus was doing and received the answer: “He is humbling the proud and exalting the humble.”

Not to abuse our neighbours

Do not use threats to any one.

When strong, be merciful.

Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger.

Pittacus

Mercy is better than vengeance

Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy

Cleobulus

we should render a service to a friend to bind him closer to us, and to an enemy in order to make a friend of him.

Aristippus

He bore with Dionysius when he spat on him,

The sick need the physician, not the well

Aristippus

When Dionysius inquired what was the reason that philosophers go to rich men’s houses, while rich men no longer visit philosophers, his reply was that “the one know what they need while the other do not.”

In answer to one who remarked that he always saw philosophers at rich men’s doors, he said, “So, too, physicians are in attendance on those who are sick, but no one for that reason would prefer being sick to being a physician.”

Dionysius was offended and made him recline at the end of the table. And Aristippus said, “You must have wished to confer distinction on the last place.”

Stilpo

And conversing upon the duty of doing good to men he made such an impression on the king that he became eager to hear him.

Plato

If Phoebus did not cause Plato to be born in Greece, how came it that he healed the minds of men by letters? As the god’s son Asclepius is a healer of the body, so is Plato of the immortal soul.

Bion

He used repeatedly to say that to grant favours to another was preferable to enjoying the favours of others.

The road to Hades, he used to say, was easy to travel.

Aristotle

To the question how we should behave to friends, he answered, “As we should wish them to behave to us.”

Antisthenes

“It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of.”

When a friend complained to him that he had lost his notes, “You should have inscribed them,” said he, “on your mind instead of on paper.” As iron is eaten away by rust, so, said he, the envious are consumed by their own passion. Those who would fain be immortal must, he declared, live piously and justly.

“Many men praise you,” said one. “Why, what wrong have I done?” was his rejoinder

Diogenes

The love of money he declared to be mother-city of all evils.

Good men he called images of the gods

all things are the property of the wise

Zeno

A Rhodian, who was handsome and rich, but nothing more, insisted on joining his class. but so unwelcome was this pupil, that first of all Zeno made him sit on the benches that were dusty, that he might soil his cloak, and then he consigned him to the place where the beggars sat, that he might rub shoulders with their rags. So at last the young man went away.

This man adopts a new philosophy. He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets Disciples.

Cleanthes

Afterwards when the poet apologized for the insult, he accepted the apology, saying that, when Dionysus and Heracles were ridiculed by the poets without getting angry, it would be absurd for him to be annoyed at casual abuse.

Pythagoras

Pythagoras made many into good men and true

Epicurus

He carried deference to others to such excess that he did not even enter public life.

He showed dauntless courage in meeting troubles and death

He would punish neither slave nor free man in anger. Admonition he used to call “setting right.”

Not to call the gods to witness, man’s duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction

God takes thought for man

In storm at sea

Bias

He was once on a voyage with some impious men; and, when a storm was encountered, even they began to call upon the gods for help. “Peace!” said he, “lest they hear and become aware that you are here in the ship.”

Aristippus

It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.”

Pyrrho

When his fellow passengers on board a ship were all unnerved by a storm, he kept calm and confident, pointing to a little pig in the ship that went on eating, and telling them that such was the unperturbed state in which the wise man should keep himself.

Divinely called, taught God’s truths, believed to be Divine

Epimenides

One day he was sent into the country by his father to look for a stray sheep, and at noon he turned aside out of the way, and went to sleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years. . . . So he became famous throughout Greece, and was believed to be a special favourite of heaven.

a story that he received from the Nymphs food of a special sort

the Cretans sacrifice to him as a god; for they say that he had superhuman foresight

… as he was building a temple to the Nymphs, a voice came from heaven: “Epimenides, not a temple to the Nymphs but to Zeus,” and that he foretold to the Cretans the defeat of the Lacedaemonians by the Arcadians, as already stated; and in very truth they were crushed at Orchomenus.

Socrates

the Pythian priestess bore testimony when she gave Chaerephon the famous response: Of all men living Socrates most wise

Plato

Apollo appeared to [the man who “made violent love” to Perictione] in a dream, whereupon he left her unmolested until her child [Plato] was born.

It is stated that Socrates in a dream saw a cygnet on his knees, which all at once put forth plumage, and flew away after uttering a loud sweet note. And the next day Plato was introduced as a pupil, and thereupon he recognized in him the swan of his dream.

a. Eagle, why fly you o’er this tomb? Say, is your gaze fixed upon the starry house of one of the immortals?
b. I am the image of the soul of Plato, which has soared to Olympus, while his earthborn body rests in Attic soil.

Diogenes

For in truth he was rightly named Diogenes, a trueborn son of Zeus, a hound of heaven.

Further, when he was sold as a slave, he endured it most nobly.

Pythagoras

Indeed, his bearing is said to have been most dignified, and his disciples held the opinion about him that he was Apollo come down from the far north. There is a story that once, when he was disrobed, his thigh was seen to be of gold; and when he crossed the river Nessus, quite a number of people said they heard it welcome him.

So greatly was he admired that his disciples used to be called “prophets to declare the voice of God,”

The same authority, as we have seen, asserts that Pythagoras took his doctrines from the Delphic priestess Themistoclea.

he was named Pythagoras because he uttered the truth as infallibly as did the Pythian oracle.

Empedocles

All hail! I go about among you an immortal god, no more a mortal, so honoured of all, as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway as soon as I enter with these, men and women, into flourishing towns, I am reverenced and tens of thousands follow, to learn where is the path which leads to welfare, some desirous of oracles, others suffering from all kinds of diseases, desiring to hear a message of healing.

Then, after the feast, the remainder of the company dispersed and retired to rest, some under the trees in the adjoining field, others wherever they chose, while Empedocles himself remained on the spot where he had reclined at table. At daybreak all got up, and he was the only one missing. A search was made, and they questioned the servants, who said they did not know where he was. Thereupon someone said that in the middle of the night he heard an exceedingly loud voice calling Empedocles. Then he got up and beheld a light in the heavens and a glitter of lamps, but nothing else. His hearers were amazed at what had occurred, and Pausanias came down and sent people to search for him. But later he bade them take no further trouble, for things beyond expectation had happened to him, and it was their duty to sacrifice to him since he was now a god.

When in this way the pestilence had been stayed and the Selinuntines were feasting on the river bank, Empedocles appeared; and the company rose up and worshipped and prayed to him as to a god.

Miracles

Demetrius

lost his sight when in Alexandria and to have recovered it by the gift of Sarapis

Empedocles

Hermippus tells us that Empedocles cured Panthea, a woman of Agrigentum, who had been given up by the physicians

And thou shalt learn all the drugs that are a defence to ward off ills and old age, since for thee alone shall I accomplish all this. Thou shalt arrest the violence of the unwearied winds that arise and sweep the earth, laying waste the cornfields with their blasts; and again, if thou so will, thou shalt call back winds in requital. Thou shalt make after the dark rain a seasonable drought for men, and again after the summer drought thou shalt cause tree-nourishing streams to pour from the sky. Thou shalt bring back from Hades a dead man’s strength. . . [W]hen the etesian winds once began to blow violently and to damage the crops, he ordered asses to be flayed and bags to be made of their skin. These he stretched out here and there on the hills and headlands to catch the wind and, because this checked the wind, he was called the “windstayer.”

the people of Selinus suffered from pestilence owing to the noisome smells from the river hard by, so that the citizens themselves perished and their women died in childbirth, that Empedocles conceived the plan of bringing two neighbouring rivers to the place at his own expense, and that by this admixture he sweetened the waters.

Gorgias [said] that he himself was present when Empedocles performed magical feats.

Menedemus

According to Hippobotus he had attained such a degree of audacity in wonderworking that he went about in the guise of a Fury, saying that he had come from Hades to take cognisance of sins committed, and was going to return and report them to the powers down below.

Raising the dead

Empedocles

Thou shalt bring back from Hades a dead man’s strength.

Many a wight pining in fell torments did he bring back from Persephone’s inmost shrine.

Heraclides testifies that the case of the woman in a trance was such that for thirty days he kept her body without pulsation though she never breathed; and for that reason Heraclides called him not merely a physician but a diviner as well . . . .

the story of the woman in a trance, how that Empedocles became famous because he had sent away the dead woman alive,

Descended to Hell and Returned

Menedemus

he went about in the guise of a Fury, saying that he had come from Hades to take cognisance of sins committed, and was going to return and report them to the powers down below.

Pythagoras

he himself says in a written work that “after two hundred and seven years in Hades he has returned to the land of the living.” Thus it was that they remained his staunch adherents, and men came to hear his words from afar, among them Lucanians, Peucetians, Messapians and Romans.

Women among the Disciples

Cleobulus

that girls need to be educated as well as boys.

Plato

His disciples . . . among them two women, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius, who is reported by Dicaearchus to have worn men’s clothes.

Hipparchia, woman philosopher and disciple of Crates

Hipparchia too, sister of Metrocles, was captured by their doctrines. Both of them were born at Maroneia. She fell in love with the discourses and the life of Crates, and would not pay attention to any of her suitors, their wealth, their high birth or their beauty. But to her Crates was everything. . . . Hipparchia showed no sign of alarm or of the perturbation natural in a woman. . . . These tales and countless others are told of the female philosopher.

Blessed are the Children

Diogenes

When some one brought a child to him and declared him to be highly gifted and of excellent character, “What need then,” said he, “has he of me?”

One day, observing a child drinking out of his hands, he cast away the cup from his wallet with the words, “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” He also threw away his bowl when in like manner he saw a child who had broken his plate taking up his lentils with the hollow part of a morsel of bread.

Declined people’s wish to rule them

Solon

Thereafter the people looked up to him, and would gladly have had him rule them as tyrant; he refused

Heraclitus

And when he was requested by them to make laws, he scorned the request because the state was already in the grip of a bad constitution. He would retire to the temple of Artemis

Ridiculed, Persecuted, thought Mad, Condemned

Solon

And the members of the council, who were of Pisistratus’ party, declared that he was mad:

Anaxagoras

he was indicted by Cleon on a charge of impiety, because he declared the sun to be a mass of redhot metal; that his pupil Pericles defended him, and he was fined five talents and banished. Satyrus in his Lives says that the prosecutor was Thucydides, the opponent of Pericles, and the charge one of treasonable correspondence with Persia as well as of impiety; and that sentence of death was passed on Anaxagoras by default.

Socrates

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.”

Stilpo

the Areopagites ordered him to quit the city,

He was also ridiculed by Sophilus the Comic poet

Menedemus

At first he was despised, being called a cynic and a humbug by the Eretrians. But afterwards he was greatly admired, so much so that they entrusted him with the government of the state. He was sent as envoy to Ptolemy and to Lysimachus, being honoured wherever he went.

he was suspected of betraying the city

Plato

At this the tyrant grew furious and at first was bent on putting him to death; then, when he had been dissuaded from this by Dion and Aristomenes, he did not indeed go so far but handed him over to Pollis the Lacedaemonian, who had just then arrived on an embassy, with orders to sell him into slavery. And Pollis took him to Aegina and there offered him for sale. And then Charmandrus, the son of Charmandrides, indicted him on a capital charge

Some say that Plato was also in great danger, being suspected of encouraging Dion and Theodotas in a scheme for liberating the whole island; on this occasion Archytas the Pythagorean wrote to Dionysius, procured his pardon, and got him conveyed safe to Athens. The

he too was ridiculed by the Comic poets.

Crates

When the police inspectors found fault with him for wearing muslin. . . . At Thebes he was flogged by the master of the gymnasium – another version being that it was by Euthycrates and at Corinth; and being dragged by the heels, he called out, as if it did not affect him: Seized by the foot and dragged o’er heaven’s high threshold:

He was ugly to look at, and when performing his gymnastic exercises used to be laughed at.

Theophrastus

Although his reputation stood so high, nevertheless for a short time he had to leave the country with all the other philosophers, when Sophocles the son of Amphiclides proposed a law that no philosopher should preside over a school except by permission of the Senate and the people, under penalty of death.

Demetrius

For all his popularity with the Athenians he nevertheless suffered eclipse through all-devouring envy. Having been indicted by some persons on a capital charge, he let judgement go by default; and, when his accusers could not get hold of his person, they disgorged their venom on the bronze of his statues.

Xenophanes

He was banished from his native city

Zeno

Nay more: the comic poets by their very jests at his expense praised him without intending it.

Silent before accusers

Plato

There is another version to the effect that he was brought before the assembly and, being kept under close scrutiny, he maintained an absolute silence and awaited the issue with confidence.

Timon’s disciple, Pralus

Pralus of the Troad . . . as we learn from the history of Phylarchus, was a man of such unflinching courage that, although unjustly accused, he patiently suffered a traitor’s death, without so much as deigning to speak one word to his fellow-citizens.

..o0o..

Other traits that could be added here: 

Frequent attempts to get away from crowds; crowds running to see them when they are nearby

Examples of speaking in parables or mysteries, hiding meanings of deep truths from the ignorant

Attracting disciples who carried on the school in the name of the founder

Charlatans among them

Letters were preserved by followers — some of these are similar to ethical instructions that we recognize in Paul’s epistles; though some left no writings at all

I may return to flesh out some of those as above.

Meanwhile, one more: writing on the ground when confronted with an undesirable . . .

Menedemus

When a young gallant would have taken liberties with him, he said not a word but picked up a twig and drew an insulting picture on the ground, until all eyes were attracted and the young man, perceiving the insult, made off.

Is that what Jesus drew in the dust when challenged to condemn the woman caught in adultery?


Diogenes Laertius. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Edited by James Miller. Translated by Pamela Mensch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Nock, A. D. Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. Baltimore, Md, 1998.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)



If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!


4 thoughts on “Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition”

  1. Yes the influence of philosophy in the first century. Why I submitted to you my paper “The Asian Prohibition,” demonstrating the extent Stoic logic had permeated the thinking of the author of Acts 😉

  2. Wouldn’t it be helpful to distinguish between (1) Christianity, a religion defined by historical practices such as initiation, ritual, prayer, healing, mutual aid, etc., and (2) the thought world of the New Testament? It is obviously correct that the scribes who authored our Bible knew and built upon various philosophical traditions, concepts, motifs, etc. But baptism and the Lord’s Supper must have been constitutive elements of this religion from the beginning. And they are exactly the sort of elements that characterize mystery cults.

  3. I have often claimed that Jesus taught absolutely nothing new, a surprising record for a god. All you have claimed here is that many “Biblical” ideas were preceded by those of various philosophers. The question is: how many of these ideas were in circulation among the people who wrote the books of the New Testament.

    There was, in support of this proposition, a large and constant complaint in that time period about the influence of Greek thought and culture upon the Jews.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.