How Stoicism Influenced Christianity

From the lecture series: The Great Ideas of Philosophy

By Daniel N. Robinson, PhD, Oxford University

Before Christianity, there was Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy whose tenets—such as monotheism and belief in a rational plan for the Universe—anticipated Christian theology in many ways.

St Pauls statue in front of St Peters Basilics, Vatican. Sculpted by Adamo Tadolini.
St. Paul statue in front of St. Peters Basilica (Vatican). (Image: Photographed by AngMoKio/Public domain)

Philo of Alexandria was born in 20 BC, or thereabouts, and died in AD 50—so his period covers the life of Jesus Christ. Philo is an interesting figure, a Jew with a Greek name, part of the world of “Hellenized” Judaism.

Sketch of Philo of Alexandria by André Thevet (1502-1509): from 'The real experiences and lives of illustrious Greek, Latin and Paean men' (1584)
Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher. (Image: By André Thévet/Public domain)

He had studied philosophy—Aristotle and Plato, and of course, was a faithful student of the Old Testament. We find in his writings an attempt to integrate systematically the thought of the major Greek philosophers and the scriptural truths of the Old Testament.

To be a Hellenized Jew at the time of the life of Jesus Christ, among other considerations, was to be a scholar—someone who had perhaps gone to Athens, but in any case, regarded the ideas taught in Athens as the apex of philosophical wisdom.

Hellenistic Jews—Diaspora Jews who had adopted the language and culture of the hellenistic world, is contrasted with the Hebraic Jews who remained in Judea and spoke Hebrew.

Even in Philo’s time, Athens remains the brightest spot on every scholar’s map. Once there, the visiting scholar saw not merely the statues and classical architecture, but one also breathes the vapors and hears the resonances of that illustrious but now long bygone time.

This is a transcript from the video series The Great Ideas of Philosophy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The schools in Athens are still the best. Alexandria has a great library, no doubt, but it is essentially a center for research, far less part of the living and long debate conducted with vigor in Athens at that time.
When the early “Jewish Christians” began the formation of what will be called Christianity, their appeals are within a philosophically competitive context that includes Stoicism at its center.

Foundation of the Christian Faith

Painting of Apostle Paul by Rembrandt 1633 (?)
St. Paul, a Christian leader who studied stoicism. (Image: By Rembrandt/Public domain)

St. Paul addresses his letters to people in the vast Roman world as he travels from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. He confronts not only peoples whose practices vary widely, whose own native ideas and theological convictions are of a sort that one would never have found in Athens or Rome, but also those who had a developed and refined intelligence and philosophical sophistication, recently, by studying in Athens. It is not surprising, then, that one of the characteristics of early Christian teaching is this transparent desire to establish the articles of faith, as it were, the teachings of the “true religion” on a foundation that is intellectually satisfying, intellectually rich, and convincing.

Thus, it is not surprising that in Paul’s writings, one will find ideas drawn from Stoic teaching. He was surely exposed to it in his native Tarsus, and it is voiced without attribution in his reflections on the natural world and its ordering. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:14:

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?

So, too, are Stoic influences evident in his treatment of one’s belief in God being a “natural” inclination, of belief as a “natural” inclination, not unlike the Stoic theory of affinities.

Indeed, that Stoicism was recognized as perhaps the worthiest adversary is clear from the arguments of the early fathers of the church against such ideas as the physicality of God. The running battle against such pagan notions brings out some of the more discerning elements in early Christian philosophy, produced by such figures as Tertullian—citing Zeno and Cleanthes favorably—and Origen.

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Stoicism: Bridging Faith and Philosophy

Again, these debts and debates were inevitable and productive. The early fathers of the church had to reconcile the teachings of the church, the message contained in the life of Christ himself, with a philosophy respected as one of the great achievements of human thought, even if it was “pagan” thought. There should not be, therefore, an unbridgeable distance between the lessons of faith and the lessons of philosophy; the two are hopelessly incompatible. There was much intellectual energy devoted to having the philosophical light brought to bear on the authority of faith. Given the historical period in which these developments are taking place, it is Stoic philosophy that must provide the bridge, or at least the major planks of any bridge, that lead to the central tenets of Christianity.

Consider, then, some of the features of Stoicism that might have been promulgated at the time of the Jewish Christians. These might be incorporated into the writings of Philo and others, seeing a mission similar to the one Philo had set for himself. There are obvious points of compatibility, but also problem areas that have to be dealt with.

First, for the Stoics, what might be called the “God of the Stoics” was not a personal being concerned with human welfare as such, but a powerful “divine fire” of sorts, working through physical and material modes of operation. Nonetheless, this force or power is rational in its essential nature and immortal. In this account, the defining feature of the creative power of the universe is its inexhaustibility and its rationality.

Stoicism offers the obvious proofs for this—consider only the lawfulness of the cosmos itself. In Stoic teaching, particularly later Stoic teaching, knowledge of this kind of divine influence is one of the very preconceptions that a rational being has.

This is an important point. Recall that Aristotle claimed that if the art of shipbuilding were in the wood, we’d have ships by nature. What the Stoics were getting at with the concept of a divine being as part of our very intuitive resources—that belief in such a being as built in—is that a rational being, recognizing the orderliness and lawfulness of the cosmos, must match that up, without further deliberation, with the notion of some rational agency behind it. You could not get anything of this sort accidentally.

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Stoicism: A Rational Plan for the Cosmos?

Painting of St. Cyprian by Master of Messkirch circa 1535/40. Scanned from: Anna Moraht-Fromm and Hans Westhoff: The Master of Meßkirch - Research on Southwest German painting of the 16th century, Ulm, 1997, p. 190, right.
St. Cyprian, a Christian leader and a student of Stoicism. (Image: By Master of Messkirch/Public domain)

This is an intuitive conception, natural to the ordinary percipient, who is already a rational being. Such a being, seeing the world and the heavens, immediately understands that the world didn’t spring from nothing. Again, one need only consult the intuitive resources present in all human beings to ground a belief in a rational plan for the cosmos.

Saint Cyprian, in the 3rd century, would base his arguments for universal brotherhood and the wrongfulness of cruelty to slaves on just this Stoic theory of human rationality. Slaves, as human beings, are composites of just those elements of matter and psychic energy that render any being a “human” being and, as such, a member of the common family of such beings. This, of course, is Stoic from start to finish. In these several respects, the Christian fathers were able to argue that certain ultimate truths are part of the intuitive resources of our very rationality, gaining for us, as a brotherhood, a special standing within the natural order.

For the cosmos to remain lawfully ordered, there must be the constant participation of the Logos itself—so there is an immediate presence of the divine agency in the cosmos, which is to say that the God of the Stoics, though not the personal God of Christianity and Judaism, is not remote from the affairs of the world but integral to those affairs. The events of the physical and natural world are dynamic, and these must record, again, the constant participation of the divine fire, the Logos, the creative force. There’s the Stoic bridge to Christianity.

Let’s put these notions together, and if we do so, we reach the possibility of a physically present and knowable God. We get something not unlike the God of the Hebrews, having a rational plan and order of things, being present in the world, revealing himself through his works, and working on matter, on the physics of reality, in a divine way to realize divine purposes.

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Reconciling Competing Views

The Jews, the Christians, and the Jewish Christians deny the materiality of God as envisaged by Stoic philosophy; here we have a bind of sorts: A Stoic philosophical authority for a rational plan, something that is active and present in the world, something that makes the world conform to the scheme, but, at the same time, not something revealed directly to human intelligence. This is a problem.

How are we to reconcile the competing views? It is not a compromise solution but a radically new idea—namely that of God becoming incarnated in the form of a human being who will teach lessons and serve as a living example for a distracted human race, to be redeemed through his sacrifice. Here is God made man, which is to say, the immaterial incarnating itself materially to realize or further guarantee what on a Stoic account might be regarded as the Logos.

Again, the “God of the Stoics,” this “divine fire,” is not knowable as such. The reconciliation with the Hebrew account is: “God made man.” How does the creative fire order and organize things?

It does so nomologically. That is to say, how the cosmos obeys the precepts that are central to Stoicism is by law, by natural law, by physical law. Things behave the way they do because they are regulated by nomic principles; nomos in Greek is “law.” Well, this aspect of Stoic teaching matches up perfectly with the Decalogue. How are we to understand what God expects of us?

Consult the Ten Commandments; these come directly from God. These commandments are laws of life. They call for pious respect for the God of all, for the recognition that reality is a created reality, that it is an ordered affair that represents the perfected nature of whatever creative energy brought it about. Nothing is to be placed in the scale of value than what has brought everything about. “First, I am the Lord thy God,” do you see?

Why would such an entity do all this? This is something Stoicism, at least early and middle Stoicism, tends to leave unanswered, and that the Jewish Christians will answer. The cosmic creation is not undertaken for no reason at all. You don’t order the universe; you don’t impose lawfulness on the affairs of matter. You don’t give it shape and form. You don’t give it function. You don’t undertake the construction of everything there is through a perfect understanding of all possibilities unless—what? Unless the Creator has—and takes—an interest in this.

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At work here is not an Aristotelian rational plan or the “God of the Stoics.” It is the God of the Hebrews, a providential God who takes an interest in his creation and takes a particular interest in that part of the creation that most reflects his goodness and perfection, that part of his creation that is, although fallen, in some sense, perfectible. This is the God of the Jews, the God of Islam, the God of Christianity.

Common Questions About Stoicism and Christianity

Q: Is Stoicism a type of Christianity?

Stoicism is not connected to Christianity. Although Stoicism refers to gods, it is a philosophical doctrine without religion.

Q: What do Stoics believe?

Stoicism holds that we can only rely on our responses to outside events, while the events themselves we cannot control. The Stoics believe that only behavior can be judged, not words, and that virtue is happiness.

Q: What virtues do the Stoics hold dear?

There are four central virtues that the Stoics refer to as cardinal virtues. They are fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence.

Q: What God do the Stoics believe in?

The Stoics believe in a universal pantheist God described as Logos, Divine Reason or the providence of the Universe.

This article was updated on August 29, 2020

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