Was the New Testament Influenced by Stoicism?

Article ID: DA242 | By: Ronald Nash

Stoicism was the most important philosophical influence on cultured people during the first century A.D. Stoic philosophers were materialists, pantheists, and fatalists: they believed that everything that exists is physical or corporeal in nature and that every existing thing is ultimately traceable back to one ultimate universal stuff that is divine. They thought that God and the world were related in a way that allowed the world to be described as the body of God and God to be described as the soul of the world. Unlike the God of Judaism and Christianity who is an eternal, almighty, all-knowing, loving, spiritual Person, the Stoic God was impersonal and hence incapable of knowledge, love, or providential acts. The Stoic fatalism is seen in their belief that everything that happens occurs by necessity. The major contribution of the Stoic philosophers was the development of an ethical system that would help the Stoic live a meaningful life in a fatalistic universe. To find good and evil, Stoics taught, we must turn away from whatever happens of necessity in our world and look within. Personal virtue or vice resides in our attitudes, in the way we react to the things that happen to us. The key word in the Stoic ethic is apathy. Everything that happens to a human being is fixed by that person’s fate. But most humans resist their destiny, when in fact nothing could have been done that would have altered the course of nature. Our duty in life, then, is simply to accept what happens; it is to resign ourselves to our unavoidable destiny. This will be reflected in our apathy to all that is around us, including family and property. The truly virtuous person will eliminate all passion and emotion from his (or her) life until he reaches the point that nothing troubles or bothers him. Once humans learn that they are slaves to their fate, the secret of the only good life open to them requires them to eliminate all emotion from their lives and accept whatever fate sends their way. The fact that the Stoics often described this attitude of resignation as “accepting the will of God” is no doubt responsible for the confusion between their teaching and the New Testament’s emphasis upon doing God’s will. But the ideas behind the Stoic and Christian phrases are completely different! When a Stoic talked about the will of God, he meant nothing more than submission to the unavoidable fatalism of an impersonal, uncaring, unknowing, and unloving Nature. But when Christians talk about accepting the will of God, they mean the chosen plan of a loving, knowing, personal deity. Decades ago, it was fashionable in some circles to claim that the apostle Paul was influenced by Stoicism. As late as 1970, Columbia University philosopher John Herman Randall, Jr., attributed the strong social emphasis of Paul’s moral philosophy to Stoicism.14 Paul’s stress upon inward motives as over against the outward act has been said to evidence a Stoic influence.15 There was a time when some claimed that a relationship existed between Paul and the Stoic thinker Seneca who was an official in Nero’s government during the apostle’s time in Rome.16 And there can be no question that Paul quoted from a Stoic writer in his famous sermon on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:28). Paul’s quoting from a Stoic writer proves nothing, of course. As an educated man speaking to Stoics, it was both good rhetoric and a way to gain the attention of his audience. Though Paul and Seneca were in Rome at the same time, there is no evidence of any personal contact and plenty of evidence that their respective systems of thought were alien to each other. When properly understood, Seneca’s Stoic ethic is repulsive to a Christian like Paul. It is totally devoid of genuine human emotion and compassion; there is no place for love, pity, or contrition. It lacks any intrinsic tie to repentance, conversion, and faith in God. Even if Paul did use Stoic images and language, he gave the words a new and higher meaning and significance. In any comparison between the thinking of Paul and Stoicism, it is the differences and conflicts that stand out. Two other instances of alleged Stoic influence remain to be considered. The first concerns the Stoic’s use of the Greek word logos as a technical term. It is this same term that John uses throughout the first fourteen verses of his Gospel as a name for Jesus Christ. Since the immediate source for the New Testament use of logos is usually said to be the Jewish philosopher Philo, whose system was a synthesis of Platonism and Stoicism, I will postpone comment on this point until the next section. The second instance of alleged Stoic influence concerns the belief of early Stoics (300-200 B.C.) that the world would eventually be destroyed by fire. This led some critics to charge that Peter’s teaching in 2 Peter 3 that God will end the world by destroying it by fire echoes the Stoic doctrine of a universal conflagration. Unfortunately for such critics, their theory falls apart once one notices the significant differences between the Stoic belief and Peter’s teaching. For one thing, the Stoic conflagration was an eternally repeated event that had nothing to do with the conscious purposes of a personal God. As philosopher Gordon Clark explains, “The conflagration in II Peter is a sudden catastrophe like the flood. But the Stoic conflagration is a slow process that is going on now; it takes a long time, during which the elements change into fire bit by bit. The Stoic process is a natural process in the most ordinary sense of the word [that is, it is simply the ordinary outworking of the order of nature]; but Peter speaks of it as the result of the word or fiat of the Lord.”17 Furthermore, the Stoic conflagration is part of a pantheistic system while the conflagration described by Peter is the divine judgment of a holy and personal God upon sin. As if these differences were not enough, the Stoic fire endlessly repeats itself. After each conflagration, the world begins anew and duplicates exactly the same course of events of the previous cycle. The history of the world, in this Stoic view, repeats itself an infinite number of times. Contrast this with Peter’s view that the world is destroyed by fire only once, like the flood of Noah’s time. Perhaps the most decisive objection to the claim of a Stoic influence in 2 Peter is the fact that major Stoic writers had completely abandoned this doctrine by the middle of the first century A.D. The critic would have us believe that the writer of 2 Peter was influenced by a Stoic doctrine that Stoic thinkers had completely repudiated. It is little wonder that most scholars abandoned theories about a Stoic influence upon the New Testament decades ago.