Jesus as Philosopher: The Moral Sage in the Synoptic Gospels, by Runar M. Thorsteinsson

The differences between Jesus and philosophers cannot be ignored, writes Robert Segal

August 9, 2018
Jesus, his arms outstretched
Source: iStock

This book argues that Jesus has not been treated adequately as a philosopher. Why? Because the modern distinction between theology and philosophy has been retroactively and anachronistically applied to Jesus’ time. Runar M. Thorsteinsson, who is professor of New Testament at the University of Iceland, grants that the classic distinction between Judaism and Hellenism is hardly recent, yet he maintains that only in modern times have scholars been obliged to place Jesus in either the philosophical or the theological camp. And he acknowledges that, however philosophical Jesus was, he fits more in the theological camp.

By “philosophy”, Thorsteinsson means philosophy in the Roman Empire – the philosophy of, above all, the Cynics, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The argument of the book is that Jesus led a group much like these sects. Like the philosophers, Jesus had followers and his group lived and travelled together. They constituted families.

For Jesus, as for these sects, philosophy was not merely a set of beliefs. It was a set of practices. It was a way of life. To be philosophical was less to believe certain truths than to put them into practice. Philosophy was anything but academic. Here Thorsteinsson rightly mentions the work of the contemporary French intellectual historian Pierre Hadot (whose What Is Ancient Philosophy? was published in English in 2002) but concentrates on Christianity rather than on paganism.

For Jesus, as for these sects, the goal was the practice of ethics. By ethics, what was meant was less specific norms, such as the Ten Commandments, and more the cultivation of a whole character. Ethics was virtue ethics. Doing the right thing would evince, not constitute, being ethical.

Thorsteinsson considers in turn each of the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew and Luke. He does not consider the fourth canonical gospel, John, because it is conspicuously philosophical and so needs no argument.

He notes various philosophical attitudes that were common to Jesus and the pagans. One needed to be concerned about others as well as about oneself. One needed to be willing to die for one’s convictions, most dramatically in the case of Socrates. One had to live a simple life and give away all or most possessions.

Yet there were differences. For example, the pagan philosophers never presumed to be able to know the future. Jesus certainly did. Thorsteinsson ignores the decisive difference: that Jesus did not consider standard ancient (and modern) philosophical issues such as metaphysics, epistemology and logic. For the pagan philosophers of Jesus’ time, ethics could perhaps be considered the key philosophical topic, but it was scarcely the sole one and other branches of philosophy underlay it. Ethics was the application of principles derived from the rest of philosophy. What else justified the ethics preached?

Jesus hardly argues philosophically, or indeed argues at all. He simply pronounces. Why follow him? Because his assertions come from God. They are not reasoned out. They are not systematic. They are simply extreme. Did Jesus study with philosophers? Why accept his God? In sum, Jesus was not a philosopher or close to one.

Robert A. Segal is sixth century chair in religious studies, University of Aberdeen, and author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2015).


Jesus as Philosopher: The Moral Sage in the Synoptic Gospels
By Runar M. Thorsteinsson
Oxford University Press, 224pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780198815228
Published 31 May 2018

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