Epis­tles and epis­te­mol­ogy: Je­sus as philoso­pher

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

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - 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

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.