By Kenneth Ho Yeung Yau
The books of the New Testament did not emerge in a cultural vacuum. With the original autographs having been written in the 1st and 2nd century AD, the Graeco-Roman culture was the dominant culture of that time. Knowing the rich history of philosophy in the Hellenistic sphere, it is therefore not improbable to say that the New Testament writers borrowed ideas and vocabulary familiar to the contemporary audience in order to present Biblical doctrines. It should therefore be no surprise to find considerable, though indirect influences by these philosophies in Scripture.
But first, what is philosophy?
Philosophy at its base is derived from the 2 Greek words phileo and sophia, where phileo means love, affection, or cherishing of1, and sophia which means skill, insight, or wisdom2. Taken together, it has the meaning of “the affection for wisdom” as philosophers sought wisdom in understanding how the world around them worked.
This article will provide a brief layman examination of the 3 dominant schools of thought in Greek philosophy during the time of Paul namely Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, as well as their influence in the writing of New Testament Scripture, followed by the reinterpretation of the philosophies according to Judeo-Christian understanding, and ending with an exhortation.
“[Plato is] the only Greek who has attained the porch of (Christian) truth.”
– Eusebius of Caesarea
Platonism which began around the 4th Century BC derives its name from its founder Plato. The central doctrine of Platonism teaches that the elements of the physical world as it appears to our senses are imperfect representations of eternal paradigms called “Forms” which lie in a higher level of reality, the knowledge of which is to be sought diligently as a way to be superior to the unenlightened3. The Allegory of the Cave is one of the more famous illustrations used to understand this theory.
In the allegory, a group of people are chained and made to face a blank wall for their whole lives. There is a fire lit behind them and objects are passed in front of it, projecting a shadow onto the wall in front of them. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality but are not accurate representations of the real world.4
To bring the illustration to a modern context, say you have a golf ball. The golf ball possesses the characteristic of roundness or being round. However, upon closer inspection you would notice the dimples on the surface of the golf ball and so the golf ball cannot be said to be perfectly round. But where did we get this idea of perfect roundness to which we compare the golf ball? Certainly not from anything physical on earth because there is nothing physical that is perfectly round, yet we all have this idea of perfect roundness. We are comparing the golf ball to the Form of Roundness, the perfect and eternal idea to which all balls share the characteristic of roundness albeit imperfectly. The idea of
imperfection being contrasted with perfection can be found in passages like 1 Cor 13:9-12; 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Cor 4:18; Rom 8:29 and many more.
Let us observe the following passages.
1 Corinthians 13:9-12 (ESV)
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 4:18 (ESV)
as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
The dominant ideas behind these passages is that there is a contrast being made between the imperfect/hidden/transient and the perfect/seen/eternal, and the transition from the former to the latter. We can see this contrast and transition with phrases like “Now I know in part; then I shall fully know”, ”being transformed from one degree of glory to another”, “things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” and “to be conformed to the image of his Son”.
This is where the similarities between Platonism and Christianity end however. The adherents of Platonism sought to understand the eternal, impersonal Forms and ascend to enlightenment. Scripture on the other hand teaches that the One who created the universe and in Whom all truth resides condescended to mankind and revealed truth and understanding in the person of Jesus5 and in Scripture.6
Stoicism & Epicureanism
This part of the article shall address Stoicism and Epicureanism together as many of the verses that address one also address the other, though their teachings are different from each other.
Stoicism finds its origins with Zeno of Citium around the early 3rd Century BC in Athens. The emergence of Stoicism coincides with the decline of Alexander the Great’s empire, and the socio-economic unrest that followed which led to the destruction of many Greeks’ livelihood.7
The central doctrine of Stoicism is that, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain in cultivating emotional resilience, by self-control using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. The Stoic would seek to rid himself of emotions which he saw as clouding rational thought in order to become an unbiased thinker in understanding the universal force or logos, and subjecting himself to its will which is regarded as virtuous. Borrowing the understanding from Heraclitus, the logos was an impersonal force that causes all things to happen, be it good or bad. As it is an impersonal force, man cannot reason with it in order to change what is
happening to him which is why emotional reaction to misfortune was not a virtue.8
Epicureanism on the other hand began with Epicurus around the late 4th Century BC in Athens. The central doctrine of Epicureanism is to seek modest, sustainable pleasure in a state of ataraxia (peace, tranquility and freedom from fear) and aponia (absence of physical pain) through understanding and the restraint of desires, contrary to the colloquial understanding of Epicureanism as outright hedonism. The Epicureans believed that the soul did not survive past the death of the body which is also the reason that sustainable pleasure was to be sought in this life. As such, death was not a concern for them9 but instead to die with a serene mind. The Epicureans also believed in gods that did not concern themselves with human affairs, and that the motivation for living justly is the avoidance of the fear of being caught10 that would disrupt the ataraxia (tranquility) which was so desired, rather than awaiting a day of judgment.
It is important to understand these central doctrines of Stoicism and Epicureanism in order to understand the reason for Paul’s choice of arguments in his address at the Areopagus in Acts 17.
Some notable verses of Scripture that relate to Stoicism and Epicureanism are as below.
Acts 17:18-32 (ESV)
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
John 1:1 (ESV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 14:27 (ESV)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
Philippians 4:11-12 (ESV)
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
Philippians 4:6 (ESV)
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 9 (ESV)
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
Let us now see how the address at the Areopagus countered the Stoics and the Epicureans along with the other verses.
From Acts 17: 22-25, it is the author’s opinion that Paul was directly addressing the polytheists of Athens whose gods had weaknesses and personas that made them essentially humans with divine powers that needed sacrifice from men to bend the will of the gods, as anyone familiar with Greek mythology would know. Verses 26 onwards are where the arguments begin to address the Stoics and Epicureans. Against the Stoic claim of an impersonal logos and the Epicurean’s distant god, Paul in verse 26-27 says that God has determined allotted periods and boundaries (which impersonal forces are unable to do) and that God is able to be sought as He is not far from us. Verses 30-31 then goes against the Epicurean idea that there is no judgment or an afterlife by asserting a fixed day of judgment and proving so by raising the man Jesus from the dead. John who identified the Word (Logos) became flesh as Jesus further detracts from the Stoic idea of an impersonal logos.
As to both philosophies’ understanding on the purpose and end of life; Stoicism being to stolidly submit to the providence of the logos and Epicureanism being to achieve sustained pleasure unto a serene death, the Gospels and the Letters repeatedly point the readers to God and to Christ. Against the Stoics, God has revealed Himself to be providentially and actively involved in the lives of His people; and against the Epicureans, the fullness of peace that is given by Christ.
As we have briefly read, the philosophies of the time sought to understand the origin, end, and purpose of life. It is no different today. Besides the formal religions seeking to provide answers to the great questions of life, many today have sought meaning in self-fulfillment, the accumulation of wealth, superficial beauty, intellectualism and so on. Many have come close to but all fall short of full understanding and meaning, which find themselves in God; the God who from the beginning has determined the means and the end of all things in and through Christ11, who providentially governs creation both in justice and love, and who is to be glorified forever. Amen.
The sanctification of philosophy and thus the quest for wisdom finds its end in Christ. There is no dichotomy between philosophy and theology. Philosophy when wielded properly leads to betterment of theology; in other words, the pursuit of wisdom should be done in reverential fear of God12, to understand God13, and to ultimately glorify God.14
“For [philosophy] was a schoolmaster to bring ‘the Hellenic mind…to Christ.’ Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.”
– Clement of Alexandria
Much has been written on this topic and much more can be written, but it is the author’s intention to leave it here so as to encourage the reader to inculcate a Berean attitude and to examine the Scriptures to see if these are true.15
Fides quarens intellectum.
1 Strong’s Greek Concordance #5368
2 Strong’s Greek Concordance #4678
3 Kraut, Richard, “Plato”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/plato/>.
4 Plato, The Republic (514a-520a)
5 John 14:6
6 2 Timothy 3:16
7 Sanders, Jason Lewis, “Stoicism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica (May 2019), URL = <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stoicism>
8 Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/stoicism/>.
9 Letter to Menoceus 124-125
10 Obbink, Dirk, 1996. Philodemus De pietate, Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp321-323
11 Ephesians 1:10
12 Proverbs 9:10
13 Job 11:7; Colossians 2:2
14 Romans 11:36
15 Acts 17:11