Continuatum a parte quinta.
In the last entry, I detailed the variety of senses in which Jesus was understood by Christians functioning simultaneously in Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts as Savior, eventuating in the Christian equation of salvation ultimately with deification, or participation in the divine life, as Christianity assumed the form of a Greco-Roman mystery cult and association (collegium) before becoming the official cult of the empire (but still one that offered mysteria as the path to salvation). But there is a dimension of this metamorphosis still requiring exposition, which will fill out our portrait of the Christographic face I have called the “cosmopolitan” Jesus: Jesus as Teacher.
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The prospect of deification was not exclusive to Early Christianity. Many different ancient peoples were interested in many different ways of being or becoming divine, and sometimes practiced many of them simultaneously. From the Mediterranean to the Himalayas, in Greco-Roman poleis, the urban centers of Mesopotamia, Persia, and what we now think of as the northern tip of the Indian subcontinent, along Silk Roads and sea routes, one could find many different technologies for personal transcendence in premodernity.Specialized cults to savior gods, magical rituals of evocation and assimilation to divine (and sometimes dark) powers, philosophical lifeways and metaphysical sciences all promised transcendence, and experts, self-proclaimed or collegially accredited, freelance and institutional, traditionalist and innovative, could be found almost anywhere. Ancient people, like modern people, were interested both in the questions we think of as pragmatic and mundane as well as those we think of as big picture: they wanted to know how best they could live to attain happiness and please their gods, but also where they and their gods alike stood on the cosmic scales, what powers and hypostaseis structured reality as they knew it, why evil was possible and what its true character was, how to avoid or resolve basic problems that everyone dealt with and how to manage more specialized issues human and extrahuman. Deification—in the sense of acquiring immortality, power, and glory, those qualities traditionally associated with gods—was not always the goal of such moral and intellectual pursuits, but it was a primary such goal for many of those involved. Plato’s Socrates famously taught that one ought to seek “assimilation to God” (homoiosis theo; Theaetetus 172c2ff),
Antiquity was a world of wizards and wise men, scholarchs and sophists, itinerant prophets and populists; it was a world that measured success and managed competition not just for power but also for knowledge, in which the yearning to push the human limits of epistemology was an imperial project. This organized pursuit of knowledge was active in the Greek world, anyway, from the classical period onward. Plato founded his Academy in 387 BCE, Aristotle his Lyceum in 335, Epicurus his Garden in 305; in the aftermath of Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, the Ptolemies in Alexandria and the Attalids in Pergamon founded their respective Libraries and the famous academic center of the Museion.The competition of the philosophical schools in antiquity (among which we must also include the Stoics, arguably the most popular Hellenistic philosophical school) was matched at a higher level by the competition of imperial powers for the accumulation of as much cosmopolitan knowledge as humanly possible, in every field, from poetry to science, from mathematics to religion. This is the intellectual world that gave us Callimachus’ Aetia and Aratus’ Phaenomena, Theokritos’ Idylls and Apollonios Rhodios’ Argonautika; it gave us the first efforts in anatomy at the bloodied hands of Herophilus the Butcher, and the schism in professional medicine between Rationalists and Empiricists that would not be resolved until Galen in the 2nd century CE. This was the world of the Homeric scholiasts and the Hellenistic allegorists, the invention of the meticulous commentary traditions and interpretive criteria of Greek scholarship (some of which, like the lectio difficilior, continue to be in use by scholars today). Without this world we would have no Latin Neoteric poetry: no Catullus, no Cinna, no Vergil either. It was a world, too, where Eastern culture and wisdom from Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, the cities of the Aramaic, later Syriac-speaking world in West and East Syria, Babylon, Persia, and indeed as far as India filtered Westward along trade routes and Western goods found their way Eastward as well. Hordes of Roman gold have been found in India because of the Roman addiction to Indian spices, passed through the ports of Arsinoe, Myos Hormos, Berenice, Barigaza, Muziris, and Arikamedu; we know that some Buddhists made it as far West as Alexandria in the Hellenistic period, probably along the same routes, while Greek sculpture filtered Eastward and gave us our first statuary of the Buddha. Magoi or Magi, the regular priests of Iranian religion in most of its early phases, who to Greek and Roman eyes were ritual esotericists, astrologers, and magicians (indeed, magos became the standard term for “magician” for a certain period of Greek antiquity), periodically came Westward from Persia to the provinciae Romanae, bringing with them an aura of mystique that informed Mediterranean attitudes towards magic both positive and negative for centuries afterwards. What forms of religious practice did not find their way directly to the West were nevertheless known and caricatured there: Greeks and Romans were aware, for example, of the gymnosophists, the “naked philosophers,” who practiced such austere contortions of the corpus in India (probably yogins are in view here); more distantly, they knew that there was a vast empire beyond India, in the land that we call China, but apart from a delegation there nothing like an actual trading relationship was ever established between the two. Aramaic and Greek could give one access to the majority of the lands connected by the Silk Roads, shaped as they were by the empires for whom these were the linguae francae; and while there seem to have been relatively few Westerners trained in Eastern tongues, there were likely at least some cultural savants desirous and capable of striving for genuine “citizenship of the world” opened by political and economic ambition to the inquisitive mind.
Hellenism saw paideia, the traditional Greek educational system, suddenly made available to Near Easterners, whose cities frequently opted for reconstitution as Greek poleis even when they were not forced to do so. Alexandria had an ephebeion; Jerusalem nearly had one as well, during the period of partial Hellenization that ended with the Maccabean Revolt. Elite young men in cities across the Near East would be paired by their parents with a local teacher to school them in grammar, logic, and rhetoric through the reading of Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, and Athenian orators like Lysias and Demosthenes; when the imperium Romanum became the dominant political force in the Mediterranean, Roman elites also sought this Greek education, and it would be a couple of centuries before they would expand paideia to include not only Greek but a rigorous survey of Latin literature and composition as well, supplementing Homer with Vergil, Plato and Aristotle and the Greek rhetors with Cicero (who was recognized already in his lifetime as a literary and oratorical powerhouse of logic and rhetoric). Particularly advanced students would learn to catch the subtle references to Hellenistic poetry in obscure lines of Neoteric Latin poets; they would hear, for instance, in Aeneid VI.458-460, where Aeneas tells the ghost of Dido that he left her shores unwillingly (invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi), the voices of Catullus (inuita, o regina, tuo de uertice cessi, inuita; Carmina LXVI.39-40) and thence of Callimachus’s Coma Berenices (fr. 110), where an astralized lock of Ptolemaic Queen Berenice’s hair addresses her from heaven. It may seem pedantic, but these kinds of literary interrelations were exactly the sort of minute threads weaving together different authors across centuries that ancient education reveled in (and that modern classics and biblical studies still do). More importantly than the love of poetry and basic knowledge of philosophy ancient paideia was intended to communicate, students were also meant to emerge from it as strong public speakers and rhetorically fierce contenders in public arenas of debate, whether recreationally, legally, or politically. In the Greek world, skill in the science of argumentation had been a popular selling point for local and itinerant teachers since the rise of the sophists in the period just prior to and spanning the 4th century BCE, against whom Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle reacted in their own treatments of rhetoric (chiefly, Plato’s Ion, Protagoras, Gorgias, and Phaedrus and Aristotle’s Rhetoric). Would-be Greek rhetors were taught the importance of logos, ethos, and pathos for argumentation; they were taught the categories of judicial, epideictic, and deliberative rhetoric to be able to make any kind of argument in any context and for any purpose, as free men participant in public affairs were expected to do. In our era of talking heads, partisan journalism, and relatively empty political debate, we should not underestimate the vitality of antiquity as an oral culture in which the presentation and interrogation of ideas formed a fundamental part of everyday life for most people, whether or not they were formally educated.
Philosophy constituted some portion of basic paideia in logic under the trivium system, but one had to progress through the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy before one could make profitable and extensive study of wisdom. Tradition has it that where the Delphic Oracle famously instructed gnothi seauton, “Know thyself,” in words inscribed above its door, Plato inscribed above the door to the Academy medeis ageometretros eisito mou ten stegen, “Let not one uneducated in geometry come under my roof.” Once one had undergone training in the finer points of the quadrivium, however, one was theoretically ready either for the beginnings of a career in public life or the more serious pursuit of whatever occupation deemed licit by one’s family. Perhaps it was now time to take up the family trade, which would mean apprenticeship to one’s father or other relevant male relation practicing that trade (the normal education of most young men in the Greek and Roman worlds, coming from the lower classes); perhaps, if one had the talent and the patronage in the form of a literary circle (like that of Maecenas, who financially supported both Vergil and Horace), one could now embark on a serious career of poetry, or else begin a career in politics by assuming the appropriate posts at the earliest possible ages and with the greatest possible care to do a superlative job (as Pliny the Younger did). But one could also now begin formal philosophical training in the school of one’s choice. Just as ancient people often trained with and joined many cults, public and private, and might study with numerous teachers in a variety of subjects according to their varying expertise, so, too, people often studies with and joined multiple philosophical schools. The schools themselves were frequently, especially during the Imperial period and later, particularly dogmatic about their own positions. During the Hellenistic era, the Platonic Academy had turned to skepticism, but the revival of dogmatic Platonism under Antiochus of Ascalon (and it was a revival, for it was much more in the spirit of what Speusippus and Xenocrates, the earlier scholarchs, seem to have taught) meant that by the first century CE every major philosophical school in the empire—Platonists, Peripatetics, Epicureans, Stoics—could be defined by a specific set of doctrines and a specific way of life, however debated amongst themselves. It was one mark of intellectual acuity to have made it successfully through one’s trivium and quadrivium, another to be capable of digesting and participating in either the descriptive or prescriptive efforts of the philosophical schools to advance their doctrines, in the forms either of commentaries on famous texts or of original speculative work within one’s school; but it was another thing entirely to attain to the status of an Eclectic, belonging to no one school but appreciating the weight and distinctives of each, seeking to maintain appropriately healthy degrees of skepticism and open-mindedness in abstention from dogmatism while also genuinely seeking some meaningful account of logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics (the traditional three or fourfold distinction of philosophical topics by this time). Cicero is best thought of as an Eclectic, though in some texts, like De Natura Deorum, he seems to favor the Stoics (in the form of that dialogue’s character Balbus). To do so required no extraordinary courage: in the philosophical landscape of the Hellenistic era, from the death of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Actium (323 - 31 BCE), the Stoics were the dominant and most popular philosophy, since between they and their main competition, the Epicureans, they were the sect proposing both divine providence (pronoia) of the world as well as the immortality of the soul. (Epicureans denied both.) Some degree of eclecticism was already a natural feature of the schools as they existed in themselves. There is a decent argument to be made that the Stoics, from Zeno of Citium onwards, understood themselves to be developing the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (specifically, the pantheistic reading of Plato’s Timaeus that Xenocrates seems to have taught);the Middle Platonists, in turn, had clearly imbibed both Aristotle (against whom the early scholarchs of the Old Academy were originally reacting) and certain points of Stoic logic, ethics, and physics, as is evident in the authors typically counted among their number (Philo of Alexandria is a major one, but Plutarch of Chaeronea is a not insignificant one, either; often, even when these authors are disparaging Stoics, they are doing so while making use of Stoic concepts). But it was also the case that local philosophers in each tradition, local schools, and local communities were, much like modern religious communities, more focused on the ground-level project of gaining new students and promoting their specific brand than they were in complete intellectual honesty at all times; and one result of this was that an extra barrier to philosophical eclecticism was the ease with which polemical barbs could both be participated in and scoffed at by inquirers. Why trust any one of these schools, when each has their own potential for dogmatism and fideism and each critiques the other on largely similar intellectual and moral grounds? The only school to fully fall short of this lazy centrism was Epicureanism, which came by Late Antiquity to enjoy a unique status as the most hated of all ancient philosophical systems for its alleged impiety and hedonism. In reality, Epicurus believed in the gods; he simply thought their beatitude was preclusive of their involvement in the affairs and sufferings of mortals (and to some degree, all other philosophers would have agreed with this point). He also, pointedly, did not believe in the rabid enjoyment of pleasure, but in maintaining a median of licit pleasure in view of the closure death brings to one’s personal existence. One does not have to agree with Epicurus—I don’t, to clarify—to see how bombastic the reactions to him were and still are, and therefore how poor and uncharitable even the “intellectual” discourse of antiquity could be in its own right. (This also ought to give one pause before taking heresiology too seriously, but that is a topic for another time.)
In theory, again, if one had the time and the means they could easily have toured the available lands, learned however many tongues they had the aptitude for, and undergone as much education in as many of these wisdom traditions as they had the ability to. One such tradition of thought and education they would have encountered throughout the empire was Judaism. Second Temple or “Early” Judaism was not, as later Rabbinic Judaism would prove to be, a religion totally or even primarily driven by scribal efforts and innovation; it was a religion of practice, practice of cult, ritual purity, prayer, and community belonging. The common texts and their legal, moral, theological, and other interpretations were certainly part of community life; but whether one was a scriptural scholar or not did not effect one’s Jewishness then just as it does not now (though study is certainly more of a value in postbiblical Judaism than it was in the religion of most Jews in the Diaspora and the Land during the Hellenistic and Roman eras). These texts existed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; in general, almost all Jews spoke at least some Greek (Diaspora Jews spoke it as their primary language); most Jews in Judea, Syria, and the East probably knew Aramaic; and it is possible though still heavily disputed that some colloquial form of Hebrew (perhaps the ancestor of Mishnaic Hebrew?) was known to Jews living in Judea and Galilee in the first century. Jews were like most other ancient peoples a mostly illiterate nation: around 10-15% of people in the ancient world could read and write, because around 10-15% of people had the money and time to receive a decent education. So the vast majority of Jews did not have the training or the education to participate in the scribal culture of, say, Jerusalem or Qumran, and did not have the specialized technical knowledge to participate will full intellectual independence in the sectarian debates of their own schools of thought, between Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, even though many Jews did subscribe to their schools’ interpretations of Jewish Law and other texts. Even after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the foundation of the first rabbinic academy at Yavneh/Jamnia, it was not the case that a more scribal, text-based, hermeneutical Judaism emerged as the primary form of the religion overnight. The rabbinic sages—elite scholars, scribes, interpreters, and thinkers through their ancestral textual archive—labored for centuries to move their vision of Jewish life from the beit midrash to the synagogue and thence to the Jewish village and home; just as most Greeks and Romans were illiterate and incapable of serious participation in philosophical discussion or debate beyond repeating the points they may have heard from public speakers or knew by stereotyped caricature of individual positions, most Jews for most of history have not had access to the full textual corpora of Tanakh, Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmudim, and Midrash or to the training required to read and interpret these correctly. As one recent podcast put out by the Jewish Theological Seminary described it, there is indeed an “Evolution of Torah” underway in the first millennium of rabbinic literature and society, from a common legal code with various local interpretations and implementations to a layered databank of textual resources and authoritative commentators that all Jews must interact with, whether they accept or reject their decisions. It took a long time to develop the rabbinic model of a sage training students in the reading and interpretation of texts through careful philological study of Hebrew and dialogue with past interpreters; it took an even longer time for that model to turn into physical books that one can now buy, put on a shelf, and replicate in modern yeshivot and Day School classrooms.
I have skipped ahead of the lifetime and career of Jesus in the history of Jewish education for the purpose, then, of qualifying what it means when Jesus is called rabbi, “great one,” and didaskalos, “teacher,” in the Gospels. Jesus is in fact the first person in the historical record to be called rabbi; while this title likely does have something in common with the term as used by later texts than the Gospels in predication of figures who historically preceded Jesus, like Hillel and Shammai, as well as those who postdated Jesus, like Yohanan b. Zakkai, Gamaliel II, Akiva, Yishmael, and Yehudah haNasi, it does not possess the full range of connotations that Jewish texts mean in calling those individuals that term. Even if Jesus could read and write—which it must be stressed is a massive debate among biblical scholars complicated heavily by the theological discomfort many Christians and Christian scholars feel with the concept that Jesus may have been illiterate—he was visibly no scribe or textual scholar, and the Gospels do not seek to make him out to be one. His quotations and prooftexts of Jewish Scripture as recorded in the Gospels do not so much constitute complex textual arguments, or even rabbinic-style arguments, as they do in-text allusions meant to connect Jesus to scriptural precedents. If and when they do constitute something like halakhic reasoning, it is worth pointing out that parallel passages in the Gospels often offer distinctly different rulings from Jesus on the same issues. Mark’s Jesus does not permit divorce on the grounds of God’s joining together of man and woman in Gen 1:26-28; but Matthew’s Jesus does permit divorce on the grounds of adultery, in the selfsame passage (Mk 10:1-12; Matt 19:1-12). Mark’s Jesus, in a passage of disputed meaning, “declared all foods clean” (Mk 7:19), but Matthew leaves this explanatory comment out because he does not agree with Mark that this is what Jesus meant (Matt 15:10-11). Matthew’s Jesus tells his followers to listen to the Pharisees as the genuine successors to Moses (23:1-3) and therefore the authoritative interpreters of Jewish Law; in general he expects that his followers are going to keep the Torah (5:17-20) and, at least if one reads the Great Commission literally with this in mind, it would seem that Matthew’s concept of the gentile mission includes the full conversion of gentiles to Torah observance (28:19). But Luke, whose Jesus and apostles are also Torah observant, does not record either of these logia and expressly contradicts the notion of gentile conversion to Judaism through the Jesus Movement in his account of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
On these and other major issues of Jewish legal interpretation, the earliest followers of Jesus do not seem to have received from him a common halakha. The sayings that do seem to have been popular in the early Movement, represented in those parallel passages in Matthew and Luke that many scholars still take to be constitutive of a now-lost Sayings Gospel, Q, read less like the halakhic reasoning of the later rabbis and more like Jewish Wisdom literature or the pragmatic advice of Greco-Roman philosophers. In part, this is because the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet of social reform: he believed that the end was coming, and so his reading of Jewish Law focused on an intensely ascetic and redistributive reading of the Torah’s moral and judicial legislation; he had less a formal system and more an urgent call to “repent” by returning to the basic foundations of the Torah’s expectations for Israel, especially as represented by classic passages in the Torah like the Shema and love for the neighbor (Mk 12:28-34) and the Ten Commandments (e.g., Lk 10:27-28). Indeed, the disconnect between Jesus and the latter rabbis, to neither’s discredit, is precisely that the historical Jesus did not think that the kind of careful legal reasoning that they would engage in after the Temple’s destruction was going to be necessary. Neither did Paul. History was ending either during their lifetimes or shortly thereafter; indeed, Mark and Matthew seem to assume that the Temple’s destruction will bring with it the imminent eschaton with the parousia of the Son of Man. But Matthew, at the same time, is more interested in halakhic matters than Mark is, and Luke-Acts more concerned with establishing what proper justice (dikaiosyne) looks like for both Jews and gentiles as mutual members of a bicameral movement than either Mark or Matthew are.
In what sense then did Jesus code as a teacher during his lifetime and afterwards? Jesus’ credibility as a preacher and teacher was challenged, the Gospels tell us, by his humble origins as the (putative, at least) son of a Nazarene tekton and therefore unlikely to have received a formal education. The Gospels revel in the concept that Jesus taught with a charismatic personal authority that the “scribes and Pharisees,” the public intellectuals living abroad in Judea and Galilee, and at odds with other forms of Jewish thought and particularly with the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem (which tended toward but was not completely consumed by the Sadducee party) lacked (e.g., Matt 7:29). One wonders during Jesus’ own lifetime whether and how this conflict actually shook out. Luke’s account of Jesus and the Pharisees is ultimately a more positive one: they warn Jesus of danger (Lk 13:31-35), and Jesus goes to dinner at the homes of several Pharisees, implying that they see him as a colleague or at least worthy of interaction. But assuming Jesus’ conflict with them was real, to what extent was it simply the bristling that trained intellectuals and untrained charismatic teachers often have for one another? A personal anecdote here: my own academic training makes it very difficult for me to enjoy most sermons or to appreciate the homiletical virtues of pastors and priests who know less than I do and frequently make basic mistakes in their presentations of Jewish and Christian history in sermons, or whose dependence on English blinds them to obvious difficulties with the interpretations of the texts they are wanting to talk about. It is a flaw of mine that I have steadily worked on over the years to try and rein in my dissatisfaction and get over my own academic obsessions in the context of a church service. But I wonder, to play Pharisaic advocate, to what extent was the problem with Jesus not his person and mission (which the Gospels seem to suggest that many people in Jesus’ lifetime admired) but his carelessness about things that they deemed important, for legitimate reasons? To what degree did they desire not to undermine Jesus’ overall mission but to clarify and strengthen his teaching with their expertise? On the other hand, to what extent was Jesus’ mission in part a reaction against the very substance of their halakhic reasoning and the social position that they had forged for themselves in Judean life? These questions are further complicated by the fact that Luke tells us that many Pharisees joined Jesus’ Movement after his lifetime, including Paul, who also describes himself as a Pharisee. And the whole conversation is all the more charged by the question of the relationship between the Pharisees and the later emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, because it is effectively a question of whether postbiblical Jews and Christians can be reasonably said to share the first century, too, as part of their common tradition rather than simply the older biblical and pseudepigraphic material.
These points qualify Jesus’ presentation as a rabbi in the context of first-century Judaism: Jesus was a popular teacher, but his public teaching seems to have been a relatively simple halakhic package that in some ways agreed with and in other ways challenged existing paradigms for reading the Torah in first-century Galilee and Judea. It is certainly a mistake to say that Jesus’ teaching is entirely novel (it decisively is not), but it is also probably a mistake to say, as many 18th, 19th, and 20th century Jewish commentators on the New Testament did, that Jesus said nothing new. Jesus’ torah (in the sense of “teaching”) was uniquely inflected by his apocalyptic and messianic beliefs, social position (not hidden away like the Qumranites), and historical portion of the first century (under the brutal prefecture of Pontius Pilate).
As Jesus’ primary teachings in the Gospels concern ethics motivated by his prophecy, it is precisely for that reason the ultimate practicability of Jesus’ teachings has been at question from antiquity to the present. The context of reception is here key: when Jesus instructs in the Synoptic Gospels, for instance, that his disciples ought to take up their crosses and follow him, if the historical Jesus said that, then he is effectively asking them to suffer the capital punishment for seditionists with and for him; even if he did not, in the Roman world of the Gospels’ readers, Jesus is still instructing his later followers to be willing to experience a brutal death for their Christ-faith. It would only be later, from the conversion of Constantine down to the present, that Jesus’ logion here would become a “teaching” in the sense of an ethical instruction, an injunction to some type of moral living metaphorically depicted as crucifixion, like asceticism or withdrawal from public society (as monastics practiced). Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts are all to different degrees presenting Jesus’ teachings as a comprehensive ethics for an ongoing community, living in the aftermath of a delayed or disappointed hope for the eschaton. And for as long as the communities of Jesus’ followers constituted small pockets within the Jewish community and collegia in the Greco-Roman world, it does seem that at least many of these teachings, however radically apocalyptic their first utterances, were observed. For example, the earliest Christian communities do appear to have kept a common purse and to organized their communal meals to ensure that the poor were fed first; they do seem to have kept strict marital practices and to have abstained from violence, war, and government service, on the grounds that this is what Jesus and the apostles had taught.
Of the varieties of the first century movement, we can broadly identify two “schools” that survived and influenced the Christianity of the so-called “Great Church” of the second, third, and fourth centuries: the Pauline School, Paul and the authors of the Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles, and the Johannine School, stemming from John the Elder (not bar Zebedee) and encompassing the authorship of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse of John as well as the patristic figures of Papias, Ignatios of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Both Paulinism and Johannine Christianity originated as Jesus-oriented forms of Judaism, in competition with both non-Jesus oriented and other Jesus-oriented traditions, both among Jews and gentiles in the Diaspora, particularly Asia Minor. The notion that Paul and John, both of whom declare their allegiance to Judaism in the surviving texts directly by or attributed to them, would be the teachers of students who subtly or directly disparage the Jews of their time as outmoded is somewhat hard to conceptualize; but it would be hasty, at the same time, to deny the witness, at least in the Johannine case, that Papias, Ignatios, and Polycarp had sat at John’s feet, just as John in turn had reclined at table with Jesus. Where the Alexandrian School that emerged in the late second and early third centuries as a prominent voice of Christian theology took its origin is difficult to say. Tradition assigns the birth of its church to Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, Jesus’ chief emissary, but we have no concrete evidence to work with from the period; to identify Alexandria as the Petrine or Markan “school” would be unwarranted, not least since both Clement and Origen, the school’s primary surviving witnesses, are both deeply ensconced in Paulinist and Johannine thinking in a Stoicized and Middle Platonic philosophical context. If anyone stands at the head of their school, in fact, it is not any disciple of Jesus but Philo of Alexandria, Jesus’ contemporary: the Philonic corpus and the hermeneutical and philosophical precedents it set were essential to the project Clement and Origen both took up, of presenting Christianity as not merely a superstitio but itself a philosophical school. As we learn from Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen in particular ran the Catechetical Academy at Alexandria this way: as a schoolhouse that taught the traditional trivium and quadrivium, as well as basic instruction in philosophy and moral virtue, as in-depth preparation for the reading of Scripture and the knowledge of the Christian Faith. Hence Clement wrote his trilogy, the Protreptikos, the Paidagogos, and the Stromateis, expounding Christian theology as though it were a program of classical paideia; hence Origen wrote up his account of the apostolic and ecclesiastical preaching under the title Peri Archōn, as though it were an introductory philosophical manual along the lines of Alcinous’ Epitome, an introduction to dogmatic Platonism, or the work of Origen’s contemporary Porphyry, the Eisagogē.
Jesus was not a philosopher in the technical sense, and if one were to map him onto the concerns of ancient philosophy, he would at most register as an ethicist or moral philosopher. Indeed, this is how he registers in his early reception: Josephus remembers him as a sophos, a “wise man,” in the original form of the Testimonium Flavianum; Porphyry likewise acknowledged Jesus as a deified sage for preaching ethical monotheism, and simply found Christian proskynesis to him alone to be troubling. But he says hardly anything about physics or metaphysics: when Jesus talks about God, it is in the language of Scripture, Early Jewish piety, and apocalyptic eschatology, not philosophy. (The one possible exception is Jesus’ description of God as pneuma in Jn 4:24, but this almost certainly is not a historically authentic logion of Jesus.) Paul is more of a metaphysician than Jesus, and yet while there are interesting parallels to be drawn, he, too, is no Philo. Yet Christianity from Galen (2nd century CE) onwards was acknowledged as a philosophy, and its major thinkers—by the time Celsus wrote On True Doctrine in opposition to Christianity, the Apologists like Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Theophilus—were trying to do philosophy in a Christian mode (or Christianity in a philosophical mode?). Christians wrote on all the same topics as their pagan counterparts in philosophy, and expressed interest in all the same questions and concerns: philosophical method, God and cosmogony, epistemology, logic, and rhetoric, free will and providence, psychology, ethics and politics, and they frequently used the same methods, sources, questions, and answers as their pagan counterparts did, too.Christians did all the things in their intellectual culture that an ancient philosophical school was expected to do; and so it was often the chief complaint of later pagan critics of Christianity that they did not take their philosophy's exhortation to virtue to its logical conclusion in cult and social belonging (which pagans took virtue to entail). The issue was not so much with Jesus (whom, yes, Celsus accused of magic and the Emperor Julian despised the way one does an ex-lover but whom, again, Porphyry, Christianity's most intelligent and pointed ancient critic, respected), but with Christian abandonment of Jewish and pagan religion alike. Greek and Roman Christians did not, so noted Porphyry, keep the laws of their ancestors or those of the Jews, the people to whom Jesus belonged, and which laws he upheld (Matt 5:17-20). When he heard Origen in Caesarea, the apparent issue Porphyry had with him was not his philosophy (Porphyry apparently admired Origen's intellectual ability) but with his Christianity. Origen, like Porphyry, believed in one sole, supreme cause of things, the transcendent One God, and in an intermediary divine Nous or Logos and a life principle, what Platonists generally called Psyche and Christians, following their scriptures and the Jewish traditions they emerged from, typically called Pneuma (but both of which were understood in much the same way); Origen had, after all, probably had the same teacher as Plotinus, the pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria. In terms of the "First Principles" that Origen wrote and spoke about, there was no fundamental difference between him and the pagan philosophers he shared public space with--apart from the identification of the second hypostasis with Jesus Christ, and the cultic exclusivism and, to Roman eyes, misanthropy this identification encouraged. The antinomian and antisocial character of early Christianity disturbed Greeks and Romans and rendered Christian claims to do good or true philosophy suspect in their eyes, no matter how virtuous their activity or otherwise true their doctrines by pagan standards. And, truth be told, one wonders how firm the cultic exclusivism of earliest Christianity really proved to be as its philosophy became the dominant philosophy and its cult the sole cult of the Roman Empire through late antiquity and the middle ages. Jesus, Mary, and the saints all came to be glorified with the iconography, hymnography, and ritual that Mediterranean peoples previously associated with pagan gods; in medieval Europe, Christ simply assumed the characteristics of pagan gods in popular religion and literature. Porphyry’s goal of incorporating Christianity into the extant religions of the empire ended up coming true in the reverse: Christianity could not survive forever as the tertium genus between Judaism and Hellenism, and would eventually simply become Hellenism.
Christianity’s proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Savior, then, transformed him in the intellectual marketplace of antiquity from eschatological prophet to scholarch in the schoolhouse of God. Christianity became a distinct philosophical school positing Jesus as the ultimate Teacher of God’s Law, model of moral virtue, and revelation of metaphysical truth. But unlike other philosophers, Early Christians had confidence—though not uniformity—in the belief that, in some way, Jesus would be returning, to judge the world with lordly power according to the standards of his teaching.
Continuandum in parte septima.
The most arresting description of this world that I have recently read was Jessica Frazier, “Ancient Indian texts reveal the liberating power of metaphysics,” Psyche (2022), but let me also commend Ed Douglas, Himalaya: A Human History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021).
See Peter Adamson, Classical Philosophy, A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps Vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); idem, Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds, A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps Vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); and John Sellars, Hellenistic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
See Garrett Ryan, “Why the first Buddhas in art wore finely folded Greek tunics,” Psyche (2022).
On which see John Dillon, The Roots of Platonism: The Origins and Chief Features of a Philosophical Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 7-34. The original argument on Xenocrates, Timaeus, and Zeno is David Sedley’s.
On all of this, see the recent volume by Amy-Jill Levine and Joseph Sievers, eds., The Pharisees (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).
See George Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2021).
Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity, 165-198.
What a series! Nice work David.
Very enjoyable piece. While a good bit of the subject matter is over my head, I still get a lot out of
taking the tour even so. You write well.