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Jesus as Philosopher: The moral sage in the Synoptic Gospels, by Runar M. Thorsteinsson

19 October 2018

Cally Hammond finds an argument about Jesus unconvincing

IT IS a truism — and therefore some distance from the truth — that Christian thought and Classical (“pagan”) thought are at odds with one another. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” was the way Tertullian put it, writing in North Africa a century or so after the last books in the New Testament were composed. This book tries to bridge that “great gulf” by detecting links between the “philosopher-sages” in Classical texts, and Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.

After an introduction setting out his approach, Runar Thorsteinsson outlines what he calls “philosophy and philosophical sages” in the Graeco-Roman world. There the problems begin. The category of “sage” does not map neatly on to any single term in Latin, Greek, or — for that matter — Hebrew. I was left in the dark about how to identify a “sage” except by attributes selected according to this argument. It is difficult to analyse anything when you have no term or word for it in the language of the evidence that you are scrutinising. The category of “philosopher-sage” becomes one imposed on the evidence by the scholar, and the process of scrutiny is skewed from the beginning.

The methodological problems don’t stop there. Many ancient writers are cited across a spread of five centuries (with translations); but the reader is not orientated historically, or shown how the concept developed from BC to AD, from East to West, or from Greek to Latin. Parallels abound between the teachings, ascetic practices, and characterisations of the “sages” and the Synoptic Jesus. Thorsteinsson takes the Gospels in the order Mark, Matthew, Luke; and discovers, not surprisingly, that Luke’s Gentile Jesus has more in common with the Classical “sages” than the Jesus of the other Evangelists.

He is right to highlight anti-communal, individualistic aspects of their teachings. It is also good to find readers encouraged to see what is (Q: “What did the Romans ever do for us?” A: “Quite a lot, actually”) morally valuable in so-called pagan texts that Christian readers are often encouraged to despise. The “philosopher-sage” embraces poverty as a way to become detached from worldly wealth; but that is a world away from Jesus, who gave a value to abstract poverty, but also compassion to actual poor people. Eagerness to detect parallels is not the less misleading when it claims links between “sages” and “saviour”, because it comes with a caveat that no direct influence can be proved.

This book needs another 500 pages to stand a chance of making its case convincingly: by paying due respect to the archaelogical layers in the evidence as a historian might, rather than syncopating them like a theologian; and plotting the routes between model and imitator (if it can).

Two small annoyances in what was a frustratingly brief read: the translators of the NRSV were convinced that when, say, Paul wrote “brothers”, he really meant (or, perhaps, should have meant) “brothers and sisters”; but I am pretty sure that when most Greek philosophers and Stoic writers wrote “he”, “he” was exactly what they meant. So changing to feminine pronouns (page 26) is misleading. And finally: clusters of references within the main text should have been either put in footnotes or consigned to an appendix.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Jesus as Philosopher: The moral sage in the Synoptic Gospels
Runar M. Thorsteinsson
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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