Jesus as Philosopher

The Moral Sage in the Synoptic Gospels

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Runar M. Thorsteinsson
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For those who have wondered how Jesus’ teaching and life compare to the teachings and lives of ancient Greco-Roman philosophers, Runar Thorsteinsson’s Jesus as Philosopher has arrived.

Thorsteinsson aims to examine how the authors of the Synoptic Gospels may have associated the person of Jesus with contemporaneous philosophical schools in order to persuade their audiences that Jesus was the ideal human being. Jesus as Philosopher, then, explores several key questions: How did the Synoptics speak of Jesus in relationship to contemporary philosophy? Did the authors draw on Greco-Roman descriptions of the ideal philosopher? How do the gospel portraits differ from Greco-Roman images of the ideal philosopher? While the presentation of contemporary philosophy is eclectic, the exploration of each gospel portrait is inspired by narrative criticism’s commitment to studying each narrative in its own right.

While drawing on an array of Greco-Roman philosophers, this book primarily uses the writings of four Stoics dating in and around the time of Jesus: Cicero, Musonius Rufus, Seneca, and Epictetus. The effect is that the main question of the book seems to be whether the Synoptics portray Jesus as the ideal Stoic sage. This greater focus on Stoics from around the time of Jesus is reflected in Thorsteinsson’s selection of Seneca’s writings for a summary of the ideal sage in the time of Jesus. Seneca’s vision of the ideal sage is of a person who accepts their mortal existence and so remains calm and steadfast in their thinking, despite threats of suffering or even death. Self-control and steadfastness are other-regarding, protecting the weaker from the stronger in society, reforming the sinner, and ignoring wrongs committed against oneself. The ideal philosopher teaches others how to follow the gods, as much by example as by teaching, as is clear in the preeminent example of Socrates.

The book begins its comparative work with the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Rather than progressing through the narrative, Thorsteinsson groups material by theme: teachings on ascetic practice, willingness to forsake one’s family for a new way of life, philosophers as messengers from God, nobility and courage in the face of death, and so on. Thorsteinsson emphasizes the many similarities between the Gospel of Mark’s portrait of Jesus and contemporary philosophers, but also notes important differences. Key differences include the portrait of Jesus acting on emotion, Jesus’ attitude about wealth going beyond adiaphora (indifference) in order to help the poor, and Jesus as a miracle worker.

With many gospel scholars, Thorsteinsson accepts that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke adapted the Gospel of Mark’s narrative for their purposes. Consequently, the chapters on Matthew and Luke reiterate the themes in the chapter on Mark while noting adaptations, for example, Luke’s portrait of Jesus as less emotional then in the Gospel of Mark, more in line with the Stoic ideal. Still, the sheer amount of extra teaching material in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke mean chapters 3 and 4 have more sections than the chapter on the Gospel of Mark. In the chapter on Matthew, Thorsteinsson adds sections on Jesus’ ethical teaching and the congruence of his words and deeds, noting the similarity of Jesus’ severe demands on his disciples and that made by philosophers, though his demands for perfection make Jesus seem less forgiving than philosophers, who commended the pursuit of perfection while admitting to its rare attainment. The chapter on Luke adds sections on Jesus as a reformer of sinners and master of debate. Neither of these subjects is unique to Luke, though Luke is certainly the only gospel in the Christian canon to show Jesus as a wise interlocutor from a young age.

The many comparisons between Jesus’ portrait in the Synoptic Gospels and the teachings of contemporaneous philosophers illuminate aspects of these Synoptics’ portraits within the 1st-century Roman world. Jesus’ teaching on potentially rejecting one’s family in order to be Jesus’ disciple is not so different from Epictetus’ teaching that a true philosopher must be willing to abandon their family. The sower-seed-soil image in the parable of the sower can be fruitfully clarified with parallels in the writings of Philo, Cicero, and Seneca. Love of enemies is not unique to Jesus but is also commanded by Seneca, Musonius, and Epictetus. Still, in adducing many illuminating parallels, does Thorsteinsson achieve his stated aim?

Reading Thorsteinsson’s book, readers may be reminded of Samuel Sandmel’s article on parallelomania in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1962. Sandmel cautioned scholars then working to show how, for example, writings from Qumran or Philo may have influenced New Testament writers so that two passages may “sound the same in splendid isolation from their context,” but comparing their contexts might indicate real difference, not similarity. Thorsteinsson clearly shows parallels between the Synoptic Gospels’ portraits of Jesus and contemporaneous philosophers. But it is unclear whether they “used such associations to persuade their audiences that Jesus was not only on par with these philosophical figures but also superior to them” (2–3). To show that the evangelists had this persuasive intent would require showing how, for example,  the narrative of the Gospel of Mark sustains a portrait of Jesus as the more-than-ideal sage, how this portrait interacts with other images of Jesus as Messiah, Son of Man, apocalyptic prophet, and so on, and how one may reasonably conclude that the audience would pick up on the more-than-ideal-sage theme. And, as Thorsteinsson recognizes, he would need to make this same argument for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke on their own terms.

Thorsteinsson does a great service by providing a thorough comparison of Jesus’ teachings to Greco-Roman philosophers, which are often illuminating on a particular subject. The sheer number of comparisons makes for tedious reading, especially as one continues further into the book. The volume of parallels, unfortunately, does not demonstrate that the evangelists meant to show Jesus as the more-than-ideal sage. But the groundwork for such an argument is surely in evidence here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert L. Foster is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Religion and the University of Georgia.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Runar M. Thorsteinsson is professor of New Testament in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Iceland. He is the author of Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford University Press, 2010).


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