Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cynicism of the Cynic Theory

There is a major current in Jesus research which holds that Jesus was essentially a Cynic Philosopher. I thought I'd discuss that issue in this post. I certainly want to indicate my indebtedness to Colin Brown for his wonderful summary of this issue. Much of this post is derived from notes from Brown.

Background of Cynics
The Cynics may be traced to Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, who was followed by Diogenes of Sinope (404-325 BCE). Plato called Diogenes a “dog” because of his outrageous behavior. In fact, the very term “Cynic” was derived from the word used for "dog". He was one called, “Socrates gone mad”.
Diogenes of Sinope was known for his outrageous and uncouth behavior. Diogenes of Laertinus (3rd cent CE) reports he was the first to fold his cloak because he was obliged to sleep in it. He carried a wallet in which he kept his food. He was known for his custom of using any place for any purpose (breakfasting, sleeping, conversing). He did not lean upon a staff until he was finally too weak to go without it. Later he carried the staff everywhere, though not in the city and yet even then he would only be seen with his staff while on the road. Diogenes' customs became the trademark of the Cynic lifestyle.
His fundamental teaching consisted in the idea that happiness is found in satisfying one’s needs in the cheapest and most basic ways. Thus his approach involved both the stress on self-sufficiency and shamelessness. In fact, he often defied conventions--especially ones which he thought were unnatural. For example, he thought metropolitan life was unnatural--he believed we should all simply live a citizens of the world. Moreover, he saw nothing wrong in having multiple of wives and in having sons through different women. Above all he invoked ‘freedom’. He was a well-known critic of organized religion.

Jesus the Cynic?
The Cynics we a dominant group in the 3rd century BC and helped shape Stoic thought. Epictetus (55-135 CE) saw Diogenes as ennobled detached ascetical teacher. After going into decline the movement was revived in the 1st century A.D. In fact, it is believed that some were present in Sephoris, located 4 miles of Nazareth, Jesus' home town. Many scholars today believe Jesus was influenced by their teachings and practices.

Burton Mack sees parallels with the Cynics in Jesus’ teaching style (e.g., the use of parables, aphorisms, clever rejoinders), especially in the short teaching-style chreia. He points to similarities between Jesus and the Cynics. For example, Diogenes had a child teach him a lesson in philosophy--an event he sees mirrored in Jesus' instructions to the disciples about becoming like a child. Jesus instructions to the twelve who sent out on a missionary journey ("do not take a staff", etc., cf. Matt 10:9-10) are held up as particularly strong indications of Cynic tendencies.

According to John Dominic Crossan Jesus was an itinerant Galilean Cynic who challenged the injustices of his day by speaking of ‘unbrokered egalitarianism’. Jesus' ministry involved two aspects: magic and meal. Crossan believes that Jesus was more indebted to Jewish and rural Cynicism, not Greco-Roman and urban Cynicism.

Problems with the Theory
There are several major problems with the Cynic hypothesis of the historical Jesus:

· There were no known Cynics in Galilee in the first century. The nearest sightings were associated with Decapolis & Tyre.
· Advocates of Cynic theory give sanitized picture of Cynics and omit obscene features of their behavior, which was known to include public defecation and masturbation
· Jesus’ teaching style in parables is much closer to rabbinic styles than that of the Cynics.
· The Cynic view does not make sense of his close association with John the Baptist, who warned of the dawning of the eschatological period.
· Though according to Crossan Jesus was a figure who combined Hellenistic cynicism with Jewish magic such a view is problematic since it doesn’t seem that Cynics practiced magic or that Jewish magicians practiced Cynicism.
· Finally, Jesus' direction to the disciples to “take no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals or a staff; for laborers deserve their food” (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:4) enshrines a philosophy that is actually antithetical to that of the Cynics. While the Cynics strove for self-sufficiency (they carried their own food), Jesus wanted the disciples to trust in the Lord and not in their own means.

In fact, Jesus more closely resembles the Old Testament prophets who renounced worldly values, proclaimed God's words and announced the restoration of Israel than the Cynic philosophers.


Michael F. Bird said...

Good stuff! In a recent EQ articles I cover much of the same ground in an article called "The Peril of Modernizing Jesus".

Anonymous said...

Jesus Saves! lets close our eyes and pretend he was not a cynic philosopher. If we wish it really hard, by miracle means, it can become a reality ..:-) Oh boy...