What Ancient Thinkers Can Teach Us About the Human – Divine Relationship



 “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens, and compel it to ask questions about life and morality”  ~ Cicero (Tusculan Disputations 5.10-11)

Recently I read Runar Thorsteinsson’s Jesus As Philosopher, a book that plunged me into the first-century philosophical context out of which the ‘literary’ figure of Jesus portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels emerged. This inspired me to look more closely at the characterization of Jesus by the Gospel authors in light of the Graeco-Roman narratives and oral traditions that would have made up their surrounding milieu. What emerged was an understanding of the ancient outlook on the divine-human relationship that was not only anti-theocratic but also humane and realistic.

The framework of ancient virtue theory, with its emphasis on character and the life of each human being as a whole, also formed a backdrop for the Synoptic Gospels. It is against this background that the figure of Jesus can be analyzed as an exemplar of the ideal moral person.

Thanks largely to Plato, philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world was understood first and foremost not as a theoretical pursuit, but as a certain way of life. The true sage and exemplar of virtue is not one who possesses knowledge but one who puts maxims into practice. This basic understanding was shared by Platonists, Paripatetics, Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics.

As Seneca advised Lucilius:

Chose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak.’

While the early Stoics saw a huge gap between the philosophers and the common people, their outlook was not elitist.  They stressed that virtue closes the door to no man and invites all comers irrespective of fortune or family connections. Philosophy also involves a social dimension, for philosophy and ‘heaven’ were open to all. The later Stoics agreed that nature made it so that all human beings have their share in universal human reason.

Despite doctrinal differences, all of the major philosophical traditions upheld a vision of the ideal philosophical sage, represented as real or abstract human archetypes.  The figure of Socrates was particularly prominent, insofar as his way of life was celebrated by most philosophical schools.  In the ancient world Socrates was esteemed for both his way of life and his way of death, which he faced with equanimity, maintaining to the very end that it was better to suffer injustice than to do it.

Owing in part to Plato’s influential description of Socrates’ divine mission in the Apology, it was not uncommon among many first and early second-century CE philosophers to believe that the philosophical sage was somehow called by God to execute a divine mission.  However, there was a general consensus among the philosophical schools that the ‘superhuman’ qualities of the philosophical sage were not owing to miraculous ‘superhuman’ power, but to his moral courage and wisdom.  The idea of the ‘divine man’ (theios aner) was a fairly common motif in Graeco-Roman antiquity, but many philosophers distanced themselves from its associations with qualities similar to wizardry, avowing instead a this-worldly commitment to reason.

Mark’s Gospel reflects its author’s view that the relationship between God and human beings was so intimate that Jesus calls God their ‘Father’ (11.25). There is a parallel between this and Seneca, who claimed God is the ‘Father of us all’ and many other Graeco-Roman philosophers understood God as Father of men. Justin Martyr even noted in the mid-second century CE that ‘all writers call God Father of men and gods’ (1 Apol.  22.1).

Similarly, in Epictetus’ Discourses, the true Cynic must know that he has been sent (apestaltai)  by Zeus to men, partly as a messenger (angelos), in order to show them that in questions of good and evil, they have gone astray (Diss. 3.22.23).  Generally speaking, Graeco-Roman philosophers understand the role of the philosopher as a mediator between human beings and the divine. However, in Mark’s Gospel God has not given Jesus the power to exercise authority over the people.  He can neither silence them nor compel them to believe. Rather, his role is to teach wisdom (sophia) but this is imparted by the individual’s autonomous faith – the initiative is with human beings.

One of the most interesting comparisons between Stoics like Seneca and Jesus is how each regarded human emotion and the natural passions. Jesus seems moved by genuine emotions of filial love and compassion for other human beings, and this aligns him closely with Stoic doctrines about the divine origin of every human being and an all-encompassing embrace of the human race.  Epictetus even goes so far as to emphasize that the ideal Cynic must love those who do him wrong, even if they torture him.

As in Mark, Matthew’s Jesus cannot heal people where there is no faith present.  The implication is that the wise man does not dispense something esoteric to people but draws out of them powers that they already possess. This is a form of encouragement, rather than the dispensing of ‘grace’ or a cabalistic initiation into esoteric ‘powers’.

Accordingly, rather than performing miracles Jesus depends on methods of discourse and reason in his teaching, using parables to make comparisons between ordinary experiences and hidden truths. And like the philosophers, most of all Socrates, Jesus was a master of reasoning and debate. He is seen fending off the Pharisees’ traps by means of a Socratic-styled dialectic of questions and answers. Similarly, Dio Chrysostom claimed that both Homer and Socrates ‘were most effective in making similes and comparisons.’ (Or. 55.9) Seneca confirms Socrates’ use of parables when he notes that the ideal philosopher ‘was given to talking in parables’.

Luke’s Jesus – but not Mark’s nor Matthew’s – adds a social dimension to this discourse. Jesus is represented as a social reformer in Luke. According to Jesus everyone has the possibility of reaching the level of the teacher, he is not unique and not above the crowds who listen to him.  ‘Everyone who is fully qualified (katertismenos) will be like the teacher’ (Luke 6.40). The relationship between the teacher and his disciples is one of qualitative equality.  This was also true in Roman stoic philosophy.  The followers of Jesus all have the potential of becoming like him and are encouraged to strive to do so, especially in terms of morality.[1]

In Luke, Jesus, despite momentary weakness, willingly faces torture and death for a greater cause.  The idea of an innocent sage voluntarily submitting to suffering and death as part and parcel of his commitment to a virtuous life was particularly associated with the trials and death of Socrates. According to Seneca, ‘They accused him of disturbing the state religion and corrupting the youth, for they declared that he had influenced the youth to defy the gods, to defy the council, and to defy the state in general’ (Ep. 104.28). Similarly, Jesus is accused of ‘perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king’ (Luke 23.2).

Returning to the relationship between God and human beings, Seneca visits the idea of the noble suffering ‘wise man’ when he remarks that, while God is best to those who are best, at the same time God tests those who are best.  People should welcome difficulties and suffering because ‘disaster is virtue’s opportunity’, and in those circumstances they can reveal their true nature. The question for the sage remains not how long he lives, but how well he lives. For Epictetus, this means that the point is not how long you live but how nobly you live, and often living nobly means that you cannot live long (Diss. 101.15; 104.3).

­Just as when Jesus said, at the moment of unbearable torture, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34), so the Stoic view was that wrongdoing is caused by ignorance.  Jesus’ words in the Lukan tradition clearly match the Stoic view.

In all of the ways described above, Jesus is associated with the ancients’ understanding of the archetypal wise man: a human exemplar that can be followed by anyone who has sufficient desire to pursue a life of virtue.

T M (Terri) Murray, PhD, MTh, Director of Studies, Fine Arts College, London, UK is an American essayist, author and educator. She has taught philosophy, critical reasoning and religious studies in London, UK for the past twelve years. She read philosophy and theology at University of London, and earned her doctoral degree in philosophy from Oxford Brookes University, specializing in social and contextual theology. Murray is a regular contributor to Philosophy Now magazine, The New Humanist and has blogged for The Rationalist Association, The Center for Progressive Christianity and The Yurica Report. In 2010 she was awarded first prize in the Center for Inquiry’s Freedom of Expression Essay competition. She is co-author of Moral Panic: Exposing the Religious Right’s Agenda on Sexuality(Cassell, UK).


©2020 by T M Murray.  All rights reserved.  No portion of this manuscript may be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of the author.

[1] Thorsteinsson, Runar, Jesus As Philosopher: The Moral Sage in the Synoptic Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 144.

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