Paul and the Stoics
Stoicism was one of the most influential philosophies in Paul’s day. Boasting adherents across the social spectrum, Stoicism counted lowborn slaves and members of the imperial aristocracy among its ranks. Its origins lie in the teachings of Zeno who, having been deeply influenced by Socrates, presented his ideas in third century BC in Athens.
Many points of continuity and discontinuity exist between Paul and the Stoics. Stoicism was pantheistic but held that the universe was a vast quasi-rational being with intelligence and will. Paul, on the other hand, believed the universe was created by a personal God who was distinct from His creation (1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16). The Stoics believed in a perpetual cycle of cosmic destruction, in which the entire universe was destroyed by fire and then reborn with everything occurring exactly as before. Stoics were also skeptical about the afterlife. In contrast, Paul believed that human history was moving toward a cosmic conflict between God and the forces of evil (2 Thess 2:1–10), in which God would triumph (1 Cor 15:24–28), creation would be redeemed (Rom 8:19–22), and all humanity would be judged (2 Cor 5:10). Paul also confidently affirmed the reality of the afterlife and a bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15). Despite other points on which Paul’s teaching seems to align with Stoicism, these key differences mark the worldviews of Paul and Stoics as fundamentally distinct.
However, the question of how virtue is attained constitutes a primary point of comparison and overlap between Paul and the Stoics. Stoics believed that the ideal sage was one who could face calamity and misfortune with casual indifference, feeling neither sorrow nor regret. Stoics were proud of their ability to endure hardships and often paraded their fortitude and strength through “hardship catalogs” which listed the adversities they had endured—a literary form that also occurs in Paul’s letters (e.g., 2 Cor 4:8–9; 6:9–10). Stoics believed that the fully mature soul needed no help from any other source for contentment, peace, and happiness.
Similarly, Paul believed that enduring hardships led to growth in character and virtue (Rom 5:3–5; 1 Cor 9:24–27; 2 Cor 4:7–18). However, he delighted in hardships because they displayed his weakness and God’s power—not his own invincibility (2 Cor 12:9–10). Paul found contentment not in his own achievement, but in Christ: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
The mind was also crucial in moral formation for the Stoics; it served as the rationale faculty which enables people to distinguish between things that are good, bad, and indifferent. According to Stoicism, vice represented a disease of the mind that could be cured by right thinking: “For all these maladies [lust, greed, ambition] one cure has been provided by the gods: education and reason” (Dio Chrysostom, 32.16). According to Epictetus, one of Paul’s Stoic contemporaries, the key to moral transformation was simply to “purify your thinking” (Disc. 4:1.112).
While Paul believed that mind was critical in spiritual formation (Rom 12:2; 13:14; Phil 4:8; Col 3:2), he maintained that growth in virtue could not be accomplished merely through mental discipline; it required the empowerment of the indwelling Spirit (Rom 7:6; 8:9; Gal 5:22; Eph 3:16). In short, while the Stoics taught that, “the wise person is self-sufficient” (Seneca, Ep. 9.8), Paul taught that the Christian is radically dependent on God—a notion the Stoics would have greeted with derision.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Paul and the Stoic adherents of his day is the pre-eminent place of love in Paul’s ethical system. It has no analogy in Stoicism. Paul’s letters contain over 100 occurrences of “love” (in verbal and nominal forms), and he frequently singles out love as the paramount virtue (1 Cor 13:13; Rom 13:8–10; Col 3:14; 1 Tim 1:5). Stoicism regarded love as a somewhat dangerous quality, associated with excessive emotional attachments that endangered the ideal of self-sufficiency. While any summary of Christian ethics—ancient or modern—puts emphasis on the supremacy of love, searching for this topic among Stoic writers would be unsuccessful.
The primary reason for this radical difference rests in the different interpretations each group had of the deaths of their principle exemplars, Jesus and Socrates. While the Stoics admired Socrates’ death because of his dutiful commitment to justice (Musonius Rufus Dis. 29, 29; Seneca Ep. 70; 61:2, etc.), Christian literature regularly interprets the death of Jesus as an act of sacrificial love on behalf of his followers (John 15:13; Gal 2:20; 1 Clem. 49:6). It is this image which Paul and other early Christians found so compelling: “For Christ’s love for us compels us, recognizing that one died for all” (2 Cor 5:14).
Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.