Stoicism and the Emotions of Jesus

Stoicism has long had Christian admirers and detractors alike. Whichever of these you are, it must be admitted that Stoicism certainly had its influence on the early Christians; it would be highly tendentious indeed to suggest that no features of this philosophical school converge with Christian emphases. Cleary there is overlap, and even vociferous early Christian critics of Stoicism, such as Lactantius, would have admitted this.

That stipulation, however, makes some of the ancient divergences from and criticism toward Stoicism—especially its ethics—all the more interesting. In this post and the next, I’ll look at two apparent cases: first, from the New Testament, then from an avowed (pagan) Platonist about a century later in the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Without further ado, here’s my translation of John 11:32–36:

Then as Mary came to where Jesus was, she saw him and fell at his feet, saying, “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died.” Then as Jesus saw her and the Jew accompanying her weeping, he was disturbed in his spirit and agitated himself. And he said, “Where have you put him?” They say to him, “come and see.” Jesus wept. Then the Jews were saying, “Look how much he was cherishing him!”

Many of the rhetorical components in this scene deserve comment. First, the Greek verbiage to describe Jesus’ emotions is a little awkward to situate in English, but it is plain that the author has put this emotional response in superlatively high relief. In particular, the short, paratactic phrase “Jesus wept” is written as if the author aims to smack the ancient readers with it.

And smack them it would have. At least for elite readers more or less familiar with the basics of ancient philosophy, the psychological profile of Jesus here would have been embarrassing in its shaky emotional comportment, not least for our Stoic friends. Whatever exactly is happening to Jesus in this scene, it lies far from the Stoic ideals of composure. In fact, the description essentially constitutes a textbook case of a pathos (the Greek term) or passio (the corresponding Latin): a psychological disturbance where Jesus maybe seems to have lost his grip. Most pointedly, that Jesus was disturbed specifically “in his spirit,” seems (to me, at least) intentionally construed so that we see Jesus is explicitly breaking with the standards of Stoicism.[1] And let’s remember, John knows at least a bit about Stoicism, having already identified Jesus as not just some decent chap or even a sage but as the Logos personified and in the flesh, which is to say, the code of Nature to which all things and all people ought to conform.

Much of the early Christian commentary on this scene discerned the same elements at play, namely, loss of comportment and pathos. Most of these observers remain keen to show that Jesus was still not emotionally out of control. Thus, the early third-century author Hippolytus carefully noted that there was something odd about John’s words that Jesus “troubled himself” (etaraxen heauton) in v. 33: “‘He troubled himself’ not as we are troubled by fear or pain, but ‘he troubled himself’. . . . but he showed himself actually as a man by the fact that he wept.” More than that, “Jesus wept to give us an example of sympathy and kindliness toward our fellow human beings. Jesus wept that he might by deed rather than word teach us to ‘weep with those who weep.’ He wept but did not mourn—avoiding absolute tearlessness as harsh and inhuman but rejecting love of mourning as ignoble and cowardly. He wept, assigning due measure to his sympathy.”[2] In short, Hippolytus places the emotions of John 11 in a more Aristotelian than Stoic framing, which called for moderation to emotions where Stoicism might have inclined to sideline them entirely.

 More explicitly, the fifth-century Macedonian ascetic, Diadochus of Photice, wrote that the loss of composure evidenced in Jesus’ apparent spiritedness (thymos) “usually spells trouble and confusion for the soul more than any other passion (pathōn). Yet there are times when it greatly benefits the soul.”[3] That is, passions are to be integrated properly into one’s psyche rather than purged entirely; it is in some sense proper that Jesus experienced passion. John Chrysostom preaches similarly on this sequence, insisting that Jesus was not overcome by emotional passion but that he still felt it and so demonstrated his human nature. In fact, argues Chrysostom, the gospels show that Jesus could be exceedingly sorrowful, perilupos, a descriptor that also sits uncomfortably with Stoic precepts, which typically marked physiological responses (Chrysostom notes Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane; see Luke 22:44) as signs that the passions were out of hand.[4] Meanwhile, Augustine, like Hippolytus, sees Christ here offering an example for us to follow in his weeping.[5]

The fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologus, goes a bit further:

Christ was deeply agitated with his inner organs all in turmoil, because at this point he was going to raise up only Lazarus and not yet all the dead. Who then could think that Christ shed tears on this occasion out of human weakness when the heavenly Father weeps over the prodigal son, not when he goes away but at the moment when he welcomes him back? And so Christ shed tears over Lazarus because he was welcoming him back, not because he lost him. And to be sure, it is not when he sees the crowd weeping that Jesus weeps, but when he asks them questions and sees in their responses no trace of faith.[6]

Or take the more emphatic, high-flying interpretation of Lisbon’s anti-Arian bishop, Potamius, writing around the mid-fourth century:

God wept, moved by the tears of mortals, and although he was about to release Lazarus from the bond of death by the exercise of his power, he fulfilled the component of human affection with the comfort of his sympathetic tears. God wept, not because he learned that the young man had died before him but in order to calm (temperaret) the sisters’ outpouring of grief. God wept, in order that God might do, with tears and compassion, what human beings do on behalf of their fellow human beings. God wept, because human nature had fallen to such an extent that, after being expelled from eternity, it had come to love the lower world. God wept, because those who could be immortal, the devil made mortal.[7]

Based on their apparent apposition of Jesus and the Father, it would be interesting to know what Chrysologus and Potamius made of divine impassibility.

In any case, some of these commentators would have been more friendly to a Stoic ethic than others. Even so, none of them seem especially concerned to make Jesus’ behavior fit the classic Stoic approach. Most seem closer to the Aristotelian stress on moderation, metriopatheia, rather than the Stoic apatheia.[8] And, in my own view, the author of John himself was even less accommodating to apatheia, in that he seems to take direct aim at this Stoic ideal on its own terms. All of this should underscore the main point: early Christian appropriation of Stoicism was never uncritical, and on certain key points, Christians might break sharply with it.

  1. For the Stoics, “the impulse in a man’s psyche may get out of hand; it may become excessive; the movement of the psyche becomes unreasonable and unnatural. It is then a ‘passion,’ a disturbance, of which there are four generic kinds: fear, lust, mental pain, and mental pleasure.” Grief and even pity were sub-types of mental pain. See F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics, 2nd ed., (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1989), 60–1.
  2. For the compilation of these exegetes, I follow the sources given by Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture IVb (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 17–32. Undoubtedly, the catalog of sources could have been much larger and more exhaustive. With a few adaptations, the following translation are drawn from that text.
  3. Elowsky, 19–20.
  4. Elowsky, 20. Sandbach (61) bears quoting here again as he explains the standard Stoic passions, beginning with fear: “Fear is a contraction of the psyche caused by the belief that something bad is impending. This contraction must be understood literally: it causes the physical effects of fear, paleness shivering, thumping of the heart. But the belief is false: what is feared is not what a Stoic calls ‘bad’, but one of the morally indifferent things, e.g. death, pain, ill-repute.”

  5. Elowsky, 21.

  6. Elowsky, 20–1.

  7. Elowsky, 21.
  8. Admittedly, the apparent difference between these is sometimes said to be more semantic than substantive, and ancient philosophies were often quite eclectic.


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