Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cynic Jesus - rantish

In light of some feedback I have revisited my article A Historical Critique of the Cynic Jesus (working title) which is a critical engagement with the works of F.G. Downing, Burton Mack, and to a lesser extent Leif E. Vaage and John Dominic Crossan. The draft at this time is quite sizeable yet there is just so much more that needs to be said. The real purpose of this update is some reflections on the process since it began in January. Many people have had to deal with my real life rants regarding my frustration at the thesis (hi Rob and Nic!) - from abuse of redaction criticism to simply bad analogies. I tried to blame Americans, but Dr McGrath assured me that not all of them are to blame. I could not get over the myth making of Mack and even ranted about the irony of liberal scholars being too believing at the most inappropriate times.  At the end of May Dr Michael Barber was reading whatever I was reading and word-for-word (in terms of quotes) noted the The Uncritical Use of Redaction Criticism, including the warnings those drawing on Kloppenborg's stratification of Q managed to forget. To repeat them here:
 “to say that the wisdom components were formative for Q and that the prophetic judgment oracles and apophthegms describing Jesus' conflict with "this generation" are secondary is not to imply anything about the ultimate tradition-historical provenance of any of the sayings. It is indeed possible, indeed probable, that some of the materials from the secondary compositional phase are dominical or at least very old, and that some of the formative elements are, from the standpoint of authenticity or tradition-history, relatively young. Tradition-history is not convertible with literary history, and it is the latter which we are treating here.”
Most recently I made light of this sort of thinking in my satirical International Project for Q discovers Non-Apocalyptic Qumran Community (featured in July's Biblical studies blog carnival hosted by Dr Jim West).

But things changed...the cynic thesis stopped sounding so ridiculous. Could it be that:

  • “As remembered by the Jesus people, Jesus was much more like the Cynic-teacher than either a Christ-savior or a messiah with a program for the reformation of second-temple Jewish society and religion.” (Burton Mack)
  • “the wealth of at least apparent ‘parallels’ between the Jesus tradition and popular Cynicism suggest that some kind of Cynic influence may well have been accepted by Jesus of Nazareth himself.”  (F.G. Downing)

Unlikely. Very unlikely. The thesis continued to sound very unconvincing. However, the monochromatic view of those advancing the cynic thesis - especially with emphasising the stratification of Q as primarily sapiental, secondarily eschatological - is the very real issue that Jesus need not be confined to a single model. By emphasising the apocalyptic Jesus, there is a whole Jesus the sage out there; but emphasising Jesus the sage, there is a whole prophetic Jesus out there. As presented within the works of the Qumran sectarians, the so-called Teacher of Righteousness is presented as both prophet and authoritative teacher. E.g. CD XIII: 30-35; while like Moses he receives his teachings “from the mouth of God” (1QpHab II.2-3; cf. 1QpHab VII.5)  Similarly, John the Baptist was seen as both prophet and teacher. That a charismatic figure such as Jesus was remembered in different non-exclusive roles should not be surprising, and of all of these why a cynic?

Granted that both Jesus and cynics employed aphorisms but why should this isolate Jesus from the rich Jewish Wisdom tradition?  The Gospel tradition contains over one hundred aphorisms, both positive and admonitions. Old Testament and intertestamental literature including Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Sirach attest to a Jewish strand of aphorisms and Wisdom. Ben Witherington and others have convincingly argued in favour of a Jewish Wisdom tradition with which Jesus as a teacher may have self-identified. This tradition is arguably in far closer proximity to the context of Galilee, than the conjecture of Cynic influence and overt Hellenism in Lower Galilee.But it seems that most unconvicning history does away with Occam's Razor and works from the top down.

Then there are the tendentious parallels. Both Jesus and the cynics employed imagery of a birds not having store houses, F.G. Downing notes. But moving beyond the superficial, where is the similarity in meaning?

Luke 12:22-24
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!  (NRSV) 
Musonius 15:
Where do the little birds go to get food to feed their young, though they're much worse off than you are  - the swallows and nightingales and larks and blackbirds? Do they store food away in safekeeping?
As Julian notes, “the end and aim of Cynic philosophy…is happiness…that consist in living according to nature and not according to the opinions of the multitude.” Through this mode the cynics strived for αύταρκεία yet we find Jesus here exhorting total dependence on God. If God provides for the birds, how much more will he provide for you? This metaphor is continued with imagery that draws no apparent parallel to Cynicism, and forms a common part of the Jesus tradition such as in the Lord’s prayer.

Then there is the Achilles heal where Downing notes that Q  is most incompatible with Jesus as Cynic on the grounds of “healing, exorcism and eschatology.”   However, these three elements are widely believed to have been essential to the preaching, teaching and ministry Jesus yet draw no analogy to Cynicism.

So again, why the Cynic model? It is historically probable that Jesus was perceived by his contemporaries as a prophet and with lesser certainity ihe self-identified in this fashion. It is widely attested to, it was not a chief Christology of significance to the later early church. Outside the gospels, it is found in the early preaching of Peter in Acts such as at 3:22-6 which probably reflect pre-Lukan Jerusalem Christian preaching.  The Gospels report that Jesus was viewed by his contemporaries as a prophet, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matt 21:11).  Jesus refers to himself as a prophet directly and indirectly, such as in Mark 6:4 and parallels.   That Jesus was perceived as a prophet appears to be firmly established, however, this leads to the question of what sort of prophet? Is Mack correct in his contention in seeing “Cynics as the Greek analogue to the Hebrew prophets”?  In terms of social criticism, there is analogy however superficial. Yet to see Jesus only as a prophet within the Old Testament tradition is misleading by omission. I would suggest that Jesus be best seen within the tradition of first century Jewish prophetic figures characterised as: “in contrast to the behaviors of the prophets of ancient Israel, the Jewish leadership prophets frequently embodied acts of eschatological liberation and restoration. Some of these actions intended to usher in the new age; put in other categories, they saw themselves inaugurating the Age to Come.” (Scot McKnight)

This eschatology of liberation, restoration and the new age is evident in viewing Jesus’ teachings, especially in light of his relationship with John the Baptist. Most scholars agree that Jesus was in some sense involved with the eschatological renewal movement of John the Baptist.  The historical foundations for this relationship are firm, and are inconsistent with the broad method and results of the Cynic thesis. Jesus’ Baptism is multiply attested (Mark 1:9-11 and par ; Luke 3:16//Matthew 3:11; John 1:29-34), they were probably an issue of embarrassment (Jesus was not just subordinated to the Baptist but the ritual was related to repentance for the forgiveness of sins Mark 1:4.)  The purpose of John’s preaching and baptism is important. John was perceived as a prophet  who preached repentance (Q 7:3-9) and the coming of another coming figure (Luke 3:16-17). Five elements can be found in John’s expected figure:  “(1) his activities include judgment and restoration; (2) he is coming; (3) he is mighty (i.e., mightier than John); (4) he will baptize with holy spirit and fire, and (5) his judgment and restoration are portrayed using imagery of the threshing floor.”  It is therefore probable that Jesus’ involvement with the Baptist set him on a trajectory inconsistent with that of a wandering Hellenistic countercultural Cynic. Jesus moved forward with John’s vision of a reconstituted Israel initiated through baptism and continued to identify Israel’s need to repent. This renewal and the Kingdom will not just be present  but it will be in the future. The Q tradition (Matt 8:11-12//Luke 13:28-29) utilising apocalyptic imagery talks of the future Kingdom in terms of an eschatological banquet where those from east and  west will join. In short, while not John the Baptist redivivus it does demonstrate historically probable inconsistencies with the Cynic view.

Okay, that turned really ranty.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. The whole picture does not support Jesus as Jewish cynic, but it fits apocalyptic prophet quite well.

    It's possible that the authors put cynic-like words into Jesus' mouth to endear him to people who may have been inclined to that view.

    It's also possible that Jesus borrowed from the cynics as a part of his apocalyptic philosophy. There must have been something that drew so many people to his movement that was more than just a standard Jewish prophet.

  2. last comment was by paulf

  3. Hi Paulf, Michael Bird has an article on scholars contemporising Jesus. Off memory it is called "The Perils of Mdernizing Jesus" and can be found online.

    What makes you believe that cynics shared an apocalyptic worldview?

  4. I don't think that. I'm just speculating about the possibilities.

    Either Jesus never said the things that correspond to cynic beliefs, or he incorporated some cynical elements into his teachings, which I believe at heart were apocalyptic.

    For instance, today an otherwise liberal christian could othrewise be against abortion, or a conservative evangelical could be an environmentalist.

    Just musing.


  5. Woo! I'm famous! (always love a good rant)

  6. Jesus may very well have said things that parallel cynic sayings - they were both to some extent itinerant, they both took issue with societal boundaries. But why should mild similarities that fail on substance indicate cynic influence? The biggest short coming with the cynic thesis isn't just a failure to provide substantial parallels, but that the model cannot make sense of the most historically probable Jesus traditions.

    But while a hybrid idea may be appealing, where did this influence come from? Where can we document it without chopping up Q sayings (Vaage) or simply assuming it?

    And hi Nic!