"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

19 Dec 2011

Was Jesus a Cynic Philosopher (and a feminist)?

Jesus and the Woman from Syrophoenicia
Before I take a two week break from the blog, I wanted to pen something with a seasonal theme. In my essay, A Tale of Two Cynics (The Philosophical Forum, Dec 2010) I explore the possibility of Jesus as a Cynic through a 22 page deconstruction of the minor gospel parable of the woman from Syrophoenicia. I should point out straight away that when I talk of Jesus, I am not referring here to the messianic Christ character created by Paul in his letters and further elaborated by Matthew and Mark in their gospels—written at the earliest 30 years after Jesus was allegedly crucified. I am more concerned here with the semi-mythological Jesus, glimpses and clues of whom can be found in the gospels (both canonical and non-canonical) and from contemporary historians of the time such as Flavius Josephus. This historical Jesus (man or myth is not the issue here) represents everything that modern Christianity does not—images of fat bishops in their cathedral palaces clad in purple robes and gold chains, just does not sit comfortably with Jesus the ascetic sage entreating his followers to abandon money, possessions and a roof over their head for a life of hardship and prayer. In some respects the asceticism of Jesus went even further than that of the ancient Cynics, who at least were permitted to beg for food, wear sandals and enjoy the comfort and security of a street corner or tub.
     But I do not want to focus here on Jesus’ asceticism, nor do I want to dwell too much on the societal and historical influences that the Cynics must have had on Jesus. The main trade route between the Mediterranean coastal town of Ptolemais and Gadara (birthplace of Cynics Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus) near the south-eastern end of the Sea of Galilee, passed just 8 miles north of Nazareth, and the Hellenized city of Sepphoris was only five miles away; so it is unlikely that Jesus would not have come into contact and been influenced in some way by Cynics. Indeed, the second century anti-Christian writer Celsus even made disparaging comparisons about Christians’ Cynic-like behaviour of preaching to the rabble in the market place. And first century historian Josephus (a contemporary of Jesus, whose personal agenda did not include promoting either Cynics or Christians) told in unflattering terms of a ‘Fourth Philosophy’ among the Jews founded by one, ‘Judas of Galilee’, notable for what can only be described as typical features of Cynicism: advocating hardship (ponos), the freedom to express one’s views without fear of human censorship (parrhesia) and world citizenship under ‘God’ (cosmopolitanism).
     But it is Jesus’ use of cynical irony and the Syrophonician woman’s parrhesia (see post dated 3 Dec 2011 under 'Freedom of Speech') that I want to draw attention too here, and specifically the use of a particular literary genre credited to the Cynics and known as the chreia. Regardless of the actual message: be it the glory of God or the stupidity of people who worship gods, the style and delivery of both early Christian and Cynic public speaking was based on the same modes of discourse. The Cynic diatribe was the prototype for the Christian sermon and the aphoristic sayings credited to pre-Biblical Christian texts—but reproduced and dotted throughout sections of the gospels—are indistinguishable from the Cynic chreia. The chreia (literal meaning of which is ‘something useful’) accounts for most of the Diogenes stories. It is a brief statement of an incident or situation followed by a pungent remark. When asked if he believed in the gods, Diogenes replied, “How can I help believing in them when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?” On being reproached for eating in the market place (convention at the time forbade eating in public) Diogenes responds, “Well, it was in the market-place that I felt hungry”. And in a chreia credited to Antisthenes on it being confirmed to him by a priest that initiates into the Orphic Mysteries enjoyed certain advantages in Hades, Antisthenes replied, “Why then, don’t you die!”
     One of the best examples of Jesus’ use of the chreia comes from Matthew 15.1-11. When Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees and scribes for breaking with Jewish purification laws by eating without washing their hands, Jesus retorted, “Hypocrites, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man but what comes out.” And in a typical example of the chreia in the non-canonical gospel of Thomas, we have the following response from Jesus when asked by his disciples if circumcision was beneficial or not: “If it were beneficial, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother.” But in the case of the parable of the Syrophonician woman (Mark 7.27-28), having gone to the house in which Jesus and his disciples were holidaying in Lebanon to seek a cure for her dying daughter, it is she that uses the chreia in response to a taunt from Jesus:
And he [Jesus] said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.”
Having tried to dismiss the woman a second time, referring to the disciples as children and the woman as the dog she is—being a gentile in a house of Jews—Jesus then finds himself out-maneuvered at his own game. Her response is that, a dog she might be but as such also a member of the household and deserving of whatever crumbs might fall her way. So impressed was Jesus at the woman’s parrhesia that he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” No matter who the author, or whatever their underlying motive for recounting this story, all ultimately arrive at the same conclusion: whether or not Jesus was aware of the woman’s skills at parrhesia before he engaged her in a duel of words, the clear outcome of the contest is that the woman wins the argument. Even Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (347-407 CE)—not known as an advocate of women's’ rights!—has to acknowledge just in what way she wins the argument. He refers to it as ‘wisdom’ and ‘humility’ (feigned or otherwise). The woman employs cynical irony by accepting the appellative ‘dog’ and even the ‘dog’s act’ of licking up the crumbs that fall to the floor, to turn the table on her tormentor whom she continues to refer to as ‘Lord’ and ‘master’, all the while maintaining just the safe side of ridicule—safe, that is, from ridiculing Jesus in front of the disciples. Jesus would have accepted the woman’s ridicule for what it was, a coded fraternalism that bound the two of them into a mutually understood intercourse while the disciples could only wonder at the woman’s audacity (it is only with the Cynics that women are acknowledged as philosophical equals and that we find examples of women philosophising in public). And for her trouble, we are told by F. Gerald Downing (priest, and writer on Cynic origins of Christianity), the Syrophoenician woman wins from Jesus her ‘crown’.
     Only small clues can be drawn from his encounter with the woman from Syrophoenicia that Jesus may have been some kind of Cynic sage. Like the Cynics' mentor, Socrates, Jesus wrote nothing down, and so in the same way his own philosophy has been left open to interpretation and abuse from followers in the same way that Socrates’ was. But there are certain clues among all the Christian rhetoric and dogma—in the story of the Syrophoenician woman alone—that provide a key to Jesus’ much overlooked philosophy. First are the dog references. The term Cynic itself is derived from the Greek kynicos, an adjectival form of the noun for dog. When challenged that she is a dog, the Syrophoenician woman embraces the term and the actions of a dog as a rhetorical device. As with Cynics, the Syrophoenician woman is not indignant in the face of insult but employs the aphoristic style of the chreia to deflect the insult back onto its originator. Interestingly, Mark  (7:27) uses the diminutive form of dog, kynaria (puppy) in place of kynos (dog) but being referred to as a ‘little bitch’ is no less an insult for that. Then we have references to the woman’s shamelessness (anaideia). As with another Cynic slogan, apatheia, meaning disregard for feelings, the Syrophoenician woman has no concern at entering a house of men, that she is a gentile and they Jews, that she addresses them first, and then when rebuffed ignores insults and pleas to leave them in peace to assert her own authority. "What is this, O woman?" Jesus remarks, "Hast thou then greater confidence than the apostles? More abundant strength?" The woman’s boldness and disregard for the attitudes of others demonstrates all the hallmarks of the parrhesiast. Significantly, the content of the woman’s discourse with Jesus is deeply philosophical. Unlike the disciples, she does not have to ask Jesus to explain his meaning, she understands perfectly the allegory of his words and is able to engage with him on his own terms—she gives as well as receives. As with certain other celebrities, although constantly surrounded by admirers, Jesus strikes me as a lonely individual. In his encounter with the Syrophonician woman, each recognised in a fleeting moment the cynical spirit of the other but then sadly went their separate ways, their integrity intact but without the consolation of each other's company.


  1. fantastic analysis. boldness in women is just as admirable in appropriate conditions as any man's clever outspokenness would be. the point that i see that is important is that it be an exchange which edifies.it can never be forgotten.

  2. Interesting thoughts and well put.

  3. It is my understanding that Jesus's teachings, in part, were based on those teachings of the Greek school of Cynicism. The Cynics stressed that Virtue was more important than accumulating wealth. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, seemed to echo this Greek idea in claiming "his poverty, was proof of his pursual of virtue rather than accumulating wealth." That is tosay, that Jesus' teachings were derived from Greek schools of Philosophy, circa 400 BC through 33 AD. A famous scenario has a wealthy Jew asking Jesus what he can do to improve himself and Jesus tells him, give all your wealth away and be like me. The wealthy man turns away upon hearing this. Jesus is portrayed as being poor, having no place to rest his head. Jesus' message of pursuing righteousness instead of the accumulation of wealth is not a Jewish concept, it appears to be Hellenistic Greek (Socratic and Cynic). By contrast the Old Testament teaches that material wealth is a sign of God's blessings bestowed upon his followers, whereas poverty is a sign of God's displeasure. Christianity arose in a Hellenistic World, and it is understandable that it assimilated Hellenistic Greek notions about the importance of virtue over material wealth. The Old Testament teaches that God will not a righteous man be overcome by his enemies, just the opposite is taught by Christianity: Allow the evil men to accomplish your death, remain loyal to God and virtue, your reward from God will be after death in a resurrection of the dead. In the Old Testament the Righteous achieve victory over their enemies.
    All this is to say, for me, the New Testament teachings of Jesus are from Greek schools of Philosophy and are opposed to Old Testament teachings.