01. Two Seminal Figures
Neither held public office. Neither, as adults, traveled very far from home. Neither wrote any literary work, though both occasionally made their points by writing on the ground.
Rather than writing books, both spoke to their contemporaries, aiming at transforming their individual and collective lives. They left the literary productions to their followers.
Both exercised an uncanny influence over not only their contemporaries, but also over the lives and imaginations of distant people for centuries to follow. This influence was not merely literary, but visceral. Those who spent time withthese men were deeply changed and went on to change others. And both died by execution, condemned by their own people, because of the deep changes they were prompting in their societies.
Of course, I am speaking of Socrates and Jesus.Jesus and Socrates share another feature. Since neither wrote, contemporary scholars may doubt the possibility of recovering the philosophy of either or both. Nonetheless, Pierre Hadot, among the most illustrious historians of ancient philosophy, takes as his focus the “figure of Socrates” rather than a hypothetical reconstruction of an “historical Socrates.” The figure—as presented focallyin Plato, but peripherally in such authors as Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius, Libanius, and Maximus of Tyre—echoes through the ages. See Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 22–38 and Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, 147–78. It is, after all, the figure who has been historically decisive. One may bracket any skepticism about the correspondence of the figure to the“historical person” and reflect philosophically on the figure. For a helpful overview of the origins of the “Socratic problem” and itsdissolution, from which Hadot proceeds, see Dorion, “Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem,” 1–23.
I am claiming that an analogous attention to the “figure of Jesus” is also philosophically interesting and fruitful. The “figure ofJesus” is presented focally in the earliest accounts of his life (found in the canonical Gospels) and peripherally through the writings of his early followers and his early critics (such as Celsus’ On the True Doctrine among the pagans and the Ben Pantera passages in early rabbinic literature among Jewish critics). There is no shortage of textual material for the figure of Jesus. In modern scholarship,there has been little philosophical attention to the figure of Jesus. A notable exception is Gooch, Reflections on Jesus and Socrates. Two more recent titles seem to promise such a focus but offer a more diffuse approach—drawing from Paul and the whole of the NewTestament rather than focusing on the Gospels’ figure and his teachings. Kreeft, Philosophy of Jesus; and Pennington, Jesus the GreatPhilosopher. In my estimation, by shifting focus outside the Gospels’ figure of Jesus, these texts lose in depth what they gain in breadth.
This book is about Jesus and his ability—then and now—to change human lives. However, I cannot speak of Jesus’ philosophy without a word about Socrates and Jesus’ relation to him. So, perhaps I should point out thatphilosophy is not merely my choice of category for the life and thought Jesus introduced. It goes back to the beginning.
02. “The Way” and Ancient Philosophy
Three hundred years before Christianity became a religion, Jesus and his earliest followers taught “the Way.”See, e.g., Matt 7:13–14; Acts 9:2, 18:25–26, 19:9, 23, 22:4, 24:14–16, 22. Of course, this metaphor is not the exclusive property of Jesus’ movement. In other places and times, some have endeavored to discover and teach “the Way”—a form of living best suited tothe nature of human life. The most famous of these is Lao Tsu, author of the Tao Te Ching. They self-identified as philosophers and taught Jesus’ way as a lived philosophy to be compared with other philosophic ways of life.To calibrate one’s understanding of ancient philosophy as ways of living, see Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?; Nussbaum,“Therapy of Desire in Hellenistic Ethics”; Nussbaum, Therapy of Desire. More recently, Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom, provides a needed corrective to a homogenizing tendency in Hadot. This self-identification remains implicit, though clear enough, in the movement’s earliest writings, collectively known as the New Testament.As an indication of the expansive scholarly discussion behind this point, I will simply gesture toward such seminal works as Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers; Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics; Engberg-Pedersen, John and Philosophy. For aprincipled critique of the terms of this comparative project, see Rowe, One True Life. Rowe offers an account, post-Wittgenstein and MacIntyre, of the inherent incommensurability of traditional discourses and argues to juxtapose Christian and Stoic stories as in conflict.Beginning in the second century, however, we find copious, explicit, and near universal self-descriptions of Jesus’ followers as philosophers.Consider, e.g., Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho as well as his 1 Apology and 2 Apology; Tatian, Address to the Greeks, and Athenagoras, Embassy.
Of course, a long, venerable tradition of Hellenistic Jews had self-presented as adherents of an ancestral philosophy.Among Hellenistic Jews this trend goes back at least as far as Aristobulus in the second century B.C. However, there is also an important argument to be made for a philosophical form of thought embedded in the Hebrew Bible itself. See Hazony, Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture; Johnson, Biblical Philosophy. For a deep background to the modern comparison between Near Eastern thought and philosophy, see the various essays in Frankfurt et al., Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. For a more recent whistle-stop tour of ancient Mediterranean thought, which includes the Jews among the philosophers, see Clark, Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy. When early Christians self-identified as adherents of a philosophy, the term philosophy referred to a coherent and comprehensive way of living. This they held incommon with the broader range of philosophic schools in antiquity.See Ch. 1 and 4 of Hadot and Davidson, Philosophy as a Way of Life.
Surprisingly, if asked the nature of their teachings, the earliest followers of Jesus would not use the term “theology.”Of course, teachings about God and the nature of divinity held a central place in Jesus’ movement, as it did in most ancientphilosophies. “Theology,” however, was a word Jesus’ earliest followers avoided, likely due to prior connotations in their context.
“Theology,” as a label for a form of teaching, had pagan connotations in the early centuries. Three forms of “theology” were commonly recognized by the ancients: mythic, physical, and political. Mythic or poetic theology was storytelling about the gods. Homer and Hesiod were theologians in this sense. Physical or natural theology referred to the gods as personifications of the forces of nature. Civic or public theology, as the Stoics described it from Panaetius of Rhodes onward, was the attribution of divine qualities either to rulers, such as the Caesar, or civic aims, such as “Justice” and “Peace,” in order to solidify a social group. Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo, both of whom cite Varro, are primary sources of testimonia for these views. See Tertullian, ad Nationes 2.1ff and Augustine, City of God 4.24–27; 6.12, etc.
In addition to these three, we might note that Aristotle used the word to designate one of the three branches of speculative philosophy: mathematics, physics, and theology (Metaphysics 6.1). In this sense, theology designated his theory of being qua being asdeveloped in Metaphysics book 12. The Stoics included Aristotle’s usage in their category of “physical theology,” but it probablyshould be counted as a fourth usage.
Rather, their teachings were philosophy—expressions of a love for wisdom adapted to the specifics of human existence.
Frequently, the philosophical self-depiction of early Christians has been taken as nothing more or less than a rhetorical move aimed to leverage socially recognized categories for their own advantage—what today is sometimes called virtue signaling.The depiction of Jesus’ teachings in second to fourth-century Christian literature as a philosophy has long been known, thoughhas rarely entered popular discussions of Jesus. The implicit self-identification of first-century followers is becoming better known. Nonetheless, these facts have not been widely used in the scholarly literature to revisit Jesus’ own teachings. Given this community’s commitment to truthfulness, however, this assumption seems highly questionable to me.See, for instance, Didache 2–3, 5 and Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 14–16 It is much more likely that they believed what they claimed. Of course, acknowledging their sincerity still leaves open the question of the suitability of their self-identification.
But what if their self-description were an accurate translation into the Greco-Roman categories of the import of Jesus’ teachings? Could the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as preserved in the earliest accounts of his life, be fruitfully interpreted through the lens of ancient philosophy? Does his personal teaching fit with such a reading?
03. Jesus and Socrates—What Are Their Philosophies?
Although many have attempted to characterize the core of these teachings, both Jesus and Socrates employed metaphors—related metaphors—to depict what they were doing when they taught. These provide us an insideperspective into what they thought they were doing. Moreover, these may guide us in discerning the relation between their distinctive approaches to human development.
Socrates—Midwife for the Soul
In a dialogue named for the bright youth, Theaetetus, with whom he is conversing, Socrates claims to be amidwife for the soul. Socrates’ mother was a stout, no-nonsense midwife who was successful at helping women bring forth healthy physical children. Socrates, by analogy, was called by “the god” to be a midwife of men’s souls. He noticesthe deep concern or preoccupation that some have for truth as being a “pregnancy of soul” (Theat. 148e). Then, Socratesemploys his method of questioning to either abort the stillborn notions or to successfully birth those that are living and true.
Socrates himself, however, cannot place a seed inside the soul. Rather, he is like Artemis, whom the Greeks considered the patron of childbirth but who was herself childless (149b-c). Socrates characterizes his method this way:
I am sterile in point of wisdom. The reproach which has often been brought against me, that I question others but make no reply myself about anything, because I have no wisdom in myself, is a true reproach. The reason of it is this: God compels me to act as midwife but has never allowed me to beget. I am, then, not at all a wise person myself, nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul. But those who associate with me, although at first some of them seem very ignorant, yet, as our acquaintance advances, all of them to whom God is gracious make wonderfulprogress—not only in their own opinion, but in that of others as well. And it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many beautiful things and have birthed them. But the delivery is due to God and to me. (Theat. 150c-d)Plato, Theaetetus. Sophist. (Translation modified)
Socrates thinks that innate, but indistinct and confused, ideas were already present within the soul of his dialogue partners. Questions, properly applied, enabled these deep, prior acquaintances with reality to emerge as truthful definitions. Or, alternatively, Socrates’ questioning led his partners to realize that they had not yet managed a truthfuldefinition and thus didn’t yet possess real knowledge. In that case, the stillborn or false pregnancy was helpfully expelled.
Moreover, Socrates’ philosophical project depended on revelation—at least negatively so.Socrates is not isolated among the Greek philosophers in his dependence upon revelation. See Jaeger, The Theology of the EarlyGreek Philosophers. His daemon—amessenger spirit whose voice he obeyed as that of the one God—intervened when he was going down the wrong path.Apology 31d, 40a-b. So, Socrates followed revelation in spotting untruth and stripping it away from himself and others. Falsehood, or at least the beginnings of an inner deceit, was indicated to Socrates from above. Obedience to that voice steered him away from lying and from bluster.
Such a pruning of false pretensions was a significant contribution to human life. Both in Socrates’ own day and in subsequent centuries, this capacity to alert people to false claims and relieve them of any inclination to follow them enables them to “make wonderful progress” (150d). Merely removing falsehood (and deflating those who would sell it) must be recognized as a great gift to humanity.
By his own account, however, Socrates never received any positive revelation. God led him into a method of spotting falsehood, but the seed for new life would have to come from elsewhere. Socrates was sterile when it came to introducing the information needed for wisdom—for a life fully transformed.
Jesus—Teaching as the Seed of a New Existence
Jesus also tells us what he is doing when he speaks with people. In fact, he uses a metaphor that is related to Socrates’ metaphor of midwifery. In his parables, Jesus identified his message of the kingdomThis message is also called “the word of God” or simply “the word.” Below we will examine the meaning of “kingdom.” For now,one may consider the “word of the kingdom” as informative descriptions of how God is acting in this world now and how humans can cooperatively interact with God’s actions. as “seed” or “sperm” of a new type of life.
The same words (sperma, spora, and cognate verbs) can be used either in a horticultural context or in a biological context. Ancients did not draw a sharp line between the tiny bits of matter that initiated a plant life and an animal life.We’ll unpack how both senses appear in Jesus’ teaching, but first let’s consider the main point of the metaphor.
Jesus speaks the Father’s word, which is the seed or sperm containing the vital information needed for a new type of human life. In modern parlance, we would say that Jesus’ teaching provides the DNA for a new form of human existence. We might unpack (or should we say, “unfold”?) his claim this way: Jesus offers determinate information that supplies the coordinates for learning what is really there, how we can know it, and what makes for the best kind of human life. These are the three topics every ancient philosophy sought to understand. In other words, the core of Jesus’ philosophy is positively revealed by the Father.
In the parables of the Synoptic GospelsThat is, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. Jesus employs horticultural or plant imagery.Mark 4:1–20, 26–32; Matt 13:3–35; Luke 8:4–15 The “seed” falls onvarious types of soil, which determines its reception and effect. Likewise, Jesus’ message will find varied reception and effect depending on what type of heart it encounters. Here the seed produces a new form of botanical life. Yet the botanicalseed metaphor explicitly refers to the beginnings of a new kind of human life.In Second Temple Jewish thought, a similar metaphor was employed to speak of how YHWH, in calling Israel, planted the Torahto develop a new kind of people. See Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period, 199–206 for discussion and references.
The same words function in metaphorically biological contexts. Jesus, and some of his early followers, speak about God’s word producing of a new type of life. In this context, they use the metaphor of “seed” as that which produces an embryo or the beginnings of a new human body.John 3:1–8; 1 Pet 1:23; 1 John 3:9 By extending the metaphor, evangelizing could be described as a “begetting” or “generating” of a new life.1 Cor 4:15; Phil 10 A person in whom this new form of life had been engendered has been “sired again” or “sired from above.”John 3:1–8; 1 Pet 1:3, 23. The same root word (gennaō) could mean either “to birth” or “to beget, sire”According to Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 344, this verb is used “mostly of the father.” depending on whether the subject is a male or female.Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus in John 3 as meaning “born again.” Commentators often note the ambiguity of the anōthenparticle. It could mean either “again” or “from above.” However, a similar ambiguity resides in the word gennaō. Nicodemus is doubly confused. In the context of John’s Gospel, the one who begets is God the Father and is thus metaphorically masculine. Attentive readers of John’s Gospel will have been alerted at the beginning to this masculine sense of begetting. For the true light gives to believers the right to become children of God. Such are begotten, not from blood nor from the desire of the flesh nor from the choice of a man, but from God. (John 1:12–13)
It’s important to distinguish the notion of “begetting” or “generating” from “being born.” Here is the reason. When we use the common language of “born again,” our imaginations conjure a short, intense period of emergence. Birth typically lasts from a few hours to perhaps a full day. On the other hand, when one speaks of being generated from above, we naturally expect a longer, more involved process of growth and transformation, from initial conception to infancy. Conversion imagined as “being born again” conjures a quick change—perhaps like Saul of Tarsus’ “road to Damascus” experience. Conversion understood as “being generated from above” prepares a person for what might be a year of awkward, searching, incremental morphing into a new life.Of course, neither generation nor birth are the endpoint of the metaphor complex. Once a newly begotten life comes to term, heor she enters the world as an infant and gradually grows to full maturity. The spiritual pregnancy issues in a life that initially requires specially adapted spiritual and moral nutrition to grow (1 Cor 3:1–3; Heb 5:11–14; 1 Pet 2:1–3; see also Odes of Solomon 19).Different forms of nutrition are required for each stage—first milk then meat. For an exposition of this metaphor complex, which isconnected to the metaphor of the word as seed, see Napier, “Finding Words to Nourish.” Jesus is preparing people for the second type of experience.
04. The Relation of Socrates’ and Jesus’ Philosophies
When we understand that Jesus’ teaching begets a new life, it clarifies his relation to Socrates’ philosophy. By his own account, Socrates’ teaching is sterile. He cannot deliver the information (“seed”) that shapes a new life.
Socrates is gifted, however, at identifying when someone is seized by an incoherent and lifeless idea (a stillbirth). Likewise, Socrates sees when someone is posturing and blustering—pretending to know something but lacking any coherent insight. By detailed and prolonged questioning, Socrates can help these types of people abort their false pregnancies. Likewise, Socrates’ questions can help true ideas to reach term and be healthily born into the world.
Jesus’ teachings impregnate with understandings of God’s character and God’s manner of working in the world. The life information he implants guides humans into a life of co-working with God and of deep moral transformation. Information, to be clear, is not just what fills one’s head but what gives form to something (i.e., what in-forms it). Jesus gives us the best information about the most important things in human life.
Moreover, Jesus too seeks understanding rather than mere deference from his students. In a manner like Socrates, Jesus disrupts people’s false understandings and tries to keep them searching for insight into his teachings. Jesus does not want anyone to emptily affirm the truth of something that they have not understood.
The proper relation of Jesus and Socrates, in a human life, is as that of the begetter and the midwife. Jesus’ teaching provides the basic material of life. As that teaching begins to produce a new kind of person, Socrates’ questions help that person dislodge any unhelpful, false preconceptions. They also help her or him to clearly express the truthful insights from Jesus that have been maturing within.
This handmaid relation does justice to both Socrates and Jesus, in the roles to which God called each and which each explicitly claimed for himself. Moreover, it fits with the way that Jesus’ subsequent followers, for the next thousand years or so, made use of Socrates and his philosophical heirs. They used Socrates’ method to articulate and develop Jesus’ teachings—his life-giving information.
Among the second or third generation of Jesus’ early followers, we find some impressive teachers at the church in Alexandria, Egypt. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the late second or early third century, expressed a similar view to the one I am suggesting. Clement was a Greek who converted to Jesus as the culmination of a philosophical journey.He noted the words of Paul, a Jewish follower of Jesus. “The Torah has become our tutor leading us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). Clement then observed that just as the Torah was the child-conductor that led the Jews to Christ, so philosophy was the child-conductor, or steppingstone, that led the Greeks to Christ.Strom. 1.5 et passim.
Whatever one thinks of that as a theological claim, historically it is quite accurate. In the second through the fifthcenturies, throughout Greco-Roman society, the world witnessed a mass conversion of the philosophically trained intelligentsia to Christ. By their own accounts, they turned to Jesus because he effectively answered the questions which the philosophers had been fruitlessly wrestling with for several centuries.Examples of this line of argument and personal testimony may be found in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew; Tatian,Oration to the Greeks; Theophilus, To Autolycus; Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians; Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis;Lactantius, Divine Institutes; Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel; and perhaps most thoroughly, Augustine, On True Religion.
Both intellectually and morally, Jesus brought the new life—planted the seed—that the other philosophers simply could not produce. Socrates knew he could not produce it and, I’m pretty sure, he would have been grateful to Jesus for doing it.
Daniel Napier is the Europe director for Ashrei, a nonprofit aimed at integrating spiritual formation into Christian mission and ministerial training. Since 2018, he and his family have lived in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Their initial focus was ministerial training among those Middle Eastern refugees who were turning to Jesus. Daniel still mentors several Muslim background believers and produces content for translation into Farsi and Arabic. Increasingly, however, Daniel and his wife Karly serve alongside and provide spiritual resources for East European disciples. They run an apprenticeship program, which introduces people to Jesus’ Way, with cohorts in Thessaloniki and Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia. Very recently, they imported a 28,000-volume theological and philosophical library. They are taking their first trembling steps towards founding an Institute for Scripture, Philosophy, and Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Daniel has pursued advanced degrees in the New Testament, the History of Philosophy, and the History of Theology. In 2010, he earned his PhD from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. In Soul Whisperer: Jesus’ Way among the Philosophers (Eugene, OR: Cascade Press, 2023), Daniel focuses on introducing ordinary people to the life-changing teachings and practices of Jesus. He is also the author of En Route to the Confessions: The Roots and Development of Augustine’s Philosophical Anthropology (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 2013).
For the six years prior to launching in Greece, Daniel was a professor of Theology and Scripture at Austin Graduate School of Theology (Austin, Texas). For the six years before that, he lectured in philosophy and theology at the Biblijski Institut in Zagreb, Croatia. He has also served as the preaching minister for congregations in the United States (Texas), Canada, Greece, and California.
Jacques-Louis David, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons