St. Paul on Stoicism: From the Acts of the Apostles

St. Paul speaking to Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens around 50AD, quotes from “The Phaenomena” by the Stoic philosopher-poet Aratus.

Some scholars find many traces of Stoicism in the New Testament, particularly in the teachings of the Apostle Paul. One even concludes: “Paul was a crypto-Stoic” (Engberg-Perderson, in Strange & Zupko, 2009).

Paul was deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy, if not directly by Seneca. He borrowed the notions of indifferent things, of what is properly one’s own (oikeiosis), the ideal of freedom from passion, and the paradoxical notion of freedom through slavery, fairly directly from the Stoics. The affinities between Stoicism and Christianity thus ran fairly deep and were ripe for further exploitation by later Christian thinkers.

Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire

In the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 17, the author, traditionally presumed to be Luke the Evangelist, describes St. Paul’s arrival in Athens around 50 AD.  Paul engages in discussion with certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus, or high court, delivering a famous Christian sermon.  The well-known 5-6th century Neoplatonic Christian mystic and philosopher Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite is named after one of the individuals described here as becoming a follower of Paul at Athens, with whom he was originally confused.  Paul favourably quotes lines from two unnamed Greek poems in his sermon.  Scholars have identified the first as coming from the Cretica of the pre-Socratic philosopher-poet Epimenides (fl. 7th or 6th century BC), which forms part of the verse:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being. [the line quoted by St. Paul]

The second has been identified as coming from the Phaenomena of the philosopher-poet Aratus (315/310 – 240 BC), a student of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring… [the line quoted by St. Paul]

The Text from Acts 17

Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.  A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.  Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”  (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ [Epimenides].  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’ [Aratus].

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  At that, Paul left the Council.  Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

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17 replies on “St. Paul on Stoicism: From the Acts of the Apostles”

Cool article, just two minor corrections. Under “The Text from Acts 17” you have “Athensand” which I think should be “Athens and.” At the end of the next paragraph you have “Atheniansand.”

Paul does appear to borrow concepts from the Stoic ideals when writing Philippians. However, the difference between the self sufficient Paul and the self sufficient stoic is vast. Paul is dependent on faith and the filling of the Holy Spirit, the Stoic of that time is completely dependent on the self.

There is no ancient concept of “self.” Stoicism viewed itself as independent on a particular view of the human “soul” or psyche, namely the Intellect as the guiding, determining faculty over and against the passions that led to unhappiness. In the nomos (Law) and phusis (Nature) debate the Stoics sided on Nature over and against Law (conclusion here, arguments would take too long) such that they viewed the human as independent of the polis (city). There was a transcendent Justice, a particular Justice, but no embodied Justice in a polis. Thus they’re the proto-type to 16thc.-today’s Liberal individualism.

Charles Taylor has a book on this called “Sources of The Self: Making of Modern Identity”

I have 11 yrs university education, leading to 4 degrees (2 in law), and have taught 10+ university courses, plus for 2 yrs taught in public secondary school. I say all this because I am ashamed to admit just how ignorant I have been, till recently, of the truly great themes and ideas esposed by the Stoics. Wow, incredible stuff! Epictetus, Aurelius, somewhat Plutarch & Seneca. Goodness, these guys were brilliant.

So, the NT is a Stoic influenced Pauline document. So much for being inspired by God. Another demonic notion that crawled its way out of Stoicism was ” freedom through slavery”. That Paul taught that slaves should submit to their earthly masters still has descendants of African enslaved people reeling while descendants of slave masters are still enjoying their freedom through slavery. #WDDWM #fearofablackmessiah #CRT

[…] that does not detract from the great wisdom of this ancient Greco-Roman thought, some of which was even praised within the pages of the New Testament. A new edition of Gateway to The Stoics — a compilation of writings from Marcus Aurelius, […]

[…] that does not detract from the great wisdom of this ancient Greco-Roman thought, some of which was even praised within the pages of the New Testament. A new edition of Gateway to The Stoics — a compilation of writings from Marcus Aurelius, […]

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