As the series on Jesus of Nazareth continues, we examine the most philosophical version of Jesus. Of the three characterizations outlined by Adele Reinhartz, this one is probably the most controversial. The lead scholar supporting this view is John Dominic Crossan, one of the leaders of the infamous Jesus Seminar.
Jesus' place of origin in Nazareth/Galilee was a bit more exposed to Greek culture due to its location(a quick search reveals this useful, yet small map). As a result of this confluence of cultural activity in Jesus' life, scholars like Crossan decided to investigate whether Jesus' teaching innovations might have been influenced by one of the Greek philosophies of the first century.
In comparing these schools of philosophy against Jesus' teaching, these scholars found that Jesus' teaching lines up very well with the philosophical school called Cynicism. This is not "cynicism" the way we think of it, but a particular type of philosophy that had been around five hundred years before Jesus and stuck around another five hundred after him.
For proof of the similarities between Jesus' teaching and Cynicism, check out Wikipedia's description of the philosophy: "[The Cynics'] philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a life free from all possessions... They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society." Jesus taught people to sell their possessions and to see worldly wealth as inconsequential. He criticized those who put faith in wealth, power, and "worthless customs and conventions." Further, Cynics were known for wandering from town to town teaching their beliefs to anyone who would listen. So it's not hard to see how scholars like Crossan can see a Cynic in Jesus.
Jesus doesn't fit perfectly well into the Cynic school of thought, though, since he called people to communal living, whereas the Cynics preferred isolation (for example, see the above image of the Cynic Diogenes living in a washtub). Further, since Cynicism was a Greek philosophy school, a normal Cynic would have believed in the Greek or Roman gods instead of the Jewish God Jesus spoke about. As a result, the scholars who conceptualize Jesus as a Cynic tend to solve these inconsistencies by noting that he was a Jewish Cynic. As a student of both Cynicism and Judaism, Jesus combined the wisdom he found in both "schools" to create his teaching, which ended up being a more communal version of Cynicism intimately connected with worship of the Jewish God.
What do you think of the Cynic Jesus? Does he resemble the way you understand Jesus? Before you say "no," think of some of the ways Jesus is similar to a Cynic. If you're like me, you probably hadn't heard of Cynicism before. However, maybe you think of Jesus as blending Judaism with other kinds of wisdom (since he does actually critique Jewish practices). If so, the Cynic Jesus could make sense to you. Also, if you think of Jesus as a wandering teacher, teaching others to give up their faith in wealth and empty religion, you have a lot in common with those who conceptualize him as a Cynic. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned for Part 4 - Prophet Jesus.