Jesus the Cynic, part 1

In recent years, archaeological digs in Galilee have caused scholars to rethink Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. While it is still considered a backwater, it was only four miles away from Sepphoris, an important cultural center. Also, the entire region would have been fairly Hellenized after Alexander the Greek conquered Palestine in the Fourth Century, BCE.

After Alexander died his kingdom was divided in two. The Ptolemies received Egypt and most of the southern territories, and the Seleucids received Babylonia and most of the North. Both of these kingdoms were Greek (Hellenistic). In the middle—Galilee, the Jewish people were allowed to rule themselves, but the Hasmonean dynasty was very devoted to Hellenistic culture as well.

All this is to say that Jesus grew up in a very Greco-Roman world, one that was culturally, politically and philosophically sophisticated. Nazareth is often derided as a backwater, a place where no-goodniks prospered (John 1.46). While this may have been true of Nazareth, the area of Galilee itself was home to some very important Greco-Roman cultural centers, especially Sepphoris. The dominant Jewish culture of the Galilee was infused with Greco-Roman art and entertainment. Recently, archaeologists uncovered an amphitheater in Sepphoris, so it is very likely Jesus saw plays and “historical” reenactments as a youth. He would have seen—and been influenced by—Greek philosophers. The possibility he at least understood the Greek language is high. He may not have been able to speak it, but if he did go to see entertainment and do business for his father in Sepphoris, both of which are highly probable, then he at least understood some Greek.

Why do we care? Because there was an influential Greek school of philosophy called cynicism. The Cynics believed that the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. This meant that our natural state was to use our gift of reason and reject wealth, power, fame, etc. Cynics were to lead simple lives, free of all possessions. They gave away their fortunes to preach on the streets of Rome, living—like the Buddhists before them (and Jesus after them), from the generosity of passers-by. The Cynics were a counter-cultural movement that offered people happiness and freedom from suffering.

By now, this should sound very familiar. These ideas made their way into First Century CE Judaism, and are echoed in the teachings of Jesus and the Christianity that was developed by Paul. Was Jesus a Cynical philosopher? Well, like the rest of the Jewish culture of his time, he was probably heavily influenced by their ideas. The Cynics were not fans of the Roman Empire, and like Jesus, they urged people to resist the trappings of the Empire not through violence, but through peaceful non-compliance.

It’s so hard to be non-compliant though, isn’t it? While our technology has changed, our lifestyle is strikingly similar to that of ancient Rome. We are kept fat and happy by a false sense of abundance. The idea that buying more stuff (and more often) will make us happier is pounded into our heads, an idea both Jesus and the Cynics tell us is a fool’s game. We are hypnotized by entertainment and fed propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum. The truth is more relative today than it was in the First Century, and lies are more pervasive and more difficult to discern.

That’s why it’s so important to see Jesus as more than an idol, more than a supernatural being, more than simply the “son of God” (which in his era was a politicalnot a theological statement). In fact, in his time, calling Jesus “son of God” was the ultimate form of non-compliance. Jesus teaches us that non-compliance with the empire is possible, but unlike the cynics, it takes more than pure reason—it takes God. Where Jesus and the Cynics part company is in their interpretation of how we resist the empire. For the Cynics, it was pure reason. For Jesus, it was a combination of reason and relationship with God—and reason could (and he would likely say should) bring about relationship with God.

It’s become unfashionable to talk about God, and I understand the multitude of reasons that’s happened. But if we can start to understand God as a presence within, rather than a being somewhere “out there,” we can begin to understand what Jesus was trying to teach us, and how to change the world by embracing completely alternative economic, political, social, and agricultural systems. Like the Cynics so long ago, we too should be working to create systems based on virtue, which comes from spiritual growth, and which are sustainable because they are simply reasonable.

Meditation: Free me from the shackles of Global Empire, so I might free others from the chains that bind.

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