Stoicism and Christianity: Professor Joseph Dodson on Similarities & Differences

Last Christmas we wrote about the overlap between Seneca and Jesus—how both of them were born the same year and how many of their teachings are similar in nature. Many of you emailed and asked to learn more about the connections between Christianity and Stoicism, and we reached out to Joseph Dodson, an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Ouachita Baptist School. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen and has written multiple volumes of work on the connections between Seneca and Paul.

He is a Stoic and Christian scholar and one of the best person to discuss both topics. We asked him about the differences and similarities between Christianity and Stoicism, can one be both, his favorite exercises from Stoicism and much more. Enjoy our interview with Professor Joseph Dodson below!

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You have a B.A in Biblical Studies and now you are an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies. Can you tell us more about this path? How did you decide to make this your lifelong pursuit? 

As an undergrad, I became fascinated with Jesus, Socrates, Plato, and Paul. I knew that I was approaching my niche when I learned that the New Testament presents Paul as a new Socrates in Acts 17, where the apostle stood trial at the Areopagus and even convinced some of the philosophers there to became followers of Christ. My post-grad work at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Tübingen got closer to the center as I focused on the entanglement of Second Temple Judaism, Early Christianity, and Greco-Roman Philosophy.

The more I studied one of these areas, the more light it shed on the other—so that after a decade now of research I’m just as enthusiastic about this intersection than when I first began. Since I’m a prof at a Christian liberal arts university, I constantly use Stoic literature as a comparison with the New Testament to help students discover areas of convergence and divergence between the two, so as to understand their own Christian tradition better and appreciate the philosophical background surrounding it all the more.

When did you first encounter Stoicism? Was it part of your academic work? What was your initial impression? 

Aside from the occasional citation or passing quote, my first proper encounter with Stoicism happened during my doctoral work. I was chasing down a parallel with a passage in The Wisdom of Solomon (a Jewish book written in Alexandria with substantial Stoic influence). The cross-reference that concerned me was from Seneca’s De Ira. I popped over to the Queen Mother’s Library, climbed the stairs, found the aisle, and grabbed the red volume from the stacks. Flipping over to the appropriate passage, my aim was simply to scan that particular parallel and move on to the next one. But I became enraptured with Seneca’s work—especially with how many of his thoughts regarding overcoming fleshly passions seemed to resonate with certain notions in Paul’s letters. I ended up spending the entire day devouring as much of the Stoic’s essays and epistles as I could. As the librarian shooed me out the door at closing time, I realized I had finally found my sweet spot—comparing Seneca and Paul.

You have published a number of academic volumes, journal articles, and essays such as Paul and Seneca in Dialogue; “The Fall of Men and the Lust of Women in Seneca’s Epistle 95 and Paul’s Letter to the Romans”; and “The Transcendence of Death and Heavenly Ascent in the Apocalyptic Paul and the Stoics.” Can you tell us more about the relationship between Paul and Seneca, and why have you explored it in-depth?  

For centuries, scholars have found value in comparing Pauline concepts with Stoic thought in general and with Seneca’s writings in particular. (For a survey of this, see Harry M. Hine’s brilliant essay, “Seneca and Paul: The First Two Thousand Years”). This attraction is unsurprising when you consider the striking similarities of Seneca’s philosophy with Paul’s theology. I’d argue that no other non-Christian writer in the first century resembles Paul’s thought as closely as Seneca’s.

For example, in On the Good Life and in Galatians, both Seneca and Paul use the scandalous figure of the cross in response to their detractors and in relation to their own fleshly passions. They are the only two first-century writers who depict themselves as having been nailed (metaphorically) to a cross. In an astonishing twist, they also both portray themselves as having been crucified with prominent others—Zeno and the giants of philosophy on the one hand and Christ and fellow believers on the other. But whereas Seneca draws upon the cross to admit his moral defeat in his present situation, Paul does so to declare Christ’s victory over his former plight under sin. Their respective uses of the crucifixion metaphor demonstrates how sure Paul’s confidence of overcoming the flesh is compared to Seneca’s sober aspiration for moral progress.

Another example is their accounts of humanity’s decline in Epistle 95 and Romans 1. In their exposés of society’s condition, both Seneca and Paul highlight the crisis by addressing women’s “unnatural” sexual acts first and then speaking against men’s homosexual activity later (likely focused on orgies, pederasty and prostitution). What’s striking is that they mention the “perverse” activity as illustrations of their larger arguments—both meant to critique the power of their own traditions’ principles and laws. (i.e. Stoic precepts are insufficient to rescue us from deep-seated depravity, and the Jewish Law is impotent for helping us attain God’s righteousness, respectively.)

Also, in their stories of humanity’s descent into vice, Seneca and Paul both argue that the “unnatural” sexual acts of women resulted when men abandoned the divine design. More specifically, Seneca points to the “unnatural” acts of their women as the repercussions of men going beyond nature, but the apostle attributes the females’ sexual perversion as a consequence of men worshiping creation. Nevertheless, both authors consider the perpetrators as having received their just deserts. At the “aberrant” acts, Seneca blurts: “may the gods and goddesses damn them!” Nevertheless, the Stoic considers the resulting diseases that they contracted as already demonstrating natural justice. In comparison, Paul claims that the “deviants” were already under God’s wrath and had received in their own person the due penalty of their sins: sin itself. (This is similar to Seneca’s line: “The first and worst penalty for sin is to have committed sin.”). I could keep going, but this may already be more than your readers want to know.

Is there a particular Bible verse or Christian exercise that overlaps well with Stoicism

A large number of Bible verses overlap with Stoicism—at least on the surface. This may not be the best example, but I’ll give you the first one that comes to mind. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Taken out of context, this passage really seems to smack of comments from the Stoics. Compare Seneca, for example. “It is the attitude [not the circumstance] that must be appraised: we must investigate whether the rich man can be content if he falls into poverty and whether the poor man can be content if he falls into riches.”

There are a lot of points of difference between Stoicism and Christianity—from the belief in the afterlife to Christ embodying the logos. But what would you say are the main points of similarity between the two? What are the main points of overlap? 

You’re right, there are a lot of differences between Stoic philosophy and Christian theology. I imagine most Stoics are mystified at the Christian conviction that the God of Israel, the creator of the universe, broke into history by sending his only son—a homeless, first-century rabbi no less— to be crucified for the forgiveness of humanity’s sin in order to rescue them from this present evil age. It seemed to stump the philosophers in Paul’s day too. Hence, his words to the Corinthian church:

“Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

With such apparent “foolishness” and drastic dissimilarities, it’s surprising how many points still seem to resonate between the two traditions. But there’s enough to have inspired scholars to publish volumes on the subject (not to mention enough to spark the legend that Seneca and Paul wrote letters to one another back in the day).

As far as main similarities, those of enduring in hardships, trusting in divine providence, and ridding oneself of fleshly passions likely spring to mind for most people (and rightly so!). But, I’ll comment on a few others: the importance of contentment, the call to mutual affection, and the focus on imitating others.

You can see from the passage I cited from Paul in the previous question that Christianity places a priority on contentment. What Jesus says in Matthew 6 lines up with this.

“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . . For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Similarly, the author of Hebrews commands Christians:

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

This notion coheres with the Stoics’ focus on contentment. For example, Seneca bewails that the problem with people is that their souls have become slaves to greed. Consequently, “they are discontent with the good things that God, the Father of us all, placed immediately at our hands.” Therefore the Stoic encourages his readers: “reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.” For by the soul, Seneca reasons: “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us.” So, as you can see, both traditions encourage their followers to be content based on the provision and presence of God.

The importance of mutual affection is also a topic they both have in common. For the Christian, all the laws of Scripture are summed up in one command: “love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Jesus, “by this all people will know that you are my disciples: that you love one another.” This corresponds with what Seneca writes in his epistles. According to the Stoic, people are naturally born to love all people. They exist as “parts of one great body,” stones making up an arch, which without shared support is doomed to collapse. Therefore, “no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone . . . you must live for your friend, if you would live for yourself.”

One last important topic in both traditions that I’ll mention here is imitation. In the New Testament, believers are called to imitate God, Christ, and their leaders (especially in relation to how they endure hardships). For example, at one place, Paul writes: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” and at another:

“Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love,  just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering  and sacrifice to God.”

Of course, imitation is also a major theme in Stoicism. For Seneca, the most sufficient way to worship God is to imitate him. Moreover, according to the Stoic, since “we can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong,” we should set our thoughts on a person who can make us better – “not only while that person is in our company, but even when that person is merely in our thoughts.” Seneca encourages his reader:

“Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or pattern. For we must have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.”

According to the Stoic, as you imitate someone worthy of imitation, your life in turn becomes worthy to be imitated as well.

Do you think that the two are compatible? Can someone be both?

This is a perennial question, and the answer depends on whom you ask. In his recent book, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, Duke professor, Kavin Rowe gives a resounding “No.” Rowe’s not the first Christian to answer this way. At least as far back as the apologist Tertullian, some Christians found no concord between the Porch and the Church. In fact, Tertullian lambasted those who tried. He exclaimed: “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic composition!”

These other (“mottled”) Christians, however, considered all truth as God’s truth and therefore inferred that wisdom can be found in other traditions as well. For example, Clement of Alexandria argued that just as rain falls on the ground from heaven, so also, with philosophy, wisdom came down from God to humanity in general. According to these early believers, however, Christian teaching was the philosophy that synthesized and systematized what was scattered and dispersed in the other traditions. Nevertheless, what those possessed only in portion, the Christians considered themselves to possess in full: the divine Logos itself, which—as you mentioned above— was incarnated in Jesus Christ. Origen even went so far as to assign the apt parts from Greco-Roman philosophy as preparatory studies for young Christians.

This latter concept is similar to Seneca’s idea that wisdom could be discovered in all philosophical schools (even the Stoics’ nemeses, the Epicureans!). Seneca contends that all wisdom is everyone’s wisdom and, therefore, lays personal claim to any noble saying or poignant notion—no matter the source. He even jokes of his habit of going behind enemy lines to pilfer fruit from their garden and to bring back stolen booty from their camps. Nevertheless, Seneca considers writings of other philosophical traditions to pale in comparison to Stoic philosophy: the former may trickle truth but the Stoics’ pour it out. Other schools only offer “display-window goods,” so that if the shoppers enter the store, they will just find the sample in the window. It’s okay, then, for Stoics to “window-shop” in other stores, so long as they coopt the truth for Stoicism.

As for me, I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that Christianity has emphatically more to offer than “display window goods.” But I do follow along the lines of Clement and Seneca in thinking that wisdom can be found in other traditions as well. I admit I’m skeptical that one can be both a Stoic and a Christian, if one takes their core beliefs seriously. (In fact, if we do take them seriously, we’d probably try to persuade the other to commit to our way of life and tradition instead—just as Paul did in Acts 17.) I can say with confidence, however, that God has used what I’ve found in Stoicism to make me a better Christian.

Do you have a favorite Stoic exercise or quote? And what would be the one or two Biblical quotes you think of daily? 

Since I struggle with contentment, the Stoic exercise of negative visualization is one of my favorites to help me fight against discontentment. As one part of this exercise, I imagine and expect the worst-case scenario, so that I am either pleasantly surprised at or mentally prepared for the result. (To be honest, it also helps me cope as a sports fan!) A couple of related quotes: “Enough is never too little,” and “Although you may not have all that you wished for, you likely have exceedingly more than you deserve.”

Regarding Scripture, one of my favorite passages I often meditate on is from Romans 6:

“Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”

What are some of your works for anyone interested in reading more about the intersection of Christianity and Stoicism or Paul and Seneca?

Thanks for asking. These are a bit scholarly, but here’s a list of some of my works on the subject…

“The Transcendence of Death and Heavenly Ascent in the Apocalyptic Paul and the Stoics” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination. Edited by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).

Paul and Seneca in Dialogue. Edited with David E. Briones. (Ancient Philosophy and Religion 2; Leiden: Brill, 2017).

  “The Fall of Men and the Lust of Women in Seneca’s Epistle 95 and Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Novum Testamentum 59.4 (2017), 355-365.

“Elements of Apocalyptic Eschatology in Seneca and Paul” in Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition. Co-edited with Andrew Pitts. LSNTS (London: Continuum, 2017), 33-54.

“New Friends and Old Rivals: The Letters of Seneca and the Epistle of Diognetus” Perspectives in Religious Studies (forthcoming 2018).

“Ethical Exhortations in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Writings of Seneca” in Studies in Hebrews. Edited by David Moffitt and Eric Mason (WUNT II: Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming 2018).

Again, I really appreciate the opportunity to share. Thank you for the opportunity. I hope the interview will be informative and encouraging to the Daily Stoic audience.

You can follow Professor Dodson on Twitter