Cynicism is a school of Greek philosophy. It taught that

the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions. (Wikipedia)

Some scholars have suggested that Jesus shows signs of being influenced by Cynicism, such as Burton L. Mack and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar. They say that Jesus was more heavily influenced by Greek ideas than Jewish prophetic traditions. What evidence is there that Jesus was influenced by Cynicism and taught in accordance with it?

Some scholars have also stated that Q, the hypothesised shared source of Matthew and Luke, has strong similarities with Cynicism. What in Q has been identified as Cynic teaching?


6 Answers 6


Your definition of cynicism includes " rejecting all conventional desires for A. wealth, B. power, C. sex, and D. fame."

A. Regarding wealth- His Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills- Proverbs and He miraculously fished a coin out of a fish's mouth. www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A24-27&version=CEV Any possible possession he could need was available to him. But as far as I can tell, he lived with little money, IMHO i. to relate more closely to the poor. ii. gave most of his money away iii. demonstration of His dependence on Father and Holy Spirit

B. Power- Similar to money he had all power one could possibly want, but chose to be a servant as demonstration of His love to us. The name he most frequently used for himself was "Son of Man". https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?qs_version=NASB&quicksearch=+%22son+of+man%22&startnumber=26&begin=47&end=50 This giving up of power culminated in the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. After the cross, He is now seated on His throne & now has all the power in His own right.

C. Sex Although He, Himself lived an entirely celibate life, he made clear sex is a good thing in marriage "and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh." https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%2010&version=NASB The term one flesh has several meanings one of which is making love.

D. Fame There are times when he certainly avoided the spotlight. He was confident & secure enough in His own identity to not seek it. However, considering 2,000 years later, many or most people on the earth since then have heard His name, I would certainly say He is extremely famous.

One other point- Can you clarify your definition of natural? I'm going to take m "living in a way which was natural for humans..." For humans, rebellion, pride & selfishness are natural. The goal is not self sufficiency, but dependency on Father. He had none of these. We don't teach those characteristics to children, but they exhibit them. 1 Corinthians 2:14 on the same site as above.

To summarize, Christ lived not seeking these but was confident His Father would provide them when the appropriate time came.


Cynicism has traditionally been attributed to Antisthenes, a student of Socrates. I'm not very familiar with Antisthenes, but the main current of Socrates' thought was extreme skepticism about all knowledge; the oracle said that there was no one wiser than Socrates, which Socrates, after some initial confusion, took to mean that he was wiser simply because the others didn't realize that they lacked wisdom, whereas he knew that he lacked it. One of the things he got in trouble for was saying that he didn't know whether or not traditional Greek myths such as the ones in Homer were true. This overwhelmingly negative philosophy doesn't seem very consistent with Jesus' conviction that he knew all the answers and that the ultimate truth he revealed was accessible to ordinary people.

Socrates and Antisthenes also considered virtue to be either its own reward or to be justified because it would automatically lead to happiness (defined as pleasure, the satisfaction of desires, and the fulfilment of one's nature). I assume Jesus would have seen virtue as being either rewarded by God's favor after the end of the world, or as being a side issue that would be neither necessary nor sufficient for God's favor.

Other names associated with the Jesus-as-cynic theory are Gerd Theissen and Leif E. Vaage. A 1996 article in the Atlantic by Charlotte Allen has quite a few details about the idea and also on why a lot of people think it's silly.

All I've read by Crossan is Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, which is a popularization. It doesn't assert that Jesus was a Cynic, it just makes a loose analogy. Cynics of this period, 4 centuries after Antisthenes, had a specialized costume, including a double cloak, a type of purse(/wallet/knapsack) and a staff, that made them recognizable stock characters of the period, and they were urbanites. Jesus came from a tiny agricultural hamlet and spent his time tramping around rural areas. Cynics scorned authority, whereas Jesus, and the numerous "false messiahs" of the period, said that they wanted to reimpose God's authority (basileia, usually translated as kingdom but literally meaning "rule" or "power").

Jesus was no doubt familiar with the Cynics, as well as with other groups like the Essenes, and he may very well have been influenced by some of their ideas. But there is no historical record of his having been considered by his contemporaries as being associated with these groups. He did not wear the uniform of a cynic, and so would not have been identified as one. Both the NT and historical sources such as Josephus identify him as being much more recognizable to people of the period as a different and equally well defined type, which was the kind of rabble-rousing preacher who claimed to be the messiah and whom the Romans labeled a bandit (λῃστής, with Robin Hood overtones to their followers and political overtones to everyone).

However, the type of wisdom sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount are the kinds of things you would expect a Cynic to say. Jesus was also similar to the Cynics, and unlike the other messianic preachers of the period, in that his mission consisted in large part of the lifestyle that he demonstrated, which was an assault on traditional family, social, gender, and ethnocentric values. Mark 6:8 has Jesus telling the apostles "that they should take nothing for their journey, except a staff only: no bread, no wallet, no money in their purse, but to wear sandals, and not put on two tunics." This is a command not to wear the stereotyped uniform of a cynic.


Jesus did not engage in expositions of the Law, as the rabbis would. His simple, direct answers plus scorning the pleasures of this world suggest Cynic influence. But emphasis on the dawning of the reign of God is certainly outside the Cynic sphere.

  • Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Why is "emphasis on the dawning of the reign of God is certainly outside the Cynic sphere?" Can you explain that further, please. You can edit that into your original post.
    – user3961
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 21:30

How can one answer this question if one assumes that Jesus is "the creator of the universe," had foreknowledge of being famous in 2000 years, and expected to sit on a heavenly throne? These are beliefs, and can't be demonstrated or disproved. The question was whether Jesus, as a historical figure, in a particular society, at specific time, was influenced by Cynic philosophy. My response is that he need not have been cognizant of Socrates or other Greek philosophers to have been influenced. Jewish colonies extended throughout the ancient Roman world, as did Greek colonies. It was a time of change, probably radical change, as different world-views met and interacted.

Even without John's Hellenist portrait, the other gospels show Jesus describing an ordered and timeless universe. This is very different from Jewish thought of an earlier time, and a lot like Greek ideas. Jesus defines enlightenment as love, again different from Jewish tradition, but not Greek. But he remained rooted in Jewish thought, as his purpose was to lead people towards piety. The gospels also emphasize his end-time thinking, a very Jewish tradition.

Ideas from different tribes and traditions were sensed far and wide as Roman rule solidified. The times were a-changing, and Jesus synthesized these changes in a very meaningful way. Greek thought broke the ground for human advances in politics and science; Jesus and probably many others of his generation synthesized new religious concepts with Greek influences. These included Cynic and Stoic ideas.

Also, I find it disingenuous to claim that Jesus lived in poverty to "be in touch with the poor" and because he'd be richly rewarded after life anyway. Poverty was not Jesus's concern: the lilies do not spin, but are arrayed in beauty. Humans are beautiful in spirit, according to Jesus. Wealth interferes with spirit, given the problem of fitting a camel through the eye of a needle. Jesus was a radical: as he said, he didn't come to mollify. Remember who inherits the earth? A hint: not the 1 percent.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview of what this site is about, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for a thoughtful answer. Can you provide any biblical or scholarly sources to support your answer? See: What makes a good supported answer? Also, answers here generally shouldn't respond to other answers, since this is not a discussion site, but should focus on answering the question asked. I do hope you'll stick around! Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 16:36

It is my understanding that Jesus's teachings, in part, were based on those teachings of the Greek school of Cynicism. The Cynics stressed that Virtue was more important than accumulating wealth. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, seemed to echo this Greek idea in claiming "his poverty, was proof of his pursual of virtue rather than accumulating wealth." That is to say, that Jesus' teachings were derived from Greek schools of Philosophy, circa 400 BC through 33 AD.

A famous New Testament scenario has a wealthy young Jew asking Jesus "what he can do to improve himself" and Jesus tells him, "give all your wealth away and be like me." The wealthy man turns away upon hearing this.

Jesus is portrayed as being poor, having no place to rest his head. Jesus' message of pursuing righteousness, or virtue, instead of the accumulation of wealth is not a Jewish concept, it appears to be Hellenistic Greek (Socratic and Cynic). By contrast the Old Testament teaches that material wealth is a sign of God's blessings bestowed upon his followers, whereas poverty is a sign of God's displeasure. Christianity arose in a Hellenistic World, and it is understandable that it assimilated Hellenistic Greek notions about the importance of virtue over material wealth.

The Old Testament teaches that God will not allow a righteous man be overcome by his enemies, the righteous will destroy his enemies! Just the opposite is taught by Christianity: Allow evil men to accomplish your death (like Jesus did), remain loyal to God, and to virtue, your reward from God, will be after death, in a resurrection of the dead. In the Old Testament the Righteous achieve victory over their enemies in their lifetimes, not after their deaths.

All this is to say, for me, the New Testament teachings of Jesus are from Greek schools of Philosophy and are opposed to Old Testament teachings.

I found the following work to be very influential in shaping my understanding that Jesus had accepted Cynic teachings: F. Gerald Downing. Cynics and Christian Origins. T & T Clark, Edinburgh. 1992. pp. 377.


There's no evidence in the scriptures to suggest why Jesus, being a devout student of the law as well as the Creator of the Universe (see below or Collossians 1:13–20) would for any reason follow a philosophy created by sinful man. Who, being sinful, at their best are still above all self-centered probably a lot like the pharisees of Christ's day. The 6th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew details several examples of how Jesus called the people who lived seemingly righteous and selfless lives were doing so to be esteemed by society.

¹³"Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: ¹⁴In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:

¹⁵Who is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of every creature:
¹⁶For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth,
visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:
¹⁶And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
¹⁸And he is the head of the body, the church:
who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead;
that in all things he might have the preeminence.
¹⁹For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;
²⁰And, having made peace through the blood of his cross,
by him to reconcile all things unto himself;
by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven." Collossians 1:13–20

Now as so far as "Q" is concerned I have nothing for you. I don't put a lot of thought into claims like that as they are mostly human claims to discredit the Word of God. Hope this helped some. God bless.

  • Why do you think the idea of Q discredits the Bible? It's a very good theory, and if anything confirms what Luke wrote when he said he did a lot of research to write his gospel.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 21:00
  • I don't specifically thing the idea of Q discredits the bible. But rather man claiming the Writers of the Scriptures were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Like I said in my answer I don't know anything about the Q idea and I simply don't put a lot of thought into those things. I do however appreciate the comment as my answer might have been misleading to a degree. So thanks!
    – Tyler
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 21:12

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