Did Jesus Teach Stoic Philosophy?

Stoic philosophy was well established in Jesus’ time and much of what he taught reflects stoic thought. So, did Jesus teach stoic philosophy?

Jun 9, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality



The origins of Stoic philosophy can be traced back to Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. The word “Stoic” comes from the Stoa of Attalos, where the philosophy developed. Although Stoicism was originally a Hellenistic philosophy, four of the most notable Stoics were all Romans: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Musonius Rufus.


Stoicism, also known as the art of letting go, resonated with people from all walks of society. Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor, while Epictetus was born a slave — but both subscribed to, benefitted from, and promoted Stoic philosophy.


What is Stoic Philosophy?

stoa of attalos athens agora
The Stoa of Attalos in Athens, Greece, by Ian W. Scott, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Stoicism teaches that we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. We should focus on what we can control rather than what we cannot. This philosophical system recognizes four virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Courage refers to fortitude, strength, and endurance. Temperance refers to self-control, discipline, moderation, and abstinence. Justice speaks to honesty and fairness. Wisdom is the enduring search for knowledge and its application to real-life situations.


Stoicism teaches that things can and will go wrong in life, but this presents us with an opportunity to utilize one or more virtues to overcome whatever obstacle is in the way. It boils down to an attitude toward challenges, such as seeing how circumstances allow for growth and personal development. It is a philosophy of action rather than words. In this vein, Epictetus wrote: “Waste no more time talking about what a good man is like. Be one!”

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zeno of citium stoic philosophy
Herma of Zeno of Citium, Cast from the original, photo by Shakko, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Stoics believed their practitioners could achieve eudaimonia (happiness, welfare, good spirit) by practicing the virtues. Wealth, to them, did not lie in material possessions but rather in developing a rich spirit and character. They, therefore, devalued material things that could be lost or taken away in favor of that which could not.


Stoics believed that a system of logic governs the universe. They referred to that system as the logos, from where we derive the word “logic.” Logos, to them, is a god-like entity, the universal force of reason. This entity was also called divine reason, the spirit of the universe, destiny, the gods, or nature, among other names.


It is important to note that Stoicism (capital “S”) refers to the philosophy of the Stoics while stoicism refers to an attitude of indifference to pain or not showing emotions nor complaining when enduring hardship or suffering.


John 1:1, speaking about Jesus (see verse 14), reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Considering that “Word” is a translation of the Greek word logos, the similarity to Stoicism is significant. It is therefore not surprising that many of Jesus’ teachings reflect Stoic thinking.


Stoicism in Jesus’ Words?

seneca stoic philosophy
Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung Berlin, photo by Calidus, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Many scholars and philosophers have identified Stoic principles in what Jesus said and how he reacted to situations, which has led to the question of whether Jesus subscribed to Stoic philosophy. Here are some similarities between what Jesus said and what Stoicism teaches:


Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “Do for others as you would like them to do to you” are remarkably like Seneca’s “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters” (Letter XLVII: On Master and Slave, line 11) and conveys the same wisdom.


Matthew 5:5 reads: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The meekness Jesus refers to should not be interpreted as weakness. The essence of the original Greek word praos, which is translated as meek in most Bibles, cannot be captured in any one word in English. It depicts a powerful personality that is under control. Self-control is central to Stoic philosophy which teaches there is great reward in practicing it.


The idea of self-examination also features prominently among the Stoics and in Jesus’ teachings. He said: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Seeking to change oneself is within your control but trying to fix the faults of another are not, and Jesus promoted the idea of looking at oneself, rather than others, to correct that which may need work.


Jesus taught: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39). The same principle can be identified in Seneca’s words: “If you want to be loved, love.” (Epistulae Morales 9) and “Take care not to harm others, so others won’t harm you.” (Epistulae Morale 103).


epictetus stoic philosophy
Detail of the of the philosopher Epictetus, engraved by Theodoor Galle from a design by Peter Paul Rubens, 1605, Source: Wikimedia Commons


When it comes to material things, Jesus taught: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” This idea is remarkably like Marcus Aurelius’ view that very little is needed to be happy and that possessions detract from what is important in life.


Jesus accepted and embraced His fate in the garden of Gethsemane when He said: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42) and later, on the cross, He forgave those who caused his suffering when he uttered: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). These words would resonate with any Stoic for they embody the idea of acceptance of adverse circumstances and of practicing self-control in response to them.


Stoicism in the Epistles

christ on the cross
The Crucifixion, by Martín Gómez the Elder, (1500–1562), Source: The Web Gallery of Art


Jesus’ followers also subscribed to principles that align with Stoicism. Paul, a highly educated follower of Jesus and the contributor of the largest portion of the New Testament wrote many letters that reflect stoic principles. He writes to the Romans, incorporating elements of stoic thought, when he declares: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3). Any of the ancient Stoics would applaud Paul’s words when he says: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).


The author of Hebrews 12:11 speaks to the benefit of discipline, writing: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” His message resonates with Musonius Rufus, who wrote: “If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.”


James, the author of one of the general epistles, wrote: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The passage reflects the Stoic idea that adversity creates opportunities for character development.


How Do Jesus’ Teachings Differ From Stoic Philosophy?

the thinker rodin
The Thinker, by Rodin, 1904, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The writings of some Stoics seem to display pantheistic tendencies and the belief that the universe or nature embodies God. Assigning a specific view to all ancient Stoics would be impossible due to the diverse beliefs they held. The divine in Stoic philosophy is indifferent to people’s suffering and struggles. Christians, on the other hand, believe in a personal God who is interested in and invested in the lives of all people. He is aware of their suffering, struggles, and needs. He wants to get involved in their spiritual development and well-being. Christians can petition God in prayer whenever they desire to, and they have assurance that their prayers are heard and answered.


Stoics aim to live in harmony with the logos (nature, god) but do not believe that the divine being, whatever form it takes, saves them. In Christianity, God is the savior of his people. Jesus taught: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 


Stoic philosophy teaches its proponents to focus on the now, not what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. It seldom refers to anything resembling an afterlife and never goes into much detail about it. In Christianity, much is said about the afterlife and its rewards. It is a central theme and presents the hope that allows the believer to endure in the present. That said, the Bible teaches something like Stoic philosophy, stating: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). However, this statement does not negate the faith believers have that eternal life after death transcends their immediate wants.


Jesus and Stoic Philosophy

marcus aurelius stoic philosophy
Portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Roman artwork of the Antonine period, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Source: Wikimedia Commons


There are many ways in which the teachings of Jesus align with Stoic philosophy. Many of Jesus’ sayings and those of his apostles resonate with Stoic principles.


Stoic philosophy and Christianity differ on some core beliefs about the higher being, salvation, and the afterlife, among other things. Stoics believed in an impersonal and sometimes pantheistic god, while Christianity teaches that there is a personal God who is very much involved in the lives of the saints.


It would not do justice to either Christianity or Stoicism to say Jesus was a Stoic. It would be more accurate to say that Stoic philosophy and Christian principles overlap when not addressing the divine being or matters of salvation.

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By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.