jesus the cynic?

It’s interesting to view Jesus scholarship over the last 50 years. Most of it seems to reflect more on the political climate of the era it was written rather than on the actual historical Jesus, i.e. by turning Jesus into “Jesus the Revolutionary”, “Jesus the Mystic”, “Jesus the Philosopher”,etc.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Arguably I make it when I refer to Jesus as a “populist” figure of the time (I don’t mean that as a compliment. I mean that in its most literal sense: Jesus was addressing working class problems in a religious/political context.) It’s very difficult to separate our biases from the subject being analyzed, especially one as controversial as the historicity of Jesus.

I think there’s a (growing) minority consensus that Jesus took some influence from the Cynics. Some quack scholars might even say he was an outright Cynic.

I think this is an interesting question. In my view, the majority of mainstream scholars, both Christian and secular, wish to paint Jesus as a figure that almost emerged from a vacuum. It makes sense actually. All of the earliest, independently attested documents (The hypothetical Q…which survives almost in its entirety between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke…the epistles of Paul, Gospel of Mark, and Josephus) make no mention of Jesus’s origins (Q and Mark both start with the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist). So an attempt to say anything about Jesus’s influences, other than that of John the Baptist, would be pure conjecture. But there are some interesting parallels between Jesus and the Cynics: Mark 6:8, the location of Nazareth and its proximity to an apparent hotbed of Cynicism, Jesus’s confrontational style and eschewing of fame and fortune, embracing of poverty, etc. etc.

But read the Cynic texts. To the Cynics, Diogenes was their “Christ figure”. They all tried to emulate him. And to be honest, he was a disgusting asshole. While Diogenes definitely had his influence, I doubt he would have accumulated very many personal followers. I mean, many might have tried to ACT like him, but there’s no way anyone could have spent more than 10 minutes around him. Jesus, meanwhile, was probably trying to do something entirely different and would have certainly disapproved of things like…I dunno…MASTURBATING and SHITTING in public.

In my humble view, the Cynic modus operandi was likely something that was in the air at the time which some itinerant and apocalyptic preachers might have adopted. But just because that aesthetic was in vogue at the moment doesn’t mean that they were practicing Cynics.

While it’s fun to speculate, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one: Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish preacher preaching to a mostly Jewish audience.

was Jesus an ascetic?

I don’t know man, I wasn’t there.

I’ll say this though: Jesus at least dabbled in asceticism. Any hard evidence for this? No. And none will ever turn up. BUT the two earliest accounts of Jesus’s life, the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical “Q source” (which survives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew) mention Jesus turning to the wilderness after his baptism from John the Baptist.

John the Baptist’s existence can be independently confirmed by Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. This is partly why it is universally agreed upon that the baptism of Jesus by John is a real historical event. The other reason why historians believe this is due to the criterion of embarrassment, which simply means that Jesus’s associations with John the Baptist would have been well known enough that it had to of been accounted for by early Christian writers, despite Jesus’s superiority to John.

It’s difficult to establish any degree of certainty from this period. Was John the Baptist an ascetic? It certainly appears that he had those tendencies from the surviving texts. It’s has even been suggested that he was an Essene, a “semi-ascetic” Jewish sect from the first century. Could Jesus have been a follower of John? We know that they met at least once, and the Gospels (whatever their historical worth) say that Jesus immediately did something ascetic-like after that meeting.

I like questions like these because it helps contextualize this era. I personally think that Jesus did ascetic-like things and might’ve ran with a few ascetic groups. But I don’t think he thought of himself ascetic or even monastic. Like I said, the historical information contained in the Gospels are dubious and hard facts will likely never appear, but I think it’s important to look at the language of the Gospels.

Mark and the “Q” source (or possible sources) seem to address a rural audience, meaning that Jesus likely focused his mission on the poor or “working class”. There are obvious problems with this assumption, the main one being that the entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek while the poor in Galilee and Judea, including Jesus, spoke Aramaic (plus the Gospels are written 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus). How much of Jesus’s message was changed between his death and the written accounts is impossible to determine. Despite these problems though, I do think that Mark and Q are more than likely correct in Jesus’s focus.

So as I’ve said before, I think that Jesus was a religious-populist figure, and as we often find in populist movements, leaders often take a “postmodern” turn by becoming (as Apostle Paul later found out) “all things to all people”. This is why so many people can have so many different interpretations on what happened.