The image of Jesus as a kind of green hippie revolutionary is so commonplace in our day that often it is not even questioned. This was brought home to me again with our recent trips down to Occupy Philly, where several times I heard someone remark that Jesus would have been joining the protests. Sometimes I agreed that, yes, He would have been down there, but even as a I said it I knew in my heart that I meant something different than the protesters meant. He would have been down there as a physician, for sure (as in Mark 2:17), but would he have been chilling in a tent talking revolution?
Last night I read something in a commentary on Mark that seemed to shed some light on the whole idea. It seems that in the ancient world there was a wandering preacher movement known as Cynicism. The Cynics (you can wikipedia them here) preached that:
- The goal of life is happiness, which is to live in agreement with Nature.
- Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
- Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of “Arete.”
- The road to arete is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
- Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Isn’t this what so many people around us believe? I can say it is the dominant philosophy down at Occupy. And, even as you’ll see in the wikipedia article, some people try to say Jesus was a Cynic. But this opinion ignores the basic facts about who Jesus was. In the passage below, James Edwards makes some great observations about how Jesus relates to all this. He’s commenting on Mark 6:8-9, where Jesus sends out His disciples to preach and tells them to take only a few things.
It is fashionable in some circles today to portray the early Jesus movement according to the model of Cynical philosophers and preachers who wandered the ancient world ([one scholar] sees Jesus and His followers as “hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.”)…The resultant picture of Jesus is that of a countercultural peripatetic [someone who walks around] who flaunts societal norms and encourages others to do so as well.
The correspondence of Jesus and His followers to wandering radical philosophers is a modern fantasy, however. There is, for instance, no evidence for the presence of Cynics in Galilee in Jesus’ day. This fact alone goes a long way toward refuting the Cynic hypothesis. But there is further conclusive evidence against it. More than one scholar has unmasked the ideological agendum of those who ply the Jewish-Cynic argument. [Here the author footnotes this quote: “Is not the aim of this entire venture to make sure that there was ‘nothing unique’ about Jesus, that he was ‘not a beginning’ of anything, and that his identity was ‘internal’ to the culture?”] A closer examination of Cynic dress, practices, and ideals reveals the correspondence between Cynicism and Jesus to be superficial, at best. The standard apparel of Cynic philosophers was a cloak, knapsack, or travel bag, and staff, but no shoes. The instructions to the Twelve, on the contrary, require staff, belt, sandals, and one tunic, but no travel bag. The differences in items are important, and not only because the recognizable Cynic travel bag is omitted. The four items required of the Twelve are, in fact, identical to the belongings that God instructs the Israelites to take on their flight from Egypt: cloak, belt, sandals, and staff in hand (Exodus 12:11). The parallel in dress, in other words, is identical to Exodus but only loosely similar to Cynic dress. These four items of clothing recall the haste and expectation of the Exodus. They suggest that the mission of the Twelve announces something as foundational and revelatory as the Exodus from Egypt, and that the disciples must be as free from encumbrances as were the Israelites, to serve God in a new venture.
The purpose of the wandering Cynic preachers were foreign to Jesus not only in dress but also in teaching and instructions. Cynicism was essentially an attack on civilization. The cynic preacher made himself uncouth and unkempt to protest the privilege and refinements of the patrician class, in particular [that is, the 1%!]. Above all, Cynicism sought emancipation from all forms of authority, and submission to nothing but the “royalty” of one’s own conscience. For Cynics, itinerancy and lack of attachments were ends in themselves. This is quite different from the program of Jesus and His disciples. The mission of the Twelve is not a crusade against civilization, nor is it free from authority. The mission of the Twelve is not a carefree nonattachment but fraught with danger, as we shall see in the subsequent story (vv. 14-19). It is a participation in a new authority conferred by Jesus. Its minimal baggage is not itself a virtue but a means for greater service and dependence on God, and its purpose is not protest but rather proclamation of God’s coming rule.
(James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, pp. 179-180)