it was not the formalistic Roman religion, with its capricious
gods and part-time priests, that offered answers to the perennial
questions of existence – How shall I live? How shall
I face death? etc. – but the schools of
practitioners of "the philosophical life",
their maxims "medicine for the soul", their own lives
exemplars of "right living". They offered moral guidance
and a path of "personal growth", as well as speculations
on creation, fate, and the gods.
was not on hold, waiting for a Christian godman to teach it ethics
and morality. To ancient wisdom the fabricated "Jesus" added only an insufferable egocentricity.
"If a man lies with his wife as if she were another
man's wife, he will be an adulterer, though she will not be
– Seneca, On Firmness, vii.
"Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath
committed adultery with her already in his heart."
For five centuries, Stoicism was
the dominant philosophy of the Romano-Hellenic world. Rome's
educated elite found this import much to its taste. Stoicism
was admirably suited to the builders of empire. It urged a dutiful
self-discipline, detachment from the feckless passions, steadfastness
in friendship and fortitude in adversity. It reasoned that all
men were the offspring of God and therefore brothers, each deserving
of compassion and justice. Stoicism made no vain promises of
a life beyond the grave, though some Stoics thought it a possibility.
Happiness was to be found within, in this life. Stoicism was
manly, rational, and temperate. Its reward was virtue – "the
highest good" – and perhaps the honour of a noble
on the island of Cyprus with Zeno of Citium at
the zenith of Greek expansion in the late 4th century BC, when
the old gods were already in decay and rational thought in
the ascendant. It took its name from the 'Stoa',
or colonnade, at Athens where Zeno taught. Though pantheistic – conjecturing
God as present in all things and not transcendent – Stoicism
provided many of the building blocks out of
which the early Christians built their religion.
first "pagan" Christians had trained in the Stoic tradition
(Pantaenus, Clement, et al) and carried into the new
faith the asceticism, seclusion, coarse dress and hirsute appearance
which were all the marks of the Stoic sage on his way to "Perfection".
the Christians with theory as well as practice. Zeno's primary
agent of creation, a material "Mind" in the
guise of an ethereal yet vivifying "fire",
had by the age of Cleanthes (mid-3rd
century BC), become "pneuma" or "spirit" – and
would show up as the "fiery Holy Spirit" of
appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it
sat upon each of them."
– Acts 2.3.
a "Great moral teacher"
"God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.
This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within
us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.
As we treat this spirit, so are we treated by it. Indeed, no
man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior
to fortune unless God helps him to rise? "
– Seneca, Epistle 41.
At the same
time Philo was laying the foundations of Christian theology in
Alexandria, in Rome, another educated aristocrat, Seneca, was
articulating the highly developed morality and ethics of Stoicism.
The two philosophers may even have met: Seneca took a long sojourn
in Alexandria in 31 AD.
Annaeus Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) was a prodigious
writer. His legacy includes satires, tragedies, several books
on natural phenomena, and at least 124 insightful letters
(Epistulae morales). A dozen essays on philosophy
include edifying tracts on the brevity of life, human destiny,
clemency and virtue. In On Clemency, Seneca describes
the prince who safeguards the lives of his subjects as "god
like". In On Tranquility of Mind, he urges
a contentment gained from thrift rather than a ceaseless
passion for wealth. A lost work De superstitione ridiculed
popular conceptions of the gods.
As it happens,
the life of Seneca, like that of Philo, was contemporaneous with
the "Jesus" of legend. Yet though Seneca wrote extensively
on many subjects and people, nothing relating
to "Jesus" ever caught his attention, nor
does he show any awareness of a "vast multitude" of
Christians, supposedly, punished for the fire that ravaged Rome
in 64 AD.
a privileged upbringing. Born in Cordoba, he was the son of a
famous father, Marcus Annaeus Seneca (Seneca
the Elder, 54 BC-39 AD), himself a prolific writer
of legal commentary, history and philosophy. Both father and
son were of the Stoic school.
Seneca was sent to Rome as a youth, where he studied philosophy
and law. He became a successful politician, but fell into disfavour
when Messalina, wife of Claudius, persuaded the emperor to have
him banished to Corsica. The charge was adultery with Julia Livilla,
a sister of Caligula, and a rival Messalina wanted out of the
way. After eight years in exile, Seneca was recalled by Claudius's
years he attained great influence as the tutor of the future
- Writer of the Passion?
As a leading
politician (Praetor in 48, Consul in 57), Seneca
was himself a witness to the intrigue and violence of the imperial
court during the reigns of Caligula, Claudius and Nero. It eventually
cost him his life. Though arguably compromised by his own accumulation
of great wealth, Seneca remained ever the philosopher. His adaptations
of Greek classics were infused with the humane and moral message
of the Stoics. A favourite theme of Seneca's work was the contradiction
inherent in kingship, the conflict of power with moral purpose.
Furens ("The Madness of Hercules"),
one character laments crime masquerading as virtue and the
triumph of might over right; another warns bloodied tyrants
that they will one day face judgement. In Thyestes, the
protagonists mirror the behaviour of Rome's own leaders, scheming
for power and destroying each other's children in the process.
Kingship is linked to a sacrificial lamb and human flesh is
eaten ("Thyestian Feast").
(like the Gospels, in fact) were written to be read privately
or recited at small gatherings rather than be performed. It is
more than possible that the high drama of "Passion week" owes
its theatrical form to the hand of Seneca. In De Ira (1.2)
(about 41 AD) he writes:
all the leaders who have been handed down to posterity as
instances of an evil fate. Anger stabbed this one in his
bed, struck down this one amid the sanctities of the feast,
tore this one to pieces in the very home of the law and in
full view of the crowded forum, forced this one to have his
blood spilled by the murderous act of his son, another to
have his royal throat cut by the hand of a slave, another
to have his limbs stretched upon the cross."
One might speculate
endlessly on the identity of the six "leaders" to whom
Seneca alludes (Julius Caesar must surely be one of them). But
a drama in which the hero/king becomes a sacrificial victim yet
is born again as God and Immortal (the fate,
indeed, of Caesar) did come from the pen of Seneca. Shortly
after the death of Claudius, Seneca wrote Apocolocyntosis divi
Claudii ("The Pumpkinification of Claudius")
a satire which ridiculed the deification of the stammering, limping
Claudius, and mocked the whole notion of the emperor cult.
the deified Claudius wandering a comic netherworld, travelling
first to "Heaven" (Mount Olympus)
and from there to Hell (Hades). Dio
Cassius, commenting on the "Pumpkinification",
adds detail which finds a curious echo in the Gospels (the "torn
curtain" of Matthew 27.50, which opened the Holy of Holies
of the Temple; the swarm of "many dead that went into the
city" of Matthew 27.53).
a manner did Claudius meet his end. It seemed as if this
event had been indicated by the comet, which was
seen for a very long time, by the shower of blood, by the thunder-bolt
that fell upon the standards of the Praetorians, by the opening
of its own accord of the temple of Jupiter Victor, by the swarming
of bees in the camp, and by the fact that one incumbent of
each political office died."
– Dio Cassius. Book 61.35
play, Hercules on Oeta, portrays the death and deification
of Hercules. The hero is betrayed by those close to
him, but, free from his mortal body, his celestial spirit conquers
death – in essence, a resurrection. Given the distrust
held by Stoics for those who grasp for power, it is more than
possible that Seneca wrote a drama
in which a low-born, counter-hero – a Stoic no less – suffers
the same Noble Death. It could then have been plagiarised
for the "Passion
Week" of the Jesus saga.
when the tragedies of Seneca were rediscovered in the 16th and
17th century, they were immensely influential on dramatists such
as Shakespeare. That a lost drama could have inspired the gospel
writers should surprise no one (and here you will find a
reconstruction of the
Gospel of Seneca").
In 65 AD, Seneca
was accused of being a part of the Calpurnius Piso conspiracy
to assassinate Nero, and was forced to commit suicide.
Seneca on Message
The lack of
any reference to Jesus Christ or Christians by Seneca was an
embarrassment rectified during the 4th century by a forger familiar
with Seneca's letters to his life-long friend Lucilius. What
emerged was a correspondence purporting
to be friendly exchanges between the eminent Roman philosopher – at
the height of his fame and political influence – and an
unknown itinerant preacher we now call St Paul.
for the fabrications appear to have been remarks by Tertullian,
in the early 3rd century. Tertullian, aware that Seneca had articulated
sentiments suited to a "great moral teacher" referred
to Seneca as "often our own." By the time
of Constantius II (337-361), Seneca had been taken captive by
the Christians, his fidelity to the cause vouched for by a lively
exchange of letters (in Latin!) with the Jewish Christian apostle.
We are asked to believe that Seneca wrote eight letters to Paul
and received six replies. As if.
forger's sycophantic drivel
that Gallio sent some of St. Paul's writings to his brother
Seneca is utterly absurd; and indeed at this time (A.D. 54),
St. Paul had written nothing except the two Epistles to the
F. W. Farrar.
pen of a 4th century fraudster has one of the richest, most
powerful men in Rome wishing he could swap places with the
unknown Jewish apostle from Tarsus!
of the fabricated "letters of Seneca to Paul" –
my dearest Paul ... so great a man, so beloved in all
ways ... You are the summit and topmost peak of all
much refreshed by the reading of ... the many letters
which you have addressed to some city or capital of
a province .. which inculcate the moral life with admirable
the greatness of them ... such nobility, that I think
whole ages of men could hardly suffice for the instilling
and perfecting of them ... For it is the holy spirit
which is in you and high above you which expresses
these exalted and adorable thoughts.
was moved by your views ... he could wonder that a
man not regularly educated could think thus. I replied
that the gods often speak by the mouths of the simple
intimately associated with me and my name ...
I am glad
as to be counted a second self of yours ... For the
rank that is mine, I would it were yours, and yours
I would were mine.
copies of the bogus correspondence date from the 9th century,
though both Jerome (de Viris Illustribus 12),
and Augustine (Epistle 153.4 ad Macedonium) in the late
4th- early 5th century refer to an earlier edition. Jerome had
the temerity to list Seneca among the Church "Fathers" and
couples the compelled suicide of Seneca with the fabled martyrdom
of Peter and Paul about the same time!
Yet no one
before the time of Constantius II knew of any such letters. Eusebius
of Caesarea (c.263-339) – a liar for God, if ever there
was one – makes reference to Paul, his "brief epistles" and
Nero but says nothing of Nero's tutor and "chief minister",
"Paul, for instance, who surpassed them all in vigor
of expression and in richness of thought, committed to writing
no more than the briefest epistles, although he had innumerable
mysterious matters to communicate"
two whole years at Rome as a prisoner at large, and preached
the word of God without restraint. In this imprisonment he
wrote his second epistle to Timothy ...
But hear his
testimony on these matters: "... I was delivered out
of the mouth of the lion" referring, in this expression,
to Nero, as is probable on account of the latter's cruelty. "
– Church History, 2.22
The only reference
to a Seneca in all the works of Eusebius (Book 4, chapter
5) is to a supposed 1st century Bishop of Jerusalem – a
curious name for a Jew, to be sure!
link to the illustrious Seneca family was made using Seneca's
older brother Novatus. It seems that Novatus, who took
the name of his patron Junius Gallio, served briefly
as proconsul at Achaia (Greece). The 2nd century author of Acts -
gleaning the name Gallio from a secular source which mentioned
the proconsulship – used this tidbit of circumstantial
detail for a supposed trial in Corinth of the apostle Paul
before governor Gallio.
The medieval Golden
Legend tidied the fantasizing up nicely, with Nero witnessing
Seneca's suicide after his conversion to Christianity by Saint
Seneca's brother Gallio in Delphi – but
was Paul in Corinth?
Inscription" – a letter set in stone from
Emperor Claudius (41-54) to the citizens of Delphi. (École
Francaise d'archéologie, Athens).
re-assigned the province of Achaia (Greece) to the
Senate in 44 AD.
nine fragments found piecemeal at Delphi during the late 19th
century, the "Gallio
inscription" was unrecognised until 1905-7. During
the 1890s French excavators had dug up the pieces of
literally several thousand inscriptions.
arrangement of the pieces is correct, and they really are from
a single inscription, Junius Annaeus Gallio – elder
brother of Seneca – served as proconsul in Achaia
in 51/52 AD.
Because Acts 18.11,12
records Paul's 18-month stay in Corinth and a "trial" instigated
by local Jews before a governor called Gallio, the "Gallio
inscription" is the bedrock for dating a historical
Paul, indeed the entire corpus of the New Testament.
doubt that Seneca had an elder brother Lucius Annaeus
Novatus, who adopted the name of his patron Junius
writes a flattering portrait of his brother in Natural Questions,
IV and dedicates to him three books on anger management
mentioned by Tacitus (Annals, xv 73) as a "public
enemy" in the wake of the abortive plot against Nero. Gallio
is also mentioned by the historian Dio Cassius (155-235 AD):
"Lucius Junius Gallius, the brother of Seneca, ...
remarked that Claudius had been raised to heaven with a hook." – 61.35.
But was Gallio
proconsul in Achaia, and if so when?
confirms that his brother spent time in Achaia:
"I remembered master Gallio's words, when he began
to develop a fever in Achaia and took ship at once, insisting
that the disease was not of the body but of the place." – Epistulae
Pliny the Elder
(Natural History, 31.33) also confirms Gallio took a
voyage for the good of his health, placing it "at the close
of his consulship", though Gallio's name does not appear
in the consular
as proconsul and a command abroad might follow (not
precede) a year as consul. It remains possible Gallio
became governor in Achaia after Seneca himself returned to favour – about
the year 50-52 AD.
course, the "Gallio inscription" says nothing about
Paul. The 2nd century forger of Acts need only have
gleaned from one or other source the snippet of information that
at some point in the past a Gallio had been consul in
Greece, to construct his brief verse:
" And when
Gallio was the deputy of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection
with one accord against Paul ..."
Making a connection
between Paul and Gallio reflects a characteristic Lukan literary
device. In the idealized Christian history, its heroes are associated
with famous events and figures from the real world.
In the yarn
called Acts it is really the Jews who are on trial in
Corinth, not Paul, and it is the chief rabbi who gets
beaten up by Greeks. "And Gallio cared for none of those
things." – Acts 18.17.
Gallio's supposed refusal to punish Paul rather undermines the
apologist's other argument that the early Christians
Days of Stoicism
Over the course
of centuries, as Stoicism developed, it became less
elitist and less "indifferent" to the caprice of fate.
Its concern with human issues and morality gave it new life as
often found themselves at odds with imperial despots. Stoics
of republican persuasion, notably
Helvidius Priscus, were banished
from Rome in 73 by Vespasian; and Domitian ejected all the
philosophers from Italy in 89 (a "persecution" the
would claim as
the enlightened monarchs of the 2nd century – Hadrian,
Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius – counted themselves among the
philosophers and by the
gods had assumed a more positive role as helpers and assistants.
Antinous, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter and Asclepius, would all
habitually appear to devotees in dreams. St Paul's apparition on the
road to Damascus was nothing out of the ordinary.
remained too fatalistic and too reliant upon self-discipline
for a mass audience. Its ethical system was to be vulgarised
who developed the mystical element of unseen spirits, "the
on believers, assisting and guiding. The distinction between
truth and falsehood – so vital to the Stoics – was
dispensed with in order to focus more on what was perceived as "good" and "evil."
to lose its hold on the intelligentsia with the rise of
neo-Platonism and Plotinus, yet within a century neo-Platonism
Christian totalitarianism. The Stoic "ideal man" now became a
vision ascribed to Jewish prophecy and frozen into a bogus historicism: Jesus of Nazareth, the Stoic who never lived.
notion that the simple device of "believing in Jesus" will
suspend all the laws of the universe and gain for the believer "eternal
life" may comfort the weak minded but the pagans were far
more realistic. Socrates, Cato, Epictetus, Silius, Seneca and
Plutarch were among many who faced a Noble Death with courage.
by fears, unsullied by desires, we shall not be afraid of death nor
of the Gods. We shall realise that death is in no way evil, and neither
are the Gods."
Seneca, Epistulae Morales 75
day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity."
– Seneca, Epistulae
then is that which is able to conduct a man? Philosophy ... keeping
the divinity within a man free from violence and unharmed ... and
finally waiting for death with a cheerful mind as being nothing else
than a dissolution of the elements, of which every living being
Aurelius, Meditations II.17
this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth
the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will
raise him up at the last day." – John
are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of
Man comes into His kingdom." – Matthew 16.28.
the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father
the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents,
and cause them to be put to death." – Matthew 10.21.
the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness:
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." – Matthew
George Long (trans.) Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (Collins,
Michael Grant, Greeks and Romans (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992)
Paul Berry, Correspondence Between Paul and Seneca, A.D. 61-65 (Edwin
Robin Campbell, Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin, 1969)
David Seeley, The Noble Death (Continuum, 1990)
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Viking, 1986)
Sevenster, Paul and Seneca (Leiden, 1961)
Stewart Perowne, Death of the Roman Republic (Hodder & Stoughton, 1969)
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