Fourth Maccabees and a Rational Faith

In 4 Maccabees the role of the law as nearly equivalent to reason. Although God created humans with emotions and passions, he also “enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them” (2:21). The mind was given the Law, in order to “rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.” Temperate (σώφρων) refers to prudent thinking and self-control and is one of the virtues required of elders in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 2:2).

4 Maccabees 7:21-23 What person who lives as a philosopher by the whole rule of philosophy, and trusts in God, and knows that it is blessed to endure any suffering for the sake of virtue, would not be able to overcome the emotions through godliness? For only the wise and courageous are masters of their emotions (NRSV)

The “temperate mind” restrains the impulses of the body, what Paul calls “self-control” in Galatians 5:23. That Paul and 4 Maccabees both have a high view of the Law and the virtue of self-control is not necessarily and indication Paul knew the book or vice versa. Likely as not both the author of 4 Maccabees and Paul are drawing on implications of the wisdom literature drawn through the intellectual grid of a first century worldview which includes elements of Stoicism and other Greek philosophical streams.

Image result for self control memeSelf-control was perhaps the most important of the Greek ethical terms. Remarkably, the Greek world valued controlling one’s passions and acting moderately in all things. Any activity could devolve into a vice if it is not practiced with moderation.  For example, eating a proper amount of food is good thing; too much is glutton and too little is starvation. Paul claims here that the one who is walking by the spirit will walk moderately in everything that they do. In fact, Paul points out that the person who belongs to Christ Jesus “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

This is an important point that should probably be argued at length, but this sort of paper cannot do so. There are a number of works on Paul and the Stoics which make this point, although the probability of direct borrowing is very low. I prefer to think in terms of an intellectual grid made up of the Old Testament and various Jewish writings as a primary database through which Greco-Roman philosophy is drawn, elements which are compatible with the database are retained, others are rejected.

13 thoughts on “Fourth Maccabees and a Rational Faith

  1. The Stoic perspective on self-control is one I find to be pretty interesting. To the Greeks, maintaining self-control to have a clear and unbiased mind meant more than simply being a “good person”…it was how they established a moral conscious and ethical way of life. Upholding self-control in behavior and mind, an individual was free from “destruction” and a bondage to things that were against the natural order.A person’s virtue was at the core of being in concordance with nature….and for the Greeks, the belief was that practicing and maintaining good virtue was the key to being happy. I think for Paul to bring aspects of this way of life into his teachings is only an encouragement…however the motivation for preserving self-control in Paul’s perspective differs from the stoic perspective; Paul’s instruction for self-control is geared more towards a practice that enables a person to avoid temptation and sin (Ex. putting on the armor of God Ephesians 6:10-20).

    • Katie, you make a lot of great points. The Stoics perspective was on self control, but also focused on logic and reason. “There was logic and reason to the cosmos, and the highest good for humankind was to live in harmony with the natural order” (Tomasino, 216). It is amazing that Stoicism and Epicureanism remained prominent philosophies well into the New Testament times. In Acts 17:18, Paul debates with their teachers in Athens, but it’s interesting to see how their teachings and methods help shaped some ideas of the early church fathers.

  2. I think it is extremely interesting how much weight was put on the term ‘self-control’ in Greek culture. I am assuming that due the term being the most relevant in regards to other ethical terms, there must have been a reason for it to hold such importance. Perhaps the Greeks struggled with the concept of moderation. You mentioned how the term meant to “act moderately in all things.” Therefore, self-control was not just narrowed down to partaking in a specific set of action; but it was to be an ethical practice displayed by all people. I certainly think that moderation needs to be considered in the church in today’s society as it was during the intertestemental period. Self-control is is stressed in Ephesians as something Christian’s should maintain. However, I think that it is an area that many struggle with regardless.

    • I agree, it is really interesting how much importance that the people during this time put on self control. For the people to value self-control must have meant that there were things that were going on or things that were being abused in the sense that people were doing or using too much of that thing; in this case it appears to be food/ eating. I also think that it is interesting the similarities that 4th Maccabees and the writing of Paul have together, how they both talk about self-control.

  3. In my opinion the Greek philosophy of a “Temperate Mind” is a somewhat positive philosophic mindset in my opinion. Tomasino mentions the fact that this philosophy was significant and popular, even beyond the times of the Second Temple Period (Tomasino, 216). While this philosophy was mainly demonstrated within Greek culture, it’s fair to say this type of mindset may have had some sort of impact on Jewish ways of thinking and philosophy. Especially when you consider 4:8 1-2, and the fact that if somebody can have “devout reason” they to can overcome any means of torture (4:8 1-2). I believe devout reasoning may have been significant in the minds of Jews as a means to truly avoid disrespecting the core of their Jewish religious values. In my opinion while Tomasino mentions the fact that Paul would later argue certain aspects of these Greek philosophical ideas (Tomasino, 216), I do believe other various aspects of this philosophy (such as self-control) could have been used for educating Jews in the Second Temple Period.

  4. I find it interesting that what is essentially a Jewish writing in a time where they were trying so hard to not be Greek seems to draw from Greek philosophy. During this time period, Greek philosophers were praising and focusing on the virtues of the mind and reasoning. At the same time many of the Jews were trying to stay as separate from the Greeks as possible and yet 4 Maccabees sounds almost like something a Greek philosopher would write. It makes me wonder if that was deliberate. In any case, the emphasis on self-control is well founded. Even today many people struggle to maintain self-control in some area of there lives.

  5. I agree that there is still that bit of Greek philosophy that hangs around to this day and is often used in attempts to deny the need for a God. I don’t think I would go so far as to use passages from these non-cannon books for apologetics. However in such an argument, yes ethics comes from the Law which was given by God. On top of that our very minds and our ability to reason come from God as well. I would just be sure to support it with scripture that is cannon. Paul’s writings and possibly Proverbs would be good choices.

  6. Although God created man to rule justly, and be good and courageous, man is not always good, courageous, or just. Take King Saul for instance. By the end of his reign he was not a very good man. When Kings first came into power in Israel, they normally started off really good, then they become tempted and start changing. By the end of their rein, they are struggling with self-control. but no matter by the end of the day, they were human and we all know that humans are never perfect and have not been since the fall.

  7. I think that this part of 4 Maccabees is extremely relevent with this day in age. There are so many people nowadays who can abuse good things that have been blessed to them by God. I think that the Maccabeans were right and strong in their beliefs that self-control is something that should strived for amongst all people. If one has self-control, then the temptations of this world to do sinful things are less prevelent.

  8. Our society lacks so much of this Greek virtue of self-control, because we are enveloped with pleasure. Every empire has fallen in the past, when it came to a generation that was obsessed with self-gratification and pleasure. It is a sign of societal decay to have a generation obsessed with pleasure. The virtue of self-control and moderation is dying in our culture. If our society had self-control and more of a desire for moderation, maybe we would see more godly virtues and strong capable people in our society. In Galatians 5:23, Paul tells us that self-control is the fruit of the spirit. Self-control is a sign of a desire of surrender from self-indulgence. When we learn to martyr ourselves from the pleasures of this world, than is when we connect deeper with Christ because we can better have a glimpse of what He sacrificed. He died for us, so we live for Him.

  9. Although Stoicism and Epicureanism were both schools of thought founded within Greek culture, I think up until this point I associated the culture as a whole more with Epicureanism – a pursuit of pleasure as a lifestyle. It took me by surprise to hear that a core value of Greek society was moderation in all things. The Greeks were dedicated to developing a superior way of life, a culture others should covet. If they, being a decidedly secular culture, arrived at the conclusion that people need to live in moderation, how much more should believers be taking this principle seriously? Since we are called to set an example in the world, believers in contemporary western culture especially need to examine their lifestyles and observe the idea of moderation. This change may seem small, but Christ doesn’t ask us to leave out the small things in our faith.

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