Cynics and Christian Origins (review)
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Reviewed by
F. Gerald Downing. Cynics and Christian Origins. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992. Pp. ix + 377.

This serves as a synthesis and extension of Gerald Downing's decade of labor on the relevance of ancient Cynicism to early Christianity. Renewed interest in Cynicism has emerged in the course of attention to the historical Jesus and the related investigation of "Q," no longer viewed as a hypothetical synoptic sayings source but as a hypothetical "gospel," the limits, structure, genre, history, and meaning of which deserve analysis. The underlying historical issue is the basic preference of the emergent catholic church for an ethos more like Paul's than that of Jesus. The nineteenth-century liberal quest for the historical Jesus produced many romantic understandings of his ethics. Church historians are aware that such movements are by no means limited to the past one hundred years but represent a recurrent [End Page 62] phenomenon. Specifically, historians of early Christianity are aware that antisocial, ascetic, world-denying manifestations of the faith survived in marginal or heretical groups and became more or less regularized within monasticism.

Downing's object is to elucidate this phenomenon within its social and intellectual context. Cynicism supplies the most likely context—and a bag full of problems. Although the movement was of great duration, it lacked formal organizations, like the Academy, generally disdained "schools" of even the ancient sort, and had no formal dogmatics. Furthermore, it had two major wings, a "harsh" kind of tradition that nearly everyone reviled, and a "gentle" embodiment from which nearly everyone cribbed. Finally, one may ask, how does Cynicism fit into rural, first-century Galilee? M.-O.Goulet-Cazé has clarified the problem of description (ANRW II 36.4, 2720-2823). While scholars have been challenging such oppositions as "Hellenistic" and "Jewish," archaeologists have been revealing a Galilee deeply immersed in an urban network.

Granting these advances, Downing must still face the problems of identifying and evaluating "influences" and "parallels." Even those inclined to dispute his conclusions must admit that he is quite explicit about his methods and the texts he selects, that his research comprehends a full range of primary and secondary works, that he dodges no problems, and that he recognizes the difficulties. The conclusion is that "from very early days Christianity looked like a variant of a popular . . . Cynicism, and that this Cynic strand went on being obvious and entirely acceptable to informed Christian writers in the early centuries . . ." (p. 302). One must read the book to appreciate the strength of his case. Downing's repeated emphasis upon the lack of embarrassment relates to his program for contemporary church and society. His focus upon how others might see at least some early Christians is historically apposite. Much criticism of early Christianity's effort to inculcate virtue in men and women of every status, as well as its exhibitionism and disrespect for social convention and structure, closely resembles what critics had to say about at least some Cynics.

The two most formidable obstacles to this comparison are religion and dogma, both of which aroused considerable Cynic ire. Much of the prophetic element of emergent Christianity, as well as the missions of John the Baptizer and others, is quite congenial to a Cynic perspective and model. Eschatology, specifically apocalyptic eschatology, is not. (At this point I should note that some students of the Jesus tradition, such as J. D. Crossan, regard the historical Jesus as anti-apocalyptic, but do accept the Cynic strains.) Downing's solution to the question of eschatology is not very convincing. On religion in general he can show that both Cynics and Christians were contemptuous of conventional religion, but the root problem is more basic: prior to c. 250 there was little in the Greco-Roman world that would conform to our understanding of a religion. Comparison with philosophy was normal in descriptions of Judaism and early Christianity. Lucian mocks miracle and exorcism (e.g., Philopseudes) without mentioning Christians. When he does use the term, it is in conjunction with Epicureans (Alexander the False Prophet) and, of course, in his story of the Cynic Peregrinus. In terms of ancient models, Downing's project is justified...