Prominent Religious Philosophies
of the "Intertestamental" Period

by Al Maxey

(Epicureanism) (Stoicism) (Cynicism) (Scepticism) (Platonism)

The many mysteries of the universe in which we dwell, and the various problems and challenges which the world about us poses for its inhabitants to ponder and puzzle over, has always brought about a need among thinking men to find rational, logical answers to the perplexities of life. Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the nature of man? What is good and evil? Why do good men suffer and wicked men prosper? Is there a God, or is man himself the ultimate being? These are the types of questions which have confounded men of every generation.

Many have found satisfactory, comforting answers to these questions within various forms of religion --- Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like. Others, however, have felt the answers provided by the world's religions are woefully inadequate. Therefore, men have devised various systems of philosophy in order to cope in a rational and logical way with the challenges posed by life.

Some of these philosophies are somewhat spiritual in nature in that they acknowledge a "Supreme Being" of one form or another, and even advocate a morality that is above that of the world about them. Others, however, are blatantly materialistic and self-oriented, dismissing the concept of a Supreme Being as either ridiculous or simply unnecessary.

Many of the philosophies which either originated or were popular during the so-called "intertestamental" period of history had a "ring of logical truth" about them. They sounded good, and they appeared at first glance to make tremendous sense. Thus, they were readily embraced by a large number of people who were having great difficulty finding any meaning to the seemingly meaningless existence they were experiencing. Some of these philosophies were so logical and popular that they even came to be embraced by the Jewish people, and later by many in the Lord's church. Paul warned the Christians in Colossae not to be "taken captive through philosophy," and through teachings and systems of thought which have "the appearance of wisdom" (Colossians 2:8, 23).

The apostle Paul should not be misunderstood here in this passage! He is not condemning philosophy per se, but rather the attitude that seeks life's answers in the teachings of mere men (philosophers) rather than in the teachings of the Lord God. Philosophy, to the degree that it sheds light upon Truth, or reveals Truth, is beneficial to us. It is when it detracts from Truth, or parades itself as Truth, that it becomes detrimental. Paul himself was well-studied in the philosophical thought of his day, and was even able to quote freely from these pagan writers and poets (Acts 17:16-31). It is only by understanding how other people think and reason, and by knowing what they believe and why they have come to believe as they do, that we can ever truly hope to "reason with them," and ultimately to reach them with the Truth.

The following are some of the major philosophical systems that were prominent during the time of the "intertestamental" period, and during the years which came afterward. Some of these are specifically mentioned and discussed in the pages of the New Testament writings, and all had a definite impact upon the thinking of the early church.


This was a philosophical system based upon the teachings of a native of Athens, Greece named Epicurus (341 - 270 BC). He purchased a house and garden near the market place in Athens in 307 BC and established a school at this location. Soon he had gathered quite a following. He is said to have written over 300 books, none of which are in existence today. His teachings spread to Rome after 146 BC, and during the first century BC he became identified with the philosophy of Hedonism. In fact, some regard him as the founder of Hedonism.

Epicurus believed that true human happiness consisted in pleasure, so he and his followers devoted their lives to the pursuit of personal, individual happiness. This was considered the most important goal in life. One of his sayings was, "Pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily." It should be noted that for Epicurus the pleasures of the mind were considered to be more important than the pleasures of the body. Indeed, he tended to discourage the "lower, sensual delights" of the flesh. His concept of pleasure was the "lack of disturbance" in one's mind; the attainment of mental peace; the removal of emotional and psychological pain. In contrasting the flesh and the mind, he taught that "the intense, throbbing ecstasy" of the body "is less desirable than a tranquil state of mind." Perpetual peace of mind is superior to the fleeting physical pleasures of the moment. Thus, to avoid trauma to one's mental state, he promoted a simple lifestyle, simple foods (mostly water and barley bread), and little to no involvement in social or political matters.

The Epicureans did not deny the existence of God, or of gods; they merely believed that the gods, in order not to distract from their own happiness, simply did not involve themselves in human affairs. There was no ultimate standard by which men should live, thus there was no sin and no final judgment as an accounting for sin. Since there was no resurrection, and this life is all that is given to us, we should live in such a way as to achieve the most pleasure and the least pain. Epicurus wrote, "Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come; and when death has come, we are not." It's little wonder that in the only mention of this group in the NT (Acts 17:18) we see them "sneering" at Paul for teaching about "Jesus and the resurrection" (vs. 18, 32).


A second philosophical group mentioned in Acts 17:18 is the Stoics, who were one of the most important groups of the Hellenistic period. This system of thought was established by a native of Cyprus named Zeno (332 - 260 BC). Zeno did not believe in a "personal, living" God, but rather that the universe was governed by "Absolute Reason." Nature was orderly, logical, reasonable; it obviously followed certain "laws." It was the "Law of Nature," or the basic orderliness of the universe, that Zeno would have defined as "God." Deity was not so much a living being which created and governed the universe, as it was a logical order that was inherent within the universe.

The highest goal of life, in Zeno's own words, was "living in agreement with nature." To be "god-like" one must live one's life governed by reason and logic, just as nature was governed. Virtue consisted of finding the "thrust of destiny (or nature)" and adjusting one's life to the natural order or course of existence. Passions and emotions interfered with logical behavior, thus mastery of one's emotions and passions became the ultimate virtue. Paul quoted Aratus, one of the stoic philosophers (from his poem Phaenomena), in Acts 17:28, and emphasized that the One, True God was not limited to the material world, nor was He the product of the thought processes of mere men.


Cynicism, like a great many other philosophies, evolved from the teachings of Socrates (470 - 399 BC), a great Athenian philosopher and teacher. One of the disciples of Socrates, a man by the name of Antisthenes, was the actual founder of this philosophical movement. Socrates taught that the man who had only simple wants and needs was more likely to survive and prosper than the one who had numerous, elaborate wants and needs. In other words, the less you desire and require in life, the more likely you are to find genuine happiness.

The Cynics took this concept a step further, and reasoned that in order to achieve the goal of absolute happiness and virtue, one should have no wants and needs at all. Thus, they sought to abolish all areas of human desire from their lives. To demonstrate that they had no respect for the standards of others, they abandoned all the standards of the society of their day. They dressed differently from others, talked differently, behaved differently. They allowed their clothes to literally rot off their bodies to demonstrate their lack of desire and concern for material things. Some have characterized them "the hippies of the ancient world."

The major flaw in their reasoning was their behavior was a demonstration of the desire to be different, and thus superior to others. This led to pride, which was not a virtue. Thus, by desiring to abandon desire, they had failed. Socrates criticized Antisthenes on this very point, saying, "I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak!"


Pyrrho of Elis (365 - 295 BC) was the Father of the Sceptics. He argued that there is no ultimate standard of right or wrong, but rather each man sets his own standard of what is ultimately right or wrong. He based his reasoning upon his observation of the nature of things in the world around him. For example --- what may be considered right and proper in one nation, might be considered a crime and an abomination in another. Who is right and who is wrong?! The only logical explanation, he felt, was that both were right by virtue of the fact there is no ultimate standard. Thus, each man, and each society, becomes a standard unto itself.

By eliminating an Ultimate Standard, one also effectively eliminated God. Thus, Scepticism is largely humanistic and atheistic in outlook. Cynicism and Scepticism both arose from the abandonment of outside and ultimate standards, although their emphasis was somewhat different.


This is a system of beliefs founded by the Greek scholar Plato (428 - 348 BC). Plato believed that all things in this world, whether it be a tree, a chair, an animal, or even a person, were merely copies of the ultimate objective ideal. The real world (ours is just a shadow world) was the world of the IDEAL, which existed somewhere unseen by the eyes of mere men. In the real world there existed the ideal chair, tree, etc., of which all other humanly observable chairs, trees, etc. are merely imperfect copies or shadows. (Some see a parallel between this and the discussion in Hebrews of the Substance versus the shadows.) Although Plato never knew of Christ Jesus, he might have reasoned that God (the ultimate IDEAL) chose to reveal the ideal man (Jesus Christ), of whom all men are mere imperfect copies. Thus, in Jesus the ideal man is revealed to a world of imperfect, shadow men.

Plato also taught that man is really an immortal soul (which is an imperfect copy of God's Spirit) trapped in a "prison" (a physical body). Plato's concept of the nature of man, specifically that he was an immortal being trapped in a fleshly prison, would have a tremendous impact upon the thinking of the religious world for centuries to come. In his work The Republic he wrote, "The soul of man is immortal and imperishable." Plato believed all men inherently possess an immortal nature. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the clear teaching of Scripture which states the Lord "alone possess immortality" (I Timothy 6:16), and that immortality is something men must seek after, not something they already possess (Romans 2:7); that, indeed, they may only receive it as a gift by virtue of their union with Christ Jesus!

This doctrine of man's inherent immortality, however, was soon embraced by some of the Jews of the "intertestamental" period, and it began appearing in the writings of the Apocrypha. It also penetrated various segments of the early church, and in subsequent centuries developed into the cause of tremendous doctrinal confusion about the nature of man and his eternal destiny.

For Plato, God was the IDEAL with regard to every conceivable quality and characteristic. Man, who was made in the image of God --- and thus, he reasoned, immortal just like God --- was an imperfect copy of God (the IDEAL). The goal of man was to renounce the imperfection of this world of copies (this shadow world), and through a life of reflection, meditation and self-denial, strive to merge with the IDEAL. The goal would ultimately be realized when we discard this fleshly prison (the body), in which our "immortal souls" (a phrase never found in the Bible) are trapped, and return to the world of the IDEAL. Few philosophies have had greater negative impact upon the clear teachings of Christianity, or have led to more false teaching and confusion, than have the teachings of Plato.

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