From the 4th century BC, Athens had been the cultural center of the western world. Many classical philosophers started schools in Athens, including Zeno, the father of Stoicism. Born in 342 BC, Zeno arrived in Athens about 313, and taught in the Stoá Poikílē or painted porch of Athens (Stoic is derived from stoa, Greek for porch). By 294, Zeno had established the school of the Stoics.
In the 2nd century BC, stoicism was carried to Rome by Panætius of Rhodes. Once in Rome, it spread widely among the upper classes of Roman society and became an underlying principle of Roman law. Stoicism remained popular for over four centuries.
The founding principle of Stoicism is pantheism—a Divine Nature that permeates the universe. This belief comprises the first two tenets of modern Stoicism, “Tenet One. We recognize the existence of intelligible order in the universe, and we call that order the Logos. Tenet Two. We acknowledge that Nature is One, a dynamic continuum uniting the Logos and matter” (The Stoic Registry Online 1996). From this basic idea Stoicism builds a doctrine of logic, physics, and ethics.
The ancient Stoics rejected popular religions and believed in the one permeating force of the universe. This shaped their concept of evil, believing that evil was only an apparent reality because it existed as a part of the one divine whole— which they considered to be good. Stoics also held that truth and knowledge could only be obtained through the senses. They considered the soul to be material, made of atoms like the flesh, only finer. In this way it was known by the senses. Since the soul was material, it died with the body and could not be resurrected.
They followed one great commandment, “Follow Nature,” or reason. This resulted in the rejection of free will, “Since Reason penetrates all things every event is dependent on a universal law of Fate, Destiny, or Providence” (Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible). The sage accepted his set course with calm resolve giving harmony to the universe (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). Harmony also resulted from moral values, “A Stoic chooses to live by the Four Cardinal Virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Decorum” (The Stoic Registry 1996).
Paul knew the Stoics and their philosophy. One of the prominent Stoic schools outside of Athens was in his hometown of Tarsus. When Paul stood on Mars’ Hill, he tailored his speech to address their philosophies. He spoke of the one God who was active, who created the universe. God was not the Stoic’s idea of an animating life force, but a sentient being that could think, plan and act. The apostle even quoted from the poem Phænomena by the Stoic, Aratus of Soli, saying, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). God is real, but he is spiritual, not material like gold or silver. Stoics believed the Divine Nature was material, similar to the souls of men. This God could not be identified by the empirical senses but could nonetheless be known of man.
The Stoics had reasoned well and determined that the universe was not an accident, but rather its existence demanded a Rational Designer. This is how God intended the universe to work (Rom 1:20). However, worldly wisdom alone is not enough (1 Cor 1:18-21). Thus, Paul sought to perfect the Stoic’s faith.
Paul piqued the interest of some of his critics. Although some mocked him for speaking about a resurrection, others wanted to hear more (Acts 17:32). Of the Epicureans and the Stoics who listened, it is likely that those most sympathetic to Paul’s message were the Stoics because of their emphasis on morality. It is important to see how Paul identified his hearers and spoke words which challenged their fundamental beliefs.