🔼The name Epicureans: Summary
- Those Pertaining To The Help Attained From Auxiliary Troops
- From the noun επικουρος (epikouros), auxiliary troops, from (1) prefix επι (epi), on or upon, and (2) κουρος (kouros), son or lad.
🔼The name Epicureans in the Bible
The Epicureans were followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 - 270 BC). They are mentioned once in the Bible, namely in Acts 17:18, where they and some Athenian Stoic philosophers hear the apostle Paul reason about Jesus and the resurrection and begin to engage him.
Some take him for a σπερμολογος (spermologos), that is someone who picks up bits of information the way a bird gathers seeds; the intellectual equivalent of someone who zaps through the channels without seeing one whole program all the way through. Others recognize the consistency in Paul's message and ask to hear the whole thing. They take him to the Areopagus, where Paul delivers his famous sermon concerning the Unknown God (17:23), and quotes Aratus of Tarsus's celebrated line, "for we are also his offspring, the offspring of Jove (Jupiter)" (17:27).
What the formal response of Epicureanism and Stoicism might have been to Paul's evangel is not told, but the author of the story seems to emphasize that evangelists should not simply be shiny happy people but also of an intellectual caliber on a par with the world's popular systems of logic. Or as Peter wrote, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). Paul left Athens having made a number of converts, among whom Dionysius and Damaris.
The story seems to imply that Stoics and Epicureans were somewhat of a unified movement, but this is deceptive and these substantially differing schools of thought are mentioned together the way the evenly disparate Pharisees and Sadducees commonly are (Matthew 3:7, 16:1-12). In fact there seems to be substantial agreement between the Pharisees and the Stoics, and between the Sadducees and Epicureans. Remember that Paul, Nicodemus and Gamaliel were all Pharisees and that "the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all" (Acts 23:8).
🔼Paul and Epicurus
Epicurus was a staunch materialist who rejected the ideas of the incorporeal soul and an incorporeal afterlife and in that regard his thinking was similar to Sadduceeism. Later Jewish commentators began to describe certain heresies with the term Apikoros, which was possibly derived from the name Epicurus. Josephus found the Epicureans in error for casting "Providence out of human life" and saying "that the world is carried along of its own accord" (Ant.X.11.7; for more on Josephus, see our article on Dalmanutha).
Epicurus maintained that the world is the result of chance encounters of atoms. This may not accord with a deterministic world view — particularly one that demands that God decides all goings on in the universe (Matthew 10:29) — but it does very much accord with models based on physics since the 20th century. Atoms indeed congregate according to chance and require freedom to do so, and happily and freely congregate into objects that follow deterministic laws of cause and effect. Or in Biblical terms: the human individual has freedom and thus responsibility, but as a collective or species we can only either die or end up where we are supposed to (read our celebrated Introduction to Quantum Mechanics).
Epicurus' philosophy of life largely revolved around the pursuit of ataraxia (freedom from fear), aponia (freedom from pain) and a happy and tranquil, self-sustaining life among friends. This obviously agreed with Paul's take on things, as he wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:11: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands".
Jesus called his disciples his friends (Luke 12:4, John 15:15) and where God is love (1 John 4:8) greater love has no one than he who lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And the single most repeated command in the Bible, "don't be afraid" pervades the Biblical message like a purple thread and occurs dozens of times from Genesis 15:1 up to Matthew 28:10 and Revelation 2:10.
Epicurus insisted that nothing should be believed except that which was tested, observed or logically deduced, which was obviously right up Paul's alley (1 Thessalonians 5:21, Colossians 2:8, Romans 1:20).
Some other Epicurean ideas Paul would probably have opposed, but possibly less vehement than certain evangelists do today. The so-called Epicurean paradox (which might actually not be Epicurean but someone else's) deals with the problem of evil, which is formidable, but probably mostly so because evil is commonly mis-defined as the opposite of good (which is blatantly unbiblical; see Isaiah 45:7).
Epicurus' notorious atheism had nothing to do with him rejecting YHWH because he didn't know YHWH, and everything with his rejecting the Olympian pantheon (and that not its existence but rather the gods' interfering with humans, which made humanity godless in effect). This same atheism became punishable by death in the Roman world, which continuity hinged on people's "faith" in Rome's state gods, from which Rome's political elite derived its authority. That kind of atheism was "a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned," in the words of Cassius Dio (67.14).
🔼Etymology of the name Epicureans
The name Epicureans comes from the name Epicurus, which in turn is the same as the noun επικουρος (epikouros), which denotes a mercenary; a soldier of fortune rather than someone who guards his own. Both this name and this word begin with the common prefix επι (epi), on or upon:
The preposition επι (epi) means on, upon or unto, but often works as an intensifier (very much so, more than so), rather like our word "extra".
The second part of our name comes from the noun κουρος (kouros), son or lad, and metaphorically: soldier.
The noun κουρος (kouros) means son, boy or lad. Soldiers were known as a nation's "sons" and the auxiliary, non-native troops were known as επικουρος (epikouros). The derived noun επικουρια (epikouria) means help (from auxiliary, non-native troops).
The name Epicureans literally means Those Pertaining To The Help Attained From Auxiliary Troops, which is highly relevant considering that Paul deems the help he received from God to be επικουρια (epikouria), or non-native to Judaism (Acts 26:22).
Paul's message to the Athenians centered around the resurrection of the Christ, which in the gospel narrative corresponds to Jesus' resurrection from the grave. But it also deals with humanity's gradual learning about how the world works — in Greek philosophy this concept is summed up by the name Logos, which in the New Testament is applied to Christ.
The evangelists' main contribution to philosophy is probably the idea that whatever correct or beneficial any school of thought might have worked out, does not belong to that particular school but to the Logos that is available to everybody. And that makes the very formation of schools of thought or denominations or even entire religions superfluous, and only the interdenominational discourse of any practical value.
The evangelists understood that people often cluster under labels that they barely understand, and for the sole reason that they might be deemed distinct from whomever they imagine inferior. According to the gospel, there are no differences between people (Romans 10:12, 1 Corinthians 1:13, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11), and the movement around Jesus is neither in conflict nor in accord with any school of thought because it is not a school of thought but is found and approached by them the way the shepherds found and huddled around the baby Christ (Luke 2:12).
Possibly much to the chagrin of die-hard Christians, Muslims, Scientists, Capitalists and what have you, humanity was designed to be a unified whole based on Logos the way one human body is one: with cells as diverse as those of muscles, sinews, or even transparent eye-cells or acid producing stomach cells, all in full accordance with the same DNA and ultimately with each other.
The gospel teaches that wherever folks are from, whatever language they speak and whatever culture they adhere to, they can either know Logos or be ignorant. Logos leads people to behave according to love rather than elaborate codes of conduct in precisely the same way in which two parents learn to behave in regard to their new-born baby child.
Happiness does not follow from having worked things out — in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is not king but a lonely and misunderstood inmate of an asylum (Ecclesiastes 1:18) — but from being an integrated part of the human manifestation of Logos (Jude 1:24-25). There is no understanding greater than that (and read our article on Exodus for a more elaborate look at these things).