EPICUREANISM, a philosophy of adjustment to the social changes after *Alexander the Great (336–323), founded by Epicurus, 342/1–270 B.C.E., "the most revered and the most reviled of all founders of thought in the Greco-Roman world" (De Witt). Recent scholarship sees in it a "bridge" to certain rabbinic and Christian moods. Epicurus taught freedom from fear and desire through knowledge as the natural and pleasurable life. He endorsed religious observance but denied earthly involvement of the perfect gods and with it providence, presage, punishment, and penitential prayer. The transformation of Epicureanism into a competitive sect celebrating Epicurus as "savior" increased the already existing opposition to it. Rhetorical literature falsely accused Epicurus of materialistic hedonism. Complaints of Epicurean dogmatism, "beguiling speech" (Col. 2:4), and compelling argumentation (of Avot 2:14 "…[know] what to answer the Epicurean") are frequently heard. Rabbinic condemnation reflects knowledge of Greco-Roman rhetoric, experiences with individuals and centers (Gadara, Gaza, Caesarea), and, possibly, the favoritism shown to Epicureanism by *Antiochus Epiphanes and *Hadrian. "Epicurean" became thus a byword for "deviance" – ranging from disrespect to atheism – in Philo, Josephus, and rabbinism alike (see *Apikoros). An early unexpanded version of the "four who entered 'Paradise'" (Ḥag. 14b) may once have signified Epicurus' school ("the garden"), since it fits Akiva's past, Ben Azzai's celibacy and many Epicurean sayings, Elisha b. Avuyah's heterodoxy, and Ben Zoma's gnosticism (Epicureanism and Gnosticism were equated also by the Church Fathers). Akiva's "mystical" admonition (Ḥag. 14b) could easily have been a parody on the "apocalyptic"-enthusiastic style of the Epicureans (parallel parody H. Usener, Epicurea, fragm. 364; Gen. R. 1:5, Theodor-Albeck, p. 2 mentions "nothing from nothing"; Mid. Ps. to 1:22 the "automatic" universe; cf. Jos., Ant., 10:280).
Agreements, however, both in content and literary form, between rabbinism and Epicureanism are striking: study for its own sake (Vatican fragment 45 and Avot 6:1); removal of doubt (Life 121b, Doctr. 22 and Avot 1:16); mortality and urgency (Vat. fr. 10 and Avot 2:15); acquisition of a companion (To Menoeceus, end, and Avot 1:6); diet of bread and water (Bailey, fr. 37 and Avot 6:4); satisfaction with one's lot (Bailey, fr. 69–70 and Avot 4:1); and avoidance of public office (Bailey, fr. 85–87; Vat. fr. 58; Doctr. 7 and Avot 1:10–11; 2:3; etc.). Epicurus anticipated Judaism's denial of astral divinity and rule. With the general rise of the lower classes he accorded human dignity even to the prostitute, an evaluation continued in the Midrash (Sif. Num. 78; Gen. R. 85:8) and the Gospels (Matt. 1:3; 5, etc.). In Hellenism and Christianity, too, denunciation of Epicurus together with partial adoption of his ethics is frequent. The centrality of the sage in post-Socratic ethics and rhetoric facilitated such developments.
C. Bailey, Epicurus (Greek and Eng., 1926); N.W. De Witt, Epicurus and his Philosophy (1954); A.M.J. Festugiére, Epicurus and his Gods (1956); S. Lieberman, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical and Other Studies (1963), 123–41; Reallexikon fuer Antike und Christentum, 5 (1962), 681–819, S.V. Epikur (contains bibliography).
[Henry Albert Fischel]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.