November 25, 2008
Finally, we see the hand of Plato in the New Testament retelling of his Allegory of the Cave as a salvation narrative. This is perhaps no more apparent than in the story of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. The time of Christ followed centuries of “silence” from God, an era of Christian history known as the intertestamental period. The Jews held tightly to their faith and practices throughout the tempestuous times, so tight, in fact, that many of them denied the Messiah for whom they had been waiting for centuries prior and some, such as the aforementioned Saul, even went so far as to persecute and murder those who did proclaim their belief in Jesus.
Much like the subjects of Plato’s allegory, the Jews resided in a sort of darkness, a cave in which they were quarantined with their own narrow vision. It is here that they glimpsed a shadow of the truth through the prophets, but never quite understood the meaning. They could see the metaphorical shadows on the wall, but true understanding continued to elude them. Paul, then, takes upon himself the role of Plato’s escaped prisoner, the one who, for the first time in his life, is liberated from his underground dwelling and into the real world. The seventh book of Plato’s The Republic tells of this:
Socrates: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision – will he not be perplexed?
Stories of salvation in the New Testament seem to follow a similar path, for upon coming in contact with visions of truth, one will encounter some confusion as they attempt to sort through the path upon which they once trod in life and the new option now opened before them. The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9 is a remarkable example:
1Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5″Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6″Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Following this experience, Paul was imbued with a new awareness, a more complete view of reality, much like the escaped prisoner. His narrow view had suddenly been widened, moving beyond the mere shadows and to the actualities of life. This life-changing event, though, was not something to merely keep to oneself, rather it becomes a desire and even a duty to express it to those whom he formerly kept company. Plato would also describe this way of thinking a bit later in his Allegory:
Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
Plato would go on to write that once the escapee told his fellow prisoners of the above world, they would ridicule him and persecute him:
Socrates: Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
In much the same way, Paul would spend the remainder of his life teaching people of the new and better life to be found in Christ. He would endure beatings and numerous imprisonments to try and lead them out of the cave in which they dwelt and, while some would be loosed from their bonds and be led to the service, many would refuse, preferring to remain in the darkness and persecute those who would see the light. In the end, even Paul, the escaped prisoner himself, would be suffer a brutal execution at the hands of those unwilling to leave their cavernous homes.
A final note:
Though the similarities are astonishing, it must be said that this does not invalidate the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament. It should, however, give one pause and reason to view things a bit more critically. While it may appear that the works of Plato influenced the New Testament writers, one must proceed carefully and be mindful of the idea that the true influence, through the conduit of history, may be upon the reader, affecting the interpretive lens through which one reads and understands. This is a concept we will continue to explore throughout this discussion as we move along this path of human thought from ancient Greece to today.
November 19, 2008
Plato would explain this otherworldly knowledge of the Forms by claiming that the soul, or the essence, of humans was eternal, having existed in the world of the Forms prior to its birth into the material world and returning to it after his death. This thought is effectively put forth in his dialogue entitled Phaedo, which chronicles the last conversation of Socrates, just prior to his death by hemlock.
Socrates: If, as we are always repeating, there is an absolute beauty, and goodness, and essence in general, and to this, which is now discovered to be a previous condition of our being, we refer all our sensations, and with this compare them-assuming this to have a prior existence, then our souls must have had a prior existence, but if not, there would be no force in the argument? There can be no doubt that if these absolute ideas existed before we were born, then our souls must have existed before we were born, and if not the ideas, then not the souls.
It is also here that we find the familiar idea of an eternal afterlife.
Socrates: That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.
Interestingly, the concept of an afterlife, of some glorious existence in a perfect space in which the presence of God resides, is absent from the Hebrew Scriptures, as is the eternality of the soul. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were more concerned with sustaining their national identity than with the promise of eternal rewards. It is within the New Testament, hundreds of years after Plato, that these ideas are brought to the forefront and made into a central tenet of the faith. Through scriptures like the famous John 3:16:
16For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son that whosoever might believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
we see that the ultimate goal is an eternal paradise. Paul again invokes the imagery of Platonic dualism while affirming the existence of this other world, apart from the material one, in Philippians 3:20-21.
20But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
and in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4
1Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life
Over and over again, the language of a dualistic idealism bursts forth from the sacred writings and, whether speaking of the individual life or an ultimate metaphysical reality, the specter of Plato hovers near.
To be continued…
November 13, 2008
It was against the backdrop of imperial Rome that, around the turn of the millennium, Jesus was born into this world. His short, three year ministry would forever change the world and, following His death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans and at the behest of the Jews, His followers would join together to form the first churches and a new religion would be born, Christianity. His disciples produced a variety of written works during the sixty years following the time of Jesus, including four accounts of His life, teachings, and death, an historical narrative of the early church, and an assortment of letters to the first churches regarding practices and beliefs. These pieces would eventually be placed together to form what we call the New Testament.
While the issue of divine inspiration in the writing of the Scriptures will be discussed in a later chapter, it is of some importance that we understand the influences that may have acted upon the early Christians as they wrote these great works. It is nearly universally accepted that Jesus was an actual person who lived, taught, and died (though his resurrection is still debatable to many), upon whom the entire canon of the New Testament is based. There are many reasons to believe, though, that the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, also played a large role in the actual content of the writings. The idea that the authors employed the language and ideas of philosophy in the New Testament writings should come as no surprise when it is considered where they came from and to whom they were writing. Plato spoke of dual realities, a perfect one in which the Forms resided, and an imperfect one comprised of the material world, and it is this idea which parallels that put forth in the Biblical writings.
Paul utilized this idea often, harkening back to Plato with much of what he is thought to have written. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Romans, Chapter 8, where he sets up a distinct separation between the sinful nature and the Spirit.
1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,[a] 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.[c] And so he condemned sin in sinful man,[d] 4in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind of sinful man[e] is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7the sinful mind[f] is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
9You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
12Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.[g] And by him we cry, “Abba,[h] Father.” 16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
This dualism between the perfect reality of the Spirit and the world of the sinful nature seems to draw a direct correlation to the ideas espoused by Plato four centuries earlier. Where Paul points to the Spirit as something perfect from which we receive guidance in our lives, Plato would evoke the ideals of the Forms, but they would no doubt agree in their perceptions that this reality in which we live is far from perfect and we, as flawed beings, require some guidance from outside to live a fuller, richer, more realized life.
To be continued…