A “Platonic” Old Testament

Got this message a few weeks ago from my nephew William, an aspiring Theologian and Churchman: “Any chance you could do a blog post on ‘why all philosophy is a footnote to Plato’? I’m particularly interested in how thinking like a Greek influences our view of the Old Testament.”  I have already started working on one aspect of this about the Logoi spermatakoi, itself more a Stoic than a Platonic doctrine, but as employed among the Fathers, it certainly had resonance with Platonism. But then as I retired last night my mind began running to other matters that are far more consonant I believe with what my nephew is asking me.

Among the ancients, words were signs of the passions and intellect, they were not names of things. Indeed, “things” did not exist, by which I mean that objects did not exist in some reality separate from the reality within the soul. Thus as words had referents to passions or ideas within the intellect, they reflected the world of reality that existed both within and outside the self. The human soul was at once a microcasm of the universe, and its macrocasm as well. Thus, the myths to the Greek mind were allegories of higher realities, images of greater truths than the mere expression of lustful and capricious gods. Proclus, in commenting on Plato’s Timaeus, saw the story of Atlantis as an allegory of the struggles of the divine beings, which worked from ultimate reality back into history, and not merely the historical revealing the divine. Further, the cave of the nymphs also revealed the true nature of the cosmos.

In the Old Testament this was an unreality. God, He Who Is, forbid any images made of Himself, for he is indescribable, uncircumscribable, ineffable, and whose name implies “without contingency”. There was no analogy of anything created with the uncreate. Nonetheless, throughout the OT all sorts of patterns emerge linking man with heaven. Moses was commanded to make the tabernacle according to the pattern which was revealed to him on the mountain. The angel of God appeared to men. Moses was informed that only the receding elements of God’s glory could be apprehended, and this brought consequences. None of this was lost on the NT writers. Moreover, when we get to the NT, we come to an era dominated by Hellenization, and the forms and tropes we find in the NT are dominated by these: such words as eikon, typos, antitypos, shadows appear. Moreover, St. Paul links Christ and the NT ministry to seeming obtuse allusions in the OT. Adolph von Harnack believed that the fourth century Hellenized Christianity. In fact, he was about four centuries behind the curve. This is not to say that all Christianity is, is a Hellenistic revision of Judaism, that the Judaism of the Apostles was nothing other than that of Philo Judaicus. But it is to say that already we different modes of reading texts in the New Testament, ones that clearly align with the notion of humans as macrocasms of the universe. Knowledge and faith are inextricably conjoined, we could even say they are consubstantial. All too often we think of faith as the present, and knowledge as the future, but we see St. Paul play rather fast and loose with these in I. Cor. 13: on the one hand “now we see in a glass darkly, but then face-to-face,” while on the other “if there be knowledge it shall vanish away . . . . and now abides (into the future) faith.”

What does all this mean for “Platonism” and the OT? It is easy to see allegory as arising out of Origen, and he certainly was its most famous early proponent. But allegory in which history informed the present, in a way wholly other than even the most presentist of modern historians would think of it (e.g., back during the late unrest in Bosnia under President Clinton, some opined that just us World War I was brought about by troubles there, so we were heading for another world-wide conflagration), was rife throughout the New Testament. Such phrases as “upon whom the end of the ages has come,” and “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” bespeak the immanent kingdom of God, and a realization of that the OT was preparatory for the NT. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in defending the OT from the blasphemies of the Gnostikoi, spoke of the relation of the two as one of recapitulation, in which the economy of Christ was a retelling of the OT in its true form: the Virgin gives birth beyond passion, Christ prevails in the Garden, death is overcome by the tree. Other fathers saw other things as well: the Venerable Bede wrote three wonderful commentaries, one each on the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, and the restored temple under Ezra and Nehemiah. He begins with the assertion that these are all now lost or destroyed. They did indeed have a purpose in their own day, but like Jonah, the purpose was greater than event. For just as Jonah arose from the abyss, so Christ arose from the great abyss of death; as the gentiles had but an ephemeral repentance, something true of the Hebrews most of the time as well (just think of Hezekiah to Manasseh), so Christ gives real repentance to the gentiles. Bede can transfer all this to the tabernacle and the temples: the first is an image of the pilgrim people of God, that is, the Jews of the OT. Solomon’s temple is the Church, established by the true Son of David. The last, the temple of Ezra, is the Church in its fullest reformation, that is, in the world to come.

Now, it should also be obvious that what the Venerable Bede or St. Irenaeus were doing has little to do with what we think of as Platonism for the basic reason that to Plato this world was at best but a poor reflection of the ideal realm. In physics he followed Heraclitus. The physical world was the world of chaos, and only the imposition of the will of the demiurge, forming the matter according to the image of the Ideals, held the world together. This is quite the opposite of the Biblical and Patristic image. True, St. Athanasius maintains that since we are created from nothing, we can tend back to our original state, but this is not why we were created, but rather for life in Christ. And Christ, as St. Athanasius points out, puts the lie to Platonism, for in his Person he unites the Creator and Creature, and by his Person he mediates the life of God to we creatures. Such a theology could not be obtained in Platonism.

And thus, I don’t want to call St. Paul and Platonist, nor a Pythagorean, nor a Hellenist. It is obvious he used their language and categories (the terms Theos and Logos are loaded with Greek freight), but it is also obvious that he is not captured by them. Some of the arguments used against the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral epistles is the mature structures of both Theology and ecclesiology found in them, but the presence of Hellenisms are already rampant in the Thessalonian epistles and in Galatians. Ultimately, what St. Paul’s and even the other Apostles’ lives in a Hellenistic world entails is that they used these categories of thought, thought present in the Jewish communities already 100 years before our Lord was born. As such, they weren’t throwing the history of the Old Testament under the bus, which was something the Greeks had long been doing to their myths. {Ironic to me that in a time when the Greek myths had been so thoroughly repudiated Jesus and the early Church would be taking the supposed OT myths as the basis of their faith.} No, the Apostles fully embraced them, for the history formed a unity of the people of God in both economies, the Israel of God that Paul cites in Galatians 6.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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3 Responses to A “Platonic” Old Testament

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Very interesting! St. Paul certainly uses the idea of eternal vs. temporal forms. I think of his description: “we see now as in a mirror darkly…” I delve into Paul’s use of Plato here:

    Also, it shouldn’t strike us as odd that Paul drew on Plato. Plato borrowed many of his ideas from the ancient Egyptians and Kushites. Abraham’s ancestors came from the Nile Valley where these ideas circuated. (See Gen. 10:8-12. Nimrod and Ramah were the sons of Kush.) I teach my college Ethics students about this and have written a short piece here:

  3. Pingback: Informed Prayer (Thoughts on Prayer: III) | Lux Christi

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