The Gospel and the Greek Philosophers

In the historic battle between orthodoxy and heresy there is one particular issue which has always fascinated me. I refer to the way that early Christians came away from the New Testament writings with radically different interpretations of theology.

Early Christianity was a fragmented movement in which various factions quite literally believed in different and opposing gods. In one of my other articles I described the situation this way: Thus one Christian’s “Creator God” was another Christian’s “devil.” And one Christian’s “flesh and blood” Messiah was another Christian’s other-worldly phantom. Some Christians believed that Jesus came to save the flesh; others believed He came to destroy the flesh. Some Christians believed that Jesus wanted his followers to obey the Law of Moses; others believed that Jesus came to destroy the Law. Some Christians believed that the Law was given by God; others said this Law was given by lower angels who opposed God. No other religious movement in history was so profoundly divided as were the early Christians.

The reality behind this situation is that early Christians could not agree on the language, meaning and concepts that were contained collectively in the New Testament writings. Some elements of the NT were consistent with the Old Testament whereas other elements reflected the popular Hellenistic philosophies and mysticism of the day. This left the writings open to interpretation; and it was for this very reason that the Gnostics were able to make effective use of these writings in advancing their peculiar God and mode of theology. This historic situation is reflected in the writings of the Catholic Fathers, especially Irenaeus and Tertullian, where their anti-Gnostic arguments often revolved around certain key New Testament passages. The problem for the Fathers was that these passages often failed to validate the ‘orthodox’ tenets that these clerics attempted to support from the scriptures. A remarkable example can be seen in Irenaeus’s effort to rescue Paul’s words from the Gnostics as found in 1 Corinthians 15:50,

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither can corruption inherit incorruption.”

The Gnostics understood Paul’s words to be an affirmation of the philosophical dualism of Gnostic tradition. What follows is Irenaeus’s comment on the same passage in his effort to rescue Paul from the Gnostics.

“For as the flesh is capable of corruption, so also is it capable of incorruption.” (Against Heresies, 5.12.1)

Clearly Irenaeus has stated the opposite of what Paul wrote; and it is obvious that Paul and Irenaeus were really approaching the “gospel” from two different schools of ideas. Irenaeus twisted Paul out of context in order to validate his anti-dualistic belief that Jesus was raised as a fleshly being, and that fleshly bodies would be raised along with the soul in the resurrection. But the words of Paul actually favored the philosophical dualism of the Gnostics which, like Plato, elevated the soul and rejected the body (see below). Irenaeus’s blatant twisting of Paul is part of a pattern in that the New Testament writings are influenced by philosophical ideas that later “orthodox” theologians like Irenaeus refused to acknowledge [1].

The Latin Father Tertullian likewise struggled with the scriptures in his arguments against the Gnostics. He was quite frank at times about his frustration with the scriptures and the use thereof by the heretics:

“Now, without a doubt, the Divine Scriptures are exceedingly profitable for this kind of skill… Nor do I risk contradiction in saying that the very Scriptures were even arranged by the will of God so as to furnish materials for the heretics…” (On Prescription Against Heretics, 39)

For Tertullian the theological problems presented by the scriptures were so pervasive that he offered the following advice to his fellow Catholics in their confrontations with heretics:

“Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough.” (ibid. 19)

And again:

“On the present occasion indeed, our treatise has rather taken up a general position against heresies, showing that they must all be refuted on definite, equitable, and necessary rules without any comparison with the Scriptures.” (ibid. 44) 

The problem for Tertullian was that he could not use the scriptures to prove that the Apostles embraced the ‘correct’ theological principles as he defined them. The Gnostics were able to use those same scriptures in support of an entirely different theology. Tertullian engaged in specious arguments in order to explain the “heretics” away. He compared the Gnostics to the cult of Mithras. He argued that just as the cult of Mithras had monks, virgins and sacraments that resembled Catholic tradition, so also the Gnostics had a theology that resembled something that could be found in the scriptures [2]. Tertullian’s solution, in addition to what is quoted above, was to state that the true Apostolic doctrine was something that was handed down by succession through the bishops—who in turn had received this doctrine by voice from the Apostles themselves when the churches were founded. Tertullian’s words in this regard are notable: “…all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God.” (ibid. 21)

Inevitably Tertullian does not refer primarily to scripture, which can resolve nothing, but refers instead to some oral tradition as described through the mouths of Tertullian and his fellow Catholic clergymen. Whatever the heretics may bring forth from the scriptures can be disregarded and “must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God.”

With these words Tertullian, the Father of Latin theology, absolved the Catholic Church of any obligation to maintain its apostolic tradition (i.e. orthodoxy) on the basis of the Apostolic writings (or “Scriptures”). What Tertullian’s legally specious arguments mean for posterity is that theologians have followed his logic and have projected their own notions of Apostolic doctrine into scripture based on some unwritten tradition that all “orthodox” Christians regard as a kind of common sense, or common knowledge. But the unresolved question is whether this common consensus has any basis in scripture, or in history? It is notable that Tertullian himself was never able to use the Apostolic writings to validate his own supposed Apostolic authority and doctrine—and he admitted it! His “prescription” against “heretics” was ultimately based on an appeal to an oral tradition “without any comparison with the scriptures.”

Tertullian’s problems are the result of the fact that the New Testament writings collectively do not represent a single and uniform system of theology. This goes to the crux of the problem in that Christianity from its inception has been wracked by dissentions and heresies. From near the very beginning Christianity has been expressed through a variety of cultural and philosophical perspectives. In this article we will look at the influence of Greek philosophy on the theology of the New Testament. Tertullian himself condemned the heretics of his time for the way they intermingled Greek philosophy with Christian theology: “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” (ibid. 7) But we will see how the New Testament writings themselves catered to these inclinations among gentile Christians. And, as we will see, it was these varying conceptions of God, inspired by Greek thought and philosophy, which allowed the “heretics” to perceive the existence of some other God in the scriptures.

First we must understand that Greek culture and thought has had an influence on the Christian movement even in the first generation. This reality is alluded to in Acts chapter 6 where we learn that there were two factions in the early church: the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists.” The word Hellenist referred to Greek-speaking Jews who had joined the church. The Greek-speaking Jews brought theological ideas into the church which originated from the pagan centers from which they came, and had no basis in the old Hebrew biblical tradition. And certainly it is no coincidence that two of the earliest heretics, Nicholaus and Simon Magus, both had ties to the “Hellenist” wing of the early church.

Two other controversial figures who were part of the Hellenist church were Stephen and Paul. Like Simon and Nicholaus, Paul also has an extensive legacy in the realm of heresy; and both Paul and Stephen alike embraced ideas that, to this day, do not conform to “orthodox” Judeo-Christian opinions. One prominent example is where Stephen and Paul both equate the Lawgiver of the Old Testament with an angel. This was a common practice among Hellenistic Jews who were influenced by Greek notions of philosophy, ethics and theology. Both the Stoic and Platonic schools had their own notions of a pious, monistic supreme Being that was more sophisticated than the popular pagan myths and superstitions. Greek-speaking Jews and Christians inevitably picked up on these ideas. Among Jews the influence of Greek conceptions led them to regard their own often sordid Bible accounts as referring to angels and not the supreme Being. Thus whereas philosophical Greeks would often regard the myths of Hesiod as referring to a lower class of gods, the Hellenistic Jews came to regard their scriptures as referring to angels instead of “God” (J. Charlesworth, New Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, pg. xxxi; Robert M. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem, pg. 43f.). This mode of thought is clearly evident in the words of Stephen in Acts 7:38, 53, and of Paul in Galatians 3:19, 4:1–10; and also Philo, e.g. On the Confusion of Tongues, 146. I have covered this issue at length in other articles so I won’t go into this here (see my articles St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition, III and On God and Justice in the archive).

There are other examples in the New Testament showing that the writers were influenced by Hellenistic or Greek ideas. One of the better examples is in the book of Acts 17 where Paul is portrayed as giving a speech to the Greeks of Athens from the Hill of Ares. Here “Paul” speaks to the Greeks regarding the shrine of the “Unknown God.” Paul claims to have knowledge of this God; and he proclaims that “God that made the world and all things therein…dwelleth not in temples made with hands… For in him we live and move and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said” (Acts 17:24, 28; emphasis added).

Scholars believe that when this writer refers to “poets” that he refers to Stoic philosophers who taught exactly this kind of doctrine about the supreme Being, whom they actually identified with Zeus [3]. Right away we must recognize that the conceptions expressed in Acts 17, as cited above, are not based on Hebrew scripture. The author of Acts even admits this. In the Old Testament there is no language describing mankind and the cosmos as existing in God. Moreover, the Bible admits that “God” commissioned King Solomon to build his temple (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12–14, 1 Kings 5:5). But like the Stoic philosophers, the writer of Acts has “Paul” agreeing with them that “God” does not dwell in temples as the superstitious pagans believed. It is notable that Paul, in his own words, admitted his opinion that the Jews worshipped an “idol” in the Temple at Jerusalem (even as the author of Acts portrayed the Jewish Christians as pious temple devotees; cf. Acts 2:46, 21:20–26; 1 Cor. 10:18–19).

It is ironic that Tertullian, as mentioned above, can quote the scriptures against the heretics, and he accused the latter of dabbling in Stoic and Platonic ideas. Tertullian even quoted Acts at length in opposition to the heretics. Yet at the same time we can see that the writer of Acts was doing the very thing that Tertullian condemned: he was mixing Judeo-Christian theology with pagan Stoic conceptions and placing them in Paul’s mouth. Indeed Tertullian railed at the heretics: “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” Yet here was the writer of Acts engaging in this very activity. And certainly this writer wasn’t doing anything that Paul and other NT writers weren’t doing.

Whether or not Paul’s theology was based on a Stoic model is an open question. In 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul writes of “gnosis” and expresses ideas of God that resemble the words in reference to the “Unknown God” as mentioned in Acts 17. Paul writes “For us there is but one God, the Father, out of whom are all things, and we into him… And in Romans 11:36 it is said of God that “For of him, and through him, and in him are all things.” Yet it is unclear whether these words represent Paul’s true opinions; because we must also factor in 1 Corinthians 15:24–28, where Paul admits, in his own words, that not all things are in God, and that the enemies of God, the authorities and powers, must be put down, so that “God may be all, and in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Why do Paul’s ideas not match? In another article I put forth the entirely plausible explanation that Paul has more than one doctrine (see On Fundy Gnosis archive). Another equally plausible theory is that we have received Paul’s writings from a Catholic church that was committed to upholding the dogma of the unity of God. The highly edited and redacted Pauline corpus we have today comes from this one biased source. I believe it is entirely possible that some passages have been subtly modified so that Paul reads like a Stoic Jew even as he expresses dualistic and Platonic ideas in other passages.

(Note: Another theory is that Paul’s diverse statements reflect a Neo-Platonist influence; Neo-Platonism being defined here as an intermingling or synthesis of Platonic dualism and Stoic pantheism. There are pros and cons to this as I have stated above; the unresolved question being whether Paul’s diverse statements can be harmonized. To keep this article simple I’m going to keep the philosophical roots limited to Platonism and Stoicism, as these are the older schools of thought. For me Neo-Platonism is a later development and is a synthesis of Platonic and Stoic thought, and is a subject to be treated in a separate article.)

As his letters now exist, Paul seems to express himself like a Stoic thinker, who believes that the cosmos emanates from God and is in God. But in other passages Paul also expresses himself like a dualist, like a follower of Plato. And indeed Platonists and Stoics are known for the radical differences between their systems. Stoics believed that all reality was essentially material and could only be discerned through the five senses. This was the only way that God and the universe could be perceived or experienced. God was regarded as the intelligent fire that was the source of life, intelligence and law in everything. For the Stoic thinker there is nothing metaphysical about God or the universe. It is all one Soul. All is in God and from God.

In comparison to the Stoic school, the Platonists believed that there were two levels to the universe: the physical and the metaphysical, and which also may be described as the intellectual and the material. The metaphysical realm is perfect and eternal whereas the physical realm is imperfect, material and transient (Timaeus, 28). All material objects are reflections of non-material, perfect archetypes. The human body and soul were considered to embody this order accordingly (ibid. 30b).

It was in this dualistic context that Plato defined his concept of theology. He taught that there was an unknown supreme Being who presided over the gods and the order of the visible, material cosmos (ibid. 41b). Hence there is that famous statement from Plato in the Timaeus dialogue: “Now to find the Maker and Father of this universe is hard enough and to declare Him to everyone is impossible.” (ibid. 28c)

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus contains the epic creation account of the origin of the universe according to Plato. He proposed that the unknown God had created the cosmos by bringing order to the material realm which had existed in a primeval state of chaos (ibid. 29e). This unknown Father then created lesser gods to govern the cosmos and to create the material bodies for the souls of man, and to govern them. According to Plato it was the unknown God who created the immortal souls of man; whereas the lesser gods created the inferior, physical bodies (ibid. 41, 42). Unlike the Stoics, the Platonists believed that man can only discover his true nature and origin, and the true state of all things, by seeking within the soul (ibid. 28a, Phaedo, 79d). And, in contrast with the Stoics, the Platonists maintained that the supreme Being could not be revealed to or discerned by all men.

Plato’s ideas are reflected in Paul where he writes that “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). These words conform precisely to the Platonic view that the intellectual realm is perfect and eternal whereas the material realm is flawed and transient. We can compare Paul’s words to the words of Socrates as described by Plato in his dialogue Phaedo: “But when the soul investigates by itself it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging…” (79d. ET by G. Grube; quoted from J. Cooper, Plato: Complete Works, Hackett Pub.)

The deprecation of the Platonists toward the body is also reflected in Paul. In his own way Paul drew a distinction between material and non-material elements of human nature: which Paul referred to in terms of the flesh and the spirit. For Paul the flesh was the source of evil and spirit was the essence of salvation (Gal. 5:16–26). Paul’s dichotomy between flesh and spirit is not found in the Old Testament or in Stoic tradition, but instead resembles the doctrine of Plato. This dualism can also be seen in Paul’s famous proclamation that “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption.” Plato likewise believed the body was mortal and the soul immortal. (Note: I am not saying here that Paul was a student of Plato. What I am saying is that Paul was influenced by a Hellenistic culture of ideas that was in fact influenced by Plato.)

In a stark theological context Paul’s dualism and theological implications can be seen in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. Here Paul sets forth the dichotomy between the Spirit and the Law “written in stone” which is the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:6–7). This dichotomy is based on the notion of a duality and conflict between the spirit and the flesh, and is extended to include Jesus vs. Moses, and the Lawgiver (the “god of this world”) vs. the Father of Jesus (2 Cor. 3:12–4:6). In this passage Paul does not affirm any unity of God, but portrays Moses and the Lawgiver as at odds with the Spirit and Glory of Christ and the Father. This coincides with 1 Cor. 15:24–28 where we read that the “last enemy to be destroyed is death” so that “God may be all, and in all.” Paul here denies that “death” came from God, or is in God. And in 2 Corinthians 3:6–7 Paul refers to the Law “written in stone” as the “ministry of death.” Who was it that gave the “ministry of death”? It was the Lawgiver!—whom Paul also refers to as the “god of this world.” (2 Cor. 4:4)

Paul’s ideas in this passage actually go beyond Platonic dualism and actually set a precedent for later Gnostic theology and myth. Paul denies that the Law and death came from God. In Plato everything, aside from pure matter and chaos, is part of God’s plan. Platonism makes distinctions in terms of what is better and what is worse. But Plato does not condemn the body, nor does he know of any enemy of God. All the gods, good or bad, have been set in place by the supreme Being. They are inferior, and the material substance is inferior; but Plato never defines any of this as evil. Paul and the later Gnostics have taken the unique step in that they deny the unity of God and instead propose the notion of conflict. This is where Gnostic tradition splits off from Greek philosophy and the general realm of Hellenistic thought and mysticism (e.g. Philo). Paul himself is the earliest known historical figure to make the initial break with popular conceptions regarding the unity of God.

But again it is of interest to note that Platonism was certainly a launch point for the unique ideas that appear later in Paul (in his own terms) and in Gnostic tradition (which appeals to Plato directly). Plato introduced the idea of a lofty hidden God that reigned over the gods of heaven and earth. The goal of the philosopher is to search for this God by seeking in the non-material, intellectual realm—apart from the material senses (Timaeus, 28a, Phaedrus, 249c–250c). Thus the philosopher searches for the supreme Being by use of his soul alone. These essential ideas are at the foundation of Gnostic tradition, and again, are reflected in Paul [4]. Plato also introduces the idea that this unknown supreme Being is not jealous; which is a central tenet also embraced by the Gnostics. Paul expresses this notion in his discourse on the virtues of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 13. The Holy Spirit reflects the essential nature of God. Paul tells us that the “spirit” is not “jealous” and “keeps no account of evil.” 

 

Greek Philosophy and the Gospels

There are passages in the four New Testament Gospels where Greek philosophy has likewise left its impression on the teachings of Jesus and related theological conceptions. In certain passages Jesus describes a God and an ethic which cannot be reconciled with the God of the Law. Two examples are presented from the following passages:

But I say unto you, Love your enemiesThat you may be the sons of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” (Mt. 5:44–45).

And then once again from Luke 6:35,

But love your enemies… and ye shall be children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and the evil.”

Any good heretic will recognize that Jesus’s words cannot be reconciled with the ethics of the Lawgiver in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament “God” was known to warn and punish those who “murmured” or were disobedient (e.g. Numbers 14). A classic example of this traditional, biblical God can be seen in the following passage from Deuteronomy 6:13ff.,

“You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve him, and shall swear by his name… For the Lord your God is a jealous God among you; lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and destroy you from off the face of the earth.”

Certainly the heretics cannot be blamed for discovering another God in the Gospel passages. But what is the actual historical source of these unique statements and conceptions? The answer is to be found with the Hellenistic thinkers who wrote these gospel passages. The “God” that is described here is derived from popular pagan conceptions of the supreme Being that are traced back to Plato and/or the Stoic school. In contrast with the legalistic and wrathful God of the Law, the words of Jesus above can be compared with the theology and ethic then current in Stoicism, which maintained that all existence was the unfolding of the will of God for the long-term good (providence), and that pious men should accept whatever happens with virtue and good will, whether it be good or evil. Thus in the Stoic Hymn to Zeus we read: “For you have fitted all, evil with good, in one great whole, so that in all things reigns one reason (logos) everlastingly” [5]. For the Stoic there is no real evil; all things work together for the providence of God. In a similar manner Jesus seems to refer to a God who is indifferent to the issues of good and evil. In this context Jesus advises his followers to love their enemies and resist not the evil person. The reality here is that Jesus’s teaching is no longer purely Jewish or biblical.

And again, Platonism likewise promotes the idea of a Creator who is essentially benevolent and good-natured, and, in Plato’s words “…can never become jealous of anything.” (Plato, Timaeus, 29e).

The Gospel of John also bears the imprint of popular Hellenistic thought. Here the Son of God is the described as the “Logos.” More than likely the Logos concept in John reflects the popular Greek concept of Hermes as the messenger and “Logos” of Zeus (W. Boussett, Kyrios Christos, pg. 393). The Stoic source is less likely in this case because in Stoic tradition the “logos” is present in all things; whereas in John Jesus is the manifest “Logos” who created all things.

In reflecting on all this I recall once again the accusations of Tertullian against the heretics: “They either pretend that there is another god in opposition to the Creator, or, even if they acknowledge that the Creator is the one and only God, they treat him as a different being from what he is in truth. The consequence is that every lie which they speak of God is in a certain sense a sort of idolatry.” (On Prescription Against Heretics, 40)

As far as I’m concerned Tertullian may just as well be speaking of the New Testament writers themselves. And certainly it is all too convenient that Tertullian has let himself off the hook where scripture is concerned, through his legally specious “prescription.” Tertullian presumes to judge people on the basis of hearsay because he knows he can’t use the scriptures as a viable standard by which to impose his theological creed on others.

In the end we must recognize that the pagans too had enlightened ideas of God and that these truths had infected and inflamed the minds of some New Testament writers. In truth we must acknowledge the Greek philosophers along with Paul and the Gospel writers for the foundations that they laid for Gnostic Truth. —jw 

 

Notes

1] The famous scholar Wilhelm Bousset states that Irenaeus made Paul suitable for orthodoxy by “distorting the genuine Pauline ideas and divesting them of their essential nature” (Kyrios Christos, pg. 446). James Dunn states that the Catholic Fathers could only rescue Paul from the Gnostics by “abusing” him (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, pg. 291).

2] Chapter 40 of Tertullian’s On Prescription Against Heretics is one of the most intriguing passages in all patristic literature. I urge my readers to take the opportunity to read this passage and to note the unique set of problems that were faced by Christian theologians of this time period. Just click on the link below and scroll down to chapter 40.

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm

3] Cf., e.g., the Hymn to Zeus by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (d. 230 BC). The very notion that Paul’s theology was shaped by Stoic thought is affirmed by, among others, the conservative theologian W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, pg. 178f. See also Edwyn Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics, pp. 13f., 41.

4] Paul does not specifically describe the concept of soul-searching the way Platonists and Gnostics do. But Paul does make statements that show that the revelation of Christ is concerned with the inner life of a person. Thus Paul states that “God revealed his Son in me” (Gal. 1:16). Paul also refers to the spirit of God as something that dwells within a person (Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 3:16). Paul believed that Jesus was the image and form of God that could be apprehended by the human mind.

 5] Quoted from W. Davidson, The Stoic Creed, Arno Press, pg. 235f.

 

By Jim West. Copyright © 2009, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. #1 by jimmwest on January 20, 2013 - 5:03 pm

    To visitors from the NESS. If you’re interested in any further reading I recommend this article:

    http://ogdoas.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/on-god-and-justice-i/

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