Jesus preaches the kingdom of God

Kingdom of God

Mat 6:9 In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.
Mat 6:10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus prays this to God. This was Jesus’ main ministry on Earth, and it was for this that Jesus strove. Jesus believed God was in heaven and God would soon usher in a new Kingdom on Earth. This Kingdom was a melding of Heaven and Earth. In this sense, God’s Kingdom would come. God’s rule would be established on Earth as it currently is being administered in heaven (this suggests God’s rule is currently not being enjoyed on Earth).

Jesus’ prayer to God is oft repeated by Church-goers, but they seem to gloss over the significance of Jesus’ words. His prayer is made figurative, rather than accepted at face value. But in Jesus’ day, the Jews were expecting something radically different than what modern Christians expect:

Dan 7:27 Then the kingdom and dominion, And the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, Shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And all dominions shall serve and obey Him.’

This is the hope of Jewish eschatology. God would return to Earth and establish His Kingdom. Israel would rule this Kingdom and the Gentiles would bring tribute (see Isaiah 61:6). In a limited sense, the Gentiles could even join Israel (see Isaiah 66:21). In this context, Jesus really does pray that God bring His Kingdom to Earth and establish His rule. This is what Jesus widely preaches, and this is the preaching that Jesus calls on his listeners to believe for salvation.

Jesus follows in a long line of prophets that have preceded him. This is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard:

Mat 21:33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.
Mat 21:34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.
Mat 21:35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
Mat 21:36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.
Mat 21:37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
Mat 21:38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’
Mat 21:39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Mat 21:40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

This parable is meant to apply to Jesus. Jesus is the son. The former servants are the dead prophets that litter Israel’s history (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, etc), of which John the Baptist was the most immediate prophet. John preached a coming Kingdom of God in which God would judge the wicked and the righteous would rule:

Mat 3:2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

This is John’s main preaching. John believes the end is near and people need to prepare themselves. This Kingdom is a rule by God on Earth. God returns to Earth and establishes His kingdom to rule forever. John explains the coming judgment:

Mat 3:10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Mat 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Mat 3:12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Compare:

Psa 98:9 For He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, And the peoples with equity.

Much like the Psalmist, John preaches a coming judgment in which the entire world would be judged by God. John’s ministry was to Israel and the Psalmist identifies Israel as the special people (Psa 98:3). The righteous of all nations would worship God after this judgment.

A few points of note. John was preaching “repent of sins because God is coming to judge.” John states that the “one coming after him” will kill the wicked. This does not resemble modern Gospel teachings at all, much less the Gospel that Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15. But Jesus takes up John’s gospel:

Mar 1:14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
Mar 1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus’ message is very much the same as John’s. The people were to repent of their sins because God would soon bring His kingdom to Earth. Much like John’s version, Jesus claims that there will be a sudden and violent destruction of the wicked:

Mat 13:40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Mat 13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
Mat 13:42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Mat 13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Mat 13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous
Mat 13:50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Angels are the “reapers”. The reapers scour the Earth to round up the wicked. These will be gathered together and burned to death. While the wicked die, the righteous inherent the new Kingdom of God on Earth. Elsewhere, this cleansing is styled as a separation of sheep from goats:

Mat 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.
Mat 25:32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.
Mat 25:33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
Mat 25:34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

After the wicked are destroyed, the righteous again are said to inherit the Kingdom. This Kingdom appears to already exist in some form. In Revelation 21 this Kingdom is said to descend from Heaven in a merging of Heaven and Earth (Rev 21:2). Jesus, most likely, has something similar in mind:

Mat 24:30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Mat 24:31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

And

Mat 26:64 Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

People are to watch the sky for the coming Kingdom. After this, God rounds up those who are faithful (recall Mat 13:49). These faithful will then inherit the Kingdom of God.

Jesus talks much about this Kingdom of God. In it his twelve disciples would rule from twelve thrones:

Luk 22:28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials,
Luk 22:29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,
Luk 22:30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Next Jesus describes the Gentiles coming to the Kingdom, in the same manner described in Isaiah 56:7. Compare:

Mat 8:10 When Jesus heard [the faith of a Gentile], He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!
Mat 8:11 And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 8:12 But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Isa 56:7 Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices Will be accepted on My altar; For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

This is a place where people eat and bring sacrifices.

In this Kingdom, the righteous might even be missing eyes due to self-mutilation:

Mar 9:47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire—
Mar 9:48 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’

Even after Jesus dies and rises again, his disciples are expecting this coming Kingdom of God:

Luk 19:11 And as they heard these things, he added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.

Notice the focus on Israel. Jewish eschatology was centered on the fact that Israel was to be the pinnacle of this Kingdom of God. Jesus preached nothing that would convince his followers otherwise. The Jews were the focus of this coming salvation from the wicked, yet Gentiles would remain on Earth and serve God through Israel. Jesus preaches just this. Compare:

Joh 4:22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.
Joh 4:23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.

Psa 67:2 That Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations.
Psa 67:3 Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You.
Psa 67:4 Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For You shall judge the people righteously, And govern the nations on earth. Selah
Psa 67:5 Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You.

Psa 98:2 The LORD has made known His salvation; His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations.
Psa 98:3 He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Psa 98:4 Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.

Psa 98:9 For He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, And the peoples with equity.

Jesus says “Salvation is of the Jews”. To Jesus, God’s main purpose in coming to Earth is to save the Jews from their Roman oppressors. God is establishing the Jews as His chosen people in His new Kingdom. The wicked Jews and the wicked Gentiles would be put down violently. But to Jesus, the non-wicked Gentiles too had a place. Gentiles ( in the tradition of Psalms 67 and 98 and Isaiah 56, 61, and 66) would enter the Kingdom and praise God. Some would even be allowed to become Priests (Isa 66:21).

So, Jesus’ public ministry was precisely the ministry of John the Baptist (although John seems not to have taught about the Holy Spirit and Jesus did (Act 19:2)). Jesus was preaching an imminent coming Kingdom of God on Earth, ruled by God through Israel, in which Gentiles were subservient. Jesus did not preach that he was divine or would die as substitution or atonement for sins. Any time Jesus alluded to being the Messiah or divine, it is not in direct ways or to large crowds. Sometimes Jesus even defuses the situation by explaining away his statements on technicalities (Joh 10:34). In any case, Jesus only secretly preached he was the Messiah and is careful to charge his disciples to tell no man (Luk 9:21, Mat 16:20, Mat 16:21, Mar 9:30).

If Jesus had taught that he was divine or the Messiah then Jesus would have been executed much sooner. Claiming to be divine would cause rural Jews to stone Jesus instantly (Joh 8:59, Joh 10:31). Jesus would have never enjoyed the popularity he gained by this caustic message. Instead, Jesus attaches himself to John the Baptist’s ministry, which already had wide popularity (Mat 21:26).

Jesus does not repeal the law. This would also be a caustic message and a stoning offense. A suicide pact was formed against Paul for this very reason (Act 23:12). Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus merely expounds upon Old Testament law, not contradicting the law. This was a common Jewish Rabbi practice. Jesus’ most famous saying about the law is that not one “jot or tittle” would be revoked:

Luk 16:16 “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.
Luk 16:17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail.

Paralleled in Matthew:

Mat 5:18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Mat 5:19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 5:20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus, here, couples the law with the Kingdom of God. Everyone who believes and does the law gains entrance to the Kingdom. Jesus will not abolish the law. The law will never fade away. Anyone teaching to break the law will possibly be extracted from the Kingdom. Only the righteous will gain entrance to the Kingdom.

This is Jesus’ gospel. God will come to Earth, establish His Kingdom, kill the wicked, bless the righteous, and establish Israel as the priest nation. This is the gospel that should compel repentance, by which people can avoid being purged by God’s wrath. This is also standard Jewish eschatology, common since the fall of Israel and before. Jesus preached the coming Kingdom of God on Earth.

Posted in Bible, Dispensationalism, God, Jesus, Kingdom Theology, People, Theology | 1 Comment

an overview of the mystery cults

[W]e may say that a Mystery-Religion was (I) a religion of symbolism which, through myth and allegory, iconic representations, blazing lights and dense darkness, liturgies and sacramental acts, and suggestion quickened the intuitions of the heart, and provoked in the initiate a mystical experience conducing to palingenesia (regeneration), the object of every initiation.
-Samuel Angus, The Mystery Religions

The Mystery Cults can best be described as secretive orders centered around individual pagan gods and goddesses. These cults focused on ritual acts, including allegorical purification and spiritual introspection. The main purpose of the Mystery Cults was to purify souls, such that they could escape the physical world and return to the One (the highest good or god). This has to be said in a general sense as the Mystery Religions were not a uniformed belief system, but rather sporadic and divergent cults with varying origins.

These orders derive their names, the Mysteries, from the fact that they professed secret doctrines revealed only to the elect higher ranked initiates. The secrets were kept on pain of death. This is another reason all statements about the Mystery cults must be said with some caution. Recreating the Mystery Cults involves patch-working divergent sources from across centuries of time. Not many sources were willing to temp the punishment for profaning the Mysteries.

Livy records that two youths were executed for mistakenly wandering into the mystery rites:

During the celebration of the mysteries, two young men of Acarnania, who were not initiated, unapprized of its being an offence against religion, entered the temple of Ceres along with the rest of the crowd: their discourse readily betrayed them, by their asking some absurd questions; whereupon, being carried before the presidents of the temple, although it was evident that they went in through mistake, yet they were put to death, as if for a heinous crime.

Other accounts include death threats against the famed Greek Alcibiades and attempted executions of Andokides and Diagoras the Melian. Although the existing historical accounts of penalties seem limited to these instances, we have to be informed by these accounts. The lack of published secrets attest to the effectiveness of suppression of these facts.

Any hint of exposing Mystery secrets always were accompanied by mass outrage and death threats.

Origin

The origins of the Mystery Cults extend as far back to possibly the fifteenth century BC. The Parian Chronicle places Demeter in Eleusis at this time:

12) From when Demeter, coming to Athens, [invented] the seed corn, and the [first festival of ploughing time was celebrated, under the instruction of T]riptolemus, son of Celeus and Neaira, 1146 years, when Erechtheus was king in Athens.

13) From when Tripto[lemus reaped the corn which] he sowed in the Rarian plain called Eleusis, 1[1]45 years, when [Erechtheus] was king of Athens.

Sowing the corn is said by Mystery Religion scholar George Mylonas to be symbolic for participating in the rites in his book Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

A Homeric hymn, written in the style of Homer (C. 850BC) probably around the seventh century, also makes mention of these same Mystery Rites:

… Then she went to the kings, administrators of themistes,
and she showed them—to Triptolemos, to Diokles, driver of horses,
to powerful Eumolpos and to Keleos, leader of the people [lâoi]—
she revealed to them the way to perform the sacred rites, and she pointed out the ritual to all of them[51]
—the holy ritual, which it is not at all possible to ignore, to find out about,
or to speak out. The great awe of the gods holds back any speaking out.
Olbios [e.g. prosperous or happy] among earth-bound mortals is he who has seen these things.
But whoever is uninitiated in the rites, whoever takes no part in them, will never get a share [aisa] of those sorts of things [that the initiated get],
once they die, down below in the dank realms of mist.

Although the Mystery Cults started in a polytheistic context, with polytheistic themes, the Greek religion gradually progressed. Philosophers, such as Xenophanes, wrote scathing reviews of the Greek gods, claiming them false and positing a monotheism featuring a god without form. Soon, Greek culture embraced this philosophy. Per Marvin W Meyer in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts:

But for the Greeks of the fifth and forth centuries B.C.E., the heroic days celebrated by the bard Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey represented the old order of the Greek world, and that old order, with its increasingly anachronistic poleis and its out-moded gods, was giving way to a new post-Olympian world…

In sum, the Olympians began to fall from glory for several reasons. Their destiny was linked to that of the Greek polis, which was no longer the basic political unit in the world after Alexander’s time. Furthermore, the philosophical criticism of religion that took place before and during the Hellenistic period challenged Greek beliefs and exposed the gods as unworthy of the worship and devotion of thoughtful Greek people. To be sure, the Olympian pantheon maintained itself as a religious and cultural force in the Hellenistic world, and attempts were made to inject new philosophical and religious values into the systems of the Olympian deities. Homer did not relinquish his place at the center of ancient education, and the allegorical exegesis of Homeric texts allowed people to interpret the sacred myths in new, scientific, philosophical ways. Nonetheless, the hearts of many were turning away from Zeus and the Olympians during this period, and many searched at home and abroad for gods that would satisfy more fully their religious longings.

By the time of Plato, the popular Mystery Cults embraced much of what is commonly called Platonism, while rejecting the myths of Homer.

Rites

The Mystery Cults are most associated with their rites. These rites were major celebrations in the ancient world and would attract large crowds of distant peoples (people who were initiated and those who wished to be initiated). The rites usually took for form of symbolic gestures mimicking specific cultic myths. The rites, especially the rites of Eleusis, often symbolize death and rebirth.

The Eleusinian rites were the most popular. They used the fable of Demeter and Persephone (Kore) as their basic mythology. Dudley Wright describes the story:

Persephone (sometimes described as Proserpine and as Cora or Kore), when gathering flowers, was abducted by Pluto, the god of Hades, and carried off by him to his gloomy abode… Demeter (or Ceres), her mother, arrived too late to assist her child… For nine nights and days she wandered, torch in hand, in quest of her child… Demeter was still vowing vengeance against gods and men, and because of the continued loss of her daughter she rendered the earth sterile during a whole year.

The oxen drew the plough, but in vain was the seed sown in the prepared ground. Mankind was threatened with utter annihilation, and all the gods were deprived of sacrifices and offerings. Zeus endeavoured to appease the anger of the gods, but in vain. Finally he summoned Hermes to go to Pluto and order him to restore Persephone to her mother. Pluto yielded, but before Persephone left she took from the hand of Pluto four pomegranate pips which he offered her as sustenance on her journey. Persephone, returning from the land of shadows, found her mother in the temple at Eleusis which had recently been erected. Her first question was whether her daughter had eaten anything in the land of her imprisonment, because her unconditional return to earth and Olympos depended upon that. Persephone informed her mother that all she had eaten was the pomegranate pips, in consequence of which Pluto demanded that Persephone should sojourn with him for four months during each year, or one month for each pip taken. Demeter had no option but to consent to this arrangement, which meant that she would enjoy the company of Persephone for eight months in every year, and that the remaining four would be spent by Persephone with Pluto. Demeter caused to awaken anew “the fruits of the fertile plains,” and the whole earth was re-clothed with leaves and flowers…

The entire myth is centered around the concept of a death and rebirth. Persephone descends to hades, but returns. Plants wither and die, yet spring again to life. This continues indefinitely. This story served as ample bedrock for the Mystery rites. The Eleusinian Mysteries were split into two parts, the Greater and the Lesser Mysteries. The Greater Mysteries honored Demeter and the descent. The Lesser Mysteries honored Persephone and the reawakening.

The Greater rites have described most fully by George Mylonas in his book Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries:

Day 0 – priestesses carried a basket of Sacred Objects from Eleusis to Athens.
Day 1 – Initiates gathered, vowed silence, and began fasting.
Day 2 – Initiates formed a procession to the sea to begin purification.
Day 3 – Each initiate sacrificed a pig for that evening’ feast.
Day 4 – Each initiate would undergo healing rites and try to harvest their dreams for interpretation.
Day 5 – A grand procession is formed to march back to Eleusis, stopping at the various places that Demeter was said to have stopped.
Day 6 – A nightlong party and subsequent day of rest.
Day 7 – Mystery initiates would enter the temple are night to fulfill the rest of the Demeter myth, including death and rebirth. This stage was much more secretive. It is here that initiates viewed of some sort of sacred object, or focus item. Hippolytus (although not a disinterested witness) relates that the focus item was an ear of corn. This ear of corn represented “perfect enormous illumination”:

And after the Phrygians, the Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: (I allude to) an ear of corn in silence reaped. But this ear of corn is also (considered) among the Athenians to constitute the perfect enormous illumination (that has descended) from the unportrayable one…

Focus items were not special in and of themselves, but an object on which initiates could contemplate greater truths. These focus items seem to be a common object in all Mystery Cults. In fact, when Pompey invades Jerusalem he is surprised that he finds nothing when invading the Jewish temple. He was expecting some sort of focus item or statue, anything. But it is empty, and Pompey discounts the Jewish “mysteries” as empty:

[5.9] Gnaeus Pompeius was the first of our countrymen to subdue the Jews. Availing himself of the right of conquest, he entered the temple. Thus it became commonly known that the place stood empty with no similitude of gods within, and that the shrine [mysteries] had nothing to reveal [were a sham].

After this focus item is viewed and contemplated. There seems to be some sort of rebirth ritual. Themistios records:

The soul [at death] has the same experience as those who are being initiated into great Mysteries… at first one wanders and wearily hurries to and fro, and journeys with suspicion through the dark as one uninitiated: then come all the terrors before the final initiation, shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement: then one is struck with a marvelous light, one is received into pure regions and meadows, with voices and dances and the majesty of holy sounds and shapes: among these he who has fulfilled initiation wanders free, and released and bearing his crown joins in the divine communion, and consorts with pure and holy men.

The culmination of the entire rite is some sort of other-bodily experience. Initiates experience death but then become enlightened and reborn.

Another account of the Mystery rites is in the satirical book The Golden Ass, by Apuleius. This book is also known as Metamorphoses, a novel in which the narrator magically turns himself into a donkey. But in Book 11, the narrator becomes an initiate into the Mysteries of Isis:

At once I set about acquiring those things myself or procuring them zealously through friends, while sparing no expense. Then the high-priest escorted by a band of devotees led me to the nearest baths, saying the occasion required it. When I had bathed according to the custom, he asked favour of the gods, and purified me by a ritual cleansing, sprinkling me with water. Then in the early afternoon he led me to the shrine again, and placed me at the Goddess’ feet. He gave me certain orders too sacred for open utterance then, with all the company as witnesses, commanded me to curb my desire for food for the ten days following, to eat of no creature, and drink no wine.

We see the familiar theme of cleansing and fasting in preparation of what is to come. Apuleius also speaks about several dreams and his conversations with the priests about them. Apuleius later becomes an initiate of Osiris, and the same thing is repeated, but this time without the baptism (does the Isis baptism count for both?):

I made my preparations, again went without meat for a ten day period, and shaved my head, after which I was initiated into the nocturnal mysteries of the supreme god, and confidently enacted the holy rites of his worship too…

All of these rites, Apuleius relates, are about death and rebirth:

The gates of the underworld and the guardianship of life are both in her hands, he said, and the rites of initiation are akin to a willing death and salvation through her grace. Indeed, those whose term of life was drawing to its close, who already stood on the last threshold of light, if the sect’s unspoken mysteries could be safely entrusted to them, were often summoned by the power of the Goddess to be in a manner reborn through her grace and set again on a path of renewed life.

This rebirth, as related by Plato and Plotinus, was an equivalent of a Platonic ascent, a return to the One.

Theology

Olbios [blessed] among earth-bound mortals is he who has seen these things.
But whoever is uninitiated in the rites, whoever takes no part in them, will never get a share [aisa] of those sorts of things [that the initiated get], once they die, down below in the dank realms of mist.
-Hymn to Demeter

Beautiful indeed is the Mystery given us by the blessed gods: death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing.
-Inscription found at Eleusis

Both Plato (428 – 347BC) and Plotinus (204-270AD) speak about the end goals of the Mystery Cults.

From Plato in Phaedo:

And I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For “many,” as they say in the mysteries, “are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics,”-meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.

But he who is a philosopher or lover of learning, and is entirely pure at departing, is alone permitted to reach the gods. And this is the reason… why the true votaries of philosophy abstain from all fleshly lusts, and endure and refuse to give themselves up to them-not because they fear poverty or the ruin of their families, like the lovers of money, and the world in general; nor like the lovers of power and honor, because they dread the dishonor or disgrace of evil deeds.

In Phaedrus, Plato relates:

Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came, for she cannot grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy, may acquire wings … But the others receive judgment when they have completed their first life, and after the judgment they go, some of them to the houses of correction which are under the earth, and are punished; others to some place in heaven whither they are lightly borne by justice… For a man must have intelligence of universals, and be able to proceed from the many particulars of sense to one conception of reason;-this is the recollection of those things which our soul once saw while following God-when regardless of that which we now call being she raised her head up towards the true being. And therefore the mind of the philosopher alone has wings; and this is just, for he is always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in recollection to those things in which God abides, and in beholding which He is what He is. And he who employs aright these memories is ever being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect. But, as he forgets earthly interests and is rapt in the divine, the vulgar deem him mad, and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired.

The Mystery Cults embraced rebirth. This took the form of depreciation from partaking in the physical world. The physical world was something to be escaped. Those who succeed at initiation will “dwell with the gods”. This idea that Mystery initiates would be reborn into the spiritual world is also related by Plotinus around 600 years later. From Plotinus:

7. Therefore we must ascend again towards the Good, the desired of every Soul. Anyone that has seen This, knows what I intend when I say that it is beautiful. Even the desire of it is to be desired as a Good. To attain it is for those that will take the upward path, who will set all their forces towards it, who will divest themselves of all that we have put on in our descent:- so, to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments worn before, and the entry in nakedness- until, passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God, each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from Which all things depend, for Which all look and live and act and know, the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being.

The writings of Plato show some development of this Platonistic Dualism in the Mystery Cults. This idea matured by the time of Plotinus. The Mystery Cults generally adopted the idea that the physical world was evil and the goal of a religious life was to disdain the flesh and ascend to the divine. The divine was pure and indescribable. It was the Platonistic idea of the One (the ultimate good). It would be hard to imagine that Plato did not influence the Mystery Cults, not unlike how the Mystery Cults influenced Plato. Certainly it makes sense that the enlightened secrets of the mystery cults were some sort of path in order to ascend to the One.

Plato writes:

There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness, – we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most bleed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light.

Conclusion

The Mystery Cults served as symbolically based conduits to the Platonistic ascent. In the 18th century book, The Divine Legation of Moses, the author argues that the primary secret of the Mystery cults was that God is Unity, the One. This “secret” is obvious to anyone who is familiar with Greek writings. Most Greeks, by the time of Plato, were monotheistic in the sense they believed in this One. The secrets of the Mystery Cults were actually that man can ascend to the Unity, the One. This was the point of all their secretive rites, a hope in eternal life unified with godhood.

Posted in Greek History, History, Mystery Cults | Leave a comment

gerson on dualism in plotinus

Plotinus and other Platonists identified matter with evil. Plotinus scholar, Lloyd P Gerson, explains their dualism in his pivotal work Plotinus:

We have already encountered briefly Plotinus’ identification of matter with evil. Such an identification, along with the identification of goodness with the first principle of all, gives coordinates as it were by which to judge moral progress and decline. These can be described alternatively as approaching one terminus and distancing the other. Just as approaching the Good means incremental identification with noetic activity, so declining towards evil means incremental identification with things contaminated with evil.

Posted in People, Platonism, Plotinus | Leave a comment

my speaking in tongues anecdote

When I was in Portland, I was scouting out churches and found a fairly nice church. The pastor approached me after the service and started asking me questions, one of which dealt with my church background. I mentioned I had attended an Assemblies of God church in college. I quickly followed noting it was not a “speaking in tongues” Assemblies of God church to clarify. He paused for a second and countered that sometimes his church spoke in tongues.

I engaged him for a bit as to Paul’s actual meaning of “speaking in tongues”, but when I noticed I was not gaining any progress I fell back to asking him about interpretation. I asked him if he followed Paul’s mandate to interpret. He said his church does interpret tongues when used.

To my amusement, the very next week one parishioner decided to start speaking in tongues. He stood up and started speaking in what seemed like an oddly Russian language. This lasted a good five minutes before he said Amen. The congregation echoed this “Amen” and the man then sat down.

The preacher, most likely inspired by the last week’s conversation, quickly said “Brother Dave, would you like to interpret that for the congregation?”

The parishioner was taken aback. He had not expected to actually have to formulate a meaning for his babbling. It never entered his mind that he would be asked to explain. He seemed to have slightly panicked. He stood up and stated that his five minute long speech was interpreted as “God be with us.” Then he quickly sat down.

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ehrman on the present and future kingdom of God

From Bart Ehrman’s Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

At the same time, there are other indications, even in these earlier sources, that in some sense Jesus and his followers thought they were already enjoying aspects of the future Kingdom in the present. As a result, probably the majority of scholars have been content to say that Jesus talked about the Kingdom as both future and present.

I think this general view (and as stated, it is very general!) is right, even though I’m not confident that most scholars have understood in what sense it’s right. It should be quite clear by now that Jesus’ predictions about the coming Kingdom cannot be watered down, compromised, misquoted to death. For they form the very core of his teachings. His entire proclamation consisted in a call to prepare for the coming Kingdom, which would be brought in by a final judgment through the imminent appearance of the Son of Man. Jesus’ teaching of what we might call “ethics” was advanced to show people how they could be ready.

At the same time, since the end represented an act of God to reclaim his creation for himself, Jesus understood that God was even now, in the present, ultimately sovereign over this world, notwithstanding the fact that the forces of evil had been unleashed against it. God was still, in the final analysis, in control, and could act, even in the present, on behalf of those who followed his will. Moreover, those who followed his will in the present—who would, then, inherit the Kingdom that was coming in the future—were in some sense practicing the ethics of the future Kingdom. In that sense, they were experiencing a kind of foretaste of what life in the Kingdom would be like.

Some of Jesus’ best-known parables suggest that in some sense the Kingdom is already being experienced in the present, leading some scholars to make the mistake of thinking that there was nothing radically new to come in the future. That this is a misreading of these parables should be obvious by now. And it should be emphasized that even these parables themselves stress the enormous difference between the small and inauspicious experience of the Kingdom in the present and the enormous and cataclysmic coming of the Kingdom in the future.

Most of these parables have to do, in one way or another, with illustrating this immense difference. For example, in a parable independently attested in Mark and Thomas, Jesus likens the Kingdom to a mustard seed, that begins as a tiny seed (the “smallest on earth,” according to Mark) but then becomes a huge shrub, large enough for birds to nest in (“the greatest of all,” Mark 4:30-32). Scholars have had a field day with this parable, trying to make it mean all sorts of things…

…in both Mark and Thomas, the point is that something with a tiny beginning has such a huge result. Jesus and his followers had not exactly taken the world by storm! But when the Son of Man arrives, as they anticipate, a storm will be the least of the world’s problems. Thus the Kingdom was like a mustard seed: a small beginning in Jesus’ ministry, but an immense outcome on the day of judgment.

So, too, in the parable of the woman putting leaven in three batches of dough (Q: Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20). The leaven is hidden at first, but it eventually permeates all three batches in their entirety. The Kingdom of God is like that: inauspicious beginnings with enormous consequences.

Posted in Ehrman, Jesus, Kingdom Theology, People, Theology | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Tim Jacks – Vaccinations and Risk

family

A response to this article in which Tim Jack explains how his child with Leukemia was exposed to measles. He lashes out at parents who do not vaccinate their children.

Tim,

First of all, I would like to say that I am very sorry to hear of your child’s leukemia and recent visit to the hospital after being exposed to measles. At times like these it is really easy to lash out at others, trying to assign blame. If there is a car accident, people might blame car manufacturers, or the other driver, or God, anything. Attributing blame helps people make sense of the tragedy in life. But we should caution ourselves before trying to export our frustrations.

Myself, I too have a child with leukemia, T-ALL. He is not in the low risk category either. I write this from the hospital as he has been admitted with an unknown fever. You know the drill. We might be there for a week or more waiting for the fever to subside. Your child shuts down. He is unable to sleep, being awaken by nurses through each night. The food is terrible, and the schedule destroys your own life as well as the lives of your other children. It is not a pretty picture. I understand your frustration.

Do I blame the little girl who coughed on my youngest son, straight in his face? Do I blame the church Sunday school for allowing sick children to attend? Do I blame my other children for possibly bringing it home? Do I blame the parents of the sick children to whom my children were exposed? Before assigning blame, we should step back, clear our minds of prejudices, and take account of the situation.

So why should we be hesitant to assign blame? When we usually think of negligent actions, one factor has to be probabilities. Yeah, a car crash involving someone who was playing a Gameboy is probably negligent. The odds that his behavior would directly increase the immediate harms to other people are apparent. People generally cannot play Gameboy while giving attention to their environment. But what if he were, instead, swerving as not to hit a child. This crash might be his fault, but people could understand he was facing tradeoffs and made an executive decision. No one would “blame” him. In the latter scenario, who is going to assign blame to the driver? In short, the resulting consequences have to be probable and mitigating factors have to be considered.

Additionally, there should be some sort of direct link. Hitler blamed “the Jews” for all the ills of Germany. An entire group is being blamed, although that group is made up of a diverse group of people, living in varied situations, who may or may not have ties to the economy. Plus, there were other people in power who had even more control over the economy who were not Jewish. By what means can a reasonable person attribute a failing economy to “the Jews”?

When someone labels all non-vaccinating parents as evil, they are lumping in the South Dakota rural farmers with Miami metro socialites. The risk factors are vastly different for these two groups. In fact, the least vaccinated people group in the US is in the US Virgin Islands, where there has been no deadly outbreaks that I am aware. Vaccinated people carry disease as well. Certain children are too young to have had certain vaccinations. Animals carry disease. The blame for transmission becomes very hazy when we realize that there is no direct link.

Take the following scenario: A vaccinated man travels to a third world country. He is a photographer and wants to take pictures of a measles outbreak. He then flies back to the United States where an infant is exposed to him on a plane. The infant travels to Disneyland and infects an unvaccinated boy. That boy travels to Arizona and exposes a child who cannot get vaccinated. Who is to blame? Should it be the first person for engaging in risky activity? Maybe it is the parents of the baby for traveling when unvaccinated? Is it Disneyland for not screening for disease in a popular destination? Is it the unvaccinated kids’ parents for not vaccinating? But what if they were the 2% for which the vaccination would not have worked anyways, is it still their fault? Maybe it is the parents of the last child. After all, they took no precautions that could have avoided the infection. After all, they could have dressed their child in a full HAZMAT suit every day. Every time we leave our house, certainly we assume some sort of risk on our own volition. When bad things happen, sometimes there is no blame that can be given.

What this tells us is that not only does an action have to be negligent, without mitigating factors, but it also has to be attributable. Only then can we assign blame. Do you believe parents who do not vaccinate meet those requirements?

Let us take measles, because that is the most common scare tactic and your child with Leukemia was exposed to it. Let us assume 1500 cases of measles from 2004-2014. This is my estimation from the CDC chart, and I graciously include stats from the Amish outbreak (it is an outlier stat that does not represent normal American communities). The US population is 316 million. I will put these two numbers next to each other for scale.

316,000,000
– – – – 1,500

Running the rough numbers places the chance of getting measles (over a ten year period) at 1 in 210,066. This is rough math, but it gives us an idea of how rare measles actually is. A few things to note, the risk for vaccinated children would be less and the risk for unvaccinated children would be more. How much less and how much more? It is hard to know without more detailed statistics. Controlling for living conditions would prove even less risk on all parties involved, considering the outlier Amish data point skewing the results. In any case, a normal unvaccinated child has almost no chance of contracting measles.

This statistics I just quoted are all about just contracting measles, not even about death. No one dies of measles these days. Even if there were a few deaths in the coming years, the probability of death is almost nonexistent. Considering these statistics, and considering that the pro-vaccine crowd uses measles as their default example, maybe we should also cast a skeptical eye against the benefits of other vaccines which are preventing much less scary diseases. After all, if the pro-vaccine crowd is using Motte and Bailey logic, your Motte has to at least be a little defensible.

So pretend that in 2004 a parent had a baby. A doctor walks up to the parent with a vial of the measles vaccine.
Doctor: “If you do not inject this into your baby, then she will have a 1 in 210,000 chance of catching measles (with zero percent chance of death) between now and age ten.”
Parent: “Will my kid infect others?”
Doctor: “That 1 in 210,000 includes the infected others.”
Parent: “Well, what happens to that 1 in 210,000?”
Doctor: “Six to 20 percent of the people who get the disease will get an ear infection, diarrhea, or even pneumonia. One out of 1,000 people with measles will develop inflammation of the brain, and about one out of 1000 will die [although rates of death may be lower in the US]”.
Parent: “So, 210,000 times 1000 is 210,000,000. By not getting the vaccine my child has a 1 in 210,000,000 chance at inflammation of the brain or dying.”
Doctor: “Your math checks out.”
Parent: “What else is in the vial and how will that affect my baby?”
Doctor: “All sorts of stuff are in there and we do not have data controlling for life differentials between those who have and have not gotten this shot. I guess it would be useful if we had twin studies or anything, really.”
Parent: “My friend tells me that their own child changed behavior dramatically after the shot.”
Doctor: “Probably a liar.”

So what is a rational parent to do? Not give the child the vaccine: A 1 in 210,000 chance of getting something that definitely will not kill the kid. Or give the child the vaccine: with a slim possibly of resetting their child mentally or giving some other effect that might be hard to observe (such as a decrease in IQ). Rational people can disagree. In what other area of life would someone decry someone else for not taking action to prevent a 1 in 210,000 occurrence? Would that one individual taking that action skew those statistics even a little?

What should definitely not happen in the measles hypothetical is that the decision be referred to third parties who have less stake in the lives of the children then the children’s parents. This includes doctors and politicians, who both thrive on hubris and lack basic skills in cost-benefit analysis.

As Economist Bryan Caplan has shown, even dentists are highly irrational. Can dentists quantify the benefit between brushing once per day versus twice? Do dentists know how many average teeth are saved by flossing daily? Dentists show us pictures of the extreme examples to scare us. But in doing so they are not being realistic and revealing their very myopic agenda. In their private isolated world, there are no tradeoffs. Any expenditure of time, resources and comfort are worth a healthy mouth. But even expending all those resources does not lead the average person saving their teeth. As Bryan Caplan notes, people lose teeth regardless of hygiene. The question becomes: what is the optimal amount of resources to invest in teeth maintenance. Even knowing the statistics, rational people can come to opposing views.

If the pro-vaccination side is really worried about science, they should be attempting to encourage a transparent discussion about marginal harms. They should give meaningful numbers to help parents make informed decisions. Pointing to an outbreak of 100 cases in a nation of 316 million people is ignorant scare mongering. They should, instead, focus on answering some very basic risk assessment questions: What are the risks of an unvaccinated child dying due to a vaccine preventable disease? What are the risks of a vaccinated child dying due to a vaccine preventable disease? What are the relative numbers for being “seriously harmed”? ***Note that I am not asking for “what percent of children are unvaccinated who are seriously harmed by a preventable disease”. That would be a useless statistic for weighing the merits of vaccination.***

Maybe, being a pediatrician, you can tell us some very basic information. What is the probability of serious harm to an average child if the parents wait until that child is five to vaccinate? What about if the parents wait until the child is 10? 15? 20? Never vaccinate? Again, I am not asking “what percent of infected kids are unvaccinated”, that statistic is useless in deciding to vaccinate my own children. It tells me nothing about the relative risks that my own child faces. The question is: what will vaccination do for me now, today, with my child. Once that information becomes available, it could be added to the cost-benefit analysis. Note: just the mere presence of a perceived harm should not inform our activities. It is only when that is weighed against all other factors should action be taken.

Tim, both you and I won the reverse lottery of having our child contract leukemia. It is a rare event and it distorts our perspectives on the likelihood of rare events. But let us entertain a hypothetical. My child with leukemia was up-to-date on his vaccinations at time of diagnosis and not much is known about cancer’s causes. Pretend they found out vaccinations are the cause. How would that affect your perception of the parents you decry? Would they still be irresponsible or would you be the irresponsible one? Would that change your decision to vaccinate if you were to do it all again? On one hand, not many children get cancer, so the risk of vaccinations (in this hypothetical) is still low. On the other hand, not getting vaccinated might increase risks of being harmed by disease.

Life is full of tradeoffs. Different people have different value sets and weigh various risks differently. All the parents who choose not to vaccinate believe the risk of harms by vaccinations outweigh the risks of being hurt by not being vaccinated. Plenty of these parents chose to take a very cautious route of waiting until their children has developed more (a delayed schedule) before they inject them with unknown substances. To this day, I have not seen response as to why this is not a viable alternative.

Tim, please stop blaming others for non-attributable events. Your child was exposed by a different child. I am sure those parents were making a rational decision in their lives when they chose not to vaccinate. They did not ask to get the disease, and if they got it from a vaccinated individual they should have no recourse to blame their ills on the entire vaccinated population, much less the airline industry, Disneyland, or even third world counties. Sometimes things just happen. We need to deal with it like we deal with the leukemia, stay grateful for life and take it one day at a time.

Thank you,

Chris Fisher

PS: I need to make this very clear. I am not against vaccinating, even young babies. Both sides of the vaccine debate vastly overestimate relative harms. Your child will probably suffer no ills by being vaccinated. Your child will also probably suffer no ills by not being vaccinated. People like to irrationally fear monger.

Posted in Science, Statistics | 2 Comments

understanding colossians 2

The book of Colossians was written by Paul to the Greek city of Colossae. Like all Paul’s writings, he interweaves popular memes and cultural icons into his message. Paul then takes these allusions and turns them on their head, pointing them to Christianity. In the case of Colossians, Paul uses Platonism and the Mystery Cults. Platonism was the biggest threat to the church of Colossians and Paul sought to diffuse it. The main idea of both Platonism and the Mystery cults was a secret knowledge, attained only by a select few who are able to progress through various stages of enlightenment. The secret knowledge is called the Mystery and the path to enlightenment is called the Ascension.

The most famous Neo-Platonist, Plotinus (204- 270AD), explains the path of this Ascension:

7. Therefore we must ascend again towards the Good, the desired of every Soul. Anyone that has seen This, knows what I intend when I say that it is beautiful. Even the desire of it is to be desired as a Good. To attain it is for those that will take the upward path, who will set all their forces towards it, who will divest themselves of all that we have put on in our descent:- so, to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments worn before, and the entry in nakedness- until, passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God, each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from Which all things depend, for Which all look and live and act and know, the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being.

The Platonist idea was that the material world was evil. The material world served as a prison for human souls. Most people would live and die being unaware of this prison. But an elect few would be able to escape the bonds of this world through purification and meditation. This is actually the message of Plato’s famous Allegory of the cave.

Modern grammar schools use the Allegory of the Cave as some sort of lesson about persecution of the minority, but that was not Plato’s aim. Plato was describing the Platonic Ascent. Plato was describing how humans must break free of the chains of the material world and become enlightened.

And now I will describe in a figure the enlightenment or unenlightenment of our nature:—Imagine human beings living in an underground den which is open towards the light; they have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den. At a distance there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners a raised way, and a low wall is built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets. Behind the wall appear moving figures, who hold in their hands various works of art, and among them images of men and animals, wood and stone, and some of the passers-by are talking and others silent. …and they see only the shadows of the images which the fire throws on the wall of the den; to these they give names, and if we add an echo which returns from the wall, the voices of the passengers will seem to proceed from the shadows. Suppose now that you suddenly turn them round and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the real images; will they believe them to be real? Will not their eyes be dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light to something which they are able to behold without blinking? And suppose further, that they are dragged up a steep and rugged ascent into the presence of the sun himself, will not their sight be darkened with the excess of light? …Now the cave or den is the world of sight, the fire is the sun, the way upwards is the way to knowledge, and in the world of knowledge the idea of good is last seen and with difficulty, but when seen is inferred to be the author of good and right—parent of the lord of light in this world, and of truth and understanding in the other. He who attains to the beatific vision is always going upwards; he is unwilling to descend into political assemblies and courts of law; for his eyes are apt to blink at the images or shadows of images which they behold in them—he cannot enter into the ideas of those who have never in their lives understood the relation of the shadow to the substance.

The story is that there are individuals watching shadows on a wall. Those individuals believe what they are watching is reality. But one individual, the philosopher, escapes. That philosopher sees that the shadows are a hazy image of reality. The philosopher experiences god, in some form. But when that philosopher returns to the realm of the shadows, that philosopher cannot begin to describe the experience. This was the Ascent that all proper Platonists sought to achieve. The Allegory of the Cave is a description of the Ascent. The material world was to be rejected, and the ethereal life was the goal.

Plotinus would expand these ideas in his lectures and become the father of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus lived as he preached. He disdained the flesh and earthly desires. He was a vegetarian. He was very hesitant to letting himself be drawn and sculpted; he hated his earthly image and could not understand why he should make an image of an already flawed image. Plotinus refused medicine of any kinds and let his body be eaten by disease. He died a sickly withered man in his bed, Porphyry records, by a snake bite. Plotinus was the quintessential Platonist life.

Although Plotinus lived after the time of Paul, the ideas were alive and well in 1st century Greek culture. This is apparent in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (30BC-45AD). Philo, a Jew from Egypt, reinterpreted the Old Testament along Platonistic lines. Because the Bible contained information that sharply contrasted to Platonism, the stories were morphed into symbolic texts with Platonic truths.

Platonism and Mystery Cultism were very potent threats to Paul’s Greek converts. As shown through Philo, Platonism was also making inroads into Judaism (at least the Hellenized Alexandria Judaism). Paul (having been schooled in the Hellenized city of Tarsus) takes these popularly known concepts, recasts Christianity in the light of these concepts. Then Paul, in his own unique style, flips these concepts on their head and states that Christianity is completely different. This is the cultural context of Colossians. This is made apparent through the text.

Col 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face,
Col 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ,
Col 2:3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Paul alludes to the Mystery religions. But Paul’s Mystery is not like the popular Mystery cults; Paul’s Mystery is not secret. Paul openly declares his Mystery: Christ. In the pagan Mystery Cults, it was sacrilegious to reveal the mystery. Uninitiated individuals were sometimes executed for violating the mystery rules. But Paul states that his Mystery is open. In Jesus is all the secret wisdom and knowledge. Paul then contrasts Jesus to the philosophers:

Col 2:4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.
Col 2:5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

Paul’s concern was that the popular Mystery cults might make converts of his own proselytes. They may come to his people with “plausible arguments”. This is another reason that Paul stylizes Christianity in the form of a Mystery cult. He was contending and mocking a major threat to the Colossian church.

Col 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Col 2:9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
Col 2:10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

Paul warns them again. This time Paul is explicit: “philosophy” itself is the threat. The audience of Paul would know precisely Paul’s object. Paul contrasts the philosophy and Christ. Specifically, Paul states that “in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This would be an amazing affront to Platonism and the Mystery cults. The main purpose of Platonism was to escape the body. The body was seen as evil. The material world was something to be transcended. Paul’s meaning is not that there is some sort of third party divine element in Jesus, but that Jesus (body and all) were divine.

While some modern Christians claim that Jesus had both human and divine natures that are separate, this idea would not be what Paul is trying to communicate. That is no different than what the Platonists already taught. That teaching would not be a very effective point by Paul. Instead, Paul was countering the Platonists. Paul was countering “philosophy”. The material world is the divine, at least in the person of Jesus. The Godhead is said to “dwell bodily”. This body was from whom Paul’s converts were “filled”. Paul’s converts are not looking for some sort of spiritual Ascent. In Jesus they have everything they need from the spiritual realm.

Paul was driving a major blow against Plato with the line: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”. Plato separated the body and spirit as distinct. He explains the working of this separation in Phaedo:

I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature. The soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing–when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground-there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature. For immortal no such union can be reasonably believed to be; although fancy, not having seen nor surely known the nature of God, may imagine an immortal creature having both a body and also a soul which are united throughout all time…

That last sentence is very important, for that is what Paul assaults directly (v9). Plato continues:

Such is the life of the gods; but of other souls, that which follows God best and is likest to him lifts the head of the charioteer into the outer world, and is carried round in the revolution, troubled indeed by the steeds, and with difficulty beholding true being; while another only rises and falls, and sees, and again fails to see by reason of the unruliness of the steeds. The rest of the souls are also longing after the upper world and they all follow, but not being strong enough they are carried round below the surface, plunging, treading on one another, each striving to be first; and there is confusion and perspiration and the extremity of effort; and many of them are lamed or have their wings broken through the ill-driving of the charioteers; and all of them after a fruitless toil, not having attained to the mysteries of true being, go away, and feed upon opinion.

For Christianity to claim that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus is a claim that the physical is not evil. The physical is the goal of a good Christian. The material world was not the fallen evil that the Platonists assumed. The Jewish idea was that God would remake the Earth into His own Earthly Kingdom.

Col 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
Col 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Col 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,
Col 2:14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Col 2:15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Paul lays out a basic gospel narrative. Christ died, was buried, and rose. It is this action that allows forgiveness of sins. Paul also links this to “putting off the flesh”, a concept with Platonistic undertones. But Paul uses this in a different way. Paul is saying that his converts do not need Ascension or purification. Paul’s converts are living purified already though Christ. This is a radical message to a Greek city and even to Jewish leadership.

Paul next attacks those attacking his converts:

Col 2:16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Paul’s converts were being questioned on what they ate and drank. Paul’s converts were being questioned on what Holidays they observed, or by observing the Sabbath. These are Jewish themes. Jewish leaders were one of the main oppositions to Paul, as seen throughout his letters. Colossians seems to have not escaped this curse. Paul was fighting intellectual assault from Jews and Greeks alike.

In verse 17, Paul uses the “shadow” imagery. Holidays and Sabbaths do not represent reality, but they point man to Christ. Paul, in his characteristic way, is expropriating Platonic allegory to apply to his own theology. He uses Platonistic arguments to attack legalism, but not in the sense of the original Platonistic argument. Paul melds it to become appropriate to his own point.

Paul also attacked the Platonists attacking his converts:

Col 2:18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
Col 2:19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

In the NKJ, the first phrase is translated “Let no one cheat you of your reward”. Apparently, Paul considered the ideas contained in this verse as a possible way to lose salvation, or other Christian benefits. In any case, the ideas Paul is about to cover are highly detrimental to Christianity.

Paul, in verse 18, attacks the very real calls by competing religions to asceticism. Paul disliked asceticism. A good picture of asceticism would be the life of Plotinus, who neglected his body and died withered. Asceticism involved discarding the material, neglecting the body, all in an attempt to transcend reality. Asceticism was a cornerstone of Platonism.

Paul links this asceticism with worship of angels (which is reminiscent of the Mystery Cults, who each worshiped a separate Greek god). This reference to angels could also be a reference to Gnosticism, which is the blending of Platonism and Christianity. In many forms of Gnosticism, there was one fixed immutable god by which a series of lesser gods spawned. Gnosticism was Platonism mixed with Christianity of Judaism.

Paul ends this verse by talking about those who see visions in their head, which Paul says that they did not actually see (“without reason”). Paul attacks those who claim to have seen visions in their own head. Paul discounts introspection, the Ascent. There is a hint of mocking in Paul’s last line: “by his sensuous [fleshly] mind.” Whereas the Platonists claim to escape the flesh, Paul mocks this idea by attributing their fantasies to the overactive imagination in their flesh.

Paul’s next verse is a direct claim that God is in charge of the physical body. God made human heads for thinking, and God made the rest of the body grow as well. Paul is saying that people should not neglect the body. People need to stay grounded in reality. To the horror of the Platonists, God is deeply invested in the physical world.

Adam Clarke attributes these verses to countering the Essenes, a Jewish Ascetic cult. But the Essenes were situated in Israel and Syria, not modern day Turkey. The Essenes were a small sect and held no great threat. It is hard to imagine that the Essenes were a credible presence in the small Hellenized city of Colossae. In any case, it would be hard to argue that the Essenes were not highly Platonized.

Col 2:20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—
Col 2:21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”
Col 2:22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?
Col 2:23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Paul begins this segment with an incredible statement. His converts are currently living spiritually. As such, they can ignore human commands to refrain from eating drinking and whatever else. Contrasted to this, the Platonists made the opposite point. And specifically Plato identifies eating and drinking as things not to do:

But what if there had been a circumcision of such natures in the days of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below–if, I say, they had been released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction, the very same faculty in them would have seen the truth as keenly as they see what their eyes are turned to now.

To Plato, eating and drinking were fleshly pursuits. Those activities would drag down and imprison the soul. Eating and drinking corrupted the body. Paul, in his mocking manner, turns this idea on its head. To Paul, his converts had nothing to worry about. Nothing in this life could imprison their souls. They were spiritual and redeemed, while in their flesh.

Paul then echoes his previous injunction against these Platonic teachings. Paul disclaims made up religions, asceticism, and bodily neglect. Such things, Paul says, are useless to true religion. If this is not an attack on Platonism, it is hard to imagine what else Paul would have to say.

Paul was not a Platonists. Paul envisioned, like many Jews of his day, a melding of physical and divine in the material world. Paul views material bodies, not in opposition to God, but complementing God. Paul mocked the Platonists and discounted their lifestyles and theology. Paul claims Jesus is divine in the body. Paul claims that his converts are spiritual beings. Paul mocks attempts to separate the material from the spiritual.

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