intro to paul v the platonists

The Apostle Paul wrote his epistles between 50 and 60 AD. By this time Platonism had already been infused into both secular culture and popular religion. Both Paul’s writing and the writings of the other Apostles reveal a world entrenched in Platonic philosophy. In Colossians Paul establishes a stern warning against the philosophy of the day:

Col 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

What Paul is speaking of here is precisely Platonism. Platonism was the dominant philosophy of the day. Most of the mainstream thoughts of the day were derived from Platonism. Those in Paul’s time praised and glorified the works of Plato. Anyone who was learned or cultured knew the intricacies of the Platonic worldview. Even a modern layman can see in the writings of Justin Martyr how prevalent Platonism was in the ancient world.

But possibly those who are unwilling to give up the ancient and inveterate error, maintain that they have received the doctrine of their religion not from those who have now been mentioned, but from those who are esteemed among them as the most renowned and finished philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.

Plato and Aristotle were celebrated philosophers. Entire schools rose up and debated each other on the finer points of Platonism. Justin Martyr writes that he bounced between multiple schools of philosophy before choosing Christianity: Stoicism, Peripateticism, Pythagoreanism, and finally Platonism, of which he says “their fame was great.” Platonism was the key thought of the day. It was popular the world over.

For of philosophy, too, some assume the name and the garb who do nothing worthy of their profession; and you are well aware, that those of the ancients whose opinions and teachings were quite diverse, are yet all called by the one name of philosophers. And of these some taught atheism; and the poets who have flourished among you raise a laugh out of the uncleanness of Jupiter with his own children. And those who now adopt such instruction are not restrained by you; but, on the contrary, you bestow prizes and honours upon those who euphoniously insult the gods.

It was Plato that despised the Greek gods. It was Plato who insulted their character and essence. As shown, if he were in power even speaking the names of the gods would be criminalized. Augustine later praises Plato for this very idea (City of God 2.14). It was the Platonists now dominating the intellectual world. They were given these prizes and honors specifically for insulting the gods based on Plato’s principles.

Not only was Platonism widespread but it was celebrated by the Roman Empire. While Christians were being persecuted for not embracing the gods of old, monotheistic Platonism was given awards. It is because of this that part of the main claim Justin makes of Christianity to win converts is that it is very close to Platonism. Justin continually quotes from Plato in an effort to convert his readers to Christianity. He even goes so far as to claim Plato got many of his ideas from reading the books of Moses:

And that you may learn that it was from our teachers–we mean the account given through the prophets–that Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers; and through whom the Spirit of prophecy, signifying how and from what materials God at first formed the world

This was written in an appeal to the Roman Emperor so that Christians would not be persecuted. Justin Martyr continues on in this fashion throughout his appeal. Justin must have thought that Plato held incredible influence with the Roman aristocrats, or he would not so heavily rely on Plato’s name. Likewise, he elsewhere addresses the general population in the same fashion with absurd claims for Platonists being Biblically inspired:

And whence did he receive the suggestion of his saying that God exists in a fiery substance? Was it not from the third book of the history of the Kings, where it is written, “The Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice?” But these things pious men must understand in a higher sense with profound and meditative insight. But Plato, not attending to the words with the suitable insight, said that God exists in a fiery substance.

Martyr’s explanation of Plato’s belief that god exists in fire is that he misread the Bible. This is a laughable idea in the least, but Martyr seriously believed that Platonism was just an extension of the Bible. He tries to embed this point repetitively in his writings because if he could convince others of this then Christianity could thrive in the already widespread approval of Platonism.

Justin Martyr was certain and was correct in thinking that the entire known world regarded Plato as the utmost authority on philosophy and religion. He successfully converted many to his brand of Platonic Christianity and was soon considered one of Christianity’s greatest advocates. Some of his writings, such as On the Sole Government of God, are nothing but strings of quotes from Greek Philosophers, trying to draw parallels to the Bible. This very same Justin, due to this work, became very popular among early Christians as noted by Eusebius in his History of the Church (Hist 8.11.4).
It is quite evident from Pauls writings that he is referring to the Platonists and even goes so far as to mock their wisdom saying it is foolishness:

1Co 3:19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.

This is a blatant mockery and is meant to be painful. It hurts someone much more to be called a fool when they are full of pride and think they are intelligent. Just as those who thought they were wise were called fools by Jesus, Paul calls the learned men of his time fools. As we have shown the learned men were in fact Platonists. Further evidence that Paul was referring to the Platonists can be seen in verses were Paul expounds on this type of wisdom:

1Co 1:20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
1Co 1:21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
1Co 1:22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

He identifies the Greeks with wisdom. He identifies the disputers with wisdom. Elsewhere he again identifies the traits of those of which he has conflict:

Col 2:20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
Col 2:21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
Col 2:22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
Col 2:23 Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

The apostle Paul gives further hint at who the philosophers of his time were in his allusions to the mysteries that were also prominent in those days. Greek mystery cults were not much more than Platonic societies with their own castes and promotions. Plato actually angered these cults by exposing to the masses some of their core beliefs. It was these beliefs infiltrating the church and creating such offshoots now known as Gnostics.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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2 Responses to intro to paul v the platonists

  1. jim says:

    while Paul generically criticizes philosophy and man’s wisdom in your references, in a discussion of Paul and the platonists, I expected more recognition of pauline statements that strongly parallel platonic thought.

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