Platonism’s influence on the bloom and spread of Early Christianity
Part One, The Platonic backdrop:
It seems most pertinent to begin by pointing out that Alexander the Great, the harbinger of panhellenism, first had a tutor. Aristotle was hired by king Phillip II of Macedon all the way back in 356-323 BCE. So, keep in mind this was long before the inklings of Christianity emerged into the Grecian world. As we know from Gonzalez (Ch. 1 pgs. 18-21) the doctrine of panhellenism was of the utmost importance to the emergence of Christianity into the Greco-Roman world. It was Alexander the Great, through his expansion of the empire from Macedonia to Egypt, who instigated this important building block.
This intersection of politics and philosophy can serve as the first point in our timeline of the synthesis between Platonism and Christianity; in considering that Alexander was Aristotle’s student, we must keep in mind that Plato was Aristotle’s teacher.
“Through Alexander, Aristotle’s works were spread throughout the known world of the time, influencing other philosophies and providing a foundation for the development of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology.”
(Source 1, Secondary): Mark, Joshua J. “Aristotle.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 26 Nov. 2020, www.ancient.eu/aristotle/.
To understand Platonism we must first examine the differences between student and teacher; the differences between Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle tends to be more of an empiricist, meaning he focused on natural science and the scientific explanations underlying many physical things…he is well known for his study of the eye. Already, you may be thinking: oh, this guy is clearly not a Christian, or at least not a theist. In fact, in many ways, the renaissance period (which isn’t addressed in this timeline, but this is worth noting) was a reconciliation of Aristotelian science with theology.
Well, he did have some descriptions of a God to fit into his depiction of the ‘cosmos’:
- Unmoved mover
- Immune to change
- Exists only outside of the ‘world’
- Omniscient, omnibenevolent, perfect
Now, this doesn’t exactly cohere with the way we’ve heard a Christian God described. I mean, there are some stark dissimilarities or even contradictions here. Most starkly, an unmoved mover would not physically intervene in the world, and a being outside of the world would not enter it and preform feats of resurrection. Thus, it is fair to say that early Aristotelian philosophy was utterly juxtaposed to some paradigmatic Christian points.
(Source 2, Image, Primary): Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century, containing fragments of Plato's Republic.
The image below is a fragment of Plato’s Republic, one of his most famous works and the particular work which focuses on Plato’s depiction of a ‘Divine Craftsman’, or, “God”.
You might ask, why so much focus on Plato? He was at large from 428-348 BCE, that’s way before the dawn of Christianity. Moreover, that’s exactly 1028 years earlier than the Codex Zacynthius (pictured, discussed later on) was copied.
This is true, but Platonism, after Plato’s death, became the forerunning Philosophical system for thousands of years, arguably until the renaissance! Thus, in order to understand the emergent Christian theology, we must understand its backdrop: Platonism.
Luckily…Aristotle’s teacher Plato was much more amenable, though it would be more accurate to say that Christian thought was more amenable to Plato’s ideas because Plato came first (as in 1028 years earlier).
It is often thought that Platonism afforded the Hellenistic world a compatible view, and a padding of sorts to liken philosophical and theological ideas.
Here’s what the two have in common:
- The soul survives death
- God is a designer of the world, the penultimate craftsman of all things
- God is the ultimate form of goodness
- God is a self-moved mover (notice the difference between this and ‘unmoved mover’)
Source 3, secondary, academic: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/god-west/.
Already, Platonic ideas sound much more friendly. We know, for example, that Christianity firmly asserts the continued existence of the soul after the death of the body. The most important of these similarities I find is that God is a self-moved mover, not an unmoved mover. This means that God is the first cause and the final cause. I.e. this assertion is in-line with Christian theology: “let there be light” and the creation of the universe.
To conclude part one, I’d like to paraphrase the Gonzalez textbook (Source 4, secondary, academic):
Many early Christians faced accusations of disreputability; they were seen as unbelievers with a penchant for dissent. Platonism, along with Stoicism and the story of Socrates’s jolly demise by hemlock, gave early Christians ample breathing room to refute these charges on the grounds of commonly held ideas and ideals. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, died unconcerned of his mortal body, believing that there was a higher purpose and a clearer future in afterlife. Moreover, Plato and Socrates, along with other Greeks, had disavowed the multiplicity of Greek gods, claiming one divine creator. Helpful!
Part Two, the use of Platonic ideas in reinforcing Christian theology:
The early philosophical and layman attitude in Greece towards discourse was very different than we often find it today. In ancient Greece, discourse was not, as we often seen it, say, on Fox news or CNN in modern day, designed to turn out a winner. Academic discourse was focused more on creating favorable outcomes that accurately described the cosmos, attitudes, and happiness. This type of synergistic relationship between philosophies (such as Platonism) likely contributed to the ability of emergent Christian theologists and philosophers to make headway in an academic setting and impacted their ability to make practical claims about God and the cosmos.
Often, in emergent Christianity, Plato’s most famous theory was used as armored reinforcement to Christian cosmological claims. This theory, Plato’s theory of Forms, proved instrumental to ideas such as the Ascension and Christian belief in a higher purpose and afterlife.
“In the early transitional dialogue, the Meno, Plato has Socrates introduce the Orphic and Pythagorean idea that souls are immortal and existed before our births.” (Source six, academic, secondary; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/plato/.)
Plato’s theory of forms asserts that there are divine ‘true’ forms of everything we perceive on earth. For example, something as simple as a table would have a perfect and divine existence in the world of forms, and what we perceive as a table ourself, celestially, is able to be recognized as such because we glimpsed it one in a clearer, more divine and perfect reality. Sounds a lot like ‘heaven’, yes?
Here’s an excerpt from Creation.com; call it a dogmatic source if you must, but it still proves the synthesis of Christian and Platonic ideas.
“The New Testament writers believed that we remain conscious after physical death (e.g. Philippians 1:23), as Plato did. The Bible rejects atheism and materialism, as Plato did. Both believed in a supreme beneficent reality. Both believed that the physical universe was designed.” (Source 6, “academic”, discourse; “Choose Country.” Creation.com | Creation Ministries International, creation.com/plato-and-christianity.)