THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

AND THE QUESTION OF GREEK INFLUENCE



Shandon L. Guthrie



One of the most fascinating studies on the topic of religion entails the question of historical origins. Do writers merely repackage the ideas of someone else? Since general debate continues today as to the particular origin of the mainline Christian faith, I will be addressing whether or not the New Testament Gospels, as Christian documents, owe their influence and ideology to antecedent Greek philosophy. While many fascinating criticisms of literary Christianity are widely available, my particular focus will reside entirely on three topics as they pertain to the New Testament Gospels: 1) Possible Platonic influence; 2) Possible Stoic influence; 3) Possible additional Greek influence on the nature and concept of logos (the Greek term for "word").

THE QUESTION OF PLATO'S INFLUENCE ON THE NEW TESTAMENT

Those who have had some background education on the ideas and doctrines taught by renown Greek philosopher Plato understand the influence of Plato on subsequent philosophers. But is it the case that Plato also influenced the writers of the New Testament? University of Cambridge professor Christopher Stead argues in his book Philosophy in Christian Antiquity that Christianity was indeed influenced by a panoply of Greek philosophy, including Plato. He begins with the observation that Plato's "most distinctive doctrine was his theory of Forms or 'Ideas', by which he meant, not 'thoughts,' as we now understand the word, but eternal objective realities which make up an intelligible system or world." (1) Plato, as well as his mentor Socrates, had believed in a dualistic universe. This is to say that the universe consists not only of the experiential world but also an immaterial, unperceived world housing the objective, transcendent, eternal, intelligible, archetypal, and perfect reality that makes objects what they "really" are. In Aristotle's Metaphysics we are told that Plato detached such Ideas from sensible objects. (2) The famous historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston, explains that these Ideas or Forms "exist apart, not only from the sensible things that are modeled on them, but also from God, Who takes them as His model." (3) As such, they are simply "hanging in the air, as it were." (4) These Forms or Ideas are said to be those transcendent realities that give meaning and definition to particular physical objects. If the object itself changes, this in no way alters the Platonic Form. In any case, the two "substances" work in union to bring about the reality of the object (as well as its identification). For example, that a chair can be recognized by a perceiver is evidence of some sort of idea of what a chair would look like. Plato sees this "chairness" as a transcendent archetype for the particular chair being observed. So, behind every object there exists a Form that gives it definition.

For New Testament Gospel writers, the notion of dualism in the universe is abundantly clear. About Jesus himself, the writers of the Synoptics and John affirmed a staunch belief that Jesus was an incarnation of God (cf. John 1:1, 14; 8:58; 10:30-33). All of the Gospels refer to the eventual reunion of the essence of Jesus (that is, his spirit) with the material body of Jesus in the Resurrection event (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:36-46; John 20:1-27). Thus a dualistic affirmation seems to be a part of the Gospel portraits of Jesus. This has led many to conclude that Platonism, with its distinct and original view of the universe, is perhaps responsible for the dualism extant throughout the New Testament Gospels.

In conjunction with dualism there exists the notion of deliverance from everything physical and material. This is characteristic of Plato since he wanted to abandon the idea of subjectivism in the world. Plato discussed the problem of anchoring reality in the material. Dualism then was his reaction to the materialistic Sophists, particularly to his predecessor Protagoras (fl. 425 B.C.E.) and Heraclitus. Simply for Plato, rooting reality in the sensible world of multiplicity and change grants little or no warrant to an objective reality. So to point to that chair in the corner, in the Heraclitean view, becomes useless because it is no longer that chair but a different one. Plato's remedy was to posit the world of the Forms in order to avoid the mutability of the world. This led to the distinctive view that an individual ought to yearn to be released from the physical world in order to attain a full and direct awareness of those Forms. In one of Plato's famous works, the Timaeus, there is a clear indication that the human soul is unhindered when separated from the body such that the faculty of reason is free to contemplate. Thus, a release from the body would be a preferable state of being rather than to remain "bound up essentially with the body . . . and have no direct part in reason and rational activity [allowing one to] behold the world of Forms." (5)

The teachings of Jesus, say those who associate Greek thought with New Testament theology, reflect a similar observation. Critics suggest that Jesus desired human beings to be loosed from the constraints of their physical bodies and to prefer a state of disembodied bliss. Such passages as the following suggest this portrayal:

Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing,

but the body is weak (Matthew 26:41)

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

When he had said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23:46)



Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and

of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5)



God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Therefore, critics conclude that on this basis the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels, coupled with the theological motifs of the Gospel writers, probably derive their world view from Platonic thought.

THE QUESTION OF STOIC INFLUENCE ON THE NEW TESTAMENT

Soon after the pre-Socratic and Socratic traditions the Stoics came onto the scene. Stoicism is characterized as a philosophy of materialism, pantheism, and fatalism. (6) It is materialistic in the sense that everything that exists possesses corporeality and is ultimately traced back to God. The Stoic God, redolent of Plato's Timaeus, is said to be the "body" of the universe whereby God is its soul. This is how Stoicism becomes pantheistic in its understanding of the relationship between the universe and God. It further portrays a fatalistic universe by declaring that everything that occurs happens by necessity. Nothing is left to any libertarian volition. This has caused its followers to adopt a sort of apathy toward our fatalistic universe. This apathy, say the Stoics, is characterized as "accepting the will of God", something very reminiscent of Christianity. (7) Hence, many make the association of Stoic fatalism with the Christian doctrine of predestination (e.g. the Augustinian-Calvinist view). Finally, Stoicism considers the universe on a path to conflagration. This is to surmise that the universe will eventually arrive at a point of being consumed in fire, the element said to be the origin of all matter. The end of human history will meet its doom in a massive conflagration that will cause all things to return to their original state. What makes the association with Christianity more interesting is the tag at the end of Cicero's note on the subject when he declares that there will be a conflagration so that "once again a new world may be created and the ordered universe be restored as before" (Early Stoic Physics, SVF II, 593). (8) In this respect, many suggest an eschatological influence on Christianity from Stoicism. (9)

THE QUESTION OF GREEK INFLUENCE ON THE ETYMOLOGY OF LOGOS

Although not properly the subject of Stoicism exclusively, the concept of logos has permeated multiple schools of thought in ancient philosophy. Beginning with Heraclitus and continuing through Stoic philosophers we arrive at a particular historical figure attributed to having a strong influence on the definition and concept of the Greek logos (or logos). Logos is generally translated as "word," "reason," or "study" in Greek etymology. (10) However, Heraclitean and subsequent usages reflect a more ambiguous concept of logos as "God's reason" or "fiery substance." (11) A rather intricate development of logos is treated with some creativity in the person of Philo Judeaus (a Hellenized Jew adopting both Platonism and Stoicism who lived approximately from 25 B.C. to 50 A.D.). His articulation of the word logos is much more abstract than those who preceded him. His use of logos included references to Plato's world of Forms, the mind of God, and even to several mediators between the natural and the divine. These mediators were usually the Jewish Patriarchs and angelic theophanies. (12) Indeed, the religious ties to logos have led many to believe that there was a positive influence on Christian uses of it. (13)

The logos of Christianity owes its credit to the Apostle John, probably the author of the namesake gospel, the epistles, and the apocalyptic Revelation. In the Prologue of John's Gospel he writes:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word

was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:1, 14).

The "Word" here is also translated from the Greek logos. As to the question of possible influences on Christianity from prior discourses on logos, many have noted strong similarities between the two systems. Both Philo's and John's logos's are divine in nature, they are both the ultimate source of all living things, (14) and they are both mediums between the divine and the natural. For sure the New Testament personifies its logos as did the aforementioned Greek philosophers. Thus many, including Stead, have given credit to Heraclitus, the Stoics, and Philo for the Christian uses of logos in its description of Jesus as God's special revelation. (15)

ASSESSMENT

In this section we shall see that the reader must consider the evidence and decide whether or not the Gospels are recapitulations of Greek thought. Some observations seem to imply that it is not.

First, we shall consider the question of Stoic influence. There seems to be a similarity between Stoic fatalism and the doctrine of predestination. But is predestination merely a Christian adaptation of Stoic fatalism? Stoic fatalism, although said to be divinely guided, entails a world that is "impersonal, uncaring, unknowing, and unloving." (16) The enigmatic Stoic reference to the "will of God" is to denote the absolute conclusion of nature and nothing more. By contrast, predestination (if one accepts the most rigorous definition) only concerns the destiny of human beings. The Christian understanding of predestination usually sustains some notion of human freedom and personal direction. Stoic fatalism asks nothing of the individual except to confide in the imminent results. Predestination, in a biblical sense, entails agential purpose in how history unfolds.

Secondly, many have suggested an eschatological agreement between Stoic conflagration and the New Testament's final judgment. That is, the world is consumed in an imminent conflagration whereby a new world is born awaiting an imminent conflagration of its own, and so on. Also, the Stoic conflagration has nothing to do with any conscious purposes of a divine being. The fiery judgment mentioned in Matthew 13:4 and other passages is unique and final. It is a sudden, supernatural catastrophe comparable to Noah's flood and does not happen gradually as does the Stoic version. (17) One observation about the biblical fire shows that it is not necessarily universal, rather, it may be selective. (18) Therefore, any association between Stoicism and Christianity is vacuous.

The similarity of logos used by ancient Greek philosophers and the Apostle John is just as easy to dismiss. John's reference is to a specific individual in mind, namely the person of Jesus of Nazareth. John's gospel uses logos to represent this spoken tradition. (19) The logos of Christianity is a personal being who is the same God as the person of the Father. (20) John then details the life of Jesus as the special revelation of God and as the divine, promised savior clothed in human form. John is also one of the few to chronicle the numinous aspects of the resurrection appearances on Easter morning. (21) As far as the "word" is concerned, there seems to be a growing denial of a Christian adaptation of logos from Philo by many philosophers and theologians today. One interesting theory suggests that the Apostle John wrote in indignation toward Philo by purposely utilizing his logos! (22) In this theory John, knowing the influence of Philo in his day, purposely catches the attention of readers by using logos to refer to Jesus. But he immediately stipulates his logos as being incarnated (John 1:14), something contrary to Greek conceptions of logos. Nonetheless, it is difficult to find such a direct relation. First, there already was a Jewish concept of "Wisdom" comparable to logos that appeared in Proverbs 8:22-26. Many scholars point to Old Testament usages of "The Word of the Lord" and "The Word of God" as possible sources for John's logos. In keeping with John's desire to reconcile Old Testament prophecies in the person of Jesus, it is better to assume a Jewish influence of John's logos. Secondly, Philo's logos is far too abstract to have any connection with Jesus. Unlike Jesus, Philo's logos is not a singular person or a savior, and it is not a messiah. Instead, logos is only a device "to solve certain philosophical problems." (23) Because of this there is no reason to suppose that descriptions of John's logos are similar to Philo's. Finally, John's logos displays an impassioned concern for his creation. John's gospel states:

"And the Word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and

truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law

Indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

John 1:14-17

Philo's (or any other Greek philosopher's) logos would not be something capable of bestowing "grace" upon mankind. Philo adopted the Stoic disparagement of emotion in favor of apathy. This could not be further from the Johannine logos who was the self-understood revelation of God.

Therefore, it is apparent that Platonism, Stoicism, and the Philonic logos are not responsible for creating Christian antiquity. It must be the case that Christianity possesses a unique view of the world dissimilar to Greek rivals.

CONCLUSION

In the beginning of this paper I note three areas of possible influences on Christian antiquity. By examining Plato, Stoicism, and Philo, we see that early Greek philosophy postulated a world view predominantly dualistic, imminent to a final conflagration, and intimated with the concept of logos. Many have speculated as to the similarities between these notions and New Testament teachings. But upon closer inspection it seems that any similarity is quickly diminished in favor of leaving the Christian scriptures with a unique idea of their own. Christianity is dualistic but not antagonistic of the corporeal world. It possesses a view of the world that will end in conflagration but not similar to the one in Stoicism for the Christian conflagration is a one time occurrence and is guided by God's selective purpose. Finally, Philo's conception of logos is simply abstract and impalpable whereas the Christian logos mentioned by John is corporeal and well-defined. The logos of Christianity is sacrificial and compassionate towards mankind, two features vacant in Greek conceptions. This leaves New Testament theology as a system independent of Greek influence and as an ideology demanding a world view unprecedented in history.



REFERENCES



1. Stead, Christopher, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (New York, NY: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1994), p. 18.

2. Metaphysics, A, 991 b 2-3.

3. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, Image ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 167.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 210. Also see Plato, The Republic, tr. Francis MacDonald Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941).

6. Materialism is the metaphysical world view which suggests that only natural entities exist. Pantheism is the theological world view that surmises that there is a divine being (God) that is identical to the universe. This God exists in and as every physical body. Fatalism is the assumption that all performed actions are determined solely by natural causes (thereby precluding any human free will). For more information on these terms see Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 280-82, 489, 556; Africa, Thomas, The Ancient World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969); Burtt, Edwin, Types of Religious Philosophy, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1951).

7. Nash, Ronald, "Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Philosophy," Christian Research

Journal Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 1993, p. 19, 35.

8. This citation is quoted from Jason L. Saunders, ed., Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1966), p. 92.

9. See Stead, pp. 46-7, and 2 Peter 3:7.

10. Cf. Stead, p. 46; Lebreton, J., Catholic Encyclopedia, (Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913), entry on "LOGOS, THE."

11. Stead, pp. 58-9.

12. Nash, Ronald, The Gospel and the Greeks, (Richardson, TX: Probe Books, 1992), Chapter 2.

13. MacGregor, G.H.C., Purdy, A.C., Jew and Greek (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1937), p. 337ff; Randall, John Herman, Jr., Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 157.

14. The Greek similarity is to the Stoic logos in its creative act as the logoi spermatikoi (Stead, p. 47).

15. Stead, pp. 148-59.

16. Nash, Christian Research Journal, p. 35.

17. See Cicero's quote in Saunders, Greek and Roman Philosophy, p. 92.

18. Cf. Revelation 8:7.

19. See Makrakis, Apostolos, "Philosophy: An Orthodox Christian Understanding," The Logos and Holy Spirit In The Unity of Christian Thought (Chicago, Illinois: Orthodox Christian

Publishing, 1977), pp. 69-94.

20. The deity of Jesus Christ is foundational to historic Christianity. Some refer to this special sharing of deity as the hypostatic union (cf. Hebrews 1:3; Stead, pp. 160-72).

21. Cf. John 20:19-28.

22. See Nash, Christian Research Journal, pp. 36-8.

23. Ibid., p. 38.