SummaryMany college students still encounter outdated charges that first century Christianity and the New Testament were heavily influenced by pagan philosophical systems. Prominent among such claims are the following: (1) elements of Plato’s philosophy appear in the New Testament; (2) the New Testament reflects the influence of Stoicism; and (3) the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo was a source of John’s use of the Greek word logos as a description of Jesus. Each of these claims may be easily answered, a fact which challenges the badly outdated scholarship that continues to circulate these allegations in books and lectures.
Did the Christianity of the first century A.D. borrow any of its essential beliefs1 from the pagan philosophical systems of that time? Was first century Christianity — the Christianity reflected in the pages of the New Testament — a syncretistic religion (i.e., a religion which fuses elements of differing belief systems)? Christian college students occasionally encounter professors who answer these questions in the affirmative and then attempt to use the claim that there are pagan roots behind the words of the New Testament to undermine the faith of Christian students in their classes. Many Christians who hear allegations like these for the first time are stunned and find themselves at a loss about the best way to handle such claims. The purpose of this article is to provide such Christians with the help they need to answer charges that the New Testament was influenced by pagan philosophy. In a separate article that will appear in the next issue of this journal, I’ll tackle the related issue of whether the New Testament was influenced by pagan religious systems of the first century.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ISSUE
During the period running roughly from 1890 to 1940, scholars often alleged that the early Christian church was heavily influenced by such philosophical movements as Platonism and Stoicism. Special attention was given to the Jewish philosopher Philo (d. A.D. 50) whose thought, it was claimed, can be traced in the use of the word logos as a name for Jesus Christ in the early verses of John’s Gospel. Largely as a result of a series of scholarly books and articles written in rebuttal, allegations of early Christianity’s dependence on pagan philosophy began to fade in the years just before the start of World War II. Today, in the early 1990s, most informed scholars regard the question as a dead issue. These old arguments, however, continue to circulate in the publications of a few scholars and in the classroom antics of many college professors who have never bothered to become acquainted with the large body of writings on the subject. For example, in a widely used philosophy text, the late E. A. Burtt, a professor at Cornell University during the post-war period, argued that Paul’s theology was dependent on ideas borrowed from the Hellenistic world.2 Similar claims can be found in a widely used history of philosophy textbook by W. T. Jones, a professor of philosophy at California Institute of Technology.3 Thomas W. Africa’s history text, The Ancient World, makes repeated assertions about Christianity’s dependence on pagan systems of thought.4 While it is true that such examples exhibit a surprising lack of acquaintance with the scholarly literature, the false claims can still cause harm when believed by uninformed people. This article will provide the reader with the most important claims made by proponents of an early Christian dependence on pagan philosophy during the Hellenistic age.5 I will focus on three major claims: (1) the claim that elements of Plato’s philosophy appear in the New Testament; (2) the claim that the New Testament shows signs of having been influenced by the system known as Stoicism; and (3) the allegation that the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo (whose thought was an odd mixture of Platonism and Stoicism) was a source of John’s use of the Greek word logos as a description of Jesus (John 1:1-14), and also an influence on the thinking of the writer of the Book of Hebrews. In the case of each set of claims, I will direct the reader to information that points out the weaknesses of the assertions. It should be obvious that this subject is too vast to be covered adequately in one short article. Hence, I will also direct the reader to more detailed treatments of the material. For example, everything discussed in this article is covered much more extensively in my book, The Gospel and the Greeks.6 My focus, it should be understood, is on the writers of the New Testament whom Christians regard as divinely inspired recipients of revealed truth. The well-known Christian commitment to the inspiration and authority of the New Testament documents does not oblige Christians to have the same commitment for Christian thinkers who wrote after the close of the New Testament canon. Students of church history recognize the presence of various unbiblical ideas in many of the early church fathers, such as Origen (A.D. 185-254).7 My concern is with allegations of pagan ideas in the documents of the New Testament.
INFLUENCED BY PLATONISM?
This section will examine the major arguments that were once used in support of the view that the apostle Paul borrowed from Platonism. By the time we finish we will not only better understand why such claims are seldom made anymore; we will also have cause to marvel at how any careful student of the New Testament could ever have thought the charges had merit. The publications that assert a Pauline dependence on Platonism tend to focus on a similar collection of charges. For instance, Paul’s writings are supposed to reflect a dualistic view of the world — a view that is said to be especially clear in his allegedly radical distinction between the human soul and body. Moreover, it is claimed, Paul manifests the typical Platonic aversion to the body as being evil, a prison house of the soul, from which the Christian longs to be delivered. Until this deliverance actually comes by means of death, the Pauline Christian is supposed to denigrate his body through various ascetic practices. The obvious first step for the Christian to take in all this is to ask the person making the claims to produce the New Testament passages in which Paul’s supposed Platonism appears. Romans 7:24 is the verse usually cited in support of the claim that Paul taught that the human body is a prison house of the soul: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” It is obvious that Paul in this verse uses neither the word prison (phylake) nor the idea that the body is a prison of the soul. As a matter of fact, nowhere in Scripture does Paul write of the body in terms of a prison. In all likelihood, Paul in Romans 7:24 used the word body metaphorically. Another verse critics sometimes appeal to in this connection 8 is Romans 8:23: “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” If anything, this verse disproves the claim that Paul was a Platonist, since the redemption that Paul awaits is the glory that will follow his bodily resurrection. No self-respecting Platonist would ever teach a doctrine of bodily resurrection. Basic to Platonism is the belief that death brings humans to a complete and total deliverance from everything physical and material. Almost every author who used to claim that Paul was influenced by Platonism referred to the apostle’s repeated use of the word flesh in contexts associating it with evil. If Paul really taught that the soul is good and the body is evil, then the case for his alleged dependence on Platonism might begin to make some sense.9 The important question here, however, concerns what Paul meant by the word flesh. Philosopher Gordon Clark warns against a careless reading of Paul that would make “flesh” mean body. Instead, Clark notes, “a little attention to Paul’s remarks makes it clear that he means, not body, but the sinful human nature inherited from Adam.”10 Theologian J. Gresham Machen — who wrote during the period when this view was most accepted — elaborated on the real significance of Paul’s use of the term flesh:
The Pauline use of the term “flesh” to denote that in which evil resides can apparently find no real parallel whatever in pagan usage…. At first sight there might seem to be a parallel between the Pauline doctrine of the flesh and the Greek doctrine of the evil of matter, which appears…in Plato and in his successors. But the parallel breaks down upon closer examination. According to Plato, the body is evil because it is material; it is the prison-house of the soul. Nothing could really be more remote from the thought of Paul. According to Paul, the connection of soul and body is entirely normal, and the soul apart from the body is in a condition of nakedness….there is in Paul no doctrine of the inherent evil of matter.11
Paul’s condemnation of “flesh” as evil, then, has absolutely no reference to the human body. He uses the term sarx or flesh in these contexts to refer to a psychological and spiritual defect that leads every human to place self ahead of the Creator. The New International Version (NIV) makes this clear by translating sarx as “sinful nature.” For instance, Romans 7:5, a verse often used as support for the claim that Paul regarded matter as evil, reads: “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature [sarx], the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.” None of the texts in which Paul uses sarx in its ethical sense can support the claim that he was a Platonic dualist. The claim that Paul believed matter is evil is also contradicted by his belief that the ultimate destiny of redeemed human beings is an endless life in a resurrected body, not the disembodied existence of an immortal soul, as Plato taught. Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15:12-58) is clearly incompatible with a belief in the inherent wickedness of matter. Efforts to find an evil matter versus good spirit dualism in Paul also stumble over the fact that he believed in evil spirits (Eph. 6:12). The additional fact that God pronounced His creation good (Gen. 1:31) also demonstrates how far removed dualism is from the teaching of the Old and New Testaments.
As for the claim that Paul advocated a radical asceticism that included the intentional harming of his body,12 the fact is that Paul wrote the New Testament’s strongest attacks against asceticism (e.g., Col. 2:16-23). Gordon Clark correctly observes that Paul was “not motivated by a desire to free a divine soul from a bodily tomb, much less by the idea that pain is good and pleasure evil. Rather, Paul was engaged in a race, to win which required him to lay aside every weight as well as the sin which so easily besets. Willing to suffer stonings and stripes for the name of Christ, he never practiced self-flagellation.”13 We must conclude that the authors who claimed Paul was influenced by Platonism and the college and seminary professors who passed these theories along to their students were, at the least, guilty of sloppy research and shoddy thinking. It is easy to suspect that their primary motivation was a desire to find anything that might appear to discredit the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures.
INFLUENCED BY STOICISM?
Stoicism was the most important philosophical influence on cultured people during the first century A.D. Stoic philosophers were materialists, pantheists, and fatalists: they believed that everything that exists is physical or corporeal in nature and that every existing thing is ultimately traceable back to one ultimate universal stuff that is divine. They thought that God and the world were related in a way that allowed the world to be described as the body of God and God to be described as the soul of the world. Unlike the God of Judaism and Christianity who is an eternal, almighty, all-knowing, loving, spiritual Person, the Stoic God was impersonal and hence incapable of knowledge, love, or providential acts. The Stoic fatalism is seen in their belief that everything that happens occurs by necessity. The major contribution of the Stoic philosophers was the development of an ethical system that would help the Stoic live a meaningful life in a fatalistic universe. To find good and evil, Stoics taught, we must turn away from whatever happens of necessity in our world and look within. Personal virtue or vice resides in our attitudes, in the way we react to the things that happen to us. The key word in the Stoic ethic is apathy. Everything that happens to a human being is fixed by that person’s fate. But most humans resist their destiny, when in fact nothing could have been done that would have altered the course of nature. Our duty in life, then, is simply to accept what happens; it is to resign ourselves to our unavoidable destiny. This will be reflected in our apathy to all that is around us, including family and property. The truly virtuous person will eliminate all passion and emotion from his (or her) life until he reaches the point that nothing troubles or bothers him. Once humans learn that they are slaves to their fate, the secret of the only good life open to them requires them to eliminate all emotion from their lives and accept whatever fate sends their way. The fact that the Stoics often described this attitude of resignation as “accepting the will of God” is no doubt responsible for the confusion between their teaching and the New Testament’s emphasis upon doing God’s will. But the ideas behind the Stoic and Christian phrases are completely different! When a Stoic talked about the will of God, he meant nothing more than submission to the unavoidable fatalism of an impersonal, uncaring, unknowing, and unloving Nature. But when Christians talk about accepting the will of God, they mean the chosen plan of a loving, knowing, personal deity. Decades ago, it was fashionable in some circles to claim that the apostle Paul was influenced by Stoicism. As late as 1970, Columbia University philosopher John Herman Randall, Jr., attributed the strong social emphasis of Paul’s moral philosophy to Stoicism.14 Paul’s stress upon inward motives as over against the outward act has been said to evidence a Stoic influence.15 There was a time when some claimed that a relationship existed between Paul and the Stoic thinker Seneca who was an official in Nero’s government during the apostle’s time in Rome.16 And there can be no question that Paul quoted from a Stoic writer in his famous sermon on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:28). Paul’s quoting from a Stoic writer proves nothing, of course. As an educated man speaking to Stoics, it was both good rhetoric and a way to gain the attention of his audience. Though Paul and Seneca were in Rome at the same time, there is no evidence of any personal contact and plenty of evidence that their respective systems of thought were alien to each other. When properly understood, Seneca’s Stoic ethic is repulsive to a Christian like Paul. It is totally devoid of genuine human emotion and compassion; there is no place for love, pity, or contrition. It lacks any intrinsic tie to repentance, conversion, and faith in God. Even if Paul did use Stoic images and language, he gave the words a new and higher meaning and significance. In any comparison between the thinking of Paul and Stoicism, it is the differences and conflicts that stand out. Two other instances of alleged Stoic influence remain to be considered. The first concerns the Stoic’s use of the Greek word logos as a technical term. It is this same term that John uses throughout the first fourteen verses of his Gospel as a name for Jesus Christ. Since the immediate source for the New Testament use of logos is usually said to be the Jewish philosopher Philo, whose system was a synthesis of Platonism and Stoicism, I will postpone comment on this point until the next section. The second instance of alleged Stoic influence concerns the belief of early Stoics (300-200 B.C.) that the world would eventually be destroyed by fire. This led some critics to charge that Peter’s teaching in 2 Peter 3 that God will end the world by destroying it by fire echoes the Stoic doctrine of a universal conflagration. Unfortunately for such critics, their theory falls apart once one notices the significant differences between the Stoic belief and Peter’s teaching. For one thing, the Stoic conflagration was an eternally repeated event that had nothing to do with the conscious purposes of a personal God. As philosopher Gordon Clark explains, “The conflagration in II Peter is a sudden catastrophe like the flood. But the Stoic conflagration is a slow process that is going on now; it takes a long time, during which the elements change into fire bit by bit. The Stoic process is a natural process in the most ordinary sense of the word [that is, it is simply the ordinary outworking of the order of nature]; but Peter speaks of it as the result of the word or fiat of the Lord.”17 Furthermore, the Stoic conflagration is part of a pantheistic system while the conflagration described by Peter is the divine judgment of a holy and personal God upon sin. As if these differences were not enough, the Stoic fire endlessly repeats itself. After each conflagration, the world begins anew and duplicates exactly the same course of events of the previous cycle. The history of the world, in this Stoic view, repeats itself an infinite number of times. Contrast this with Peter’s view that the world is destroyed by fire only once, like the flood of Noah’s time. Perhaps the most decisive objection to the claim of a Stoic influence in 2 Peter is the fact that major Stoic writers had completely abandoned this doctrine by the middle of the first century A.D. The critic would have us believe that the writer of 2 Peter was influenced by a Stoic doctrine that Stoic thinkers had completely repudiated. It is little wonder that most scholars abandoned theories about a Stoic influence upon the New Testament decades ago. This leaves us with the third and last of our possible philosophic influences on the New Testament, the first century system of the Jewish thinker, Philo.
INFLUENCED BY PHILO?
At the beginning of the Christian era, Alexandria, Egypt — an important center of the Jewish Dispersion — had become the chief center of Hellenistic thought. The large colony of Jews who claimed Alexandria as their home became Hellenized in both language and culture. While still observing their Jewish faith, they translated their Scriptures into the Greek language (the Septuagint). This tended to increase their cultural isolation from their Hebrew roots because they now had even less incentive to remain fluent in the Hebrew language. Given the intellectual interests of the Alexandrian Jews, it was only natural that the arrival of such philosophical systems as Platonism and Stoicism in Alexandria would eventually affect them. The greatest of the Alexandrian Jewish intellectuals was Philo Judeaus, who lived from about 25 B.C. to about A.D. 50. Philo’s work illustrates many of the most important elements of the synthesis of Platonism and Stoicism that came to dominate Hellenistic philosophy during and after his lifetime. He is the best example of how intellectual Jews of the Dispersion, isolated from Palestine and their native culture, allowed Hellenistic influences to shape their theology and philosophy.18 Philo has become famous for his use of the term logos.19 It is impossible, however, to find any clear or consistent use of the word in his many writings. For example, he used the word to refer to Plato’s ideal world of the forms,20 to the mind of God, and to a principle that existed somewhere between the realms of God and creation. At other times, he applied logos to any of several mediators between God and man, such as the angels, Moses, Abraham, and even the Jewish high priest. But putting aside his lack of clarity and consistency, his use of logos has raised questions about a possible influence of Alexandrian Judaism on such New Testament writings as John’s Gospel and the Book of Hebrews. Sixty years ago, the view that the writer of the fourth Gospel was influenced by Philo’s use of logos was something of an official doctrine in certain circles.21 With few exceptions, however, the drift of scholarship has been away from Philo as a source for John’s Logos doctrine. But as happens so often, news of this change in scholarly opinion was slow in reaching some. And so, John Herman Randall, Jr., wrote in 1970 that “in his Prologue about the Word, the Logos, [John] is adopting Philo Judaeus’ earlier Platonization of the Hebraic tradition.”22 And in his history of philosophy textbook that is still widely used, even in some evangelical colleges, W. T. Jones claims that the “mysticism of the Fourth Gospel was grounded in the Platonism of Hellenistic Alexandria.”23 Most contemporary New Testament scholars see no need to postulate a conscious relationship between Philo (or Alexandrian Judaism) and the New Testament use of logos. They point out that alongside the philosophical and Philonic views of logos, there were two similar but independent notions in the Judaism of the time. One of these was a pre-Christian Jewish speculation about a personified Wisdom that appears in Proverbs 8:22-26.24 Other scholars advance a different theory that sees a connection between the New Testament use of logos and such Old Testament expressions as “The Word of God” and “The Word of the Lord.” In many Old Testament passages, such expressions suggest an independent existence and personification of the Word of God.25 These two lines of thought may have merit and the reader is encouraged to examine them more fully. However, for a number of years I have been recommending a different approach to the problem, one that recognizes a possible link between the implicit Logos-Christology26 of the Book of Hebrews and the Prologue to John’s Gospel. In Chapter 6 of my book, The Gospel and the Greeks, I explore a number of fascinating connections between the author of the Book of Hebrews (whom I take to be Apollos) and Alexandrian Judaism. I point to indications that the author of Hebrews may have been an Alexandrian Jew trained in Philo’s philosophy prior to his Christian conversion. His purpose in writing Hebrews was to warn other members of his community of converted Hellenistic Jews against an apostasy that would result in their rejecting Christ and returning to their former beliefs. In the course of his message, the writer (Apollos?) argues that since Christ is a better Logos (or mediator) than any of the mediators available to them in their former beliefs,27 a return to the inferior mediators of their past would make no sense. If the argument in my book is correct, then several interesting possibilities open up. For one thing, the author of Hebrews (whoever he may be) deserves the title of the first Christian philosopher, since he was clearly trained in the details of Alexandrian philosophy. But the writer of Hebrews does not use this philosophical background to introduce Alexandrian philosophy into Christian thinking; rather he uses Christian thinking to reject his former views. Furthermore, this reading of Hebrews points to the existence of a Christian community that had a highly developed Logos Christology. But their application of the concept of logos to Jesus Christ did not amount to an introduction of pagan thinking into Christianity. On the contrary, their Christian use of Logos was developed in conscious opposition to every relevant aspect of Philo’s philosophy. Once this possibility is recognized, the proper source of John’s use of logos in John 1:1-14 may reflect his own contact with the thought of this community of converted Hellenistic Jews. Wholly apart from my own speculation on this matter, Philo’s Logos could not possibly function as a direct influence on the biblical concept of Logos.28 (1) Philo’s Logos-Mediator was a metaphysical abstraction while the Logos of the New Testament is a specific, individual, historical person. Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle, postulated to solve various philosophical problems. (2) Given Philo’s commitment to Platonism and its disparagement of the body as a tomb of the soul, Philo could never have believed in anything like the Incarnation. Philo’s God could never make direct contact with matter. But the Jesus described in Hebrews not only becomes man but participates in a full range of all that is human, including temptation to sin. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking. (3) Philo’s Logos could never be described as the Book of Hebrews pictures Jesus: suffering, being tempted to sin, and dying. (4) The repeated stress in Hebrews of Jesus’ compassionate concern for His brethren (i.e., Christians) is incompatible with Philo’s view of the emotions. Philo was influenced by the Stoic disparagement of emotion, and it is clear that he views the attainment of apathy (freedom from passion, emotion, and affection) as a much more important achievement than sympathy and compassion. Readers may pursue these matters more fully in the works cited in the sidebar (“Suggested Reading”), and in the hundreds of works cited in the bibliographies in those books. The purpose of this article has been merely to introduce the reader to the fact that over the past century, various writers have attempted to undermine the authority of the New Testament by affirming that some of its teachings were borrowed from pagan philosophical systems of the day. A careful study of this issue reveals this claim to be false. Perhaps the most serious question still remaining is what we should think of the scholarship of authors and professors who continue to make these long-discredited claims.
Dr. Ronald Nash is Professor of Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando. The latest of his 25 books are Beyond Liberation Theology (Baker), World-Views in Conflict (Zondervan), and Great Divides (NavPress).
Do you like what you’re reading? Take a look at this.
1 An essential Christian belief is one which, if false, would falsify the historic Christian faith. For example, if either the incarnation or the atonement or the resurrection of Jesus should turn out to be false, the Christian faith as it has been known from its inception would be false. 2 See Edwin A. Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1951), 35-36. 3 See W. T. Jones, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969), Chapters One and Two. 4 See Thomas W. Africa, The Ancient World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 460. See also Thomas W. Africa, The Immense Majesty: A History of Rome and the Roman Empire (New York: Crowell, 1974), 340-42. 5 In its most narrow sense, the adjective “Hellenistic” is applied to the period of history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and the Roman conquest of the last major vestige of Alexander’s empire, the Egypt of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. But in a broader sense, the term refers to the whole culture of the Roman Empire. While Rome achieved military and political supremacy throughout the Mediterranean world, it adopted the culture of the Hellenistic world that preceded Rome’s rise to power. 6 See Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks (Richardson, TX: Probe Books, 1992). 7 For more on this, see Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey (Jefferson, MD: Trinity, 1989), 210-17. 8 See George Holley Gilbert, Greek Thought in the New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1928), 85-86. 9 See William Fairweather, Jesus and the Greeks (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1924), 290. 10 Clark, 192. 11 J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 275-76. 12 See Gilbert, 86-87. 13 Clark, 193. 14 John Herman Randall, Jr., Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), 155. 15 Fairweather, 296. 16 See J. B. Lightfoot, “St. Paul and Seneca,” in J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (1913; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 270-333. Lightfoot argues against the possibility of a Stoic influence in this old essay. His polemic serves as an example of the importance once attributed to such views. 17 Clark, 191. 18 For more details, see Clark, 195-210 and Nash, Chapters 5-6. 19 The Greek word logos was a technical term in several ancient philosophical systems. Its philosophic usage goes back to Heraclitus (about 500 B.C.). It was then used by the Stoics, several hundred years later, some of whom influenced Philo. 20 For an explanation of Plato’s theory of the forms, see Nash, Chapter 2. 21 Typical of these older works is G. H. C. MacGregor and A. C. Purdy, Jew and Greek (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1937), 337ff. 22 Randall, 157. 23 Jones, 52. 24 For more on this, see Nash, 84-86. 25 See Nash, 86-88 and James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 218.26 When I say that the Logos-Christology of Hebrews is implicit, I am really making two points: (1) the Christology of Hebrews relates Jesus Christ to a Logos-concept that does have affinities to things the writer could have learned from Philo; (2) but since the term Logos is not actually applied to Jesus in Hebrews, it is implicit in the sense that it must be derived from a careful examination of the author’s language. That is, a number of very special Greek words that Philo applied to his Logos are used by the writer of Hebrews to describe Jesus. See Chapter 6 of my Gospel and the Greeks. 27 To restate a point made earlier, Philo applied the term logos to all of the following: the angels, Moses, Abraham, and the Levitical high priest. It should be noted that the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is better than each of these. 28 The points that follow are perfectly consistent with my theory that Christian Hellenists advanced their view of the Logos in conscious opposition to Philo’s system.