Was the New Testament Influenced by Platonism?

Article ID: DA242 | By: Ronald Nash

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.

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