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Does Early Greek Philosophy Have Its Antecedents in The Hebrew Scriptures?

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Post Written by Professor John L. Lepera, ThD

Let us look at how philosophical mechanisms at work in the church and society, and the problems they are causing. We often hear of the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology. However, where and how was Greek philosophy developed and influenced? The following discussion of philosophical antecedents looks at the strong possibility of the initial influence of the Torah on early Greek philosophy. Is God at the beginning and end of this truth-seeking cycle? As more and more systems of philosophical thought developed, less and less thought was devoted to God and the how and why of His Creation. Absolute knowledge of reality began to be eroded by a relativism focused on a type of logic that was in itself lacking of a foundation grounded in God’s truth. Even if ancient philosophers had been influenced by the knowledge of God, either internally by spirit or externally by men, the reason to establish their concepts was lost, leaving only the concept to propagate and produce various other philosophical forms.

Liberalism essentially came out of the Enlightenment philosophy, while the Emergent Village is filled with New Age philosophy, which, if anything, is ancient in origin. The Church has allowed too much Aristotelian philosophy via Thomas Aquinas into its thinking and theology in liberal and liberation theology on the one hand. On the other hand, we see Eastern religion and thought playing a major role in emerging theology. I propose that both of these schools of philosophy are founded on a belief in God that then went off on a tangent toward man’s tradition. Paul tells us this in Romans 1:19-22. The more we try to obtain God by our own means, the more we distance ourselves from Him.

Paul’s writings and presentation of the entire Gospel message and the revealed mystery of the metaphysical descriptions of Christ won acceptance among the educated Greeks by its virtue of satisfying their uppermost intellectual hypotheses and their lofty moral ideals. From the theological viewpoint it was in concert with the renewed forms of Platonism, and ethically, it had related elements with reformed Stoicism. Centuries before Aristotle influenced Aquinas, who affected how Christianity would be viewed for centuries after, the faith was influencing Greek philosophy. An ardent student of ancient history and the early church, the author and professor of classics, Edwin Hatch, sees how Christianity answered the many questions being posed by the new forms of philosophy that had arisen by the middle and late first century.

The conception, for example, of the one God whose kingdom was a universal kingdom and endured throughout all ages, blended with, and passed into, the philosophical conception of a Being who was beyond time and space. …The conception of His transcendence obtained the stronger hold because it confirmed the prior conception of His unity; and that of His incommunicability, and of the consequent need of a mediator, gave a philosophical explanation of the truth that Jesus Christ was His son.1

Before we condemn philosophy out of hand and its influence on Christianity, it would be worthy of us to check into any biblical truth that may be contained within them. It is interesting to study the origins of early philosophical thought and to notice the potential impact that the Pentateuch and Hebrew thought had on them. Though this area of research could take us into deep study, let us take only a cursory look at the evidence leading to my supposition. In particular I believe that the Greek “logos” (eventually called the Messiah or Christ) is a thought that had its origins in writings of Moses and the subsequent teachings of the Priests that spread throughout the Middle East beginning in the late second millennium BC, with a major surge during the time of Solomon.

I think we can see the combination of God making Himself known to all men in their spirits and the input of the written Word into their minds producing the foundation for Greek philosophy in the West and religious foundations in the East. Here the tradition and thinking of men becomes so great that the actual knowledge of God and His required faith in their minds becomes so little that it becomes not a view of faith, but rather a view of life conceptualized by men, that is, philosophy. Thus they did not, and do not, give God His due. “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Romans 1:21

Most of the early philosophers spoke of a material first principle as the cause of all things. The earliest of the Greek school philosophers, Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC – 546 BC was a pre-Socratic, philosopher and one of the Seven Sages of Greece. He is considered by many as the first Greek tradition philosopher and the father of science), first originated this concept of a state of being from which all things consist, from which they arise, and into which they pass away; the substance remaining the same through all its changing states. That is, nothing comes into being or perishes, since the primal nature remains the same. Thales determined that this first principle was water. Genesis 1:2 comes to mind, “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Thales lived during the time of the Babylonian exile, so it is possible that he was familiar with the Jewish view of the first action by the uncaused Creator; but he then mistakenly applied the first action as the first principle.

Closely following Thales was his student or perhap companion, Anaximander (ca. 610 BC – ca. 546 BC was the second of the physical philosophers of Ionia, a citizen of Miletus), with his “the boundless” (to apeiron) as the first principle and element of things that are. He said this element is neither water nor any of the other elements now recognized. It is a different natural body, which is boundless. From it all things arise, the heavens and the worlds contained therein. From this principle things take their origin and returning to it when they pass away. He believed that since the four major elements, or essences (water, earth, fire, and air) were transformed into each other, that they must depend on some constituent fifth essence, a quintessence, for their existence.

Anaximander may, in his humanly insufficient way, be describing the mystery of Christ that Paul reveals in Col 1:16, 17 “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.”

There was a religion called Orphism began in the sixth century B.C. somewhere between the lives of Homer and Plato. It was at this time that an afterlife was brought into Greek thought. Interestingly, at about the same time in history, thoughts of transmigration and reincarnation occur in India, but it is unlikely that the idea of a soulish rebirth would have been the identical concept being transmitted along trade routes and planted in either country by travelers from the other. I think we should consider the teachings of the Tanank migrating outward during this period, which encompasses the Babylonian exile. Everett Ferguson, a well know researcher, gives more insight to this little known religious practice that affected the thinking of the Greek philosophers.

Whereas in Homer the soul is a vague and shadowy concept, in the context of this literature psyche does denote a personality existing before and after the present bodily life: the soul is distinct from and enters into the body… There are two worlds – this world and the other world. One pays the penalty in one for the sins in the other. Rewards and punishments were not new in Greek thought, but that the underworld (Hades) is a place of punishment was… Here for the first time in Greece the next life was geared in a significant way to each person’s action in this life.2

Socrates (ca. 470 BC – 399 BC), who is widely credited for laying the foundation for Western philosophy, is the next major philosopher on the scene. By far the most important source of information about Socrates is his student Plato (ca. 428 BC – 348 BC), whose dialogs feature Socrates as a teacher who denies having disciples, as a man of reason who obeys a divine voice in his head, and a pious man who is executed for religious improprieties. Plato’s brilliance as a writer and thinker is proven in his Socratic dialogues. He also founded the Academy of Athens the first institution of higher learning in the western world.

Plato’s Theory of Forms is at the center of all initial studies of Greek philosophy. This theory indicates that the sensory world we call reality, which beings may experience, is only a shadow of a higher realm. In that realm, Plato assures us, there the Forms exist that embody the true nature of the pale shadows. What we know as sour is only an afterimage of the Form of Sourness. The glowing brightness of the sun is only a physical display of the Form of Brightness.

The Forms are to be understood as a unity amidst dissimilar things. These dissimilar things are of our “sense world”, the forms are our intellectual comprehension of their meaning; and empirically, even the lifeblood of the things themselves. The Forms are static, objective, perfect and unchanging. These characteristics are necessary conditions if the Forms are going to be used to makes sense of the empirical universe. Following this logic, then, Plato infers a unity to the forms themselves that could be considered the Form of Forms or the Ultimate Form. Later Christian thinkers influenced by Neo-Platonists would identify this Ultimate Form with God.

Timaeus is a theoretical treatise by Plato in the form of Socratic dialogue (a question and answer approach) with the main seeker of knowledge being Timaeus, written sometime around 360 BC. In this work, Plato puts forward speculations on the nature of the physical world. Timaeus suggests that since nothing “becomes or changes” without cause (no effect without a cause), then the cause of the universe must be a demiurge or God. I capitalized that word, God, as Timaeus refers to it as the father of the universe. Since the universe is orderly and fair, the demiurge must have looked to the eternal model to make it, and not to the perishable one. Using the eternal and perfect world of “forms” or ideals as a pattern, this God set about creating the heavens, which formerly only existed in a state of chaos. I think we can see the early Genesis account of creation (Gen 1-3) having its influence on these thoughts of good and evil.

However, for Plato, this demiurge lacked the supernatural ability to create ex nihilo or out of nothing. This task would be left to his concept of the nomad, the source or the “one”; leaving the demiurge (logos/Christ?) being the agent or emanation of the “one”. Whether Plato at his time in history was discerning the relationship of God the Father to Christ based on Old Testament teachings, is a case of speculation, but the connection to the New Testament description is uncanny. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.” Col 1:15,16.

There may be those who will suggest that Paul took Plato’s concept and manipulated it into the Father/Son relationship, but this will not hold up under the eighth to the sixth century BC prophets’ description of the Son of Man’s role. Combine the reading of Isaiah 25:8 “He will swallow up death forever,” with Isaiah chapters 53 and 54. Even Daniel speaks to Christ’s ownership, “To Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom. Daniel 7:14a. The Book of Genesis’ use of “us” in Gen 1:26 and 3:22, including His Spirit, demonstrates the plurality of personalities in the Godhead. To say that Paul stole from Plato would only lead to Plato stealing from Moses, which further proves my point.

The demiurge was able to only organize creation and is said to bring order out of chaos by imitating an unchanging and eternal model. Plato allowed for a co-existent element or presence in his cosmogony. Here Plato allows the “one” to have conceptualized the universe, thereby making it in a sense, eternal; albeit, his definition of eternal would be less than God’s total existence, but longer than time (time being a created thing). This is a major point of contrast between Plato’s explanation of the origin of the world and the Genesis account of creation, in which God creates the universe from nothing and was the only eternal being.

We see that from before the time of Socrates and Plato, that is, of the Pre-Socratics, until the rise of Christianity, philosophy developed from an initial selection of a way of life. Greek philosophy spanned a panoramic vision of the universe, employing a decision to experience the world in thought along with other people. Out of this conversion developed the philosophical discourse that would present to the world a choice of a way of life apart from a higher power. Ancient philosophy may not be as much a system as it is a method for attaining of wisdom. A exercise that some may think is spiritual, while lacking any sense of a divine as the creator and giver of wisdom. The schools and ideas of ancient Greek philosophy strove to transform the individual’s way of perceiving and being in the world. Their philosophies involved both theory and a way of life, which were inseparably linked.

But the concept of God can also be seen traveling westward through Asia Minor and Greece, both as a religion and as a philosophy. This leads me to wonder if the influence that philosophy is said to have on Early and Medieval Christianity was not originally itself influenced by the concept of the Hebrew God and the creation narrative including His Word, the logos, which spoke creation into being, and His Spirit which moved across the face of the earth.

Earlier we looked at how the ancient Hindu writers develop their ideas about the absolute Guru or God. It remains a mystery as to whether or not they developed their ideas merely from the knowledge of God within or if there were exterior influences, such as, traders and travelers, who brought concepts of the Hebrew Bible into their land. There is strong evidence that centuries later in the time of Solomon, the faith of the Chosen People was disseminated throughout the earth. The influence of the God, Yahweh, of the Hebrew faith, and the concept of a singular God shows itself in the historical writings throughout the Ancient Near East. These ideas of God unfortunately met with man’s ideas (my C as man’s tradition principle again), and they quickly distorted the concept. Stories abound of histories of how the worship of one God spread. Everett Ferguson relates one idea of this synthesis god,

According to this theory, the Aryans, who worshiped Mithras, carried him to India and Iran He was a god of light, truth, and loyalty to covenants. In the Persian Avesta Mithras was an ally of the good god Ahura Mazda, in support of whom he fought against Ahriman, the evil power. He was thought of as mediating between Ahura Mazda and mortals.3

The trade routes of the Ancient Middle East enable the merchants to spread the teaching of the Hebrew priest and the writings of Moses into every corner of the Mediterranean and the major trading cities of Persia and India. Classical Studies researcher, Martin Bernal focused his attention on periods dating even before Moses, to the time of Joseph. A time when awareness of monotheism was arising beyond the tents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob down through the period of time in Egypt when it is possible that at least one pharaoh worship a singular god.

The evidence from the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Levantine and Aegean documents all points in the same direction. Firstly, there are suggestions that these regions were in some sort of contact in the 3rd millennium/ Secondly, …Cretan palatial culture was thoroughly permeated with the bureaucratic practice of the Near East and it would seem likely that this was so from their first establishment in the 21st century BC. …Furthermore, there appears to have been Egyptians and Semitic-speakers in Crete and Cretans in Egypt.4

In further support, in a discussion I had with a friend, Dr. Michelle Simon, a PhD in Classical Studies and a professor at Villanova University, she pointed out that Athenian pots and vases have been unearthed in the Middle East from the time of Solomon, and that other relics from the pre-Homeric (1020-670 B.C) period have been discovered along the entire Levant region. The Levant is an imprecise geographical term historically referring to a large area in the Middle East bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west, by the northern Arabian Desert to the south, the Upper Mesopotamia to the east, and on the north by the Taurus Mountains. There has been constant trading though out the Middle East; probably since Babel. Concepts of a monotheist god would have be spread in all directions, and taking on a variety of forms as traditions crept in.

We know the Queen of Sheba came to test Solomon, not just because of his reputation for wisdom, but because of the one God, Yahweh. “Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of Yahweh, she came to test him with hard questions.” 1 Kings 10:1 God’s name and fame were already spreading verbally and had been for hundreds of years. Even in the early Greek religion we see partial aspects of God being incorporated into a made up religion, as mentioned by Walter Burkett:

…several fragmentary tablets written in Linear B list offerings for various gods at temples or lists of shrines found at various cities. Usually, gift-lists contain the gods’ names in dative form and shrine-lists provide the gods’ names in genitive form. …The name Zeus is cognate with the Greek word theos and Latin deus (both meaning “god”). These three terms ultimately trace their etymology to an ancient Proto-Indo-European male sky-god.”5 (Linear B is a script that was used for writing Mycenaean, another early form of Greek from Crete. It preceded the Greek alphabet by several centuries from 1500 to 1200 BC.)

The Apostle Paul lays out the foundation of religious beliefs in that since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen by all (Rom 1:20). Too often mankind has misunderstood the relationship between the Creator and creation. Bible-based Anglican theologian, Bishop Hugh Montefiore observes it this way:

Other thinkers (like Spinoza) have equated God and his universe. God is identified with nature. This view can be found in some forms of Eastern religions, notably Hinduism. There is a resurgence of this view in some New Age theologies. In its favour are some forms of nature mysticism, and the feeling of kinship with the natural world which is a common human experience. But this could equally well be explained by the Divine Spirit which fills the world and brings us into communion with itself and with one another and the world of nature. Pantheism is alien to the revealed nature of God in the Scriptures. It is inconsistent with the contingent nature of the universe.6

I have a small disagreement with some of his terminology, such as, the Spirit bringing us into communion with one another and with the world of nature, and his third person “itself” in regards to the Divine Spirit. He almost sounds Buddhist. However, his statements would be more correct if we assume he is only addressing born again Christians; for we know that the Holy Spirit does bind us together as servants of the Most High God (Acts 16:17) therefore our thoughts should reflect our universal unity with one another.

With all this history behind philosophy, it is clear that man has continued to add his two cents worth to the point of denying the God, Who is behind the thought and the ability to think. Philosophy has been influenced by faith, and in turn changed it, and is now affecting the faith. Unfortunately, the aspect of thought contributed by man and not from God’s Word has established a Western system of thought relieved of any discipline and self-checking mechanisms. Professor Kelley L. Ross, Department of Philosophy, Los Angeles Valley College, in looking at the beginning of philosophy and its modern out croppings, sees a dangerous trend. As he wrote in his, “The Origin of Philosophy”:

Indeed, it is a distressing and sobering new truth of history, little suspected before our time, that a vast educated class may, by its very nature, be hostile to freedom, democracy, and the creation of wealth for everyone… what we find today is that many academics deny there is truth, revel in the irrationality and incoherence of their own assertions, and nakedly assert that power is the end of all discourse. It should be no surprise to then see theeducated promoting ignorance and the free promoting tyranny, all in the hope that power will fall to them.7

In Stoic thought it was commonplace that God was easily seen as manifested in the cosmos. The Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo Judeaus of Alexandria (20 B.C.– 50 A.D.) continued this misunderstanding of the cosmos and the Logos, where he stated that if we cannot be sons of God, we must be sons of the Logos. His adaptation of this view was that the suppliant must be worthy of the cosmos, if not worthy of God. Even Philo believed that though God is invisible, He could be seen with the eyes of the mind.

As a savior in this sense he could be equated with the Logos or one of the Logio through which the supreme deity ordered the universe, or with the supreme deity himself: which position was given him depends on his traditional position in the Pantheon or on the extent to which the worshipper was concerned to observe the properties of Stoic-Platonic theology.

and

Such a full revelation is entirely compatible with the dogma of philosophy that God Himself is invisible; for though God Himself cannot be seen His Logos can be manifested, normally in the cosmos but for the Christian in the flesh of the only-begotten Logos.8

Here is my main point in this whole section. The Apostle John was the one who closed the gap and rejoined to the Bible the true meaning of the Word or Logos of God. The ancient concept of the “Logos” that had been exhibited in the Pentateuch, not fully comprehended by the Jewish priests, and had been displaced and redefined by the Greek philosophers was finally brought full circle with it’s true meaning. as we know in John 1:14,18 “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” Here at long last, the Logos as the visible manifestation of God (John 14:9) replaces the concept of the cosmos, and is known as a personality that created and controls the cosmos.

Revelation as wisdom from the mind of God is the highest possible philosophy. It includes what is best in Greek philosophy. The Greeks derived their doctrines ultimately from the Jewish Scriptures, or at least from Jewish tradition. “The difference between the revealed doctrines of the Jews and the philosophy of the Greeks consists chiefly in this, that in the sacred books of the Jews truth is expressed in symbols and figures, whereas Greek philosophy puts the figure aside and sets before us the thought which the figure expressed.”9 The practical conclusion of all this was the adoption by the Alexandrian Jews, including Philo, of the allegorical method of interpretation. I believe this tradition was instrumental in an identical system of interpretation set forth by Augustine in the formulations of his theology.

The inter-testimonial books have their share of philosophical impact. The Apocryphal book, the Wisdom of Solomon, is a collection of theological and devotional essays first written in Greek by an Alexandrian Jew approximately 100 B.C. The author compares Jewish religion with Greek philosophy, and shows faith to be the highest form of wisdom. We should note that the Eastern Orthodox Church has a history of maintaining the concept of theosis, meaning divinization (or deification or, to become god). It is the call to man to become holy and to seek union with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in the bodily resurrection of each believer. Theosis comprehends salvation from sin, is premised upon apostolic and early Christian understanding of the life of faith, and is conceptually related to foundational Greek philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

A close study of Paul’s Epistles shows his development of a Christian theology based in Old Testament theological understandings. For example, in 2 Thessalonians, Gentiles are mainly in mind, but it seems to assume a greater knowledge of the Old Testament (cf 1:6-10; 2:1-12). But there are no allusions in this epistle which Gentiles could not have known and appreciated. Acts demonstrates the strong Old Testament flavor of primitive Christian preaching, even among Gentiles. Nor can the apocalyptic element be considered unintelligible to Gentiles, since Mark’s gospel includes similar material, and is generally considered to be written for Gentiles. Then the theology of the Old Testament must have been, at least, discernable to the Gentiles to aid their understanding of the principles (doctrines?) of sin and salvation. Otherwise why would they think they needed a savior?

As Christianity moved out into the known Greco-Roman world, the influence of the cultural milieu presented the mid to late first century Church with a number of problems that were partially resolved through the comprehension of the Logos. Clement of Alexandria, in keeping with Justin Martyr, saw Christ as the divine Logos, which had always been the teacher of humankind everywhere. “But our Instructor is the holy God Jesus, the Word, who is the guide of all humanity.” (Clement of Alexandria, Instructor, 1.7.55) A brief study of Clement, Tertullian, Justin, and Irenaeus will disclose their seeing history as a process of education with God as schoolmaster and mankind as student. Therefore, it is Christ’s inspiration which lies, in one way or another, behind the myriad of teachings that mankind has tried to understand in order to reach God. I suggest that this includes even the philosophical traditions developed by the ancient Greeks and the progenitors of the major world religions. Paul relates to this in Romans 1 on his discourse about God making Himself known to everyone.

Clement believed in this model of God making His revelation personal to each individual. He described the Christian life of the individual believer as an affair of learning, training, and growth in the knowledge of God. Whereas, Tertullian, envisaged Christian life primarily in moral terms, as an affair of obedience to divine precepts (which is quite acceptable in itself), Clement conceived it as a gradual process of moral and intellectual transformation; obedience being an understood necessity throughout the process. Thus this process would lead the believer to regain his likeness, made in the image of God, as he was created to be in the days of Eden. To him this was the path to fulfilling Peter’s description of knowledge in

His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue,
But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge,
For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:3, 5, 8

Clement wrote, “There seems to me to be a first kind of saving change from heathenism to faith, a second from faith to knowledge; and this latter, as it passes on into love, begins at once to establish a mutual friendship between knower and known.” (Stromata7.10.57) Let us continue to work out our salvation daily that we may present ourselves holy and pure unto the LORD, our God.

1 Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 239.

2 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1993) p. 152.

3 Ibid., p, 270.

4 Martin Bernal, Black Athena, The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, v. 1, (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1991) p. 444.

5 Walter Burkett, Greek Religion, translated John Raffan, (Harvard University Press, 1995), pp 40-52

6 Hugh Montefiore, Credible Christianity (Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993), p124, 125.

7 Kelley L. Ross, “The Origin of Philosophy: The Attributes of Mythic/Mythopoeic Thought,” (paper, 1996); available from the Friesian School Topics and Essays; http://www.friesian.com/greek.htm accessed 24 June 2007.

8 Wilfred, L. Knox, Some Hellenistic Elements in Primitive Christianity (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), p. 38, 58

9 Stöckl, Lehrbuck der Geschichte der Philosophie (Münster, 1870; Mainz, 1888). I, 183; English trans. (Dublin, 1887), p. 161.

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