Thursday, October 21, 2010

Biblical Anthropology: Part III

In Part I of this series I asked the question: can humans be separated into different parts, most commonly, Body, Soul, and Spirit.  In Part II I investigated how the Old Testament viewed the human.  I came to the conclusion that in the Old Testament, the human is seen as an essential unity.  The human does not have a soul as a separate part of the person, the part that departs after the body dies.  No, in the Old Testament in general, the human is a nefesh (not "soul" but "living being") that is animated by the spirit or breath of God.  When the spirit (ruach) departs, the human dies.

In this, Part III of the series, I would like to discuss the influence of the Greek world view, specifically the Greek philosophical world view.

From 333-323 B.C.E. Alexander the Great swept through most of the known world with his conquering armies and subdued Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Persia, and even over into Afghanistan and India.  With his armies, he also brought Greek language, culture, philosophy, and religion.  Alexander's goal was to unify the world under the Greek umbrella.  While he died on his return to Greece, he was nevertheless successful in his goal.  For the next 300 years and beyond, the Mediterranean basin and the Ancient Near East were thoroughly Hellenized (encultured in the Greek thought systems).

Besides making Greek the lingua franca, Greek philosophy also entered into the lands conquered by Alexander.  One concept in particular became popular, and that was the Greek view of the world in general, and the Greek view of the human in particular. 

Let's start with Plato's "allegory of the cave." In this allegory, from Plato's Republic (7.514a-520a), there are a group of people held prisoner in a cave.  They are chained and facing away from the entrance of the cave.  Some way behind them in a cave is a fire, and a wall and above the wall all sorts of puppets and the like are passed between the fire and the prisoners.  All that the prisoners can see are the shadows of these puppets: animals, humans, trees, etc.  Therefore, they take this shadow dance on the cave wall to be reality. By chance, one prisoner escapes and makes his way up in the cave and sees the puppets and the fire fore what they really are.  He continues to make his way up and out of the cave and sees that not only were the shadows on the wall not reality, but neither were the puppets, they were only a shadow of the reality of the world outside the cave.  In this allegory, when the prisoner returns to try and tell the other prisoners of reality, they do not believe him.  In fact, they become hostile and kill the escaped prisoner.

Plato likens humans on this earth to the prisoners in the cave.  Through this physical world we can only see shadows.  Only as the soul (ψυχή) turns away from this physical reality to seek the true higher light, can the soul ultimately be freed from this world and find its true home.  Moreover, like the prisoners in the cave, humans do not like to be told that what they see and experience are not reality.  Hence, this present physical reality is a barrier to seeing the truth.

Thus, the Greeks had a worldview of the duality of reality.  This world, the created order, was at best morally neutral, and at worst, evil.  The physical reality was a prison for our souls, preventing the soul, the core and true form of the person, from achieving true reality.  Our bodies and their appetites were roadblocks to achieving enlightenment. The spiritual reality was the only true reality.  Thus there is a duality, physical vs. spiritual, body vs. soul.

It is into this worldview that Christianity was born.  It arose out of the Jewish view of the human discussed in Part II, but was surrounded by the Greek world view.  Therefore the question arises: did the early Christians accept the Jewish view, the Greek view, or something else entirely.  One thing is certain, the Christian scriptures were written in Greek, and therefore adopted Greek terminology such as body (σῶμα), soul (ψυχή), spirit (πνεῦμα). 

Yet, did they accept the Greek world view?  That will have to be left for part IV of this series.  For now, which view is most held today in your religious (or non-religious) circles?


  1. Its interesting also in the Plato's Republic, the individual who escapes from the cave and enters into the real world, he is obliged to return to the cave to help free people from their bondage. Right before the Allegory of the Cave is the Analogy of Divided Line which informs us that in the outside world of the Analogy of the Cave, the shadows are known as Form 1 and the tees and physical objects are known as Form 2, while the sun that illuminates everything is The Good, which is above all beings. Plato/Socrates does not think that anyone can truly understand the Good but can understand the forms. Of course no one can understand the forms, but part of being the true philosopher according to Plato/Socrates is understanding this Good and then from the Good were can understand everything else. Further, Socrates in the dialogue does not believe that a man can do it on his own for he says, "(the cave dweller) is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself." But the obvious question that arises from this is who is this person who drags them up? Is it Socrates? Well, Socrates himself claims not to know the true Good, thus he cannot do this. Whoever this man is who can understand the good and release us from bondage he also is obligated to return to the cave, for who would want to return to the darkness when you can be in the light. Some Christian philosophers will read Jesus into this role. He comes down back into the darkness from the light with knowledge of the Good for the purpose of releasing us from our bonds but is ultimately killed. Whether this is a stretch or not, Plato was onto something. Whatever the case, we know what we ourselves must do, we must contemplate on the Good and the Forms. But how is this done?
    If we turn from the Republic to the Meno, we see that Socrates introduces his idea that before birth we know all things and when we are born we forget everything. But during the course of our lives we recollect things that we have once known. This is Plato's theory of recollection. It is also in this book that he heavily dwells on the evils of the body. Plato/Socrates claims that the body distorts the senses. However, it is only from these senses that we are able to recollect (we take our observations and ponder them and this allows us to recollect). Thus although the body and the natural world might be bad, it is interesting that it is necessary in order to even come to the truth.

    -Taylor Kohn

  2. With Christianity being born in the middle of Greek rule, and many of the disciples being Greek themselves, i believe it was inevitable for developing Christianity not to be slightly influenced by Greek thought. While there was some influence, I do not believe that Christians completely copied Greek philosophy. When Jesus came the theology of the OT wasn't changed but ammended and Greek thought could have been included to help those of the time understand what Jesus was about. This could also serve as a tool to reach out to the Gentiles, which before this time had no place in Jewish culture.
    -Josh Moorman