Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Plato in the Bible

I have been discussing the notion of heaven in the Bible recently.  In my recent posts (here, here, here, and here),  I have come to the conclusion that in the Bible the word heaven means 1) the sky, 2) the dwelling place of God, and 3) sometimes the word is a stand-in for God (e.g., kingdom of heaven = kingdom of God).  What I do not find in the Bible is anything approaching the modern conception of heaven as a non-physical reality where souls go when they die, provided they have the password (i.e., Christianity).  That non-physical reality, I have argued, is an idea that comes from Plato, and not the Bible.

But, I hinted in my last post on heaven that, while a Platonic worldview (the notion of a separate, non-physical reality) was largely foreign to the Bible, it does creep in around the edges.  So, where, you may ask, does Plato's view of reality show its face in the Bible?  The answer is in the often neglected book of Hebrews.  Hebrews, in general, is an outlier in the New Testament.  It is the only book of the Bible that has, as a central theme, the idea that Jesus was a priest (a problem, since Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi).  The author goes to great lengths to defend the idea of Jesus as a priest, drawing on the mysterious OT figure Melchizedek (but that is a topic for another day).

But, one of the main ways that Hebrews lies outside the norm for the New Testament, is, I would argue, that the worldview of Hebrews is almost entirely Platonic.  That is, the author of Hebrews holds a worldview that sees reality as dualistic.  For Hebrews, reality is split in two.  This physical reality is a mere shadow of God's ultimate, perfect reality (i.e., heaven).  It is like the author of Hebrews is writing his book while all the while thinking of Plato's allegory of the cave. This worldview is on full display especially in chapters 8-10.  Take for example the following verses:

"They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.'" (Heb 8:5 NIV).
Notice the use of the word shadow here.  It is hard to believe that the author here is not deliberately drawing on Plato.  In this verse the sanctuary referred to is that constructed by Moses for the offering of sacrifices.  Heaven, as used in this verse corresponds nicely to Plato's other, superior, non-physical reality.  Here is a second passage that illustrates this Platonic worldview:
"11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption." (Heb 9:11-12 NIV). 
Here Jesus is the great high priest that enters the true tabernacle (read, the tabernacle in the other, more perfect reality, i.e., heaven) to offer his superior sacrifice.  The author of Hebrews goes on in this vein:
 "23 It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence." (Heb 9:23-24 NIV).
Here again, the earthly sanctuary (read tabernacle, or later, the temple) is inferior and a mere copy (shadow) of the heavenly (read Platonic, non-physical reality) sanctuary where Christ offers his superior sacrifice.  One last example from Hebrews:
"The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship." (Heb 10:1 NIV). 
In this verse, it is the Law that is the shadow of the true heavenly reality.

So there it is. Plato makes his appearance in the Bible in full force in the book of Hebrews.  The dualistic Platonic worldview comes through clearly in Hebrews as Jesus and Christianity represents the fullness of heavenly reality while historical Judaism with its sanctuary/temple, its priests, its sacrifices, and its law, are only copies or shadows.

This discussion raises many fascinating questions.  If most of the Bible has one worldview (i.e., non-Platonic, non-dualistic), and one book holds another worldview (Platonic, dualistic), can these worldviews be reconciled?  Should they be reconciled?  Is one view closer to the truth than the other? But these are questions for another day.  What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Good points! Can they and should they be reconciled?

    Of course the view that the abode of God and angels lay literally overhead was quite widespread in the BIble. See "The Cosmology of the Bible"

    Also see "The Holy Heavens of the Hebrews"

    Different Christians interpret away cosmological passages cited by others, from interpreting way the flat earth passages to the geocentric ones, to the young-earth creationist ones, to the old-earth creationist ones: