Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Did Paul Just Go All Plato on Me?

In a recent series on this blog (Part I, Part II, Part III), I discussed the fact that Paul's teaching on the resurrection in I Corinthians 15 (See also I Thess. 4 and Rom. 8) does not conform to a platonic worldview with its corresponding dualism of reality (material vs. non-material), and its human dualism (body/flesh vs. soul/spirit).

When, however, one turns to other passages in Paul, it may seem like he does embrace this sort of platonic dualism.  For example, here is what Paul writes in II Corinthians 3:18:
"18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (NRSV). 
Here, Paul may be opening the door to a human dualism.  In I Cor. 15, transformation is instantaneous at the resurrection.  Here the transformation is gradual and is taking place now.  Is this a "spiritual" or non-material transformation?  Shortly after this verse, II Cor. 4:16 reads:
"16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day." (NRSV).  
This verse seems to be even more clearly embracing a platonic dualism, expressed here by the terms "outer nature" and "inner nature." Paul goes on to write in II Cor. 4:18:
 "18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal." (NRSV).
And here we might have an embrace of  platonic dualism of the material vs. non-material.  As I continue to read E. P. Sanders' latest work on Paul, I found his comments on these verses informative.  Here is what he has to say about II Cor. 4:18:
"This sentence constitutes what I call 'Paul's most platonic moment': Platonic theory held that the eternal 'forms' are real, while their 'shadows' or 'imitations,' which are perceived by the human senses, are not real.  What can destroyed is not real, what is real cannot be destroyed. Again, this suggests body/soul dualism." (emphasis original)(E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 411). 
Add to these verses in II Corinthians Paul's words from Phillipians 1:21-23 which read:
"21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;" (NRSV). 
Here, what is it that departs to be with Christ?  Is it Paul's immortal (platonic) soul?  And what is it departing? The body?  It appears, if you read these verses that between the writing of I Corinthians, which clearly battled against a platonic worldview, and the writing of II Corinthians and Philippians, that Paul has changed his mind and embraced a platonic worldview.  I (and Sanders) will have more to say on this in future posts, but for now, what do you think?


  1. I don't think I know enough to think anything, since I'm almost completely unfamiliar with the Bible (I've read most of the Old Testament 'historical' books, but not much more, and I certainly haven't analyzed them in any way.)

    I certainly think it's possible that Paul changed his mind... although in that case you might think he'd mention the fact. On the other hand (the other, other hand) I suppose such a mention could have been lost or suppressed by later editors.

    I'll be interested to read your next post on the topic.

  2. David,
    Thanks for the comment. I will have a follow up post, but right now my writing attention is focused elsewhere as I try and wrap up the semester. I hope to get to the follow up post by the end of April. Thanks for your patience.