Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Resurrection and Plato Part II

In Part I of this series I discussed the difficulty of squaring Paul's teaching on the resurrection found in I Corinthians chapter 15 with Plato's dualistic worldview. Specifically I pointed out that Plato clearly divides between a material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and a non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma). Thus, in a Platonic view, earthly/material life is lived in a body made of flesh, and after the death of the body, the non-material soul/spirit lives on in a non-material reality (heaven/world of forms).  The problem is that Paul does not split reality this way.  Instead of material/non-material, Paul seems to have a dualism of time: before and after the resurrection.  Moreover, before the resurrection life is lived in a "soulish" (psychikos) body, and after the resurrection it is a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  This does not square with Platonic reality in two ways. 1) It characterizes life on earth with the psyche and 2) it has a body in both realities.

I am currently reading through Sanders' recent volume on Paul (E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).) and he notes this very same thing.  He even happens upon the same awkward word "soulish" to translate psychikos.  Sanders notes, as I have also in the past, that Paul's use of psychikos to describe life before the resurrection is almost certainly dictated by his proof text which is Genesis 2:7, which reads:
"then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man [adam] became a living being. (NRSV).
Paul uses this verse to bolster his argument, and quotes it as follows in 15:45:
 “The first man, Adam, became a living being”
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which is most likely what Paul was familiar with as his Bible),  "living being" is the translation of the Greek "psychen zosan" or "living soul).  So, Adam was a living psyche, who of course would die, so the second Adam (Christ) was a "life giving spirit" (pneuma).

It is this verse, Paul's proof text from Genesis 2:7, that has controlled Paul's terminology and dictated his contrast between the "soulish" (psychikos) body and the spiritual (pneumatikos) body.  It is clear that Paul is not using the Greek terminology in the Platonic sense, because his terms do not line up with Plato's division of reality into material and non-material realms.  But, if he is not operating from a Platonic worldview, then what worldview was controlling his thought?

I would argue that Paul's controlling worldview, his controlling view of reality is a predominately Jewish worldview as displayed in the Old Testament.  That Jewish worldview rejects most Greek dualisms.  The Old Testament worldview does not split reality into material and non-material.  Rather, Creation, both the heavens (read sky) and earth are part of material creation.  Nor does the Old Testament split humans into material and non-material parts.  Rather, the human is a whole, a living being (see Gen 2:7) who is given life by the breath (spirit) of God.  In Genesis 2:7, a living being is a living nephesh, which is a Hebrew word meaning self, person, life, etc.  The word is often translated into Greek as psyche, as is the case in Gen 2:7, and thus is sometimes translated into English as soul.  But we are not talking about Plato's non-material soul that lives on after the body dies.  In Hebrew thought, the nephesh encompassed the whole person.

Here are E.P. Sanders words on the non-dualistic nature of Judaism, because I think they are instructive here:
"In general, Judaism is fundamentally against dualism, though some forms of Judaism accepted some forms of dualism.  But at the root of Judaism is the belief that there is only one true God, who is good, and who created the world, declaring it to be good too (e.g., Gen. 1:31). Christianity inherited this view, and the Jewish view of creation helped it fight off some of the worst aspects of dualism (especially the denigration of bodily pleasure), though it also accepted some.  The battle between dualism and monotheism went on for centuries, and resulted in a stalemate; to this day there is no final solution of the problem. (Sanders, Paul, 407). 
I would say, with Sanders, that what Paul writes in I Cor. 15 represents his predominately Jewish worldview and rejection of both dualistic reality and dualistic humanity. But, as a comment on my last post stated:
I can't guess what Paul meant by that distinction [psychikos vs. pneumatikos, before and after resurrection], if it wasn't the distinction between spiritual and physical.
Or, to rephrase, if Paul was not talking in I Corinthians 15 about a move from material (physical) to non-material (spiritual) existence, then what distinction is he making?  That will be the topic of my next post.  Stay tuned.


  1. I remember how interesting I found it when I first read John A. T. Robinson's The Body, which made an impression not only because of his argument that Paul's terrminological background was in Jewish rather than Greek philosophical usage, but also because he came right out and said that he used to think differently, studied the subject further, and changed his mind.

  2. James. Thanks for the comment. I have not read Robinson. I will have to take a look. I was first exposed to this topic through reading Bultmann's New Testament Theology followed by Conzelmann and James D. G. Dunn, and subsequent examination of the evidence. It is always impressive when someone goes in to a topic with certain suppositions and then changes their mind based upon careful examination of the evidence. Speaks pretty strongly toward our need to always return to the data.

  3. Very interesting! I don't myself think mind/body dualism really solves the problem (I think) it's trying to solve. It's nice that the ancient Jews agree. :)

  4. Thanks for keeping up with the series and for the comments. Part III is now available and answers in more detail your question from the first post.