Master Thinking

Greek Philosophy in the New Testament

Plato Greek Philosophy Apostle Paul NewTestament

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins”, Jesus said to his disciples as he was preaching the teachings of the new religion. Surprisingly, just a few decades later, the authors of the New Testament proved this claim wrong by taking new “wine” and skillfully serving it in old “wineskins”. The new teachings left the homeland of Abraham and Jesus and spread all over the world in the “wineskins” of Greek philosophy.

There are many proverbs and philosophical schemes of the Hellenic thinking to be found in the New Testament. Here, we will present just a few of them.

Matthew 25:31-46: “And before him shall be gathered all nations and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world […] Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels […] And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal

That is the end of the chapter where Jesus tells two parables to describe who will not be allowed to enter his kingdom. It will be those who won’t have stayed alert and will be taken by surprise when the time comes (like the five foolish virgins) and those who won’t have made good use of the “talents” given by their Lord.

But we have seen this image before, in Plato’s “Republic”. Socrates describes the course and sufferings of all souls between their incarnations in the famous myth of Er. Most of all, it emphasizes that each soul is responsible for choosing the next life wisely, and does not go into much detail about what exactly, good or bad, happens to them during this period of 1000 years until they descend back to earth for the next incarnation. It seems that the author of the Gospel was well aware of the next scene of judgment in Er’s myth:

And that they came to a divine region where there were two openings side by side in the earth. And two others above and over against them in the heaven.  The judges were sitting between these and after every judgement they bade the righteous journey to the right and upwards through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgement passed upon them, and the unjust to take the road to the left and downward, they too wearing behind signs” (Plato, Republic 614c)

But no one has used the terms and schemes of Greek philosophy more than Paul from Tarsus. As he admitted himself  “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew […] To them that are under the law, as under the law […] To them that are without law, as without law […] To the weak became I as weak […] I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some“ (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Ancient Corinth_ Apostle Paul_ GRethexis(Ancient Corinth)

1 Corinthians 15:33Do not be misled: Evil communications corrupt good manners

The sentence is in quotes, because it’s a very common proverb among Greeks. And we find it in a small extant excerpt of the lost comedy “Thaϊs” by dramatist Menander: Evil communications corrupt good manners

1 Corinthians 9:24Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible

More than 4 centuries before Paul, Socrates explains that a just man, not matter how many hardships he has endured, will be rewarded in the end by the gods, because they don’t abandon those who strive hard to be like them. But unjust people, act in vain like the racers who “run fast at start, like if they were flying, and are ridiculed in the end when they have to quit the race, with their ears at their shoulders. But real racers do finish the race, both receiving prizes and are crowned.

Doesn’t the same happen to just people? At the end of their every action or relation, but also at the end of their life, aren’t they rewarded and enjoy acknowledgement?” (Republic 10.613b)

1 Corinthians 13:12For now we see through mirror, by enigma but then we’ ll see face to face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.” (most translations use the expression “through a glass, darkly”. We translate the exact Greek texts’ words)

This could have been the subheading for Plato’s work “Phaedrus”, in the part that deals with the souls and their difficulties to identify the true nature of things, as they are restricted by the senses of the body. The souls have seen real beings, by when they incarnate, they forget all about their beauty and splendor.

Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called

1 Timothy 6:10  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

The last sentence is a saying by the cynic philosopher of the Hellenistic time, Bion of Borysthenes. We find it in Joannes Stobaeus’ Anthology of extracts from Greek authors: “Bion the sophist used to say that the love of money is the root of all evil”.

Galatians 5:16-23 […] But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law […] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Against such there is no law.

This whole extract looks like a summery of Aristotle’s work “On Virtues and Vices”. Of Aristotle’s eight Values, Paul keeps temperance and meekness (and adds peace, which is anyhow part of meekness). Also, he replaces justice and saneness with kindness, generosity with joy, and adds three more virtues to his list (love, faith, goodness), which are quite vague concepts, and finally chooses to completely omit courage, liberality and prudence. He handled and adapted the ancient virtues in order to make them serve the message of the new religion, and that’s why he calls them “fruit of the Spirit”. In contrast to Aristotle, who believes those virtues to be achievements of the balanced soul which seeks happiness, Paul presents them as gifts given from outside.

The closing sentence of this excerpt also derives from Aristotle, from his “Politics” this time. As he is analyzing the subject of equality, he talks about men eminent for wisdom and virtue. If we see them as equals to all others, we are unjust, Aristotle says, because against such there is no law, for they themselves are a law.

Paul repeats this last part in his Epistle to the Roman Church, as he is comparing the way of judgment for those who know the law of God he’s been preaching, and those who live outside this law: “For when the Gentiles (he means the polytheists), which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves”.  (Romans 2:14)

How much Christianity differs from ancient Hellenic thinking, is obvious from the values each promotes and what they consider to be of the highest importance in life.

The highest commandment for Christians is “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind. And Love your neighbor as yourself”. Gods did not give commandments in Ancient Greece, but society itself encouraged the citizens to live up to the values and virtues we mentioned before. But what was nr 1 on the value scale? Something that we find in Homer: “Ever to excel; to do better than others”. The Greek citizens would achieve that not by abiding by divine rules, but by honoring the laws of their homeland, because “your homeland is more precious and more honorable and holier and in higher esteem than your mother and your father and all your ancestors”.

Although it’s certain that Christianity played an important historical role in the development of the Western World, this blending with ancient philosophy was confusing. The result was, that the message of Christianity was not kept pure and also that the treasures and potential of Hellenic thinking were not made good use of. As Jesus explained, if you pour new wine in old wineskins “the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred”.

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