Christianity makes little sense apart from the ideas of Plato

A consistent refrain in writing about Christianity and its history is, how does any of this make sense? Why are the writings of Paul so prominent in the New Testament? Why are the Gospels so unconvincing as historical testimony? Why is there so much polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, supposedly the font of monotheism? Who invented the Bible, anyhow? Isn’t the Book of Revelation completely insane? And so forth.

It really depends on where you’re coming from. In the childhood home, or in the pew, or in certain kinds of school environment, the Bible is great. It makes perfect sense, when you don’t think about it much. But, when a person comes to intellectual maturity, when they begin to the think and reason like an independent adult, problems begin to appear. And they continue to appear and pile up and and never go away.

If the scientific revolution of the 17th century had never happened, one could argue, modern Christianity would have none of these difficulties. It is only because we now live in a world based on the idea of universal cause and effect, based on the principles and discoveries and affordances of empirical science, and all its transformative technologies, that religion is absurd. And I would argue that Christianity in particular became absurd when this modern way of looking at the world through cause and effect utterly dismantled and displaced the elite philosophy that had been dominant from pre-Christian times down to the early modern period, i.e. the 17th century: Platonism.

For all its historical complexity, Platonism is not difficult to summarize:

This world is the work of a God who is Reason. It is the nearest to perfection that can be realized in matter, constructed on a mathematical basis which accounts for the heavenly motions and the structure of physical bodies alike; and all this the human mind can learn to understand on the principle that like is known by like; i.e., by developing through the studies of mathematics, astronomy, and dialectic that resemblance to the divine order and its Author of which its own possession of reason makes it capable. For by virtue of that capacity, the human soul is akin to the divine…Moreover, the world is good because it displays order, the product of limit, measure, harmony and number, and behind them all of Unity, which becomes for Plato the final principle and the source of all goodness

W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 5 (Cambridge UP, 1978), p. 444

In the Platonic worldview, everything in the cosmos is a copy or likeness of the divine ideas, which themselves are a likeness of the one supreme God. This way of thinking is foundational for the New Testament, for a religion that worships both the one God of ancient Israel, and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and yet is not polytheistic or idolatrous in the manner of ancient cults and temples and local or national deities. Jesus Christ is, in essence, a platonic idea of the one God. In biblical terms, Jesus is the likeness (ὁμοίωμα) of God, because, it is believed, God wanted to represent himself to human beings in a saving, non-idolatrous way as Jesus Christ. Humans are to become like Jesus, because Jesus is like God, and humans to begin with are made in the likeness of God (Genesis). It all makes perfect philosophical, historical, psychological, and ideological sense once we see this idea in its proper context of the Platonism of middle-to-late antiquity, of the medieval era, and of the Renaissance and the early modern period. It was only fairly recently, in the history of world ideas, that Platonism has been overthrown and discarded by all educated persons, excepting a few eccentric academics and esotericists.

The key text is from Paul:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God [ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ], thought it not robbery to be equal with God [τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ]: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant [μορφὴν δούλου], and was made in the likeness of men [ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων]  and being found in fashion as a man [σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος], he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, etc.

Philippians 2:5-8

The tendency in scholarship on this passage is to lose the forest for the trees. To focus on technical historical questions (which are also, conveniently, unanswerable, so that scholars have a lot of room to maneuver and speculate). Such as, are there gnostic or docetic influences behind this account of Christ’s appearance? But the truth at work here is that the Christian idea of a divine/human mediator serves to transform 2nd Temple Judaism into a more universalist and Plato-friendly theology. The problem of monotheism is solved. We can have one ultimate, transcendent, infinite, and unseen God on the one hand, and we can also have a fully concrete, authoritative, worldly god who exercises lordship (i.e. political power) over the rebellious human creature, in the practical way that is essential to religion at all times.

One thing about ancient Judaism in the Hellenistic period, i.e. 2nd Temple Judaism, which is often ignored in scholarship, is the fact that it was extremely popular outside of the land of Palestine. It was popular in the region of Babylon and the East; extremely popular in Alexandria, where the decisive Greek translation (LXX) of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) originated; and it was popular in Rome and the regions of Greece, Spain, and North Africa. Judaism was a giant hit for many centuries during the rise of Rome. A great book on this topic is Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People (tr. Yael Lotan, Verso, 2009). Sand is an Israeli historian of modern France, who developed a thoughtful critique of the essentially modern idea of nationalism, and of the way it has been projected back into ancient times in spite of an unsupportive historical record. It turns out that a great deal of the ancient Jewish diaspora consisted of originally non-Jewish (non-“semitic”) peoples, who encountered the great Books of Moses and the prophets and the other writings, and found them just as alluring and fascinating as people do today in Africa, Asia, etc. So they converted to Judaism.

But there were problems. There was always the awkward fact of Jewish particularism. Jews had to be circumcised. They had to follow onerous dietary laws. They could not intermarry with gentiles. And so naturally there arose a desire for an updated version of Judaism, not having anything to do with temple sacrifices or the bloody conflicts in Palestine, that would suit the needs of diverse, struggling, rootless subject populations of the Roman Empire. Through Philo and Josephus and various Alexandrian intellectuals, Platonism became the major trend in Jewish thought for centuries after the conquests of Alexander. It is entirely to be expected that Paul and the Evangelists and the other authors and editors of the New Testament would have adapted their ideas to this environment, would have known how useful Platonic ideas about divine cosmic mediation are to any monotheistic religion, and would have expressed their gospel accordingly. It was something that did not need to be said, just as today no one needs to argue for the importance of gender equality and racial equality.

Once a person has digested Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin, physics, neurobiology, paleontology, etc., there is no road back to Platonism. We live in an intelligibly material cosmos. All things are connected through cause and effect, not through divine Platonic ideas. Unless, of course, modern culture wants to put blinders on, and confine itself to the ideas of an essentially literary mind such as C.S. Lewis; or perhaps some anti-Enlightenment ideology: Marxism, Nazism, Fascism, etc., which certainly converted a large portion of the educated classes of the 20th century, whose forbears would have been Platonists.

Christianity worked when there were two classes: the ruling class, and the illiterate class. The truth of Plato could sit comfortably above, and dominate, the “story truth” of the Bible. In the Information Age, no such hierarchy is conceivable. Only wealth and military power and the technologies of mind control are powerful. And they do not recognize any providential ordering of the world.

The Christian Invention of “Cancel Culture”

A fateful date in world history is February 27, 380 A.D., which will be 1,641 years ago this coming Saturday.

On this day, Christianity achieved monotheistic perfection: domination of the State, which at that time was the late Roman Empire. Thus began the long era of Medieval Christendom, which lasted approximately 14 centuries, down to the French Revolution in 1789, and the enactment of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1791. We can define historical Christendom in Europe and its colonies as the era when Church and State reigned as mutually reinforcing and essentially unquestioned authorities over every aspect of private and public life.

You wouldn’t know about February 27, 380 A.D. from most conventional histories of Europe or even of Christianity. It is passed over in silent embarrassment. In the 1990s, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I took several courses in Medieval history and in particular a comprehensive history of the Papacy. But I never heard about this particular event, nor about the crucial reign of emperor Theodosius I (379-95).

Today it is known as the Edict of Thessalonica, an imperial edict which established a distinctively “orthodox” form of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. This orthodoxy was centered on the very same doctrine of the Trinity which is professed to this day by Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and many Protestants. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of 4th and 5th and 6th century Roman emperors (particularly Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian) on the formation and codification of the essential features of Christianity itself, particularly when their role has been universally ignored or downplayed by conventional historians.

This Edict, which passed into law, and signaled the first of many such laws that upheld Christendom for centuries, is so important that it is worth quoting in full:

IMPPP. GR(ATI)ANUS, VAL(ENTINI)ANUS ET THE(O)D(OSIUS) AAA. EDICTUM AD POPULUM VRB(IS) CONSTANTINOP(OLITANAE).

Cunctos populos, quos clementiae nostrae regit temperamentum, in tali volumus religione versari, quam divinum Petrum apostolum tradidisse Romanis religio usque ad nunc ab ipso insinuata declarat quamque pontificem Damasum sequi claret et Petrum Aleksandriae episcopum virum apostolicae sanctitatis, hoc est, ut secundum apostolicam disciplinam evangelicamque doctrinam patris et filii et spiritus sancti unam deitatem sub pari maiestate et sub pia trinitate credamus. Hanc legem sequentes Christianorum catholicorum nomen iubemus amplecti, reliquos vero dementes vesanosque iudicantes haeretici dogmatis infamiam sustinere ‘nec conciliabula eorum ecclesiarum nomen accipere’, divina primum vindicta, post etiam motus nostri, quem ex caelesti arbitro sumpserimus, ultione plectendos.

DAT. III Kal. Mar. THESSAL(ONICAE) GR(ATI)ANO A. V ET THEOD(OSIO) A. I CONSS.

It is Our will that all peoples ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine [sic] Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans…this is the religion followed by the Pontiff [Bishop of Rome] Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity: that is, according to the apostolic discipline of the evangelical doctrine, we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit under the concept of equal majesty, and of the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of Our hostility, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment.

Codex Theodosianus, XVI.2, translation by Williams & Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (Yale, 1994), p. 53.

Thus in late Antiquity began the persecution of pagans, heretics, and Jews by the Christian Church and its lethal enforcer, the arm of the secular state.

Or as we might call it today, Classical Christian Cancel Culture.

Despite the dissolution of the empire in the West, monotheistic Roman law imposed the rule of orthodoxy over many centuries, lands, and peoples, high and low. Pagan shrines were demolished. At first heretics were mostly marginalized and harassed, and deprived of legal rights. But then came the Crusades, the Inquisition, and finally the massive persecution and burning of many thousands of so-called witches (women) in the 14th to 17th centuries. The catalogue of Christendom’s horrors is long and vast and hard to comprehend. Although a vague image of it lingers in popular imagination, it was actually far worse than most people think. And it all started with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., which today hardly anyone has even heard of.

So it’s really something to hear Christians whine today about “cancel culture.”

These days they bewail the decline of their popularity and influence (and revenue). Rather than look in the mirror, they typically blame the aggressive and sinister influence of some very awful people: secularists, leftists, liberals. The disgraced former Attorney General, Bill Barr, gave a speech in Fall 2019 at Notre Dame University in which he accused non-Christian Americans of waging ideological warfare against Christianity. I had the misfortune of reading the speech this morning. I have two things to say to Barr and his fellow Christian Nationalists. (1) Even if you are right that a healthy society requires religion of some kind (a matter of dispute), there is still the problem that your particular religion is not very believable for most people. Witness the generation of young people turning to places like Youtube and Reddit for information and perspective about the religion in which they were raised, and their largely negative conclusions about the persuasiveness of the Bible and Christianity. You can’t practice a faith that you don’t believe, or believe something that your intellect judges to be fundamentally not believable. And (2), why are Christians so compulsively addicted to viewing themselves as victims? I think we already know the answer. Their true objective is to dominate.

Christianity has never been the foundation of any culture of toleration or pluralism or universal humanism. One is either for them or against them, and that never changes.

Principal New Testament Myths

In writing about apocalypticism and the combat myth in the preceding post, I began thinking about how various mythical patterns intersect in the New Testament, producing distinctively potent effects on psychology and culture that we see in the history of the Christian religion. Most scholarship on Christian origins and the New Testament, past and present, has focused on questions that can never be answered conclusively or even persuasively, due to the incompleteness of our evidence and the ambiguity of our sources: who Jesus was, and, what are the origins of Christ worship. Historicity itself is a mythical component of Christianity, which is perhaps an effect of a distinctively Jewish mode of interpreting history theologically. The New Testament authors followed the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) in making history mythological.

My outline of the myth of apocalypticism is provisional and flawed, but then again, any scholarly outline or summary of a complex, archetypal myth embedded in a large body of scripture or literature or other media is bound to be sketchy and inadequate.

I see three main myths in the New Testament: the apocalyptic myth, the combat myth, and the myth of the redeemer. Although each has its specific shape and character, they overlap and intersect considerably. The first is essentially cosmic; the second is both cosmic and existential; and the third is mostly existential. By “existential,” I mean that quality of myth which allows a human subject to identify more or less with the hero. It is a familiar idea in Christianity that believers see themselves in Christ, and Christ in themselves. We can call this mode of religion existential, as a mode of thought, or mystical, as a mode of experience. Existential themes in the New Testament express hopes and anxieties of individual believers, whereas cosmic myths construct a more collective meaning about history and the divine plan for the whole world.

The Apocalyptic Myth

  1. The present world is horrific and intolerable.
  2. “The god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
  3. We are children of a most high god who is pure goodness. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
  4. The cosmos is a battlefield between good angels and evil demons.
  5. Human beings can and must choose to fight either for the side of good or that of evil.
  6. Things will get even worse, far far worse, very soon. There will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
  7. The savior will descend to earth and overthrow the ruling powers of darkness.
  8. The savior will resurrect the bodies of the dead.
  9. The savior will judge the righteous and the wicked and assign their due reward: eternal bliss or eternal torment.
  10. The next world will begin, in which the good and the evil will have nothing to do with one another.

The Combat Myth (based on Forsyth, Satan & The Combat Myth, Princeton, 1987, pp. 446-52)

  1. There is villainy.
  2. A hero emerges and prepares to act.
  3. A consultation with authorities.
  4. A journey.
  5. A battle.
  6. A defeat.
  7. The hero recovers.
  8. Battle is rejoined.
  9. Victory.
  10. The enemy is punished.
  11. Triumph.

The Redeemer Myth

  1. The redeemer is one with God.
  2. The redeemer is present at the creation.
  3. The redeemer is one with creation.
  4. The redeemer descends from heaven to earth.
  5. The redeemer dies.
  6. The redeemer is made alive again.
  7. The redeemer effects a reconciliation for humankind.
  8. The redeemer is enthroned in heaven.

The last of these, the redeemer myth, is the most precisely articulated in scripture. Its essential structure is mapped out by J.T. Sanders in The New Testament Christological Hymns (Cambridge, 1974), which brings together a handful of hymnic passages and finds that they share the same basic myth:

  • The Prologue of the Gospel According to John
  • Philippians 2:6-11
  • Colossians 1:15-20
  • Ephesians 2:14-16
  • Hebrews 1:3
  • 1 Timothy 3:16
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22

The redeemer myth is particularly familiar to anyone reared in one or another tradition of medieval Western Christendom, i.e. Chalcedonian or Constantinian Christianity, as is clear from the first part of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

The redeemer myth is both existential and mystical. It tells a myth that every human being can apply to their own existence as a mortal being endowed with self-knowledge and longing. Furthermore, apart from the New Testament’s historical framing of its mythology, it has nothing to do with the story of the Jews. Some consider it “gnostic,” although that term is more ambiguous than helpful. Sanders and other scholars have sought its origins in various Hellenistic mystery cults that were popular in the Mediterranean at the dawn of Christianity. However, texts such as the Odes of Solomon show that Jews of the time were deeply attracted to and involved in such spirituality. Paul was not the only one.

My goal for this post was to lay out these three important myths against one another with the suggestion that they are all profoundly interwoven in the New Testament. What they mean and how they are related to one another are important questions for interpreters of the Christian Bible and Christianity in general.