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.