Jesus, the gods, and the philosophers

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According to the standard evangelical model Jesus died for the sins of the world, and ever since Pentecost the church has proclaimed this “good news” of personal salvation to the world and will continue to do so until Jesus returns. That model is at best a modern theological abstraction. What we actually encounter in scripture is the story of a people as it interacts throughout history with the nations. This story comes to a head in the New Testament in the foreseen clash between the churches and pagan Rome. This conflict is not mere historical background, to be discarded once the necessary beliefs have been prised from it. It is what the New Testament is all about. It is what we confess, it is how we understand ourselves.

I have been reading a couple of books recently that add considerable detail to the cultural and religious landscape in which this conflict took place: the first volume of NT Wright’s [amazon:978-0800626839:inline], and Charles Freeman’s very stimulating [amazon:978-1400033805:inline]. The diagram below attempts to capture—in grossly oversimplified fashion—the main lines and outcomes of the engagement.

The argument is basically that 1) the Jewish-Christian narrative aimed at pagan idolatry rather than Greek philosophy; 2) having won that battle the church inherited both the territory and the political-religious power that had formerly belonged to idolatrous Rome; 3) the church assimilated Platonism in order to develop a belief system that wouldn’t look out of place in this foreign environment; 4) the Jewish-Christian narrative was quietly forgotten; 5) the church failed to deal constructively with the rational-empirical tradition in Greek philosophy (this is Freeman’s complaint); 6) the rational-empirical tradition eventually fought back and wrested control of the Western mind from the church; 7) so it’s back to narrative if we are going to have a viable future as God’s people.

Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s story—that is now virtually a commonplace of New Testament studies. I argue, however, that the fulfilment came not in his death and resurrection but in the eventual overthrow of the system of pagan idolatry that had prevailed for centuries and which found its most potent and, for Jews and Jewish-Christians, most shocking manifestation in the Roman imperial cult. His death meant salvation for the people of God, but his resurrection meant judgment for the Greek-Roman oikoumenē (cf. Acts 17:31). Every knee would bow, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, to the vindication and glory of the God of Israel (Phil. 2:11; cf. Is. 45:23).

The defeat of the gods—including the defeat of the god Caesar—and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations finally inaugurated the reign of Israel’s God. But this annexation of the Greek-Roman world meant that the church now also had to address the challenge of Greek philosophy. Hitherto, apart from Paul’s brush with the Stoics and Epicureans in Athens, his repudiation of the wisdom of the Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1-2, and perhaps John’s Logos Christology, the biblical narrative had barely engaged with Greek philosophical traditions.

The church fiercely repudiated the classical gods, but it happily assimilated the idealist philosophical tradition represented by Plato and used it to develop the peculiar hybrid biblical-Hellenistic theology that we now regard as orthodoxy. Jesus was the anti-Caesar, but Plato was Moses speaking Greek.1 During this period the biblical narrative, which had found its natural culmination in the judgment of pagan Rome, was eclipsed by western theological traditions.

[pullquote]The church had little use, however, for the rational-empirical tradition represented by Aristotle and suppressed it insofar as it constituted a threat to dogmatic faith.[/pullquote] Eventually the rational-empirical tradition, which had survived largely thanks to the Arabs, fought back in the West and overthrew the alliance of Platonized theology and Roman power that was Christendom.

Postmodernity has undermined the dominance of the rational-empirical paradigm and has allowed the church to re-evaluate historical narrative as a vehicle of non-idealized, contingent, prophetic truth. My argument is that only a narrative-historical theology can supply the sort of self-understanding and sense of purpose needed to secure the future of the people of God in the West after Christendom.

  • 1The second century AD Platonist Numenius asked, “Who is Plato, if not Moses speaking Greek?” (C. Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, 73).
Doug Wilkinson | Thu, 02/06/2014 - 08:55 | Permalink

“Hitherto, apart from Paul’s brush with the Stoics and Epicureans in Athens, his repudiation of the wisdom of the Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1-2, and perhaps John’s Logos Christology, the biblical narrative had barely engaged with Greek philosophical traditions.”

I think that Troels Engberg-Pedersen and Dale Martin would disagree vigorously with you on this.

@Andrew Perriman:

I responded earlier, but some gremlin in the Internet ate my post.  In a nutshell, the standard cosmology of the western world in the era of the NT was Stoicism.  Epicureanism and Platonism played comparatively small roles.  Troels has written a few books in which he demonstrates that Paul’s view of cosmology as it related to pneumas is distinctly Stoic (this is not to say that Paul is a Stoic, but just that he explains pneumas to his readers in a basically Stoic manner).  He uses that lingo because his readers would have intuitively understood it.  Some parts of Stoicism (e.g. use of emotion and their mythology) are set aside.  But, he tends to start with lingo from that system to explain things.  This would make his engagement with Stoic thought (which was one of the primary Hellenizing elements of Hellenized Judaism, so it doesn’t have to be dichotomized as strongly as we tend to do) deeply integrated into his message.  Both authors point out very strongly how a basically Stoic understanding of pneumas helps eliminate the dualism of physical and spiritual matters.  In Stoicism, pneumas is physical.  There is no contradiction in saying that you can have an invisible, spiritual body in the resurrection as well as a physical one.  If you think about that for a while I think you will see some important implications in this.

@Doug Wilkinson:

Thanks, Doug. That’s helpful. I was thinking more in terms of overt engagement rather than implicit dependence, but it bears thinking about.

Do you think Wright’s latest is something an educated layman could tackle?  I have read Surprised By Joy, Simply Jesus and How God Became King but I have not read his more academic work. I have a Masters in history but no formal theology training. I am wondering if it is worth attempting the earlier volumes prior to reading the new one on Paul, just reading the latest, or waiting for a more popular level book. 

@Andrew Perriman:

Yes, I downloaded your synopsis but I need to finish reading it. I have the first and third volume of Chrisitan origins in paperback but am tempted get them for the kindle so I don’t have to deal with the bulk. not sure I am ready to tackle 2,500 some odd pages!