The first great Christian missionary and writer of a significant part of the New Testament--Paul of Tarsus--fused the philosophy of Plato with the story of Jesus.
aul of Tarsus was a Neoplatonist long before neoplatonism came to describe the Egyptian-Roman philosopher Plotinus. Plotinus' reintroduction (ca. a.d. 244) of Plato into the known world's culture simply made it inevitable that the men developing what became the New Testament in the fourth century would include thirteen epistles credited to Paul of Tarsus in the list of acceptable writings.
Hence, persons choosing Paul's gospel over Jesus' teachings are embracing the version of ideality created by the Greek philosopher Plato (427?--347? b.c.), rather than the spiritual wisdom of the Hebrew prophets and the Messiah. Paul of Tarsus, the man responsible for a major portion of the New Testament and its oldest source materials, used the Greek philosopher's ideas when he described the church as Christ's body, the gifts of the Spirit, ecstatic utterances in worship, putting on righteousness as a garment, conscience as a guide, and love as the greatest of Christian virtues. Paul, who seems to have studied all of Plato's works, used these in his gospels, issued as his own revelations about God. As a result, many of the subjects Plato used in his discourses have become tenets of the Christian church.
Saint Paul, by sculptor Frederick E. Hart, in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
Ken Weber / THE WORLD & I
In the last half of the first century a.d., Paul said: "For just as in a single human body there are many limbs and organs, all with different functions, so all of us, united with Christ, form one body, serving individually as limbs and organs to one another."1 Members of early churches claiming Christ as their savior adopted these words as those of Yahweh. The passage is still quoted by Christians in the twenty-first century as God-given wisdom. Indeed, many of them confidently refer to their congregations as "the body of Christ."
But look at the similarity between Paul and Plato. The Greek philosopher has Socrates say that the best-governed city is one "whose state is most like that of an individual man. For example, if the finger of one of us is wounded, the entire community of bodily connections stretching to the soul for 'intergration' with the dominant part is made aware, and all of it feels the pain as a whole. ..."2 In Plato's Laws, the Athenian iterates, "Why manifestly the city at large is the trunk of the body." Plato composed these words at least 350 years before Paul dictated his letter to the Romans. Since Paul's audiences were mostly Greco-Romans, many of them were familiar with these Platonist discourses.
TAKE ON THE BODY OF CHRIST
n First Corinthians 12, Paul explains that "a body is not one single organ, but many. ... Suppose the ear were to say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body', it does still belong to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as he chose."
Who would dispute this marvelously enlightening metaphor? It ranges out to bring understanding to all who read it. But when we put it to the test of Hebrew or Greek origin, the piece surely belongs in the Attic column. Plato also used these same organs when he put Socrates and Protagoras in a discussion about virtue, hundreds of years before Paul developed his religion. Socrates asks Protagoras, "Is virtue a single whole, and are justice and self-control and holiness parts of it? ... as the parts of a face are parts--mouth, nose, eyes and ears." Socrates then probes into the metaphor further by asking Protagoras if they agree that each part serves a different purpose, just as the features of a face do, and the parts make the whole, but each serves a different purpose--"the eye is not like the ear nor has it the same function."
When we read Paul's proclamation in Colossians, "He is, moreover, the head of the body, the church," we are once again treated to one of Plato's figurative descriptions.
When we read Paul's proclamation in Colossians, "He is, moreover, the head of the body, the church," we are once again treated to one of Plato's figurative descriptions. When taking on this subject, Paul used ideas from the Timaeus; although it reads like veneration for Jesus of Nazareth, in reality, Paul is once again paying tribute to the principles of Plato. Here is the original: "First, then, the gods, imitating the spherical shape of the universe, enclosed the two divine courses in a spherical body, that, namely, which we now term the head, being the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us; to this the gods, when they put together the body, gave all the other members to be servants."
Paul paraphrases these concepts in his letter to the Ephesians when he says in the first chapter: "He put everything in subjection beneath his feet, and appointed him as supreme head of the church which is the body." Paul uses this symbolism again when he addresses the Colossians: "For it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied. ... Every power and authority in the universe is subject to him as Head."
Since Paul's church is modeled after Plato's ideal city-state, it is no surprise to find that the congregation must be made up of individuals whose work is specialized just as Plato defines it. Plato's dialogist, in a discussion involving "manifold forms of variation in the Republic," opines that it is best to maintain the rule of "no twofold or manifold man among us, since every man does one thing." Indeed, the theory is that the ideal social structure is best served without the multitalented; therefore, "we shall find the cobbler a cobbler and not a pilot in addition to his cobbling, and the farmer a farmer and not a judge added to his farming, and the soldier a soldier and not a money-maker in addition to his soldiery, and so all the rest."
Man's nature is the reason for such tight but necessary control, according to Socrates. He further explains in the Republic: "To begin with, our several natures are not all alike but different. One man is naturally fitted for one task, and another for another." Apparently agreeing wholeheartedly with Plato's ideas on this point, Paul adopts this tenet also and names it the gifts of grace, or spiritual gifts, in Romans 12 and First Corinthians 12. His rules concerning the use of these gifts echo those in the Greek dialogues. The Tarsian does not even try to shape this idea in a different form but tells the Romans: "The gifts we possess differ as they are allotted to us by God's grace, and must be exercised accordingly: the gift of inspired utterance, for example, in proportion to a man's faith; or the gift of administration, in administration. A teacher should employ his gift in teaching, and one who has the gift of stirring speech should use it to stir hearers."
His instructions on this topic to the Corinthians are much the same: "I should like you all to be as I am myself; but everyone has the gift God has granted him, one has this gift and another that."
Paul's further instructions to the Corinthians are: "In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose." Paul goes on to list the inherent gifts he expects to find displayed by his followers at Corinth. Many of his promises deal with "miraculous powers," especially concerning "ecstatic utterance of different kinds," and those persons able to interpret such sounds.
In the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul again uses the human body and its several parts as a model for the church. He explains that the ear, eye, nose, foot, and hand each have distinctive functions as part of a body and are not interchangeable. Just so, the distinctive talents of church members, especially those persons able to understand the esoteric features of religion, must be esteemed. Jealousy toward the person with those unique powers was a sin.
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF DEITIES
tendril of the growth nurtured in early Greek religion wound its way into Roman acceptance and flowered into the belief that gods had a language all their own. Deities did not communicate in the mundane speech of mortals, however. In his hymn to the gods, Hesiod, who lived in the eighth century b.c., described the multiheaded monster, Typhoeus, who besides bellowing, roaring, barking, and hissing, could also speak in a " 'normal' voice, ... [making] the same kind of noise as a human larynx does ... though the language he speaks is of course that of the gods."3
By the time Plato developed his philosophy, it seems that the concept was unchanged. He, too, believed that the gods spoke a language that humans could not possibly comprehend. But a way had been provided for humans to understand their speech. Men from any linguistic background could speak the language of deities only if their minds were unhinged by the gods. Indeed, incoherent speech was viewed as a gift from the gods. Socrates explains in Phaedrus, "The greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven-sent." Plato reiterates this concept in the Timaeus. In sound and reason, if the speaker was understood by his audience, it was proof he did not possess this gift of the gods.
Some Christians want to deny Paul's use of glossolalia in his doctrine, but it is there. (Jesus certainly never took up the subject.) In First Corinthians Paul teaches: "When a man is using the language of ecstasy he is talking with God, not with men, for no man understands him; he is no doubt inspired, but he speaks mysteries." Further on in this chapter, Paul declares: "Thank God, I am more gifted in ecstatic utterance than any of you." Being the clever man he was, however, Paul understood the ramifications of what he was teaching and attempted to control this branch of his gospel by pruning some of its wild growth. Therefore, he warned his followers, it is better to "speak five intelligible words ... than thousands of words in the language of ecstasy."
Surely Paul's rules in First Corinthians are too similar to Plato's directions in the Timaeus to be accidental. Yet whether a stand is being taken for or against glossolalia in Christianity, Paul's advice on the subject is used to support the argument.
Even so, the precept remains a part of Paul's creed, and he goes on to follow Plato's pattern by insisting that interpreters be present when ecstatic utterances are part of a meeting. Here are Paul's instructions: "To sum up, my friends: when you meet to worship, each of you contributes a hymn, some instruction, a revelation, an ecstatic utterance, or the interpretation of such utterance." After unintelligible sounds were produced by a human voice, another person was called on to explain them to an audience of believers who had faith that God was using these noises to communicate with them.
Apparently, this idea, too, comes from the Timaeus, where Plato gives these directions: "But, while [the enthralled one] continues demented, he cannot judge of the visions which he sees or the words which he utters; ... And for this reason it is customary to appoint interpreters to be judges of the true inspiration." Surely Paul's rules in First Corinthians are too similar to Plato's directions in the Timaeus to be accidental. Yet whether a stand is being taken for or against glossolalia in Christianity, Paul's advice on the subject is used to support the argument.
A good example of what can happen in worship when the element of ecstasy takes over is described in First Samuel 19:18--24. During the time when Saul was hunting David to kill him, he commanded his soldiers to find and apprehend the former shepherd. While searching for David, however, the men came upon Samuel's school of prophets in Naioth and found his students enjoying a rapturous state. The king's men also "fell into prophetic rapture" and left off their search to join the prophets in their activities. When Saul's men failed to return with David, he sent two other bands to search for him, but they, too, fell into the spiritual abandonment led by Samuel.
Despairing at the failure of his men, Saul himself set off in pursuit of his former harpplayer. Upon arriving at Naioth, however, Saul also became possessed. He took off his clothes, and, naked and prone on the ground, "fell into a rapture before Samuel and lay" in that state for the rest of the day and all that night. The rapt Saul was no more successful than his men had been. Samuel Sandmel calls this group of Samuel's "loathsome whirling dervishes."4
What Samuel incited his prophets to do was in direct disobedience to Yahweh, according to passages in Exodus. Encouraging His priests to spare Him the sight of their private parts, God instructed them in Exodus 28 to wear linen drawers. Surely this rule of covering oneself before God extends to prophets, since shedding one's sense of speech apparently leads to casting off other considerate social items as well.
Interestingly, we find both Paul and Plato putting the terms shedding and donning to metaphoric use; one can put on spiritual attributes, they say. The Tarsian scolds the Colossians by saying, "Now that you have discarded the old nature ... and put on the new nature, ..." stop lying to one another.
Plato and Aristotle--Logic, by Giotto. Relief on the Campanile, Florence. NORTHWIND PICTURE ARCHIVE
Just so, many years earlier, while Plato was setting out the role of women in the ideal city in his Republic and after asserting that there is nothing "practiced by mankind in which the masculine sex does not surpass the female," he tenders the rule that "the women of the guardians" must disrobe to perform their duties "since they will be clothed with virtue as a garment." Paul drew from Plato's language and practiced it on the Ephesians by instructing them to "lay aside that old human nature ... and put on the new nature of God's creating." Since Paul compares righteousness and immortality to items of apparel, he tells the Corinthians, "What is mortal must be clothed with immortality."
Years earlier, Plato wrote in his Symposium a similar passage in which he has Diotima explaining to Socrates that the man who seeks and finds the soul of beauty "shall be called the friend of god, and if ever it is given to man to put on immortality, it shall be given to him."
HOW ONE IS TO LIVE
t appears that after Paul put aside the laws of God he felt a need to replace them with a creed that at least had a moral tone to it. We have, therefore, the precepts of the good and well doing. As is the way of humankind, of course, moral guidelines mean whatever the cultures using them say they mean.
Ethics in Plato's writing are always a matter of discussion and debate, and more discussion and more debate. Indeed, both Plato and Paul have flexible rules that are good examples of situational ethics. Here are a few rules Paul put together for the Ephesians: "Throw off falsehood ... do not let anger lead you into sin. ... The thief must give up stealing. ... No bad language must pass your lips. ... Have done with spite and passion, all angry shouting and cursing, and bad feeling of every kind. Be generous to one another. ... Fornication and indecency of any kind, or ruthless greed, must not so much as be mentioned among you. ... No coarse, stupid, or flippant talk; these things are out of place."
Paul also told the Romans, "I ... wish you to be experts in goodness," and he encourages the Galatians to "never tire of doing good." Women in Paul's church must not dress in costly jewels and high-priced clothes, "but with good deeds, as befits women who claim to be religious," he writes to Timothy. And just as for Plato's women mentioned above, if their actions are good and true, virtue will be their real dress.
Paul's goal seems to be self-approval. In Paul's vocabulary, however, self-approval appears to be simply another name for conscience. There is no need to examine whether an act is good or evil, no need for winnowing the chaff from the grain. If one's mind is satisfied, then all is well.
Similar rules of like value are found scattered throughout most of Paul's letters. His teachings read more like a book of manners for life in the Roman world of the first century a.d. than guidelines for a community of believers set free by the truth of the messiah. In reality, Paul's directives, lacking the power of Old Testament writings, seem like mundane instructions to followers in view of Jesus' life and death.
Plato says that the good are easy to identify: They are, he says in Laws, the "rightly educated, and those "who can command themselves." In the Symposium, he says, "The action itself, as such, is neither good or bad." Performance decides an action's merit, he explains. "If it is done rightly and finely, the action will be good; if it is done basely, bad." Plato enforces this precept by instructing, through Pausanias: "Remember that the moral value of the act is not what one might call a constant."
Echoing down through the years of time, we find a passage in Romans in which Paul makes his declaration about eating food offered to Roman gods: "I am absolutely convinced, as a Christian, that nothing is impure in itself; only, if a man considers a particular thing impure, then to him it is impure."
Paul's goal seems to be self-approval. In Paul's vocabulary, however, self-approval appears to be simply another name for conscience. There is no need to examine whether an act is good or evil, no need for winnowing the chaff from the grain. If one's mind is satisfied, then all is well. Luke tells us in Acts that Paul spent considerable time on this self-instruction, and quotes him as saying: "I ... train myself to keep at all times a clear conscience before God and man."
Yet too often, heeding one's own conscience is simply proceeding with what one has already justified in one's mind to do anyway. Obviously, Paul judged his own conscience to be a better behavior guide than the laws of the Hebrew God. Hence, in those choices that trouble the soul, Paul assures both the Romans and Corinthians that conscience will guide them correctly. Paul encourages people at table with pagans served food previously offered to Roman gods to put aside the first three commandments and let their conscience guide them. Paul's lesson is that the only reason a person would refuse pagan hospitality in the first place is a conscience that makes him feel unclean while eating such food. Conversely, a strong conscience, of course, would make the eater feel unpolluted. Therefore, it is not the act that is unholy but, more precisely, the mind's feeling about the act that defiles, according to Paul.
But in the history of men and women, evidence indicates that conscience as a guide to righteousness often fails. Misuse of children by their own parents, as well as strangers and religious leaders, continues. Obviously, conscience does little to protect those children, or the sick, or the poor, or the starving from people who claim they love God. Ever since a.d. 313 when Constantine put the church under his control and thereby endowed church leaders with power over the souls and bodies of believers, the world has not always benefitted from the consciences of church leaders. As well, many world leaders throughout history are infamous for their atrocious crimes against the people they governed. Conscience, too often, has as its mate cruelty.
Interestingly, religious leaders, when urging their flocks toward a moral life, direct them to the Ten Commandments for guidance rather than to Jesus' completion of those commandments in Matthew 5:17--48, part of his Sermon on the Mount. Paul's idea of righteousness has swamped both the Ten Commandments and Jesus' teachings on that topic. When asked which commandment was the most important for his followers to heed, however, Jesus said in Matthew 22: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.' That is the greatest commandment. It comes first. The second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Everything in the Law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments." And does not the Holy Spirit, described so well in John 14--16, play a role in guiding believers to choose righteousness?
James Hastings, in his Dictionary of the Bible, says that Paul took the concept of conscience from the Stoics.5 That appears likely, since Paul's ideas on conscience agree with what was then current thought; the Stoic religion was renewed during his lifetime.
Obviously, Paul favored Stoic beliefs as well as those of Plato, since he quotes from the Stoic poet Aratus of Cilicia (born ca. 315 b.c.) in Acts 17. "We are also his off-spring" is a line from Aratus' poem Phaenomena. However, the person Aratus lauds is the incestuous Zeus, whom the Stoics claimed as their chief god; they did not reverence the God of the Hebrew people.
Yet even Plato sees that conscience results from an attitude "instilled by subjection to pre-existing laws."6 Furthermore, conscience is not a moral principle of the Old Testament. In fact, the writer of Proverbs sharply warns: "A man's whole conduct may be pure in his own eyes, but the Lord fixes a standard for the Spirit of man." Farther on in this chapter, the author warns, "A road may seem straightforward to a man, yet may end as the way of death."
Nevertheless, Paul assigns conscience the task of helping us control these unruly bodies of ours, which he describes as being dichotomized. Our lower natures separate us from God and, combined with a law that has failed to save us from ourselves, lead humanity to spiritual death, according to Paul.
Paul repeatedly warns his followers about the unbearable evil living in their lower natures. This idea also belongs to Plato, who in the Timaeus, opines, "The authors of our race" understood how little self-discipline human beings exercise, and placed the appetitive drives in the "lower belly." Plato explains his sundered humanity this way: "Wherefore, fearing to pollute the divine any more than was absolutely unavoidable, they (the gods), gave to the mortal nature a separate habitation in another part of the body, placing the neck between them to be the isthmus and boundary, which they constructed between the head and breast to keep them apart."
The appetites of the lower nature, according to both Plato and Paul, are elements neither the gods nor God can possibly view as beneficial to human beings. Paul seems to disagree with God about mankind; when speaking of His creation in Genesis, including Adam and Eve, God described "all that he had made as very good."
ppalled by the longings that drive human beings, Paul tells the Romans that the urges of the body are our animal natures and warns that they are at "enmity to God." More importantly he says in Romans 8 that this nature can never be controlled by the laws of God. In Paul's doctrine, therefore, it is up to us to beat down our lower natures while spoon-feeding our higher natures.
Paul in prison, writing the epistles. NORTHWIND PICTURE ARCHIVE
Plato's theory was that humans cannot know God until they die and the soul is completely freed from its fleshly prison. And the esoteric Clementine writings have Simon/Paul say: "It is truly very difficult for man to know him, as long as he is in the flesh; for blacker than all darkness, and heavier than all clay, is this body with which the soul is surrounded."7
The Tarsian's instructions on the passions of the flesh as well as Plato's discussions are a rehashing of a problem God had already addressed thousands of years earlier. When God brought Moses to Mount Sinai, it was to instruct him in the morality expected of those claiming to follow God. Jesus gave fullness to those instructions during his lifetime. The directions, therefore, on how to handle bodily appetites were available for anyone interested in them before either Plato or Paul composed their own rules. They were in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Paul's dualism, leading to rejection of the human body and its longings, seems to reveal an aversion to the human race. He could find compassion for his own human condition, but he appears to abhor the rest of mankind in its sordid attempt at day-to-day existence. Plato shares this feeling and has Socrates says in Phaedo: "It seems that so long as we are alive, we shall continue closest to knowledge if we avoid as much as we can all contact and association with the body, ... and instead of allowing ourselves to become infected with its nature, purify ourselves from it until [Zeus] gives us deliverance."
Farther along in this discussion, Socrates reminds Simmias, "Purification ... consists in separating the soul as much as possible from the body." The true philosopher's lifetime should be devoted to this severance, he goes on to say.
Paul takes this debate a step farther by inventing a way to die and still live. He explains this process in his letter to the Romans; he asks his followers: "Have you forgotten that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death? By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead" This phenomenon was accomplished when Paul and his disciples became the crucified Jesus through a metamorphosis. This transformation came about through "drowning" in baptismal waters, which made Paul and his disciples sanctified creatures. Paul lectures the Colossians by demanding of them: "Did you not die with Christ and pass beyond reach of the elemental spirits of the universe?" But when he addresses the Galatians, Paul declares, "I have been crucified with Christ." Whether it was by drowning or crucifixion that this miraculous change came about, Paul and his disciples believed that they were free of their sinful lower natures and had become new creatures.
Killing the body, even metaphorically, to free the soul does not appear in either Matthew or John's record of Jesus' teaching. John's explanation for the need to be "born again" is at odds with the idea of being nailed on the cross with Jesus or drowning in baptism and then rising again as Jesus did. If the disciples had become embroiled in such philosophical ramblings, then Jesus' teachings would have been lost in a morass of words.
Evidently, their work with the thirsty, the hungry, the homeless, the naked, and the ill left Jesus' original disciples with little time for recording their deeds. Yet how helpful it would be if only a copy of the Acts of the Eleven Disciples were ever found. Unfortunately, Jesus died alone; of course, for all mankind. There was no one else with him at that time, not even God.
PAUL ON LOVE
aul moves from metamorphosis to anthropomorphism. For his Corinthian congregations, Paul anthropomorphizes love, just as Plato did in the Symposium. Once again, the Greek philosopher uses men dining together to make his point. Eryximachus brings before the gathering a complaint from Phaedrus as a question. "Is it not ... an extraordinary thing that, for all the hymns and anthems that have been addressed to the other deities, not one single poet has ever sung a song in praise of so ancient and so powerful a god as Love?" And so those at the table turn the discussion to praising Love. At first, Love is presented as not one deity but two: the popular one called Aphrodite, "that governs the passions of the vulgar. For, first, they are as much attracted by women as by boys; ... and, finally, they make a point of courting the shallowest people they can find." The other Love is called Heavenly because "those who are inspired by [it] turn rather to the male, preferring the more vigorous and intellectual bent."
Paul and Barnabas, preaching at Antioch. NORTHWIND PICTURE ARCHIVE
Tributes continue until it is finally Agathon's turn. He chides his companions saying they "have been at such pains to congratulate mankind upon the blessings of Love that they have quite forgotten to extol the god himself, and have thrown no light at all upon the nature of our divine benefactor."
The anthropomorphic hymn to Love is begun by Agathon saying that Love "is the loveliest and the best" of the gods, going on to explain that Love, "makes the dispositions and the hearts of gods and men his dwelling place." Examining Love's moral excellence, the orator says that "he is never injured by, nor ever injures, either god or man." Agathon then explains, "Added to his righteousness is his entire temperance." To the god's righteousness and temperance, Agathon next adds valor, because it is claimed that Love captured the god of war, Ares, which made Love "mightier than all" the gods. Besides all this, Love "banishes estrangement and ushers friendship in." Love also spends time at gatherings "presiding at table, at the dance, and at the altar, cultivating courtesy and weeding out brutality, lavish of kindliness and sparing of malevolence, affable and gracious." and a god all men can look to as "our helmsman and helper, our pilot and preserver, ... and the noblest and the loveliest of leaders."
Sitting at his loom, Paul spins from the same yarn, using the same design.
"Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offense. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men's sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. ... In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love."8 "
Seeming to answer what is known in Christianity as the Love Chapter, however, the writer of the First Letter of John says, with stark clarity, "God is love." To that writer, all these grand attributes belong to the Creator, not to the anthropomorphic idol created by Plato and borrowed by Paul.
Some years ago, a British theologian, Arthur Darby Nock, said of Paul's work in First Corinthians: "In general [it] is one of the most strikingly original things St. Paul ever wrote."9 Surely, the only person who would call Paul's Love Chapter original is someone who never read this portion of Plato's work, or someone who enjoys self-delusion.
Paul's lack of compunction for his copious use of Plato's ideas allowed him to choose liberally from all the other subjects discussed in the philosopher's works. Another borrowed theme used in his letter to the Romans is the promise of comfort in times of trouble: "In everything, as we know, he cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose." This is the twin sister of a passage from the Republic, book ten: "And shall we not agree that all things that come from the gods work together for the best for him that is dear to the gods?"
Paul, in his self-appointed position as overseer of his followers' private lives, uses another Platonism in First Corinthians: "To the unmarried and to widows I say this: it is a good thing if they stay as I am myself; but if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. Better be married than burn with vain desire." Compare Paul's statement with Plato's advice. In his Laws, the Greek writer has the Athenian, who is the regulator of couples in the Ideal City, address how "they should set about procreation." In the discourse, he describes sexual desire as that "blaze of wanton appetite."
In First Corinthians, Paul also advises people in his church who are married: "Do not deny yourselves to one another, except when you agree upon a temporary abstinence in order to devote yourselves to prayer." Old Testament rules list other times for sexual abstinence as well, but since Paul's tenets are based on Greco-Roman ideas for soldiers and athletes, it seems this counsel also came from Plato. In his Laws, Plato's Athenian tells the story of Iccus of Tarentum, "who was said to have acted for the sake of distinction at Olympia and elsewhere." During preparation for athletic events, Iccus practiced self-discipline, and "never once came near a woman, or a boy either, all the time he was in training."
Paul's use of Roman athletic terms as metaphors is extensive. He tells the Corinthians that of those running a foot race, only one can win and his prize is a "fading wreath." And he advises Timothy that no athlete can win a prize unless he follows the game's rules. Since sporting events, even in Palestine, were conducted according to Roman standards, the words Paul uses are surely related to those Roman religious contests.
Paul also holds himself up to the Corinthians as the example to follow: "I bruise my own body and make it know its master, for fear that after preaching to others I should find myself rejected." In this passage, Paul seems to identify with Plato's rulers, who "must approve themselves lovers of the state when tested in pleasures and pains, and make it apparent that they do not abandon this fixed faith under stress of labors or fears or any other vicissitude, and that anyone who could not keep that faith must be rejected, while he who always issued from the test pure and intact, ... is to be established as ruler and receive honors in life and after death and prizes as well."10
Repeatedly, the echo answers back in Paul's Christian doctrine.
1. Rom. 12:4,5, The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford Study Edition, (NEB) gen. ed. Samuel Sandmel (New York: University Press, 1976). All quotations are from the NEB.
2. Republic 5.462C, D, from Plato, Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987). All references to Plato come from this edition.
3. Hesiod, Theogony, ed. M.L. West, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 386, 387.
4. Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to Their Literature and Religious Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 448.
5. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930).
6. Plato, Laws 3.699C.
7. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 8, American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989).
8. 1 Cor. 13:4--7, 13 NEB.
9. Arthur Darby Nock, Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background (Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1928; reprint, Harper & Row, New York, 1964), 96.
10. Plato, Republic 6.503.
F.F. Powell is a freelance writer and author of a book on Saint Paul.