2010-09-29

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.

In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon.

Dillon begins his survey of the Middle Platonist philosophers with Antiochus of Ascalon, and what he informs readers about Antiochus is worth noting alongside the citations in my earlier post.

Antiochus was born in Palestine approximately 130 B.C.. Dillon writes:

This part of the world had been contributing intellectuals to the Hellenistic literary scene for some time, though not from Ascalon in particular. The great Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, Antiochus’ contemporary, came from Apamea in northern Syria, and Gadara, nearer by, had produced Meleager, the writer of epigrams and collector of the Garland, Menippus the satirist, and Antiochus’ younger contemporary, the Epicurean philosopher and epigrammatist Philodemus. The only literary known from Ascalon before Antiochus’ time is a Stoic philosopher named Sosus, who may have exercised some influence on Antiochus’ choice of career. (p. 52)

Dillon discusses the views of Antiochus at length even though he admits he was “not really a first-rate philosopher”, nor can he be said to have been “the immediate founder of Middle Platonism.”

Nevertheless, Antiochus is a significant figure, inasmuch as he turned the Platonic Academy away — for ever, as it turned out — from the Scepticism that had taken its inspiration from Socrates, and which had produced so much excellent philosophizing (by modern standards) under Arcesilaus and Carneades in the New Academy. (p. 105)

Of the significance of his view of demons in particular, Dillon comments:

Antiochus may be credited with great probability with reintroducing the doctrine of demons into Platonism. (p. 91)

Dillon doubts that the New Academy took much notice of Antiochus’ views on demons, but they did over time assume a much more important place among Middle Platonic thinkers, such as Philo and Plutarch whom I quoted in my earlier post.

The source for Antiochus’ teachings about demons is his pupil, Varro, who is quoted by Augustine in The City of God, book 7 ch. 6. Varro, Dillon informs us, while being the most learned Roman of his day, did not claim to be an original philosopher, but rather a faithful pupil of Antiochus. (p. 90)

The link is direct to the online section in question, but I quote from the translation in Dillon’s book what Varro tells us about the beliefs of his teacher, Antiochus:

God is the soul of the universe, and this universe is God. But just as a wise man, though consisting of body and mind, is called wise because of his mind, so the universe is called God because of its mind, though it likewise consists of mind and body. (p. 90)

Varro continues (I reformat the paragraph for easier reading):

The universe is divided into two parts, heaven and earth; the heaven is twofold, divided into aether and air, and the earth in turn is divided into water and land.

Of these the highest is the aether, the second air, and third water, and fourth earth. All these four parts are full of souls, immortal souls in the aether and the air, mortal souls in the water and on the land.

From the highest circle of heaven to the circle of the Moon are aethereal souls, the stars and the planets, and these are not only known by our intelligence to exist, but are also visible to out eyes as heavenly gods.

Then between the circle of the Moon and the highest region of the clouds are aerial souls, perceived as such by the mind, not by the eyes. They are called heroes and lares and genii.

Dillon comments that “the terms lares and genii are plainly attempts to find native Roman equivalents for the Greek term daimones.”

Of this passage — which describes what can surely be called a “sublunar realm” to delineate the place where Middle Platonists placed the habitation of demons, a term Doherty uses and that sends some critics into apoplectic attacks — Dillon writes:

This passage as a whole is of great importance, as presenting Antiochus’ version of the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons, such as found later in Philo, Plutarch and Apuleius, for instance. The argument that each of the elements must have its proper inhabitants, and that the true inhabitants of the air are not birds, as might be thought, but rather invisible pure souls or daemons, is later the standard argument. (p. 91)

Varro makes a distinction between heroes and demons, but we do not know the details. Posidonius in his On Heroes and Daemons also discusses this, but here, too, the details are lost to us.

We can only assume that there was a distinction made between good and evil daemons (as was already made in the Old Academy by Xenocrates).

I have posted the teachings of Philo and Plutarch on demons, and now here those of Antiochus of Ascelon. I hope to add those of Apuleius, also named above and in my previous post as another significant Middle Platonist, in another post.

(It should surely go without saying that I am not suggesting that Middle Platonism was the only thought-world feeding early Christianity. As I have indicated in other recent posts or comments, I am also in the process of preparing another from the Enoch tradition within Judaism.)

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13 Comments

  • 2010-09-30 00:45:13 UTC - 00:45 | Permalink

    Have you heard about this forthcoming work?

    Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible (Copenhagen International Seminar)

    http://www.amazon.com/Argonauts-Desert-Structural-Copenhagen-International/dp/1845539249/ref=ens_ya_al_dp_link_1

    • 2010-09-30 01:54:25 UTC - 01:54 | Permalink

      Dammit I better hurry up and post my notes on Argonautica before someone thinks I pinched them from this book. One sees so many echoes of the Hebrew Bible in it. The Argo itself is a model for the “ark of the covenant” through the desert or wilderness of Sinai.

      Thanks for alerting me to this.

  • 2010-09-30 04:52:09 UTC - 04:52 | Permalink

    Seems to argue for a late, Hellenistic date, for the main literary effort in creating the Hebrew Bible.

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-09-30 06:55:53 UTC - 06:55 | Permalink

    Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon

    Yes, it’s an excellent book, and clearly lays out the beliefs of Middle Platonists. If reading the book doesn’t make you question Doherty, then nothing will. What do you mean that it is one of “Doherty’s sources”? In JNGNM Doherty quotes from Dillon **only 3 times**, and none of that has to do with Middle Platonism related to the controversial parts of his theory.

    … which describes what can surely be called a “sublunar realm” to delineate the place where Middle Platonists placed the habitation of demons, a term Doherty uses and that sends some critics into apoplectic attacks

    No-one objects to the term “sublunar realm” as the habitation of demons. It is what Doherty claims goes on there that is the problem. I’ve already pointed this to you on McGrath’s blog, but it is worth repeating: Doherty, page 112:

    “Where the Pauline corpus is concerned, we cannot do much more than identify an unspecified spiritual dimension in which Christ died and was resurrected, although the role he gives to the demon spirits in the death of Christ suggests that he could have subscribed to the sublunary concept as well. On the other hand, it may be that the early Christ cult was not so concerned over such delineations, and may simply have regarded Jesus’ redemptive actions as taking place in a dimension beyond earth, a ‘world of myth'”

    OK, Doherty proposes that the authors of the Pauline corpus held to a “sublunary incarnation concept” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth”

    Neil, is there anything in Dillon’s book about either as beliefs of Middle Platonists?

    In Carrier’s review of the Jesus Puzzle, he writes (my bold):

    “Central to Doherty’s thesis is his reinterpretation of the nature of the Incarnation as held by the earliest Christians… his theory is entirely compatible with Jesus “becoming a man of flesh and blood,” that is, in the sublunar sphere of heaven, since, as Doherty explains several times, he had to in order to die and fulfill the law…”

    Neil, is there anything in Dillon’s book about fleshly incarnation in the sublunar sphere of heaven?

    “Paul” may well have had his own unique views, and that’s fine. My criticisms don’t apply in that case. But it would be good if you could list when you see Paul being consistent with the views of his time, and when he is being inconsistent. The more you can show that Doherty’s Paul is being consistent, the stronger his theory becomes. And of course the opposite applies. Where does “fleshly incarnation in the sublunar sphere of heaven” sit in Middle Platonist beliefs? Where does “a dimension beyond earth” where the gods acted out their myths sit? Can you find them in Dillon?

    My life-long friend and fellow member of the anti-mythicist conspiracy James McGrath wrote the following in his blog in response to you:

    “Thus far I have not been able to discern a single concrete conclusion that you draw and which it is possible to discuss without it being discarded when it comes under fire. You defend the views of others, and when they are subjected to criticism, you distance yourself from them. So what are your conclusions, and are they open to falsification by evidence that might count against them?”

    That’s exactly it. Neil, as far as I can tell the evidence is AGAINST Doherty, not for him. Yes, they thought that demons lived in the air and on the ground. But you’ve already acknowledged that this is not controversial. I’ve said many times what the controversial parts are. Look through Dillon, and tell me if there is anything that supports them. If you think that Paul has unique views, then tell us what they are. Doherty has acknowledged that he has no direct evidence, that he is using ‘indicators’. That’s fine. So: “fleshly sublunary incarnation” — unique to the Pauline corpus or not? “A dimension beyond earth / world of myth” where the gods acted out their myths — unique or not?

    • 2010-09-30 10:15:37 UTC - 10:15 | Permalink

      GDON:

      Yes, it’s an excellent book, and clearly lays out the beliefs of Middle Platonists. If reading the book doesn’t make you question Doherty, then nothing will. What do you mean that it is one of “Doherty’s sources”? In JNGNM Doherty quotes from Dillon **only 3 times**, and none of that has to do with Middle Platonism related to the controversial parts of his theory.

      NEIL: If you are attempting to claim Doherty pays scant regard to Dillon on the basis that his index references three places where Doherty has directly quoted Dillon, then your argument is specious. Doherty, like probably nearly all other authors who include extensive bibliographies, does not index every place where a particular book is used as a source for his discussion. The three instances where Doherty does quote Dillon do not relate to demonology at all, but to other more fundamental characteristics of Middle Platonism that are central to his argument. Yet it is clear that when one reads Doherty and Dillon that there is far more justification for Doherty’s including Dillon in his bibliography than the fact that he quotes him three times directly.

      GDON:

      No-one objects to the term “sublunar realm” as the habitation of demons. It is what Doherty claims goes on there that is the problem.

      NEIL: In my earlier post on this topic McGrath certainly objected to the plain reading of Philo and Plutarch and tried to inform us that demons and the sublunar realm applied only to the earth, if I recall correctly. My posts have been pointing to the beliefs that the corruptible spirit world populated the area from the moon to the earth and/or just above the earth yet influencing earth. He accused Doherty of not understanding the sublunar realm.

      GDON:

      OK, Doherty proposes that the authors of the Pauline corpus held to a “sublunary incarnation concept” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth”

      Neil, is there anything in Dillon’s book about either as beliefs of Middle Platonists? . . . .
      Neil, is there anything in Dillon’s book about fleshly incarnation in the sublunar sphere of heaven?

      NEIL: If someone else had already argued Doherty’s points Doherty would not need to write anything. Doherty’s argument is a much broader and more thorough engagement with the scholarship and Greek language than reliance on a single book. Are you really arguing against Doherty on the basis that Dillon has not expressed his arguments?

      Doherty’s arguments regarding “flesh” and “world of myth” is another discussion. It is fallacious to confuse the two. I have expressed my own thoughts on some of those arguments at:
      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/the-mystical-not-historical-meaning-of-christ-in-the-flesh/
      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/07/31/according-to-the-flesh-dohertys-mythicist-argument/
      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/seed-of-david-born-of-woman-and-mythicism/
      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/some-reasons-to-favour-a-mythical-jesus-over-a-historical-jesus/

      GDON:

      My life-long friend and fellow member of the anti-mythicist conspiracy James McGrath wrote the following in his blog in response to you:

      NEIL: It is this sort of response from you that is one reason I usually avoid discussions with you. (For the benefit of readers not aware of the background to GDon’s remark here, he has accused me of thinking McGrath and he have been engaged in some sort of “conspiracy” to attack mythicism. This was because I asked McGrath more than once for his source for his misinformation about Doherty’s argument. I asked him if his information came from GDon (as opposed to his reading Doherty himself), and asked this because in the past GDon had posted his own views on McGrath’s blog, and McGrath had in turn thanked him for them, and further because McGrath has declined to admit he has ever read Doherty’s book(s), and has even admitted that he gets his (mis)information from his own interpretations of comments from others on the internet. )

      GDon, you accuse me of accusing McGrath and you of some sort of conspiracy on the basis of my questioning McGrath about the sources he relies on. This indicates you are reading both my posts and Doherty’s works such intent to find fault that you read your own faults into both.

      GDON quoting McGrath:

      “Thus far I have not been able to discern a single concrete conclusion that you draw and which it is possible to discuss without it being discarded when it comes under fire. You defend the views of others, and when they are subjected to criticism, you distance yourself from them. So what are your conclusions, and are they open to falsification by evidence that might count against them?”

      NEIL: This is typical McGrath. I ask him direct questions and he refuses point blank to answer most of them (yet the fact that he does answer two or three directly does show he will answer if and when he wants to or can do so) — so he attempts to deflect attention away from his own evasiveness and straw men and red herrings and outright ignorance and superficial reliance on the internet — by accusing others of evading his “criticisms”.

      McGrath wants me to play his game of dogmatism. Further, when he or you see that I write the word “windmill” you both interpret that to mean “giant who must be slain”. And when I do not admit to having written “giant who must be slain”, and attempt to point out I wrote “windmill”, he accuses me of avoiding criticism.

      GDON:

      That’s exactly it. Neil, as far as I can tell the evidence is AGAINST Doherty, not for him. Yes, they thought that demons lived in the air and on the ground. But you’ve already acknowledged that this is not controversial. I’ve said many times what the controversial parts are. Look through Dillon, and tell me if there is anything that supports them. If you think that Paul has unique views, then tell us what they are. Doherty has acknowledged that he has no direct evidence, that he is using ‘indicators’. That’s fine. So: “fleshly sublunary incarnation” — unique to the Pauline corpus or not? “A dimension beyond earth / world of myth” where the gods acted out their myths — unique or not?

      NEIL: I addressed this in my response to the third point of yours above.

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  • GakuseiDon
    2010-09-30 15:08:36 UTC - 15:08 | Permalink

    If someone else had already argued Doherty’s points Doherty would not need to write anything.

    And I agree! It’s frustrating that you don’t get the implications of that. From what I can tell, Doherty’s concept of a “sublunary in-carne-ation” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth” is unprecedented. It is weird, it is unique, and it does not match any known belief. You won’t find it in Dillon (probably the most comprehensive book on Middle Platonism that I’ve seen), you won’t find it anywhere. If Doherty is right about what early Christians believed, then no-one before them and no-one after them ever believed in a “sublunary fleshly incarnation” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth”. It starts and ends with them.

    Now, either I am right, in which case please acknowledge this; or I am wrong, in which case please show which writers indicate a belief in a “sublunary (fleshly) incarnation” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth”.

    • 2010-09-30 16:54:31 UTC - 16:54 | Permalink

      You are wrong. New explanations are potentially valid if they are based on the extant materials, and Middle Platonism is one (only one) of those extant materials Doherty draws upon.

      Doherty is not, as far as I recall, setting up some strange idea and trying to squeeze the beliefs of Christians into it. He is, from what I recall, opening up a new way of reading the epistles of the New Testament without gospel presuppositions, and instead through the perspectives of the contemporary religious and philosophical thought world.

      You seem to want to insist that “fleshly” means literal hemoglobin and DNA, myths happened in geographical locations that can be identified on a map, when such meanings makes no sense many times the word is used in the epistles and other relevant literature.

      And if the usages of “flesh” are interpreted through the gospel narrative, then such an interpretation opens up far more questions than it answers. That is the dilemma Doherty has recognized and attempted to resolve. He is trying to be honest with the texts as we have them, but critics often seem to get most indignant because he doesn’t read gospel presuppositions into them.

      Mystical meanings are not something that can be pinned down the way you seem to want to pin them down. And the epistles do speak of “flesh” and “fleshly relationships” in mystical senses.

      And what we find emerging in Christianity appears to be a unique blend of certain Jewish and Hellenistic schools of thought. It wouldn’t exist if it did not have something unique about it. So to blame Doherty’s explanation for not matching line for line some other singular school of thought does not make much sense to me.

      You even seem to deny that demons, spirits, powers, archangels, heavenly men, gods were even thought to exist “beyond earth”.

      (Even Butler University’s associate professor of religion bent over backwards to try to insist that the demons live only on earth or in the layer of air hugging the earth (a modern anachronism), and speaks of Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology as if Middle Platonism didn’t exist, and now thinks “firmaments” are what it’s all about.)

  • Bill Warrant
    2010-09-30 17:30:58 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

    Given the plausibility that “fleshly” in “Paul” is a later anti-marcionite addition I doubt we should hang so much on it. It truly is an odd bit of text if at the time of whoever added this (whether Paul or “Paul” or a later anti-marcionite redactor) there wasn’t a counterbelief regarding the “flesh” of Jesus (why be explicit about somebody’s flesh if it isn’t being contended?). Then, if there is a counterbelief at the time of this writing why prioritize the view in this text over the counterbelief? It is certainly very weak evidence against Jesus mythicism.

    Good evidence against mythicism would be a much stronger reliance on words of Jesus (attributed to Jesus otherwise it could be that the later Gospels took over the words from the epistiles and attributed them to Jesus) and especially the events of his life in the christian texts outside the Gospels. The information in the epistles and the apostolic fathers concerning Jesus is too limited.

    • 2010-09-30 17:44:32 UTC - 17:44 | Permalink

      Good point to remember. One wonders if Paul’s original texts (or Marcion’s if they were his) can ever truly be recovered. Some of the places where its usage makes little sense or raises more questions might theoretically at least be simply the result of “redactions”. But the notion of crucifixion or death itself at least seems to me to imply some notion of flesh, however mystical. I see little problem with this.

      I think some of the reason it is hard to accept is the result of gospel narratives being so firmly embedded in our associations with Paul. McG, for example, let the cat out of the bag recently when he scoffed that Doherty was suggesting the whole life of Jesus and crucifixion took place in some “heavenly” realm. It is hard at first to accept that the life of Jesus was something that the evidence points to evolving over time, and was not there from the beginning.

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-09-30 21:08:33 UTC - 21:08 | Permalink

    Neil: You are wrong.

    In which case, please show which writers indicate a belief in a “sublunary (fleshly) incarnation” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth” where the myths of the gods were acted out.

    Neil: You even seem to deny that demons, spirits, powers, archangels, heavenly men, gods were even thought to exist “beyond earth”.

    ??? That is a bizarre comment. There is some weird disconnect here. You seem to have made up your mind what McGrath and I are objecting about, rather than reading what we actually write. I hope this can clear things up. From the literature I understand:
    1. Men live on the Earth.
    2. Demons, being airy/fiery creatures, exist from earth to the moon. Satan is “the prince of the air”, ruler of demons in the air and can impact on earth. For early Christians, the Roman gods were actually demons, pretending to be intermediaries of the Roman gods, but lying about this to deceive people.
    3. The true heavens were above the firmament/above the area of corruptibility,
    4. The gods/God lived in the true heavens. Evil being can’t exist there, though in early writings demons were there but only to undergo punishment

    Doherty claims that Paul is either talking about a “sublunary in-carne-ation” or “dimension beyond earth / world of myth”. Did Paul believe that the prince of the air crucify Jesus above the earth? That would require Jesus being in flesh above the earth, an unprecedented notion from early literature. Did Paul believe that there was a dimension beyond earth, a “world of myth” in which the myths of the gods were carried out? Again, this is an unprecedented notion from what I can make out from the early literature. You won’t find these concepts in Dillon or anywhere else AFAIK.

    Could these be unprecedented notions that the Pauline writers held to anyway? Sure. It just needs to be acknowledged as such. I’ll even leave you alone.

    • 2010-09-30 23:07:05 UTC - 23:07 | Permalink

      I sense we are going around in circles or just talking past each other.

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