God taught Cain the wisdom of Plato

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been doing some follow up reading on a paper presented at a Netherlands Seminar on Historical Methodology and chanced upon the following passage from Plato in Timaeus. It is speaking of newly created human beings at the dawn of time:

in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously.

Given the context of the paper I was reading, it was not hard to hear the echo of God’s instruction to Cain in Genesis 4:

And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”

Many of us can acknowledge that this instruction to Cain is an unusual image in the context of a primeval tale about Cain and the first murder. Sin is something that must be mastered, ruled, lest it master or rule us. It is a striking image that has prompted countless discussions among believers.

And there it is, the same image, sitting in the writings of Plato. Not only the same image, but the same same context of the sin of anger.

Now I’ve given the away what my next post will be about — the lateness of the composition of Genesis and the influence of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonic thought, that went into the creation of its myths.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “God taught Cain the wisdom of Plato”

  1. I just found your blog, and I’m thrilled to see it!

    Question: Is it possible that we’re looking at cross contamination here? Could Plato have heard this story from the Hebrews, or could the anonymous author/editor of Genesis heard Plato and thought it was a good line?

    I know we think of these ancient peoples as isolated from each other, but we know from their own testimony (“Don’t traffic with foreign gods!”) that they had a cross-cultural exchange even back then.


    1. Early Christian apologists did try to claim that the Greeks stole their ideas from Moses, as you may know. But the evidence points to the movement in the other direction. Greek thought was spread across the Middle East especially after the Macedonian conquests, and there is no evidence that anyone heard of the book of Genesis or its stories until those late Hellenistic times. First knowledge of them appears in the late Apocrypha and early Christian writings. But will be covering this in my future post. (It’s taking more time to finish than I anticipated with some horrible formatting and extra info decisions to make. May not be ready now before the weekend.)

  2. That one should be the master of their anger rather than let it control you strikes me as a fairly common idea that would have been around for awhile, and I doubt Plato invented it.

    1. Many sayings are common to us because our language has been fed them from the Bible and Shakespeare over many centuries. What is common to us needs to be set aside when we examine the languages, metaphors and ideas of other cultures and times. One advantage of learning other languages, or even the history of our own, is that we can appreciate how others think differently. It is a mistake to assume ideas we find familiar or fairly common would have been around since whenever.

      The idea of self-control is a human universal http://web.archive.org/web/20130409054414/http://www.robotwisdom.com/ai/universals.html but there are any number of ways of expressing this idea. e.g. self-restraint, obedience to god or code, mortification of one’s base feelings, getting a grip, relaxing, chilling out, calming down, pulling yourself together. . . .

      The particular metaphor or image of two personified combatants in a contest to gain victory over and control each other to describe negative feelings is a very specific one and, in the Cain narrative, stands out like a sore thumb in comparison with other commands or teachings in the Old Testament about avoiding sin. It is a distinctive metaphor and personification that does stand out.

      I don’t think the metaphor involving a personification of the emotions appears again within the Bible till the writings of Paul. But it is a distinctive Stoic or Hellenistic metaphor that is in line with a certain view of human nature (anthropology) and the nature of ethical behaviour.

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