Don’t forget Plato’s Cave: It helps explain the invention and reception of the Gospel

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by Neil Godfrey

One might encounter the suggestion among biblical scholars that it is highly unlikely that anyone would invent the idea of a saviour figure who is rejected by his own people and is killed at their hands — and especially if that saviour figure is in a Jewish context said to be a Son of David. Well, maybe some Jews who bothered to think about this did contemplate the possibility of a Davidic king one day ruling over all the world with Jerusalem as his capital. But when we read the gospels we quickly understand that there were other Jews who saw the David figure in the light of the other side of the biblical narrative, too — one who went mourning to the mount of Olives with a few faithful followers when being pursued – to the point of death – by his rebel son Absalom. This moment of imminent death was later reputed to have been the subject of a number of Psalms. (Of course, the Davidic figure is only one of a number who is associated with the “Messiah” label. It is most frequently associated with the priests — and it is noteworthy that it is the anointed (messianic) high priest who gives liberty to refugees from unintended capital sins when he dies.)

But even in non-Jewish literature, the concept of a saviour figure being scoffed at and even killed by those he would want to save. It is the central theme of the classic Greek hero, Achilles. The half-divine and half-mortal Achilles pursues what is right and honourable despite knowing that it will result in his own early death.

And the great Hellenistic thinker, Plato, composed a tale that has epitomized the best of Hellenistic values and Western values since. His allegory of the cave tells us how a would-be saviour of a people will do all he can out of compassion to rescue others. But at the same time those he loves and would save will not recognize him or his claims. They will even scoff at him, and even eventually seek to kill him if they ever have the chance.

This is the essence of the Gospel message about the nature, reception and fate of Jesus. Jesus is very much the classic Hellenistic (cum Roman) hero of the gentiles. He is like Achilles and like the saviour in the parable of the Cave.

And he gives hope to all those who would identify with him that they, too, can find heroic meaning in their lives.

The Jews of the later Second Temple Period were influenced by Hellenism (Greek ideas), as we see in the history of the Maccabees. Dying as a martyr was a means to salvation not only for oneself, but — by shedding one’s own blood for God and one’s people, one also became an atonement for them, too.

The Gospel of Jesus is a tale that found a ready welcome among Hellenized pagan and Jew alike. There is nothing mysterious about its invention or reception.


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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Don’t forget Plato’s Cave: It helps explain the invention and reception of the Gospel”

  1. To begin with Plato was not a Hellenistic thinker. The Hellenistic period started after Plato.

    Second, I’m not sure I agree with your suggestion that Plato was tapping into a Hellenistic trope about the noble hero consciously going to his own death. I really can’t think of any more example of this, especially not of the concentration to lead you to assume this. But perhaps you have thought of more?
    He is reflecting on the death of Socrates- not linking in with some common theme as you have told your readers. Plato does not tell this story to extol the virtues of doing this. It is a rather pessimistic account of what telling the truth will get you. See this perhaps in greater detail in the parallel story of the captain and the sailors. I guess that this (childrens?) cartoon gave you that impression with its talk about ‘willing to descend even if facing death.’ That is, please correct me if I’m wrong, their addition. The parable doesn’t say that at all. More than likely it was added just as a nice statement at the end. Plato had a thoroughly negative view of any attempts to engage the common masses with the message. We can talk about that more if you want. Probably the best source on this aspect remains Jaeger’s Paideia volumes.

  2. Yes, I agree with Erlend; a good deal of Plato’s thought is governed by meditation on the death of Socrates (as is Stoicism and later Hellenistic thought), including the notion of a cosmic Νοῦς endeavoring to persuade a cosmic Ἀνάγκη to accept as much form and order as possible and the riotous crew that would kill a helmsman seeking to steer the ship of state on the right course. See the appendix to Cornford’s commentary on the Timaeus; there’s also a noteworthy passage in Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas on Jesus as exemplifying the Platonic notion.

  3. Erland, Carl,

    You may be correct in that I have blurred formal distinctions between certain philosophical eras. I am primarily thinking of certain philosophical ideas extant around the period either side of the bc/ad dot. The notion of the sacrificial hero — like Achilles, like Socrates — is a Hellenistic one that is also an influence on the Jewish concept of atoning martyrdom that we find emerging out of the Maccabean era. The concept of the wise teacher out of compassion or love wanting to enlighten his fellows and facing ridicule and the prospect of death is part of Plato’s allegory, and as you point out, was probably inspired by Plato’s memory of what had happened to Socrates.

    The point is that we see indications in the biblical literature (both Old and New Testaments) of similarities of thought to Plato. The basic gospel idea of a wise man, whose true identity is no longer recognized, and who suffers ridicule and even death for his attempts to “save” or enlighten his fellows, or for simply doing what is right, is not unique to the gospels. It is very much a Hellenistic idea. It is found in the literature of the Greeks across genres. This is the literary cultural world from which the gospels were born.

    1. Neil,

      I’m assuming, of course, that wise man here would be Jesus. But would this not also apply to Paul?

      Contrast this passage:

      “Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

      To be sure, he said.

      And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”

      With Acts 9:3-9

      “3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

      5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

      “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

      7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

      And further in Acts 9:20-30 the Damascus Jews and the Hellenistic Jews of Jerusalem tried to kill Saul/Paul because he had tried to lead them “up to the light”.

      All-in-all, another interesting post.

      “Blinded by the light,
      revved up like a deuce,
      another runner in the night”

      Damn you Manfred Man!

      1. Certainly, and to any Christ figure, keeping in mind that Christians were also to representatives of Christ and the lights in a dark world. The blindness motif is interesting, and extends also, I think, into the serveral healings of the blind by Jesus. Some have also suggested that the name Bartimaeus contains an echo of Plato’s Timaeus.

  4. Thanks for the reply Neil,

    You said: “The concept of the wise teacher out of compassion or love wanting to enlighten his fellows and facing ridicule and the prospect of death is part of Plato’s allegory, and as you point out, was probably inspired by Plato’s memory of what had happened to Socrates”

    Only Plato’s doesn’t extol this. This is not a good thing, this is not a heroic death. The whole point is the futility of trying to go and teach them. Again, this children’s cartoon gives the wrong impression with its ad-lib, and incorrect, piece at the end about ‘going down to save them they must’ stuff- which does start to sound like Jesus and your describable above but decidedly NOT like Plato. The point of your piece, that Plato was tapping into the idea of the heroic death (that you still assign as a Greek ideal for some reason (and I would like you to explain why you think Achilles fits this theme) well, just doesn’t exist. I’m sorry, while you do present some interesting thoughts, this one on reflection is well tenuous as best, but actually probably distorter to your readers.

    1. Granted the video contains a line that is not found in Plato’s allegory (which for convenience can be read at http://web.archive.org/web/20110514092005/http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/plato.html but my point does not address that interpolated line. (The video is as old as I am I think, and I recall it being shown us at university classes.) The point is that the allegory of the Cave does express a well-known Greek idea that stands in contrast to the thought of the Hebrew Bible. Gregory Riley gives plenty of illustrations of this as evidence of it as a deep-rooted Greek cultural idea, and I linked to this post above.

      Plato has Socrates — the one thought to be in his mind when he wrote The Cave allegory — compare himself with Achilles. In The Apology Socrates extols Achilles as a role model for one facing an untimely death for the sake of doing what is right.

      Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when his goddess mother said to him, in his eagerness to slay Hector, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself – “Fate,” as she said, “waits upon you next after Hector”; he, hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonor, and not to avenge his friend. “Let me die next,” he replies, “and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a scorn and a burden of the earth.” Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.

      We may not easily think of Achilles as someone whom one like Socrates (or Plato) would emulate, but here Achilles is shown to be a model of heroically facing death for the sake of following his conscience. This is how Achilles is understood by the Greek philosophers. Yes?

  5. Thanks Neil. That cleared up what you meant by Achilles. I think we can say the theme is one of honour, doing what is right despite the danger. This is especially true in the case of Achilles above- as you have pointed out. Now, that seems to be a pretty universal demand of honour and immutability of purpose in the face of danger. Its a pretty bare and underwhelming point then to suggest that it was being alluded to, or that it is a literary motif used by the gospels to flesh out the story of Jesus (or however you want to put it), or that it was a Greek ideal or literary trope.

    1. Achilles needs to be interpreted through Plato’s/Socrate’s minds — as his action applies to Socrates. Socrates upholds Achilles as a model for his own decision to be prepared to die for attempting to save or enlighten his fellow Athenians. It is in this context that Socrates quotes the pertinent lines from Homer. Achilles is thus abstracted into a model for a saviour figure who would die for righteousness and attempting to save his fellows.

      From our modern perspective of familiarity with both the Greek and Gospel motifs it is pretty “underwhelming”. But given an academic discipline where reportedly up to three quarters of its scholars believe in a resurrection of Jesus, yet that dismisses Christ-mythicism as comparable to creationism or alien adbuctionism, and given that this intellectual elite are the guardians and guides of the thought of millions of Christians today, it is very relevant to point out how “underwhelmingly” familiar the story of Jesus was in its own Mediterranean world context at the time of its birth.

      As I have indicated, the idea of this post is an addendum to the earlier one where I discussed Gregory Riley’s survey of this context of Jesus being portrayed as the classic hero in the train of Achilles, Socrates and the rest.

      These things are being addressed among scholars who focus on the wider (Greco-Roman-NearEastern) literary context of the gospels where scholars with stronger backgrounds in classics and studies that go beyond the traditional biblical ones are in the mix.

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