So Jesus read Plato?

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by Neil Godfrey

phaedrusAnother Aussie blogger, Matthew R. Malcolm of Cryptotheology, today posted published an interesting post, Plato and Jesus on inviting the poor. Matthew raises a question that emerges quite often to anyone who knows the Bible and reads widely among the ancient texts, Greek, Roman and Jewish. One regularly stumbles across passages that sound just like something in the Bible. I have posted on some of these “ah ha” moments and have many, many more lined up eventually to post about “one day”. Surely there must be reference books identifying these passages. Does anyone know of one?

I take the liberty of quoting the same edition of the Plato passage cited by Matthew:

If it were true that we ought to give the biggest favour to those who need it most, then we should all be helping out the very poorest people, not the best ones, because people we’ve saved from the worst troubles will give us the most thanks. For instance, the right people to invite to a dinner party would be beggars and people who need to sate their hunger, because they’re the ones who’ll be fond of us, follow us, knock on our doors, take the most pleasure with the deepest gratitude, and pray for our success. (Phaedrus 233d-e, Cooper’s edition)

Recall Luke 14 (NIV). The same ideal ethic (pie in the sky ethic in Plato) is taught as a necessity by Jesus:

15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”

So what are we to conclude?

That Mary and Joseph hired a private tutor who taught the Greek classics in the evenings to Jesus after  he returned each day from helping out in the carpentry business? The family business must have been doing a roaring trade to be able to afford to keep such a scholar for any time in Nazareth.

Or as Matthew Malcolm suggests, was Plato’s ethic a proverbial idea widely known at the time? That sounds fair enough but the more widely one reads the more frequently one tends to find these “proverbial sayings”. One would be forgiven for wondering if Plato, Philo, and others had little to say that was beyond the commonplace. Or more reasonably, one begins to marvel at the volume of wise sayings that found their way into popular parlance even across cultural and language boundaries.

Or should we just accept that “great minds think alike”?

Or . . .

Or does it become increasingly plausible to imagine that the gospel authors were creating sayings that they attributed to their narrative Jesus and that those sayings were merely adaptations of ideals those authors had learned in their literary training over the years? The wrote in Greek and to learn Greek these literary classes were immersed in the Greek classics.

I personally lean towards this last option as the simplest and most plausible explanation.





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Neil Godfrey

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25 thoughts on “So Jesus read Plato?”

  1. I think the disciples had in mind one of those “noble lies” that Plato talks about in “The Republic” and they lied about the resurrection of Jesus becuse they thought if people believed Jesus had been resurrected, this would help spread Jesus’ moral teaching and create a better world (a cause they would die for).

    Selling “The Jesus Story” to the world seemed to be one of the main interests of Jesus’ disciples. For instance, we read in Matthew that:

    The Great Commission

    Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)

    16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    Price also comments about Luke 10:1-3, 17-20 that “Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be conquered, so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles (The Christ Myth Theory and its Problem, 181).”

    1. Also, lying was permitted in the Bible if it was done in the service of God. For example, we read that:

      “And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives.” (Exodus 1:18-20)

      “And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax.” (Joshua 2:4-6)

      “David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business….” (1 Samuel 21:2) [But David was an enemy of King Saul, and was not on the king’s business. We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah.]

      “And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so.” (1 Kings 22:21-22)

      “And Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die.” (2 Kings 8:10)

      “[Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.” (John 7:8-10)

      “Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” (James 2:25)

      “Raphael the angel answered … I am Azarias.” (Tobit 5:17-18)

      God himself lies by proxy: (see 1 Kings 22:23; Jeremiah 4:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:11)

      I think that the original Christians believed that if they lied about Jesus doing miracles and being resurrected, they could create a better world by getting people to buy into Jesus’ moral teachings. In doing this, they would be doing the will of God by creating a better world. In reality, Jesus never did any miracles, and he certainly wasn’t resurrected, because as we know now miracles don’t happen. I think they were inspired to do this by the idea of the “noble lie,” present in Plato and Euripides (and well known throughout the ancient world), and certainly known to the Greek speaking writers of the New Testament

      1. Paul speaks of being all things to all men; to the Jew he became a Jew, etc. That’s classic PR today. He also spoke of “putting on” the new man. This is not interpreted as insincerity by Christians.

        1. Hi Neil. Great to talk to you. I’m a big fan of Vridar.

          There is nothing sincere about Paul. Paul says he was persecuting Christians, then had his conversion experience, and became a Christian. This is a blatant lie. If this had happened, the people who Paul used to work for would have gone after Paul for deserting (which never happened).

          1. Welcome to Vridar, John.

            Actually there is a good case to be made that the Paul we know from the letters did not persecute Christians at all before his conversion. See http://vridar.org/2014/12/20/paul-the-persecutor-the-case-for-interpolation/

            Marcionites, I understand, who exalted Paul as The Apostle denied the “orthodox” claim that Paul at first persecuted the church. Further …. http://vridar.org/2014/12/15/paul-the-persecutor/

            1. Gerd Ludemann has an interesting recent article, Paul The Promoter of Christianity, where he writes

              “Until the end Paul claimed that he never consciously abandoned the faith of his fathers and never forsook Judaism. That now seems difficult to sustain; but rather than charge him with duplicity, might we see it as an almost involuntary but necessary strategy on Paul’s part? At a time when things were not going terribly well in the mission field, did he deem it advantageous to curry a bit of favor with the Jewish converts who constituted a significant minority presence in the Roman community?”

              Here is the whole article: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2014/12/lud388017.shtml

              Question: How far would Paul go to promote Christianity?

              1. What to make of Paul’s letters and the mind/s behind them is a question that always seems to be in wild flux to me. I’m still trying to understand the nature of Judaism in the early to mid first century. As I find time and read more I’ll continue to post more on this question.

  2. Not to mention Aesop’s fables – The writers of the bible shamelessly stole from all the cultures in the ME and Med region. They were lucky no IP laws in the bronze/iron ages.


      Here is one example
      A fisherman who knew how to play the pipes took his pipes and his nets and went down to the sea. First he stood there on a jutting rock and played his pipes, thinking that the fish would be attracted by the sweet sound and come right out of the water of their own accord. When he had gone on playing for some time and nothing had happened, he put his pipes aside, took up his net, cast it into the water, and caught a large number of fish. He dumped them out of his net onto the shore, and when he saw them wriggling, he said, ‘Why you miserable creatures, when I piped, you wouldn’t dance, but now that I’ve stopped, you do!’

      But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, “We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

    2. I’m reminded of an Australian critic once criticizing the Beatles for stealing from black music. John Lennon wrote him a letter to point out that far from stealing they were having a “love-in” with that music. It was all about respect and emulation. Cultural groups absorb and embrace what they find appealing or inevitable and unavoidable. Jews are no different from anyone else in this respect.

  3. I don’t see why Jesus we should suppose that was ignorant of literature outside the Hebrew scriptures or the Dead Sea library, or could not have used contemporary current Mediterranean or Near East expressions or proverbs. He comes across as highly intelligent and well-read to me, as well as having a mordant sense of humor, and might well have spent his “missing years” reading a bit more than Daniel or Enoch; a “carpenter” in the secondary meaning of a scholar. Why suppose that the gospel writers were so much more literary that they therefore put words in his mouth? There is good reason to suppose he knew liturgical Hebrew as well as Galilean Aramaic, and almost certainly also some Greek. Paul likewise was familiar with “pagan” sayings.

    1. If Jesus was literate, however, would we expect him to be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” or to have been brought up in Nazareth, given our understanding that this was a very small hovel indeed at the time. The problem deepens, I think, when we recall that no religious leader is known by his town of birth so that for Jesus to have been so acknowledged would suggest Nazareth was of a standing and scale beyond anything we know to be historical. If the sayings of Jesus and the situations in which they are couched can be identified as literary mimesis and such, then is not the simplest explanation that the authors were creating Jesus as their theological message and messenger?

      Would we not expect a literate person to be associated with a family of some means and places where learning was available? Yet there is nothing to suggest this about Jesus?

      On what grounds do we begin to treat the Jesus of the gospels as having any existence outside the gospel narratives? I know of no reason or justification comparable to the reasons we are satisfied that other historical persons do have existences beyond their story-worlds.

      That is, how can we know if we are doing anything different from our school-day exercises of discussing the alternatives facing the character in a play or novel when we talk about Jesus?

  4. I have often felt myself that imaginary people, who belong inside an author’s brains, come across as convincingly real; e.g. boys who make maps of Just William’s village, or the joke that Bradley regarded Shakespeare’s characters as actual persons, or the pilgrims to 221b Baker Street, or Tony Blair asking about the fate of someone in a TV soap. Certainly one can think of Jesus and many others, fact or fiction, legend or myth, in the same way.

    However, I don’t think the suggestion that the NT authors created all the specific details of their narratives simply to convey some “theological message” is quite the “simplest” explanation, as you maintain, though this is not the time or place to analyze your view at length. Why would they do this, and in this particular way? Their opportunity would be better after 70 AD, but their motives would be more problematic.

    Of course, it is easy also to dismiss the references in Josephus, for example, outright as complete interpolations; I would not rely on these but equally it is question-begging just to reject them wholesale a priori. The same applies to references to other apostle in Paul’s letters. It is hardly “scientific” to go through the NT and other early Christian and Jewish writings and automatically cut out the 85% that doesn’t fit a Myth hypothesis, and then pronounce the result a triumph of unbiased historiography.

    As for Jesus “of Nazareth”, from which “nothing good could come”, I don’t see why an intelligent and powerful personality could not come from a relatively obscure area, or poor family, and either be taught as a promising rabbi and/or become a driven autodidact for some personal reason. Suppose, as some suggest, that he was originally involved in something more than making tables and cartwheels, and was an ancient equivalent of a building engineer or architect that took him to towns like Sepphoris, as well as to communities like the Essenes? To retain “of Nazareth” underlies the humble origin theme of this particular messiah.

    Otherwise, it was quite normal to identify a person by place of origin, e.g. Mary of Magdala or Judas of Gamala. However, I would agree that (Joseph) of “Arimathea” and (Judas) of “Kerioth” are problematic, for different reasons.

  5. A PS – Craig Evans may be a Christian apologist, but his essay “Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus” (2007 pdf) is worth reading. There are also various books and articles on the probable status of Jesus as a qualified rabbi.

    1. I’ve read Craig Evans’s article and the one to which he was responding. Evans’ whole argument assumes the gospel narratives are essentially historical in their portrayal of Jesus with respect to his literacy (debating, quoting, reading, etc). He does not accept the historical/sociological arguments that are in fact based on hard data with the rationale that Jews were not like other people and therefore not subject to the same statistics as everyone else — even though he concedes that the evidence for this distinctiveness is literary idealism and/or late.

      Interestingly he maintains his literacy argument on the acceptance that Jesus was not just an insignificant teacher and healer (as many maintain in order to explain the lack of non-canonical evidence). Moreover, he fallaciously argues that a literary flowering arose as a result of the movement that Jesus started. That’s a bit of a stretch given that our first gospels are at least 40 years after Jesus’ death and Paul’s letters avoid the Galilean Jesus.

      1. Of course arguing from the assumption of the essential historicity of the gospels is simply begging the question raised by the opposing argument. The question of Jesus’ literacy — that is, the probability of his literacy — is raised as a test of the gospel account.

        Another oddity in Evans’s argument is his claim that Jesus’ opponents wondered how he gained such literary skill without having been formally taught. Of course that raises the question of how those enemies would know Jesus had no formal training if all they could see was someone who displayed skills of the best trained among them, or even better!

        Craig Evans’s arguments appear to be guided by his apologetic interests.

      2. Craig’s closing point about the literary flowering of course does not prove anything in itself about the personal literacy of Jesus (Muhammad was supposedly likewise deficient in that respect), although it could be argued that the NT literature quoted him and was stimulated by what he said.

        If you think that Jesus never existed, then obviously he was “not literate” either!

        I tend to agree with e.g. Geza Vermes that we are dealing here with an actual person, who taught in parables and used hyperbolic language (some of it funny), enlisted a group of supporters, and encountered opposition which he met with sharp and scriptural responses. This still makes more sense to me than that “Mark” and “Q” and “L” &c made it all up from the utterances of other people, who did exist but are mostly unknown to history.

  6. Thanks for the citation of the Craig Evans’ article. I will have a look and may post about it.

    I fully agree with you that it is not valid to simply dismiss the Josephus passage a priori or to go through the texts and wipe out anything that contradicts the mythicist hypothesis. I hope you don’t find any evidence of that being done by me.

    In fact if I discuss the Josephus passage I do not do so in order to draw conclusions about the historicist or mythicist question at all. I am addressing a point of evidence in depth and leaving it at that. The question of mythicism is much larger than any one piece of evidence. My interest is in Christian origins per se and it is important to understand the nature of the evidence we have for this. What is an invalid approach to this question is naively taking documents as they appear without scrutinizing them against both the background of what we know of documents from that era and according to the internal logic of the document itself and the nature of the manuscript history.

    The conclusions I have come to so far are all at the level of what lay behind the production of the narratives and letters we have so far. The Jesus historicity question is entirely moot as far as I am concerned because I have not yet found any valid way to bring it into the discussion of the evidence we have. Most of those who do, do so on the assumption of oral tradition — but oral tradition as a hypothesis has so much to contradict it and anyone who uses it ought to deal with these problems (but most don’t).

    As for Jesus being a literary or theological construct, that would be true even if there had been a historical Jesus at the start of the Christian movement. The Jesus in the gospels is by definition a literary figure (like Moses, Joseph, David, Socrates, Julius Caesar). Whether that literary figure was based on a historical one is a separate question that needs to be decided by historical inquiry and methods. So far Socrates and Julius Caesar pass the tests.

  7. Don’t overlook the humor in the excuses given by the invited guests, notably the tactfully translated impatient lust of the newly married husband. Charismatic and strong leaders can emerge from quite humble backgrounds and become widely conversant with literature, for example Mussolini and Stalin, and a comparable phenomenon may have occurred even in the eastern Mediterranean long before the printing press. Jesus seems attached mainly to parts of the Galilean countryside, but it is not inconceivable that he encountered a range of ideas and sayings in that relatively cosmopolitan part of the world, or during travels in his “missing years”. If his appeal was to the poor, the sick and the underdogs, the “last would be first” to attend the future Messianic Banquet. However, it is not impossible that “Luke” wrote up his material with a Greek expression in his mind.

  8. Thanks for pointing this out!

    I myself have learned that Mat 8:20 “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head'” = Luk 9:58 “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head'” may be a paraphrase of Plutarch’s, Lives, ch 39, Tiber. Graccho http://www.archive.org/details/plutarchslives00plutrich:

    “The wild beasts of Italy have their holes and their lairs, in which they rest, but the men that fight and die for Italy’s power have nothing but air and light, because this they cannot be robbed of. They roam with their wives and children without house and home.”

    Tiberius Gracchus was a well known, and somewhat radical, Roman politician who sought to reduce the size of the estates of the rich so that soldiers could have some place to retire to and farm.

    I also wonder whether Jesus’ story about “piping and you did not dance”

    Luk 7:32 “They are like children sitting in the market place and calling to one another, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance …'” = Mat 11:17 “We piped to you, and you did not dance …”

    is in fact an allusion to either the Aesopian fable of “the Piper/fisherman” (Babrius #9) or to the version of it in Herodotus I.141.

    Herodotus book I,141.1-4, 1 As soon as the Lydians had been subjugated by the Persians, the Ionians and Aeolians sent messengers to Cyrus, offering to be his subjects on the same terms as those which they had under Croesus. After hearing what they proposed, Cyrus told them a story. Once, he said, there was a flute-player who saw fish in the sea and played upon his flute, thinking that they would come out on to the land.

    2 Disappointed of his hope, he cast a net and gathered it in and took out a great multitude of fish; and seeing them leaping, “You had best,” he said, “stop your dancing now; you would not come out and dance before, when I played to you.

    3 The reason why Cyrus told the story to the Ionians and Aeolians was that the Ionians, who were ready to obey him when the victory was won, had before refused when he sent a message asking them to revolt from Croesus.

    4 So he answered them in anger. But when the message came to the Ionians in their cities, they fortified themselves with walls, and assembled in the Panionion, all except the Milesians, with whom alone Cyrus made a treaty on the same terms as that which they had with the Lydians. The rest of the Ionians resolved to send envoys in the name of them all to Sparta, to ask help for the Ionians.

    Of course, this is also a politically charged allusion. Was Jesus unaware of the sources for these stories, knowing them only as commonplace fables and witticisms? Possibly. But like most folks, I assume he had some understanding, and perhaps appreciation for, the political ramifications of his sources.


    1. Thanks for the added data. (I’ve formatted your comment for easier future reference.)

      Has anyone gone through these allusions gospel by gospel and drawn up a profile of the cultural/literary background that they suggest for each evangelist?

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