Plato’s Thought World and the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)
  6. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States (2015-09-21)

The ideal state can only begin with the second generation

First generation to receive the laws has to die off before the state can be established on a secure footing:

Plato’s Laws, Book 6:

Laws 752 b-c Deuteronomy 1:34-39
Athenian. Let us remember what a courageously mad and daring creation this our city is.

Cleinias (of Crete). What had you in your mind when you said that?

Athenian. I had in my mind the free and easy manner in which we are ordaining that the inexperienced colonists shall receive our laws. Now a man need not be very wise, Cleinias, in order to see that no one can easily receive laws at their first imposition. But if we could anyhow wait until those who have been imbued with them from childhood, and have been nurtured in them, and become habituated to them, . . .  if this could be accomplished . . . -then, I think that there would be very little danger, at the end of the time, of a state thus trained not being permanent.

34 “And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’37 Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.


Twelve commanders, governors. . .

Laws follows with details of how magistrates are to be selected, their age requirements and terms of office. There are similarities in principle throughout the Bible but since these principles are not unique to Laws and the details rarely match I don’t discuss these here. (The Pentateuchal requirements stress God’s choice by lot more than voting, of course.) We met the desirability of the ideal state being divided among twelve tribes in the previous post. Continuing with the implications of this structure . . .

Laws 755 b-d Numbers 1:2-16
And now we may proceed in order to speak of the election of other officers; for generals have to be electedand these again must have their ministers, commanders, and colonels of horse, and commanders of brigades of foot, who would be more rightly called by their popular name of brigadiers. . . . a selection from the candidates proposed shall be made by those who are or have been of the age for military service. . . . And let the generals thus elected propose twelve brigadiers, one for each tribe. . . . “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers.And these are the names of the men who shall assist you. . . . 16 These were the ones chosen from the congregation, the chiefs of their ancestral tribes, the heads of the clans of Israel.

Plato also has twelve governors over the twelve tribes and we see the same in Solomon’s ideal kingdom (1 Kings 4:7). There is a difference, however, since Plato’s system has a different ruler for each month.


The ideal city is laid out according to a series of mathematical divisions and geometric place-marks. Compare the layout of the Tabernacle with twelve tribes of Israel being arranged in groups of three on each of its four sides. In Plato’s ideal state it is the philosophers who determine these ideal arrangements but in the Bible it is God.

Then we have the function of lots. Plato’s philosophers have been describing a system for selecting magistrates that is a combination of popular recommendation and lots. He then has his Athenian justify the use of lots:

Laws 757e Joshua; 1 Samuel . . .
it is necessary to make use also of the equality of the lot, on account of the discontent of the masses, and in doing so to pray, calling upon God and Good Luck to guide for them the lot aright towards the highest justice. In Numbers, Deuternomy and Joshua lots are used to allocate land; in Joshua the lot is used to determine the person responsible for Israel’s defeat at Ai; in 1 Samuel for the selection of the first king.



Both the ideal Greek and Pentateuchal priesthoods are chosen by God. Ages for different functions were also set down.

Laws 759a-d Exodus – Numbers
Let us state, then, that for the temples there must be temple-keepers and priests and priestesses; . . . Priests of temples, or priestesses, who hold hereditary priesthoods should not be disturbed; but if,—as is likely to be the case in such matters with a people who are being organized for the first time,—few or none have them already established, then we must establish priests and priestesses to be temple-keepers for the gods. . . . . As to the priests, we shall entrust it to the god himself to ensure his own good pleasure, by committing their appointment to the divine chance of the lot; but each person who gains the lot we shall test, first, as to whether he is sound and true-born, and secondly, as to whether he comes from houses that are as pure as possible, being himself clean from murder and all such offences against religion, and of parents that have lived by the same rule. They ought to bring from Delphi laws about all matters of religion, and appoint interpreters thereof, and make use of those laws.

Each priestly office should last for one year and no longer; and the person who is to officiate in sacred matters efficiently according to the laws of religion should be not less than sixty years old: and the same rules shall hold good also for priestesses. . . .

As we know, the hereditary priests were chosen by God: from the Levites were chosen the Aaronites to perform the more sacred duties in the holy enclosure, and these were also divided by God to be responsible for respective functions in the Tabernacle.

Later we learn that priests were appointed by lot to serve periodically in the Temple.

In Numbers 4 the mature ages for priestly service were between 30 and 50 years.

There was to be but one holy place, chosen by God. Compare Plato’s respect for Delphi as the sole source of divine revelation.


Fresh water better than a doctor’s treatment

This comparison is no more than a point of interest. The Bible contains several uncomplimentary digs at doctors and we find the same amusing attitude expressed by Plato:

Laws 761c-d

and by using water-pipes they shall beautify at all seasons of the year any sacred glebe or grove that may be close at hand, by directing the streams right into the temples of the gods. And everywhere in such spots the young men should erect gymnasia both for themselves and for the old men—providing warm baths for the old: they should keep there a plentiful supply of dry wood, and give a kindly welcome and a helping hand to sick folk and to those whose bodies are worn with the toils of husbandry—a welcome far better than a doctor who is none too skilful.

Recall from Exodus 15 that God provides clean water and claims to be the sole source of their healing. This passage is followed by an idyllic scene of several oases:

22 Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

There the Lord[d] made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, 26 saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.”

27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.


To serve is better than to rule

Laws 762e Mark 10
Now it is needful that every man should hold the view, regarding men in general, that the man who has not been a servant will never become a praiseworthy master, and that the right way to gain honor is by serving honorably rather than by ruling honorably—doing service first to the laws, since this is service to the gods, and, secondly, the young always serving the elder folk and those who have lived honorable lives. 42 And Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them.

43 But it is not so among you: but whosoever would become great among you, shall be your minister;

44 and whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all.

Going to court

Paul’s rationale for avoiding court action is “more spiritual” than that proposed by Plato.

Laws 766e – 767a 1 Corinthians 6:1-5
Therefore those who challenge each other must go first to the neighbors and friends who know most about the actions in dispute: if a man fails to get an adequate decision from them, he shall repair to another court

Dare any of you, having a matter against his neighbor, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?. . . I say this to move you to shame. What, cannot there be found among you one wise man who shall be able to decide between his brethren


Laws to be written down

Plato compares the writing down of legislation with a artist’s painting that will always need to be retouched and augmented over time avoid deterioration:

Ath. You know. the endless labour which painters expend upon their pictures-they are always putting in or taking out colours, or whatever be the term which artists employ; they seem as if they would never cease touching up their works, which are always being made brighter and more beautiful.

Cle. I know something of these matters from report, although I have never had any great acquaintance with the art.

Ath. No matter; we may make use of the illustration notwithstanding:-Suppose that some one had a mind to paint a figure in the most beautiful manner, in the hope that his work instead of losing would always improve as time went on-do you not see that being a mortal, unless he leaves some one to succeed him who will correct the flaws which time may introduce, and be able to add what is left imperfect through the defect of the artist, and who will further brighten up and improve the picture, all his great labour will last but a short time?

Cle. True.
Ath. And is not the aim of the legislator similar? First, he desires that his laws should be written down with all possible exactness; in the second place, as time goes on and he has made an actual trial of his decrees, will he not find omissions? Do you imagine that there ever was a legislator so foolish as not to know that many things are necessarily omitted, which some one coming after him must correct, if the constitution and the order of government is not to deteriorate, but to improve in the state which he has established?

Contrast the laws of the Pentateuch that are declared to be from God and eternal.

Deuteronomy 5:22

These words Jehovah spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them upon two tables of stone, and gave them unto me.


The aim of the law is perfection of character

Laws 770c-d

[That which] the lawgiver and Law-warden ought to aim. . .  The sum and substance of our agreement was simply this: that whatsoever be the way in which a member of our community—be he of the male or female sex, young or old,—may become a good citizen, possessed of the excellence of soul which belongs to man, whether derived from some pursuit or disposition, or from some form of diet, or from desire or opinion or mental study, to the attainment of this end all his efforts throughout the whole of his life shall be directed


Monthly religious festivals

Laws Book 6, 771d

we shall appoint two assemblies every month for sacrifice—of which twelve (yearly) shall be for the whole tribal division, and twelve for its urban section only; the object of these shall be, first, to offer thanksgiving to the gods and their attendants, and secondly, to promote fellowship amongst ourselves

The regular biblical festivals were of course the monthly new-moon and the weekly sabbaths. We find the exhortation to regularly fellowship at religious assemblies in the New Testament as well (e.g. Heb. 10:25). Plato’s community fellowship had the particular goal of enabling a better knowledge of prospective marriage partners. (That benefit possibly remains an important “side-effect” of fellowshipping at religious conventions today.)

Children to be raised in God’s ways

Laws 6, 773e

Let this then be our exhortation concerning marriage, and let us remember what was said before-that a man should cling to immortality, and leave behind him children’s children to be the servants of God in his place for ever.

Deuteronomy 11:18-19

Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.


The married to leave their parents

Laws 6, 775e

he is to marry and make a home for himself and bring up his children, going away from his father and mother. . . .  wherefore a man and his wife shall leave to his and her father and mother their own dwelling-places

Genesis 2:24

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.


Possible for a slave to love his master

Laws 6, 776d-e

We know, of course, that we would all agree that one ought to own slaves that are as docile and good as possible; for in the past many slaves have proved themselves better in every form of excellence than brothers or sons, and have saved their masters and their goods and their whole houses.

Exodus 21:5

But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’


Treatment of slaves

Laws 6, 777c-e 

Two means only are left for us to try—the one is, not to allow the slaves, if they are to tolerate slavery quietly, to be all of the same nation, but, so far as possible, to have them of different races,—and the other is to accord them proper treatment, and that not only for their sakes, but still more for the sake of ourselves. Proper treatment of servants consists in using no violence towards them, and in hurting them even less, if possible, than our own equals. For it is his way of dealing with men whom it is easy for him to wrong that shows most clearly whether a man is genuine or hypocritical in his reverence for justice and hatred of injustice. He, therefore, that in dealing with slaves proves himself, in his character and action, undefiled by what is unholy or unjust will best be able to sow a crop of goodness,—and this we may say, and justly say, of every master, or king, and of everyone who possesses any kind of absolute power over a person weaker than himself. We ought to punish slaves justly, and not to make them conceited by merely admonishing them as we would free men.

Exodus 21:20, 26

When a slave owner hits a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner should be punished. . . . 

When a slave owner hits and blinds the eye of a male or female slave, he should let the slave go free on account of the eye.

Leviticus 25:53

As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him: he shall not rule with rigor over him in thy sight.

Deuteronomy 23:15

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master.

Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1

And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.



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Neil Godfrey

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