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.
A handy reference for the background to early Christianity is coincidentally titled Backgrounds of Early Christianity. The author is Everett Ferguson. Since Doherty discusses Middle Platonism as one of the intellectual matrices to the New Testament epistles, and since relatively few nonspecialists know much if anything about Middle Platonism, here are some notes from Ferguson’s introductory explanation. (I tried to start out with John Dillon’s book but by far too detailed as a beginner’s reference.)
We all have heard of Plato, whose life spanned the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Plato was not as dominant as a philosopher in his own day as he came to be in the early centuries of the Christian era. Ferguson notes that the Church Fathers took their theology largely from the framework of Plato’s philosophy. (p. 335)
Middle Platonism is the name given to the philosophical ideas ultimately derived from Plato (Platonism) in the period from the first century BC to the second century AD. It stands between the original era of Plato and his followers, and the Neo-Platonism that dominated in the declining stages of paganism.
The first century B.C. saw a revival in the study of Plato and Aristotle, who returned to a position of predominance they have not lost since. (p. 387)
I cite common ideas running through Middle Platonic schools of thought as summed up by Ferguson.
My recent posts regarding Earl Doherty are largely for the purpose of offering a public corrective to some common claims about his arguments that are, for whatever reason, simply false. My own views are more exploratory than definitive, especially on Paul’s letters. But I do hate to see any misrepresentation so hopefully this post can clarify a thing or two for some who genuinely want to know.
One common erroneous view is that Doherty’s view of “the sublunar realm”, and the activities of its spirit occupants, does not extend to earth itself. (See, for example, some of the responses to my post Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. McGrath, apparently relying on internet gossip and smugly assuming that Doherty’s views somehow conflicted with Aristotelian basics, felt it necessary to post links to online articles explaining the Aristotelian cosmology. Despite being informed otherwise he has continued to speak of Doherty’s supposedly erroneous views of ancient cosmology.)
Is Doherty’s view that earliest Christian belief that Christ was crucified in some heavenly realm even conceivable? Could any ancient mind plausibly think of a divinity taking on a bodily form and suffering and being exalted again — all quite apart from a literal location on earth? This post does not address such specifics. The topic is too vast for that. But it does have a more modest goal of illustrating the sorts of things that we know ancient minds certainly did think about the sorts of things that might go on “up there”.
Earlier this year I posted Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. A couple of responses were interesting. One or two commenters immediately took exception to plain statements that some ancients believed that the entire space between the earth and the moon is inhabited by spirits or demons of some sort. It did not seem to matter what certain ancient authors actually said. The real fear seemed to be that quoting such passages might lend some credence to Earl Doherty’s arguments that earliest Christian thinking held that Christ was a heavenly entity who was crucified in a heavenly realm.
Well, this time I’m just going to list the highlights from a small section of Doherty’s Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, one headed with the same title as this post, pp. 149-152.
His intent in this section is to “look at some examples of pictures that were presented of goings-on in the spiritual realm.” None of the following can be said to be allegory. They are written to encourage beliefs about certain realities of “what is up there”.
Ascension of Isaiah
Doherty does not repeat his detailed discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah here. But it is essential reading for anyone looking to understand ancient thought about the various stages and inhabitants between heaven and earth. R. Joseph Hoffmann also discusses the Ascension in relation to Paul’s understanding of Christ, and I quoted some of his discussion in Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments.
When reading the New Testament I like being able to relate its thoughts and images with thoughts and images in the contemporary literature of the non-biblical world. It gives the text I’m reading a bit of “body”, helping me see it as part of a culture now lost to us. Establishing relationships like that has the power to enable bible texts to stand on their own feet and tell me where they are coming from. This is a healthy turn around from my reading them as if they are ‘my mystery’ that I must find a way to interpret. It’s as if the books have found courage in numbers to speak up and push me back along with my idiosyncratic manipulations of them.