Tag Archives: Middle Platonism

The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)

I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.

Where did the Logos come from?

Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:

The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)

Boyarin goes a step further and stresses

how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)

Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with

  • the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
  • or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
  • or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,

is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.

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Demonology: the basics of Middle Platonic beliefs as a background to early Christianity

Apuleius
Image via Wikipedia

This post completes a series on beliefs about demons that were widespread in philosophical thought at the time of the rise and early growth of Christianity. The previous two posts:

It seems strange to think of “demons” being a topic of “philosophy”, but one of the defining characteristics of “Middle Platonism” was its interest in religion. (See my earlier post, Middle Platonism: a few basics.) Other beliefs (e.g. Jewish sectarian) were extant, too, but here I am only addressing those of Middle Platonist philosophers.

John M. Dillon (The Middle Platonists) discusses the demonology of Apuleius in his De Deo Socratis (=The God of Socrates) at length because

There we find all the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons set out . . . We have here, then, in the De Deo Socratis, the most complete connected version of Middle Platonic demonology extant . . . . (pp. 317, 320)

So though Apuleius was not born till about 123 CE, his writings are consistent with the thought that spanned the Middle Platonic era from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the same period relevant for the development of Christianity. read more »

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

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.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon. read more »

Middle Platonism — a few basics

A handy reference for the background to early Christianity is coincidentally titled Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 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.

Rather than discuss the names mentioned, I have given them all hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles. (The reason I often link to Wikipedia is given in this post.) read more »