A Further Problem for the Hellenization Thesis: Plato’s Familiarity with Moses?

The more I study the origins of Christian theology in its Jewish roots, the less I become convinced that either side of the argument is entirely correct. One the one hand, it is hard to deny the development of Christian theology in Greek philosophical categories, but on the other hand an idea of “pure” Hebraic thought—which is exclusive of all of the supposedly “Greek” categories—is hard to defend as well. Recently, I have been reading Clement of Alexandria, who makes the seemingly absurd claim that the Greeks “stole” many ideas from the Hebrews. I have rarely seen scholars take this claim seriously, but I know of at least one—Margaret Barker—who gives reasons to suspect that the early Christian apologists were not necessarily fudging.

In her book, The great high priest: the temple roots of Christian liturgy, Barker examines priestly traditions which are concerned with an archetypal temple in heaven, of which the earthly temple is a copy. The idea of earthly copies of heavenly realities are usually ascribed to Plato (or Platonic thought), but Barker makes a good case that such ideas were present long before Plato ever live. She makes the following claim (a version of this essay can be found here):

If we adopt the widely accepted exilic dating of Isaiah 40, the sanctuary traditions which I have been reconstructing have implications which reach beyond Old Testament study. The early apologists, both Jewish and Christian, maintained that Plato learned from Moses, that he was Moses speaking Attic Greek. The most notable of these was Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in his work The Preparation of the Gospel, argued the case in great detail and listed all those who had held such views before him. Eusebius and the other apologists were probably correct.

My reconstruction suggests that the priests of the first temple knew an invisible, heavenly world on which the tabernacle or temple had been modelled; that they spoke of forms: the form of a man and the form of a throne; that they described the heavens as an embroidered curtain; that they knew the distinction between time, outside the veil, and eternity within it. They knew that time was the moving image of eternity. They knew of angels, the sons of God begotten on Day One, as Job suggests. They concerned themselves with the mathematics of the creation, the weights and the measures. They believed that the creation was bonded together by a great oath or covenant. They believed that the stars were divine beings, angels, and they described a creator whose work was completed not by motion but by Sabbath rest. What I have reconstructed as the secret tradition of the world beyond the temple veil would, in any other context be identified as Plato’s Timaeus, written in the middle of the fourth century BCE.

Barker also thinks that Philo’s two-phase creation (the idea that God first created forms/archetypes of creation, and then did the act of actually creating material realities. See “On the Creation of the World,” VII. (26) found here) was likely more in fidelity to Jewish priestly thought than to Plato:

This description of the two creations, the invisible creation which was the pattern for the visible is usually said to be Philo retelling the Genesis account in terms derived from Plato, but this I doubt. Philo was from a priestly family, and it is not impossible that he was giving the traditional explanation of the creation stories which owed nothing to Plato.

And again:

These are all facets of the forms and their copies: the language of the visionaries, the undoubtedly ancient belief in a heavenly archetype of the temple, and the parable/proverb. In another context, for example the writings of Philo, this would be identified with some confidence as the influence of Plato’s forms and their copies, but the age of the material in the Old Testament excludes that possibility. Since Philo was of a priestly family, perhaps his treatment of the creation stories, the creation of the invisible world beyond the veil of the temple and then the visible world as its copy, is not an example of the Platonising of Hellenistic Judaism but rather a glimpse of the ancient priestly world view even at the end of the second temple period.

It seems that even if Barker’s support of the claims of Clement (that Plato “stole” from Moses) are far-fetched, we have to take some of these priestly writings as another source that influenced Alexandrian theology, as well as some scriptural support for the idea of forms/archetypes of earthly things in heaven. What we have then is at least a complication of any accusations that early Christian apologists were importing alien categories into their theology (of course, to the detriment of theology, as the story goes).

Let me close with two things. First, I am not writing this because I have a fetish for Platonism, or am excited about eternal forms (though I might find other “Greek” ideas to be very interesting). Rather, I think more investigation needs to be done in order to parse out the ways in which “church Fathers” are faithful to the Christian scriptures, and see where they are innovative. Second, I am wondering if anyone else is familiar with other scholars making claims like Barker’s.

15 thoughts on “A Further Problem for the Hellenization Thesis: Plato’s Familiarity with Moses?

  1. This is really amazing timing, because I’m teaching Justin Martyr in like 20 minutes. I was struck by those crazy claims of Plato’s reliance on Moses, and I think that Barker’s book is at least an interesting contrarian exercise.

  2. Walter Schmithals has written quite extensively on Gnosticism in Paul and the early Christian church. His book “The Theology of the First Christians” might be helpful.

    And if you’re interested, Richard Bauckham has written in support of an opposing view in “God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament”. Basically, he defends the “Jewishness” of Paul – claiming that he was not a Hellenistic Jew, but that he was rather a thoroughgoing 2nd Temple Jew. This is not a book on the church fathers, but it does defend a not-so-Greek-influenced-NT, which might contain good scriptural references for your project.

  3. I should have said that Schmithals has written on “Gnosticism and Hellenism…” His research is much more expansive than just Gnosticism.

  4. I am working with the apophatic tradition at the moment with reference to Gregory of Nyssa. You may already be aware, but Raoul Mortley’s 2 vol ‘From Word to Silence’ is a fascinating piece of work. He plots the developments of negative theology in the second volume, drawing heavily on the Greeks and the Fathers. Although his thesis remains quite controversial, his work on Eunomius and Gregory of Nyssa may be quite helpful. I say that as that is where I have spent the most time, although other parts of the work I’m sure would be quite helpful. He has an interesting section in vol 1 on John’s use of the logos concept which may be helpful also.

  5. With regards to Gregory of Nyssa Mortley argues that while many have held Gregory to be something of a pioneer in the Christian use of negative language, it was in fact Eunomius who was involved in more technical methods of negation which he traces back to Plato and is outlined in earlier chapters. Arguing essentially that Gregory was not engaged in true negative theology. He delineates a range of negative methods throughout the book so I don’t feel confident to comment too far, however, whether or not one is in agreement with Mortley his work is of huge importance for the development of the postmodern interest in methods of negation and also is an interesting reading of the way in which Greek modes of thought were adapted by and influenced early Christian writers. Sorry I don’t feel like that was much help…

  6. Austin,

    Sorry, I did not see your comment when I replied to Adam earlier. I have read Bauckham’s book, but not Schmithals. But I am actually not interested in defending a non-Greek influenced Paul, as Bauckham is. Paul was arguably influenced by many thought categories (and I think “categories” is the right term here: I would not claim, for example that Paul got his theology from Greek thought, but that he might use some Greek categories). Maybe you were attuned to this–which would be why you said “Richard Bauckham has written in support of an opposing view”.

    Does Walter Schmithals support the idea that the early apologists might have been right to claim that Plato was influenced by Hebrew thought? I have read plenty on Gnosticism and early Christian thought (I wrote an MA thesis on Irenaeus), but never came across a scholar dealing with my question about Platonic ideas and pre-Christian era Judaism.

    Re: sakirkland,

    Thanks for the comment and the link. Just earlier this week I read Mortley’s helpful essay “The Past in Clement of Alexandria.” I did a word search in the chapter on Clement and Justin, and the only reference to Moses did not reveal any Barker-like theses, though you did not promise that specific fruit.

    Are you doing Nyssa for philosophy? Theology? History? I find the claims you are making in your answer to Adam to be interesting.


    One could do worse than Pelikan. Apparently, Michel Barnes began a class once with a reading from Justo Gonzalez, where Gonzalez speaks of the influence of Hilary of Poitiers on Origen. Barnes then threw the book across the room, cursing about how Origen was dead before Hilary was born.

  7. Hi Thomas,

    What claims are interesting to you? I am studying Gregory for theology which is part of the reason why I dont feel too confident in asserting anything too strongly about Mortley’s thesis outside of Gregory. What I thought might be interesting about Mortley is his engagement with philosophical themes within early Christian writers. Particularly the beloved disciple and his use of the logos. There would not be any barker like thesis there though as you said. Perhaps some scholarship surrounding Philo would have more to say there?

  8. I did discuss the “common culture theory” in my “The idea of Universal History”. It didn’t get good reviews. I think they (Justin et al) actually believed that a certain stock of ideas was universally held, and that the borrowings from Plato by Moses, or vice versa, were just the explanation of how it came to be that everyone thought the same thing. The real story is not the plagiarism, it’s that the major ideas are universal, or in common.

  9. Professor Mortley:

    Thank you for your comment. I suppose that your thought–for Justin and others to believe in a common stock of certain ideas– would support my challenge to any simple Hellenization theses?

  10. Thank you for the discussion! Yes I think it would support your view that we should not exaggerate the difference between “pure” Hellenism and “pure” Judaism. I also believe that this plagiarism idea is really a back-handed compliment to the Greeks: it implicitly recognised that you couldn’t get along without their credibility.

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