Hebrew Bible as an Inspiration for Ancient Greek Philosophy

st-justin

 

by

Damien F. Mackey

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This article follows up my theme that the Church Fathers were right about the Hebrew origins of mainstream Greek philosophy.

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Introduction

 

In previous articles I have supported

 

  1. St. Clement of Alexandria’s view that Plato’s writings took their inspiration from the Hebrew Moses, and
  2. St. Ambrose’s belief that Plato had learned from the prophet Jeremiah in Egypt; a belief that was initially taken up by St. Augustine, who added that
  3. Greek philosophy generally derived from the Jewish Scriptures.

 

And, though St. Augustine later retracted his acceptance of St. Ambrose’s view, realising that it was chronologically impossible for Jeremiah (c. 600 BC) to have met Plato anywhere, considering the c. 400 BC date customarily assigned to Plato, I have, on the other hand, looked to turn this around by challenging the conventional dates.

From the Book of Jeremiah we learn that Jeremiah and Baruch went together to Egypt. So this Baruch, whom tradition also identifies as Zoroaster, would be a possible candidate to consider for St. Ambrose ‘Plato who was contemporaneous with Jeremiah in Egypt’.

Again, much of Plato’s most famous work, The Republic, with its themes of justice and righteousness, could have arisen, I suggest, from the intense dialogues of the books of Jeremiah and Job of identical themes. I shall discuss this further below.

 

Saint Justin Martyr

 

Moreover, St. Justin Martyr had, even earlier than the above-mentioned Church Fathers, espoused the view of the Greek philosophers borrowing from the biblical Hebrews. And Justin Martyr too, had, like Plato, written an Apology, in Justin’s case also apparently (like Plato) in regard to a martyrdom. So we read (http://beityahuwah.blogspot.com/2005/08/plato-stole-his-ideas-from-):

 

Plato Stole his ideas from Moses: True or False ….

 

The belief that the philosophers of Greece, including Plato and Aristotle, plagiarized certain of their teaching from Moses and the Hebrew prophets is an argument used by Christian Apologists of Gentile background who lived in the first four centuries of Christians.

 

My comment: I would like to take this a stage further. Just as I have argued in my

 

Solomon and Sheba

 

https://www.academia.edu/3660164/Solomon_and_Sheba

 

that the supposed Athenian statesman and lawgiver, Solon, was in fact a Greek appropriation of Israel’s wise lawgiver, Solomon, so do I believe that the primary ‘Ionian’ and ‘Greek’ philosophers of antiquity were actually Greek appropriations of Hebrew sages and prophets. Regarding the supposed “Father of Philosophy”, Thales, for instance, see my:

 

Joseph as Thales: Not an “Hellenic Gotterdamerung” but Israelite Wisdom

 

https://www.academia.edu/3690014/Joseph_as_Thales_Not_an_Hellenic_Gotterdamerung_but_Israelite_Wisdom

 

and, for Pythagoras:

Hebrew Foundations of Pythagoras

 

https://www.academia.edu/3690014/Joseph_as_Thales_Not_an_Hellenic_Gotterdamerung_but_Israelite_Wisdom

 

Now, getting back to the Church Fathers:

 

Three key figures who presented this thesis are Justin Martyr “The most important second­ century apologist” {50. Grant 1973}, Titus Flavius Clemens known as Clement of Alexandria “the illustrious head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria at the close of the second century, was originally a pagan philosopher” (11, Robert 1857) and is renowned as being possibly the teacher of Origen. He was born either in Alexandria or Athens {Epiphs Haer, xxii.6}. Our final giant who supports this thesis is Eusebius of Caesarea known as the father of Church history. Each of these in their defense of the Christian faith presented some form of the thesis that the philosophers of Greece learned from the prophets of Israel. Our interest in this paper is on the arguments of the earliest of these writers, Justin Martyr. He represents the position of Christian apology in the middle of the second century, as opposed to the later Clement of Alexandria and the even later Eusebius of Caesarea.

In light of the stature and the credibility of these three Church Fathers even if the idea that Plato learned from Moses seems far fetched we would do well to take a closer look at the argument and the evidence presented by such men of stature. Justin was a philosopher who came from a pagan background. He issued from Shechem in Palestine. He was a marvelous scholar in his own right well read and well qualified to make informed judgments in the arena of philosophy.

Our purpose is to briefly look at the theses presented by Justin Martyr and to try to discern the plausibility of the thesis.

 

Justin Martyr and the line Plato took from Moses.

 

My comment on this section: If the great Plato is to be restored as a biblical sage, as I think eventually he must be, then this would be not so much a case of Greeks plagiarising the Scriptures as of a biblical wise man (the original Plato) keeping alive the Mosaïc Law and Tradition.

The article continues with a biography of Justin Martyr:

 

Justin Martyr was a prolific second century Apologist. He was born in Flavia Neapolis (Shechem) in Samaria. Well known for the local Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim and a temple built by Hadrian to Zeus Hypsistos. He later passed through Stoicism and the way of Aristotle’s disciples the Peripatetics and was rejected as unqualified to study Pythagoreanism and finally he met a Platonist with whom he advanced in his studies. To him the goal of Platonism was “the vision of God”. One day he met a Christian on the beach and was converted to the faith. He did not become a priest or bishop but took to teaching and defending the faith.

Text

He wrote many works and many more bear his name. However modern scholarship has judged that of the many works that bear his name only three are considered genuine. These are 2 Apologies and the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. They are preserved in one manuscript of the year 1364 (Cod Par, gr. 450).

Language

Justin wrote in Greek, and right in the middle of the period of philosophy called Middle Platonism. The book in which he outlines his thesis that Moses and the prophets were a source for the Greek Philosophers is his first Apology. It is dated to 155-157 BC and was addressed to “The Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antonius Pius Caesar Augustus, and the sons Verissimus, philosopher, philosopher, and Lucius” Grant (52, 1973).

 

My comment: I would seriously contest these conventional dates for Imperial Rome, given my view that the so-called ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Jewish revolts against Rome, separated by more than half a century, were the one and same revolt of 70 AD. See my:

 

I Am Barabbas

 https://www.academia.edu/3704873/I_Am_Barabbas

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It is here that Justin makes a most interesting and intriguing statement rallying Plato to the side of Moses and Isaiah, in the eyes of the son of the Emperor whom he calls philosophers.

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The article continues with the writings of Justin Martyr:

Context

Grant (1973) believes the reason which triggered the Apology was the martyrdom of Polycarp in 156 AD and the injustice of it during the bishopric of Anicetus. Even as this martyrdom and its report may have spurred Justin on to write so it had been that it was on seeing the fortitude of the Christian martyrs which had disposed him favorably towards the faith (Ap 2.12.1). ….

In the Apology 1 Justin gives the reason for his writing

“I, Justin, the son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine, present this address and petition on behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused; my self being one of them” (Apology 1 chap).

The Apology 1 is divided into 60 chapters. The translation we are using is that of the Ante Nicene Fathers and can be seen at www.ccel.org

The topics covered are many. He starts in chapter 2 by demanding justice, he requires that before the Christians are condemned they should be given a fair trial to see if they have committed any crimes or not. They should not be condemned merely for being Christian. He covers many subjects including: the accusation Christians were Atheists, faith in God; the Kingdom of Christ; God’s service; demonic teachings; Christ’s teachings and heathen analogies to it; non Christian worship; magic; exposing children, the Hebrew prophets and their prophecies about Christ, types of prophetic words from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This brings us to about chapter 38. At this point Justin begins to cover the issue of determinism and free will. He argues that although the future was prophesied it does not mean everything is determined according to fate and man has no responsibility for he has no choice. Rather he points to Moses revealing God’s choice to Adam “Behold before thy face are good and evil: choose the good”. (Apol 1 44) And he quotes lsaiah’s appeal to Israel to wash and be clean and the consequences of doing so or not doing so. The consequences of disobedience are that the sword would devour Israel. Justin picks up on the statement regarding the sword and argues that it is not a literal sword which is referred to but “the sword of God is a fire, of which those who choose to do wickedly will become the fuel” (Apol 1 44). Justin having appealed to Moses and Isaiah as a warning to the Roman rulers now appeals to one with whom they are more familiar, Plato the philosopher, to support his case that man is free to choose good or evil. It is here that Justin makes a most interesting and intriguing statement rallying Plato to the side of Moses and Isaiah, in the eyes of the son of the Emperor whom he calls philosophers.

And so, too, Plato, when he says, “The blame is his who chooses, and God is blameless” took this from the prophet Moses and uttered it.

For Moses is more ancient than all the Greek writers. And whatever both philosophers and poets have said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things heavenly, or doctrines of the like kind, they have received such suggestions from the prophets as have enabled them to understand and interpret these things. And hence there seem to be seeds of truth among all men; but they are charged with not accurately understanding [the truth] when they assert contradictories.

…. He appears to be making the claim that Plato who has “exerted a greater influence over human thought than any other individual with the possible exception of Aristotle” (Demos, 1927.vi) was dependent for his understanding of freewill and responsibility on Moses. The saying “the blame is his who chooses, and God is blameless (Aitia helomenou Theos d’ anaios) {Joann. Mdcccxlii, 224}” was taken from Moses by Plato and uttered it {eipe}”.

[End of quote]

 

Plato and Job

 

The combined story of Job and his alter ego, Tobias, son of Tobit

 

Job’s Life and Times

https://www.academia.edu/3787850/Jobs_Life_and_Times

 

has had a profound influence upon worldwide literature, both ancient and modern. To give just one example, see my:

 

Similarities to The Odyssey of the Books of Job and Tobit

https://www.academia.edu/8914220/Similarities_to_The_Odyssey_of_the_Books_of_Job_and_Tobit

 

And, as already implied, I believe that this biblical story has also had a huge influence upon ancient (supposedly Greco-Roman) philosophy, which, however, significantly alters the original version. For, whilst there can be a similarity in thought between Plato and, for example, the Book of Job, the tone may be quite different. Plato’s Republic, and his other dialogues such as Protagoras and Meno, brilliant though they may be in places, when compared with the intense atmosphere of the drama of the Book of Job, come across sometimes as a bit like a gentlemen’s discussion over a glass of port. W. Guthrie may have captured something of this general tone in his Introduction to Plato. Protagoras and Meno (Penguin, 1968), when he wrote (p. 20, emphasis added):

 

… a feature of the conversation which cannot fail to strike a reader is its unbroken urbanity and good temper. The keynote is courtesy and forbearance, though these are not always forthcoming without a struggle. Socrates is constantly on the alert for the signs of displeasure on the part of Protagoras, and when he detects them, is careful not to press his point, and the dialogue ends with mutual expressions of esteem. ….

 

[End of quote]

 

Now compare this gentlemanly tone with Job’s ‘How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me?’ (19:1-3), and Eliphaz’s accusations of the holy man: ‘Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities [which supposed types of injustice on the part of Job Eliphaz then proceeds to itemise]’ (22:5).

In Plato’s dialogues, by way of complete contrast, we get pages and pages of the following sort of amicable discussion as taken from The Republic (Bk. 2, 368-369):

[Socrates] ‘Justice can be a characteristic of an individual or of a community, can it not?’

[Adeimantus] ‘Yes’.

[Socrates] ‘And a community is larger than an individual?’

[Adeimantus] ‘It is”.

[Socrates] ‘We may therefore find that the amount of justice in the larger entity is greater, and so easier to recognize. I accordingly propose that we start our enquiry …’.

[Adeimantus] ‘That seems a good idea’, he agreed. ….

 

Protagoras, the well-known Sophist, is famous for his maxim “Man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, and of those that are not that they are not” (Plato’s Theaetetus, 152), a philosophy that has its severe limitations:

The Futile Aspiration to Make ‘Man the Measure of All Things’

https://www.academia.edu/8494268/The_Futile_Aspiration_to_Make_Man_the_Measure_of_All_Things_

However, this maxim may actually be, according to my estimation, based upon the philosophy of the elderly Eliphaz of the Book of Job. For his possible identity in the Book of Tobit, see my:

 

Friends of the Prophet Job. Part One: Eliphaz the Temanite.

https://www.academia.edu/12159726/Friends_of_the_Prophet_Job._Part_One_Eliphaz_the_Temanite

Though Eliphaz was by no means a Sophist along the Greek lines, he was, like Protagoras with Socrates, largely opposed to his opponent’s point of view. And so, whilst the God-fearing Eliphaz would never have uttered anything so radical or atheistic as “man is the measure of all things”, he was however opposed to the very Job who had, in his discussion of wisdom, spoken of God as ‘apportioning out by measure’ all the things that He had created (Job 28:12, 13, 25).

Whilst Protagoras is but a pale ghost of the biblical Eliphaz, some of the original lustre does still manage to shine through, nonetheless, as with Protagoras’s claim that knowledge, or wisdom, was the highest thing in life (Protagoras, 352C, D) (cf. Eliphaz in Job 22:1-2). And Guthrie adds that Protagoras “would repudiate as scornfully as Socrates the almost bestial type of hedonism advocated by Callicles, who says that what nature means by fair and right is for the strong man to let his desires grow as big as possible and have the means of everlastingly satisfying them” (op. cit., p. 22).

Eliphaz, Job-Tobias’s father-in-law according to my reconstructions, appears, from this, to have later been re-invented as Protagoras the Sophist from Abdera, as a perfect foil to Socrates (with Job’s other friends also perhaps emerging in the Greek versions re-cast as Sophists). Protagoras stated, somewhat like Eliphaz, that he was old enough to be the father of any of them. “Indeed I am getting on in life now – so far as age goes I might be the father of any one of you …” (Protagoras, 317 C). That Eliphaz was old is indicated by the fact that he is the first to address Job and that he also refers to men older than Job’s father (Job 15:10). Now, just as Fr. R. MacKenzie (S.J.) in his commentary on “Job”, in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, tells of Eliphaz’s esteem for, and courtesy towards, Job (31:23):

Eliphaz is presumably the oldest of the three and therefore the wisest; he is certainly the most courteous and the most eloquent. He has a genuine esteem for Job and is deeply sorry for him. He knows the advice to give him, the wisdom that lays down what he must do to receive relief from his sufferings.

[End of quote]

 

so does Guthrie, reciprocally (I suggest), say: “Protagoras – whom [Socrates] regards with genuine admiration and liking” (op. cit., p. 22).

But, again, just as the righteous Job had scandalised his friends by his levity, according to St. Thomas Aquinas (“Literal Exposition on Job”, 42:1-10), “And here one should consider that [the young] Elihu had sinned out of inexperience whereas Job had sinned out of levity, and so neither of them had sinned gravely”, so does Guthrie use this very same word, “levity”, in the context of an apparent flaw in the character of Socrates (ibid., p. 18):

There is one feature of the Protagoras which cannot fail to puzzle, if not exasperate, a reader: the behaviour of Socrates. At times he treats the discussion with such levity, and at other times with such unscrupulousness, that Wilamowitz felt bound to conclude that the dialogue could only have been written in his lifetime. This, he wrote, is the human being whom Plato knew; only after he had suffered a martyr’s death did the need assert itself to idealize his character.

[End of quote]

 

Job’s tendency towards levity had apparently survived right down into the Greek era. Admittedly, the Greek version does get much nastier in the case of Thrasymachus, and even more so with Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, but in The Republic, at least, it never rises to the dramatic pitch of Job’s dialogues with his three friends.

Here is that least friendly of the debaters, Thrasymachus, at his nastiest (Republic, Bk. I, 341):

 

[Socrates] Well, said I, ‘so you think I’m malicious, do you Thrasymachus?’

[Thrasymachus] ‘I certainly do’.

[Socrates] ‘You think my questions were deliberately framed to distort your argument?’

[Thrasymachus] ‘I know perfectly well they were. But they won’t get you anywhere; you can’t fool me, and if you don’t you won’t be able to crush me in argument’.

[Socrates] ‘My dear chap, I wouldn’t dream of trying’, I said ….

 

Socrates and Plato are similarly (like the Sophists) watered-down entities by comparison with the Middle Eastern originals. Such is how the Hebrew Scriptures end up when filtered through the Greeks, [and, in the case of Plato, perhaps through Egypt before the Greeks, hence a double filtering]. Even then, it is doubtful whether the finely filtered version of Plato that we now have could have been written by pagan Greeks. At least some of it seems to belong clearly to the Christian era, e.g. “The just man … will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned … and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified” (The Republic, Bk. 2, 362).

 

I submit that this statement would not likely have been written prior to the Gospels.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Hebrew Bible as an Inspiration for Ancient Greek Philosophy

  1. I am sorry. I cannot follow the twists and turns in this latest post. Who is Plato according to this analysis? In fact, have you made a chart of who’s who?

      1. Honestly, I do not want to invest the time if all the articles are as convoluted, and not even the author has an answer. Great topic, intriguing suggestions, but ultimately smoke and mirrors without the conviction to clarify. Thanks anyway for the reply.

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