The Philosophers (Part 3): Plato

Let’s get something very clear. Paul wasn’t writing the “Bible.” He was just a preacher writing letters to his converts, explaining a revolutionary concept later called “Christianity.” Like any other writer Paul made literary references, sometimes to poets, sometimes to philosophers, sometimes to playwrights. And sometimes he used sports analogy, just like we do when we write essays. The content list of the “Bible” wasn’t created until 367 AD. That was when Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria circulated the canon list. It’s how the letters (epistles), historical accounts (gospels) and travel diary (Acts) became “New Testament.”

The apostles were human beings. We sometimes forget that. Paul was so human he famously scaled a city wall – in a basket! And he boasted about it: “Remember the time I was in Damascus and the governor under King Aretas posted guards at the city gate to arrest me? I crawled through a window in the wall, was let down in a basket, and had to run for my life.” 2 Corinthians 11:33. There’s just that hint of rascality about Paul! He must have been a great uncle.

Paul was extremely intelligent. Peter famously wrote that some of the stuff he penned were difficult to grasp. 2 Peter 3:16. There was intellectual sophistication. He was explaining Hebrew scriptures quoting philosophers, poets and playwrights. (His traducers of course took advantage and twisted what he said. Lost in translation. Oh, I just wrote like Paul. I quoted a movie title!) This of course makes nonsense of the famous dictum Christians shouldn’t read anything outside the Bible. The people who wrote the Bible read other books. The Bible itself contains literary and cultural references.

The beauty of Paul’s writing is better appreciated when you know where he’s coming from. It’s therefore important to get into his head. We can’t grasp some of the stuff he wrote otherwise. This was a man who found the nexus between the law and grace. It takes a special kind of mind to do that. Peter, James and Co – the Jerusalem Collective, didn’t fully grasp the import of Christianity. They thought it was Judaism 2.0. That became evident in their struggles with non Jewish converts. The paradigm they knew was proselytization. Converts were supposed to become Judaists not “Christians.” They were supposed to circumcise, observe dietary laws, obey the law of the Sabbath, and traffic laws. (Forget the last bit, that’s a joke!) They couldn’t see Jesus outside of Jewry. They appropriated him nationalistically. Their struggles would eventually lead to the convening of a special conclave later known as the Jerusalem Council. It was that council that resolved the accommodation of non Jewish Christians. But they still insisted they must observe tenets of Judaism – at least some: abstention from what has been sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, strangled animals and rare steak…sorry, meat containing blood… Ok, blood in general! They called these rules “necessary rules.” Acts 15:28. Why rules? Because what they knew was rules – the Ten Commandments. And this irrespective of the fact the Holy Spirit had raced ahead of them baptising non Jews. They were playing catch up and struggling.

The arch conservatives – converted Pharisees, mandated circumcision as a condition for salvation. Acts 15:1. Which is kind of funny. They just didn’t get it. But Paul got it. Perhaps the concussion he got on his way to Damascus cleared his head. He was a Pharisee. Jesus had knocked him down on the way to Damascus. Acts 9:1-5. But let’s go back to Paul’s writing, shall we. Enough of wrestling analogy.

In order to explain the relationship between the Old and New Testaments Paul had used a particular word – “shadow.” In his letter to Colossians Paul wrote: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days – these are only the SHADOW of the things to come, but the body is Christ.” Colossians 2:17. Seemed he was digging at the Jerusalem Collective with all their rules. But what was he saying?

What he was saying was, the Ten Commandments fore-shadowed Christ. Jesus is the real deal not those laws. He would reiterate the same point in his letter to Hebrews: “For the law possesses a SHADOW of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship.” Hebrews 10:1. Those sacrifices in the Old Testament could not save, bottom line. The Ten Commandments can’t save.

Again we come across the word “shadow” in Hebrews 8:5. Talking about altar sacrifices Paul wrote: “The place where they (priests) serve is a sketch and SHADOW of the heavenly sanctuary…” What’s he talking about? Where was he coming from with all this talk about shadow? You can’t understand unless you’re conversant with the work of a philosopher named Plato. Paul was referencing him. Who was Plato?

Plato was an Athenian philosopher. Born 427 or 428 BC, died 347 or 348 BC. Actually Plato wasn’t his real name. His actual name was Aristocles. His father had named him after his grand-dad. “Plato” was a nickname. It was given him by his wrestling coach on account of his broad physique. “Platon” means broad. He had broad shoulders. The nickname stuck, which means his wrestling coach was rather influential; or Plato was good at wrestling. Plato is not a bad name unless it refers to your forehead. Then you’ll be Big Head.

Plato came from a politically connected family. He would go on to found a school called Academy. It’s how we got the word, “academic.” It was arguably the first institution of higher learning in the western world – the first university. The Academy, or Akademia had taken its name from that of the original owner of a plot of land with a sacred grove. It once belonged to the Athenian hero Akademos. It was about a mile outside Athenian walls. Plato’s idea was to train young men in philosophy and the sciences in order to create better statesmen. He also wanted to continue the work of his teacher, Socrates.

Plato came up with what he called the Theory of Forms. And this was what Paul was referencing. In that theory Plato expressed his belief that the material world as perceived by us is actually not the real world. He said it was only a SHADOW or poor copy of the real world. Now you understand why Paul said the earthly sanctuary was a shadow of the heavenly sanctuary. Shadow means “poor copy.” To explain his theory Plato came up with the Allegory of the Cave. He tells us to imagine a cave in which people have been imprisoned from birth. They’re tied up and facing the black wall in the darkness. They can’t turn their head; they can only face forward. Behind the prisoners is a fire. The fire casts shadows onto the wall the prisoners are facing. There’s a rampart between the fire and the prisoners. People walk on this rampart holding different objects from time to time. The shadows of the objects are thus cast on the wall the prisoners are facing. Are you following?

Now, as far as the prisoners are concerned the shadows will be all they know of the world. They won’t have knowledge of the actual objects. However if one of the prisoners manages to untie himself and turn around he will see the actual objects. However because he’s been imprisoned for so long he’ll be dazzled by the fire and so will likely turn back towards the wall to the only reality he knows. Plato believed everything that our senses perceive in the material world is like those images on the wall. They’re the only reality we know, unfortunately. He posited that every earthly thing we perceive with our senses must have a corresponding “form” or “idea,” just like those real objects paraded in the cave. This “form” or “idea” is the eternal and perfect reality of the thing. He goes further to state that there’s a “world of ideas.” It’s where the perfect realities exist. And so what we experience or sense is nothing but an imperfect or incomplete shadow of reality. If we want to have real knowledge of reality we must focus on the “ideas” and not on the shadows. And that knowledge can only be achieved through reason.

Plato thus imagines two distinct worlds – the world of appearances and the world of reality. The material world he says is subject to change but the world of ideas is eternal. Do you get his reasoning?

Of course this sounds very much like Paul! In 2 Corinthians 4:18 AMP Paul had written: “So we look not at the things which are seen; for the things which are visible are temporal, just brief and fleeting; but the things which are invisible are everlasting and imperishable.” In other words the visible things we see are only a shadow of the eternal things. They’re like those shadows in the cave. Paul essentially adopted Plato’s theory of forms to explain Christian theology. Some of the ancient philosophers were up to something, but they couldn’t fully grasp the things in their head. They were like people with poor eyesight. They saw blurry images. Christianity brought those images into sharp focus.

Paul extended Plato’s theory of forms to the Ten Commandments, just as Plato himself had extended it to abstract concepts like justice. He says all the instances of justice in the material world are mere variants (or shadows) of true justice. Paul used the same logic. He says the ten commandments are a shadow of Jesus Christ, that they’re pointing to Christ. In Christ is the perfect law of liberty. James 1:25.

Where Christianity and Plato diverge however is in the methodology for apprehending “perfect reality.” Plato says it’s through reason, Christianity says reason is not enough you have to factor in the Holy Spirit. As Elihu the friend of Job said, “There’s a spirit of intelligence in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives them understanding.” Job 32:8. Paul says “The Spirit searches all things diligently, even sounding and measuring the profound depths of God – the divine counsels and things far beyond human understanding.” 1 Corinthians 2:10.

Oh, one more thing about the allegory of the cave. Plato says that if those prisoners who somehow broke loose and saw the sun and the world for what it truly is – if they were to return to the cave and try and explain what they had seen they would be mocked mercilessly, called fanciful and even mad. It’s what Paul was referencing when he wrote: “The natural unbelieving man does not accept the teachings and revelations of the Spirit of God, for they’re foolishness, absurd and illogical to him; and he’s incapable of understanding them, because they’re spiritually discerned and appreciated.” 1 Corinthians 2:14. In other words the natural man has stayed in the cave so long he struggles to believe the truth of the gospel. Heaven will then seem like a myth to him and those who believe such will be deemed mad.

The allegory of the cave explains why faith is mocked tirelessly.

The Philosophers series continues next week.

If you’ll like to receive Jesus into your life please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”

© Leke Alder |

Those sacrifices in the Old Testament could not save. The Ten Commandments can’t save. Click To Tweet The apostles were human beings. We sometimes forget that. Paul was so human he famously scaled a city wall - in a basket! Click To Tweet Paul wasn’t writing the “Bible.” He was just a preacher writing letters to his converts, explaining a revolutionary concept later called “Christianity.” Click To Tweet