Who Influenced the New Testament World?
It has been fascinating during my studies, to hear about different influences that have changed the way people see themselves and their world. Today, we accept things like a ‘sub-conscious’ or an ‘inner spirit’ without really thinking about where those ideas came from. They are part of our cultural thinking, and we refer to them effortlessly during conversations. Yet, they have not always been known concepts. They were introduced at a particular time by a particular philosopher.
The same has been true for centuries, and one aspect of studying the New Testament, is knowing which philosophers influenced the thinking at the time. This isn’t disputing any inspiration from God, but it’s recognising that the books were physically written by humans, and those people lived in a culture, and there were certain philosophies that we see reflected in what they wrote. They couldn’t have written about ‘outer space’ or ‘gravity,’ and especially not ‘cyber’ or ‘virtual’ because those things were not yet thought about. Here is a brief summary of the philosophies that were well-known the New Testament world. You can decide whether some of the thinking is incorporated into what was written. (I am only including the snippets of their teachings that I found interesting—you can do your own research if you want to know more!)
Socrates (470 -399 BC)
Socrates said: “The only wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” He was killed by being forced to drink a cup of hemlock. He didn’t write anything, so we mainly know of his teaching via his pupils.
Plato (428 – 348 BC) Plato was heavily influenced by Socrates. He wrote a story, with Socrates teaching about cave dwellers:
‘A group of people lived deep in a dark cave. They sat behind a fire, and a puppeteer moved puppets, casting their shadow on the cave wall, telling the story of the world. This is how the cave people understood the world. But one day, a man left the group, and walked past the fire and out into the sunshine. At first he was blinded by the light, but gradually his eyes adjusted, and he saw that the plants and animals in the real world were better in every way to the shadow images he had seen previously. He went back into the cave and tried to tell his friends, but they refused to listen because his eyes could no longer see in the dark cave, and they decided he was blind.’ Plato wanted to teach people to ‘see’ the real world.
Plato said that the material world is transitory, and humans are capable of reaching an ideal state, which is eternal. He thought the intellect was the most important part of a person, and he differentiated between the intellect/spirit and the material/physical. Two separate parts of humans.
He also had an interesting idea for how society should operate: Plato divided people into those who were ‘rational’ (had wisdom) and said they should govern. The ‘spirited’ people were brave, so they should be soldiers and teachers. ‘Sensuous’ people should be providers, part of commerce, because they were temperate (knew moderation). This, he said, would bring social order and justice. [Looking for politicians who are wise might be difficult today, when being fast-talkers and good presenters seems more likely to get them elected than being wise. I guess Plato lived in a different time.]
Aristotle (384 – 323) Aristotle was Plato’s pupil. He thought that thinking (which he called ‘contemplation’) was superior to doing things. He thought the point of life was to contemplate God, and to serve him, and to pursue happiness. (I confess to be slightly confused by this, as he also said that contemplation is how humans can imitate gods, so not sure he was referring to God.) He taught that good action leads to good habits which leads to good disposition. All things should be tempered by moderation.
Sometime around Plato and Aristotle we had the Stoics. Stoicism taught that God was omnipresent, and everything was subject to his will. People should therefore not worry about what they cannot change (apatheia). Whatever happens, should be accepted. They said everyone should be treated well, because everyone shares the same spirit. Virtue is to know God’s will, and to follow it.
Plotinus (204 – 270 CE) He was a Neo-Platonic philosopher, and he tried to build on Plato’s work. He not only separated the body and soul, but also decided that ‘matter’ or the physical body was evil, and only ‘reason’ or spirit, are good. Therefore, the soul is more important than the body.
They all said lots more, obviously, but a lot of it was boring or confusing or both, so I have given you a brief overview. Interesting, huh?
I will tell you more about my studies in another blog. Thank you for reading.
Hope you have a philosophical day. Take care.
Love, Anne x
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