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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

On the Soul: An Examination of Plato and Paul

To be sure, a significant difference between the two is the dichotomy between body and soul. For Plato, as we have detailed previously, the ψυχη is an independent entity, pre-existent and immortal. There is no avoiding this postulation, not even by dismissing his myths as rhetorical pedagogy which are not intended as metaphysical theses.118 There is far too much discussion of not only the immortality of the soul, but of the soul's divinity for one to argue Plato was anything other than a dualist. On the other side, Paul does not - not at least in our attempted re-construction - purport to any form of a bodily-spiritual dichotomy. In fact, Paul's understanding of ψυχη is noticeably coloured by his Jewish understanding of the nefesh. The Hebrew worldview had no inclination whatsoever of a mental/spiritual life apart from the living body.119 The various parts of the human being, therefore, were nothing but different aspects of the one vital personality.120 The nefesh of the Tanakh was understood to be the 'vitality or life-force that makes a living being, or a being living,'121 a notion which we have seen to be directly deposited into Paul's definition of ψυχη.

What's more, Paul utilises ψυχη in the same manner nefesh is often employed in the Tanakh: by representing individuals, and therein distinguishing the human creature from inanimate nature.122 Those who attempt to make a case of Paul's rejection of the human body - stating that this alleged rejection perhaps represents an aversion and abhorrence of humanity as a whole123 - can be said to be due to a misunderstanding of Paul's usage of ψυχη and πνευμα, σωμα and σαρξ as delineated above. The fact is not that Paul sought escape from the body, that his theo-philosophy involved a spiritual transformation - which in turn was not spiritually one-sided, but in fact implicated the σωμα.124 Indeed, the immortality of the soul is also not mutually present in the works of Plato and Paul. Where Plato insists on the eternal quality of the ψυχη, Paul only permits any wandering thoughts of immortality to pass by virtue of the regenerated πνευμα of the believer - an event which occurs in Christ and is therefore beyond death,125 and which necessarily entails the resurrection of the σωμα.126 Still, Paul never speaks of the ψυχη as needing an eventual escape from the σωμα, nor of the σωμα as husk which encases the human being's true, solely spiritual self.127

Where Plato and Paul's themes overlap, even then do they do so loosely. Both purport a sort of epistemological spirituality, where for Plato this is comprised of the ascent of the soul towards the Good and the other Forms which, in some ways, fulfill the ψυχη in its beholding of the Ideas and thereby coming to complete knowledge, allowing it to properly align its tripartite soul. For Paul, this epistemological spirituality also involves an ascent of the dominant, true part of the human: the ψυχη. However, Paul's upward journey, if we can call it as such, is more concerned with an experience of God, whereby the human being is only properly aligned once the πνευμα of God transforms and re-creates that of the human's. Moreover, ψυχη for Paul is never dominant, but is in fact corruptible and liable to sin.128 Thus, Plato's focus is on the human being's recollection of the divine knowledge and its being drawn back into the home whence it came, whereas Paul places God as centrally and externally orienting the human being towards Him. Plato's purification is bodiless - an escape and separation of the σωμα129 - where Paul's is a holistic transformation. Furthermore, both men's worldviews are mystical in nature, and while Paul's theology does heavily involve the activities of πνευμα, he nevertheless remains grounded in an earthly, bodily framework, which contrasts the desire of Plato to discard the physical world.


Albeit brief, the above comparisons provide a starting point for observing the divergences between Plato and Paul. The key points enumerated above prove to show that Paul was much more a product of his Jewish heritage than of his Hellenistic environment. This of course is not to say that he does not borrow language and build on concepts from Plato and other philosophers - indeed, Paul's discourse on the well-structured city-state smacks of justice as found in the Platonic πολιs.120Nevertheless, Paul remains outside of the Platonic tradition. The overlap between the two, the similarities of their ideas is simply not significant enough to warrant contending a Platonic Paul. Although, the two share many similarities, in the end the Pauline picture is not one of either/or - Jewish or Greek - but perhaps we can propose tertium datur: the third option, one of a firmly Jewish base, but which also draws upon the Hellenistic ideas of the surrounding culture, a worldview distinctly Christian.131

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  1. Taylor, The Man, 307.
  2. Stacey, Pauline, 85. See also Gordon Zerbe, 'Paul on the Human Being as a "Psychic Body": Neither Dualist nor Monist,' Direction, 37.2 (n.p., 2008), 172-173.
  3. Stacey, Pauline, 85.
  4. Zerbe, 'Human Being,' 172.
  5. Dickson, Flesh and Spirit, 183.
  6. F F Powell, 'Saint Paul's Homage to Plato,' The World and I Online (http://www.worldandi.com...mtpub2.asp).
  7. Zerbe, 'Human Being,' 175.
  8. Stacey, Pauline, 85.
  9. Zerbe, 'Human Being,' 174.
  10. Ibid., 172.
  11. Stacey, Pauline, 126.
  12. Powell, 'Homage.'
  13. Ibid.
  14. Stacey, Pauline, 145.