Plato vs. The Author of The Epistle to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews is a book of the New Testament that is of particular interest to students of Plato.  Even taking a quick scan of the letter, they will immediately notice Platonic terms such as “copy,” “shadow,” “true,” and “heavenly.”  Indeed, many have been eager to accuse the author of being a Platonist himself.  A more plausible alternative, some have explored his connection with Philo, an ancient Jewish philosopher who attempted to fuse Platonic and Jewish ideas.  But how much did the author of The Epistle to the Hebrews actually learn from either philosopher?  Did he depend on their ideas entirely?  Or did he merely adopt them for his own ends?

The Epistle to the Hebrews is a book of the New Testament that is also entirely unique to the rest of its corpus.  The reasons for this being the case are many.  The primary one is the extensive complexity of the letter: the several layers of argument transposed in complicated Greek prose, the dense philosophical concepts employed, and the demanding assumption of an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament on the part of the readers.  Because of these things, it’s unfortunately often overlooked and even ignored by people of all persuasions–whether Christian, Jewish, secular, or whatever.

Thankfully, there brilliant-minded folks out there that are able to explain its contents in a simple but sophisticated fashion.  Check out this video for a basic breakdown of the book:

Now, of course it’s impossible to determine definitely who wrote the letter; it’s likewise impossible to determine definitely who received the letter.  What’s impossible to ignore, however, is the overall thrust of what the author is getting at.  While Jesus is certainly the focal point of all his individual arguments, it’s because he saw Jesus as the one causing the MASSIVE shift from the Mosaic order of religious worship to the Christian order.  That is the major contribution to Christianity that this letter makes.  It explains to people why it is that with Jesus offering animal sacrifices and keeping kosher was no longer necessary.  The author charges people to stick with Jesus because he saw Jesus as having reformed the way people connect with God.

At the core of the author’s argument is his understanding of what the Old and New Testaments are.  Why is it that there are two?  Why was there a change at all?  His answer is of particular interest to students of Plato.  Basically, he saw the Old Testament as never sufficient in and of itself to bring people to God.  The New Testament came with Jesus because there was a better way of doing things.  However, it’s not as if the Old Testament were a total failure–no, quite the opposite.  The Old Testament and all its demands–the tablets of the law, the animal sacrifices, the priesthood in the temple, the religious festivals, etc.–served as signposts toward the future when God would send Jesus to more perfectly bring people to God.  Put it in Platonic terms: the Old Testament is full of the copies of the forms that are ultimately realized in the New Testament.

It’s in chapters 8, 9, and 10 that the author’s Platonism most radiantly shines forth.  He said that the tabernacle (temple) on earth was designed according to “the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb 8:2).  He said the Mosaic Old Testament is “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5).  He said that the first section of the tabernacle “is symbolic for this present age” (Heb 9:9).  He said that Jesus performed his duty as high priest when he went “through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)” (Heb 9:12).  But is this really Platonism?

The likely answer is yes and no.  Yes, because “that the spiritual is prior to the physical is the conviction that always animated Plato’s philosophy” (Crombie, 75).  It’s possible that the author’s audience were Hellenic Jews just as Philo was.  If this is the case, he very well could have been speaking of Jesus and the testaments in their own language–in the language of philosophy–and basing his arguments on their common understanding of forms.  At the same time, he wanted to speak of the Old Testament in the language of the Old Testament itself–namely, in terms of promise and fulfillment.  In the sixth chapter, before he gets totally Platonic on his readers, the author establishes that it is “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” (Heb 6:12), and that with special reference to the promises God made to humanity under the Old Testament.  Jesus, according to the author, was the fulfillment of those promises.  The author seems to have explained the promise-fulfillment dynamic in terms of Platonic copies and forms in order to better communicate his point.  Because his audience was comprised of Jews, it’s important that the promises of the Old Testament be included in his argument.  Because his audience was also culturally Hellenic, it’s important that his argument be articulated in Hellenic (or, more specifically, Platonic) terms.

So while Plato’s philosophy itself does not appear in the letter, his philosophy does serve as a means of understanding what the author does have to say.  The Theory of Forms act like a vehicle, transporting the argument of Jesus and the Old and New Testaments safely from the author’s mind to his audience.


Works cited:

Crombie, I.M.  Plato: The Midwife’s Apprentice.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981.  Print.



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