Monday, October 06, 2008

Plato, Paul, & Philo

In his essay on “The Spiritual Body of Christ,” Richard Carrier tries to argue that Paul shared a Philonic view of the afterlife. On his construction, Paul viewed the afterlife as an essentially ethereal state, thereby rejecting a corporeal resurrection. But there are several problems with this claim:

i) The Bible distinguishes between the intermediate state, which is incorporeal, and the final state, which is corporeal. So we need to be clear on which stage of the afterlife a Bible writer is talking about.

ii) Paul was not a Philonic Platonist. Paul studied in Jerusalem, not Alexandria. Even the author of Hebrews, whose letter has an Alexandrian cast to it, has a very different eschatology than Philo does.

iii) Carrier tries to bolster his case by making a similar claim for Josephus. But, as many scholars have recognized, Josephus, in writing for a Roman audience, uses Greco-Roman philosophical categories to express himself.

iv) Finally, even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Paul was influenced by Philo, that doesn’t mean that Paul adopted his view of the afterlife without further modification. Philosophy isn’t a static discipline. It undergoes internal development. For example, Philo already represents a major modification of Plato:

“Here we have a summary of an important argument developed logically through a series of questions. It begins with the premise that the body is the house of the immortal soul. Philo argues that, if this is so, the house must not fall into a state of disrepair. The body was not to be despised but cared for. This represents a first-century adjustment to Plato’s view that the body was the ‘prison house of the soul.’ Second, the senses are declared to be ‘body-guards and courtiers’ (δορυφοροι και φιλοι) of the immortal soul and therefore are our ‘allies and friends,’ not enemies from whom one must escape, or against whom one must fight. Third, Nature, thought to determine custom in the first century, is here said to have given us our senses for ‘pleasures and enjoyments and the delights’ of life,” B. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Eerdmans 2001), 78.

So even a Jewish Platonist like Philo held a very high view of the body. He valued corporeal existence. He valued the senses. He valued physical enjoyment.

In that case, it’s easy to range Paul along the other end of a trajectory. At one end is Plato. He has a low view of the body (although he made an exception for pederasty!). He affirmed the immortality of the soul.

Philo occupies an intermediate position. He, too, affirms the immorality in the soul—in contrast to the resurrection of the body. But, unlike Plato, he has a high view of the body.

The logical outcome of this internal trend would be to affirm both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.

Carrier is giving us a very one-sided view of Philo’s full-fledged position. That, in turn, skews his interpretation of Paul.


  1. Steve,

    Carrier is currently in a debate concerning the resurrection body. I thought Carrier did not believe that Paul believed in a resurrection body, but in this debate he is positing a "second body". I must admit it left me scratching my head. Maybe I have just misread him in the past.

  2. But he defines the "second body" in ethereal terms. Of course, that's rather opaque, but he doesn't think it has to make sense.