In my last essay I suggested that the Gospel of John described what appeared to be an abstract transcendent spiritual reality1 to which the author of John referred with the phrase "the Spirit of Truth."2 If "Truth" in this phrase is an abstract principle, it is an idea that the author shared with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It would not be unusual that the author of John was influenced by Platonic thought because Platonism is described as "the single greatest outside intellectual influence on Christianity in its formative stages."3
Basic to Platonic thought is Plato's theory of Forms (or Ideas, or Ideals). This theory argues that virtues or concepts that we know, such as love, truth, beauty, or goodness are only shadows of an archetype (original pattern) existing in an invisible transcendent world. Our ability to recognize that something in our physical world resembles the archetype is due to "an innate recollection of knowledge of the divine Forms acquired by the immortal soul before it 'fell' from its celestial origin toward the world of sensible delights and became incarnated into a physical body."4 Hence, the concept "truth" in our visible world of change is merely a shadow that mimics the archetype, which is an eternal abstract Truth.5
According to the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,6 the truth or falsity of a representation in our visible world is determined by how our representations relate to the things we are describing— that is, by whether or not it is an accurate description.7
The Gospel of John may share Plato's idea of an abstract metaphysical Truth in how it describes Truth.8 In John Truth is integral to the invisible world of the divine Father and is associated with the divine Father in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Isa 65:16; John 1:14, 3:33, 4:23-24, 8:26, 14:16-17, 17:17; 2 John 3; Rom 3:7), as is love (1 John 2:15; 3:1; 4:7-8; 4:16 ) and light (1 John 1:5). Truth "proceeds from" the Father, who is Spirit (John 4:24), by means of Spirit, which John terms the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26). In other words both Truth and the Spirit of Truth are native to the invisible world and are not indigenous to the visible world that we know (John 14:16-17). The Spirit (i.e., of Truth), who comes from the divine Father, knows complete Truth (John 16:13, 14:26), rather than the partial mundane truths we know in the visible world of change where truths change over time and with each individual.9
The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) reflect no knowledge of a transcendent Truth or even a Spirit of Truth. They do describe a metaphysical/supernatural Spirit associated with the divine world (e.g., Mark 1:10, 3:29; Matt 3:16, 10:20; Luke 10:21, 11:13), but they do not describe this Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Father as the Spirit of Truth, a designation that is only found in Johnnine literature. In the synoptic gospels "truth (alētheia)" is used only in prepositional phrases (e.g. "in truth," Matt 22:16) having a meaning of something like "of a truth" or "truly" (Matt 22:16; Mark 12:14, 12:32; Luke 4:25, 20:21, 22:59). It appears once in Mark as a noun (5:33) to describe a woman telling her "whole truth." Does it matter that the synoptic gospels reflect no knowledge of what appears to be an abstract Truth or its Spirit that proceeds from the Father? Does it matter that the author of John's Gospel may well have been influenced by Platonic thinking? How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1"Truth" in the phrase "the Spirit of Truth" is the abstract principle by which all specific instances of supposed truth are to be measured.
2Hedrick, "Truth is an Idea," Wry Thoughts about Religion, Jan 31, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2020/01/truth-is-idea.html
3John M. Dillon, "Platonism" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:381.
4John Turner, "Plato, Platonism" in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible 4:546.
8Hedrick, "Truth is an Idea."
9A later writer claimed that his community shared the knowledge of the Spirit of Truth that comes from the Father. This writer claimed to sort out truth from error on the basis of those who disagreed with the writer's ideas (1 John 4:6); those who disagreed do not know the Spirit of Truth.
Thanks for making much clearer some of the ideological differences between the Synoptics and John, and reminding us of John's probable grounding in Greek philosophy.
I would propose that the Platonic theories are just that, unprovable interpretations of how the world works which the author of the theory finds personally, emotionally, and intellectually satisfying and rewarding. Such a one no doubt would enjoy the company of those who share a similar experience. Others, no doubt, will find this way of looking at life much less satisfying. This is the reality of life whether one is a white supremacist or an advocate for the equality of all. The source of resolution is not a deeper dive into one's own unprovable abstractions, but dialogue and a deeper dive into the other's humanity.
A Platonic influence in John does not surprise me. One also finds Platonism in the writings of Philo. Plato was probably among the models copied by many who learned to write and read Greek.
Likewise, it doesn’t surprise me that “truth” as an abstraction is not a focus of the synoptic gospels. The objectives in each were different, their audiences were different and their education was probably different, as one finds in other writings of the Christianities that were being spread.
“Now, the mysteries of truth are manifestly representations [or symbols] and images” wrote the author of The Gospel According to Philip (105) in the allegory of the Temple. I ran across that when I was looking at Valentinian writings, thought it interesting.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Evening Charlie,
"According to the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,6 the truth or falsity of a representation in our visible world is determined by how our representations relate to the things we are describing— that is, by whether or not it is an accurate description."
1) Deciding whether or not our representations are an accurate description- how do you personally decide if an abstract concept is accurate or not?
2) Is there an argument to be made that there are "objective" transcendent truths? In your opinion?
3) While the synoptics do not mention "Spirit of Truth," they do use the article "the" in relation to God's spirit... "The" spirit of God... "The" holy spirit.... Isn't that insinuating a separate personhood as if God's spirit is a separate entity?
4) Do you think the book of John is the only gospel written under the influence of Philo and Plato? Is there any evidence to suggest their influence upon the synoptic gospels as well?
Interesting and thought provoking as always! Thank you! Elizabeth
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
1. I look it up in a dictionary.
2. I do not know how to go about verifying transcendent truths. It is similar to verifying God.
3.Yes. And that is where the problem with the Christian Trinity emerges. How can there be only one God if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all Divine "separate personhoods."
4. Offhand I do not know of any such influence. But, like Dennis, I would not be surprised if there were.
Hi Charlie and Elizabeth,
Regarding #3:"the Spirit," "the Trinity," etc.
Once again I make a distinction between "rational truth" and "emotional truth," and, in this case, also "behavioral truth."
1. Those who keep the three "substances" approach to the trinity in the fourth century where it belongs seem most likely to be impressed by a satisfying emotional truth of deity as "mystery."
2. One might also take a "behavioral truth" approach. In this theory the Trinity represents three behaviors from the same point of origin, just as any one of us could be creator, redeemer, counselor.
Your #2 would involve one God acting in three different ways and that is not a traditional Trinitarian formula. And another objection is the following. Jesus is not God but an entirely different personage in the mind of the writers of the gospels. were it Otherwise, why would they represent Jesus praying to God in their texts? In other words for your #2 to work one must first make a Christian confession.
There is what to me seems to be a prototype of it in “The Gospel of Truth,” 24. Marcellus of Aneyra in the fourth century, also mentioned that Valentinus “...was the first to devise the notion of three subsistent entities, in a work that he entitled, ‘On the Three Natures.’ For he devised the notion of three subsistent entities and three persons – father, son and, holy spirit” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, p. 232-3). “The Gospel of Truth” gives a metaphor of the body of the father, with the bosom of the father being the holy spirit, which reveals the son, “out of the father’s bowels,” so that the entirety will learn to know him. If the aforementioned is an early formulation, it was a metaphor that went awry, was literalized. It is somewhat ironic, however, that this metaphor probably originated with a literal reading of John 1.18. (One might also find Book 1.2 of Irenaeus instructive on his understanding of Valentinians. He gives a “cosmological report.”)
It wasn’t that simply, though. That was one Roman teacher’s view. A different metaphor was found in Ignatius, associated with Antioch. (Those writings have been challenged since at least the 19th century for date and authorship.) In “To the Ephesians” 9, he sees a “temple of the father, with the congregants the stones of the temple who are carried to the top by the engine of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, the holy spirit being used as the rope to carry one. (In his metaphor he also includes faith as a “hoisting machine” or “windlass” and love being the road (hodos).
Chapter ten of “Athenagorus’ Plea” (he was said to be from Athens, naturally,) shows more development of the idea and a bit less metaphor and chapter two of Tertullian’s “Against Praxeus” (he was from Carthage) is quite a bit like the orthodox trinitarian nonsense, so one can see to a limited extent how the thought developed over the second century in different “venues.” These four were from different parts of the “world,” Africa, Syria, Greece and Rome, each with their own ideas of the relationship of the three concepts. It seems to me that when metaphor is interpreted literally, it often becomes caricature. That is the “ousia” of the Trinity, as I see it.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I wasn't referring to the life of Jesus, but I was, I guess off-topic, speaking from the point of view of Christian confession, and how such a person might handle the conundrum of the Trinity. In the early 70's I gave a sermon which suggested a behavioral approach to the Trinity. One parishioner told me that it changed her life, that being the first and last time that someone one has told me that I changed his/her life (smile)!
A nice survey Dennis that reminds us that "Christian" thought was much more diverse in the early period, but following the diversity between John and the Synoptics, it was Christian nonetheless
Thanks, Charlie. I looked further into the textual history of John 1.18 (mentioned above) and realized that one word found in p66, p75 and second, third century writers but not used in the translation I was looking, changed the whole verse. I don't now see it as ironic.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
What was the one word that is different?
It is theos versus huios.
John 1:18 NRSV: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart [footnote – GK bosom], who has made him known.” (It seems the dependent phrase of the second sentence in Greek would be literally“the one in the lap of the father...”)
Variant: “a unique (or only) God” (monogenēs theos) instead of “the only son” (ho monogenēs huios). It also links to 1.14 and, to that, 1.1.
I can see that as a springboard for this in The Gospel of Truth (from 24): “And the father uncovers his bosom – now, his bosom is the holy spirit and reveals his secret – his secret is his son, so that out of the father’s bowels the entirety might learn to know him...”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Gene, I can relate to your behavioral truth illustration. When I attended a charismatic church, they taught us the seven names of Jehovah: Jehovah Jireh (God my Provider), Jehovah Shalom (God of Peace), Jehovah Shekinah (God of Glory), Jehovah Tsidkenu, Jehovah El Shaddai, etc... There were other names of Jehovah that I can't remember off the top of my head. It did change my life in the sense that it made God seem more accessible to me and not some distant ethereal figure in the sky... Which is what your behavioral approach provided the young lady you mentioned. Protestant Christianity emphasizes a personal relationship with God and Jesus- but I'm not sure about the Holy Spirit. Are we supposed to have a personal relationship with the HS? That was confusing to me. It was insane to be told that God is One Being and Three Persons..... What??? But I looked around at everyone nodding their heads like it made sense to them, so I shrugged my shoulders and went along with it. As I did everything else. (Always loved the simplistic childrens book that compared God to an apple- like that explains the complexity of the Trinity: You have the apple peel, the flesh, and the core... Three in One! Oh, ok. That ties it all up with a neat little bow.)
Charlie, do you think the "Paraclete" mentioned in John 14:26 is the same as the Spirit of Truth? Some versions call it the Advocate. Do you think they call it the Advocate in order to counter the "Adversary" which is Satan? It seems that way to me. But I don't know where Paraclete comes from... I don't believe any other NT writer refers to Paraclete other than John.
One more question- do scholars generally agree that Peter is the author of First and Second Peter? If not, who do they think wrote those books?
Many thanks!! Elizabeth
PS: I saw my first daffodil yesterday, that was a welcome sign of spring.
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I am sorry to be so long in getting to your two questions.
1. I have no idea. The Paraclete is only mentioned in Johnnine literature (see 1 John 2:1 where Jesus is designated as Paraclete) and the text of John specifically identifies the Spirit of Truth and the Paraclete as the same figure in John 14:16-17 and 15:26. In John 14:26 the Paraclete is identified as the Holy Spirit. Presumably readers are to think of them as the same figure.
2.In critical scholarship all texts are generally regarded as pseudonymous except for the undisputed letters of Paul.
Thank you Charlie, just one more follow up question with regard to the pseudonymous texts... Do you personally have an educated opinion with regard to who the author of Peter could possibly be? (I should say authors, plural) Or have you not really looked that closely into it? I did not know that Paul is the only author that scholars don't dispute. It makes me wonder who wrote the other books, including Revelation.
It makes sense, though, about First and Second Peter. I never thought of it before- but why would Peter write anything in koine Greek? Or quote from the Septuagint which was all the way in Alexandria? Ludicrous. Once again, that's what happens when one swallows whole-cloth the propaganda spewed by mainstream pastors and preachers. Elizabeth
I do not have a theory on the authors of first (dated 57-96) or second (dated second century) Peter. But I have never thought about it because of the problems of dating the texts. If they cannot be dated more specifically it would almost make questions of authorship speculation.
What about Peter writing in Greek? Some apologists say that he had to learn Greek because he lived in Rome for a while. Do you think there's any possibility that he could read or write in Greek? Thank you again Charlie! Elizabeth
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