Monday, 30 August 2010


In his book Christian Antioch – A Study of Early Christian Thought in the East (Cambridge University Press 1982) D . S. Wallace-Hadrill explains how the Christians during the first couple of centuries after the death of the apostles of Christ came under the influence of pagan Greek philosophy.

Some of the Christians in the second century were philosophers before their conversion, others were people who followed the intellectual fashion of the day or apologists who believed they could convert the pagans by using their discourse.

Interestingly the approach of the Christian writers of Antioch was very pragmatic and objective. They interpreted the Bible according to the grammar of the text and what they knew about the historical background of the narrative. If one should pick a Greek philosopher whose method was closest to that of the Antiochenes, it would be Aristotle. But there was hardly any direct connection. The interest in the works of Aristotle in the Eastern Church started long time after Antioch lost its theological importance.

The philosophical discourse at that time was strongly influenced by the idealism of Plato. It was a sort of paradigm that made people accept unstated assertions without being aware it. As Wallace-Hadrill writes (page 97): “In the cultural millieu that was predominantly Platonist, a Christian could of course be open to Platonist influence without being aware of it, and it could find a place in his unexpressed assumptions.”

One may for example wonder how Christians – especially in Antioch – started to believe in the immortality of the human soul. In the Hebrew Bible, that was regarded as an authority by Antiochenes as the bishop Theophilus, the word נפשׁ (nefesh) translated psyche (ψυχη: soul) in Greek meant the material living person. This is also how the word is used in the New Testament (as in Pauls first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 where he contrasts the psychical with the spiritual using ‘psychical’ synonymous with ‘material’).

Wallace-Hadrill continues (pages 99 & 100): “The fragments that remain of the proceedings at the trial of of Paul of Samosata in 268 [in Antioch] are sufficient to show that the Antiochene judges maintained a generally Platonist view of the relation of soul to body. The ontological separation of soul and body is expressed in fragment 16, in which man is described as being composed of flesh and of ‘somebody’ within – the ‘interior man’ of fragment 30. The soul-complex is the real person in a fleshly covering.”

This totally Platonist understanding of the nature of man would have surprised both the writers of the Old Testament and the Christians of the first century. But it illustrates how easily we are influenced by the ideological air we breathe.

Today the ideological paradigm of the Western World is not Platonism but rather humanism and individualism. And often people who call themselves Christians advance humanistic ideas honestly believing that they represent New Testament teachings.

Here in Antakya the same thing is observed among modern people calling themselves Muslims. They try to explain, justify and even rationalise their beliefs by means of western philosophy and science.

The important thing is that your ideas are in fashion