Plato and Christianity
Who Was Imitating Whom?
Given the kind of Pagan religious world with its centuries of tradition into which early Christianity descended, it is hardly surprising that intellectuals who had gone through various stages of initiation into Pagan religions, saw Christianity not only as a copy of their ancient religion but a poor one at that.
It must have been painful for early Christians to have to face the derision that their ‘new’ religion faced at the hands of their devout pagan brothers and sisters who regarded it as a poor counterfeit.
The Christian response that Paganism was created by the devil to discredit Jesus would hardly convince an intelligent person, whether Pagan or Christian.
The verbal battle raged interminably on. At the end of the fourth century Ambrose (339 – 397 AD, Bishop of Milan was writing a treatise to refute the accusation that Christians borrowed their ideas from Plato 429 – 348, an initiate and ardent supporter of Pagan initiation.
His argument was that Plato got his ideas from Moses. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) started out as a Gnostic, converted to the literalist version of Christianity and ended up as Bishop of Hippo. He accused Plato of getting his ideas from the prophet Jeremiah.
Eventually the Christians went so far as to claim the entire pagan tradition as originating in them selves through their beginnings in Judaism.
A four hundred year old verbal battle to explain the similarities between Christianity and Paganism begs the question, “Why was it necessary? Were they so similar? Let’s see.
There is abundant evidence from all around the Mediterranean that entry into a pagan mystery religion by initiation presupposed and required a desire to achieve personal perfection.
Initiation was not a once in a life time experience. Initiates went back again and again to refresh their motivation by participating in the ceremonies which so engaged their emotions, intellects, imaginations and senses.
Christians too were taught by Jesus to strive for purity not just in deeds but even in thoughts. Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215AD) wrote, “Purity is to think only holy Thoughts. The inscription over the shrine of the pagan man/god Asclepius read, “Purity is thinking only holy thoughts.” The sole difference is that the latter preceded the former by six centuries.
The notion that humans had an internal moral compass called s conscience originated with the Stoic philosophers who were followers of Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC). The word ‘conscience’ meant knowledge or acting with knowledge.
Following one’s conscience meant listening to the small voice within us which had knowledge of the good, that small spark of the divine left over form our previous life. Initiation helped to strengthen that voice.
Public confession of one’s moral failures and misdeeds was an integral part of the initiation ceremony. This was not a token confession: “I confess that I have done evil things which I now regret.” Oh no! Nero turned back from becoming an initiate when he realised that he would have to make a public confession of having murdered his mother.
Moral purity, striving for personal perfection, following one’s conscience, confessing one’s sins not in private to a priest but to the community of worshippers: all these were inherited by Christians from pagan mystery religions.
Yet those who became the leaders of what we now call Christianity labelled pagans and their religions ‘degenerate’ why? That’s a question which we shall be answering as we progress through the history of early Christianity but for now, you be the judge
When my agnostic physiatrist friend Jack Blackburn first said to me, “Jesus was a revolutionary,” I was quite surprised, because I had never thought of Him that way. But if you think of the Old Testament god, the God of the Jews, you understand why.
The Old Testament God was a tribal god of justice, punishment. and revenge. He wiped out Sodom and Gomorra for their sins. He favoured only one race out of His entire creation. He gave Palestine to them.
Do we imagine that that was a friendly invasion: Do please come in. You can’t go on for ever wandering around like that in the desert. 40,000 people turning up on your border cannot possibly have been a friendly experience for the Palestinians.
Before the Mystery religions which go back more than 2,500 years, early forms of religion focussed on things like placating the gods so that the crops would grow, providing a good harvest and avoiding storms which would destroy houses and crops together.
State sponsored religion aimed at creating social cohesion making the state’s task of keeping control easier by sharing the same beliefs and worshipping the same gods. Refusal to worship the state’s gods could be interpreted as treason leading to death.
Into this religious milieu the Mystery religions came teaching that we should love our gods not fear them. They were our friends not our enemies. We should try to be like them by strengthening our ethical compass, our conscience, so that doing and thinking only good things became our daily goal.
Thus the pagan initiate learned to love god, love the neighbour, love the enemy, do good to the enemy and even love animals. St Francis (1182 – 1226) is the best known animal lover in the Christian tradition.
After a lifetime spent like this, the pagan initiate faced death with equanimity believing that he/she had re-ignited their spark of the divine enabling them to return to their lost paradise to live again with the gods.
You can imagine their frustration when they heard followers of the Jew Jesus or Joshua claiming that they were the originators of all these ethical teachings when the pagans had been developing, teaching and practising them for millennia.
Now read pp 77 – 84 of
The Jesus Mysteries By
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy