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4. Recent Research on Early Christian Appropriation of Platonism
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Platonist metaphysics for the development of
Christian thought. The reasons why Christians turned their attention to Platonism are not difficult to
fathom. “Since Plato there has been no theology which has not stood in his shadow. For many
centuries Platonism was simply the way in which god was thought of and spoken about, in the West
as in the Islamic East.”163 It is, of course, no secret that Christian dogmatic theology adopted a
generous number of its concepts from Platonist philosophy; by the time of the Cappadocian fathers,
it was customary to talk about divine matters in Platonist terms.
It is, however, much more difficult to track the Platonist influence during the formative
centuries of Christianity. Although the term “Christian Platonism” is usually applied to the two
Alexandrians, Clement and Origen,164 it is clear that Clement was not the first Christian intellectual
who was familiar with and appropriated certain ideas from the Platonist tradition. As Henry Chadwick
put it, “The way had been mapped out in advance by the second-century apologists, above all by
Justin Martyr, who is certainly the greatest of them besides being the most voluminous.”165 Justin
himself tells us that before his turn to Christianity he “took delight in the teachings of Plato” (2 Apol.
12.1; trans. D. Minns and P. Parvis; cf. Dial. 2.6). Furthermore, as Runar M. Thorsteinsson has
convincingly demonstrated, “in essence Justin remained a Platonist after his turn to Christianity,”166
so that Middle Platonism continued to serve as “his primary philosophical-theological frame of
It is worth noting, however, that apart from those early Christian thinkers for whom Platonism
constituted their main “philosophical-theological frame of reference,” there are various early
Christian texts that exhibit Platonizing tendencies. These texts would not qualify as “Platonist,” for
Platonist ideas are just one of many diverse elements that constitute the fabric of these texts, yet if we
appreciate the fact that these texts occasionally draw on Platonist ideas, images, and terms, we might
gain better insight thereto.
In the last decades, the academic community has gradually come to realize that research into
the Platonizing tendencies of early Christian texts may shed new light both on their meaning and their
historical context. This increasing scholarly attention paid to the interaction between early
Christianity and Platonism provides the research context for the present study on the impact of
Platonist tradition on Thomas. It seems reasonable, therefore, to offer a short survey of the work that
has been done along this avenue.
I have chosen studies that focus on two texts in particular: the monologue on sin, death, and the
law in Rom 7:7–25 and the Prologue of John. I must point out that interpretations of Rom 7 and the
Johannine Prologue are matters of heated scholarly debate; while I am personally convinced by the
arguments for the Platonist influence of these texts, I admit that some of the New Testament scholars
might entertain suspicions regarding these hypotheses. It must be emphasized that the observations
on Rom and John presented below have no direct bearing on my conclusions regarding the
Burkert 1985, 321.
See, e.g., Dillon 1996, 396 and 420–1.
Chadwick 1966, 9; cf. Chadwick 1970, 160: “The first serious beginnings of Christian philosophy appear in Justin
Martyr in the middle years of the second century.”
Thorsteinsson 2012, 509.
Thorsteinsson 2012, 516.