Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 6: Plato in the Pentateuch?

By December 12, 2016

You can’t read a text by either an early Christian or early modern Platonist without being hit by a barrage of claims that Plato got most of his ideas from reading the Hebrew scriptures. Says Margaret Barker, “The similarity between much of Plato and the Hebrew tradition is too great for coincidence.”[1]  Barker attempts to prove that Plato’s ideas did come from the Jews, but does so with little evidence.[2]

In his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, Russell Gmirkin considers “the possibility that both the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Bible as a whole drew on the writings of Plato found at the Great Library at Alexandria.” Gmirkin bases this argument on the assertion that ?the Pentateuch?s law collections despite containing a few laws of Ancient New Eastern origin, are in large part based on Athenian law and on Plato’s Laws, and that the Hebrew Bible as a literary collection was based on instructions found in Plato’s Laws for creating a national literature.”[3]  Such an argument builds on Gmirkin’s previous work that argued that similarities to other texts suggested that the Pentateuch was written at the time the of the reported translation of the Septuagint (c. 270 BC.)[4]  

Controversial stuff, no doubt, but for my purposes I can’t help wondering about the implications of this thesis for Christianity.  In his Laws, Plato says that since implementing the system described in the Republic isn’t practical (he wonders if such a system only exists in heaven), it’s best to describe the “second-best state” (Laws 739e). That is, the Laws is the lower law, and the Christians’ attempt to implement one of the key features of the Republic shortly after Jesus’s death and resurrection (all things in common) blends well with the notion of Christianity being the higher law to the law of Moses.

Early Christian Platonist Clement of Alexandria (who had lots of Mormon-sounding ideas) said: “Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring ?the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ.?”[5]  Perhaps the two overlapped.


[1] Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T and T Clark, 2003,) 263.

[2] Barker uses a statement in Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras that Pythagoras conversed with Phoenicians and was initiated into mysteries in Syria.  She then uses Herodotus’s statement that Syrians in Palestine practiced circumcision to argue that the Syrians that Pythagoras met were really Jews and therefore he was really initiated into the Hebrew temple.  This all seems rather tenuous especially since Iamblichus wrote his work c. 300 AD, or about 900 years after Pythagoras lived. Barker, “Temple and Timaeus” in The Great High Priest, 262-93.

[3] Russell E. Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (New York: Routledge, 2017), 1.

[4] Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (London: T&T Clark, 2006). Gmirkin argues that “The first reliable evidence for the composition of the Pentateuch is the Septuagint translation at Alexandria ca 270 BCE.” Plato and the Creation, 4.

[5] Clement, Stromata, 2.5.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Interesting series on Plato and Christianity. Thanks.

    I never thought of using borage this way: ?hit by a borage of claims?

    Borage (/?b?r?d?/,[1] Borago officinalis), also known as a starflower, is an annual herb in the flowering plant family Boraginaceae. It is native to the Mediterranean region?

    1 : artillery fire laid on a line close to friendly troops to screen and protect them
    2 : a vigorous or rapid outpouring or projection of many things at once

    Comment by I used to read Plato... — December 13, 2016 @ 6:26 am

  2. Thanks, fixed.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 13, 2016 @ 7:09 am

  3. Color me extremely skeptical. I can’t help but notice he comes out of the minimalist school, so this would be par for the course. That’s not an argument, of course.

    Comment by Ben S — December 13, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

  4. Skepticism is expected, but I’d be curious to know more.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 13, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

  5. I find the idea that when the canon was compiled there was already influence from Hellenizers. That seems a fairly likely situation just given the dates and the nature of the diaspora. Not to mention that so many pseudopigrapha shows even more Hellenistic influence.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 11:03 am

  6. I don’t have much expertise on these issues but apparently the a number of “minimalists” push of these writings coming from the Hellenistic period. I’d just propose that contra Van Harnock (who I think coined the term) Hellenization may be a good not a bad thing.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

  7. My Tishby is unfortunately packed away but I believe he makes some arguments (against Scholem and the traditional view) against the traditional ordering of Hellenstic influence on Judaism. i.e. not just in Kabbalism and Merkabah mysticism but even argues the gnostics got the ideas from the Jews not the Greeks.

    As interesting as that is my inclination is to think the traditional influence is far more likely. On the other hand Mormons have perhaps ulterior reasons to hope such things are much older than though. That would allow the very Merkabah aspects of passages like Mosiah 15 to be explained as pre-exilic.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

  8. I’m only aware of some of the scholarship, but arguing against Greek influence on many of those movements seems really problematic (I know those arguments get made). Cultures and ideas get mixed together; it’s impossible to stop it, and Alexander conquered the Jews in 332 BC. That then started a big debate among philosophers and peoples in the region (beginning with the Stoics) over whose ideas came first and the Jews were involved also. See G. R. Boyes-Stones, Post-Hellenic Philosophy (Oxford, 2001).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

  9. I’m not sure it’s arguing against Greek influence, which given the history of Greek dominance and Jewish embrace to the point of sometimes trying to reverse circumcision seems difficult to accept. Rather I think it’s making an argument for the preponderance of origin. But even there I confess as yet I find the argument unpersuasive even if I suspect the real history is more complex than we now have it. Oh for some major pre-exilic scriptural finds.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 7:32 pm

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