Monday, October 23, 2006

Mormonism's Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn't influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to "fortune cookies," as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn't participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um...Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo's constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul's discussion of "shadow boxing" and "crowns" in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?

13 comments:

Clark Goble said...

When I took my history of Israel class at BYU they talked a lot about the Hellenization of the Jews during the intertestimal period. Apparently there were actually un-circumcicion "operations" done since Jews wished to participate in the gym and that was done naked. When you stop to think about the operation and likely the tools used that says a lot about influence.

The gym was also a thorn in the side of those who were anti-hellenization since the gym could be seen from the temple.

I think though that the pre-existence of the soul (at least from and LDS perspective) is a non-starter as a parallel. Obviously the "pre-existence" of the soul for Plato and the Greeks wasn't that of a personal identity "in time." Rather it was the immortality of the form of the individual. So this is quite unlike LDS notions of pre-mortal life. Although it is undeniable that Platonic views informed Jewish thought.

Dave said...

Nice post, trashman. It's always nice when a post sprouts follow-ups at other blogs. I'll agree that Mormonism inherited a lot of far-flung ideas because of Joseph's eclecticism. I haven't read deeply enough on Greek religion to speak with any authority on the topic, but I think the extreme Jewish response to the intense Hellenization program of the second century says a lot: They revolted to preserve the independence and exclusivity of the Jewish religion, and did so successfully.

Under the Roman emporers, Christians came under suspicion in much the same way, because they refused (unlike other religious groups in the Empire) to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, and this became a defining test (for both the Romans and for the Christians) of membership in the Christian church. But there was no bar to Greek and Roman philosophical ideas -- modes of thinking -- being adopted by bishops and other leaders.

Those with more background in this area can probably contribute a more detailed discussion, which may very well note some particular practices that were adopted despite Christian antipathy towards Greek and Roman religion.

TrailerTrash said...

Clark,
I think though that the pre-existence of the soul (at least from and LDS perspective) is a non-starter as a parallel. Obviously the "pre-existence" of the soul for Plato and the Greeks wasn't that of a personal identity "in time." Rather it was the immortality of the form of the individual. So this is quite unlike LDS notions of pre-mortal life. Although it is undeniable that Platonic views informed Jewish thought.

I'm not sure that I agree with your characterization of Plato's pre-existence of the soul here. In the Phaedrus at least, Plato speaks of the identity of individual souls before birth who "fall" into bodies as they turn away from the immortal realm. Furthermore, his notion of reincarnation requires a view of individual souls. Epicureans like Lucretius argue that there can be no pre-existence of the soul because we don't remember anything. I think that your characterization here of "Greek" thought represents the Stoic position, but not necessarily the Platonic.

Just out of curiousity, if the parallel for LDS pre-existence doctrine isn't in Greek thought, then where?

TrailerTrash said...

Hey Dave,
Thanks for coming by! I think that the Maccabean rebellion is frequently cited as the locus classicus for the idea that the "Judaism" rejected "Hellenism." However, I think that this is a mistaken view. As I said before, this isn't necessarily the topic of this post, but I wanted to briefly respond. A close look at the Maccabean rebellion shows that what was at issue was the stealing of temple funds by Antiochus and the general disapproval of some of the temple leadership. Antiochus responded to the rebellion by trying to humiliate the rebels by forcing them to eat pork, but this isn't so much a "program" designed to "Hellenize" as it is a stupid retributive reaction to a rebellion.
A closer look at Judaism in the Maccabean period shows that they seemed to accept "Hellenism" just fine. They had Greek names. They wrote a letter to the Spartans claiming that they were long lost relatives. The established political ties with Rome. They followed Greek customs of kingship. Most interestingly, they did not restore the deposed High Priest, but continued to keep the new system of buying one's way. They minted Greek coins. Under thier rule, Jews wrote drama about Jewish stories in Greek verse. Indeed, our sources for this rebellion 1 and 2 Macc are both in Greek. Herod's temple itself follows many Greek customs for the style of temples, including art and pagan imagery. None of this seemed to cause a stir.
As for the gymnasium, this is a more complicated story. The gymnasium was built, but didn't seem to cause a stir until much later when it was seen in retrospect as a bad idea. A gymnasium was never again built in Jerusalem, but there were gymnasia all accross Judea and Herod built several of them. We don't have a single complaint about the gymnasia from any other texts except for 2 Macc, which is strange. The DSS, Daniel, Jubilees, all writen in the wake of the Maccabean rebellion, fail to mention it. Indeed, I already pointed to Philo and Paul using imagery from the gymnasium without blinking.
Basically, what one can determine about ancient Jews is that they had no problem living around Greeks, speaking Greek, writing their scriptures in Greek, performing Greek drama, styling thier temple after Greek art, minting their money in Greek, learning Greek philosophy, etc. The only thing that they objected to were violations of the temple. That is a pretty limited thing.
As for religious practices that the Christians shared with the Greeks, the organization of the church and Christians schools, the sacred meal, speaking in tongues, perhaps baptism, missionary work, etc are all aspects which come from a Greek heritage. They did refuse to sacrifice to other Gods, but again this is a rather limited claim.

I think that it is an overstatement to say that Jews and Christians rejected Hellenism and Rome. More accurately, I would say that Jews and Christians lived in the Roman and Greek world, but preserved thier unique identity by protecting thier temple rituals or refusing to participate in the temple rituals of others.

Kurt said...

but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments

Most of the proof texts are a bit strained, but John 9:2 unambiguously takes pre-existence of the spirit as a matter of fact.

Kevin Barney said...

You might find my essay on preexistence in the Bible of interest here:

http://kevingraham.org/jp3.pdf

TrailerTrash said...

Kevin,
Thanks for posting this essay! It is very useful and I recommend it to our readers. I think, however, that your treatment of the extra-biblical literature is a bit fast-and-loose, so to speak. For example, it is not clear at all that many of those texts the souls of humans are meant rather than the heavenly hosts of beings. Additionally, the readings of certain texts like GThomas and other NHL material seems weak to me. I acknowledge that this is a short essay, but these texts deserve more than one sentence of exegetical work.
As for your overall thesis that the biblical material is neutral, but that the idea of the pre-existence comes from polygenesis, I am not sure that I understand what is at stake in positing an independent origin for this doctrine rather than admitting its Greek antecedents.

TrailerTrash said...

Kurt,
The difficultly with the text you site is of course that Jesus' answer to the question complicates the issue of whether or not he beleives in a pre-existence. As for the reading of the passage, Kevin's paper does a nice job of outlining the options (pp. 17-18).

Kurt said...

I have a tough time with the "they were talking about sinning in the womb" thing. The notion of pre-existence of the spirit is accepted and commonplace in Judaism, the discussion of the guf/gup/guph "Hall of Souls" is in the Talmud, so it isnt some fringe doctrine. Granted, it would probably be difficult to date how far back the tradition went before it ended up in teh Talmud, but it would be equally difficult to trace how far back the "baby sinning in the womb" thing goes as well, and I dont have the AB commentary on John laying around to check its source. I have an easier time reading Jesus' comments in the light of a well-documented, well-known Talmudic tradition than choosing some obscure reading.

TrailerTrash said...

Kurt,
Two quick comments. As I mentioned, even if you are right that the question presupposes premortal existence, Jesus's answer can be read to go against this teaching.
Additionally, even if it can be shown to be a teaching that was "commonplace" in Judaism, this still doesn't contradict my suggestion that its roots are in Hellenism.

Jared E. said...

Kevin,
I enjoyed the article you wrote, but I have one complaint. Whenever referencing Mormon writers, you never identify them. I can only think of one reason for this: these Mormon writers are general authorities and you don't want to directly criticize them... Is that right? Would you mind filling in the blanks as to who these 'writers' were?

Clark Goble said...

Furthermore, his notion of reincarnation requires a view of individual souls.

The issue is what is a soul for Plato and what does its immorality mean? Soul for Plato is radically different from what a soul for a Mormon is. Further our notion of pre-existence is a temporal one whereas for Plato it's a kind of timeless existence more akin to universals like mathematical objects. (Although clearly for the neoPlatonists there's a difference between Ideals or Intellectuation and Soul/Spirit)

TrailerTrash said...

Clark,
I think that these issues are less settled in Plato than you are arguing, partially because he seems to take different positions on the soul in different texts as he is responding to different problems. The text that I am working from is mostly the Phaedrus in his analogy of the soul to a charioteer and two horses. In any case, I agree that Mormon pre-mortal existence is not precisely the same, but not because it is in "time" (since any account of the "fall" of the soul must be in time), but because there is a different account of how souls came to inhabit bodies.

How are you conceiving of the Platonic soul and where do you see the differences with the Mormon soul?