BMCR 1999.01.10

What Has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint

, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? : Timaeus and Genesis in counterpoint. Jerome lectures ; 21. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. xvi, 139 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780472108077 $27.95.

The name of Jaroslav Pelikan is by no means a new one to the study of early Christian thought. His work in this area alone is prolific, not to mention his work in medieval and modern thought. Volumes one and two of his five volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, completed nearly a decade ago, is standard reading. In a certain sense this slim volume develops a thread he began in his recently published more comprehensive Gifford lectures, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale, 1993). The work under review here is published as the Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures, but, as Pelikan himself notes, some of the material was presented earlier in the Lowell Lectures at Boston University and in the Bradley Lectures at Boston College. This printed version also includes a chapter (chapter 5: New Rome) that was not given in the original Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures, but was delivered a month later in Rome at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society. The work retains the characteristics of those original lectures.

The title of this work might be slightly misconstrued on two counts. Firstly, the obvious quotation from Tertullian, the II/III century Latin Christian writer (I give it here in full) is clearly intended to affirm that there is nothing at all in common between the two: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? ( de Praescriptione, 7)”. Pelikan’s purpose, however, as the subtitle informs us, is rather to demonstrate the manifest influence of classical thinking about the ideas found in Plato’s Timaeus on the development of early Christian thinking about the creation accounts found in the book of Genesis and even to suggest that there was, perhaps, some influence in the reverse direction, i.e., from the Christian to the Classical/pagan. Secondly, again as Tertullian intended it, the contrast is strictly between the pagan philosophical academy and the Christian revelation. Pelikan extends the intended meaning of Tertullian a bit to include the Jewish tradition as well. In fact, the chapter on Alexandria is almost entirely devoted to the thought of the Jewish philosopher Philo, and not at all to its famous Christian thinkers such as Clement, Origen, Didymus the Blind, Athanasius, and Cyril.

Pelikan divides the work, no doubt following the original lectures, into six chapters, each representing on the one hand an exposition of a prominent theme of the Timaeus, and on the other hand a different representative school of thought in the philosophical or Judeo-Christian tradition. These are respectively: I. Classical Rome: “Description of the Universe” ( Timaeus 90E) as Philosophy, in which Pelikan sets out the position of the Roman Epicurean philosophical poet Lucretius on the beginnings of the world. Pelikan deftly introduces here Lucretius, who denies most of the basic principles of both Plato and Moses, as a foil to highlight the numerous convergences of the teleological positions of the Classical and Biblical teachings; II. Athens: Geneseôs Archê as “The Principle of Becoming” ( Timaeus 29D-E) wherein he sets out the principle themes of the text of Timaeus as generally held in the classical world; III. Jerusalem: Genesis as a “Likely Account” ( Timaeus 29D) of One God Almighty Maker, in which he sets out the understanding of the Genesis creation accounts, particularly with regard to their strict monotheism; IV. Alexandria: The God of Genesis as “Maker and Father” ( Timaeus 28C) where he sets out the thought of the Jewish philosopher Philo who, having a foot in both the philosophical world and the biblical world, first brings together the teachings of Plato and Moses; V. New Rome: Christ as “God Made Perceptible to the Senses,” “Only-Begotten God,” and “Image of the God Apprehensible Only to the Mind” ( Timaeus 92 C) in which he sets out the particular contribution of the Cappadocian synthesis on the nature of the God-man, Jesus Christ; and VI. Catholic Rome: The Trinity as “Source, Guide, and Goal” ( Timaeus 27C-42D) where he deals with the Trinitarian syntheses of Augustine and Boethius, which served as the foundation for the later Western Middle Ages.

In these brief lectures, Pelikan puts forth as his primary concern, a sustained correction to the historical misunderstanding of the influence of the Timaeus. As Benjamin Jowett, the great translator of Plato, had already pointed out over a century ago:

The influence which the Timaeus has exercised upon posterity is due partly to a misunderstanding. In the supposed depths of this dialogue the Neo-Platonists found hidden meanings and connexions with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and out of them they elicited doctrines quite at variance with the spirit of Plato. Believing that he was inspired by the Holy Ghost, or had received his wisdom from Moses, they seemed to find in his writings the Christian Trinity, the Word, the Church, the creation of the world in a Jewish sense, as they really found the personality of God or of mind, and the immortality of the soul (cited from Pelikan, p. 24.).

As Pelikan demonstrates, while there was no such Christian teaching on these questions to be found in the Timaeus, as everyone now clearly recognizes, there is nonetheless much vocabulary found in both the Timaeus and in the biblical account of creation that is sufficiently similar to suggest a certain amount of influence on the Christian understanding of the Genesis account from its classical and pagan antecedents. In fact, the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews 11:10 already refers to God as the dêmiourgos”, a prominent appellation in the Timaeus. Pelikan, however, is not so much concerned with a thorough discussion of differences in thought worlds, nor with demonstrations of how, when, or by whom these influences were effected. He is concerned rather with simply setting out the similarities in language, and even similarities in distinctions and thought patterns, that are clearly found in the two discussions of the “how” and the “that” of the creation or coming-to-be of the world. For example, chapter 5 concerns itself with how the Cappadocians utilized the Timaean distinction between being and becoming in their exposition of the theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

The original lecture format, retained in the publication, provides an easily readable text which shows Pelikan at ease among a large number of sources, primary and secondary. Nevertheless this very format, and the brevity of the lectures, does not easily lend itself to any real thoroughness. The result is a rather selective and not always representative picture of the relation between the two worlds of thought. Just to cite one item: this reviewer considered it a noticeable omission that not a single Christian commentator on Genesis is even mentioned; only the Jewish philosopher/commentator Philo receives any such discussion. In the course of his very learned survey of the material, certain unfortunate errors of fact managed to slip by, the most egregious example being Pelikan’s claim that “some Jews and all Christians (emphasis mine)” assert the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (p.12). Such a claim overlooks the problems raised by contradictory statements in such writers as the Christian Platonist Justin Martyr. In fact, Gerhard May, in his Creatio Ex Nihilo, to which Pelikan makes a general appeal for support, took a very clear, strong contrary stance: “it has been asserted that Justin, as a Christian, naturally took it for granted that matter was created by God. But there is no evidence to support this postulate (pp.122-123).” In regard to Justin again, the first Christian who did try to set the two accounts in counterpoint, there is hardly any discussion. This reviewer also finds it curious that while Pelikan devotes an entire chapter to an exposition of the creation account in Genesis, the standard commentaries on Genesis by Westermann, Cassuto, or even von Rad are not included in the bibliography. Finally, there remain in the text a few inadvertent but consistent printing errors in the text: ! ε for ἔ on pp. 34, 47, 49, 83(2x), 92; δ ! for δὲ twice on p. 120; θωσφόρα for φωσφόρα on p. 52; μονσέως for μουσέως on p. 68; and ἦυ for ἦν on p. 92.

Pelikan had, no doubt, little intention in these brief lectures of providing a comprehensive study of the complicated machinations and problems inherent in the study of the influences of classical thought on early Christian thought about the nature of the world; rather, he has done a great service in these lectures by highlighting, with great and broad strokes, the brightest and most essential beacons in that terrain. Thus, the next person to take up the question will have to search far less to undertake his study of a most important issue in the encounter between Christianity and Hellenism.