The more I study the origins of Christian theology in its Jewish roots, the less I become convinced that either side of the argument is entirely correct. One the one hand, it is hard to deny the development of Christian theology in Greek philosophical categories, but on the other hand an idea of “pure” Hebraic thought—which is exclusive of all of the supposedly “Greek” categories—is hard to defend as well. Recently, I have been reading Clement of Alexandria, who makes the seemingly absurd claim that the Greeks “stole” many ideas from the Hebrews. I have rarely seen scholars take this claim seriously, but I know of at least one—Margaret Barker—who gives reasons to suspect that the early Christian apologists were not necessarily fudging.
In her book, The great high priest: the temple roots of Christian liturgy, Barker examines priestly traditions which are concerned with an archetypal temple in heaven, of which the earthly temple is a copy. The idea of earthly copies of heavenly realities are usually ascribed to Plato (or Platonic thought), but Barker makes a good case that such ideas were present long before Plato ever live. She makes the following claim (a version of this essay can be found here):
If we adopt the widely accepted exilic dating of Isaiah 40, the sanctuary traditions which I have been reconstructing have implications which reach beyond Old Testament study. The early apologists, both Jewish and Christian, maintained that Plato learned from Moses, that he was Moses speaking Attic Greek. The most notable of these was Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in his work The Preparation of the Gospel, argued the case in great detail and listed all those who had held such views before him. Eusebius and the other apologists were probably correct.
My reconstruction suggests that the priests of the first temple knew an invisible, heavenly world on which the tabernacle or temple had been modelled; that they spoke of forms: the form of a man and the form of a throne; that they described the heavens as an embroidered curtain; that they knew the distinction between time, outside the veil, and eternity within it. They knew that time was the moving image of eternity. They knew of angels, the sons of God begotten on Day One, as Job suggests. They concerned themselves with the mathematics of the creation, the weights and the measures. They believed that the creation was bonded together by a great oath or covenant. They believed that the stars were divine beings, angels, and they described a creator whose work was completed not by motion but by Sabbath rest. What I have reconstructed as the secret tradition of the world beyond the temple veil would, in any other context be identified as Plato’s Timaeus, written in the middle of the fourth century BCE.
Barker also thinks that Philo’s two-phase creation (the idea that God first created forms/archetypes of creation, and then did the act of actually creating material realities. See “On the Creation of the World,” VII. (26) found here) was likely more in fidelity to Jewish priestly thought than to Plato:
This description of the two creations, the invisible creation which was the pattern for the visible is usually said to be Philo retelling the Genesis account in terms derived from Plato, but this I doubt. Philo was from a priestly family, and it is not impossible that he was giving the traditional explanation of the creation stories which owed nothing to Plato.
These are all facets of the forms and their copies: the language of the visionaries, the undoubtedly ancient belief in a heavenly archetype of the temple, and the parable/proverb. In another context, for example the writings of Philo, this would be identified with some confidence as the influence of Plato’s forms and their copies, but the age of the material in the Old Testament excludes that possibility. Since Philo was of a priestly family, perhaps his treatment of the creation stories, the creation of the invisible world beyond the veil of the temple and then the visible world as its copy, is not an example of the Platonising of Hellenistic Judaism but rather a glimpse of the ancient priestly world view even at the end of the second temple period.
It seems that even if Barker’s support of the claims of Clement (that Plato “stole” from Moses) are far-fetched, we have to take some of these priestly writings as another source that influenced Alexandrian theology, as well as some scriptural support for the idea of forms/archetypes of earthly things in heaven. What we have then is at least a complication of any accusations that early Christian apologists were importing alien categories into their theology (of course, to the detriment of theology, as the story goes).
Let me close with two things. First, I am not writing this because I have a fetish for Platonism, or am excited about eternal forms (though I might find other “Greek” ideas to be very interesting). Rather, I think more investigation needs to be done in order to parse out the ways in which “church Fathers” are faithful to the Christian scriptures, and see where they are innovative. Second, I am wondering if anyone else is familiar with other scholars making claims like Barker’s.