1431) Socrates, Jesus, and Paul

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All of the wisdom of this world is but a tiny raft upon which we must set said when we leave this earth.  If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to sail—perhaps some divine word.  –Socrates

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     This thought is from Socrates’ last conversation with his friends before his death at the age of 70 in 399 B. C. in Athens, Greece.  He had been sentenced to death by the authorities for raising questions about their understanding of justice and goodness, and, for corrupting the youth of the city.  He was to be executed by drinking a cup of the poison hemlock.  At the end of this conversation, Socrates drank the poison and died in the presence of his friends.

     Plato records this conversation in Phaedo, one of many dialogues written by Plato.  These are not precise verbatim accounts of actual conversations, but the literary device Plato used to teach his philosophy.  Plato was the most famous student of Socrates, and since Socrates left no writings, most of what is known about Socrates we know through Plato.  The above quote is a summary of a longer quote from Phaedo, where Plato puts it into the words of Simmias of Thebes as they discuss the nature of the afterlife:

I think it is very difficult to acquire clear knowledge about these matters in this life.  And yet, he is a weakling who does not test in every way what is said about the afterlife, and persevere until he is worn out by studying it on every side.  For he must do one of two things; either he must discover the truth about these matters, or if that is impossible, he must take whatever human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking upon it as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers– UNLESS he can sail upon some stronger vessel, some divine revelation, and make his voyage more safely and securely.

      In the short and the long version there is a longing for a more secure word.  “If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to said, perhaps some divine word,” as it says in the briefer version.  All worldly knowledge put together is but a tiny raft—if only we could sail into the afterlife upon “some stronger vessel, some divine revelation,” as it is said in the longer quote.  “If only… perhaps…”

     Four centuries after the death of Socrates, Jesus Christ was born not far from that same Mediterranean Sea near which Socrates lived in city of Athens.  Jesus was born to bring that ‘divine revelation’ that Socrates wished for, offering us a ‘firmer foundation’ and a ‘stronger vessel’ on which to sail into the afterlife.

            Jesus, like Socrates, would leave no writings of his own, and his story would be told by his students.  Jesus, like Socrates, was executed by the authorities.  Jesus, like Socrates, had many discussions with his followers about the afterlife.  But unlike Socrates, Jesus returned from that far country, rising from the dead, and offering that same resurrection to eternal life to all who would believe in him. 

            A few years after Jesus died and rose from the dead and returned to heaven, the apostle Paul came to Athens, the city of Socrates, to proclaim the Gospel of eternal life in Christ Jesus.  450 years after Socrates and Plato, the philosophers of Athens were still gathering every day to talk about life and death and what comes next.  They invited Paul to speak to them.  This story is told in Acts 17:16-34:

      While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.  A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him.  Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?”  Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.”  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.  Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”  (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

     Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:  “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.  So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship— and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

     “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.  Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

     “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone— an image made by human design and skill.  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

    When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  At that, Paul left the Council.  Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.  Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

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O God, our heavenly Father, who hast taught us not to sorrow overmuch for them that sleep in Jesus; mercifully grant that after this life, we may be received into everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Service Book and Hymnal, Funeral Service, Augsburg Publishing House, 1958.

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The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques-Louis David  (1748-1825)