Plato and the Cross

In his masterwork Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger reminds us of the connection, once readily apparent to our Greek-speaking Church Fathers, between Plato’s fate of the just man and the fate of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Cross is revelation. It reveals, not any particular thing, but God and man. It reveals who God is and in what way man is. There is a curious presentiment of this situation in Greek philosophy: Plato’s image of the crucified ‘just man.’ In Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world. He comes to the conclusion that a man’s righteousness is only complete and guaranteed when he takes on the appearance of unrighteousness, for only then is it clear that he does not follow the opinion of men but pursues justice only for its own sake. So according to Plato the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed Plato goes so far as to write: “They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.” This passage, written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply. (Ratzinger, Introdruction to Christianity p. 292; cf. Plato, Republic, II.362a)

Certainly, the translation Ratzinger uses lends itself to an obvious Christian connection, although the original Greek is not so explicit. The Greek term we find in Plato’s text, ἀνασκολοπίζω (anaskolopizo), is not so much “crucify” as “impale” or “pierce”. And yet, even Greek has several other words for the same idea. In John 19, for “pierce” we find both the verb νύσσω in verse 34 (ἀλλ’ εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν; “but the soldiers took a spear and pierced his side”) and, when referring to the prophecy of Zechariah, we find the verb ἐκκεντέω (ekkenteo) in verse 37 (καὶ πάλιν ἑτέρα γραφὴ λέγει, Ὄψονται εἰς ὃν ἐξεκέντησαν; “and another that says, “they will look upon him whom they have pierced.'”) When we examine the Old Testament, the verb κρεμαννυμι (kremmannumi) comes up most often for “impale”. By contrast, the Gospels quite singularly uses the verb σταυρόω (stauroo) to denote the act of crucifixion.

Is all this enough to prove the idea, so often raised by detractors of Christianity, that Ratzinger, like the Fathers before him, did violence to Plato’s text in order to prove a Christian point? Perhaps an investigation into the nature of the two punishments (ἀνασκολοπίζω and σταυρόω) will help shed some light.

To impale a man is to impose a particularly gruesome punishment on him. The point is not to kill him immediately, but to wound him in such a manner that he dies a slow, painful death. The stake, if it does not puncture the chest cavity (thus leaving the heart and lungs intact), allows the victim to breathe only with the greatest pain while denying him the mercy of a quick suffocation. Furthermore, impalement is often a public punishment, used as an effective deterrent to would be-criminals, for the skewered body remains in plain sight for all to see. Often, such executions occurred not upon freestanding stakes, but upon poles placed perpendicularly into city walls, such that the body, often still alive and screaming, remains pinned high on the parapets, visible to passers-by and visitors to the city, open to the wiles of wild animals and birds of prey.

When we compare this kind of impalement to crucifixion, we realize that the differences are not so great after all. Crucifixion is nothing but the most sinister form of impalement. It is, in fact, a relatively late development in the history of executions, a development wrought as a way to extend the tortures of impalement. No wonder, therefore, that the word or even the idea of stauros did not exist in Plato’s time.

Instead of a large pike piercing the torso, smaller nails pierce the limbs, which are too weak to effectively hold the body’s weight for prolonged periods. The bloodletting is too minimal to offer a swift demise. As strength leaves the arms, the victim must painfully stand up upon his nailed feet to relieve the pressure on his chest cavity in order to breathe. This painful alternation of hanging from one’s arms and standing on one’s nailed feet repeats viciously until the victim loses consciousness. Often, crucifixion prolonged the already-fierce suffering of impalement not by hours but by days or even weeks. And like its ancient parent punishment, crucifixion is by nature a public sentence meant to strike the fear of the State into the heart of each witness. For example, after Spartacus’ slave rebellion was finally crushed, the surviving rebels, numbering in the thousands, were hoisted upon crosses along the Via Appia, the “queen of Roman highways”, stretching from Rome to Capua– the Republic’s unequivocal admonition against those who would dare defy the Senatus Popolusque Romanus.

Back to Plato: his text affirms that the just man is a meek and humble one, who bears his burdens patiently (NB: Latin patiens means “suffering”!), and who endures even the humiliating, public spectacle of death by impalement, all because of his unshakable commitment to truth and justice. Plato’s man is reviled and rejected by society and accordingly executed, for his ways are “not of this world”.

Do we not, therefore, find echoes of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53? Is not Plato’s man “spurned and avoided by men,” with “no stately bearing or appearance to make us look at him”? Is he not also “crushed” and “pierced”, “a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity”?

Of course, since New Testament times, Christians have universally read this passage from Isaiah as a prophecy of the Passion and Cross. Is it therefore any wonder that our Greek-speaking Church Fathers, steeped in the Graeco-Jewish cultural and intellectual cross-fertilization epitomized by the Septuagint, seized upon the similarities between Plato’s just man and the servant foretold by Isaiah’s oracle?

Against this backdrop, the apparent linguistic gulf between ἀνασκολοπίζω and σταυρόω diminishes greatly. For if crucifixion is indeed impalement taken to its most extreme incarnation, then Christ too, enemy of the SPQR, was executed by impalement, and in his Passion, he too was “scourged, fettered, and racked”. In all, the similarities are too great for a man of faith to ignore, and indeed the Fathers and Ratzinger did not make a merely facile comparison, but were right to say that our passage from the Republic, “written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply.”

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