Cosmic Spiritualism among the Pythagoreans, Stoics, Jews, and Early Christians

In Cosmos in the Ancient World. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 270-94 (2019)
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This paper traces how the dualism of body and soul, cosmic and human, is bridged in philosophical and religious traditions through appeal to the notion of ‘breath’ (πνεῦμα). It pursues this project by way of a genealogy of pneumatic cosmology and anthropology, covering a wide range of sources, including the Pythagoreans of the fifth century BCE (in particular, Philolaus of Croton); the Stoics of the third and second centuries BCE (especially Posidonius); the Jews writing in Hellenistic Alexandria in the first century BCE (Philo); and the Christians of the first century CE (the gospel writers and Paul). Starting from the early Pythagoreans, ‘breath’ and ‘breathing’ function to draw analogies between cosmogony and anthropogony – a notion ultimately rejected by Plato in the Timaeus and Aristotle in his cosmological works, but taken up by the Posidonius (perhaps following the early Stoa) and expanded into a rich and challenging corporeal metaphysics. Similarly, the Post-Hellenistic philosopher and biblical exegete Philo of Alexandria, who was deeply influenced by both Platonist and Stoic physics, approaches the cosmogony and anthropogony described in Genesis (1:1–3 and 1:7) through Platonist-Stoic philosophy, in his attempt to provide a philosophically rigorous explanation for why Moses employed certain terms or phrases when writing his book of creation. Finally, the chapter sees a determined shift in the direction of rejecting pneumatic cosmology for a revised pneumatic anthropogony in the writings of the New Testament: by appeal to the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Holy Breath’ (πνεῦμα ἅγιον), early Christians effectively adapted the Stoic metaphysics of ‘breath’, with its notions of divine intelligence and bonding, to the prophetic and ecclesiastical project of building a Christian community conceived of as the ‘body of Christ’. Hence, the spiritual cosmogony of the Pythagoreans, Stoics, and Philo is effectively subordinated to the spiritual anthropogony that facilitates the construction of the Christian kosmopolis, only fully realised in the form of New Jerusalem, the ‘bride’ which, in tandem with the Holy Spirit, calls to the anointed. At the end of the Christian worldview, the kosmos of Greek philosophy is supplanted by the pneumatic kosmopolis.

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Phillip Sidney Horky
Durham University


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