Sometimes mistaken to be Plutarch himself,
the above is a statue of an unknown philosopher or priest (ca. 270 BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Museum of Delphi

Sometimes an ancient text does not have any direct literary (intertextual) parallels with the New Testament, and such is really the case for the passage from Plutarch‘s On the Delays of Divine Vengeance (De sera 565B-D), about which I wrote in my last post (here). Nevertheless, there are broad conceptual interactions between the symbolism of the soul stained by vice in Plutarch’s account and the (deutero-)Pauline text of Ephesians 5:25b-27. Here are some thoughts.

  • For in the world below, vice puts forth colors (ἐκεῖ γὰρ ἡ κακία… τὰς χρόας ἀναδίδωσιν), as the soul is altered by the passions (τῆς τε ψυχῆς τρεπομένης ὑπὸ τῶν παθῶν) and alters the body in turn (καὶ τρεπούσης τὸ σῶμα), while here [=subluminary regions], the goal of purification (καθαρμοῦand punitary justice is reached when the passions are purged away (ἐκλεανθέντων) and the soul becomes luminous in consequence and uniform in color (τὴν ψυχὴν αὐγοειδῆ καὶ σύγχρουν γίνεσθαι – Plutarch, De sera 565C)
  • Eph 5:25b-27: … Christ loved the church and gave himself up on her behalf in order to sanctify her, by  purifying her in the washing of water by the word (ἵνα αὐτὴν ἁγιάσῃ καθαρίσας τῷ λουτρῷ τοῦ ὕδατος ἐν ῥήματι), with the result that He might present to himself the church in glory who has no stain or wrinkle or anything of the kind (ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων), but is instead holy and unblemished (ἀλλ᾽ ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος). 

In the texts above, I tried to color code the conceptual ties (the lexemes are not the same though arguably they belong to the same semantic and cognitive domains) between Plutarch’s and Paul’s discourse as follows: 

  1. how vice alters/stains the soul is shown in red
  2. how the soul/church is purified and cleansed of vice/sin is shown in blue
  3. the purified soul/church symbolized as a kind of illuminescence is shown in orange

First the conceptual similarities: Both accounts speak to the reality that vicious or immoral action color/tarnish the soul. While there is nothing like Plutarch’s multi-colored correlation of specific vices to a particular color, Paul nevertheless employs the metaphor of staining (σπίλον) to describe the effect of sin and like Plutarch likens moral transformation to a kind of purgation or cleansing of sin/error, though Paul does use a different set of lexemes (ἁγιάσῃ καθαρίσας τῷ λουτρῷ) to describe the process known as sanctification. The purified person is depicted in the language of illuminescence (αὐγοειδῆ) for Plutarch, and glorification for Paul (ἔνδοξον).
   However, beyond these broad strokes is a striking difference. The (religious) purging of vice, for Plutarch, does not happen while a person is alive. It takes place in the afterlife, as a disembodied soul, and only through a series of punishments by divine judges to purge wickedness by beating the evil out of a person. But Paul’s gospel talks about the work of Christ, whose sacrifice and blood atonement, makes the cleansing of sin, evil, and vice an inaugurated reality now, in the present, which culminates in its fullest expression at a future resurrection. The reversal of sin’s corrupting effect, though not complete until Christ’s return, is nevertheless experienced immediately in the life of church as a condition made possible by atoning death of God’s Son. And Christ did it out of love for the church. The purging of evil is not torturous punishment from the gods, but a gift of redemption by the One who gave himself up for us.