Tertullian’s question—“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—has generally been asked by Christians wondering to what extent they can draw on Greek wisdom. In answer, many theologians analogized Greek philosophy to Hebrew faith: Both were incomplete but preparatory. Clement of Alexandria believed the parallel was providential—that God had done for the Greeks with philosophy what he had done for the Jews with the law. Others believed the connection was historical. St. Ambrose, and even for a while St. Augustine, thought that Plato had learned first-hand from Jeremiah in Egypt.
Aquinas taught that, through revelation (both Jewish and Christian), God made widely accessible truths that were in principle discoverable through philosophy but for most too difficult to reach. Nietzsche departed from Aquinas more in tone than in argument when he sneered that “Christianity is Platonism for the masses.” Both were reversing the pagan Platonist Numenius, who claimed that Athens democratized Jerusalem: “What is Plato but Moses Atticizing?”
In all this, where is the Hebraic perspective on Athens and Jerusalem? We find Numenius’s view reflected in the Jewish Philo of Alexandria’s friendly appropriation of Plato. But Abraham Joshua Heschel, a twentieth-century Jewish theologian especially open to studying the Greek tradition, warned against Philo’s influence. He called it a mistake to think that “Moses was a sort of Hebrew Plato.” Whatever Jews can learn from engagement with Greek philosophy, they cannot simply “talk about God in the language of the Greeks.”