According to Plato’s “Theory of Forms” non-material ideas have a more fundamental reality than objects available to our senses. The idea of the chair is more real than the chair itself. You might even say that the physical chair is a “copy” of the idea of the chair.
This philosophy is illustrated in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In the allegory, prisoners are chained in a cave, forced to look at a blank wall. Enough light shines into the cave to show shadows of the world outside the cave. These “shadows” are the only experience of reality that the prisoners have.
In the allegory, the philosopher is the prisoner who escapes the cave to gain access to the real world, that is, the world of ideas. They can then return to the other prisoners and free them, allowing them to see the world as it really is, not just as it is perceived by their senses.
The goal of the Greek philosopher was to understand the universals in the world of particulars.
The Jewish philosopher Philo harmonized Jewish and Greek philosophy, applying the concept of forms, ideas, and allegories to Old Testament text and his exegetical method (the way he interpreted the Bible) was fundamental to some of the early church fathers.
How influential was Philo? Could his philosophy have impacted any of the Biblical writers?
This question comes to bare on Hebrews 8 – 10. In it, the writer says “[The priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern seen on the mountain” (8:5). He also says “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not part of this creation” (9:11). And again, “It was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself, now to appear before us in God’s presence” (9:23-24).
So how did the writer of Hebrews use the language of “copy,” “shadow,” “true,” and “heavenly?” Was he making a distinction between the physical world of particulars and the more enduring realities of ideas?
There are many reasons to believe he was not. He does not have the Greek idea of physical/ideal dualism in mind, but the Jewish idea of Promise and Fulfillment.
In Hebrews, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is a physical and historical event and it is this event itself, not the idea of the event, which brings us salvation. Jesus does indeed accomplish something “outside of the physical realm” but “outside” does not mean the “world of ideas.” It simply means that Jesus’ work affected the way in which we relate to God. The world of ideas is not the fundamental reality of our existence. God is. And, because Christ is God, his death and resurrection provide the most fundamentally real thing upon which our salvation can be based.
Not everyone agrees. Some believe that the historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while potentially true, is really not that important. What Jesus did on the cross did not actually earn us salvation, instead, it showed us the fundamental reality of the universe, that is, that life comes through death and salvation through sacrifice. Jesus only saves us in the sense that this particular event points us to a universal idea. We are saved by his example, not by his sacrifice. He’s no more than the philosopher who shows us reality.
This is not the Biblical story and it is not the message of Hebrews.
Instead, it is better to understand “copy” and “shadow” in terms of promise and fulfillment. The Old Covenant, the sacrificial system, the office of high priest, and the sanctuary do not simply point us to a universal idea (though they do) they point is to the historical coming of Jesus, to God’s work and revelation in history. They are “copies” of “realities” as a blueprint is to a house. It shows you what the house will eventually look like when it is fully built.
In Christ’s death and resurrection we don’t just see more clearly a universal idea. We see our salvation won, once for all, in time and place.