Preparation for Christianity
Preparation for Christianity
Truth, whether in terms of doctrine, ethics, thought, or daily moral practice, derives from one source, the Being, in whom everything has its being; the Creator, who brought the creation into existence. The human being as part of the creation is not self-sufficient and autonomous for it owes its origins and existence to that Being whom we commonly call God. The human quests for identity and understanding of its place in the world, for creative self realization in history are realized in truths extant in and revealed by the Creator. And the Creator is both an inner presence and a cosmic reality, endocosmic and exocosmic. Because of this, Greek Orthodox Christianity possesses a sense of the sacredness of the whole cosmos.
Thus, the source of truth is one, but it is conveyed through two channels; one is known as physical, or natural, and the other as metaphysical, or supernatural; one can become partially known through a personal quest and effort, and the other is given as a gift, gratis. God is the giver and the human being is the receiver. Divinity and humanity have been in constant interaction. The divinity is “present in all places and filling all things;” (pantahou paron kai to panta pleron) and humanity “lives, moves, and has its existence” (en auto zomen kai kinoumentha kai esmen) in the Divinity, as the ancient Greek philosophers and poets Epemenides and Aratos put it and Paul of Tarsus reemphasized (Acts 17:28).
The two channels by which truth is conveyed represent the two aspects of God’s involvement in history, the visible and the invisible, the physical and the metaphysical. God as Spirit, Power, and Essence is invisible, but God as creative energy active in creation is visible and physical. God as the ultimate cause of laws, decrees, principles of morality, the urge of the human person to seek communion with the divine, the desire of the human being to rise above nature, is revealed in the world through various ways and diverse manners. Furthermore, man’s capacity to reason, his inward sense of non-material origins, the faculties which distinguish humanity from the plant and animal world, are considered sparks or rays of the Divinity and manifestations of “natural” revelation. Because of the commonality between Divinity and Humanity (God and Man), man reaches out for God and when the reach becomes unattainable, God reaches out for man. This is the background of the Greek Orthodox belief that there is a natural and a supernatural revelation of truth.
The term “religion” has been given many definitions. It derives from the Latin religio, which originally meant respect for what is sacred; later, it came to mean holding fast to conscientiousness, to the instinct that is innate in the human being and that controls, prompts, approves, reprimands, and guides the human being in his or her relations with the surrounding cosmos and with fellow human beings. The Greek term for religion is threskeia, and threskeia means instinctive awe before the cosmos, and thus worship of the divine. Threskeia derives from the verb throsko, which means to leap up in joyful expectation, to search. In this sense, every human being instinctively behaves religiously, and in a way, life itself is identified with religion, and religion is concerned with the whole life.
The Divinity in History
How relevant is religion to modern man? Is he not a self-sufficient being who has dominated the world? As the ancient Greek dramatist Sophokles said in his Antigone: “Many are the wonders but there is no greater wonder than man.” But man is a complex phenomenon, and religion is one of his many concerns. The manifestations of man’s spiritual and intellectual life constitute what we call civilization.
The question, however, has been raised concerning the value of religion. It is not uncommon to find thoughtful, scientifically trained persons who regard religion as something outgrown, a parasite of civilization, “the opium of the people”; others have adopted the slogan “God is dead, and religion has been buried with him.” Still others insist that they do not need religion (“I can be as good a person as any without it”) or that religion is irrelevant to modern life.
These and other similar aphorisms could indicate, of course, a conscious or an unconscious anxiety about and concern with religion. For many people, God is very much alive, and to them, religion appears just as vital in modern times as in centuries past.
To be sure, without belief in God, one may be a good person and a fine citizen. But the advocates of religious belief and practice insist that there is no fullness of life without God.
Religion offers a combination of values; it inspires the conviction that the great elements of our spiritual world are real and eternal and that there is no power, natural or human, that can obliterate them. Religion transfers the human spirit from the world of the profane to that of holiness and transcendence. It satisfies the natural human longing for infinity and for meaning.
Alexis de Tocqueville writes: “Unbelief is an accident and faith is the only permanent state of mankind.” Thus, the study of religion rightly concerns modern people. Religion can make valid claims upon any human being because it is not a blind force, demanding unquestioning acceptance, but a constant challenge to acceptable and widely held beliefs and opinions.
What people believe has much to do with the style of life they live and with the kind of influence they exert. To say that I believe only in the world of my senses, in what I see and experience, is to silence an inner voice that challenges the human to a perpetual quest. For as we are impelled to satisfy such needs as hunger and thirst, so we are impelled to satisfy an inner impulse that has been identified with religion. In fact, religion is the quest for the largest and the fullest satisfaction of man’s loftiest needs. Man often denies his spiritual nature by failing to take religion seriously.
Religion as a historical and psychological phenomenon is one of the many common elements in the life of humankind. Despite color or creed, people have common characteristics that indicate that they are of a common origin. The declaration that God has “made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth…that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27) may not satisfy a skeptic or an agnostic who does not believe in the authority of the Scriptures. But there are nonscriptural affirmations to be found in the natural and psychological sciences.
Many modern scientists agree on the unity of the human race. Contemporary anthropologists, for example, who deal with the antiquity of man, the problems of race distribution, language, culture, and religion, concur, despite disagreement over many other points, on two great subjects, namely the unity of the human race and the phenomenon of religious aspiration. Though the presumption of the psychic unity of mankind was much stronger among earlier students of comparative religion, it is not without strong advocates even today. There are other branches of knowledge that testify to this unity and solidarity of humankind. Anatomy and physiology reveal a physical unity in which there are not essential differences. Sociology and psychology confirm that various races are, in a basic sense, intellectually and emotionally the same. The spiritual unity of humankind is proved by the existence of common or similar spiritual and religious experiences. It is also indicated by the essentially religious nature of the human being. Religious aspiration is common to most of mankind. Wilhelm Schmidt, an Austrian anthropologist and ethnologist, writes:
“Religion is one of the primary components of the human nature and is not to be connected with any such specific origins as magic, death, dreaming, mana or animism.”
It embraces many emotions, such as fear, love, awe, and joy (but love is man’s natural response to a religious object, as William James observes). However, religion is not a merely emotional response but a response that in one way or another is total, involving the whole person, intellect, emotion, and will.
Most human beings instinctively know what is right and what is wrong. Whether “civilized” or “primitive,” every human being wrestles with questions pertaining to the origin and meaning of existence, the ultimate destiny and purpose of life, all questions religious in nature. Edmond de Pressense writes that “religious sentiment is the peculiar characteristic of man; it is part of his very being. It is an intuitive and spontaneous development of his nature. He turns instinctively to the Divine as the magnet to the pole…If man were not a religious being by nature, he would never become religious. Religion and spiritual thinking have their roots in the deepest aspirations of man.” The biophysicist Lecomte du No’y writes: “Independently of any rite, of any church, there has always existed in the world a religious spirit, a desire to believe, a desire to adore without restriction, a desire to humiliate oneself in total veneration, a desire to elevate oneself by approaching a conceivable but inaccessible ideal.” Human nature is expected, not to share in hating (synechthein), but to share in loving (symphilein), in the words of Sophokles’ Antigone. Arnold Toynbee says,
“Religion itself…is an intrinsic faculty of human nature. I believe that being human involves having a religion and that human beings who declare that they have no religion are deceiving themselves through failing to research their own hearts.”
The history of humankind reveals that two beliefs are practically universal: a belief in beings or a being superior to the human person and a conviction that existence is not limited to this world, but that there is continuity of life beyond the grave. No people has ever attained a significant culture without religion. It has been one of the most powerful drives in the history of every race, nation, and civilization.
The religious spirit is hidden in the unknown confines of our being, awaiting the event or the person capable of transforming it into full fruition, into faith and activity. Thus, according to Rudolf Otto, religion may be defined as the “response of the human being to the holy and righteous call of the eternal”; or “religion is the response of a person to the holy and righteous call of God.”
Archaeologists and historians confirm that the religious beliefs of people have preoccupied the human mind since early antiquity. To paraphrase Homer, as young birds instinctively open their mouths for food, all men crave for gods. Plutarch, the ancient Greek biographer and historian, confirms the universality of religion when he writes:
“You will find cities and towns without theaters, without public baths, cities even without walls but you will not find any cities without temples.”
Among those in antiquity who expressed affirmative views of religion are Sokrates, Plato, Cicero, and Plotinos. The philosopher Plotinos considered religion the elevation of the human being to God. Sokrates and Plato thought of religion as the belief in divine providence. All of them spoke of its universality and of divine absolutes. Others, like Sophokles, emphasized the morality and the validity of the “unwritten laws,” the superiority of divine commandments over human compulsion, divine absolutes over human compromises.
Not only has there been no recorded civilization without religion but, in fact, religion and civilization advanced together. In the words of A. Menzies:
“Religion is the inner side of civilization and the study of it is the study of the very soul of its history.”
In all the great civilizations, it has reflected persistently and vitally a great and central interest. In the history of the Egyptians, the Persians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, and the Romans, religion has played a prominent role. In fact, history and anthropology, as well as other disciplines, confirm that in addition to technology (or the making of tools), language, and writing, religious beliefs and practices are major elements in distinguishing the human from other creatures. Anthropology has stressed not only the universality but also the continuity of all religious phenomena.
But religion has been many things to many people and societies. In ancient as well as in contemporary primitive societies, religion encompasses ethics, philosophy, theater, ritual, even science.
Religion is one of the most complicated phenomena in history. However, throughout history, students of religion believe that the religious sentiment is not man-made but it derives from a supernatural source: That as there is no creation without a creator, no religion without a god, so cosmic power is the source of religion and has been revealed in life during the course of many centuries in accordance with the maturity and development of humankind. Some believe that religion began in fear or wonder, as suggested by the Roman poet Lucretius and later by the philosophers Hobbes and Hume. Nevertheless, it does not exist only in primitive cultures, a fact that refutes the frequently made claim that as soon as the primitive cultures disappear, religion also disappears. And religion is expressed in a variety of ways, not simply in fear, but through “the feelings, the acts, the thoughts, and experiences of men,” as the American psychologist William James observes. Others have attempted to explain the religious phenomenon as due to the fortuitous organization of various moral and esthetic elements, such as love and beauty, truth and honor, creative science, and human brotherhood. But religion is one expression in the whole realm of ethics, which, however, does not cover all aspects of religion. Salvation, for example, a very important element of religion, is something more than ethics and more essential than the mere moral betterment of man. Many religions teach that religion involves the defeat of death, the elimination of pain and sorrow, and an eternal life of joy.
According to the Christian Scriptures, the human race received its religion by direct revelation from its creator, God. The human person as a limited creature was unable to find God by searching. Thus, God revealed Himself.
On account of his divine nature, which he received at creation, the human person possesses a faculty for religion. What the Bible testifies concerning the origin and nature of humankind is fully supported by the fact that the human being craves the fellowship of a Supreme Being, a creator with whom it must converse, for “In him we live and move and have our being…for we are indeed his offspring,” as the ancient Greek poet Aratos put it and Paul repeated (Acts 17:28).
Still, the question is: what is religion? There is no exact and unchangeable definition. The classical scholar Gilbert Murray writes that “religion, like poetry and most other living things, cannot be defined.” In addition to the Greek and Latin definitions cited earlier, there are several other definitions, such as that religion is the recognition on the part of man of a controlling superhuman power entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship. Another, possibly more satisfactory, definition is:
“…the belief in the existence of a Supreme Power, combined with a feeling of dependence on Him, which permeates the whole personality, brings it into a personal relation with Him and affects the whole life of the individual and his relations with his fellow men.”
Seneca defined religion as the effort of man “to know God and to imitate Him” (cognoscere deum et imitari).
Religion is one. Just as a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves, so there is one source and one religion, which becomes many as it passes through the human medium. There are five different recognizable expressions of religion, namely mystical religious experience, religious feeling and ritual, ecclesiastical organization, intellectual doctrine, and ethics. These aspects, which are often found together, can also be found as separate functions. Ritual, for example, comprised virtually the entire religion of primitive people. But as man advanced, ritual was linked with the ethical and doctrinal, and so man’s duty to God and to man likewise came to be regarded as moral, doctrinal, and ceremonial. That is what happened in the ancient Greek religion and even more pronouncedly in the Hebrew religion.
The story of Old Testament religion is the story of a long development. It began with the original knowledge imparted to man at the time of his creation; it continued with the primitive religion of the earliest Hebrew nomads; and it culminated in the ethical monotheism of the great Hebrew prophets. Through Moses and the prophets, the worship of the one God was reintroduced, though monotheism did not prevail for many centuries. Old Testament religion went through stages of evolution, emphasizing certain elements according to circumstances and needs. For example, at times, religion required of the Hebrews only the limited obligations of fear, love, and service of God:
“What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…”(Dt. 10:12).
Later Hebrew religion emphasized other aspects:
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(Mic. 6:8).
Christian theologians in particular, in agreement with Saint Paul’s teachings, believe that non-Christian religions are corruptions of the earliest faith, the faith in the existence of one Supreme Being, the creator of heaven, of earth, and of humankind. It was this Supreme Being who presented himself originally to all mankind; who revealed himself to human thought, will, and feeling; manifested to all people, as his highest creatures, his being and acting, directly after the creation. Not only the Judeo-Christian witness, but comparative religion on the whole, concludes that the origin of religion is shrouded in the mystery of revelation.
The belief that religion has its origin in revelation presupposes the existence of two beings, the absolute being and the human being. Religion in its simplest form implies God and the human being. Their relationship is manifested through spiritual and moral activities. God commands and orders, while the human person obeys and executes God’s commandments. Moreover, God reveals Himself to the human race gradually, making known His energies and attributes, which determine its progress in its religious and human experience in accordance with various mental, hereditary, sociological, and even climatic factors.
For these reasons, religion has expressed the essential but changeable spirit of human life in various ages and nations. The religion of a people is in many ways an expression of its character, mentality, intellectual cultivation, and spiritual development. Every religion has principles of truth revealed by God either indirectly or directly, in accordance with the needs and characteristics of its followers. But these are not complete and self-sufficient religious truths.
What does religion stand for? What is its end? “Life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying and eternal life is the end of religion.” Essentially, religion is two-sided: It offers something and it demands something. From primitive times, religion has been conceived of as imparting spiritual goods. It offers an enhancement of courage, zeal, group unity, moral power, peace of soul and mind, and creative insight. But the inherent meaning of religion rests not in what it gives but in what it demands: belief, moral endeavor, worship, brotherhood, and spiritual aspiration.
Doctrine, ethics, and worship are interrelated and supply the bases of the religious life. All three are areas where religion makes demands upon life. Thus, one cannot say that one need not be concerned with morality. Neither can one say that, if one possesses morality and belief in God, one need not worship.
The ultimate purpose of religion is the eternal salvation of the inner essence of the human being and the eternal preservation of the human spirit, which demands to be governed by ideal values. The human spirit is the most valuable entity in the universe, revealing the real nature of the creative power and the ultimate meaning of creation. It seems that the human spirit is the only eternal element in a world of change because it is part of the cosmic spirit, of God, and lives in God as an independent and autonomous unit.
While all religious creeds have made positive contributions to civilization, some represent fallacies and distortions of the human mind. For Christianity, that distortion led to the existence of a multitude of religious creeds and sects. The multiplicity of religions came into existence when the human being disavowed true knowledge of the Creator.
The apostle Paul provides an account of how human beings failed to retain the true knowledge and revelation of God:
“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles”(Rom. 1:19-23).
According, then, to the Christian viewpoint, the old faiths retained but a partial revelation of the original truth: Hence, all were imperfect and liable to error, and religion became subject to a process of evolution and reinterpretation up to a certain time. The widespread and deep-seated resemblances between different religions and faiths in such elements as love for one’s enemy, prayer, regeneration, and expectation of judgment are due, not necessarily to mutual limitation, but to similar emotional reaction to the mystery of the world, the needs of human nature, and primarily to the fact that religions derive from the same source. In fact, the uniformities discernible in religious beliefs, rites, and customs indicate the unity of the religious consciousness of humankind.
It is conceivable that monotheism was the original form of religion. Theologians who regard belief in one God as innate in the human person are not alone. Many modern ethnologists have abandoned the old belief in the emergence of monotheism as part of a general intellectual and ethical evolution of the race. Anthropologists too agree that monotheism was found and is still being found among primitive races. Some nontheological scholars even suggest that an innate knowledge of revelation is the origin of the idea of God and of immortality, and of the rites of prayer and sacrifice, that is, of religion in general. For example, the British anthropologist Paul Radin writes that monotheism was developed by poets, philosophers, and other primitive savants or individuals with a developed quality of mind who observed the world as a unified whole. Radin stressed the universality of monotheistic conceptions among primitive wise men.
According to Wilhelm Schmidt, to whom we referred earlier, the “High God” of all primitive peoples is eternal, omniscient, beneficent, omnipotent, the creator of reality, the creator of man. But belief in one God was distorted into animism, polytheism, idolatry, cults of the dead, and other forms of religious beliefs, not only because of human sinfulness, but because of the fact that human societies became more complex. Dr. Schmidt concludes in his exhaustive work on the origin of the idea of God as follows:
“The idea of God came by revelation, and the evidence, massed together, analyzed and sifted with scholarly acumen, is altogether convincing. Thus we may say that at the beginning God, with the other gifts he gave to man, gave him religion. That is to say, He gave him not only a predisposition for reverence and piety, but also a certain amount of religious knowledge, such as that which He gave to the Hebrew people at the time of Moses and the Prophets.”
Field studies made by more recent ethnologists give support to Schmidt’s conception of an original monotheism in primitive religious experience. Nevertheless, there are ethnographers who support other theories of the origin of religion, such as that it began in animism, totemism, or polytheism, or some combination of these. All these theories, however, remain conjectural; there is no one definitive scientific account of the nature of primitive religious experience.
The principle, however, that ex nihilo nihil fit may be aptly applied in the sphere of religion: It must necessarily have a beginning, since nothing is produced from nothing, as the Latin axiom states. Independent of experience and knowledge, the human person has a preconceived tendency toward religion. This inclination springs from the innate idea of God that the person holds. That is, it belongs to the very nature of the human being to believe in and to worship God. Therefore, religion is not an arbitrary or artificial device or invention, as Marxists would have us believe.
The Hebraic Heritage
Greek Orthodox theology views ancient Hebrew religion as one of God’s instruments propaedeutic (preparatory) to Christianity. To be sure, God, the Creator of the world, is not the exclusive possession or Lord of any one people, and there is no specific people that God favors or loves more than others. But it is neither unnatural nor illogical for the Creator to elect some persons such as Noah, Abraham, Ikhnaton, Moses, Amos, Sokrates, Plato, or others and use them as special instruments in history. In the language of the Old Testament, a covenant between God and a tribal leader was a covenant between God and the tribe. Participation in the provisions of a covenant was never a matter of individual choice or a democratic procedure. Thus, the sin of Adam became the sin of his descendants, the blessings on Abraham were blessings on his tribe, a curse on a leader was a curse on his followers.
According to the Genesis account, following the great flood which destroyed sinful mankind, the Creator made a covenant (Chapters 8 and 9) with Noah, the only survivor, who became a new genearch of mankind. The agreement between God and Noah provided that God would not allow another destructive flood, that He would remain the God of Noah’s descendants, and that all mankind would be placed under divine promise and law. God guaranteed to preserve the natural order of things, and Noah’s descendants, the ancestors of all nations, were to become subject to God’s laws. But Noah’s descendants walked after their own desires, and the result was a second alienation of the creation from the Creator.
Throughout history, and in various ways, God “did not leave himself without witness [in Greek, amartyron]” (Acts 14:17). However, at certain times, God made new covenants for His purposes. Like Noah’s, Abraham’s covenant was of cosmic significance. According to the Genesis story (17:1-5), God said to Abraham:
“I am God almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly…Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.”
Two principles stand out in this covenant: that God is Almighty and that the “multitude of nations” that will come after Abraham should follow Abraham’s example and walk blamelessly before God. The lordship of Abraham’s God was reiterated in still another covenant, that between God and Moses, the universal significance of which lies in the issuing of the Ten Commandments. In both covenants, God appears in anthropomorphic terms and as an educator, a personal being in dialogue with man, a pedagogue directing and advising. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sums up the importance of all covenants between God and man before the Christian Era by emphasizing their preparatory nature. According to that author, Jesus Christ is not only superior to Abraham, Moses, and high priests of Old Testament times, such as Melchizedek, but he is also God’s Son who brings to an end the stage of preparation and introduces the age of maturity, of freedom from the demands of the law (whose purpose was pedagogical), and of religious fulfillment.
The Old Testament is the story of God’s gradual self-disclosure, gathering momentum as history moves on, from a narrow sphere and a slow movement to a far-reaching, cosmic, all-inclusive revelation. As Georges Florovsky has put it, “Ultimately, the Old Testament as a whole has to be considered as a book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1). It was the period of promises and expectation, the time of covenants and prophecies. To be sure, the Old Testament includes beautiful poetry and good legislation, but also much inhuman and ugly material that does not commend it as a religious or even as a humane book. In many passages in the Pentateuch and other books, the Israelites were ordered to exterminate the people of Canaan or other tribes in the belief that God had promised the land to the Hebrews (for example, see Deut. 7:1-10, 18-20; 9:4-5). The evidence is overwhelming that the ancient Hebrew religion was just as intolerant as Christianity would be in the Western Middle Ages. The spirit of the religious crusade originates in the Old Testament, where next to liberal legislation one finds descriptions of orgies of slaughter, and savage rules to justify the extermination of established tribes. But the Old Testament is rather the evolutionary process of God’s disclosure, and the self-understanding of the national consciousness of a people. It is a manifestation of God’s involvement in history exemplified in the life of various peoples, ancient Israel in particular. It tells both how God created and how He re-created mankind.
The central idea that brings together the literature of the Old Testament is that God exists, that He is Almighty (Pantokrator), and that He is also willing to intervene and to save. God’s willingness to save was manifested when He intervened to free the small nation of ancient Israel from the bondage of mighty Egypt; when He intervened to set free the same people from the Babylonian captivity. Ancient Israel served as a paradigm of God’s concern for mankind’s salvation.
In the Old Testament, the existence of God is taken for granted. There is no groping and searching after God, no questioning, because God progressively reveals Himself. Only “the fool says…there is no God” (Ps. 14:1), only those lacking in understanding may speak like fools” (Job 2:10). “The assumption that God exists is the Old Testament’s greatest gift to mankind,” in the words of Dr. Ludwig Kohler, a leading Old Testament scholar. But the Old Testament also relates the story of the development of monotheism, which might have been inherited from ancient Egypt.
For many centuries, the religion of ancient Israel was not monotheistic but monolatrous. It did not deny the existence of many gods, but it stressed the worship of the tribal god Yahweh. For centuries, there were numerous Israelites who believed in gods other than Yahweh. Even though many Jews in Jesus’ day considered Moses the father of monotheism, the religion introduced by Moses did not prevail until many centuries later, and it went through several stages of development. As late as the middle of the sixth century before Christ, there were numerous Israelites who worshiped Canaanite deities. The worship of other foreign gods was also common, as the chastisements by prophets such as Jeremiah, Second Isaiah, and Ezekiel indicate.
It needs to be said that Old Testament religion did not begin by sweeping aside all former experiences, customs, regulations, practices, and rituals, replacing them with a complete new system of beliefs and values. Whether of Egyptian, Babylonian, or Hellenic origins, experiences and inheritances from the past were assimilated and many were even left undisturbed. As is the case with other traditions, religions are conditioned by cultural circumstances, established practices, and customs.
It was especially after the fifth century B.C. that monotheism and Yahweh’s dominion over all nations were acknowledged by ancient Israel. By the time of Jesus, the conception of Yahweh as the tribal god of Israel had given place to the conception of a universal god, an absolute and holy being. However, during the period in which Palestine was under Hellenistic rule and influence, God was also known as Wisdom, as in the book of Proverbs, wisdom either as a personification or as an attribute of God. This conception is attributed to the influence of Greek thought, which had made its appearance in Palestine nearly one hundred years earlier than the writing of the book of Proverbs. There were other major influences of Greek thought on post-exilic Judaism. For example, ancient Hebrew religion did not believe in eternal life, and the earliest teaching of life after death is found in the Book of Daniel (12:2-3), written during the Hellenistic period (most probably in the second century). Even at the time of Jesus, there were many among the Jews, such as the Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death.
While for many centuries the influence of Hebrew religion on the outside world was minimal, if not totally absent, by the time of Christ it had come to exert a considerable influence, primarily through the Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora. Emphasis on monotheism, expectation of divine intervention, a desire for liberation from physical as well as spiritual bondage were some of the contributions of Hebrew religion during the Hellenistic period. Alexandrian, or Philonian, Judaism in particular, which had reconciled Jewish faith with such Greek philosophy and thought as that of Platonism, greatly determined the nature and evolution of early Christianity. For many centuries, Jewish exclusiveness, and the emphasis on its traditional and legalistic approach, had cut off the ancient Israelites from intellectual intercourse with the “Gentile” world. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the wide dissemination of Hellenism (its language, philosophy, outlook) in the Near and the Middle East, there was an intensive interaction between religious beliefs, outlooks, and cultures. For nearly four hundred years, Judaism absorbed much from Hellenism, but at the same time, its ethical monotheism impressed many in the Mediterranean world. Whether or not one accepts it as an act of providence, the fact is that in addition to Hebrew monotheism, a “new pagan religion…was emerging toward the end of antiquity,” characterized by “monotheism, the belief in supernatural power, and an antipathy for matter” in the words of Dr. Frederick C. Grant, an American patriarch of biblical studies and an authority on the Hellenistic world. Monotheism among the philosophers of ancient Greece began developing during the sixth century B.C. with the Ionian philosophers and assumed momentum with Anaxagoras, Protagoras, and Sokrates. Thus, Hebrew ethical monotheism and Greek philosophical monotheism supplemented each other and contributed to the cause of early Christianity.
It has been demonstrated, either through epigraphic, archeological, or literary evidence, that Greek culture, including thought, had made influential inroads into Palestine long before the conquests of Alexander the Great. Greek pottery of the sixth century has been discovered in various sites of Palestine. Greek coins and their local Palestinian imitations and capitals of the Proto-Ionic and Proto-Aeolic periods have been discovered, belonging to the period between the sixth and the fourth centuries.
Archeology has brought to light overwhelming evidence according to which two-thirds of ossuary inscriptions are in Greek. Numerous Greek names were adopted by Jews not only in Alexandria and other major Greek cities but in Palestine proper. The study of various ossuary inscriptions has led two specialists (Eric M. Meyers and James F. Strange) to emphasize that
“…these prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the majority of Jewish families could read and write Greek and did so even for strictly family business. Even turns of phrase common in pagan Greek epitaphs occurred in Jewish epitaphs.”
These inscriptions, written sometimes in literary and elegant Greek and sometimes in every day colloquial Greek, make it clear that Greek was the first language of many Jews in Hellenistic Palestine and the normal language of courts and other major legal transactions. Greek was also the language of the Roman administration of that region. During Roman rule, Greek penetrated the Aramaic speaking countryside to the extent that there were only
“small pockets of people…who never learned Greek. From the first century before Christ to the end of the second century after Christ Hebrew suffered a serious blow and Aramaic…suffered a strong eclipse in favor of Greek.”
Greek was the language of several Deuterocanonical books, pseudepigrapha, historical and philosophical works of writers such as Josephus, Philo, and Justus of Tiberias. Even canonical Old Testament books were written in Greek, such as the additions to the books of Daniel and Esther. Eusebios of Caesarea and Clement of Alexandria indicate that from the third century before Christ to the end of the first century after Christ, Jewish authors composed many examples of literature in Greek. The exposure of Jewish theology to Greek language and thinking was influenced to the extent that rabbis modified their theology of resurrection and life after death in the light of Greek views.
Thus, the theory that Jesus came from a Hellenized area and that the Hellenization of his message explained its universal appeal finds new support in modern biblical and archeological scholarship. “There is evidence now that the Judaism of Lower Galilee was far more open to the Hellenizing influence of coastal cities than Upper Galilee.” Greek as the dominant language of Judaism at the time of Jesus, the change of the Jewish attitude toward iconography, the extent of Greek culture of various kinds in Palestine, laic religiosity (daily religious practices of ordinary people as opposed to the “official” religion of the synagogue), the extent of first century Jewish literacy, the social structure of Palestinian cities including Jerusalem, and the kind of Jewish life in the Greco-Roman world reveal the type of Judaism represented by Jesus, His apostles including Saint Paul, and the New Testament writers, most of whom were Hellenized Jews. Even before modern scholars, specialists like E.R. Goodenough had built a strong case for a Hellenized Judaism paving the way for an early Hellenization of Christianity. There is no doubt that by the first century, Judaism as a whole had been deeply influenced by the Greco-Roman world. The Pharisees as a class have been described, with much reason, “as the acute Hellenization of Judaism.” This does not mean, however, that Jesus, Paul, John, and the early Christians were not within Judaism. It only confirms that Christianity was born within a Hellenized Judaism.
Old Testament religion has been accepted as propaedeutic to Christian theology because it looks forward to a fulfillment, to the time when no longer through prophets and messengers but through God’s own appearance would redemption be achieved. The New Testament literature clearly reveals that it starts from the point where the Old Testament ends. “The law [of Moses] and the prophets were until John [the Baptist],” Jesus said (Lk. 16:16). Jesus Christ is constantly seen as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and expectation. In the opening chapter of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, we read that “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’” (Mk. 1:14-15). In the incarnation, “the whole fullness of the deity” dwelled bodily in Christ, (Col. 2:9). Saint Paul writes that “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).
That Christ was received as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy is confirmed by many other passages of the New Testament. Christ’s own testimony was that He did not come to destroy the old law but to fulfill it (see Mt. 5:17-48, Lk. 24:44). The early Christian community had no hesitation in seeing the Old Testament events as signposts to the event of the incarnation of God. The Greek Orthodox Church has incorporated this view into its doctrine and liturgical life. In one of the hymns, the Church sings:
“Let us sound the cymbals; let us shout aloud in songs. The revelation of Christ is now made manifest; the preachings of the prophets have received their fulfillment.”
“Hearken, O heaven, and give ear, O earth. Let the foundations be shaken, and let trembling lay hold upon the nethermost parts of the world. For our God and Creator has clothed Himself in created flesh, and He who with His strong arm fashioned the creation reveals Himself in the womb of her that He formed. Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!”
In the encounter between Hellenism and Judaism, it was Judaism that was destined to adopt the Greek language and thought, Greek manners and habits. It is on the evidence that the greatest part of later Judaism was Hellenized that scholars, such as J. G. Droysen and F. Altheim, defend the theory that Christianity was nearer to Hellenism than Judaism. At any rate, by the time that Jesus Christ was born, Judaism and Hellenism were forces that were not opposed in principle.
Early Christianity as well as modern Greek Orthodox Christianity accepts the person of Jesus Christ as the point of convergence between Hebraic prophecy and Hellenic expectation. This is eloquently expressed in another Greek Orthodox Church hymn:
“Of Old, Habakkuk the prophet was counted worthy to behold ineffably the figure and symbol of Christ’s birth, and he foretold in song the renewal of mankind. For a young child, even the Logos[Word], has now come forth from the Mountain [see Daniel 2:45], that is the Virgin, unto the renewal of the peoples…”
Thus, in addition to the religious phenomenon (the evolution of civilization as a whole) and the Hebraic religious heritage, the Greek Orthodox view ancient Greek (or Hellenic) philosophy and religious beliefs as a preparation (propaideia) for Christianity. The heritage of Hellenism is received both directly, from the Greek sources, and indirectly, through Hellenistic Judaism. Hebrew and Hellenic religious thought converged in Christianity. A brief illustration is in order. The expression “the only God” (monotheo) is thoroughly Hebrew; immortal and invisible, philanthropos and imperishable (aftharto, aorato, philanthropo) are Hellenic.
The Heritage of Hellenism
At the time when Christ was born, the people of the Mediterranean world were under Roman rule. Rome had achieved what the Greeks had failed to achieve, namely political unity. But long before the establishment of Roman rule, the Greeks had achieved the cultural unity of the Mediterranean world and even of lands beyond it. The conquest of the Persian Empire (including Syria, Palestine, Egypt) and of all western Asia to the Indus River by Alexander the Great established in that part of the world a widespread knowledge of the Greek language and of Greek ideas, and a Greek outlook and orientation. Modern biblical scholars and historians of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds confirm that Greek influence was both widespread and profound. Frederick C. Grant, mentioned earlier, writes:
“Only scattered pockets of non-Greek culture, language, and religion survived here and there…Everyone could read, or very nearly everyone; most men could write. Even day labourers in the dockyards and on the quays and in the grain warehouses knew Greek and could converse in the language of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, even though they did not often converse like them.”
Even centuries before Alexander’s conquests, the influence of Hellenism in the Near East had been widespread. In recent years, there have been excavations of Greek colonies of the middle of the seventh century and following.
The remains of ancient Graeco-Roman cities, with their Hellenistic architecture and sculpture, are found in both Syria and Egypt, and in Palestine as well; the inscriptions, the books produced there, the thousands of papyrus letters and other documents written in Greek, which have been found buried in the dry sands of Egypt, all this evidence proves how highly Hellenized that part of the world was, especially after the second century before Christ, to quote again from Grant’s outstanding work Roman Hellenism and the New Testament. The penetration of the language, religion, philosophy, and other aspects of Greek life had been achieved much earlier in the Roman west. Rome itself had long been a bilingual city. Several Latin authors, including Pliny, Tacitus, Cicero, Juvenal, and Horace, attest to the heavy Hellenization of the Latin west, which can be traced back to the eighth century, if not earlier.
Despite political unity, the bulk of society under Rome lived under difficult conditions, the result of civil wars, injustices in the social order, the large number of slaves, and the failure of the state to satisfy the religious and spiritual needs of the ordinary people. The overwhelming majority of the urban populations and the large numbers of serfs attached to great estates yearned for soteria (redemption, security, salvation). What must I do to be saved? (cf Mk. 10:17, Lk. 18:18) was a question of common concern. Christianity promised to offer what other systems had failed to provide.
Christianity, of course, began as a movement within Palestinian Judaism, but within a few years, it was transformed from a Palestinian Jewish creed into a universal religion. Why? What contributed to that transformation? There are two very important phenomena that reveal the process of transformation.
As has already been indicated, Palestine, though a Roman province at the time of Christ, had been heavily Hellenized, and for more than three hundred and fifty years, the impact of Hellenism on Judaism was deep. The Hellenized Jews, not only those of the upper classes, but many ordinary folk, such as some of the disciples of Christ, spoke and wrote in Greek. Parts of their Holy Scriptures had been translated in Greek as early as the first quarter of the third century (the complete Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek between 285 and 150 B.C.). Some of the Old Testament books that made up a second canon (known by the Orthodox as deuterocanonical) were written directly in Greek. With very few exceptions, there was no complaint against Hellenism. In the words of Dr. Moses Hadas of Columbia University:
“In the Near East a segment (but only a segment) of the Jewish people resisted the Hellenism which their near neighbors welcomed.”
The Jews were enmeshed in the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of the Hellenic presence in Judaea. Dr. F. E. Peters of New York University has rightly observed that since Judaism met Hellenism, Jewish thought has never been the same.
Other leading scholars of the period are equally convinced that the presence of Hellenism in Palestine was not only widespread but also profound. Dr. Victor Tcherikover, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes that the thirty Greek cities, with Greek populations, in Jewish Palestine proper had great influence throughout all of Palestine. The Greek cities in Palestine and Syria, and elsewhere in the Near East, were like the cities (the poleis) of antiquity, “for a Greek city could neither be created nor strike root in the country unless Greeks came to it,” in the words of Dr. Tcherikover. The Greeks, of course, didn’t confine themselves within their cities but communicated with the outside world through commerce and trade, agriculture, and the crafts. Their cities, like the poleis of the classical time, became centers of Greek learning and civilization. The Hellenization of the Jews was a voluntary self-Hellenization, like the self-Americanization of American Jews, Italians, Greeks, and others.
Dr. Martin Hengel, of the University of Tbingen, is the author of several important studies, including a monumental two-volume work on Judaism and Hellenism. He indicates that Hellenization was so widespread in Jewish Palestine that we should not speak of Palestinian Judaism but only of Hellenistic Judaism. To speak of Palestinian Judaism is to “pass too lightly over the fact that by the time of Jesus, Palestine had already been under Hellenistic rule and its resultant cultural influence for some 360 years.” He goes on to explain that in Palestine:
“Hellenistic civilization was by no means an exclusively or even predominantly military, civic and socio-economic phenomenon; these were simply the areas in which its effects first became visible; rather, it was the expression of a force which embraced almost every sphere of life. It was…an expression of the power of the Greek spirit which penetrated and shaped everything, expressive and receptive.”
Several other leading scholars of the period, such as Nigel Turner, J. N. Sevenster, Moshe Schwabe, and Baruch Lifshitz, have demonstrated that the Greek language and Hellenistic culture were not restricted to the upper classes in Palestine but had permeated all circles of Jewish society. On the basis of inscriptions alone, Schwabe and Lifshitz, both of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, conclude that:
“…anyone who has examined the Greco-Jewish inscriptions in Palestine, including those of Beth She’arim, is well aware that…Greek was used by the Jews in general and not only by the intellectuals and city dwellers among them.”
As Judaism did not resist Hellenization, likewise Christianity did not reject the mind, the philosophy, the language, the style of life, or even the politics of Hellenism. In fact, Christianity did not seek to destroy but to consecrate it. Christianity and Greco-Roman culture were not two independent, antithetical entities, each with its own spiritual vision. Early Christianity and later medieval catholic Christianity never saw a sharp dichotomy between Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture. Early Christian authors such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and many more slowly developed a deliberate synthesis of the two. Christianity appeared not as a reaction against Greek classical philosophy but as a new spiritual force, which united the Greek and Roman world with the religious impulse of the Semitic Near East, with the Jewish Scriptures in particular.
Greek thought served as a propaideia, a preparation for Christian doctrines. For example, the doctrine of God was formulated on the basis of centuries-old Greek intellectual tradition. The debate in the early Church about the nature of God, God as the “enclosing” not the “enclosed,” traces back to pre-Socratic Philosophy, even though it derived much more from Aristotle’s discussion of the infinite. When Christian intellectuals such as Hermas, Theophilos, Athenagoras, Irenaios, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa spoke of God as the chor’n (the one who contains all things) and asserted that God alone is achretos (uncontained), they used Greek philosophical categories proposed by Xenophanes, Plato, and Aristotle. Church Fathers used Greek philosophy not only to attack polytheism but also to explain Old Testament anthropomorphism.
Many elements claimed by Christianity as uniquely Christian can be found in ancient Greek as well as in other religions. Divine revelation, for example, was not limited to ancient Israel, and it cannot be claimed as an element unique to the Christian religion. Natural revelation is a very important element in several religions. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that man’s knowledge derived from God. Protagoras, Xenophanes, and the tragedians spoke many religious truths. Xenophanes writes that:
“truly the gods have not revealed to mortals all things from the beginnings; but mortals by long seeking discover what is better.”
This view, which assigns progress and evolution to man, was stated in similar and indeed in more concrete terms by Aeschylos and Sophokles. The religion of the ancient Greeks at a certain stage of its development was polytheistic, but under the influence of their great intellectuals, they conceived the idea of one God. At no time were the ancient Greeks uniform in their religious beliefs and practices. They were eclectic. There was no canon, no “Bible,” no codified decree that forced them into religious uniformity. Not without justification the Church Fathers observed centuries later that many heresies in the early church had originated in the free spirit of Hellenism (many other heresies were of Jewish and Oriental origins). “Heresy,” from the Greek haeresis, means choice, and the Greeks exercised the right of choice.
While some ancient Greeks were polytheists, others were monotheists. Some took the Olympian gods very seriously; others saw God everywhere and identified God with life. Nature was nothing but life, spirit, the divinity itself. Some worshiped statues, while others saw in statues only an image of the deity, not the deity itself. Creation as a whole, including human life, was sanctified by the presence of the divinity, which revealed itself in diverse ways, in nature as well as in human consciousness. It was for this reason that they erected altars, temples, and statues everywhere, reminding themselves of the divinity’s omnipresence. There is little doubt that the deepest foundation of religious feeling in the ancient Greek world was the mysterious life of nature, a life infused with spirit, and also with divinity. Life in ancient Greece was all-encompassing, and it encompassed organic and inorganic nature. Dead nature did not exist. Meadows and forests, springs and rivers, lakes and seas, measureless space, and silent mountain ranges were equally divine.
Ancient Greek literature (poetry, drama, history) reveals that the Greeks were not only devoutly religious but that they believed in the universality of religion. In Homer’s Odyssey, we read that Nestor’s son Pisistratos tells Telemachos at Pylos that “all men stand in need of gods.” The Greeks were conscious of the weaknesses and the limitations of humanity, which induce human beings to depend on a power or powers higher than themselves. The Greeks reveal more than once their longing for God’s love and protection from the evils of the world, from natural catastrophes, from pestilences and illnesses. Thus, in ancient Greek life, “all things are full of the gods,” as Thales of Miletos and Plato taught.
The historian Xenophon relates that Klearchos, in a conversation with the traitor Tissaphernes, states that “all things in all places are subject to the gods, and all alike the gods hold in their control.” The Christian teaching the “God became man that man might become God” has its parallels in Greek religion and philosophy. The sixth-century philosopher Heraklitos writes that “mortals are immortals and immortals are mortals, living the immortals’ death and dying the immortals’ life.” It is no wonder then that every Greek town had more temples, shrines, and sacred groves than a Christian medieval city had churches. It is a well-known fact that Greek religion had a permanent influence on the beliefs, rituals, theology, and ethics of Christianity. When Greek religion and Christianity met, they were fused, and after their fusion, many of the older forms and beliefs reappeared under different forms.
There are numerous chapels and altars in modern Greece, as in antiquity, in honor of Christ, His mother, His apostles, and His saints. As a statue did not become an object of worship before its consecration, an icon today does not become the object of veneration if it has not been consecrated. As the statue in antiquity was, for the educated and the enlightened, only the image of the deity, likewise today the icons of the Orthodox are images presented to make concrete and understandable abstract ideas, or persons whose physical appearance is invisible or remains unknown. As images and rites were the guides of religious feeling, likewise icons and rituals are the most potent medium of religious feeling among the Orthodox today.
As we have already indicated, the ancient Greeks considered aspects of their religion as revealed. It had its prophets and its theophanies, such as Melampos, Orpheus, Hesiod, Musaios, Epimenides, Pythagoras, Empedokles, and Sokrates, and the Eleusinian, Bacchic, and Orphic mysteries. They had their nympholepts, that is, prophets who had received their divine gifts of prophecy and insight from the nymphs, the daughter of the Great Mother Earth. Sokrates viewed himself as a gift of God to the Athenians, as a gadfly to stir them to higher things. In his famous apology, which was recorded by Plato, Sokrates stressed that his mission was divine. “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” Without Sokrates, the Athenians “would sleep on for the remainder of their lives, unless God in his care” should send them another gadfly.
Notwithstanding its diversity, Greek religious thought was both serious and profound. The nineteenth-century German classical scholar and philologist Erwin Rhode writes that “both the deepest and the boldest thoughts about divinity arose in ancient Greece.” Because of their religious quests and the variety of their religious experiences, the ancient Hellenes have been described by the greatest classical scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, as “the most devout nation of the world.”
As early as the sixth century B.C., there were Greeks who believed in one God who reigned supreme above all gods and mortals. To quote again the philosopher Xenophanes, “one God there is, greatest of gods and men.” Other thinkers believed that names such as Apollo, Zeus, Dionysos, and others were different names for the same deity, who functions in diverse ways and assumes a different name according to the occasion.
Greek monotheism developed progressively after the sixth century. A treatise that has survived under the name of Aristotle states that:
“God, being one, yet has many names, being called after all the various conditions which he himself inaugurates.”
The chief characteristic of the one God is that of providence and concern over the cosmos or the creation. In later Greek, non-Christian thought, Dio Chrysostom and Maximos Tyrios expressed belief in monotheism in more concrete terms. Maximos proclaimed, “There is one God, king and father of all.”
Though Greek thought after the sixth century before the Christian era emphasized man’s ability to work creatively upon his environment and to assert himself over and against a hostile or indifferent cosmos, rationalistic views did not always obtain, and humanity was often seen as in the bondage of hamartia (sin) or subject to uncontrollable limitations. Knowledge, intelligence, power, and material wealth were not considered unambiguously good.
It is primarily the realm of the divine that defines the boundaries of what the human being can know and do. Where the human realm ends, the divine begins. Human knowledge and human power and responsibilities are, of course, limited. To try and overstep the boundary line between the human and the divine brings on serious consequences. Thinkers like Sokrates and Sophokles made the distinction between the man-made and the natural, between the temporal and the eternally existent. They conceptualized the issues of divine versus human law, the individual versus the community, private versus public morality, religious versus secular values. The Greeks spoke of certain absolutes which “live always,” and for the most part, they rejected autocratic rationalism and crushing materialism. The divine and the human, the physical and the metaphysical world, fused and remained interrelated through the Greek intellectual tradition. It is sinful (hamartema) to violate not only the divine, but also the relations between man and nature.
Certainly the Greeks emphasized the greatness of the human being, but that greatness was measured against the subjugated natural world, not the divine law, which manifests itself in many ways both in the internal and in the external world of man. While both the world of man and the world of nature are not helpless, neither are they all-powerful and supreme. In general, the ancient Greeks struck a balance between the physical and the metaphysical. God or the gods punish only those who commit hybris against the divine or against fellow human beings, not those with eusebia (reverence) and humility (autognosia).
To violate divine law is sinful, and to devalue the human is not only an insult (hybris) to humanity but also a brutalization of human relationships with the divine. Several ancient Greek thinkers stressed that there are areas of existence that cannot or should not be subjected to the control, coercion, or authority of man. While the human, the physical world, and the nonhuman, the metaphysical, are all inseparably linked, the human is subject to the metaphysical realm, which lies beyond man’s control.
In Greek thought, as in the Antigone and Oedipus at Kolomos of Sophokles, even death, that “heroic acceptance of the unknown,” bears witness to man’s dignity and to divine promises. To live humanly was to know fully the strengths and limitations of man’s existence; to die was both an assertion of man’s humanity and acceptance of God or the gods and their limitless, ageless, and unbending conditions. Knowledge of man’s human qualities involved recognition of the unyielding factuality of the divine, the only “things that are.”
Man’s progressive knowledge of things divine is also seen in Greek anthropological thought. On the whole, it stressed belief in the dignity and infinite worth of the human person, which personified the heavenly God upon earth. Man’s energy was viewed as the embodiment of the vital energy of the gods. He was considered a microcosm of the visible and the invisible, the natural and the supernatural. Man’s mind or soul was respected as a miniature world that expressed its vision in art and thought, imagination and remembrance, goodness, beauty, and truth, conceiving and re-creating reality.
As a result of the influence of ancient Greek thought and its concept of natural revelation, there is in Orthodox thought today no opposition between the human and the natural, no separating of reason and faith, spirituality and materiality. The natural or “secular” is sanctified in the whole realm of God’s creation. Thus, the Orthodox believe that human life and the universe require unity and equilibrium, and they observe in their theology a balance between faith and reason, logic and sentiment, and supernatural revelation, belief and conduct.
It must be noted that monotheism in the ancient Greek world, which was never absolute, was practiced primarily by philosophers and thinkers, while polytheism was widely practiced by the common folk.
Nevertheless, the influence of ancient Greek religion on Christian religion, as demonstrated by such prominent scholars and students of ancient Greek religion as Thaddeus Zielinski and Martin P. Nilsson, is apparent in every major aspect of Christianity, its doctrine, ethics, and worship. It is not without reason that Christianity has been described as very syncretic. While Christian theology, philosophy, and ethics have been strongly influenced by Platonism and Stoicism, much Aristotelianism lies behind Christian dialectics, definitions and creeds, theological and creedal categories.
On the popular level, several religious practices of ancient Greek origin have survived in the Greek world. Ancient Greek religious elements appeared in early Christian religiosity in a number of forms, including piety, superstition, demonology, and ritual. It has been rightly observed that “when Christianity adopted the pagan basilica, it took over much of its furniture and practices.”
The survival of Greek religious practices in Christian religiosity is confirmed by several Church canons, commentaries on canons, liturgical services and prayers, lives of saints, and other sources, including historical accounts.
To be sure, attempts were made to eradicate persistent practices of ancient Greek religion, but without success. Many of them have remained extant to the present day. The great number of religious services, prayers, exorcisms, and blessings of the Orthodox Church indicate that in its evolution, the Church consecrated the whole life, mind and body, logic and senses, feelings, and whatever constitutes human life.
In the area of Christian mysticism, the influence of Greek religious mysticism is no less apparent. The teaching concerning theosis (deification) is a good illustration. According to early and medieval Christian theology, the ultimate goal of the faithful is to achieve theosis - eternal life in God - not, however, absorbed by God in a pantheistic manner. Early as well as later Greek Fathers of the Middle Ages made much use of this concept. Theosis became synonymous with salvation, and salvation was the presence of the human in God, while damnation was the absence of God from the life of the human. Saint Irenaios put it in the following manner: “In His unfathomable love, God became what we are, that He might make us what He is.”
The idea of theosis was not foreign to the classical Greek mind. It was associated with philosophia, with paideia through philosophical exercise (askesis) and intellectual growth, rather than with a religious experience, as was the case in the Christian tradition. For Greek thought, philosophy is the path, the anabasis, the ascent to theosis. Plato says that God will not neglect the righteous man, the man who “by the practice of virtue is to be likened unto God so far as that is possible for man.” Some of Plato’s teaching is echoed in the writings of the Neoplatonists, for instance Ammonios of Alexandria: “Philosophy is likeness in God so far as that is possible for man (philosophia esti omoiosis theo kata to dynaton anthropo).” And the fourth-century philosopher and rhetorician Themistios repeats that “philosophy is nothing else than assimilation to God to the extent that it is possible for man.”
The Greek influence on the early Christians was not only that of the thought-world of the Greeks, their religious and philosophical heritage, but also that of their mythology and of symbols for their culture and social realities, as sociologists like Peter Berger, Thomas Luckman, and Mary Douglas have emphasized. Even Greek tragedy was emulated in the Christian gospel. For example, Gilbert Bilezikian writes that Mark incorporated elements of the Greek dramatic literary form that prevailed in the cultural milieu of his time. Bilezikian adds that even though Mark did not intend to write a Greek tragedy, he used all the distinctive dramatic features of Greek tragedy to convey a powerful gospel message.
In the area of ethics, one wonders where Greek ethical principles end and where Christian ethics start. For example, the ethical teachings of early Christian writers are remarkably similar to those of non-Christian thinkers. On subjects such as love, hate, money, family, and society, Plutarch, the Greek moralist and biographer, and early Christian literature express very similar notions, a fact that can hardly be accidental. Whereas it is improbable that Christian writers knew of Plutarch’s writings or vice versa, the answer lies in the common moral background. Both Plutarch and Christian writers came under the influence of the same elements of Greek philosophy, such as Platonism, Artistotelianism, Cynicism, and Stoicism.
Even though much serious scholarship has been devoted to the importance of Christianity’s religious, philosophical, cultural, and political background, there still are Christians who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, teaching the need for a divorce between the Bible and its intellectual and cultural background. But as the Old Testament clearly reveals that the biblical Hebrews did not receive everything from heaven, but that they inherited much from the high culture that had long existed in Canaan when Abraham migrated from Haran to Palestine, likewise the New Testament manifests that its writers were influenced by the Greek mind that had long existed before the birth of Christianity. Here is one more illustration.
The fundamental concept of Christian faith (pistis) in the New Testament, faith as trust, conviction, and persuasion, derives from Greek rather than Hebrew thought. The Greek theory of paideia (education, intellectual training) served as a framework on which differing views of faith in the four Gospels, in Paul, James, and Peter were established and used. In fact, it was long before Christian writers that Jewish notions about faith had accommodated themselves to Greek notions, thus making the transition to Christian adoptions easier. Greek modes of thought influenced Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian writers. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, reveals the Platonic distinction between eternal archetypes and temporary copies.
The question remains: How did early Christian authors justify the adoption of Greek culture? They referred to Old Testament precedents. For example, the great theologian Origen of Alexandria cited the “spoliation of the Egyptians” by Hebrews (Ex. 12:35-36) in order to justify the Christians’ own expropriation of the thought-world of Pagan Hellenism. According to the Exodus account, when they left Egypt, the Hebrews made off with the gold and silver ornaments of the Egyptians. Likewise, following the example of the ancient Israelites, the Christians took over the wisdom and culture of ancient Hellenism.
Christians need not apologize because their religion has inherited so much from the Greek philosophical and religious thought of antiquity. As Sokrates, the fourth-century Church historian, writes: “The good wherever it is found is a property of the truth.” The Orthodox Church believes that every effort made by the human spirit in its pursuit of reality and truth is of perennial worth. In the course of the centuries, Christianity has not destroyed the past but adopted and consecrated it. It is as impossible to de-Hellenize Christianity as it is to de-Orientalize Judaism. The purity of Judaism is a myth, and the purity of Christianity is a myth. Both have inherited from several sources. It has been rightly observed that “Greek religion and philosophy did not entirely vanish from the consciousness of the Christianized world: it penetrated into it, it lives in it to this day, and will live so long as Christianity itself shall live.” Early Christianity accommodated itself to the prevailing thought-forms and cultural values of the society in which it found itself. The church in her effort to spread the Christian gospel meaningfully exploited the thought of the Greco-Roman world as well as that of other societies.
To be sure, there was hostility to Hellenic thought, religious practices, and culture. But ultimately, it was the Hellenized school of Christian theology and the synthesis achieved by the Cappadocian Fathers that prevailed. The edicts of Theodosios the Great in the fourth century and of Justinian in the sixth, the temper of monasticism, several Church canons, and the efforts of certain patriarchs did not succeed in destroying Greek religious thought and culture. As the eminent British scholar William Ralph Inge writes:
“A doctrine or custom is not necessarily un-Christian because it is Greek or pagan. I know of no stranger perversity than for men who rest the whole weight of their religion upon history, to suppose that our Lord meant to raise an universal religion on a purely Jewish basis.”
Inge adds that:
“Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see that a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission.”
But in the process, Christianity conquered and transformed Hellenism as well. The aspirations of the ancient world, the Messianic expectations of ancient Israel, and the philosophical and religious quests of the Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and others, converged in the person of Christ. As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes:
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us in the Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power”(Heb. 1:1-3).
Christianity: The Fullness of Time
I indicated above that from an Orthodox viewpoint, Christianity emerged as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament prophecy and ancient Hebrew expectation, but also of the history of mankind, and that of the ancient Mediterranean world in particular. Apostolic Fathers such as Ignatios of Antioch; apologists such as Justin Martyr; ecclesiastical and theological writers of great influence such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebios of Caesarea; major Church Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, including Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo - all perceived Christianity as the religion that began with the creation of the world. It is the Logos doctrine of John’s Gospel, which identifies Divine Reason (Logos, or “Word”) with Christ as God existing before all creation and revealing Himself progressively in “various ways and diverse manners.”
Christianity is the religion in which the person and the teachings of Christ occupy the central position. Christ removed the discord between God and man. And this removal of discord is made possible by and functions through the religious fellowship (koinonia) known as the Ecclesia (Church), of which He remains the Head. Thus, the right relation of man to God is reestablished. Christianity is the most complete revelation of God to man in the person of Him who is both God and man, a theanthropos, who was ever God from eternity and man from the moment of His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
The central affirmation of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, who is God and eternally both transcendent and immanent, became a human being in order to take human beings back into God’s fold, and that by His death and resurrection, He has become the source of forgiveness of sin, newness of life, redemption, and eternal life in God, otherwise known as theosis. God’s concern and love for human beings prompted the incarnation and is expressed through the Church, her life of prayer, faith, and the sacraments instituted by Christ Himself or by His early disciples under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, Christian truth cannot be “proved” in the way that a mathematical equation can be solved. Christianity is a way of life, faith and inner life and experience: These are its bases, not necessarily research, intellectual thought, and logic, even though logic and thought are not foreign to the Christian mind.
As the founder of Christianity appeared to His contemporaries to be an extraordinary person, likewise Christianity’s early history is most unusual. Christ appeared as a unique personality in human history. His birth has been accepted as a miracle and His life as an enigma. At the age of thirty, He appeared as a man claiming to be the Son of God and the Savior of humankind. He lived among people “doing good.” Of His thirty-three years on earth, He spent only three active years in public life. However, those three years were time enough to revolutionize the whole world and establish a new order. Every aspect of Western civilization bears the mark of His influence.
Christ is the Lord of more than a billion people all over the world today. His ideals triumphed through peaceful teaching and practical philanthropy. For over three hundred years, Christianity had no official status in the Roman Empire. During most of that time, membership in the Church, that is, in the community of Christ’s followers, was in fact a criminal offence. Widespread and incredibly brutal persecutions were not uncommon, but the Christians did not respond to violence with violence. They blessed their persecutors, they prayed for the men who released wild animals against them and who burned them alive. But an empire was conquered, not by swords and trampling armies, but by faith, hope in the life to come, and the practice of love and philanthropy among themselves and towards others. The strong convictions and “good works” of the martyrs were truly the seeds of the Christian Ecclesia. Christianity made converts of all races and classes of people and became a universal religion.
Christ’s mission on earth was continued by His followers the twelve Apostles, later the seventy disciples, the three and the five thousands, the people that made up “the Church.” It is this Church that is the agency through which God’s will is carried out. This community of people proclaimed that:
“…there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:12).
Christians everywhere believe that Christ is that final revelation of religion for which the human soul longs. In His incarnation, the event of God made man, the history of ancient Israel and the quests of the Greek and Roman worlds, as well as the gropings of all mankind, were fulfilled. Because of the Christ event, “secular” history was transformed into “sacred” history.
Christianity became the most influential religion in the history of Western civilization. For at least fifteen centuries, it was the faith, the ethos, and the way of life for millions of people. Literature, art, history, government, and other areas of human endeavor have been greatly influenced by the Christian faith and ideals. Early Christianity was characterized by “unity in diversity.” But in the course of centuries, this unity was broken under the pressure of human circumstances to the extent that today we speak of four major divisions in the Christian religion: Greek, or Eastern, Orthodox Christianity; Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; and Oriental Orthodox Christianity (the faith of the Lesser Churches of the Near East: Coptic, Armenian, Nestorian, and others). For conventional and practical purposes, we may speak of three major events that brought about these divisions in the body of Christianity. The theological efforts of the fifth century to define Christian doctrine and the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451) contributed to the first serious schism between the “Lesser Churches” of the near East and Orthodox Catholic, or “Chalcedonian,” Christianity. Events in medieval Christendom, from the ninth to the twelfth century, contributed to the second and more serious schism between Greek and Latin Christianity, which became a reality after 1204, with the fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders. Finally, events within Roman, or Western, Catholic Christianity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries contributed to the genesis of Protestant Christianity in several different forms. The year of Martin Luther’s protest in 1517 became the starting point of the Reformation movement.
Serious differences among all four branches of Christianity exist; but there are more things that unite Christians than things that divide them. They all believe in one God, they all acknowledge one Lord, they all accept one baptism, they all have the same Bible. The ecumenical movement of the last thirty years aims at the restoration of Christian unity, a unity in obedience to Christ’s commands of brotherly love (Jn. 15:17) and of complete unity (Jn. 17:22-23). Only through the fraternal love and the perfect unity of its followers will Christianity be able to challenge the world to recognize its values and its claims.