Monday, May 28, 2012

Hellenism and Christianity

We’ve had quite a debate going in the comments section of my last post. The sparing back and forth about Greek influence on the early Christian church has evoked strong emotions on both sides. I feel like I’m sitting at the net in a tennis match.

Seriously, though, the link between Christianity and Greek philosophy is a subject we should investigate. The Hellenistic period itself is interesting, although enigmatic at the same time. Named by Professor D.S. Droysan, a German academic of the nineteenth century, Hellenistic refers to the time span from 322 30 B.C in Eastern Europe and Western Asia when Greek culture became widespread after the death of Alexander. Using one word to characterize the period is risky because the period was not uniform, but the term is now universal so we have to use it.

When Alexander died, his associates fought for control of his legacy.
As the map above shows, four “kingdoms” resulted from their division of the spoils. This map is a snapshot in time which does not represent any long term political organization of the period. We only use it here to visually represent the Hellenistic world.  

Our focus in this post is on the cultural influences at work and their impact on the people who would eventually be exposed to Paul’s teaching – the Hellenistic gentiles. That knowledge will then lead to a discussion about the fusion of Hellenistic thought and Christianity.

The fundamental character of the Hellenistic era was found in its cities which acted as engines for cultural development. These urban centers were controlled by Greeks, not the locals who were forced into the role of a proletariat class. The controlling faction was made up of rich aristocrats, who ruled autocratically, despite the trappings of the traditional Greek political model. These “patricians” took on a bourgeois character -- living off inherited wealth and using slaves to provide the labor they required. Socially they were arrogant and focused on maintaining their lofty position. Still, they spent lavishly to beautify their cities and were open to new ideas brought in from the outside.

Education was given a high priority during the Hellenistic Age because the aristocrats wanted their offspring to be “citizens of the world”. Let me quote from my April 21, 2011 article on Greek education to provide additional detail.

Paideia,  the technique of teaching in the Greek system turns into anxesis, which is the same word in Hellenistic Greek with a new meaning. No longer an educational method, the word now meant attainment of a cultural ideal through education.

Wherever the Greeks went – Babylon, Egypt, or Susiana – they brought their own institutions with them, including the schools. An education was essential in a foreign land because the Greeks had to train their sons to be successful adults. This “classical education” was now nothing more than preparation for a Greek way of life.

This concept of education had now advanced from the subsidiary role in Plato’s world to an equal player in the development of the rational Hellenistic adult. Hellenists saw their education as the most valuable asset his life, as evidenced by those who were buried with grave markers highlighting their educational accomplishments. Stilpo, when asked if he needed to be compensated for losses incurred during the pillage of Megara said, “I have lost nothing that belongs to me, I still have my culture, my logos”.

Speaking of logos, let’s move on to discuss new philosophical doctrines that emerged during the Hellenistic period. The most important of these was Stoicism, first introduced by Zeno circa 300 B.C. Stoic theology asserts that the world is divinely governed by a predetermined plan of God. That plan orders the universe in a rational way, and man must seek to understand the world to perceive God’s plan. To support the requirement for rationality, the Stoics created a view of physics based on Heraclitus and Aristotle. This view places in Zeus’ hands the ability to place the logos or spark in the body of every human being.

Let me list some of the major tenets of Stoic theology.

1. There is one God who created the universe (some Stoics kept the door
 open for polytheism).

2. God infuses man with a spirit – Logos.

3. When a person dies his spark returns to the divine spirit.

4. A person’s soul lives forever in the Isle of the Blest.

5. Men must strive to live in conformity with the divine plan.

6. What happens to the body does not matter as long as the soul is pure.

7. A wise man exhibits the qualities of temperance, judgment, bravery, and

8. All men are equal as human beings.

This reads like Christian philosophy 300 years ahead of itself, doesn’t it?

But the Stoics go deeper, trying to understand the relationship between the cosmic world and the world of man. For example, they addressed the paradox of evil in the world if God is intrinsically good. They concluded that evil was necessary because there had to be an opposite to good. And there were other justifications for evil offered. War appears evil but at the same time reduces the population. Mice are troublesome but having them reminds us to be clean.

The Stoics also thought about how to live in a world where our fate is beyond our control. What value does prayer have if our lives are predetermined? Some believed that prayer has no purpose other than easing the mind. Others believed that prayer acts as the acknowledgement of the power of God and the acceptance of one’s fate.

So we see these Stoic attempts to rationalize the most difficult questions of theology. Over the five hundred year period from Zeno to Seneca these beliefs evolved, adapting to criticism and the changing world.

Now we can move on to the other Important philosophy of the Hellenistic period --- Epicureanism. Simple and bundled neatly in a package, this philosophy attempts to simplify life in a way that rationalizes human behavior.

While the Stoics only accepted the notion of sensation, the Epicureans embraced it. Epicurus, the founder, asserted that if man desired physical pleasure and sought to avoid physical pain he should spend his life actively seeking the former. Gods were not important to him because he believed that if they exist, they allow the universe to operate on its own. Belief in God, then, comes down to personal preference. There is no afterlife so living to please God has no purpose.

In these two theologies we have the product of Hellenistic thinkers who explored  the same problems we face today. How do we characterize God and our relationship with him? Is life predetermined and what control do we have over our lives. What are the consequences of sin in this life and the next if it exists.

There is no question in my mind that Hellenistic thinking influenced Christianity through the beliefs extant when Paul traveled the Hellenistic world. Stoicism, in particular, appears as a precursor to the Christian world view. We’ll discuss this further in the next post.


W.LindsayWheeler said...

Prof. Jerry Dell Ehrlich in his book Plato's Gift to Christianity also lays out the importance of the Septuagint upon the Hellenistic world and upon Christianity.

In the Septuagint, Greek words led to the Hellenization of the Jews at home and in the Diaspora. The Septuagint was created three hundred years before Christ. In many places where the word "messiah" is written, is the word "xristos" (Christ) is written. The Septuagint had a huge influence along with Plato's writings in the formation of Christianity.

Hellenism not only included an emphasis on education, it also passed on the ideas of Arete (excellence), the love of beauty and also virtue (the excellence of a man). Arete, the love of Beauty, Virtue and Paideia are key ideas of Hellenism.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The Stoics were revolutionaries in that they rejected hierarchy in society. They mangled the transmission of the Natural Law that the Doric Greeks discovered which informed the foundation of Socratic and Platonic thought.

They turned the natural law into human morality which divorced it from it original that which "steers the cosmos from within". Their rejection of hierarchy which is part of the Natural Law shows them to be revolutionaries. They rejected the old order of Greece and proposed a different way.

Another name for the natural law is the logos. Heraclitus uses the term logos to describe this steering. Logos originally meant "the reason found in nature". I see from the OP that the Stoics redefined the logos as well. No doubt that Stoicism influenced much in the Hellenistic Age but that some of its teachings were not traditional.