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.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Christianity and the Roman Empire – Part III The Second Century

So we arrive at the second century A.D. and find the Catholic Church’s administrative apparatus in place and the new church flourishing. As mentioned in recent posts, the destruction of the temple by the Romans and the death of the Jerusalem Christians is a common marking point for the end of Jewish control of Christianity.  That is not to say that it marked the final split between the two religions, however. The separation actually took a couple of centuries.

One can understand this link between Judaism and Christianity by recalling the story of Jacob and Esau who, as brothers, fought each other in the womb. Both religions were variations of messianic philosophy. In the Jewish case, the belief was derived from second century B.C. apocalyptic literature. In the Christian case, Jesus was the messiah and his resurrection the foundation of the belief system. But the resurrected messiah was incomprehensible to the Jewish religion because it did not allow a kinship between man and God.

The Romans did not differentiate between Jews and Christians until 96 A.D. when the Fiscus Judiacus (tax on Jews) was implemented. This tax was imposed on all Jews of the empire as reparations for the revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Christians were not required to pay the tax.

Of course there were cases in the first century when the Christians were singled out for persecution, first under Nero and then Domitian, but our interest for this post lies specifically in the second century.

The following are the major currents we’ll be discussing:

The development of Christian dogma
The heresies
The persecutions

The first three describe aspects of the development of the Catholic Church and the fourth the Roman reaction against the behavior of Christians.

As time went on, the Christian dogma was refined as scholars analyzed the sacred writings and came to conclusions about their meaning. The dogma was build brick by brick, sentence by sentence until it became the law of the church. The dogma was defended by apologists who sought to put it in the context of the history of man and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Simultaneous with the defense was the offence – working against the many variants of the main belief system. These heretical outliers threatened to undermine and dilute the exclusive role of the Catholic Church as protector of the Christian theology.

Below are some brief sketches about the lives of early Christian theologians.

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (50-108), stressed the relationship between the teachings of Jesus and the hierarchy of the church -- that Christians should obey their bishops. He was martyred in Rome.

Justin Martyr (100-165), an apologist, was one of the earliest Christian writers. Born in Judea and martyred in Rome, Justin believed that the Greek philosophers took their essential ideas from the Hebrew Bible, proving the eternalness of the Christian belief system. He labeled Socrates a Christian. In his Dialog with Trypho, Justin demonstrated why Christians are the true people of God.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (140-202) was an apologist known for his book Against Heresies. Irenaeus took specific aim at Gnostics who were causing a great threat to the church. Gnostics believed that a person could achieve salvation through the acquisition of secret knowledge of God. Furthermore some Gnostics saw Jesus as the vehicle that brought this knowledge to the human race. Irenaeus succeeded to the title of Bishop of Lyon when he absent in Rome during a massacre there.

Tertullian (160-225) was an early Christian writer from Carthage who, like Irenaeus, was an apologist writing against heresies. Tertullian has been labeled the “Father of Western Theology” and was the first to use the term “trinity”.

Origen (185-253) was an Alexandrian scholar and theologian, whose father was martyred during the reign of Septimius Severus. One of Origen’s important contributions was First Principles a book which describes God as the logos, the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of sin and redemption, and the Bible.

Throughout the second century the church moved forward developing its theology and solidifying its administrative apparatus as the only true interpreter of Christian theology through its link to the savior. But progress was also disrupted by the Roman persecutions which were much more serious in the 100s than at any other time. I was surprised that this “Golden Age” of the empire with its superior leadership could have been so cruel to the Christians – particularly during the time of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic.

Prior to Marcus, the emperors of the second century followed the outline of Trajan who specified to Pliny that Christians not be sought out but rather tried in court if evidence of their guilt could be presented. There is no question that the persecutions were more severe under Marcus but we lack evidence that he created a new more restrictive policy. The persecutions appear to be local, originating with the provincial magistrates and there has been speculation about Marcus’ involvement in them. For example, one academic felt that Marcus’ personality was impacted by the troubles of his reign – incessant wars, famine, and disease, and these made him turn his anger against the Christians.

Below is one of the few quotes we have from Marcus Aurelius about Christians.

That soul which is ever ready, even now presently (if need be) from the body, whether by way of extinction, or dispersion, or continuation in another place and estate to be separated, how blessed and happy is it! But this readiness of it, it must proceed, not from obstinate and peremptory resolution of the mind, violently and passionately set upon Opposition, as Christians are wont;  but from a peculiar judgment; with discretion and gravity, so that others may be persuaded also and drawn to the like example, but without any noise and passionate exclamations.

In other words, to him, the soul must be properly prepared to leave the body at the end of one’s life. That preparation must take a form that sets an example for others. This he contrasts with the Christian attitude which is “obstinate and violently set upon opposition”, like tragic actors.

After Marcus, Severus returned to the previously established policy of Trajan with some exceptions. For example he sought to prohibit conversions to Christianity and Judaism. There were some severe persecutions in Africa during the early 200s A.D.

Here we close the story of the second century and move on. By the time another century had passed, the Christian church was moving rapidly toward official recognition by the empire. Then, as we’ve discussed before, the church would rise as the empire was moving toward collapse.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Was Jesus a Militant Leader?

When you dig into the secular writing about Jesus of Nazareth, or even the Scriptures for that matter, you notice information that appears to contradict what we have been taught about the peaceful nature of the man. Some quotes suggest that he may have been a militant revolutionary in addition to a charismatic spiritual leader. The subject of this article is to look at the history and the quotes from our sources, to see what we may uncover.

Religion is one of the most difficult topics for a historian because it treads on human sensitivity.  There are 2 billion Christians in the world who have accepted the accuracy of the story of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels. I do not question those beliefs, but at the same time, I want to look for the truth which results from an analytical approach to the information extant on the subject.

The subject matter in this instance is made more difficult because there are heavy political agendas at work – understandable at the beginning but now dogma after two millennia. The early Christians sought to give meaning to the events that overwhelmed them when their leader was crucified so their writings reflected the ardor they felt. Later, the fully formed Catholic Church attacked the Jewish people because it wanted to separate itself as a new religion and show favoritism to the Romans who had just gone to war against the Jews. The Jews, themselves, tried to distance themselves from the early Christians who they saw as seriously deviant from the law of the Torah.

And now we begin with the “cleansing of the temple”

Matt 21:12. “And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers."

John 2:14. “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”

What really happened here? Was there violence? It appears so.

The above drawing shows the temple layout. The holy sanctuary is in the center, and on either side are open areas referred to as the Court of the Gentiles. It was here that tables were set up by merchants to sell sacrificial animals. In other words they were providing a necessary function for those wishing to sacrifice in the temple.

The temple had a significant security force. A cohort of Roman soldiers was stationed at the Antonia Fortress and there was also a Jewish “police” force protecting the holy site.

To quote from the Jewish encyclopedia – “The priests and Levites of the Second Temple were organized into groups, with proper officers or captains. Under the high priest the senior officer was more generally designated as his lieutenant. The officer named in the passages quoted in Acts 4:1 corresponds to the one given the same title by Josephus. He is the captain of the Levitical temple-guard, a body of police, referred to also in Luke 22:4. The officers that assisted in the arrest of Jesus cited in John 18:12, may have belonged to this company.”

The temple area was a busy place with perhaps 20,000 people there at one time.

The passages above describe the driving of merchants and money changers out of the temple. How many were driven out -- one, ten, one hundred? If Jesus wanted to create a memorable demonstration, it would have to have been large enough to include physical violence. The Temple police would not have allowed the commotion to escalate before getting involved. Perhaps Jesus had a large group with him (200?). They would have held off the security forces while the demonstration was underway, and then fought their way free.

The Temple episode is further tied to subsequent events, the next being Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. Judas led the authorities to Jesus and his followers and kissed him as a means of identification. They must have been in a secret location because the Pharisees would not have paid Judas money to find someone they could find themselves. He had to be giving away their location. Were they in hiding because of the violence at the temple?

When they Pharisees arrive at the garden, the following happens:

Mark 14:43 “And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign saying, “The one I shall kiss the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said “Master!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?”

So Jesus’ associates were armed. It doesn’t say who wielded the sword so we don’t know if it was one of the eleven remaining disciples, but Jesus undoubtedly had more than eleven men with him, perhaps a body guard or a small militia. The “twelve” always stand as his closest followers, but there are several occasions in the Bible where a larger group is mentioned. In Luke, for example, Jesus sends out seventy to preach. Also why did the accusers feel they needed to be armed in going to apprehend Jesus? Seems like they expected resistance.

Note the following Gospel passages that reference the use of swords and their purpose.

Matt 10:34. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

Luke 22:36. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.

Where Jesus followers always armed? Obviously we don’t know, but again, there is this subtle thread of militancy.

Now Jesus is arrested and we segue to the trial. There has been much debate about this. One thing for certain is that crucifixion is punishment for sedition against Rome and stoning is the Jewish punishment for crimes against the religion, so Pilate must have been convinced of the reality of Jesus’ crimes against Rome in order to condemn him. We know so little about Pilate and have no primary source information about this episode, so it’s hard to guess what was in his mind. I doubt that he was the wimp portrayed in the Gospels – letting the Pharisees talk him into killing Jesus.

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” But they can’t see to it themselves and at the same time use the Roman punishment. In the next sequence Roman guards take him to the Praetorium were he is scourged – totally under control of the Romans.

These three scenes from the Gospels give us a hint of militancy at work. But are we imagining something that isn’t there? It’s not unusual for historians to consider facts detrimental to the image of Jesus as true. Their reasoning -- no Gospel writer would knowingly hurt Jesus’ image unless the facts were accurate. The most famous case of this is the baptism by John. Explaining why a sinless man would need to be purified had been problematic for the apologists over the centuries.

In the cases cited above we have just a few threads to go on. Why were Jesus and his followers hiding, until their location was given away by Judas? Were the events in the Temple violent and seditious as seen through the eyes of the Procurator? Why did Pilate condemn Jesus to a Roman death? We just don’t have definitive answers.

I have no problem imaging Jesus as militant for his cause. The mission in Galilee was a failure and the people did not understand the urgency of his message. With time passing and the end getting closer he may have felt an increasing urgency to make the people realize what was coming. He was certainly militant in thought and speech regarding the poor and downtrodden. Why not militant by action also?