Hellenism, the Seed-bed of Christianity

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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29 January 2003 (Revisions and Updates through 14 April 2010)

Hollister's work (below) masterfully summarizes the forces in a Hellenized World (330 BC - 500 AD) which impacted on a Hellenized Judaism and a Hellenized Christianity; forces which were to prepare the Western World for a new religion, Christianity.  As one reads Hollister's observations about Hellenistic Greek thought, one comes to realize that many of Christianity's teachings and notions reflect the thoughts of the Hellenized World. 

Today in the 21st century, we still embrace many of the notions developed by the Greeks, rationalism, reason, humanism, our sciences still employ Greek nomenclatures.  In Hellenistic times, a battle was fought for men's minds, Religious Faith and Revelation vs. Reason and Rationality, to discover "TRUTH" and "meaning" in life. Reason and Rationality lost to Faith and Revelation with Christianty's triumph over the Philosophers.  Since the Renaissance, however, Reason and Rationality, embraced by Secular Humanism, has again appeared and today a war is being waged once again for men's minds, each declaring theirs' is the true way to determine "the Truth" and "Purpose" in life.

Hollister (Emphasis mine):

"The intellectual achievement of the Greeks has been of importance to Western Civilization. The civilizations of the ancient Near East did significant pioneer work in mathematics, engineering and practical science; the Hebrews developed a profound ethical system based on divine religion. But it was the Greeks who took the first step of examining man and his universe from a rational standpoint. It was they who transcended the mythical and poetical approach to cosmology and began to look at the universe as a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon, based on discoverable principles of cause and effect rather than on divine volition. It was they who first attempted to base morality and the good life on reason rather than revelation. Accordingly, the Greeks were the first philosophers -the first logicians, -the first theoretical scientists...the Greeks...turned their knowledge and their investigation toward a new end: a rational understanding of man and the universe. Their achievement has been described as "the discovery of the mind."

"...the Greek philosophers succeeded by and large in holding their gods at bay and untangling the natural from the supernatural...To them as to other ancient peoples the cosmos was awesome, but they possessed the open-mindedness and the audacity to probe it with their intellects...Greek rationalism was a product of Greek individualism, and among the first manifestations of this new spirit of self-awareness and irreverence for tradition was the development of lyric poetry in seventh and sixth century Ionia...The same surge of individualism that produced lyric poetry gave rise to mankind's first effort to understand rationally the physical universe. So far as we know the first philosopher and theoretical scientist in human history was the sixth-century Ionian, Thales of Miletus, who set forth the proposition that water was the primal element of the universe...The Ionian philosophers after Thales continued to speculate about the primal substance of the universe."
(pp.101-103. "The Hellenic Mind." C. Warren Hollister. Roots of the Western Tradition: A Short History of the Ancient World. [2d edition]. New York. John Wiley & Sons. 1966, 1972)

"Thucydides' philosophy of history was radically different from that of the Hebrews. To him, history was not a product of divine planning but rather the outgrowth of politcial action on the part of statesmen and popular assemblies. His approach was not social or economic as is that of many modern historians, but political and psychological. His chief interest lay in the motivations underlying political action, and he subjected the politcal conflicts in the Greek poleis to keen and rigorous analysis." (p.107. Hollister)

"In philosophy, history and science, reason was winning its victories at the expense of the supernatural. The anthropomorphic gods of Olympus were especially susceptible to rational criticism, for few people who were acquainted with Ionian philosophy or the new traditions of scientific history and medicene could seriously believe that Zeus hurled thunderbolts or that Poseidon caused earthquakes. Some philosophical spirits came to see Zeus as a transcendent god of the universe; others rejected him altogether. But if one doubts that Zeus tosses thunderbolts one is also likely to doubt that Athena protects Athens, and the rejection of Athena and other civic deities was bound to be subversive to the traditional spirit of the polis. Religious skepticism was gradually undermining civiv patriotism, and as skepticism advanced, patriotism receded. Once again we are brought face to face with the dynamic and paradoxical nature of the Greek experience; the polis produced the inquiring mind, but in time the inquiring mind eroded the most fundamental traditions of the polis.

"The arch skeptics of fifth-century Athens were the Sophists, a heterogeneous group of professional teachers drawn from every corner of the Greek world by the wealth of the great city...most of them were dedicated to the life of reason and sound argument. Unlike the Ionian philosophers, they were chiefly interested in man rather than the cosmos. They investigated ethics, politics, history, and psychology and have been called the first social scientists. In applying reason to these areas and teaching their students to do the same they aroused the wrath of the conservatives and doubtless encouraged an irreverent attitude toward tradition...Many of the Sophists taught their pupils techniques of debating and getting ahead, while questioning the traditional doctrines of religion, patriotism, and dedication to the welfare of the community. One of them is described by Plato as advocating the maxim that might makes right. In other words, the Sophists, as a whole, stimulated an attitude of iconoclasm, relativism, and ambitious individualism, thereby contributing to the dissolution of the polis spirit."

(pp.107-108. "The Hellenic Mind." Hollister)

"These huge political agglomerations now replaced the small city states as the typical units of the Greek world. The new environment provided vast opportunities and encouraged a sense of cosmopolitanism that contrasts with the provincialism of the polis...No longer involved in political affairs or in the intense life of a free community, the overseas Greek found himself adrift in a wide and bewildering world over which he had no control. The cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic age was accompanied by a sense of estrangement and alienation, of uncertainty, loneliness, and impotence. The trend toward extreme indivivualism, professionalism and specialization which we have already observed in the fourth century was enormously accelerated...The Hellenistic Age produced...a radically different society -still brilliant, still intensely creative, but anchorless.

Hellenic religion with its traditional civic orientation, was all but transformed in this new, kaleidoscopic age. Old bonds and old loyalties were broken as many adventurous Greeks were uprooted from their poleis and thrown on their own. The result was a mood of intense individualism which found expression in a variety of religious and ethical ideas stressing personal fulfilment or personal salvation rather than involvement in the community. Individualism and cosmopolitanism went hand in hand, for as the Greek abdicated spiritually from the polis and retired into himsrlf, he came to regard all humanity as a multitude of individuals -a universal brotherhood in which intelligent Persians, Egyptians and Jews were no worse than intelligent Greeks...The rootless Greek tended to turn away from his old Olympic gods and seek solace in more personal and potent religious concepts. Hellenistic religion is characterized by a withdrawal from active social participation - a search for sanctuary in a restless and uncertain world.

"The Hellenistic age saw a vigorous revival of mystery and salvation cults such as Orphism and the worship of Dionysus and Demeter which had always lurked behind the Olympic foreground. And various Near Eastern mystery religions now became popular among the Greeks. Almost all of these were centered on the death and resurrection of a god and the promise of personal salvation...Many thoughtful people adopted the idea of "syncretism," that is, the notion that the gods of different peoples were actually various manifestations of the same god -that zeus, Osiris, even Yahweh, all symbolize a single divine spirit...Religious beliefs and religious attitudes throughout the Hellenistic world were tending to become homogenized, thereby preparing the soil for the later triumph of Christianity." (pp.132-137. "The Hellenistic Age." Hollister)

"Many Greeks of the post-Classical age turned neither to the old Orphic and Dionysian cults nor to the salvation cults of the Orient, but sought to adapt elements of the Hellenic intellectual tradition to the new conditions...Diogenes, the most famous of the Cynics...rejected all official and traditional religions, all prticipation in civic life, marriage, the public games and the theater. He ridiculed the prestige that was associated with wealth, power, and reputation and honored instead a simple life of courage, reason and honesty -a life of virtue- which could best be attained by a rejection of civilization and a return to nature. The man of integrity, the wise and honest man, should live like a dog, without pretensions and uncluttered by worldy possessions. Indeed, the very word cynic originally meant canine or "doglike." ...He was a colorful symbol of the great Hellenic withdrawal from the polis to the individual soul.

"The same withdrawal is evident in the two religio-ethical systems that emerged in the fourth century and influenced human thought and conduct for centuries thereafter: Stoicism and Epicureanism. Both were philosophies of resignation that taught men to fortify their souls against the harshness of life. Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, stressed, as the Cynics did, the vanity of worldly things and the supreme importance of individual virtue...By rejecting the world the Stoic created an impenetrable citadel within his own soul. Out of this doctrine there emerged a sense not only of individualism but of cosmopolitanism; the idea of the polis faded before the wider concept of a brotherhood of men.

"Ultimately the Stoic emphasis on virtue was rooted in a lofty cosmic vision based on the Greek conception of a rational, orderly, purposeful universe. The harmonious movements of the stars and planets, and growth of complex plants from simple seeds, all pointed to the existence of a Divine Plan which was both intelligent and good. We humans were incapable of perceiving the details of the Plan as it worked in our own lives, yet by living virtuously and doing our best we could cooperate with it. The God of the universe cared about mankind, and the stern nobility of the Stoic ethics was tempered and humanized by this optimistic assurance...Epicurus, whose school was Stoicism's greatest rival differed...man should seek happiness rather than virtue...Happiness was best achieved not by chasing pleasures but by living simply and unobtrusively, being kind and affectionate to one's friends, learning to endure pain when it comes, and avoiding needless fears...the Epicureans rejected the Stoic doctrine of Divine Purpose. Epicurus followed the teachings of the Atomists...as a vast multiplicity of atoms...Our world is not the handiwork of God, but a chance configuration. The gods, if they exist, care nothing for us, and we ought to draw from this fact the comforting conclusion that we need not fear them." (p.138-139. Hollister)

"The centuries after Augustus witnessed a slow but fundamental shift in Roman religious attitudes, from the veneration of the traditional gods of household, clan, and city to the worship of transcendental deities imported from the Near East. The gods of Rome, like those of the Greek Olympus, had safeguarded the welfare of social and political groups; the new gods cared little for such things but offered instead the hope of individual redemption, salvation, and eternal life. As the Roman imperial age progressed, the allegiance of the people slowly shifted from Jupiter and Minerva to the Egyptian Isis, the Persian Mithras, the Phrygian Great Mother, the Syrian Sun god, and other exotic deities who offered solace and eternal joy to people for whom the world was not enough- even the world of the Roman Peace.

"This surge of myticism was actually a continuation and expansion of a trend we have already observed among the Hellenistic Greeks. The same forces that had encouraged the widespread rootlessness and disorientation of the Hellenistic world were now at work throughout the Roman Empire; cosmopolitanism, gradually-increasing autocracy, and, among the underprivilieged masses, grinding poverty and loss of hope. The shift from civic god to savior god, from this world to the next, constitutes a profound transformation in mood- a repudiation of traditional Greco-Roman humanism. As the peace of the second century gave way to the anarchy of the third, the high hopes of classical humanism- the dream of a rational universe, an ideal republic, a good life- were beginning to seem like cruel illusions, and the movement toward the mystery cults gained enormous momentum." (pp.187-188. "The Spiritual Metamorphosis." Hollister)

"This trend toward a transcendental outlook is especially conspicuous in the leading philosophical movement of the century, Neo-Platonism...In the later Empire all that was vital in pagan religion was incorporated into a spacious Neo-Platonic synthesis.  The Neo-Platonists taught that the gods of the pagan cults were all symbols of the one unknowable god and that each pagan cult therefore had validity. Paganism became increasingly monotheistic: Zeus, Jupiter, Mithras, were simply different aspects of a single transcendent deity. In this atmosphere the distinction between the traditional pagan cults and the mystery religions faded. By the fourth century Greek rationalism and humanism had been superceded almost entirely by a spirit of otherworldliness, divine revelation, and yearning for eternal life." (p.187. Hollister)

"Two fundamental trends characterized religious development in the Roman Empire: the growing impulse toward mysticism that we have just examined, and the interpenetration and fusion of doctrines and practices between one cult and another- a process known as syncretism. The syncretic quality of Christianty itself has often been observed, for in numerous instances its belifs, and rituals were similar to those of earlier religions. Obviously, Christianty drew heavily from Judaism -nearly all the earliest Christians were Jews- but it was also anticipated in various particulars by Zoroastrianism, Mithrasm, the Isis cult, the Greek mysteries of Dionysus and Demeter, and even Stoicism. Many Christian doctrines had long pre-Christian histories: the concept of death and resurrection, the sacramental meal, baptism, personal salvation, and the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God, to name a few." (p.187. Hollister) 

"Medieval and modern Christian theology is a product of both the Hebrew and Greek traditions. The synthesis of these two intellectual worlds began not among the Christians but among the Jews themselves, especially those who had migrated in large numbers to Alexandria. Here, Jewish scholars -in particular a religious philosopher of the early first century AD named Philo Judaeus- worked toward the reconciliation of Jewish revelation and Greek philosophy, drawing heavily from Aristotle, the Stoics, and particularly Plato, and developing a symbolic interpretation of the Old Testament that was to influence Christian thought enormously over the centuries...It is of the highest significance that a great many serious Christian intellectuals worked within the framework of the Greek philosophical tradition. This is especially true of the greatest of them, the Alexandrian theologian Origen (died 254) who created a coherent, all-inclusive Christian philosophical system on Platonic foundations. Origen was one of the moremost thinkers of his age and is widely regarded as one of the supreme minds in the entire history of the Church...he and other Christian theologians succeeded in making Christianity meaningful and intellectually attractive to men whose thinking was cast in the Greco-Roman philosophical mold. The greatest of the Greek philosophers, so these Christian writers said, had been led toward truth by the inspiration of God.

"At the very time that Christian theology was being Hellenized, pagan thought itself was shifting increasingly toward otherworldliness...The poor, humble, and underprivileged made up the bulk of its early converts, and it was to them that Jesus directed much of his message. Intellectuals were drawn by its Hellenized theology, men of feeling were captivated by its mysticism, and men of affairs were attracted by the ever-increasing effectiveness of its administrative hierarchy. For in administration no less than in theology the Church was learning from the Greco-Roman world...From the beginning the Christians of the Empire were a people apart, convinced that they alone possessed the truth and that the truth would one day triumph, eager to win converts to their faith, uncompromising in their rejection of all other religions, willing to learn from the pagan world but unwilling ever to submit to it." (pp.193-194. Hollister)

During the later fourth and early fifth centuries, at a time when the Christianization of the Roman state was far advanced but before the Western Empire had lost all its vitality, the long-developing synthesis of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman culture reached it climax in the West with the work of three gifted scholar-saints: Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. These men are justly regarded as "Doctors of the Latin Church," for their writings dominated Medieval thought. Each of the three was thoroughly trained in the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition: each devoted his learning and life to the service of Christianity; each was at once an intellectual and a man of affairs.

Ambrose (about 340-397) was bishop of Milan, which by the later fourth century had replaced Rome as the western imperial capital. He was famed...for the ease and mastery with which he adapted the literary traditions of Cicero and Virgil and the philosophy of Plato to his own Christian purposes...Jerome (about 340-420) was a masterly scholar...he managed to reconcile pagan culture and Christian faith by using the former in the service of the latter...The most profound of the Latin Doctors was Augustine (354-430)...Even more than his contemporaries he succeeded in fusing Christian doctrine with Greek thought, especially the philosophy of Plato and the Neo-Platonists. It has been said that Augustine baptized Plato. As a Platonist he stressed the importance of ideas or archetypes over tangible things, but instead of locating his archetypes in the abstrct Platonic "heaven" he placed them in the mind of God. The human mind had access to the archetypes through an act of God which Augustine called "divine illumination." (pp.208-209. "The Doctors of the Latin Church." Hollister)

"Augustine also rejected the Hebrew notion of tribal salvation, putting in its place the Christian notion of individual salvation...His Christian Platonism governed  medieval theology down to the twelfth century and remains influential in Christian thought today." (p. 211. Hollister)

Owen (1890) on the influence of Greek Hellenistic thought on early Christianity's development and ideas:

"That Christianity at a very early period became leavened with Hellenism is, of course, no new discovery...suggestions of the prejudicial effect of Greek speculation on the primary simplicity of the Gospel meet us even in St. Paul's Epistles, while the Johannine Gospel may almost be called a Hellenistic version of the origin of Christianity. Moreover, almost every apologetic treatise on the earlier history top our own time has found it necessary to dwell on the Hellenistic contribution to the formation of Christian doctrine...We may admit as a general truth the the roots of the gospel were in Judaism, but of fourth century Christianity in Hellenism, without ignoring the fact that the Judaism of the Gospels had already become permeated with Greek influences, that in its very cradle Christianity was indebted, humanly speaking, for much of its breadth and catholicity to the liberalisation of Judaism by foreign and especially Greek culture. For more than a century B.C., these cultural and cosmopolitan influences had diffused themselves first among the Judaism of the Diaspora and then more gradually among that of Palestine. As a result, it may be said that, if the roots of Christianity were Jewish, the soil and climate were largely Hellenic: in other words, if the initial inspiration of Christ's teaching came from Jewish sources, were sanctioned and sustained by Jewish aspirations, the seed-bed in which these germs were deposited was that Graecised Judaism which we have in the Apocryphal books of Ecclesisticus, Wisdom, and the Maccabees, as well as in portions of the Gospels themselves."

(pp. 555-556. John Owen. "Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity." The Academy, A Weekly Review of Literature, Science and Art. London. July-Dec. 1890. Vol. XXXVIII)

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