Unification News for August 1996


The Classical inheritance and early Christianity

by Simon Kinney-NYC

Considering the singular nature of its doctrine and message, Christianity spread at an astonishing rate from its tiny Galilean beginnings, to eventually encompass the entire Western world. Within a generation after Jesus' death, his followers had forged a religious and intellectual synthesis within the framework of their new faith that not only inspired many to undertake the often dangerous mission of extending that faith into the surrounding pagan environment, but was also capable of addressing the religious and philosophical aspirations of a sophisticated and urbanized world empire.

Yet what it is interesting is that Christianity's self-conception as a world religion was substantially facilitated by its relation to the larger Hellenistic world.

Ancient Christians considered it no accident that the Incarnation of Christ occurred at the historical moment of conjunction between the Jewish religion, Greek Philosophy, and the Roman Empire.

It was not the Jews of Galilee who had been closest to Jesus in spirit, but Paul, the Roman citizen of Greek cultural background, who, for his largely misguided interpretations and heavily personalized view of Jesus' physical destiny, had effectively turned Christianity towards its universal mission.

Although virtually all of the earliest Christians were Jewish, only a relatively small fraction of Jews eventually became Christian. The new religion appealed much more broadly and successfully to the larger Hellenistic world.

While the Christians in Jerusalem, under the leadership of James and Peter, continued for some time to insist on the observance of traditional Jewish rules against common eating, in an attempt to circumscribe the new religion into Judaic framework, Paul on the other had asserted, amidst heavy opposition, that the new Christian freedom and hope for the future was already a universal presence, and not just for Jews but for everyone.

In this first fundamental controversy of doctrine within the early church, it was Paul's wider ideals that prevailed over Judaic exclusivism, which had large repercussions for the classical world. Because of the reluctance on the part of most Jews to embrace the Christian revelation, and because of the success of Paul's reaction; it brought Christianity to the Gentiles.

More importantly, it combined with political events to shift the center of gravity from Palestine to the larger Hellenistic world.

Compared with Judaism, Greco-Roman culture was in many respects far less sectarian and more universal in its practice and vision. The Roman Empire and its laws transcended all nationalities and previous political boundaries, granting citizenship and rights to conquered people as well as Romans. The colorful and cosmopolitan Hellenistic age, with its sophisticated urban centers and trade and travel, had joined together the civilized world as never before. The idea of the brotherhood of mankind and the `World City' affirmed that all human beings are free and equal children of God.

Above all, a universal Christian religion of world proportions was made feasible by the prior existence of the Alexandrian and Roman empires, without which the lands and peoples surrounding the Mediterranean would still have been divided into an enormous multiplicity of separate ethnic cultures with a wide divergence of language, politics, and cosmological predispositions.

Despite the antagonisms felt by many early Christians towards their Roman rulers, it was precisely the Pax Romana that afforded the freedom of movement and communication that was indispensable to the propagation of the Christian faith. From Paul, at the start of Christianity, to Augustine, its influential protagonist at the end of the classical era, the character and aspiration of the new religion were molded with conviction by its Greco-Roman context.

Importantly, these things apply not only to the practical side of Christianity's dissemination but also to the expanding and elaborated Christian world view as it came to rule the Western mind.

Fundamentally, the Christian world view was informed by its classical predecessors. With the convenient reshaping of religious truth, humanistic empiricism and religious experience had been interwoven. As a means of justifying and rationalizing the apocalyptic events of their recent history, Christianity found Greek philosophy not to be an alien pagan intellectual system which it was forced to contend with, but in the view of many early Christian theologians, a divinely pre- arranged matrix for the rational explication of the Christian faith.

As we know, the essence of Paul's faith was that Jesus was not an ordinary man, that he was the eternal son of God, that the very principle of divine wisdom came through him; that the word was in him and came through him.

The correspondences between this conception of Christ and that of the Greek `Logos' did not go unnoticed by Hellenistic Christians. It was the opening of the words of the Gospel according to John, "In the beginning was the Logos", that Christianity's relationship to Hellenic Philosophy was potently initiated.

Soon afterward, an extraordinary convergence of Greek thought and Christian Religion was in progress that would change the course of Western thinking.

Faced with the fact that there already existed in the greater Mediterranean culture a sophisticated philosophical tradition from the Greeks, the educated class of early Christians rapidly saw the need for integrating that tradition with their religious faith. This integration was pursued both for their own satisfaction and to assist the Greco-Roman culture in understanding the so-called `Christian mystery'. However the educated world did not see it as a marriage of convenience, for the spiritually resonant Platonic philosophy not only harmonized with, it also elaborated and enhanced the Christian conceptions found in the revelations of the New Testament.

Conversely, the fundamental Platonic principles now found new meaning in the Christian context: the existence of a transcendent reality of eternal perfection, the center of Plato's philosophy; the sovereignty of divine wisdom; the primacy of the spiritual over the material; and the importance of scrupulous self-examination.

Christianity was regarded as the consummation of philosophy, with the gospel as the meeting ground of Hellenism and Judaism. In terms strongly reminiscent of Platonism with its transcendent ideas, Christian theologians taught that to discover Christ was to discover the truth of the cosmos and the essence of ones illumination. In fact Augustine held that the Platonic forms existed within the creative mind of God and that the ground of reality lay beyond the world of the senses, given the sorry state of humanity.

It was Augustine's formulation of `Christian Platonism' that was to permeate virtually all of Christian thought in the west.

So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre- Christian saints, communicators of the divine Logos already present in pagan times; sometimes referred to as "Christians before Christ".

Yet however profound this affinity with Platonic thought, the essential thrust of Christianity derived from its Judaic foundation. In contrast to the Greek's atemporal balancing of archetypal beings, Judaic monotheism gave to Christianity a particularly forceful sense of the divine as a single and most importantly personal being with a specific historical plan for salvation.

In comparison with the Greeks, Judaism condensed and intensified the sense of the holy and sacred, emanating from a single and omnipotent God who was both creator and redeemer. Unlike the Platonic conception which shared many similarities, the God of Moses was by his own declaration unique in his divinity, and was more personal in his relationship to humanity and more freely active in human history than was the transcendent Platonic absolute.

While the Hellenic sense of history was generally cyclical, the Judaic sense was decisively linear and progressive, being the gradual fulfillment in time of God's plan for man.

The cyclical sense of history founded in Hellenistic ideas, is essentially humanistic in nature and has forcefully impacted and influenced the arts of the modern world, right through to the philosophy of the post-modernist era in the twentieth century.

Download entire page and pages related to it in ZIP format
Table of Contents
Copyright Information