Monday, 13 January 2014

Hellenist Christians

Alexander's empire at the time of its maximum expansion
(Click to enlarge)
"Hellenism" is the term used to describe the influence of Greek culture  especially during the early years of Christianity.
The culture of the Greek Hellenist empire spread throughout the Mediterranean and up into Mesopotamia. It left a lasting impression replacing the Aramaic and remained in use until the time of Constantine (fourth Century CE) when the original Greek bible was first translated into Latin by St. Jerome.

The Jewish and Aramaic scriptures were first translated into Greek in Alexandria between about 280–130 BC. The name given to this translation is known today as the Septuagint 1.   This translation was specifically used by Jews who could not read Hebrew in countries to where they had been forcibly exiled; better known as the diaspora. This Greek translation of the scriptures was used by the early Christians.   The Hellenist Christians could be considered unsung heroes of the earliest mission and the theology. They were evidently the first people to take the Gospel beyond Jerusalem and Judea.

Most of the New Testament authors were Jews by birth, but they wrote in Greek.  The worlds of Palestinian Judaism and Hellenism cannot be easily separated or distinguished.  Paul, for example, claimed to be “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3.5), yet showed himself to be an able writer in Greek.    The dispute between Hebrews and Hellenist was of great importance in the early Church, but how these two parties may have influenced its rituals and theology is difficult to determine.

Although Greek culture exerted influence on the spread, language, and culture of Christianity, and even spawned un-biblical cults, it did not affect the orthodox theology. The story of a single, triune God, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ remain absolutely untouched by Hellenism. Martyrs went to their graves in order to ensure the gospel message stayed true. Hellenism in the days of the early church remains an example of how to use a culture to spread the message while not allowing the culture to change the message.

Dr. Hendrik Willem van Loon (1882 – 1944) was a Dutch-American historian and journalist who until his death, wrote many books, and illustrating them himself. Most widely known among these is The Story of Mankind (1921) , a history of the world especially for children.  Recently I came across his book The Arts published in 1937 which, as the title indicates, is a look at the arts throughout the ages and its influence on society.  In his chapter on the history of Greek art (see excerpt below) he describes how the ancient Greeks, when celebrating the feast of Dionysos, came to eventually abandon to practice of cannibalism in favour of wine as a means of honouring the God of fertility. At the same time a goat was slain and eaten as a substitute for the person of the Deity himself.   While van Loon (pronounced van Loan) never suggests or implies that the ritual resembles the Roman Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist Mass I find the comparison extremely difficult to avoid.  Perhaps some readers may also recognize the parallel between the two celebrations.  There is little doubt among theologians today about the influence Greek culture brought to early Christianity.                                                                  

The Greeks, who were born naturalists and accepted the world as they found it, who regarded man as a mammal endowed with unlimited intellectual possibilities, but a mammal nevertheless—both they and all the people of the eastern Mediterranean, having no consciousness of sin, regarded Dionysos not merely as one of the lesser Olympians but in certain respects they accepted him as the absolute equal of Zeus, which may very well explain his strange name, "the son of God."

This may seem rather curious to us because we merely connect him with the worship of the vine. But that came much later. Originally his worshipers, in order to associate themselves the more completely with the object of their veneration, seem to have celebrated their annual Dionysian feast by the cannibalistic practice of eating human flesh. Savages, however, do not eat their enemies because they are hungry or like the taste of human flesh. That has nothing to do with this unpleasant practice. They merely hope to gain some of the courage and strength of their enemies and their Gods (both objects of fear to the primitive mind) by "assimilating" part of their flesh and blood.

As the Greeks grew more and more civilized, they began to feel a distinct horror at this idea of slaughtering their fellow men. They reasoned that the same effect could be produced by thinking the wine which was part of the blessings the great God of fertility had bestowed upon mankind. A goat was substituted for the person of the Deity himself. After the God-Goat had then been duly slain and eaten, it was quite natural that the virtues of the God-Goat should be extolled by one of his devout followers, usually by the one best fitted for such a task. The others, less adept at rhetorical lamentations, stood around in a circle and acted as a chorus which accentuated some of the more salient points of the "goat song" or hymn of praise which their leader had intoned.

After a while, all this grew very monotonous. It was a little too simple to satisfy the more sophisticated tastes of a people who were beginning to feel "modern." They wanted something a little more elaborate. Thereupon an "answerer"—a "hypocrite" (yes, the Greek word for actor was hypocrite)—was added to engage in a dialogue with the extoller of the God-Goat's virtues. There were then two "actors" who spoke their pieces and a chorus which at irregular intervals indulged in a slowly chanted eulogy or lamentation, a little like the sort of thing you hear when you attend Bach's Passion According to Saint Matthew or Haydn's Creation or any other modern oratorio.
Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Arts (1937) p. 112

Ref. 1. Septuagint  (Latin septuaginta, seventy) Name given to the translation into Greek of the Hebrew scriptures, supposedly by seventy scholars in the second century BCE.  It was used by the Jews who could not read Hebrew in countries where they spoke only Greek.  This Greek translation of the scriptures was used by the early Christians.

No comments: