Dec26

The Influence of the Greek Philosophy and Religion upon Christianity

The Resultant Affect upon the Harmony of the Three Abrahamic Faiths

by Nefratiri Weeks
October 26, 2007
Scholars and historians agree that the blending of Greek culture with Christianity eventually resulted in our modern understanding of Christianity as a religion; textbooks paint the picture of its great Hebrew Roots being planted in Greek Soil, creating the tree we see today in every American City and across the world. However, some scholars assert that while Greek rational thought had a positive influence on Christianity, Greek religious practices at that time had no influence. I will demonstrate that, to the contrary, many Greek religious practices are alive and well in the Christian Church and discuss the deeper implications of this fact on the global situation of religious division.In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, one of the great reasoning minds of the late Middle Ages, set forth the argument that the subject matter of religious doctrine, belief and faith was to be rightly considered a science. He set this science higher than the science of empirical thought with subject matter including mathematics and the like. Aquinas opened the door of religious speculation that had been closed by the Church for more than a thousand years. In his treatise concerning religious belief he concludes:

“As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else…” (Aquinas).

Aquinas went forth from this premise to argue many important religious points such as the nature of God, rational proofs for the existence of God, and the nature of Jesus Christ. He concluded that many rational proofs for the existence of God could be found; however, he also determined that some aspects of the Christian doctrine were not to be arrived at through the rational faculty. These included such doctrines as God in the form of Trinity and the person of Jesus becoming the physical incarnation of the higher God along with his physical resurrection and eventual return, which Christians still await to this day. As Aquinas was the greatest writer using scholastic theology, he was able to make great strides in the advancement and acceptance of Greek philosophy in the Christian world. However, when Aquinas began his rationalization on the nature of spiritual and material reality, as he stated in his Summa, he began from articles of faith of the Roman Catholic Church. Hence we must consider the origin of the articles of faith from which he began his reasoning process. What I wish to uncover is if his premise rested upon a purely scriptural basis for Christian understanding or if it was commingled with Greek concepts and religious beliefs.

The difference between Hebrew religious beliefs and those of Greece and Rome that I would like to address is concerning the nature of the higher power. The ancient Hebrews believed in one invisible God which is a spiritual essence (Mitchell 107). K.R. Sanders concludes in a short study of the works of Cicero that the Greek and Roman nations held the belief that the gods take human form. While the Hebrew people held that the one God of spirit sends messengers, leaders and messiahs to guide the people; the Greek and Roman religion held that the gods themselves became incarnate and flesh (Doane 124).

A main tenet of Greek and Roman religious beliefs concerns resurrection. This concept they received from Phoenicia and Egypt as explained by a prominent Egyptian website:

“There is no doubt that the might of the first Ptolemies helped to spread Egyptian beliefs in Greece. There was also a fusion of the Egyptian and Greek gods. The god Amun became Zeus; Isis became Athena, and Hathor was represented as Aphrodite” (Influence of Egyptian Religion on Greek Belief).

Gods such as Tammuz and Osiris were worshiped in Phoenicia and Egypt as resurrected gods; and in addition to these gods, Greece and Roman myths included the resurrected Dionysius, Adonis and others. The myths taught of a physical resurrection of these gods rather than a spiritual resurrection as spoken of by Paul in his letters to the Romans (Revised Standard Version, 1 Cor. 15.44). Frazer, in The Golden Bough, thoroughly explains the Greek concept of the physical resurrection. It is referred to as the “dying and rising god” and there were many rituals surrounding this belief that were believed to bring blessings upon the people such as fertility, good crops, and salvation. Thomas Doane, in his comparison of universal myths demonstrates the Greek belief:

“Gods descended from heaven and were made incarnate in men, and men ascended from earth, and took their seat among the gods, so that these incarnations and apotheosises were fast filling Olympus with divinities.” (112)

Jesus came from the monotheistic Hebrew culture, being born a Galilean Jew. According to the Hebrew belief, Messiahs are messengers of the one invisible God, not God descended to earth. This Greek concept is actually quite offensive to the Hebrew belief. Jesus, as a Jew, claimed to be the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy for the coming of a Messiah. The Jewish messiah is to be a descendent of their great king, David. According to Jewish scholars a messiah is to come to the Hebrew people and deliver them from foreign rule and “bring in a new age of enlightenment and unity” (HaKohen). The true origin of the religion of Jesus was wholly Jewish. This implies that Jesus as a Messiah would be a figure like Moses, partaking in the worship of the one, invisible God.

When Paul went from Palestine to Greece and Rome to teach the new religion of Jesus Christ, he was versed in both Jewish religious thought and the religious beliefs and philosophies of Greece and Rome. He found that the teachings of the Hebrew people were quite foreign to the Greek and Romans. When Paul taught of the spiritual nature of Jesus he used a common concept of the Greeks and the Jews which is recorded in the book of John: Logos. The word Logos became the subject of much debate among the founding leaders of the Christian church. For the Greeks, the logos was the rational principle that ordered the universe, the concept was first used by Heraclitas as early as 500 BCE to explain the “ordering of the cosmos” through words and reason (Mitchell 22). The Hebrew people had a similar concept of the logos which was the thought of the invisible God expressed in a revelation through a prophet such as Moses. The Hebrew concept of the ‘word of God’ came together with the Greek logos through Philo of Alexandria in about 50 BCE (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)1.

A paradigm shift emerged in Hellenistic Judaism that had profound implications for the Christian movement and the development of its theological reflection. The biblical Word of God was wedded to the Greek Logos, and the marriage gave birth to the objectification of truth. Audition was replaced by vision, and, accordingly, truth was to be seen rather than heard. (Waetjen 2)

Aquinas, it his Summa Theologica, pointed out that when one reasons on the grounds of religious beliefs he or she starts with certain principles and articles of faith. Official Christian doctrine began to be formed with the apologies of men such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. Justin Martyr was raised in the Greek culture and religion and versed in Greek philosophy before he converted to Christianity. He was the first to join the Logos as the thought of God with the Son of God title conferred upon Jesus Christ. This concept came to be known as Logos-Christology. Tertullian took the concept one step further and proposed the Trinity: three gods as the godhead. Professor Keith Ward explains in a public lecture:

Tertullian was also the first writer to use the term ‘Trinity’ of God, saying that God was three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – in one substance. From this it follows that the one person of Christ is identical with the second person of the Trinity… This is a major change from the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, who is presented as a human person with unique and divinely given authority and powers, but who is expressly said to be limited in knowledge and power, and who insists, with orthodox Judaism, that ‘the Lord your God is one Lord’.

With these additions to the Christian doctrine, Jesus became much more than just the Messiah for the Jews, he began to become equal with the Creator himself. The writings of the Patristic fathers show Jesus as a separate god from the invisible God the Jews espoused and his image began to appear more like Zeus or Dionysius than the common prophet figure of the Jews (Thyssen 134). The change between the Judaist concept of logos and the new Christianized concept is in direct relation to the foundational beliefs of these men. As they believed in the descending and ascending of gods before their conversion, they interpreted the writings of Paul and John to mean that God had become flesh in Jesus. The Hebrew concept was that the thought or word of God becomes incarnate in the mind of a man and is given through a revelation, such as the revelation revealed by Moses. Mr. Thyssen, in his article, explains that the idea of two gods that first took shape in the formation of Christian doctrine was justified later, though the original concepts remain essential to modern Christian doctrine.

As Justin and Tertullian stood on the foundational beliefs of the Greek and Roman cultures, they reasoned their way to the deification of Jesus as a god from the foundation of belief in Greek gods and myths:

“The idea of the logos as a sort of ‘second God’… was to be a major theme of Patristic thought… Messianic Judaism has been left behind, and Jesus becomes the bearer of the eternal Word for the world, leading humanity from the fading world of time to unity with the eternal divine.” (Ward)

This concept of Jesus as the new god for the Greeks and Romans found its expression in the ancient Greek and Roman religion and became official Christian doctrine during the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Will Durant gives a thorough account of the transition in his Story of Civilization:

“An intimate and trustful worship of saints replaced the cult of pagan gods, and satisfied the polytheism of simple or poetic minds. Statues of Isis and Horus were renamed Mary and Jesus; the Roman Lupercalia and the feast of the purification of Isis became the Feast of the Nativity; the Saturnalia were replaced by Christian celebrations, the floralia by Pentecost, an ancient festival of the dead by All Soul’s Day, the resurrection of Attis by the resurrection of Christ.” (75)

Just as Aquinas explained in his Summa Theologica that the reasoning process concerning religion begins from ‘articles of faith’ and draws conclusions based on those articles, we can see that current popular conclusions concerning the doctrine of the nature of Jesus began from the articles of the Roman and Greek religion rather than the Jewish religion. If these beginning thinkers on the nature of Jesus, God and Christianity had been from the Jewish tradition and culture, they would have concluded his station as the Messiah and prophet from the one invisible God; but as they stood on the side of the Greek thinkers, they came to a conclusion resembling more of the Greek and Roman tradition.

This reality has had a profound affect upon the apparent unity of the three Abrahamic faiths of the world. According to the Jewish and Muslim view, the deification of Jesus in this manner groups Christianity in with the pagan ‘heretical’ sects of the world. Mr. HaKohen, a leading Jewish scholar, discusses the difference in the beliefs:

“Many of you live among Christians who deify a Jewish man who lived over 2,000 years ago. Moreover, they proclaim that the only way to reach God is through this man. You have had the wisdom and the courage to reject this belief, and you have chosen to follow the original teaching of Abraham and Sarah, who taught human beings to pray directly to the Compassionate One.” (HaKohen)

An article by Martin Accad explains in depth that Muslims accept the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian faiths; however they strip Jesus of the deification which they see as a heresy against the one God. Gitit Holzman, in his evaluation of Greek philosophy, Judaism and Islam, shows that the ancient Hebrew and Islamic philosophers came to the conclusion that the one God of the three Abrahamic faiths was the same God; however, they concluded that the doctrine of the Trinity and the deification of Jesus inserted into Christian doctrine causes a division in the unity of those faiths (199). These are the same elements of Christian doctrine that Thomas Aquinas found to be “irrational”, or not provable through reasoning, though he believed them because of his beginning “articles of faith”. Obviously, there are more commonalities among these three great faiths than differences; however, Christianity has become more separate because of the addition of Greek, Roman and Phoenician religious beliefs. If mankind were to truly seek the common foundation of these faiths they would find themselves more unified than divided and perhaps find fewer reasons to be at odds with one another.

by Nefratiri Weeks

Works Cited

Accad, Martin. “The Gospels in the Muslim Discourse of the Ninth to the Fourteenth Centuries: an exegetical inventorial table (part IV).” Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations. Oct2003, Vol. 14 Issue 4: 459-480. Online. Academic Search Premier. 1 Nov. 2007.

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 2nd ed. 1920. Online. New Advent. Internet. 25 Oct. 2007. Available: <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1001.htm>

Doane, Thomas W. Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions Being a Comparison of the Old and New Testament Myths and Miracles with Those of Heathen Nations of Antiquity Considering also Their Origin and Meaning. 4th ed. New York, 1882.

Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon, 1950. Vol. IV of The Story of Civilization. 11 vols. 1935-1975.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1900. Online. Google Books. 22 Oct. 2007.

HaKohen, Yosef Ben Shlomo. “Letter from Jerusalem to our True Friends.” May 18, 2007. 25 Oct. 2007.

Hillar, Marian. “Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.).” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 26 Oct. 2007.

Holtzman, Gitit. “Truth, Tradition and Religion. The Association between Judaism and Islam and the Relation between Religion and Philosophy in Medieval Jewish Thought.” Al Masaq. Sep2006, Vol. 18 Issue 2: 191-200. Online. Academic Search Premier. 30 Oct. 2007.

The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1946.

“Influence of Egyptian Religion on Greek Belief.” Eternalegypt.org. 22 Oct. 2007. Available.
<http://www.eternalegypt.org/EternalEgyptWebsiteWeb/HomeServlet?ee_website_action_key=action.display.module&module_id=309&language_id=1&story_id=52>

Mitchell, Helen B. Roots of Wisdom. 4th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005.

Sanders, K.R. “Miscellanea: Cicero de Natura Deorum 1.48-9: Quasi Corpus?” Mnemosyne; 2004. Vol. 57 Issue 2: 215-218. Online. Academic Search Premier. 30 Oct. 2007.

Thyssen, Henrik P. “Philosophical Christology in the New Testament.” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions. 2006, Vol. 53 Issue 2: 133-176. Online. Academic Search Premier. 27 Oct. 2007.

Waetjen, Herman C. “Logos προζ τον Θεον and the Objectification of Truth in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Apr2001, Vol. 63 Issue 2: 265-287. Online. Academic Search Premier. 30 Oct. 2007.

Ward, Keith. “The Formation of Christian Doctrine.” Gresham College. 12 June 2005. 20 Oct. 2007.
1 For further reading on the development of Greek Logos through Hellenized Judaism, see Fiery Wisdom: Logos and Lexis in Deuteronomy 4 by Stephen A. Geller and Clement of Alexandria and His Doctrine of the Logos by M.J. Edwards.

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