Transition of Hellenism from Antiquity to Christianity

Ellopos Blog - May 23rd, 2007

The stereotype of the battle between theologians and philosophers in the later Roman period keeps being reproduced. However, the antithesis of theology and philosophy is something that occurs a thousand years later in the history of thought. In late Roman times philosophy was chiefly a way of life“. And the ecclesiastical ascetic life was, correspondingly, “philosophy according to Christ“.

The Christians were not criticized by the pagan peoples for being un-philosophical.

The “intermediary” theological systems burgeoned, in which there were whole hierarchies of angels and demons under the Most High God. The battle of the gods was not over which is the true God and which non-existent, but rather which is the highest and which are the inferior demons. Besides, the stereotype that paganism collapsed as soon as Christianity became the official state religion is unfounded.

According to Archbishop Christodoulos, author of “Converted Hellenism”, it was a matter of phases of a long-term crisis which was linked to economic and demographical problems as well. And it was considered natural for building materials to be drawn from ruined temples for any building whatsoever. How many of us know that the concept of the “historical monument” is construed for the first time in the Byzantium of the Palaeologoi with Manuel Chrysoloras, in parallel with Petrarch of the Renaissance?

Accordingly, “neopaganism” is found to be a modern construct which is being projected upon antiquity. Most probably emotionally motivated by nostalgia, the “neopaganists” propose a sort of revival of the ancient religion. But we must remember that the Hellenism of antiquity achieved greatness when it maintained a dialectical stance towards the traditional religion (e.g. Parmenides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato et. al.) and not when it became bound to it. It was the very poverty of Hellenistic religion that operated as a productive existential thirst for poetry, politics and philosophy.

After the “city” finally collapses into the individualism and cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic era, Christianity arrives. “Why was Christianity so persecuted, and yet why did it finally predominate?” asks the author.

Could it be that it was persecuted because, while the relativistic Hellenism had only ecumenism, and the ostracized Judaism only exclusivity, Christianity synthesized exclusivity (of one faith) and ecumenism?

Could it be that Christianity succeeded in the Greek world, because it restored the community - that Hellenism had previously sought and had so tragically lost on the political level - to the religious plane of the relationships between God, man and his fellowman? The Assembly of the Municipality became, really, the Church of the faithful, and on a deeper level, brotherhood and corpus.

Simultaneously, from Hellenistic individualism the Church welcomed the element of free choice in the “adventure” of the relationship of the human person with God, and from cosmopolitanism, it took the element of sojourning in the world as a stranger. …

The two “readings” of Hellenism today, by the ecclesiastical tradition on the one hand, and by “neopaganism” on the other, constitute a reiteration of the difference between the Cappadocians and Julian. Julian asserted that Hellenistic culture as language, art and thought is indivisibly bound up with Greek religion. Saints Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great were the first to detach the language and culture from the religious allegiance and confession. To them we owe the present-day liberated and religiously neutral reading of the literature of antiquity. Could it be that this constitutes a forerunner of modern “tolerance”? In every case it provides the “measuring stick” for the reception of ancient Greek culture and its transfiguration into muscle and sinew of the Church.