I read with interest the debate between the Neopagans and Greek Orthodox on the Internet and even amongst friends here in Australia. Before I go on let me state that I do not hold a strong position either way and I try to understand this argument from a purely intellectual perspective. I say try because inevitably emotions do play a part but I do not think this is the forum to express my innermost feelings on this matter.
At this stage, I do not believe the Neopagans pose a threat to the religious authority and political control of the Orthodox Church within Greece and the Diaspora. Actually they almost seem comical and most of the time historically inaccurate (although there are some serious supporters). However, they have posed enough of an intellectual threat for Archbishop Christodoulos to write a book on attempting to explain why the Greeks converted to Christianity and how different generations have interpreted our heritage before Christ. This issue also has important implications on how we interpret Byzantium, modern Greek history, contemporary issues and basically our whole identity and being.
I have read and listened to both arguments and try to separate the emotional from fact (as much as you can establish fact from history). But I keep coming back to several important questions that still have not been adequately answered.
Why did an ethnos; although under Roman rule but with a favoured status in the empire; which had its own conception of man, time and God come to accept and eventually advocate some (I say 'some' as many of the concepts, rituals etc within Christianity are also of Hellenic origin) of the views of another ethnos, the Hebrews? Additionally, why did this ethnos accept the holy books of another ethnos with the implication that our inheritance; at least the one advocated by the Church, is Moses and Abraham rather than Solon or Lycurgus?
I hope someone can answer these questions without resorting to religious mysticism, racist conspirancies and anything else without a reasoned argument.
Your question needs a book to be answered! Only some hints can be given here.
We talk about the conversion of an ethnos, of a people and their whole culture – and an important culture, at that, at least the most important in those times in the Greco-Roman world. We talk also about a conversion that was realised through martyrdom, for three centuries, when Greeks were being accused by pagans that they were abandoning their own religion.
Archbishop Christodoulos’ book emphasizes the decay of ancient religion in hellenistic syncretism. This is a fact. Greeks of the 5th century were just ignoring the Jews, although being eager to learn from anyone. This helps us understand the openess of Greek ears in the time of the Apostles, but it does not explain why they finally accepted the new faith, much less why they accepted it to the degree of sucrificing themselves for it and bringing it up to a force able to change the whole empire.
Paul says to the Greeks that the God whom he speaks about, is not irrelevant to the Greek culture, on the contrary, it is the fulfillment of it. To have a clear perception of the basis of communication, one must search for main Christian elements before Christ in the Ancients. It is also important to remember that the Ancients didn’t have a body of sacred Scriptures, as Jews had what we call the ‘Old Testament’. Even Homer, the teacher of all, is not considered sacred, and he was attacked even by Greek philosophers like Plato. They were not feeling an ‘obligation’ to remain attached to any author, not even Homer, of course not to Solon or Lycurgus – and this already in Classical times.
All these are some preconditions, yet the fact why they did accept the new faith, is unexplainable by them. They help us understand the growth of the new faith and even the continuance of ancient thinking in the Greek Fathers (Byzantium admired Greek philosophers and poets, but not Greek polytheism), yet these preconditions don’t explain why in the first place they accepted the new faith. The fact that it was compatible with older Greek thinking is not enough to explain the acceptance. On the contrary, exactly because there exist crucial similarities, they should rather prefer their own, even just to feel more proud about themselves.
In the 6th chapter of the Acts we read about Stephen. That he was “full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people”, that even Jews who murdered him, “all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel”.
We must not think of the conversion of Greece as an ‘academic’ acceptance. Academic ‘realities’ are not able to support martyrdom, nor to do all these things that christianised the empire. The conversion of Greece is due to the fact that Greece was prepared to be converted by her own past in its peaks (Homer and Plato), and that those who spoke about the new faith, had a living faith and not an ideology or ‘science’, that is: in their words and their immediate presence they revealed God’s power. They were not just speaking about Christ: they presented Him.
An honest scientist must admit that, all explanations given, the conversion of a people with such a culture as the Greek one, a conversion that stands for two milleniums and through many sufferings (four centuries under the Turks, etc.), just can not be explained. Someone who thinks beyond the ‘scientific’ level, can easily understand that it was Christ himself who converted Greece. No one else could have achieved such a thing - and not even Him, if Greeks were after their ethnos (or anything) more than they were after the living truth.
The Fathers also knew this. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes that when the Jews suspected Christ, that He will go to the Greeks and teach the Greeks (John 7.35), “the Jews utter a prophecy, although not knowing what they say ... because indeed Christ was going to leave the mother of Jews, the ungrateful Jerusalem, and walk to the Greeks and teach them” (Commentary to John, Pusey, v. 1, p. 684).
Thank you very much George for the quality of your response. Unfortunately, most of the neopagans and Church supporters fail to provide any satisfactory answer beyond base polemics. But I do have a few questions. Firstly, lets tackle preconditions you mentioned.
Yes, the Greeks were eager to learn from anyone and they were open to listening at around the time of the Apostles which is demonstrated by St Paul being able to speak to a crowd of Athenians. However, despite evidence of the precondition you mentioned, the Athenians were not really impressed by a belief system which resembled a simplistic Stoicism and/or another salvational mystery religion from the East. Additionally, it was delivered in poor rhetorical style; and we, know how important that was for educated Greeks. Also, this precondition applied to other Gods and religious systems.
Yes, the Greeks were not averse to criticising their own Gods and heroes but they were also not averse to criticising the Gods of other peoples. And they did have a vast but diffuse body of Sacred literature. One example is the Orphic Hymns. Am I right? And lets not forget that the Jews also had a vast but still developing literature. It was not set in stone. So then why would the Greeks eventually prefer the teachings of the Old Testament? And remember these books clearly say that the God of Israel is superior and the Jews are the Chosen people. Now, for the Greeks to accept these books as holy is a difficult to accept considering the Greeks opinion of themselves, their culture and paideia. Yes, precondition of criticising their own Gods did exist but why accept the books of another people that left no room for other peoples.
Yes, there were some similarities to the older Greek thinking. But there were also some significant differences.
In summary, the preconditions were there but also they were not.
Secondly, about the figure of Christ. Yes, maybe some were impressed by the figure of Christ. But I still find it difficult that the ethnos of the Greeks ended up deifying a poor crucified Jewish rabbi and not one of their own religious/philosophical thinkers like Zeno, Pythagoras etc Or maybe someone who ruled the world like Alexander. Again, it is difficult to believe that this people, the Greeks, would deify Christ whose belief system did clearly say the the Chosen people were the Jews.
Lastly, you write that this belief has gone through many sufferings that has lasted two thousand years. But admittedly the Church did not allow freedom of belief and allowed very little debate following Theodosios. Take for example, the trial of John Italos.
George, I still have difficulty understanding why a people who were admired by the whole known world for their intelligence, culture and paideia would accept the teachings of someone like Christ and the Jewish people.
What you say can be read as an explanation of how unexplainable is the conversion of Greece, if we think of it as a work of some speech or of a group of speeches. It is also evident from our current experience, where theology is studied in all the world at the universities, while preachers deliver each week their sermons - and yet atheism day by day grows.
A misunderstanding must be cleared here, about the ‘sacred’ writings of the Ancients. Of course they had theological writings, even Homer is theological to a large extent, but they were not doctrinal writings, they had not formed a holy corpus (as is for us the Bible) necessary to all, beyond any objection, etc. Besides this, the so-called “Orphic religion” is a myth. Most of the Orphic texts are composed in the hellenistic period and their parallel study proves that they express a variety of beliefs and not a certain religion. Archbishop Christodoulos gives ample evidence on this (using the exhaustive work of Ivan Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus, as well as M. L. West’s, The Orphic Poems).
The absense of a doctrinal (in fact, of any really common to all Greeks) religion, is critical to our discussion, because this way we can understand that they had not anything like their own Testament, which they put aside in order to believe in Christ and form, for the first time in their history a doctrinal corpus, the Old and New Testaments.
You are also wrong when you say that they preferred the teachings of the Old Testament. Their faith was in Christ and not in Moses’ God, whom they accepted only through Christ, recognising in Him the Father of Christ. Therefore, they did not accept a Jewish faith, but exactly the opposite, the faith that the Jews rejected by crucifying Christ.
This is why you are also wrong when you imply that by their new faith they also accepted Israel as the chosen people of God. On the contrary, from the first days of Christianity it was understood and clearly said, that this choice has been transferred from Israel to the Greeks and all Christianity. Besides this, already from the speech of Paul, but also in the Fathers that followed and started to form Christianity as we know it even until today, it was clearly said that Greek philosophy is a gift of God to the Greeks, roughly the equivalent of the what the Old Testament was to the Jews. When emperor Julian wanted Christians to stop reading the Ancients, a ‘war’ emerged in the empire. They did not reject the ancient thought, only polytheism.
It is surprising that the Greeks started to worship Christ, “a poor crucified Jewish rabbi”, as you say – but this is the Jewish view of the things! Only to non-Christians Christ is just this. The Greeks (surprisingly, but this is what happened) started to worship Christ as God – who also was incarnated (nothing strange in this for them). They could not have worshipped Pythagoras, because (first of all) Pythagoras did not ask to be worshipped, in fact, himself was worshipping other Gods.
The argument of an ‘opressing Church’ with which you end your post is also wrong. I won't enter in details, because some hints may be enough.
The first three centuries of Christianity, Christians were brutally murdered for being Christians – and they kept their faith. How would you explain this? There was no oppresing Church then.
Think also of papacy. Papacy was a really oppressing Church (Holy Inquisition, Infallibility, Primacy, etc, things not existing in Byzantium) – and yet atheism in the West is incomparably stronger that in the Orthodox East. If oppresion is a means of keeping a faith, then Christianity in the West should be stronger than in the East, which is not.
What could be the leit-motiv of your posts, “why a people who were admired by the whole known world for their intelligence, culture and paideia would accept the teachings of someone like Christ and the Jewish people”, can not be answered. It is a paradox which we can think from various aspects, but it remains a paradox. The only thing I tried to demonstrate, is that they did not accept an ideology or philosophical system or science, but a faith, which means that they saw or somehow perceived the person of Christ, while, on the other hand, they were not interested (as Jews were) to their nation more than to the living truth.
Plato himself had taught them (in Phaedrus 275bc) a lesson by which I’m ending also this post:
“People in those times were not wise as you are, young men; they had their mind open and it was enough to them to listen even to a tree or a rock, provided they were speaking the truth. But you may be interested in who speaks and whence he comes. Because you are not thinking only this: if what he says is, or is not, true”.
I don’t mean that you are one of the young men Plato refers to, but only that a real Greek is not interested whence truth comes. It suffices to be true.
George, the reason why we did not have a body of doctrinal works which were beyond objection was that this whole idea of adhering to a set of ideas which are 'beyond objection' was unacceptable to the Greeks. Everything; including some of their homegrown gods, were open to critical enquiry. It was this feature of the ethnos (and a few other things) that distinguished us from most of the other people's of that time. This raises the question (which relates to your comments in paragraph three) as to why would the Greeks need a set of doctrinal works all of a sudden; and why would they accept, a set of doctrinal works written by a group of people who were considered marginal at best. Just because they did not have a set of doctrinal works does not neccasarily mean that they would need some. That is poor logic. Actually, the fact that they had no doctrinal works suggests they would never need them. They were at ease at having many works from which to draw from. I find your argument here to be quite weak.
I also find your avoidance of not mentioning the Church's oppresion annoying. You cannot deny that not only the nature of Christianity (which clearly says that Christ's word is the first and last word, the Alpha and Omega) and the political rulers did oppress ideas, morals etc which were contrary to their own. Actually, they oppressed the people closest to them the most for example, the Arians, Monophysites etc. I know these are uncomfortable truths for a Christian to accept, and trust me; it has troubled me, but the facts are undeniable. And the early Christians and the Church Fathers did say that philosophy was a gift from God but then why did the practise of free thought eventually become so stifled (except for some bright lights like Psellos). It became stifled because the nature of Christian belief does not really allow for metaphysical questioning. And if you allow it then Christianity itself may be destroyed. And it this absolutism which seems to be so unHellenic or unHellenistic.
To your last point that relates to Plato's comment. It is actually very important to know and understand where an idea germinates and it does play a part; potentially a small one, as to whether you will accept it. Also, Plato espoused these views about the source of truth, but he also espoused questioning, dialogue and critical enquiry of existing beliefs. George, you cannot use Plato when it suits and ignore the central core of his ideas when it does not.
I don’t want to interrupt your dialogue which is very interesting, but I’d like to add something. I agree with George and his stress on Christianity as a historical choice of the Greeks. Even if we can’t explain exactly why this happened, I think it is important that it lasts for 20 centuries. We can’t discuss theoretically without taking into account the choice of a whole people, which is also a choice that changed the world.
Another point I’d like to make, is something that I can’t understand with neopagans: if Greeks were so intelligent, with such a great culture, etc., shouldn’t also their choice of Christianity, a choice that is confirmed for centuries and is paid with so many sufferings, as George says, shouldn’t also this choice be something intelligent? I mean, neopagans somehow insult common sense: if Greeks were so great, how happened and did so bad a choice? Ancient Greeks must have been very stupid, if Christianity is so wrong as neopagans say.
This would be very strange, because, if Greeks remain Christians until now, which means a permanent stupidity, then all Greek culture(s), from Homer and Parthenon to the New Testament, Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine Fathers, and coming to their survival during the Turkish occupation, the survival of their faith and their very language, the martyrs, the saints, the poets, Solomos, Seferis, Elytis, Papadiamantis, etc – all of this must be explained as a work and life of stupidity...?!
If we accept what neopagans say, we must also admit that all Christian peoples are stupid, especially the Orthodox (Russians, Serbs, Romanians, etc), the whole West too, and even Chinese, Japanese, African and in general all Christian churches.
I respect the high level of conversation here at Elpenor, but I must admit that I am angry, because neopagans insult my knowledge, culture and common sense. They try to ‘persuade’ me that so many peoples, belonging to the biggest religion in the world, all Christian peoples in the world, are stupid. And they think (seriously) that we will all become great, intelligent and enlightened, if we start suddenly to worship Zeus and Hermes?!!!? It seems to me just ridiculous. Nothing more, nothing less. I don't mean that whatever the majority believes is right. I only mean that we can't call stupid the very people, whose (previous) religion we'd like to return to, and we can't disregard the faith of so many peoples, including Greeks, when we don't have anything real to put on its place, when nothing of what we support proves or at least indicates that we have the intelligence that the Greeks lost by becoming Christians. This is called self-respect and common sense, virtues obviously unknown to neo-pagans.