This continues my previous post, which was slightly misleadingly titled Why Christianity Spread So Rapidly . . .. It is for most part a distillation of Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Christian Century”, found in Mimesis and Intertextuality edited by Dennis MacDonald. A related post is my discussion of Paul’s Christ crucified message and its relationship to Stoic philosophy, Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”. (Riley himself, however, is certainly not a Jesus-mythicist as far as I am aware.)
Riley is attempting to redress what he sees as an imbalance in the scholarship of early Christianity by pointing out that key Christian themes and messages originated in the Greco-Roman world, and were tacked on to Jewish heroes. Christianity’s attraction to many in the Roman empire lay in the way it epitomized the best and noblest of Classical ideals as it narrated these through very “paganized” Jewish characters.
Anyone familiar with the New Testament who reads the classical literature of Greece and Rome cannot help but notice the many coincidences of thought and expressions. This was certainly my own experience. Questions inevitably begin to arise as one sees this so often the more one reads. It is refreshing and enlightening to see Riley address this question head on.
This part 2 post looks at “what made the Christian Gospel something familiar and alluring, even captivating, for the masses of people of the Roman world.” (p.99) I flesh out some of Riley’s notes with quotations from the classical sources themselves.
Contrasting Greek and Jewish ideals
“Greek tradition,” Riley points out, “had developed to a very sophisticated degree a world-view called ‘Greek pessimism.’ The literature they held in most high regard is termed ‘Greek tragedy.'”
The Greek goddesses of fate, Moirae, who were known as Fata among the Latin speaking Romans (compare our “fatal”), determined not only the destinies of earthly mortals, but even that of the chief god Zeus himself.
“It was one of the joys of the gods to disabuse people of their false hopes for long life, health, wealth, offspring, peace, even intelligence.”
Contrast the promises of the Jewish scriptures: It was long life, health and well-being that were promised to all who obeyed the Law of Moses. Curses were the consequence of disobedience.
1 If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God:
3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
4 The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land . . .
5 Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.
6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
7 The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. . . .
8 The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. . . .
. . . 11 The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground . . .
15 However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
17 Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.
18 The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
20 The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. 21 The LORD will plague you with diseases . . .
This is not the way of the Greek (or Roman) gods. Piety did not promise blessings in this life. Blessings were always temporary.
A well known line in Homer’s Iliad is spoken by Achilles when Priam, the father of the son he has just killed in battle, approaches him for the body of Hector:
sit now upon this seat, and for all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Jove’s palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Jove the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Jove sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.
Note the urn of evil is mentioned first. And the one with blessings is always poured out with a mixture of curses. There is no life of unbroken blessing: “the possibility did not exist.”
This is the idea that lies behind Greek historian Herodotus’s account of the conversation between Solon, the wisest of the Greeks, with Croessus, the richest of the barbarian (non-Greek) kings.
Croesus received him as his guest, and lodged him in the royal palace. On the third or fourth day after, he bade his servants conduct Solon over his treasuries, and show him all their greatness and magnificence. When he had seen them all . . . Croesus addressed this question to him. “Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom . . . I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?” This he asked because he thought himself the happiest of mortals:
but Solon answered him without flattery, according to his true sentiments, “Tellus of Athens, sire.” Full of astonishment at what he heard, Croesus demanded sharply, “And wherefore dost thou deem Tellus happiest?” To which the other replied, “First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours.”
Thus did Solon admonish Croesus by the example of Tellus, enumerating the manifold particulars of his happiness.
When he had ended, Croesus inquired a second time . . . “Cleobis and Bito,” Solon answered; “they were of Argive race; their fortune was enough for their wants, and they were besides endowed with so much bodily strength that they had both gained prizes at the Games. Also this tale is told of them:- There was a great festival in honour of the goddess Juno at Argos, to which their mother must needs be taken in a car. Now the oxen did not come home from the field in time: so the youths, fearful of being too late, put the yoke on their own necks, and themselves drew the car in which their mother rode. Five and forty furlongs did they draw her, and stopped before the temple. This deed of theirs was witnessed by the whole assembly of worshippers, and then their life closed in the best possible way. Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently, how much better a thing for man death is than life. For the Argive men, who stood around the car, extolled the vast strength of the youths; and the Argive women extolled the mother who was blessed with such a pair of sons; and the mother herself, overjoyed at the deed and at the praises it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Bito, the sons who had so mightily honoured her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth. The Argives, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues of them to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi.”
When Solon had thus assigned these youths the second place, Croesus broke in angrily, “What, stranger of Athens, is my happiness, then, so utterly set at nought by thee, that thou dost not even put me on a level with private men?”
“Oh! Croesus,” replied the other, “thou askedst a question concerning the condition of man, of one who knows that the power above us is full of jealousy, and fond of troubling our lot. A long life gives one to witness much, and experience much oneself, that one would not choose. Seventy years I regard as the limit of the life of man. . . . not one [day of these years] will produce events unlike the rest. Hence man is wholly accident. For thyself, oh! Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless it so hap that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life. For many of the wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means were moderate have had excellent luck. Men of the former class excel those of the latter but in two respects; these last excel the former in many. The wealthy man is better able to content his desires, and to bear up against a sudden buffet of calamity. The other has less ability to withstand these evils (from which, however, his good luck keeps him clear), but he enjoys all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon. If, in addition to all this, he end his life well, he is of a truth the man of whom thou art in search, the man who may rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate. . . . so no single human being is complete in every respect- something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’ But in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.“
Such was the speech which Solon addressed to Croesus, a speech which brought him neither largess nor honour. The king saw him depart with much indifference, since he thought that a man must be an arrant fool who made no account of present good, but bade men always wait and mark the end.
After Solon had gone away a dreadful vengeance, sent of God, came upon Croesus, to punish him.
Prosperity and blessings brought with them the danger of hubris (self-satisfaction) and neglect of dike (“the proper balance of justice in one’s soul that brought forth respect for one’s companions, hospitality for the stranger, and courage in the face of the inevitable change in fortune.”)
So to the Greeks “virtue” was something quite unlike the “Old Testament” idea of obedience to a set of rules defining sin and righteousness. Obedience to the laws of Zeus was important, and disobedience certainly brought punishment, “but obedience was little better.”
The stories teach us that Greek life was short and harsh, even for the highly placed, and that suffering was the fundamental human experience. And worse: for the innocent or especially pious, suffering unjustly was inevitable. (p.98)
“By suffering comes learning” (pathei mathos)
Escape from painful fate was impossible, but suffering did bring some profit. The famous line of Aeschylus in his tragic play Agamemnon was:
Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that “wisdom comes by suffering.” But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep, so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats.
Suffering here means the suffering of death.
In this play the learning comes too late for Agamemnon. The ones who learn from his tragic death are the audience of the play. This was the pattern and lesson of Greek tragedies.
Xenophon illustrates how this learning the most important lessons of life was the point of studying the likes of Homer. In Symposium he writes as part of an exchange with Socrates:
So now, Niceratus, suppose you tell us on what knowledge you most pride yourself.
He answered: My father, in his pains to make me a good man, compelled me to learn the whole of Homer’s poems, and it so happens that even now I can repeat the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” by heart.
I recall how in high school on reading the Homeric epics how I was left mystified by my teacher’s claims that these were in some sense considered “the Bible” of the Greeks. I could see no lessons in them comparable to the direct “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in the Bible I knew. I was too young at the time to truly understand the more sophisticated lessons they do indeed teach. Riley explains:
What one learned from the classical tradition was what it meant to be a respected person in the larger context of the Greek cosmos, a world controlled by the jealousy of the gods and the vicissitudes of Fate. One learned piety towards the gods, to respect the rights of others, especially the unfortunate, the suppliant, and the stranger. But what one learned above all was how to face the ultimate test, unjust suffering, the inevitable suffering unto death, with courage and integrity. The texts display a remarkable sophistication on this point . . . (p. 98)
Riley compares the images that the Greeks used in this instruction with those we find in the New Testament. Among many other comparable phrases, one:
- practices self-control in all things
- endures to the end
- fights the good fight
- runs the course
- arms oneself with the weapons of righteousness
- receives the crown
These and many other ideas are found in common in ancient classical and New Testament writings.
The point is that one is engaged in a battle or context that one cannot win except by courageous death.
The Hebrew Bible teaches that falling in defeat before one’s enemies is a shameful curse.
But for the Greeks, one found victory if, in falling in defeat to one’s enemies, one held on to one’s courage and integrity to the end. “One could in fact lose a fight and be killed, yet still win a moral victory.”
This, of course, is the lesson of the deaths of Socrates, Achilles, Jesus, the Christian martyrs.
Falling in defeat did not matter — that was one’s fate. The same would happen to your enemy in his time.
During a critical moment on the battlefield Odysseus found himself suddenly alone:
Odysseus famed for his spear, was left alone, nor did anyone of the Argives abide by him, for that fear had laid hold of them all. Then mightily moved he spake unto his own great-hearted spirit: “Woe is me; what is to befall me? Great evil were it if I flee, seized with fear of the throng;, yet this were a worse thing, if I be taken all alone, for the rest of the Danaans hath the son of Cronos scattered in flight. But why doth my heart thus hold converse with me? For I know that they are cowards that depart from battle, whereas whoso is pre-eminent in fight, him verily it behoveth to hold his ground boldly, whether he be smitten, or smite another.” (Iliad 11)
The story of Jesus is a Greek tragedy
Suffering was a curse from God according to the Hebrew Bible. Being crucified was a curse from God. So Deuteronomy 21:23. The paradigmatic biblical hero, David, lived a long and wealthy life.
But in the Gospel of Mark 8:34-36 crucifixion is the way to the Kingdom of God.
In other words, as Riley observes, the early Christian authors “understood and told the story of the Son of God on earth not according to the Deuteronomists but according to the [Greek] tragedians.”
They took from the Old Testament what they could use and side-stepped the rest through allegory, spiritualization, and silence. (p.99)
Riley’s remarks remind one of the more general trend around the time of the early Christian era for pagan philosophers to allegorize their myths, too, in order to explain away their less ethical traits.
What made the Christian Gospel so alluring for the masses
This was what made the Christian Gospel something familiar and alluring, even captivating, for the masses of people of the Roman world. It was a story they had heard long before and had learned to admire and respect. Stories of endurance of suffering and courage in the face of overwhelming fate had prepared them to hear the same story again, but now one in which they themselves were included in a new way: they themselves were invited to participate individually as protagonists and main characters. In the Christian story, each individual was required to repeat the story of the captain, to take up his or her own cross and follow to the end of life, whatever that end might be.
A few suffered literal crucifixion or the lions. Many suffered criticism and rejection by friends and family. The Gospel was not the Jewish Scriptural promise of health, wealth and long earthly life.
The Jewish form but Greek tragic substance of the New Testament
The Gospel of Mark, the letters of Paul that speak of his life, the Book of Hebrews, the Book of Revelation — all are replete with Old Testament quotations and allusions. But their substance is “the call to endure with faithfulness to the death in language straight out of Greek tradition.”
Riley points out a “fundamental contradiction” in the famous letter of Clement over its abundant use of the Septuagint (Greek) Old Testament and his message that comes straight out of Greek heroic tradition.
Clement was ostensibly writing from Rome to address a rebellion against church leaders in the church at Corinth. His theme was to exhort submission to authority, the younger are to submit to the elder (“possibly unjust”) authorities in humility, “much like the ambassadors asked the young Achilles to submit to the authority of Agamemnon.”
Digressing from Riley’s chapter:
This comparison Riley makes with Achilles refers to a scene in Homer’s Iliad in which Achilles, who has been wronged by the leader of the army besieging Troy, King Agamemnon, and has refused to join the fight as a result, is approached by two emissaries from Agamemnon who beg him to return and submit.
To step aside from Riley’s chapter for a moment, this is a scene that comes to my mind when I read of the baptism of Jesus by John in the opening scene of the Gospel of Mark. Achilles was the personal superior to Agamemnon, being half divine and half mortal, yet he is clearly at fault for not swallowing his pride and failing to submit nonetheless to the (even unjust) authority of King Agamemnon.
Scholars who declare that Jesus’ baptism by the inferior John must have been some sort of “embarrassment” to the early church have struck me as unaware of the wider cultural tradition with which any author of a Greek narrative would have been familiar.
If the cross was the way to salvation, and this was essentially a Greek idea, then why not accept the submission of the greater Jesus to the lesser John as another noble illustration of a humility that is to be emulated — as even taught among the Greek epic poets and tragedians?
Clement has a problem in his letter. He quotes many examples from the Bible, but he seems to be conscious that they hardly fit the point he is trying to make, or only slightly in some cases. He is wanting examples of people who submitted humbly to authority, even unjustly, but the ones he scrapes from the Bible are mostly negative ones, those who failed to submit when they should have: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, Dathan and Abiram, David.
His examples from the OT show that the rebellious unrighteous suffer punishment. It is only the new exemplars of Christianity who can truly demonstrate the ideal of the righteous suffering persecution and death.
The most positive examples he can find are those who are the newly created Christian ones themselves, Peter and Paul and other Christians who suffered unjust martyrdom. He glosses over the weak and negative examples he gives by exhorting his readers to keep in mind “the sufferings of Christ”, to keep their eyes on “the blood of Christ”. (I am aware that the authenticity of the references to Peter and Paul in his letter is debated by some.)
- in the Old Testament the righteous heroes killed their persecutors or watched God destroy them!
- the virtues of the Christian martyrs are those of Homer, and even given the language of Homer:
- they endured humiliation and suffering
- they kept courage in the face of death
- they strove for the spiritual victory
- they gained the prize
- and now as a consequence of all that they enjoy fame
Here we see an example of the window dressing of the Old Testament on the framework of Greek heroic tradition. (p. 101)
In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin (around 140 ce) puts into the mouth of the Jew (Trypho) the difference between Jewish and pagan ideals of righteousness:
Trypho . . . smiling, says, “I approve of your other remarks, and admire the eagerness with which you study divine things; but it were better for you still to abide in the philosophy of Plato, or of some other man, cultivating endurance, self-control, and moderation, rather than be deceived by false words, and follow the opinions of men of no reputation [i.e. Christians] . . . If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God.
The language of endurance, self-control, is the language of Greek philosophy — not Trypho’s Judaism!
Again in a later work, the “Second Apology“, Justin explains what attracted him to Christianity:
For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure.
Justin illustrates this Christian message by the example of Heracles as told by the Greek philosopher Xenophon:
Hercules, says Xenophon, coming to a place where three ways met, found Virtue and Vice, who appeared to him in the form of women: Vice, in a luxurious dress, and with a seductive expression rendered blooming by such ornaments, and her eyes of a quickly melting tenderness, said to Hercules that if he would follow her, she would always enable him to pass his life in pleasure and adorned with the most graceful ornaments, such as were then upon her own person; and Virtue, who was of squalid look and dress, said, But if you obey me, you shall adorn yourself not with ornament nor beauty that passes away and perishes, but with everlasting and precious graces.
And we are persuaded that every one who flees those things that seem to be good, and follows hard after what are reckoned difficult and strange, enters into blessedness.
For Vice, when by imitation of what is incorruptible (for what is really incorruptible she neither has nor can produce) she has thrown around her own actions, as a disguise, the properties of Virtue, and qualities which are really excellent, leads captive earthlyminded men, attaching to Virtue her own evil properties. But those who understood the excellences which belong to that which is real, are also uncorrupt in virtue.
And this every sensible person ought to think both of Christians and of the athletes, and of those who did what the poets relate of the so-called gods, concluding as much from our contempt of death, even when it could be escaped.
Riley sees the thoughts of this passage being behind Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9 where he speaks of buffeting his body to make it his slave:
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
This treatise from the late third century also uses the above pagan illustration of Xenophon’s Heracles, but without mentioning Heracles this time. The work encourages righteousness, faithful endurance under persecution, to be fearless in the face of death, to follow virtue and give up vice – both personified as in Xenophon’s tale.
let us the rather pursue virtue, but forsake vice as the forerunner of our sins
And the language is the language of the Greek classics:
So then, my brethren, let us contend, knowing that the contest is nigh at hand, and that, while many resort to the corruptible contests, yet not all are crowned, but only they that have toiled
hard and contended bravely.
Let us then contend that we all may be crowned.
Wherefore let us run in the straight course, the incorruptible contest. And let us resort to it in throngs and contend, that we may also be crowned.
in a trial of the living God we strive and are exercised in the present life, that we may obtain the crown in that which is to come.
Pathei mathos (“by suffering comes learning”)
This Greek tragic concept typifies the Jesus of the Book of Hebrews.
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Epictetus and Christian ethos
Riley concludes with a discussion of the above ideals or “Christian ethos” as expressed by the second century Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Ethos, he explains, refers to what is customary or habitual. Epictetus’ discussion is in the fourth book of his Discourses.
He urges his fellow philosophers to emulate the values of courage in the face of death and detachment from material wealth. By doing so they will be “free, serene, happy, unharmed, high-minded, reverent.”
A madman, he writes, despises death and has no desire to hold on to material or earthly things, including home and family. “Galileans” can reach the same values through “ethos”. A philosopher, through reason.
And is it possible that any one should be thus disposed towards these things from madness, and the Galileans from mere habit; yet that no one should be able to learn, from reason and demonstration, [such things of God]?
Conclusion: 3 ways
Recall that the goals set by the Deuteronomists were wealth, long life, and the like. Here in the Greek tradition they are a disregard for possessions, contempt of death, fearlessness in the face of the swords of tyrants. There were, apparently, three ways to achieve these ideals of Greek philosophy: insanity, training by reason and demonstration, and Christian ethos. (p. 103)