Diarmaid MacCulloch on Christianity's Emergence

The workof Diarmiad MacCulloch is clearly an entry into properly understanding both theinfluence of Plato on Hellenism and from that foundation, the influence ofHellenism on the emergent Christianity and from there to the emergence of therationalism of the Christian enlightenment.

It isstartling to think that we owe the scientific and industrial revolutions andthe structure of Christian philosophy directly to the ideas of one man whonever wrote a book.  His name wasSocrates.

Likemany, I have perused the sources and have learned that these influencesexisted.  This work clearly outlines thecontinuities and relationships and is a must read if one wants to increase onesinsight in the history of ideas and philosophy.

The Gospel according to Plato
National Post  December 23, 2010– 8:56 am

In the first of fourbook excerpts, religious scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the deep historical and philosophicalroots of the Christian faith.

Socrates wrote nothing himself, and we hear hisvoice mediated through writings of his pupil and admirer Plato, mostly indialogue form. While he was teaching in Athens, his was an insistently andinfuriatingly questioning voice, embodying the conviction that questions cannever cease to be asked if human beings are to battle with any success againstthe constant affliction of public and private problems. At Socrates’s trial,Plato portrays the philosopher as insisting in his speech of defence that “theunexamined life is not worth living.” It was Socrates’s questioning of thehalf-century-old Athenian democracy that was a major cause of his trial andexecution; his trial is the central event around which Plato’s dialogues arefocused, making it as much a trial of Athenian society and thought as it was ofSocrates. The grotesque absurdity of killing a man who was arguablyAthens’s greatest citizen on charges of blasphemy and immorality impelled Platoto see a discussion of politics as one facet of discussions of justice, thenature of morality and divine purpose — in fact to see the two discussions asinterchangeable.

Western religion and philosophy have remainedin the shadow of those exchanges: Western culture has borrowed the insistenceof Socrates that priority should be given over received wisdom to logicalargument and rational procession of thought, and the Western version of theChristian tradition is especially prone to this Socratic principle. Yet he wasalso to find his most mischievous disciple in a 19th-century Danish Lutheranwho overturned even the systematic pursuit of rationality: Søren Kierkegaard.
Plato’s influence on Christianity was equallyprofound in two other directions. First, his view of reality and authenticitypropelled one basic impulse in Christianity, to look beyond the immediate andeveryday to the universal or ultimate. In his dialogue The Republic, herepresents Socrates as telling a story which in more than one sense illuminatesthe Platonic view of the human condition. Prisoners are chained in a cave,facing a wall; their bonds are fixed in such a way that the wall is all theycan see. Behind them a great fire roars, but between them and the fire is awalkway, on which people parade a series of objects, such as carved images of animalsor humans, whose shadows fall on the wall under the prisoners’ gaze. Thebearers pronounce the names of the objects as they pass and the echoes of thenames bounce off the wall. All the prisoners can experience, therefore, areshadows and echoes. That is what they understand to be reality. If any of themare released, the brightness of the sun’s real light is blinding, and makestheir sight of any of the real objects less convincing than the shadows whichthey have come to know so well, and the echoing names which they have heard.
Human life is an imprisonment in the cave. Theparticular phenomena we perceive in our lives are shadows of their ideal“Forms,” which represent truer and higher versions of reality than the oneswhich we can readily know. We should not be content with these shadows. Anindividual human soul should do its best to find its way back to the Formswhich lie behind the world of our clouded senses, because there we may findarete — excellence or virtue. The path is through the intellect: “Excellence[arete] of soul” is our chief purpose or direction, because beyond even theForms is the Supreme Soul, who is God and who is ultimate arete.
Plato’s second major contribution to Christiandiscussion is his conception of what God’s nature encompasses: onenessand goodness. Plato took his cue from Socrates’s radical rethinking on thetraditional Greek range of gods (the “pantheon”), looked beyond it and madeethics central to his discussion of divinity.
The pantheon portrayed in both Greek myth andthe Homeric epics can hardly be said to exemplify virtue: The origins of thegods in particular make up an extraordinary catalogue of horrors and violence.Hesiod’s Theogony named the first divinity as Chaos; among the divinities whoemerged from him, representing the cosmos spawned out of chaos, was Gaia, theEarth. Gaia’s son Ouranos/Uranus (the Sky) incestuously mated with his motherand had 12 children, whom he forced back into Gaia’s womb; Gaia’s youngest son,Kronos/Cronus, castrated his father, Ouranos, before in turn committing incestwith his sister and attempting to murder all their children. How unlike thehome life of the Christian Trinity. Matters only marginally improved in thegeneration of Zeus. If one were compiling a school report on the behaviour ofthe Olympian gods, it would have to include comments on their lack of moralresponsibility, consistent pity or compassion.
Greeks generally looked on this disconcertinglack of moral predictability among their divinities with cheerful resignation,and did their best to secure the best bargain available from them by dueceremonial observances at home or in temples or shrines. Now Plato presented avery different picture of the ultimate God. His perspective looking beyond thetraditional pantheon has a further dimension, which does actually in effectlimit the way in which he envisaged the goodness of God. Although Plato’ssupreme God is unlike the fickle, jealous, quarrelsome gods of the Greekpantheon, his God is distanced from compassion for human tragedy, becausecompassion is a passion or emotion.
For Plato, the character of true deity is notmerely goodness, but also oneness. Although Plato nowhere explicitly draws theconclusion from that oneness, it points to the proposition that God alsorepresents perfection. Being perfect, thesupreme God is also without passions, since passions involve change from onemood to another, and it is in the nature of perfection that it cannot change.This passionless perfection contrasts with the passion, compassion and constantintervention of Israel’sGod, despite the fact that both the Platonic and the Hebrew views of God stresstranscendence.
There is a difficulty in envisaging how Plato’sGod could create the sort of changeable, imperfect, messy world in which welive — indeed, have any meaningful contact with it. Even the created wholenessof the Forms would most appropriately have been created by one other than theGod who is the Supreme Soul: perhaps an image of the Supreme Soul, an imagethat Plato describes in one of the most influential of his dialogues, Timaeus,as a craftsman or artificer (demiourgos, from which comes the English term“demiurge”). Creation was likely to extend away from God in a hierarchy ofemanations from the supreme reality of the divine.

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Rendering credit unto Caesar
National Post  December 24, 2010– 8:57 am

In the second of fourbook excerpts, religious scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the deep historical and philosophicalroots of the Christian faith. 

By the time Jesus Christ was born in Palestine,the Hellenistic world was being ruled by another wave of imperial conquerors,who had come from the west, but who did little to challenge the cultural superiorityof the society which they had found — quite the reverse. Their rule, unlikeAlexander’s, lasted for centuries, and the memory of it has hauntedChristianity ever since.

Rome was a city whose sense of destiny was all thegreater because no one could have predicted the effect of such an insignificantplace on the wider world. Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer, who diedjust before Jesus embarked on his public ministry, shrewdly observed thatRome’s sheer lack of resources made its people acutely aware that their onlyassets were their energies in war and their determination to survive; the cityhad few natural endowments apart from timber and river transport to recommendit and, sited in the centre of the Italian peninsula, it was not even on anyinternational trade route. It lacked any strong natural defences and, as itgrew, its local agriculture would have been quite inadequate to support itspopulation had it not acquired new territory.
It was around the mid-eighth century BCE that Rome became a walled city with a king, rather like a polisin archaic Greece.The monarchy was overthrown in 509 BCE and thereafter the Romans had such apathological fear of the idea of kingship that no one bore the title “King ofthe Romans” again until a Christian ruler from what is now Germany reinvented it a millennium and a halflater, far from Romeand therefore deaf to the ancient taboo.
There followed a generation of conflictbetween an aristocracy (the patricians) and the people (plebeians), just as in Greece.However, the result of this war was opposite to the outcome in Greekcity-states such as Athens or Corinth: The aristocrats won and theconstitution of the Republic (res publica) which they developed influencedRoman forms of government down to the end of the empire. The plebeians lostwhatever power they had possessed under the monarchy; there were still popularassemblies, but their role was without substance. Real power lay with twoconsuls, officers chosen annually from among the patricians, and with theSenate, an assembly of patricians; even here, junior senators had little say inthe running of affairs. Ordinary people had influence on policy only throughthe popularly elected tribunes, who were honoured and sacrosanct during theiryear of office. Tribunes looked after the legal rights of the people, and evenin the later Republic, when popular rights had dwindled still further, theystill vetoed legislation proposed by the Senate.
Otherwise, the Roman Republicstarkly contrasted with the development of democracy in the Athenian mould. Itsunequal balance appealed greatly to aristocrats in Christian societies, onceChristian societies came into existence, and we will meet several such“Republics” (or, in an alternative English translation, “Commonwealths”) asalternatives to monarchy, in both Latin and Orthodox Christendom: Venice,Novgorod, Poland-Lithuania, the 17th-century England of Oliver Cromwell.
The RomanRepublic’s difference from developedGreek city-states probably arose because of Rome’s continual yearning to expand: a statemore or less permanently at war either to maintain or to expand its frontierscould not afford the luxury of real democracy. Why was Rome’s expansion so remarkably successful?Plenty of other states produced dramatic expansion, but survived for no morethan a few generations or a couple of centuries at most. The western part ofthe Roman state survived for twelve hundred years, and in its eastern form theRoman Empire had a further thousand years of life after that. The answerprobably lies in another contrast with Greece: The Romans had very littlesense of racial exclusiveness. They gave away Roman citizenship to deservingforeigners — by deserving, they would mean those who had something to offerthem in return, if only grateful collaboration. Occasionally whole areas wouldbe granted citizenship. It was even possible for slaves to make the leap frombeing non-persons to being citizens, simply by a formal ceremony before amagistrate, or by provision in their owners’ wills.
Where this highly original view of citizenshipcame from is not clear; it must have evolved during the struggle for powerbetween the patricians and the plebeians after the fall of the kings. In anycase, the effect was to give anever-widening circle of people a vested interest in the survival of Rome. That became clear inone dramatic case in the first century of the Common Era, when a Jewishtent-maker called Paul, from Tarsus, far awayfrom Rome in Asia Minor,could proudly say that he was a Roman citizen, knowing that this statusprotected him against the local powers threatening him. It might have been hispride in this status of universal citizen which first suggested to Paul thatthe Jewish prophet who had seized his allegiance in a vision had a message forall people and not just the Jews.
The story of the RomanRepublic is one of steady expansionthroughout the Mediterranean. Rome must havehad contact with Greeks from its earliest days, but it started castinginterested and acquisitive eyes on the Greek mainland during the second centuryBCE. The paradoxical cliché (no less true for being so) about the consequenceof this advance was suavely expressed in Latin by the Emperor Augustus’sadmirer the Roman poet Horace: “Greece, the captive, made her savage victorcaptive, and brought the arts into rustic Latium.”
The Romans became fascinated by Greek cultureand philosophy, which complemented their own highly developed skills inmilitary affairs, administration and matters of law. Greek became just as muchan international language as Latin for the Roman Empire.Indeed, it was the lingua franca of the Middle Eastin the time of Jesus, and it was the language which, in a rather vulgarmarketplace form, most Christians spoke in everyday life during the Church’sfirst two centuries of existence. By the sixth and seventh centuries, Greek wasousting Latin as the official language of the surviving Eastern Roman Empire, with the strong encouragement of the ChristianChurch. That was an achievement unparalleled among languages of supposedlydefeated peoples, and a tribute to Hellenistic cultural vitality andadaptability long after the end of the various Hellenistic monarchies.
The Roman rule which Jesus experienced hadundergone a great transition, from Republic to imperial monarchy. It issurprising that the Republic had postponed trouble for so long, but itsstructures proved increasingly inadequate to cope with running its bloatedempire. Rising poverty, land hunger and an accumulated popular sense ofinjustice came to a head around 100 BCE. Seventy years of misery andintermittent civil war followed, ending with the defeat of one party boss byanother in 31 BCE, when Octavian won a naval victory at Actium against MarkAntony and his ally the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Octavian, adoptedheir of the assassinated general and dictator Julius Caesar, achieved supremepower within the Roman state in a series of unscrupulous maneuvers; he now hadto hang on to his power and bring back peace to the shattered state. Hislasting success came through meticulous adherence to all the old forms of theRepublican constitution.
Behind the facade, Octavian carried out arevolution in government. Careful to avoid the hated title of King, he arrangedthat the Senate should give him the harmless-sounding title of First Citizen(princeps), while renaming himself Augustus, a symbol of a fresh start afterthe wretchedness of civil war. This is the name we find used for him in theChristian scriptures, the New Testament. To show his good intentions, Augustusalso graciously accepted the office of tribune, the only officer in the oldconstitution who still commanded any affection among ordinary people, but healso assumed a traditional military title of honour which Julius Caesar hadheld, commander — imperator. Now he was the first of the Roman emperors, with asuccession which lasted until 1453. This was the title that mattered: Itsignified his control of the army, which had traditionally bestowed the honourby acclamation, the real basis for imperial power from now on. The virtuallyperpetual warfare which so dominated the Roman past meant that the bestjustification for holding power in the Republic had been a track record ofmilitary success: hence the importance of the imperator title. Augustus madesure that his various publicists magnified a personal record as a militarycommander which was in reality decidedly unimpressive.
For all that his own military prowess was dubious,Augustus and his successors tore down political frontiers all round the Mediterranean, and by controlling piracy, they made itcomparatively safe and easy to travel from one end of the sea to the other. Thefirst great exponent of a worldwide Christianity, the Apostle Paul, made themost of this, and so would the Christian faith as a whole. Without the generalpeace brought by Roman power, Christianity’s westward spread would have beenfar more unlikely.

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Judaism's most successful sect

DiarmaidMacculloch, National Post ·Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

The first Jewish texts to say much about thesoul appear in the Hellenistic period, like the so-called Wisdom of Solomon,probably written between the mid-second century BCE and the early first centuryBCE. The Book of Daniel (or at least most of its text) is almost certain tohave been written as late as the second century BCE. It is unprecedented inJewish sacred literature in spelling out the idea of an individual resurrectionof a soul in a transformed body in the afterlife -- though still not foreveryone.
Naturally, such developments within Judaismwere highly controversial and provoked continuing argument; yet by the timeChristians were beginning to construct their own literature, their writersclearly found such talk of the individual soul and of resurrection completelynatural, and it became the basis of that Christian concern with the afterlifethat sometimes has bordered on the obsessional.
At this historical stage, Rome was distantfrom Judea, and relations remained friendly for about a century -- until theRomans invaded Judaea in 63 BCE as part of their mopping-up operations aroundthe conquest of their real prizes, the Seleucid and Egyptian empires.
Finding no convincing or compliant Hasmoneancandidates for a Jewish throne, in 37 BCE, the Romans displaced the lastHasmonean ruler and replaced him with a relative by marriage, who reigned formore than three decades. This puppet king, an outsider whose forebearers camefrom the territory to the south of Judaea which the Romans called Idumea (Edom), wasHerod "the Great."
Herod rebuilt the Temple with unprecedentedmagnificence, making it one of the largest sacred complexes in the ancientworld; the quality of his masonry in the visible surviving sections of itsmonumental precinct wall can still be admired. Yet he got little thanks fromhis subjects, who were equally ungrateful for his attempt to please them withsuch foreign innovations as Greekstyle public sporting contests, gladiatorialcombats or horse racing in newly built arenas. Complications continued afterHerod's death in 4 BCE because his sons took the extensive territories that theRomans had allowed him to build up and divided them between themselves. Duringthe first century CE the Romans experimented with a mixture of indirect rule
through various members of the Herodian familyand direct imperial rule of parts of Palestinethrough a Roman official-- Pontius Pilate was one of these.
Within Judaeaitself, there were at least four identities for Judaism -- Sadducees,Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots and probably many lesser sects. Even though theytolerated each other's existence, each saw itself as the most authenticexpression of Jewish identity. Perhaps one way to understand the differencesbetween them is to realize that they took distinguishable stances towards theHellenistic world ruled over by the Romans, and toward all the temptations awayfrom Jewish tradition that it embodied: They represented different degrees ofdistance or accommodation.
The Sadducees provided the elite that ran the Temple. They had donewell out of successive regimes, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and they continuedto do well when the Romans were in charge. It was therefore not surprising thatthey were the most flexible of our four groups in relation to outsiders. Forthem, it was enough to keep the basic commands of the Law in the scriptures andnot to add the complex additional regulations that governed the everyday
life of the Pharisees and made Pharisee lifeobviously distinct from the world of non-Jews around them.
Significantly, being conservatives andminimalists in their view of Jewish doctrine, Sadducees had little time for thecomparatively recently evolved discussion of the afterlife; Jesus is portrayedas on one occasion teasing Sadducees on this subject, to the pleasure of somePharisees. Both Jesus and Paul can be identified by their backgrounds as closerto the Pharisees than to any other religious grouping.
For the group known as the Essenes, even thedistinctiveness which the Pharisees maintained was not enough to keep them frompollution in semi-colonial Palestine.The Essenes left ordinary society by setting up their own separate communities,usually well away from others, with their own literature and their owntraditions of persecution by other Jews. Sometimes it has been suggested thatthe early Christians were close to the Essenes, but that seems unlikely. Esseneseparation from the rest of Judaism was a matter of principle, whereas theeventual Christian separation was a result of Christianity's failure to becomethe leading force within the Judaism of the first century CE, and Christiansbecame eager to move out into the world beyond Palestine.
The Zealots held a militant version of thesame Essene theme of separation: For them, the only solution to the humiliationof Roman rule over the Jewish homeland was to take up Maccabean traditions ofviolent resistance, and it was they who gave impetus to the successivedisastrous revolts which by the mid-second century CE had shattered Jewish lifein Palestine.
Out of that destruction emerged a group whichat first seemed just another minority answer to the problem of Jewish identity.Now it did much toward the permanent shaping of that identity, as well asbecoming a world religion in its own right.
The Jewish sect that became Christianityborrowed the sacred literature created by the Jews and shaped Christian beliefin its founder-Messiah along lines already present in the sacred books of theTanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible). Christian history thereafter is shotthrough with and shaped by the stories of the Tanakh. They became particularlyuseful when Christians allied with monarchies, for the Christian New Testamenthas little to do with kings, while the Old Testament has much to say aboutthem.
When Christians created a sacred book of two"Testaments," they turned their brand-new belief system into onewhich could stand on an ancient sacred tradition and claim to be the mostancient religion of all.
-Excerpted from Christianity: The First ThreeThousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Published by arrangement with Viking, amember of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. ©Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2009. Christianity:The First Three Thousand Years was the winner of this year's $75,000 CundillPrize in History at McGill University .

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