Saturday, December 25, 2010

Diarmaid MacCulloch on Christianity's Emergence






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

It is startling to think that we owe the scientific and industrial revolutions and the structure of Christian philosophy directly to the ideas of one man who never wrote a book.  His name was Socrates.

Like many, I have perused the sources and have learned that these influences existed.  This work clearly outlines the continuities and relationships and is a must read if one wants to increase ones insight in the history of ideas and philosophy.

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

In the first of four book excerpts, religious scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the deep historical and philosophical roots of the Christian faith.

Socrates wrote nothing himself, and we hear his voice mediated through writings of his pupil and admirer Plato, mostly in dialogue form. While he was teaching in Athens, his was an insistently and infuriatingly questioning voice, embodying the conviction that questions can never cease to be asked if human beings are to battle with any success against the constant affliction of public and private problems. At Socrates’s trial, Plato portrays the philosopher as insisting in his speech of defence that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It was Socrates’s questioning of the half-century-old Athenian democracy that was a major cause of his trial and execution; his trial is the central event around which Plato’s dialogues are focused, making it as much a trial of Athenian society and thought as it was of Socrates. The grotesque absurdity of killing a man who was arguably Athens’s greatest citizen on charges of blasphemy and immorality impelled Plato to see a discussion of politics as one facet of discussions of justice, the nature of morality and divine purpose — in fact to see the two discussions as interchangeable.

Western religion and philosophy have remained in the shadow of those exchanges: Western culture has borrowed the insistence of Socrates that priority should be given over received wisdom to logical argument and rational procession of thought, and the Western version of the Christian tradition is especially prone to this Socratic principle. Yet he was also to find his most mischievous disciple in a 19th-century Danish Lutheran who overturned even the systematic pursuit of rationality: Søren Kierkegaard.
Plato’s influence on Christianity was equally profound in two other directions. First, his view of reality and authenticity propelled one basic impulse in Christianity, to look beyond the immediate and everyday to the universal or ultimate. In his dialogue The Republic, he represents Socrates as telling a story which in more than one sense illuminates the 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 they can see. Behind them a great fire roars, but between them and the fire is a walkway, on which people parade a series of objects, such as carved images of animals or humans, whose shadows fall on the wall under the prisoners’ gaze. The bearers pronounce the names of the objects as they pass and the echoes of the names bounce off the wall. All the prisoners can experience, therefore, are shadows and echoes. That is what they understand to be reality. If any of them are released, the brightness of the sun’s real light is blinding, and makes their sight of any of the real objects less convincing than the shadows which they have come to know so well, and the echoing names which they have heard.
Human life is an imprisonment in the cave. The particular phenomena we perceive in our lives are shadows of their ideal “Forms,” which represent truer and higher versions of reality than the ones which we can readily know. We should not be content with these shadows. An individual human soul should do its best to find its way back to the Forms which lie behind the world of our clouded senses, because there we may find arete — excellence or virtue. The path is through the intellect: “Excellence [arete] of soul” is our chief purpose or direction, because beyond even the Forms is the Supreme Soul, who is God and who is ultimate arete.
Plato’s second major contribution to Christian discussion is his conception of what God’s nature encompasses: oneness and goodness. Plato took his cue from Socrates’s radical rethinking on the traditional Greek range of gods (the “pantheon”), looked beyond it and made ethics central to his discussion of divinity.
The pantheon portrayed in both Greek myth and the Homeric epics can hardly be said to exemplify virtue: The origins of the gods in particular make up an extraordinary catalogue of horrors and violence. Hesiod’s Theogony named the first divinity as Chaos; among the divinities who emerged from him, representing the cosmos spawned out of chaos, was Gaia, the Earth. Gaia’s son Ouranos/Uranus (the Sky) incestuously mated with his mother and 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 incest with his sister and attempting to murder all their children. How unlike the home life of the Christian Trinity. Matters only marginally improved in the generation of Zeus. If one were compiling a school report on the behaviour of the Olympian gods, it would have to include comments on their lack of moral responsibility, consistent pity or compassion.
Greeks generally looked on this disconcerting lack of moral predictability among their divinities with cheerful resignation, and did their best to secure the best bargain available from them by due ceremonial observances at home or in temples or shrines. Now Plato presented a very different picture of the ultimate God. His perspective looking beyond the traditional pantheon has a further dimension, which does actually in effect limit the way in which he envisaged the goodness of God. Although Plato’s supreme God is unlike the fickle, jealous, quarrelsome gods of the Greek pantheon, his God is distanced from compassion for human tragedy, because compassion is a passion or emotion.
For Plato, the character of true deity is not merely goodness, but also oneness. Although Plato nowhere explicitly draws the conclusion from that oneness, it points to the proposition that God also represents perfection. Being perfect, the supreme God is also without passions, since passions involve change from one mood to another, and it is in the nature of perfection that it cannot change. This passionless perfection contrasts with the passion, compassion and constant intervention of Israel’s God, despite the fact that both the Platonic and the Hebrew views of God stress transcendence.
There is a difficulty in envisaging how Plato’s God could create the sort of changeable, imperfect, messy world in which we live — indeed, have any meaningful contact with it. Even the created wholeness of the Forms would most appropriately have been created by one other than the God who is the Supreme Soul: perhaps an image of the Supreme Soul, an image that 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 of emanations 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 four book excerpts, religious scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch traces the deep historical and philosophical roots 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 superiority of the society which they had found — quite the reverse. Their rule, unlike Alexander’s, lasted for centuries, and the memory of it has haunted Christianity ever since.

Rome was a city whose sense of destiny was all the greater because no one could have predicted the effect of such an insignificant place on the wider world. Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer, who died just before Jesus embarked on his public ministry, shrewdly observed that Rome’s sheer lack of resources made its people acutely aware that their only assets were their energies in war and their determination to survive; the city had few natural endowments apart from timber and river transport to recommend it and, sited in the centre of the Italian peninsula, it was not even on any international trade route. It lacked any strong natural defences and, as it grew, its local agriculture would have been quite inadequate to support its population 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 polis in archaic Greece. The monarchy was overthrown in 509 BCE and thereafter the Romans had such a pathological fear of the idea of kingship that no one bore the title “King of the Romans” again until a Christian ruler from what is now Germany reinvented it a millennium and a half later, far from Rome and therefore deaf to the ancient taboo.
There followed a generation of conflict between an aristocracy (the patricians) and the people (plebeians), just as in Greece. However, the result of this war was opposite to the outcome in Greek city-states such as Athens or Corinth: The aristocrats won and the constitution of the Republic (res publica) which they developed influenced Roman forms of government down to the end of the empire. The plebeians lost whatever power they had possessed under the monarchy; there were still popular assemblies, but their role was without substance. Real power lay with two consuls, officers chosen annually from among the patricians, and with the Senate, an assembly of patricians; even here, junior senators had little say in the running of affairs. Ordinary people had influence on policy only through the popularly elected tribunes, who were honoured and sacrosanct during their year of office. Tribunes looked after the legal rights of the people, and even in the later Republic, when popular rights had dwindled still further, they still vetoed legislation proposed by the Senate.
Otherwise, the Roman Republic starkly contrasted with the development of democracy in the Athenian mould. Its unequal balance appealed greatly to aristocrats in Christian societies, once Christian societies came into existence, and we will meet several such “Republics” (or, in an alternative English translation, “Commonwealths”) as alternatives to monarchy, in both Latin and Orthodox Christendom: Venice, Novgorod, Poland-Lithuania, the 17th-century England of Oliver Cromwell.
The Roman Republic’s difference from developed Greek city-states probably arose because of Rome’s continual yearning to expand: a state more or less permanently at war either to maintain or to expand its frontiers could 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 more than a few generations or a couple of centuries at most. The western part of the Roman state survived for twelve hundred years, and in its eastern form the Roman Empire had a further thousand years of life after that. The answer probably lies in another contrast with Greece: The Romans had very little sense of racial exclusiveness. They gave away Roman citizenship to deserving foreigners — by deserving, they would mean those who had something to offer them in return, if only grateful collaboration. Occasionally whole areas would be granted citizenship. It was even possible for slaves to make the leap from being non-persons to being citizens, simply by a formal ceremony before a magistrate, or by provision in their owners’ wills.
Where this highly original view of citizenship came from is not clear; it must have evolved during the struggle for power between the patricians and the plebeians after the fall of the kings. In any case, the effect was to give an ever-widening circle of people a vested interest in the survival of Rome. That became clear in one dramatic case in the first century of the Common Era, when a Jewish tent-maker called Paul, from Tarsus, far away from Rome in Asia Minor, could proudly say that he was a Roman citizen, knowing that this status protected him against the local powers threatening him. It might have been his pride in this status of universal citizen which first suggested to Paul that the Jewish prophet who had seized his allegiance in a vision had a message for all people and not just the Jews.
The story of the Roman Republic is one of steady expansion throughout the Mediterranean. Rome must have had contact with Greeks from its earliest days, but it started casting interested and acquisitive eyes on the Greek mainland during the second century BCE. The paradoxical cliché (no less true for being so) about the consequence of this advance was suavely expressed in Latin by the Emperor Augustus’s admirer the Roman poet Horace: “Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive, and brought the arts into rustic Latium.”
The Romans became fascinated by Greek culture and philosophy, which complemented their own highly developed skills in military affairs, administration and matters of law. Greek became just as much an international language as Latin for the Roman Empire. Indeed, it was the lingua franca of the Middle East in the time of Jesus, and it was the language which, in a rather vulgar marketplace form, most Christians spoke in everyday life during the Church’s first two centuries of existence. By the sixth and seventh centuries, Greek was ousting Latin as the official language of the surviving Eastern Roman Empire, with the strong encouragement of the Christian Church. That was an achievement unparalleled among languages of supposedly defeated peoples, and a tribute to Hellenistic cultural vitality and adaptability long after the end of the various Hellenistic monarchies.
The Roman rule which Jesus experienced had undergone a great transition, from Republic to imperial monarchy. It is surprising that the Republic had postponed trouble for so long, but its structures proved increasingly inadequate to cope with running its bloated empire. Rising poverty, land hunger and an accumulated popular sense of injustice came to a head around 100 BCE. Seventy years of misery and intermittent civil war followed, ending with the defeat of one party boss by another in 31 BCE, when Octavian won a naval victory at Actium against Mark Antony and his ally the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Octavian, adopted heir of the assassinated general and dictator Julius Caesar, achieved supreme power within the Roman state in a series of unscrupulous maneuvers; he now had to hang on to his power and bring back peace to the shattered state. His lasting success came through meticulous adherence to all the old forms of the Republican constitution.
Behind the facade, Octavian carried out a revolution in government. Careful to avoid the hated title of King, he arranged that the Senate should give him the harmless-sounding title of First Citizen (princeps), while renaming himself Augustus, a symbol of a fresh start after the wretchedness of civil war. This is the name we find used for him in the Christian scriptures, the New Testament. To show his good intentions, Augustus also graciously accepted the office of tribune, the only officer in the old constitution who still commanded any affection among ordinary people, but he also assumed a traditional military title of honour which Julius Caesar had held, commander — imperator. Now he was the first of the Roman emperors, with a succession which lasted until 1453. This was the title that mattered: It signified his control of the army, which had traditionally bestowed the honour by acclamation, the real basis for imperial power from now on. The virtually perpetual warfare which so dominated the Roman past meant that the best justification for holding power in the Republic had been a track record of military success: hence the importance of the imperator title. Augustus made sure that his various publicists magnified a personal record as a military commander 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 it comparatively safe and easy to travel from one end of the sea to the other. The first great exponent of a worldwide Christianity, the Apostle Paul, made the most of this, and so would the Christian faith as a whole. Without the general peace brought by Roman power, Christianity’s westward spread would have been far more unlikely.


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Judaism's most successful sect

Diarmaid Macculloch, National Post · Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

The first Jewish texts to say much about the soul appear in the Hellenistic period, like the so-called Wisdom of Solomon, probably written between the mid-second century BCE and the early first century BCE. The Book of Daniel (or at least most of its text) is almost certain to have been written as late as the second century BCE. It is unprecedented in Jewish sacred literature in spelling out the idea of an individual resurrection of a soul in a transformed body in the afterlife -- though still not for everyone.
Naturally, such developments within Judaism were highly controversial and provoked continuing argument; yet by the time Christians were beginning to construct their own literature, their writers clearly found such talk of the individual soul and of resurrection completely natural, and it became the basis of that Christian concern with the afterlife that sometimes has bordered on the obsessional.
At this historical stage, Rome was distant from Judea, and relations remained friendly for about a century -- until the Romans invaded Judaea in 63 BCE as part of their mopping-up operations around the conquest of their real prizes, the Seleucid and Egyptian empires.
Finding no convincing or compliant Hasmonean candidates for a Jewish throne, in 37 BCE, the Romans displaced the last Hasmonean ruler and replaced him with a relative by marriage, who reigned for more than three decades. This puppet king, an outsider whose forebearers came from the territory to the south of Judaea which the Romans called Idumea (Edom), was Herod "the Great."
Herod rebuilt the Temple with unprecedented magnificence, making it one of the largest sacred complexes in the ancient world; the quality of his masonry in the visible surviving sections of its monumental precinct wall can still be admired. Yet he got little thanks from his subjects, who were equally ungrateful for his attempt to please them with such foreign innovations as Greekstyle public sporting contests, gladiatorial combats or horse racing in newly built arenas. Complications continued after Herod's death in 4 BCE because his sons took the extensive territories that the Romans had allowed him to build up and divided them between themselves. During the first century CE the Romans experimented with a mixture of indirect rule
through various members of the Herodian family and direct imperial rule of parts of Palestine through a Roman official-- Pontius Pilate was one of these.
Within Judaea itself, there were at least four identities for Judaism -- Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots and probably many lesser sects. Even though they tolerated each other's existence, each saw itself as the most authentic expression of Jewish identity. Perhaps one way to understand the differences between them is to realize that they took distinguishable stances towards the Hellenistic world ruled over by the Romans, and toward all the temptations away from Jewish tradition that it embodied: They represented different degrees of distance or accommodation.
The Sadducees provided the elite that ran the Temple. They had done well out of successive regimes, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and they continued to do well when the Romans were in charge. It was therefore not surprising that they were the most flexible of our four groups in relation to outsiders. For them, it was enough to keep the basic commands of the Law in the scriptures and not to add the complex additional regulations that governed the everyday
life of the Pharisees and made Pharisee life obviously distinct from the world of non-Jews around them.
Significantly, being conservatives and minimalists in their view of Jewish doctrine, Sadducees had little time for the comparatively recently evolved discussion of the afterlife; Jesus is portrayed as on one occasion teasing Sadducees on this subject, to the pleasure of some Pharisees. Both Jesus and Paul can be identified by their backgrounds as closer to the Pharisees than to any other religious grouping.
For the group known as the Essenes, even the distinctiveness which the Pharisees maintained was not enough to keep them from pollution 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 own traditions of persecution by other Jews. Sometimes it has been suggested that the early Christians were close to the Essenes, but that seems unlikely. Essene separation from the rest of Judaism was a matter of principle, whereas the eventual Christian separation was a result of Christianity's failure to become the leading force within the Judaism of the first century CE, and Christians became eager to move out into the world beyond Palestine.
The Zealots held a militant version of the same Essene theme of separation: For them, the only solution to the humiliation of Roman rule over the Jewish homeland was to take up Maccabean traditions of violent resistance, and it was they who gave impetus to the successive disastrous revolts which by the mid-second century CE had shattered Jewish life in Palestine.
Out of that destruction emerged a group which at 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 as becoming a world religion in its own right.
The Jewish sect that became Christianity borrowed the sacred literature created by the Jews and shaped Christian belief in its founder-Messiah along lines already present in the sacred books of the Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible). Christian history thereafter is shot through with and shaped by the stories of the Tanakh. They became particularly useful when Christians allied with monarchies, for the Christian New Testament has little to do with kings, while the Old Testament has much to say about them.
When Christians created a sacred book of two "Testaments," they turned their brand-new belief system into one which could stand on an ancient sacred tradition and claim to be the most ancient religion of all.
-Excerpted from Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Published by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. ©Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2009. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years was the winner of this year's $75,000 Cundill Prize in History at McGill University .


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