The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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The Polis killed the Olympians

March 6th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history, media

Yes, another book. David Dungan’s ’s has an amazing reach, starting from the beginnings of civilization, through the development of Greek philosophy and its distribution through the ancient East. Only a third of the way through, but I’m pretty sure I know how this one ends.

Actually, I’m having such a severe case of deja vu reading this book that I’m having a difficult time proceeding. I’ve encountered all of this material before, and the only thing that’s interesting is in how he arranges all of it. Dungan has an interesting narrative: the Greek development of democratic political systems required the re-conceptualization of faith, since the old cultures tied the kings and gods together. The result was a general abandonment of classical mythos in favor of philosophical principles and “forms” that favored a generalized monotheism. The Greeks also formulated “schools” to preserve and teach this new “truth” as each assembly considered it.

The second-century defenders of Christianity created Greek-type schools that required: stories and teachings of the founding figure; stories and teachings of the immediate disciples; and documentation of an uninterrupted line of school heads from the founder. As presented, the structure of Greek society required that these things be present in order for any system of faith to be taken seriously by the Greeks. The Greeks already knew of and largely approved the Hebrew writings and Jewish monotheism as legitimate, so early Christian groups needed only to show the writings from their founder and his followers in order to be “acceptable”.

Now I’m at the writings of Eusibius of Caesarea, and to be honest with you, I don’t think I can take another account of this Eusibius or any other. I can’t make another go at Arius vs. Athenasius without falling directly to sleep. There’s really only a limited amount of material about early church history, and I think I must have nearly covered it all, because I’m catching a lot of re-runs here. Disappointing, as there are still very many questions left to answer; speculation is a thin meal. On, I suppose, to the Selucids, Ptolemies, and Maccabees.

A primary issue has been that of terminology. The word “Christian” gets applied to a lot of things in history and it’s difficult to grasp the specific import of that description in many cases. Stories about Roman persecution, for example, typically overstate the number of Jesus people tormented, including counts of those from all of the other persecuted Roman faiths as though all were “Christian”. Much of what we consider to be “Christian” today has ancient antecedents. This does not invalidate the “truth” of Christianity today, but it does make it difficult to find that key phrase or action that marks the beginning of “Christianity”. Another clue is that none of these ancient sources seem to co-exist within a single pre-Nicean faction. Chances are extremely good that the various elements of Christianity came together in different arrangements and proportions in different places, rather than from an idealized founding figure. If this is the case, then it’s more likely that there isn’t a specific point in time, but rather an extended period during which old cultures transitioned into new cultures.

Antioch and Alexandria disagreed about so many things theologically that it is difficult to believe that they started from the same basis of faith. Given the general distribution of Greek culture and Jewish disapora in the Mediterranean basin, it’s much easier to believe that the same synchronism that would have developed a Hellenized Jewish savior cult in one place could have happened in many others. The application of the name “Christianity” came so late in the process that it’s almost an afterthought, but it’s subsequent application to anything and everything has made understanding difficult. Maybe this word should be retired, along with “Gnostic”, from the language of history.

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