The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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The Culture Under the Veneer

September 16th, 2007 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history, media

Early Christianity and Greek Paideia by Werner Jaeger

As my friend Steve Wallace would say as the ultimate compliment for any book, “It’s a thin book.” He felt that most books were unnecessarily thick, as if each author enjoyed reading their own words more than simply making a point. Thin books had to get to the point quickly: there’s just no room for fluff. This tiny tome consists of seven brief lectures, in which Jaeger frequently apologizes for not being able to include more examples and corollary material. It is no less chewy for being so thin. I’ll probably have to read it at least twice more for full comprehension.

Jaeger’s magnum opus focused on the classical Greek paideia, which means the process and content of education, and also references the collection of literature and teachings that define the culture. The idea and ideals of paideia changed over the course of classical and post-classical Greek civilization, but paideia itself was always held in high regard. Jaeger’s exploration of this was a career-long adventure, but his intention to create a similar work on the metamorphosis of the Greek paideia into Christianity was never realized. He was, however, able to present a series of lectures at Harvard outlining the general scope — it was a summary of his life’s work in many ways.

The present work is the author’s last publication, and it takes several views on how Early Christianity melded together with Greek culture. On one hand, we see how the post-classical Greek schools viewed the ‘barbarian revelations’ (of the Old Testament) as sources for and guides to divine attainment. On the other hand, we see how the early Christians used Greek methods and Greek arguments to persuade their mostly Greek audience of their ‘truth’. As Christianity develops, its culture is viewed as having succeeded the pagan Greek culture — and so the new theology thus edged out the old traditions, but the framework and structure of that new culture were still essentially Greek.

I didn’t know that the persuasive emphasis of evangelical Christianity has it origins in the competition for students between the various post-Classical Greek schools. The concept of ‘Holy Spirit’ isn’t a part of Hebrew traditions, and so its presence in Christianity had always been a mystery to me. Now I understand how Platonic philosophy became such an important root of the faith, providing the basis for the ideas of the pneuma hagios as the guiding hand of faith. The path by which monotheistic philosophy superseded the pantheistic literary traditions, and was later co-opted by the Christian culture is fascinating and answers many questions I had about how early and medieval Christian theology developed.

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