Posted on June 19, 2010 by Scott Kistler
Peter Leithart argues that the Christian church out-democratized ancient Athens. Drawing on Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge, Leithart says that the democratic system of Athens intended to draw on the knowledge of all of its citizens “to ensure that Athens would know what Athenians know.” Of course, this excluded the knowledge of women, slaves, and foreigners.
And here is where the church comes in as the fulfillment of the aspirations of Athenian democracy, just as it is fulfills the hopes of Israel’s ekklesia. Nowhere in the New Testament is the church identified as a demos. That word is reserved for the people of Tyre and Sidon who hail Herod as a god (Acts 12:22) and Jews who rile up mobs against the apostles (Acts 17:5; 19:30, 33). When New Testament writers use the word “people” (laos), they are most often referring to Israel (Matthew 2:4; Mark 7:6; Luke 1:10; Acts 2:47; Romans 11:1; etc.) and occasionally, by analogy, to the new people, the new Israel of the church (Titus 2:14; Hebrews 8:10; 13:12).
Several New Testament’s descriptions of the laos, however, highlight its connection with the Greek democratic ideal. First-century churches certainly had rulers who ruled in the authority of Christ (Hebrews 13:17), but the body would flourish, Paul insisted, only when everyone contributed. I daresay what would have most astonished an Athenian visitor to a Christian church would have been the democratic flavor of the assembly. Here was a demos far more inclusive than anything Athens had dreamt of: Slaves, women, and freemen all assembled together, each, Paul says, with an essential Spiritual charisma to offer for the common good (1 Corinthians 14:26). Every last one of them edified the body; every last one endowed with the Spirit of God with the prophetic power to communicate that Spirit to others (1 Corinthians 12:1-12; 14:20-25).
For the apostles, the laos was one of the signs that the kingdom had come. Blessed are the poor, Jesus had said (Luke 6:20), and he also claimed that He had come to preach good news to the poor and excluded (Luke 4:18; 7:22). As Segundo Galilea has explained, the kingdom is for the poor in the same way that a medical clinic in a remote Andean village is for the poor: “For the poor, more than for those of the village living in more comfortable circumstances, the clinic is the fulfillment of an ancient promise. It is ‘good news.’ It is a great source of hope. True, the clinic is not for them alone. It is for rich and poor alike. But its primary beneficiaries are the poor.”
Filed under: Church Life, Early Church, Scripture and Commentary | Tagged: ancient Greece, Athens, early Christianity, New Testament, Peter Leithart | Leave a Comment »
Posted on January 29, 2009 by Scott Kistler
We’ve been covering the ancient Greeks in a couple of my classes this week, and it seems that understanding Greek culture sheds some light on the New Testament. Paul’s missionary work took him to the cities of the Roman Empire, many of which were in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
This area had been heavily influenced by Greek culture because of the conquest by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian and Greek army. The fact that the New Testament was written in the koine, the simple Greek that formed the common language in these areas, bears witness to the influence of Greek culture. The cities of this area were often populated by Greeks. Even when the Romans conquered these “Hellenistic” kingdoms, the Greek culture and language remained strong.
A few things about Greek culture that I’ve learned that seem especially germane to the New Testament:
- Greek morality was best defined by concept of moderation, as you may know. This meant that, for men, drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex (heterosexual or homosexual) were all permissible as long as one didn’t get carried away and become a creature of pleasure who was consumed by these things. You can see why Paul had to write a lot about sexual morality to his readers. He was preaching a very different approach to morality, one of avoiding immoral actions completely rather than simply managing pleasures.
- Women were thought to be a punishment on men for gaining the gift of fire from Prometheus. (Of course, Prometheus got chained to a rock and had his liver eaten out each day by a huge bird. The liver grew back and the next day the bird would repeat the process. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that men got the better end of the deal.) This is very different from the Genesis teaching of women as perfect partners for men. Although Pandora opening of the box of evils might be compared to Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit, the difference is pretty clear in that the Bible confers dignity on women from the beginning, while the Greek myth portrays them as a punishment from the beginning. For Christians on the other hand, women were the spiritual equals of men, as noted in Paul’s statement “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I have read that women in the Greco-Roman world were attracted to the increased autonomy that they had in the Christian community.
- According to Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks, the common denominator among the various Greek schools of philosophy was that they rejected the myths’ views of the gods as immoral. You may recall from reading Greek mythology that Zeus was constantly on the lookout for women, spirits, and goddesses that he could seduce. Greek philosophers, like the Stoics and Epicureans mentioned in Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17, believed that the divine had to be more dignified that this. It’s my understanding that one reason that God-fearers like Cornelius were attracted to Judaism was because of the morality that Jews identified with God. I wonder if philosophers might have been among them.
Another good source on Greek culture is James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. This book and Price’s book were my main sources for this post.
Filed under: Early Church | Tagged: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, early Christianity, mythology, New Testament | 1 Comment »