“What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?”

 

The Sea of Galilee, seen from the traditional Mount of Beatitudes in northern Israel

 

Tertullian’s famous question has echoed down through the centuries since he first posed it around the beginning of the third century after Christ.

 

Here’s another wonderful quotation, a favorite of mine, from one of the Hibbert Lectures given by Edwin Hatch and published in 1888 under the title of The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity:

 

It is impossible for any one, whether he be a student of history or no, to fail to notice the difference and contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed.

 

The Sermon on the Mount is the promulgation of a new law of conduct; it assumes beliefs rather than formulates them; the theological conceptions which underlie it belong to the ethical rather than the speculative side of theology; metaphysics are totally absent.The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts and partly of dogmatic inferences; the metaphysical terms which it contains would probably have been unintelligible to the first disciples; ethics have no place in it. The one belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers.

 

[Why] an ethical sermon stood out in the forefront of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and a metaphysical creed in the forefront of the Christianity of the fourth century, is a problem which claims investigation . . .

 

The Parthenon, sacred to the goddess Athena, on the Acropolis of Athens

 

 

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  • Bruce Webster

    My mom — a lifelong Episcopalian — sent a variant of this joke to me some years back:

    Jesus said, Whom do men say that I am?

    And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elias, or other of the old prophets.

    Jesus asked: “But whom do you say that I am?”

    Peter answered, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.”

    And Jesus answering, said, “Huh?”

    • DanielPeterson

      Exactly.

      A wonderful joke, and right on target.

  • Trailer Trash

    Ah, a good question worth pondering. Here are two more:

    What doesn’t ethics have to do with Greek philosophy?

    What doesn’t anti-Catholocism have to do with 19th c. Protestantism?

    • DanielPeterson

      “Ethics” is an ambiguous word. Aristotle wrote the “Nicomachean Ethics” and the “Eudemian Ethics,” so, clearly, “ethics” is, in that sense, a subfield within (Greek and other) philosophy.

      But when we say that somebody is “ethically deficient,” we don’t mean to say that he hasn’t read enough of Aristotle (or Spinoza, or whomever). Which points to a larger meaning of “ethics,” referring to practical action weighed in a moral balance.

      As for your second question, I find it entirely opaque. Are you perhaps trying to dismiss Professor Hatch as an anti-Catholic? (He didn’t even mention Catholicism.)

      • Trailer Trash

        Dan, the question Hatch raises is not whether someone is “ethically deficient” (and no one, not even Aristotle or Spinoza, actually thinks this question hinges on whether someone has read Aristotle or Spinoza). The question is whether first century Palestinian Judaism, or specifically Jesus, was somehow magically uninfluenced by Greek culture, even Greek philosophical culture. The later half of 20th century scholarship on this period has been to show that this earlier presupposition is entirely without warrant. The similarities between Jesus and the Cynics was actually an idea already showing up in 19th century historical Jesus scholarship, but the whole foundation of a clear line between “Syrian peasants” and “Greek philosophers” has essentially been abandoned. And Tertullian the Stoic is Exhibit A.

        “Are you perhaps trying to dismiss Professor Hatch as an anti-Catholic? (He didn’t even mention Catholicism.)”

        Perhaps you can be forgiven for not reading past page 1 of the book you quote when he refers to the Trinity as the “theory of the Catholic Church,” on page 2, or the many other references to Catholicism, or the fact that the whole text takes part in a familiar anti-Catholic narrative of British, German, and American scholars of early Christianity in this period. But what do you think he means by “the Christianity of the fourth century” in the quote you do provide?

        And why exactly is the former president of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology reproducing and endorsing this kind of stuff?

        • DanielPeterson

          ‘Dan, the question Hatch raises is not whether someone is “ethically deficient”‘

          Obviously.

          I think you missed my point.

          ‘(and no one, not even Aristotle or Spinoza, actually thinks this question hinges on whether someone has read Aristotle or Spinoza).’

          Obviously.

          I think you missed my point.

          ‘The question is whether first century Palestinian Judaism, or specifically Jesus, was somehow magically uninfluenced by Greek culture, even Greek philosophical
          culture.’

          “Magically”? Caricaturing my comment into a straw man serves no useful purpose.

          ‘The later half of 20th century scholarship on this period has been to show that this earlier presupposition is entirely without warrant.’

          Sorry, but that’s going far, far beyond either the consensus or the evidence.

          ‘The similarities between Jesus and the Cynics was actually an idea already showing up in 19th century historical Jesus scholarship,’

          And attempts to portray Jesus as essentially a Palestinian Cynic have remained eccentric, fairly much on the fringe, and unconvincing.

          ‘but the whole foundation of a clear line between “Syrian peasants” and “Greek philosophers” has essentially been abandoned.’

          “Essentially.” That Greece and Greater Syria weren’t hermetically sealed off from one another — I never suggested that they were, and don’t believe it — is a very far cry from the proposition that the two were virtually interchangeable. Jesus was a Galilean Jew (if you want to know one of the major emphases of the past half century or more of Jesus scholarship, THAT’S certainly among them), not a Hellenistic philosopher.

          ‘And Tertullian the Stoic is Exhibit A.’

          Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, a Latin-speaking intellectual who spent his life in the Roman province of Africa and died in the early third century, has no relevance whatever as evidence for the intellectual culture of early first century Aramaic-speaking Jewish Palestine.

          ‘Perhaps you can be forgiven for not reading past page 1 of the book you quote’

          I first read Edwin Hatch’s famous Hibbert Lectures in the early 1970s, and have read through them at least twice since. Your insult is noted, though,

          ‘when he refers to the Trinity as the “theory of the Catholic
          Church,” on page 2, or the many other references to Catholicism, or the fact that the whole text takes part in a familiar anti-Catholic narrative of British, German, and American scholars of early Christianity in this period.’

          Hatch, Harnack, Feuerbach, and others — including Newman — were men of their times. That’s scarcely news. So are we. They should be read with their own historical/cultural setting in mind. As should we. But to dismiss Professor Hatch as if he were some garden variety anti-Catholic hack (Jack Chick, say, or even Loraine Boettner) is simply absurd.

          ‘But what do you think he means by “the Christianity of the fourth century” in the quote you do provide?’

          He intends the Council of Nicaea — an overwhelmingly Greek-speaking gathering convened in Anatolia under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine at which the Church of Alexandria played the pivotal role while the bishop of Rome (and Latin-speaking delegates from the West) were distinctly marginal players, to the extent that they were even in attendance. It’s not at all clear that Professor Hatch thought of Nicaea as “Catholic” in any significant sense. I certainly don’t. If it has to be identified with anything in today’s Christendom — which I don’t think appropriate, anyway — that would be Greek Orthodoxy.

          ‘And why exactly is the former president of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology reproducing and endorsing this kind of stuff?’

          Because it’s still important stuff, and because the quotation is pithy. Your attack is misguided.

          • Trailer Trash

            Dan,
            Whatever my misguidance, caricature, and missing of your point, I don’t have the energy or interest to nitpick or read your mind. I will stick to my point: Hatch is not only dated and anti-Catholic, but also wrong.

            I don’t mean to say that Tertullian is evidence of Palestinian Judaism, which I was admittedly unclear about. I mean that Tertullian is Exhibit A of the false dichotomy between philosophy and early Christianity.

            “That Greece and Greater Syria weren’t hermetically sealed off from one another — I never suggested that they were, and don’t believe it ”

            Yes, you did suggest this when you quoted Hatch, who does believe this. He says they are different “worlds!” If you don’t believe Hatch, why exactly are you quoting him?

            “And attempts to portray Jesus as essentially a Palestinian Cynic have remained eccentric, fairly much on the fringe, and unconvincing.”

            I am not particularly convinced that he was a Cynic either, but that doesn’t mean that Cynic ideas were not part of the ethical framework of Jesus and other early disciples. In any case, Burton Mack and JD Crossan can hardly be said to be on the “fringe.” My point is that ethical concepts in broader Greek philosophy have their fingerprints all over early Christianity, and that Hatch is mistaken.

            ” It’s not at all clear that Professor Hatch thought of Nicaea as “Catholic” in any significant sense.”

            It is literally impossible for me to believe that you have actually read this book and can say this.

            “If it has to be identified with anything in today’s Christendom — which I don’t think appropriate, anyway — that would be Greek Orthodoxy.”

            Because Catholics don’t accept Nicaea? Now, that is absurd.

            The problem with anti-Catholicism does not hinge on whether it is a more respectable kind like you think Hatch exhibits (or somehow only anti-Orthodox?), or it is “garden variety.” These ideas have contributed to an ugly history. I don’t think we should perpetuate them for their own sake, especially when they represent abandoned scholarship.

          • DanielPeterson

            You’re reading far too much into Hatch and into what I wrote, seeing anti-Catholicism where there flatly wasn’t any.

            Don’t be so defensive.

            And I never suggested — nor does Hatch — that there was no influence of Greek philosophy on the early centuries of Christianity. Of COURSE there was. That’s the point of Professor Hatch’s Hibbert Lectures, which were, don’t forget, published under the title of “The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity.”

          • Trailer Trash

            “I never suggested — nor does Hatch — that there was no influence of Greek philosophy on the early centuries of Christianity.”

            Dan, the whole structure of his book is true Christianity vs. invasive Hellenism. He has set the two up in opposition, and accounts for their mingling as evidence of decline. This is literally the thesis of his book. For instance, “I venture to claim to have shown that a large part of what are sometimes called Christian doctrines, and many usages which have prevailed and continue to prevail in the Christian Church, are in reality Greek theories and Greek usages changed in form and colour by the influence of primitive Christianity, but in their essence Greek still.” (p350).

            My point has been to say that this structure (Christianity vs. Hellenism) is flatly wrong, that the stark contrast of Greek ethics and metaphysics from “primitive Christianity” belongs to sectarian apologetics, not contemporary scholarship.

            Even if you are clearly misunderstanding Hatch, I am glad to see you rejecting his basic thesis. But your simultaneous denials and defense of Hatch are the biggest source of confusion here.

            “seeing anti-Catholicism where there flatly wasn’t any.”

            Is this still a claim that Hatch is not participating in an anti-Catholic narrative? Or is this another claim that your intent is somehow the arbiter of what is and what is not a problematic depiction?

          • Ray Agostini

            “JD Crossan can hardly be said to be on the “fringe.”

            Crossan doesn’t believe in the resurrection, miracles, or life after death/Immortality. You’ll find his personal views in
            “Who Is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus.” Considered by many to be “the preeminent Jesus scholar” of our day, one review of the above book candidly noted: “Warning: if you aren’t ready to have your faith shaken up, and are a hard and fast believer in the church, don’t read this.” He may not be on the “fringe” of contemporary scholarship of Jesus from a secular/unbelieving point of view, but I’d hardly class him in the range of Jesus Scholars like Meier, whose view was “the quest for the historical Jesus has often been motivated more by a desire to produce an alternate Christology than a true historical search”, or N.T. Wright and others. A.N. Wilson, having burst on to the “let’s reinterpret Jesus” scene with several books advocating a “rational” “secular” approach to Jesus, something like The Jesus Seminar, later renounced his views and once again became a believer.

          • Trailer Trash

            So?

          • DanielPeterson

            Nicaea was, in my view (and, I expect, in Professor Hatch’s) pre-Catholic. It’s really not meaningful, historically speaking, to speak of it as “Catholic” other than, I suppose, within the Catholic community as a matter of faith, on Catholic dogmatic grounds.

            “Because Catholics don’t accept Nicaea?”

            No. Of course not.

            I don’t see Nicaea as “Catholic” in the modern denominational sense because Catholicism, in that sense, very probably didn’t even exist at the time.

            And because the Nicene Council was a convocation, overwhelmingly, of Greek-speaking bishops, representing the area that became the heartland of Greek Orthodoxy.

            And because neither the bishop of Rome (who didn’t attend) nor delegates from the Latin West played a significant role in it.

            And because, as most scholars view the situation, there is no evidence that Nicaea recognized the bishop of Rome as having preeminent jurisdiction over the Christian church as a whole nor over the council.

            And because, instead, the council seemed to function on the assumption of autocephalous bishops, very much in the manner of Eastern Orthodoxy.

            And because those who did play the most significant role in it were from the church at Alexandria, which was Greek-speaking and which has never recognized the preeminence of the bishop of Rome.

            And because the documents that emerged from it were composed in Greek, following debates in Greek

            And because it was convened under the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople (still considered foremost among the patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy) and of the Emperor who founded that city (which became the capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire).

            And because it was held in that emperor’s palace in Nicaea, which was and remains in Greek Orthodox territory, not within Latin Catholic territory.

            And so on and so forth.

          • Trailer Trash

            This tangent is entirely irrelevant for two reasons. First, this is quite evidently NOT what Hatch understood himself to be doing, as is quite clear from the numerous critiques of Catholicism in his work, including the one on page 2 I already provided.
            Second, critiques of Nicaea can still be anti-Catholic even if the bishop of Rome was not there and the attendees spoke Greek. Because, you know, Catholics accept the Nicene Creed and all that.

          • Anyotheruser

            Except that extensive discussion about Hatch is itself an irrelevant tangent, since the observation reproduced in the blog – namely that there is a clear distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicean Creed – is still obvious.

          • Trailer Trash

            Anyotheruser,

            “there is a clear distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicean Creed – is still obvious.”

            Has anyone suggested otherwise? There is a clear distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and a lot of things, like for instance, the Sermon on the Plain or Johannine love ethics. The point under dispute has nothing to do with whether the SoM and the Nicene Creed are different, but whether Hatch/Peterson has drawn the correct conclusions from that difference.

  • oudenos

    Dan,

    It is clear that you know very little about ancient philosophy and especially Hellenistic moral philosophy. That isn’t a strike against you as a person or a scholar since I don’t think that folks generally need training in the writings of, say, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Lucretius, or Plutarch and I don’t expect someone in your field to be expert or even novice in mine. But you do yourself and your substantial internet and real life following a disservice by trying to pass yourself off as knowledgeable in everything–knowledgeable enough to make sweeping statements about “Greek philosophy.”

    You really, really stepped in it with this post as Trailer Trash has already pointed out.
    Let me just kick the argument back to the (late) first century, since that is what you are trying to get at with the sermon on the mount comparison. Riddle me this: how do you think that the author of John 1:1-18 came up with the metaphysics undergirding the christology of those verses? Do some research, you will learn some interesting stuff. Also, if you were to spend a few minutes googling around or doing some basic catalogue searches at your library, you would find that mountains of excellent, recent scholarship exists that will make you blush for being so glib and for using outdated, anti-Catholic tracts of the 19th century to buttress your vague aspiration toward something apologetic or polemical (the purpose of your jab isn’t really clear from your post).
    This kind of presumed authority and bush league attack is what soured so many of us toward certain types of voices and publications from the old FARMS. You strip-mine ancient sources and dated scholarship for a nugget or two and then drop your bits of metal into a sock to clobber some target or another.

    As a bonus: why the bizarre turn against metaphysics? Where would Mormonism be without (Platonizing) metaphysics?

    • DanielPeterson

      Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Lucretius, and Plutarch are scarcely relevant to Professor Hatch’s point or to mine,

      John 1:1-18 seems, obviously, to partake of the same Middle Platonism that, directly or indirectly, informed the logos theology of Philo Judaeus. But some (notably Margaret Barker) have recently argued, quite interestingly, that Philo himself is far more Jewish than he’s usually been given credit for — and that the logos theology in particular may simply be an attempt to clothe a much older Hebrew “second God” doctrine in culturally acceptable garb for the benefit of Hellenized diaspora Jews.

      Edwin Hatch was a reputable scholar — admittedly an Anglican priest, but being a non-Catholic doesn’t actually disqualify people from doing serious scholarship, and it didn’t then, either — and your tag-team attempts to dismiss his Hibbert Lectures as nothing more than an “outdated anti-Catholic tract” are wildly over the top.

      Finally, your descriptions of my very short blog post — which consists mostly of a famous quotation from a famous set of English academic lectures — as “glib,” “vague,” “bizarre,” and “bush league” seems to bespeak a hyper-defensiveness on your part that simply isn’t warranted. You and your friend are far too eager to read my little post as anti-Catholic, when it flatly isn’t and when the thought of criticizing the Roman Catholic Church had never entered my mind.

    • Anyotheruser

      Actually since John 1:1-18 (and the Gospel of John generally) has a number of verbal parallels with the Community Rule and other sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the old-fashioned idea that certain concepts within it must reflect Hellenistic influence has to be approached with far greater caution.

  • David B

    @ Trailor trash
    To use a quote out of a book does not require the person using the quote to embrace the whole book, any particular part of the book, or the main thrust of teh book, even. Yoru complaint that Hatch’s book is anti-Catholic, parhaps a debatable topic, and subsequently anyone quoting favoritively from it is really missing the mark.
    Its rather off-topic to continue to complain that Dan is doing anything other than pointing out that another noticed that the Sermon and the Mount and the Nicene Creed are very different. They are.

    • DanielPeterson

      Thank you! Sometimes, amidst all the distractions, the obvious needs to be clearly restated.

  • Steve Fleming

    Dan,

    Since I gave a paper on this topic at MHA last weekend, the timing of this post makes me wonder if this is a response in some way. Here were my main points. The argument at Greek philosophy corrupted Christianity goes back to the 16th century and was very popular in Joseph Smith’s day, he even owned a book by the idea’s biggest proponent (Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History). Yet Smith and the early Mormons never claimed that Greek philosophy played a role in the apostasy. Smith went so far as to adopt a number of the ideas that the Protestant historians said were Platonic corruptions. Later Mormon thinkers did adopt the idea that philosophy corrupted Christianity, but not the early Mormons (again, it was a very popular idea in the early 19th century). So these facts, along with the points made by commentators here suggests to me that the Greek-corruption idea is problematic from an LDS point of view. I’d be happy to discuss this further.

    • DanielPeterson

      I wasn’t aware of your presentation — though I had help out hope, I wasn’t finally able to make it to MHA this year — and I wasn’t responding to what you evidently said.

      I don’t, for the record, blame Greek philosophy for the apostasy — which, in my view, was already long since a fact by the time Greek philosophy began having a serious impact on Christian thinking generally.

      It is, though, as you say, a topic worthy of discussion.

      • Steve Fleming

        Thanks for the clarification. I would clarify that what I was arguing against was the idea that Greek philosophy (particularly Platonism) was a negative influence on Christianity. Again this was a very popular idea in Smith’s day, and one he did not embrace. Instead he embraced concepts that Protestant historians called Platonic heresies.

        • DanielPeterson

          I myself think that Platonism is a mixed bag. I like elements of it. I’ve spent a lot of time on Neoplatonism, too, and I’m quite sympathetic to the general Platonic tradition — more so, certainly, than to the Aristotelian tradition.

          But I think Platonism did have certain negative influences on the evolution of Christian thinking, and I don’t believe that Joseph Smith was influenced by Platonism in any substantive way.

          • Steve Fleming

            Mixed bag seems accurate (lots of things are), but I see even more similarities with Mormonism among Christian Platonists. I’m arguing for the influence of Christian Platonism on Joseph Smith in my dissertation, “The Presence of God: Early Mormonism and Christian Platonism.”

          • DanielPeterson

            I look forward to reading it. I’ve certainly seen areas of congruence. Influence, though? Perhaps you’ll persuade me.

      • oudenos

        OK, let me engage this comment for moment–no vitriol, no remonstration guaranteed.

        “I don’t, for the record, blame Greek philosophy for the apostasy — which, in my view, was already long since a fact by the time Greek philosophy began having a serious impact on Christian thinking generally.”

        Here you suggest that Greek philosophy impacted Christian thinking on a gradual or eventual basis from a starting point at Jesus’ ministry to some point in late antiquity. If I am reading you correctly, you see the impact as a creeping in and that there was a pristine “Christian thinking” that existed at some point.

        I think that this is an incorrect view of the matter. Outside of the search for original sayings of Jesus, we are dependent on the literary productions of the first century (and very early 2nd) to reconstruct what happened in those early years. But every literary source, whether Paul, Luke, or the fourth evangelist, was composed by someone with a rhetorical education (whatever its level).

        Rhetorical educations in antiquity were, from what we can learn from surviving evidence, rather predictable across time and space and even language (think Latin and Greek). Rhetorical educations included some training in philosophy formally (you can see Quintilian for this and also Cicero when he talks about his ideal orators or read some of the surviving school essay/speeches to see examples) and informally because, like the Enlightenment or the theory of relativity now, it was part of the language and discourse of literate antiquity even when a given writer wasn’t consciously thinking “hey, now I am sounding Platonic, and now I’m going to sound a little Epicurean.”

        Further, the notion that philosophy only covered logic, physics, and ethics was not held universally either by philosophers themselves or by others not trained in the various disciplines. Philosophy often/almost always meant and included rhetoric (even when Plato would so beautifully and vehemently deny it) and the line between sophism and philosophy was always shadowy. So when you read Paul at his best and he sounds cogent and logical and convincing you are confronting Greek philosophy. When you read Matthew trying to convince you through HB/OT citations that Jesus in the Messiah, you are confronting Greek philosophy/rhetoric/argumentation/sophism. I could rattle off examples of this in the NT but that would be tiresome and has been done already by people way more knowledgeable than me.

        In short, there never was a time (again, unless we are talking about the historical Jesus sayings, and even then there is room for debate) when Greek philosophy was not inextricably tied to the literature of ancient Christianity. Greek philosophy did not corrupt (and I realize that you are not asserting this) early Christianity, Christianity, as we have it through literary evidence. It never existed without Greek philosophy.

        That is the point I was trying to make in my initial comment.

        • DanielPeterson

          It’s a point that’s not without merit, but that doesn’t really touch my point much.

          It would make for an interesting academic exchange, with nuances.

          • oudenos

            Dan,

            I know this post is stale now and things have moved on, but I came across this excellent restatement of what I was trying to assert in my previous comments. Kloppenborg knows his stuff.

            “In an era when New Testament scholars often looked exclusively to the Hebrew Bible and related documents to find the forms and ideas that would account for the shape of Christian literature, Heinz Guenther has continually encouraged a much broader search. From a literary point of view, the gospels do not, in fact, have Hebrew or Aramaic predecessors, but share ‘the profile and literary conventions of Mediterranean culture.’ Even though the evangelists wished to relate a story of a Jewish hero who probably spoke Aramaic as a first language, and whose horizons probably did not go much beyond Roman Palestine, they composed their accounts in Greek, using typically Greek forms (such as chreiai), and gave those accounts a very different cultural horizon—one in which Alexander, Caesar, and Socrates figured at least as importantly as Moses and Elijah.” (John S. Kloppenborg, “Exitus clari viri: The Death of Jesus in Luke,” Toronto Journal of Theology 8 (1992):106-120.)

            This gets at both the outdated nature of relying on 19th century scholarship and the inextricable Greekness (philosophical, rhetorical, and otherwise) of the gospels and other NT documents. The (imagined) Jerusalem of the NT will always have to do with Athens.

          • DanielPeterson

            I have absolutely nothing invested in the notion that Jerusalem and Athens were utterly unknown to each other or hermetically sealed off from mutual contact, and the two sentences or so of that original assert nothing of the kind. The broader point remains true: The Nicene Creed is a philosophically-informed document that the four gospels simply aren’t.

        • florwood

          oudenos, I really enjoyed your change in tone, and learning from the information and ideas you calmly presented in this post, as compared with your earlier one. Thank you!

          Mark Steele


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