What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? February 27, 2008

April DeConick proposed having a “blog co-op” on the theme “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Before proceeding to the source of this quotation, good old Tertullian, I do want to share an anecdote. I distinctly remember (although I cannot remember precisely when) suddenly realizing that “Joppa” (which I remembered from the movie Clash of the Titans) was “Jaffa” in the coastal region of modern Israel. Although it is not clear that this site was associated with Andromeda before the first century C.E., it nonetheless shows that Greeks were aware of sites in the historic homeland of the Jewish people, just as the Jews were aware of the Greeks and their literature and culture by this time too. To see connections between Athens and Jerusalem, between Greece and Judea, one doesn’t have to look very hard. All one has to do is watch the right movies…

Now, on to Tertullian, who famously asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, by which he meant “What has Greek thought and philosophy to do with Christianity and its Biblical heritage?” Tertullian himself provides a wonderful example of the fact that denying a connection puts one in a situation in which one is likely to make just such a connection without realizing it.

Tertullian’s most famous contribution to Christian theology is connected with the doctrine of the “Trinity” (“threeness”) of God, which he applied to this subject. Tertullian seems to have been the first to use the language of substance in relation to what provided the underlying unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What must be noted is that Tertullian’s background was in Stoic philosophy, and without that background he most likely could never have suggested this terminology. Other schools of thought and traditions did not define spirit as a substance, however rarified.

And so Tertullian is instructive. It is possible to deny one’s dependence on or influence by one’s culture, one’s place in history, the schools of thought one is surrounded by, but that doesn’t mean one actually is not influenced. Indeed, it could be argued that it is those who deny such influences who are most prone to have blind spots in this regard.

In short, if someone is denying that Athens and Jerusalem have any connection, one should be highly skeptical. This applies not simply to faith and philosophy but other areas as well.

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  • I would not only agree, but add that the rhetorical form of the question – and much of Tertullian’s most acerbic and polemical writing – betrays his attachment to Athens and its educational disciplines.

  • Good observation.Not only is such denial a sure recipe for extreme cynicism, but if we stand back and look at the course of Tertullian’s career from afar (he was eventually banished for siding with Montanus’ extremism), we can see in his urgent zeal something akin to modern fundamentalist fervor (‘I believe it because it is absurd‘, indeed!).It’s fascinating to me that two of the most prolific and insightful writers of the early Christian movement would both eventually be deemed heretical by the church-standard (Origen’s case is even more fascinating to me).Ó

  • Deane

    Tertullian himself provides a wonderful example of the fact that denying a connection puts one in a situation in which one is likely to make just such a connection without realizing it.Yeah, baby, yeah!I was toying with posting on the invention of beneficent eternal life in second century BC Judaism. It’s another occasion that anti-Hellenistic bluster (eg esp 2 Macc) is accompanied by adoption of foreign (Hellenistic and Persian) ideas into Jewish religion itself. And this cannot be explained by the apologetic ‘gospel in cultural clothes’ explanation. This is the gospel derived from culture (if you’ll excuse my use of ‘gospel’ here!).

  • I appreciate the comments made on this blog and want to add two questions for discussion:1. At Jerusalem [ representing whole of life, synthesized, integrated ( or more correctly 'coinherance'), … learning], does Athens [ representing cognitive, analytical, … learning] need to be explicitly evident? Otherwise we are living in a very dualistic world – Acts Chapter 1.2. Are 'relationships that nurture transformation' keys to this integration / coinherance (Romans 12:1 – 2)?