• Email
  • Print

2500 Years of Human History—in Five Books

The Harvest of Hellenism

by F.E. Peters
Simon & Schuster, 800 pp., $15.00

Constantine the Great

by J. Holland Smith
Scribner’s, 359 pp., $8.95

The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 The Christian Tradition: Vol. One

by Jaroslav Pelikan
University of Chicago Press, 394 pp., $15.00

Judaism and the Early Christian Mind

by Robert L. Wilken
Yale, 257 pp., $8.75

Jesus and Israel

by Jules Isaac, translated by Sally Gran, edited and with a Foreword by Claire Hucket Bishop
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 405 pp., $12.50

In August, 338 B.C., the formidable national army of Philip of Macedon confronted the allied forces of Athens and Thebes on the plain of Chaeronea at the approaches of Thebes. The ensuing battle was short and sharp. By evening the allied forces had scattered and the victor had entered Thebes. In the following year an assembly of the Greek cities met at Corinth and accepted Philip as their commander in chief with the avowed object of leading a Panhellene army across the Hellespont to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persia. The tightly knit Greek polis that had been the stage which Athens and Sparta had fought to dominate had dissolved. The Greeks had accepted the challenges of a new and wider future under Macedonian kings.

The next decade was momentous for humanity. Philip was assassinated before his expedition got under way, leaving his ambitions to his twenty-four-year-old son Alexander. In a series of astonishing campaigns Alexander conquered the whole Persian empire from the Aegean to Baluchistan. The Macedonian armies crossed the Hindu Kush and advanced to the Indus delta. Their explorers circled the coast of Arabia, and their traders reached the shores of Cornwall. Alexander’s campaigns set the Western world on a new and uncharted course, whose impetus was not spent until the Turks took Constantinople in 1453. The legacy of those campaigns survives today.

Each of the five books under review describes this history from one perspective or another. One of the main themes in Jaroslav Pelikan’s survey of the first centuries of Christianity is the continuance of Hellenism in the development of Christian doctrine. Isaac and Wilken view the same period as part of the history of Christianity’s conflict with Judaism. Holland Smith’s book takes as its subject Constantine and the conversion to Christianity of the Greco-Roman world. But only E. F. Peters provides the wider historical setting against which these different movements may be seen.

Peters’s work is a tour de force, the achievement of a dedicated scholar with a sense of mission. The debt that Western civilization owes to the world of Alexander and his successors, he believes, has never properly been recognized. Under the influence of generations of classical philologists and historians of the Hegelian school, writers have described the Hellenistic age as one of decline, with a debased art and a pointless political history. Yet it was this age of decadence that enabled the triumphant Greeks to spread their culture from the Himalayas to the cataracts of the Nile and to impose on that vast area a pattern of life and thought that radically altered the shape of Judaism and helped to mold Christianity and Islam.

The story of the 700 years separating the career of Alexander from that of his last great imitator, Julian the Apostate, is brilliantly told. Only a master could hold his readers’ attention through the arid quarrels of the Macedonian successor states, the intricacies of the new philosophical systems, the tensions in Palestine that presaged the emergence of Christianity, and the development of that religion from a Jewish sect to a world faith. Yet this is what Peters achieves. Although the specialist will find little that is new, the general reader will be charmed by the integrated narrative in which all or nearly all the pieces seem to fit.

The three centuries before Christ witnessed the triumph of Hellenism throughout the Near East. The garrison settlements which Alexander and his generals planted up and down the conquered provinces became the centers of a new kind of polis. Though, as the excavations at Dura Europos have shown, society remained stratified, with the descendants of the old Macedonian families still dominant even in the third century A.D., Hellenism was open to all who would accept its standards. The Greek language, now a simplified Attic that became the “common tongue” or Koiné of a large part of the Near East, Greek education, and the paramilitary training of the ephebeia were the essential means of entry.

The resulting acculturation produced a new literary, artistic, and material civilization based on the classical past of Pericles and Euripides, but recognizably different from it. It was cosmopolitan, not parochial. Cultural liaisons, says the author, were splendidly promiscuous. There was no appreciable difference between the Greek-born Polybius and Plutarch and their Syrian contemporaries, Posidonius of Apamea and Lucian of Samosata. Up to a point it was a creative age, the age of advances in mathematics through Euclid, and in engineering through Archimedes; of advances in astronomy, medicine, geography, and the study of history. Moreover, with Menander began the concept of drama as a mirror of ordinary daily life.

Yet the technical application of discoveries based on observation was limited. The ruling caste despised practical work and their society leaned heavily on slave labor. Why invent a mariner’s compass when there were always slaves to propel the galleys?

Ultimately the heritage of the mandarins prevailed, that is, the philosophical schools and religion. Alexandria with its university replaced Athens as the center to which all roads of culture, religion, and learning led. The gods of Olympus were not so much abandoned as frozen into golden figures. An all-pervading Stoicism taught men to live by the spark of reason that was within them, but also inculcated acceptance of inexorable causality. The goddess Fate (Tyche) controlled the destiny of nations, cities, and individuals. Her servants were the sun and moon and the five known planets, the lords of time, the “elements” as Paul called them, from whose power he promised salvation through Christ.

Fear of a malevolent unknown permeated everywhere. In spite of their pride of caste and culture the Hellenes lived in anxiety. They found themselves open to penetration by a religion whose adherents believed that God actively worked on behalf of His people throughout history—a history that had nothing to do with Fate—and who practiced a morality superior to that of their rivals. In Judaism the Greeks encountered a people and a culture whose claim to universality matched their own.

The Hellenistic cities remained garrison towns and markets set in a sea of barbarian tribes. All the successor states needed colonists. In the last half of the third century B.C., Jewish colonists were being settled in Lydia and Phrygia while large Jewish communities were establishing themselves in Antioch and Alexandria, the respective capitals of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms. Peters perhaps makes less than the facts justify of the relatively long period of friendly contact between the Jews and Greeks before the crisis of the Maccabaean period. Even then, latent religious antipathies between the two peoples emerged only when, in 167-165 B.C., Antiochus IV attempted to bring the temple state of Judaea under his more immediate control in order to tap the financial resources of the Temple.

The ensuing Maccabaean wars resulted, however, in a major challenge to the Greek concept of religion and civilization. Judas Maccabaeus saw the Greek politeia as it was and could afford no compromise with it. He set both Greeks and Romans the problem of the relationship of a monotheistic cult to a polytheistic world which neither was able to solve.

Between the end of the Maccabaean wars in 135 B.C. and the beginning of the Christian era, Rome succeeded to the Hellenistic legacy. While Rome and the Jews encountered each other first as allies—another point Peters should have emphasized—Roman policy coincided broadly with that of their Hellenistic predecessors. They sought to break up tribal conglomerates, to settle nomadic peoples as agriculturists, and they relied on the eastern cities and garrison towns to maintain their rule against internal and external foes. Once the Greeks had become partners in a Greco-Roman world, Rome’s alliance with the Jews became unnecessary, and the latent antipathies between them came to the surface. This development took place precisely at the moment when Christianity was emerging as a missionary force among the communities of the Jewish Dispersion.

Professor Peters takes Christianity in his stride. He has little patience with those who would see the new religion as some form of Hellenistic mystery cult (let alone a Mushroom!) or Jesus himself as a myth. He places Christianity among the esoteric Palestinian pietist movements of the post-Maccabaean era, and sees in Christianity a typical if moderate, representation of the very climate that produced Q’mran, Enoch, Ezra, and Baruch, the Zealots of Jerusalem, and Bar Kochba himself. A reading of the New Testament suggests that this may be correct so far as Q’mran and the prophetic tradition in late Judaism are concerned, but misleading regarding the Zealots and Bar Kochba. If the Temptations (“all the kingdoms of the world”) and Jesus’ rejection of popular pressure to make him a King-Messiah (John 6:15) mean anything, they indicate that He saw His role as one who suffered for the sins of Israel in the spirit of the Suffering Servant, and that by dying He would draw all men unto Him (John 12:32).

This mistaken assessment clouds much of the author’s otherwise finely perceptive judgment as he moves into the Christian era. Indeed, Christianity’s relations with the Roman Empire are treated somewhat peremptorily. Professor Peters tends to see conflict from the start. He believes that increasingly Christianity suffered from the malevolent attention of Rome, that the Church was illegal after Nero, and that there were anti-Christian laws dating to this period.

There is no evidence for all this. The Acts of the Apostles tell a different story, of a willingness on the part of the central and provincial authorities to protect Paul and his followers against persecution by the Jews. The persecution under Nero was a single catastrophe affecting the Roman Christians but not those elsewhere. Probably at the instigation of orthodox Jews in Rome who were influential at Nero’s court, the Christian synagogue was used as a scapegoat for Nero’s bonfire and was burned. Like the Bacchanals two centuries before, Christians found themselves treated as members of a noxious foreign cult whose adherents had insulted the Roman gods and conspired against the Roman people.

The illegality of Christianity was probably due to two not necessarily connected factors. The Christians failed to establish their claim in the eyes of the authorities to be the New Israel, and thus to deprive orthodox Jews of that title, and at the same time they refused to worship the gods of the empire, “our gods” as Pliny describes them in A.D. 112 in his letter to Trajan concerning the Bithynian Christians. In addition, their closely organized churches which were settled among the orthodox Jewish communities throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and the Italian ports resembled those secret associations (hetareiai) that the emperors feared as possible fomenters of revolution. Some organizations, says Celsus in 178 (Origen, Contra Celsum 1.1), are open and acceptable, but others are secret and illegal, and the Christians belonged to the second group. These factors, combined with the frequent aspirations of the believers toward imitating the Founder’s death through martyrdom, provide much of the background to the sporadic persecutions which the author graphically describes.

Professor Peters himself is very much a man of the Hellenistic oecumene. The gradual spread of a barbarian movement which first undermined and then transformed the sunlit world of Stoics and Pythagoreans is less interesting to him. In A.D. 303 when Diocletian decided to try to crush Christianity, the Christians were still a minority in the empire, but the figure of 10 percent of the population which is accepted from Harnack’s estimate of seventy years ago needs revision. In his letters to the North African provinces in 312, Constantine assumed that these were Christian provinces, and he was right; similarly for Egypt, the great Oriental Diocese (Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia), and many parts of Asia Minor, where Christianity was in the process of winning out. It was not entirely a gamble when Constantine replaced the “immortal gods of Rome” with the Christian God.

Any reader who hoped that John Holland Smith would fill the gaps remaining in Peters’s final chapters will be in for disappointment. Much good work has been done recently on the Constantinian era, not least by Professor Ramsey Macmullen of Yale, whose Constantine will long remain the standard work on the emperor’s rise to power. But Holland Smith conspicuously fails to reassess Constantine’s religious policy against the background of triumphant Christianity among the submerged peoples of the empire. Constantine’s skill in reconciling the prominent Coptic confessors contributed powerfully to their loyalty to him and his Byzantine successors, and thus to the survival of the Byzantine world from the crises that destroyed the western empire in the fifth century.

The author sticks to narrative, and not always accurate narrative. One is surprised to read of Donatus’s movement in Africa as representing the local aristocracy, while the judicial hearing at Caesarea in 334 when Athanasius (always spelled as Athenasius) was vindicated seems to be merged into the Council of Tyre of 335 where he was condemned. The attempt to link Constantine’s family with Old King Cole (alias Coel, the Belgic ruler of East Anglia prior to the arrival of the Romans) also seems misplaced scholarship.

It is Jaroslav Pelikan to whom one must turn for a scholarly description of the development of Christian thought up to and beyond the conversion of Constantine. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600 is an excellent work, the first volume of a five-volume series, The Christian Tradition, embracing all of Christian doctrine from the first century to the twentieth. Mr. Pelikan, professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale, shares with Peters the historian’s ambition to take a broad sweep of his subject and record events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man. Adolf von Harnack and J.H. Newman, so different in other ways, share the dedication of his book.

While it would be fairer to suspend judgment until more of this huge work emerges, some brief points should be made. Pelikan’s scholarship is impressive. He demonstrates time and again his mastery of patristic sources. Yet his concentration on the doctrinal and intellectual aspects of Christianity seems to result in some neglect of other factors in the life of the Church that also significantly influenced the development of doctrine.

As Peters admirably shows, the conflict between Christianity and Hellenism directly follows from that between Judaism and Hellenism. Indeed the arguments which the Christians used against pagans in the East were lifted almost en bloc from the manuals of their Jewish predecessors. This background is necessary if the remainder of the narrative is to make sense. Christianity did not begin its mission by “asserting its independence.” Paul was not Thomas Jefferson. The Christians claimed to be the true Israel and the people of God who in one form or another had existed from the moment of creation. The Jews after Moses’s time had simply failed to live up to their role which now devolved on the Gentiles. This claim was bitterly disputed by the orthodox Jews. The first two centuries of the Christians’ debate with Judaism and Hellenism can be understood only in relation to developments during the two centuries before Jesus.

Pelikan, moreover, has little use for deviationists’ “cancerous aberrations” as he calls them, yet his search for a Christian consensus either before or after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 is a pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp. There may not have been “innumerable teachings” about the nature of Christ, as Apollinarius of Laodicea claimed, but alliances were formed on the basis of common ecclesiastical interests, those of Rome-Alexandria up to 449 and Rome-Constantinople-Antioch at Chalcedon, for example. There was also no real consensus of belief between Rome and the Byzantine churches. In the Trinitarian and Christological controversies alike, Rome, far from being the point of Christian unity, was the odd man out among the great patriarchates.

Even abstruse doctrinal debate can have grim practical effects. Robert Wilken is right in emphasizing in Judaism and the Early Christian Mind the part which Judaism played in Cyril of Alexandria’s formulation of Christology. This study is set within a rather liberal background: it takes quite a while to reach the period of Cyril. In view of the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria after the rising of 115-117, is the account of their relations with the Greeks during this period really relevant?

But Wilken appreciates also that the Jews in the fourth and fifth centuries were powerful enough in the Hellenistic world to force orthodoxy into definitions that otherwise might have been avoided. Their strength is excellently illustrated by the discovery of the vast synagogue at Sardis, nearly 300 feet long and lavishly equipped with mosaics donated by the faithful, which was in use from the end of the second to the early seventh century. In both the Trinitarian and the Christological debates, both sides were extremely anxious to avoid committing the Church to a formula with which Jews could agree. Sabellianism, the position the Eastern Church feared most in the Trinitarian debate, was, as Basil of Caesarea argued, no better than Judaism. To Cyril this was true also of the Christology of Nestorius.

The Jews realized what might be the practical effects of the outcome of the struggle between Cyril and Nestorius, between Alexandria and Antioch. When they heard of the victory of the Two Nature Christology at Chalcedon, it was said that they petitioned the emperor Marcian that their synagogues be restored to them since they could no longer be held responsible for the death of God but only of a man! Monophysite propaganda perhaps, but the charge of Deicide had been made and it was to stick. The last dreadful reference to the term was as recent as Vatican II.

Jules Isaac’s passionate plea for Christians to correct their teaching on the Jews must be seen in this context. The author, a refugee from France, died eight years ago at the age of eighty-six. He belonged squarely to the pre-Israeli era of Jewish history, when Judaism was still the great Dispersion, the world’s scapegoats who were being sacrificed on the altar of the Tsars’ and Hitler’s hatreds. Yet his plea remains relevant. Even when he condemned Hitler in his Encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge in 1937, Pope Pius IX wrote of “Christ…who took His human nature from that people who nailed him to the Cross”—not individuals, but the whole people were guilty. His words were echoed by Paul VI in his Passion Sunday sermon of 1965 in which he declared how the Hebrew people failed to recognize the Messiah, and fought, abused, and finally killed Christ.

Isaac is right also to point to Hitler, Austrian Catholic and onetime choirboy that he was, as a Frankenstein heir to this outlook. Without the Christian charge of Deicide, Auschwitz would not have been possible. Christians and even post-Christians need to be reminded how even in conflict Judaism and Christianity were allies against idolatry and how both gave the world the first examples of steadfastness unto death for the truth. Origen regarded Judaism as “Christianity’s little sister.” The Church condemned him as a heretic: he stood outside Pelikan’s consensus. His plea was buried with him. Not until the emergence of the historical school of theologians have the inexorable demands of doctrine begun to give way before the pressure of fact and humanity.

History is concerned with legacies as well as events. Between them these five studies covering 2,500 years of human history explain much of the background of the world in which we live. Christ and Zeno, Christianity and Stoicism, still form the basis of our morality. The heirs to the Hellenistic age still confront those of the Maccabees. For the Jews Masada retains its significance just as the Crusades and their ultimate failure do for the Arabs. Without the long perspective of history no reasoned argument about present conflicts is possible. Two world wars and Vietnam point to this moral. In their own different ways the authors of these works have contributed toward understanding the roots of Western man, and have thereby provided him with some of the means of survival.

  • Email
  • Print