Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hellenistic Associations and Subsequent Conversion

The Ancient Christian World
Following the death of Christ, the spread of Christianity would occur within the confines of the Roman Empire, which spanned some 3,000 miles, from the Atlantic shores of Hispania (Spain) to the western borders of today’s India. With the exception of Abrahamic Judaism, the religious beliefs of the known world were then polytheistic.

Greco-Roman Empires - Map by Tom Mallon
The influence of Roman and Greek religious beliefs and language

Ancient Roman Sacrifice
Ancient Roman Sacrifice

Religious Climate

Evidence of formally developed Hellenistic beliefs go back to Archaic Greece or about 800AD. However, originating artifacts have been trace to before 1100 BC. By the time of Christ, Rome was more than seven and a half centuries old and it own polytheistic beliefs had evolved with considerable Greek influence to be almost identical and therefore Hellenistic in nature.

Roman Government and its own own Hellenistic beliefs were intertwined to such a degree that citizens would observe and share in the sacrifices of public officials during government held events within public forums.

For gentiles then, the worship of one god would be as absurd as opening a temple to Jupiter in downtown New York today. Still, the early Christian missionaries would have to bridge this gulf. However, before attempting the gentile conversion, early missions would be confined to spread the gospel amongst the Jewish community. This restricted conversion of only Jews was upheld by Saint Peter through much of the Apostolic Age.

Fertile Environment

During Roman occupation, most in the Provence of Judea were uneasy with the very presences of the Romans and further repelled by public sacrifices made to their polytheistic gods. A messianic liberator with sword and flame was a constant prayer on the lips of those attending Temple.

Early Missionaries
Early Missionaries
As mentioned earlier, the initial messianic message of the Apostles was confined to fellow Jews. Depending on the message, a Jewish audience could be found most receptive of news regarding any messiah. The initial disappointment of a non-militant, turn-the-cheek messiah could sometimes be offset with tales of miracles performed by Christ.

With the initial prospects for conversion being confined to those of the Jewish faith, problems would begin to develop for the orating Apostles when Christ was said to be the Son of God or when the Trinity Godhead was expounded. These were considered polytheistic concepts the sacred Talmud defined as “Shituf” or outright idolatry. Still, many simple worshipers would embrace the Christian message even while Temple elders were coming to verbal blows with the Apostles, often times landing early Christian missionaries in prison.

Beyond Abrahamic Judaism

Emperor Constantine Burns Arian Scriptures at Nicaea
Burning of Arian Scriptures at Nicaea
Some point must have been reached when the early missionaries converted just about all the Jews they could from the temples populating Judea, for at some point the apostle Barnabas and the self-appointed Apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus) decided to leave the confines of Judea on missionaries to neighboring provinces. Subsequent to those missions, polytheistic gentiles had no problem embracing a triad godhead as well as a new god who promised the relatively unique concept of eternal happiness. The only remaining issue would be discarding other gods of Hellenistic belief, a problem that would plague the early church until 325 AD, when the Council of Nicaea would begin to formalize Christian canon and outlaw numerous Christian sects (some embracing more than one god and others repudiating Christ’s own divinity while on earth).

Luckily for the early church, St. Paul made the conversion of gentiles his personal mission. It was the apostle Peter, the church's head, who would provide Paul with the most stubborn resistance. Peter would insist upon Christian recruits abiding by the Law of Moses. This would include circumcision for grown men who wished to join the new faith. Christ himself had instructed this apostles not to go "among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans" [Matthew 10:5].

Incident at Antioch
Incident at Antioch
Disagreement would continue between the two until the Incident at Antioch, around 50 AD. The immediate outcome of this famous confrontation remains unclear. Some historians believe that Peter felt he had gotten his way. However, no matter what Paul may have said to comfort Peter or how Peter may have thought he succeeded, the fact remains this meeting marked a major departure point for missionary practices.

Subsequently, conversion rate for Gentiles would increase considerably after Antioch and distance would then begin to grow between Christians and observing Jews. Moreover, once the original Apostles had passed on, the church fathers would henceforth be non-Jewish.

Building Upon Polytheistic Tendencies

Conversely, the Holy Trinity godhead as well as the concept of God having an earthy son were not difficult concepts for polytheists to digest. After all, Zeus had his heavenly sons Apollo and Hercules. Equally acceptable was the concept of Christ having an earthly mother. Zeus had fathered both Hercules and Semele from human lovers. Christ's mother could also represent the interceding maternal image formerly occupied by the goddesses Juno or Venus.

However, whether cross-comparison with pagan idols were clearly made by early Christian missionaries (i.e.: Saint Paul) or occurred subconscious on the behalf of converting polytheists, or both, will forever remain a mystery. It may not have been deliberate on behalf of the missionaries, having already had the Divine Trinity and the Son of God concepts called idolatry by the earlier Jewish Temple elders.

Imparting Polytheistic Notions

Still, the ever-energetic Saint Paul was known to bend the rules (much to the consternation of Saint Peter), if not institute dogma when he felt inspired to do so, making anything possible. His often unique espousals of faith within his epistles (though generally in line with previous works of Christ and the Apostles) would often times impart articles of faith hitherto unspoken in canonic gospel. Just one example would be the very first connection between original sin and the fall of Adam, made by St. Paul (Romans 5:12-2). Jewish law did not subscribe to Original Sin, nor had Christ or the original twelve apostles made mention of it.

Moreover, once outside of Judea, Saint Paul's missions took him far from any previous condemnation of trinitarian ideas. Paul may have even sensed enthusiasm in polythestic audiences where extensive liberties were already permitted within Hellenistic worship and heresy was a sin mostly confined to monotheistic beliefs. Drawing polytheistic comparisons may have simply been irresistible for the most enthusiastic missionary of all time.

Saintly Intercession

In the years to follow there would be the early Christian martyrs, which would include most of the apostles. These martyrs would move from semi-deity through formal canonization where they would be raised to the level of saint. Once a saint they could be prayed to for special intercession. By comparison, prayers and sacrifices had been made to numerous lesser Hellenistic gods.

Today, the Catholic Church states “There are over 10,000 named saints and beatified people...” However, less than 3,000 have been formally identified in publications. Still, that’s a lot of saints, each one representing a different cause and/or vocation. All remain available to interced and pray for the fervent faithful who chooses to call upon them.


Lastly, to compensate for the pagan rituals of burning sacrifices, the church instituted the blessed candle. After sacrificing a small donation, the faithful may light a candle, each one representing the “Light of Christ” as well as the Holy Spirit. Donations went towards ongoing missionary work to spread the faith. And... there were no messy animal parts to clean up afterwards.

Unprecedented Religious Growth

Ultimately, the embracing of polytheistic gentiles would prove a phenomenal success for Christianity. Over the next 300 years Christianity would spread to dominate the Roman Empire and eventually be declared the state religion in 380 AD by Emperor Theodosius I.

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