Oct/Nov 2023  •   Salon

Back to the Present

by Thomas J. Hubschman

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It was a time when science was respected, literature—especially the big, summer-read novel—was popular, and scholarship and all manner of scientific research abounded. Great libraries were lavishly funded to make available the history, wisdom, and imaginative writing of the known world. Technology proceeded at a dizzying pace, some of it so advanced, there was not yet any practical use for it. Great, largely self-governing cities dotted the shores of the Mediterranean and its interior: sophisticated metropolises where genius of every kind abounded.

We call it the Hellenistic Age, the period from the conquests of Alexander the Great in the early 300s BCE into the first half of the new millennium. It stretched from the Indus River to Gibraltar and from the Caucasus Mountains to modern Sudan. Its common tongue was Greek—a simplified version of the language of Pericles and Plato. It was a cosmopolitan world, at least for those who could read and write and travel, which was a larger proportion of the population than had ever existed before. Spaniards in the remote west, Parthians in the cold north, Persians, Judeans, Libyans, and of course, Greeks themselves and Romans... all spoke the same tongue, at least as a second language.

An entire city, Alexandria, was constructed at the mouth of the Nile to house hundreds of scholars and a great depository of texts from all over the world. Seventy of them were commissioned to translate the Torah into Greek so that Jews, who could no longer read Hebrew, might have access to their holy writ along with the rest of the world. Other scholars pored over the sacred texts of other cultures, especially the Homeric and other classics of ancient Greece. They invented a new device, the footnote, to help with the task.

The plots of Hellenistic novels, products of Syrians, Egyptians, North Africans, and other non-ethnic Greeks, were identical with the ones we are familiar with in our own novels and movies: boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and true love. I say, "boy," but the authors, who usually wrote under pseudonyms, were also women, and it shows in the prominence women play in their narratives. Novels then, as now, were mostly read by middle-class women.

But the handful of those texts that survive are more than romances, just as Anna Karenina, though surely a love story, is much more as well. TheEthiopian is a long, multi-layered story-within-a-story of a young woman's search for her true identity. Reading its opening scene, copied by Flaubert in Salambo and, consciously or not in many a Hollywood blockbuster, one is astonished by the sheer visual scale. And what follows for hundreds of pages is as rich and riveting as any of our 19th-century classics.

No one in those days, certainly not anyone with any ambitions toward being educated and up-to-date, did not absorb and be formed by that culture, just as today the reach of Western—especially American—pop-idols and political culture extends to the most remote hamlet in Nepal or the Congo. The world we inhabit, certainly in the West but throughout the globe, is the direct heir of the Hellenistic one. We like to believe we are the cultural descendants of 5th-century BCE Greeks and republican Romans. But our civilization mirrors not those civilizations but the one that followed after them.

This is true of our religions no less than of our Hollywood tearjerkers and shoot-'em-ups. Christianity and Judaism are Hellenistic religions, full of the ideas and values of those times. The Judaism of the first century CE, essentially the version that allowed it to continue after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, was not and is not the religion of Mosaic or even post-Exilic times. And the Christianity formed in that same couple hundred years is not the natural offspring of a movement led by an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Both modern Judaism and Christianity are the brain-children of Hellenistic minds using Hellenistic myth, philosophy, and culture.

Today both those religions present themselves as stand-alone, one-of-a-kind developments in human history—in one case by a divine intervention that established one people as the chosen vessel of the Almighty's love and law, and in the other as the true teaching and authority of that same divinity inserted into human affairs in the person of Jesus Christ. But late Second Temple Judaism, as it is called, was not the religion of the prophets and kings of an ancient people. It was part myth, the rest indigenous, Babylonian, Egyptian, and finally and most important for its survival, Greek. The Jewish pesach or Passover is a version of the symposium portrayed in Plato's dialogues, a drinking party accompanied by philosophical discussion. The synagogue is a version of the Hellenistic gymnasium, a place of learning and free discussion (without the barbells and swimming pool).

Educated Judeans spoke and read Greek. They were a minority of the population, but a larger minority than they had been a couple centuries earlier when the most literate people in the world were the Greeks of Athens and the other Greek city-states, and even they made up only ten percent of the population. The world Judeans inhabited, from Jerusalem to Sidon, at least in the cities, was Greek and Greco-Roman. The Torah they read, if they could read, was the Greek Septuagint created by those 70 scholars on the beaches of Alexandria. Their Jewish kings, though satraps of Rome, gave their children Greek names and built in the Greek, later the Greco-Roman, style. It was the Hellenistic mind and zeitgeist that made them who they were as men and women of their day, just as it is the culture of our Western societies that make us who we are, even if some of us believe the Second Coming is imminent or that the Messiah prophesied in the Torah has been long-delayed but inevitable. The Hassidim, who do their best to live completely apart from their gentile neighbors, carry cell phones and eliminate microscopic shellfish from their drinking water by using high-tech filtration systems. And even the most fundamentalist of Christians read novels (Christian ones) and drive SUVs.

The Fathers of the Church, the men who selected what was to constitute the Christian canon and what was to be rejected or even declared heresy, wrote and thought in that same vernacular Greek, as did the rabbis who saved Judaism from extinction after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. They created and proclaimed their separate dogmas in the same forms of thought, rabbi and bishop alike, denouncing the materialistic philosophy of Epicurus (the word for "atheist" in both Christian and Jewish writings was "Epicurean"). They destroyed all copies of De Rerum Natura, by Epicurean first-century BCE Lucretius, doing such a thorough job that only a single manuscript survived, buried away in a German monastery for more than a thousand years. Once rediscovered, that long treatise, written in poetic form, became the inspiration for what we now call the Scientific Revolution.

Saul of Tarsus, the man Christians know as Saint Paul, was very much a man of his Hellenistic times. A Jew of the Pharisaic tradition but native to what is now western Turkey, heir to a lucrative family business that made tents for the Roman army, he underwent an experience involving a celestial meeting with the deity who gave him authority to replace the religion of the rabbis and temple priests with a new covenant applied to all humanity.

He executed this task as a man of his background and intellectual environment would be expected to. His theology went well beyond the simple message of the Judean preacher upon whom it hinged. Paul scarcely refers to that man. His vision is of an incarnation of the Godhead itself in whom all mankind can find salvation from sin and death and, when saved, after death live forever in better, glorified bodies to enjoy eternal bliss.

Paul was a visionary with a poet's talent. His encomium to love in his letter to the Romans is as powerful as anything Shakespeare or anyone else wrote on the subject. But, like most visionaries, Paul insisted only his was the true one. He defied the spiritual authority claimed by Jesus' family after his crucifixion. And, following Paul's lead, the church as it developed rejected and ostracized the claims to orthodoxy of James and Jesus' other family members who were following the rabbinical tradition of familial descent.

It would be unlikely if any of those men, sophisticated intellectuals who fashioned the earliest forms of Christianity over the course of the next few centuries, did not incorporate into their thinking the culture that had formed them. Hellenistic society may not have been the high culture of 5th-century-BCE Athens, but it was its legitimate heir. As he conquered the world, Alexander built theaters and stadiums, spread literacy and Greek religion. The Roman gods were Greek gods with Latin names. Educated people of the centuries that followed Alexander's conquests would have been as familiar with the themes of the great tragedians and philosophers as we are of Ibsen and Freud.

Paul's imagination must have been filled with those stories and ideas. The same must have been true for the Church Fathers, especially when they were winnowing through the massive amount of "gospels" and other early texts the Christians of those days were exposed to. Almost all those narratives were eventually discarded—narratives like Paul and Thecla, which tells the story of a beautiful young woman who attaches herself to Paul with such fervor, she faces (but is miraculously saved from) torture and death on one occasion after another. It reads like one of the popular novels of those times, only instead of being the lover of an earthly Adonis, Thecla is the starry-eyed devotee of a bandy-legged old man.

Paul and Thecla, along with other "apocryphal" tales then read at Sunday gatherings of the faithful, not to mention the so-called Gnostic and other texts in circulation, had to be evaluated and either rejected or accepted into the canon. What would have been the criteria the founders of the new faith used?

If they were indeed men of their times, they would have tried to be as rational as possible, as our own intellectuals do even as they also toil in a soup of received ideas and theories they are born into. This usually means they do so under a heavy influence of Nietzschean thought, psychoanalytical notions of human behavior, a post-modern approach to history and literature, along with a host of other influences less conscious but seemingly self-evident. Why should we think the men attempting to fashion a new orthodoxy within the matrix of their own civilization 2,000 years ago would have been any more original, even if their ambition was to be exactly that?

If, as I'm suggesting, those churchmen were familiar with the themes of Greek tragedy, meaning the inevitability of punishment for those who overreach what the gods have ordained for them, if they read or were indirectly influenced by the writings of Neo-Plationists like Philo and the deistic science of De Rerum Natura and the rich mythology and supernatural phenomena of the Greco-Roman and other religions, could those early editors of the mass of early Christian literature not be influenced by them?

Would they not, for example, have seen the parallel between Prometheus' punishment of eternal torture for daring to teach humans the use of fire and Jesus' crucifixion for daring to offer those same humans salvation from death? Would not Paul, after the "revelation" he experienced during his trip to the Seventh Heaven, have tried to express what had been revealed to him in the cultural idiom of his time? Not to mention the popularity of the Stoic doctrine of long-suffering and self-control?

No one, not even the Jews, were monotheistic in the way Jews as well as Christians and Muslims claim to be so today. Yahweh, like the Christian deity, may have been the "one true God," but he was not the only one. The others may be false gods or demons, but they did exist. And the "visits" people had in dreams of ancestors and divine messengers were not just sleeping fantasies. Those nocturnal visitors were considered real, and their advice or directions were to be taken seriously. Paul's own personal revelation must have been such, even if it took place when he was apparently conscious.

The mental environment of those centuries was a mix of just such remote (to us) fantastical beliefs and the critical—what today we would call "empirical"—thought of people like the physician Galen, who mapped the nervous system, dissected and differentiated the organs of the body, and treated illness in a rational way. The first theologians of Christianity, like the rabbis who were putting together the Talmud at the same time, were striving to be just as rational, at least to the extent that was possible under the constraints of divinely revealed religion.

Paul's fascination with his own theory of the Christ, as opposed to the rabbi named Jesus, is that of a prophet with a big idea who managed to integrate Old Testament narrative into a Platonic-like notion of Pure Form—the Godhead itself. Paul was a genius. But it's one thing to have a vision; visions are a dime a dozen, especially in those days. Paul also had an ability to fashion from his vision a religious cosmology bearing upon the fate of every human being along with a literary talent to put it into words, words which still reverberate even among unbelievers.

Out of Paul's vision of a new dispensation replacing the Torah, or in his mind consummating it, the church founders fashioned a theology and corporate structure modeled on that of the Roman state—authoritarian and hierarchical in ways that would have appalled Jesus of Nazareth—incorporating into that theology much of the mythology and ritual already familiar to subjects of the Roman Empire: a holy meal, salvation by the blood shed from the sacrificial offering of Christ's body (in place of the literal bull's blood of the very popular Mithraic faith, the biggest rival to Christianity in its earliest days), Christ's resurrection and physical assumption into heaven and, of course, his birth from a virgin, a sine qua non for any heroic figure of the ancient world.

We can watch all of this as it develops by reading the four Gospels in the order in which they were written. Mark's, the earliest, is matter-of-fact, a journalistic account with minimal comment or interpretation. It begins not in Bethlehem but at the start of Jesus' career as a rabbi in his 30th year. It progresses through the three years of his ministry to his death on the cross where he seems to cry out in despair at God's forsaking him, and ends with his entombment.

The narratives that follow Mark—Matthew, Luke and much later, John—build on Mark's, adding new material as well as increasing layers of interpretation, assuming a Pauline theology and, in John's gospel, full-blown mysticism.

There are only those four narratives (plus the misfit Apocalypse/Book of Revelations) in the 27 books of the Christian canon, selected from who-knows how many others, some of which we have copies of in whole or in part: Thomas' gospel, Judas', Mary Magdalen's, the heavily neo-Platonist Gnostics' (Gnosticism being a word perhaps best translated as True Knowledge or even Science) and a host of other narratives like Paul and Thecla, most of which were considered by early Christians as creditable as any other sources until the church fathers declared them spurious.

The first three canonical Gospels, apart from the miraculous parts, read very much like modern newspaper accounts. This is not by accident. Earlier on in this essay I said our modern world is heir and replicate of the Hellenistic one. It's not coincidence that Mark, Matthew, and Luke should write in the simple, straightforward manner of a modern tabloid, or for that matter, a Hellenistic bodice-ripper. Shakespeare's plots and crowd-pleasing dialogue derive from the same sources: Ovid and Seneca rather than Sophocles and Aeschylus. And the authors of the medieval romances and thereafter the novels of the Western tradition right up to Balzac and Flaubert were familiar with those Hellenistic, or as they are usually known, Greek novels.

Not all of them were romantic yarns. There's a science fiction story among those that survive, a prototype of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Only, in The World Beyond Thule (present Norway) it's the Earth against Venus, an air war fought on the backs of giant insects. The Life of Alexander pretends to be biography (the world-conqueror is given a divine father, as most heroes were). The Ethiopian (also known as The Ethiopian Girl) defies categorization.

What does this mean for how we see the message of the rabbi Jesus as he is portrayed in Mark and not as he is apotheosized in Paul or in the Gospel of John?

We could start by correcting names. "Jesus" is the Greek and Latin name for someone actually called Yehoshua or Yeshua, a fairly common name in first century Judea. His apostles/brothers were Yakov (not James; he wasn't an Englishman), Shimon, etc. His mother's name was Mariam, his step-father's Yosef.

It makes a difference. The name "Yehoshua" suggests a very different milieu and a very different character from the blond, blue-eyed pinup decorating so many Christian walls. And "Yakov" brings to mind—at least to a typical, non-Jewish American mind—something very different from "James," ("Jesus" is a fairly common Spanish name, though it sounds almost blasphemous to use it as such in English-speaking cultures). If we extend this cultural repatriation to other matters, we start to find a greater and greater dissonance between even the Hellenized Judea of Jesus' time and our own notion of early Christianity.

But what is lost and what is gained by putting those three years of a man's life back into the world in which they were actually lived instead of seeing them as the Christian churches have presented them?

The truth, could be one answer, or at least a good-faith effort to approach it. We have plenty of help in that effort, though, thanks to the scholarship by historians like James Tabor, Paul Veyne, Peter Brown, Bart Ehrman, and many others, starting with Ernest Renan's shocking but in its day popular Life of Jesus, published in the 19th century.

There's no doubting that whoever you believe Jesus to have been, man or man and God, his influence, the impact of the person chronicled in Mark's and to a more embroidered extent in the other three Gospels, has been profound and enduring even, or perhaps especially, among unbelievers. Henry David Thoreau, without naming him, identifies Jesus as the well-spring of our ideals of freedom and democracy. And Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., consciously looked to Thoreau for inspiration and guidance.

What Jesus preached was not original. Isaiah and the other prophets said much the same things, as did rabbis who immediately preceded him. Jehoshuah's/Jesus' purpose was to draw that tradition into a comprehensive doctrine of love and hope. Unfortunately for him, though not for us, he also seemed to believe he was the Messiah promised to the Jewish people, and for that he was crucified. Ironically, had he not been put to death, the power of his teaching and personality may not have been as powerful as they have been, and all historical trace of his existence might well have vanished.

Christianity went through permutation, evolution, regression, and progression over the two millennia that followed. The 18th-century Enlightenment attempted to purge the tradition of its superstitious and totalitarian character while holding on to core beliefs in a just, free, humanitarian society focused on this world, not a hereafter. For, Christianity did not change human nature. The genocides and myriad individual atrocities perpetrated by it have been a match for any pagan cruelty and mass slaughter. The Sermon on the Mount still captures imaginations, embedded as they are in what has become Holy Writ as much as that given by the deity to Moses.

But the political and social structure of Rome, along with the culture, values, and philosophy of the Hellenistic world, predominated, and still does. Not even the most ardent evangelical Christian today believes in turning the other cheek when it comes to confronting the perceived enemies of those values, and the modern state of Israel is a persecutor of the weak, which Isaiah cried out against.

We are neither the shining city on the hill of the Hebrew Bible nor the City of God of the Christian tradition. We are the children of the secular civilization that stretched across the known world for the better part of a millennium, starting with the conquests of Alexander of Macedon. Much has changed during the last 2,000 years. But more has remained the same. Our professed values are still those of the Stoics who preached moderation, self-restraint, fairness, the universality of humankind. Our science is a continuation of the brilliant start made by the men of those days, interrupted by a long interregnum of willful ignorance until its reflowering in the 17th century. Our art comes out of the same imagination as the authors of those ancient novels and the sculptures, painters, and architects of the Hellenistic age. Michaelangelo's, Shakespeare's, Dickens', and George Lucas' brainchildren are based on the esthetics and moral values of those Hellenistic times, not on those of the austere Athenians or even more ancient Egyptians. We would do better to acknowledge this legacy, for better and for worse, than pretend we are the progeny of 5th-century-CE Athenians or the spiritual offspring of Abraham.