Something about Athens and Jerusalem

Image - painting of Apollo, Minerva, and the 9 muses

Light and wisdom banishing ignorance
and making the world safe for culture, Greek style

The “history of western civilization” has for centuries and in textbook after textbook told a story about “western culture” being the world-historical synthesis of Greek-and-Roman and Hebrew cultures. For religion in particular, this mixed marriage was destined for conflict, at least according to one way of reading the fundamental dynamics of the situation:

On the popular level the Greeks and Romans were polytheists, worshipers of the multiple gods of the Mediterranean basin and little different in practice and belief from the other peoples of the Middle East. But  beyond the practice lay, in the possession of the intelligentsia, a theology, a speculative but rational theory about the nature of god, a single transcendent God, who created and ruled an orderly universe (kosmos). Theology was, moreover, a theory capable of explanation, defense, emendation, and expansion. The natural theology of the Hellenes and their Roman students and successors was a profound and novel challenge to whichever Jews chose to pay heed, as it would be later to Christians and Muslims. It acknowledged ignorance, which was curable, but not mystery, which was not. It explained, where revelation described; it argued, where revelation merely asserted. And its manner of proceeding, inductively up the chain of creation or deductively from the first, self-evident principles of reason, rendered the revelations of the monotheists not merely otiose but, in some profound sense, an affront to the powers of human reason.1

The thesis is that the two cultures that formed “Hellenistic Judaism” were fundamentally at odds, based on ways of approaching and knowing the world that were, in the end, incompatibly different. Its corollary is that we can trace the way that fundamental tension plays out historically, particularly in the history of ideas, and how it surfaces in other persistent tensions at the heart of “western culture.” This might feel plausible because it’s true – or because it’s familiar.


1 F.E.Peters, The Children of Abraham (Princeton: Princeton University, 2004), 18.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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