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  1. Greek Philosophical Background of the New Testament.Lascelles G. B. James - manuscript
    This brief, reflective research looks analytically at the impact of Greek philosophy on Christianity from three perspectives. They are: 1) the challenge that it presented to Christianity, 2) the signs of syncretism, and 3) Christian differentiation despite assimilation of aspects of Greek philosophy. Though not exhaustive because of its brevity, the study may help with discussions on the backgrounds of Christianity, and also stimulate an interest in the religion, politics, and history of the Levant in the first century.
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2016-02-27
Syncretism in Christianity
Christianity did not emerge from a vacuum. The Hebrews were the first Christians. Before Christianity it was likely that they practiced or were familiar with Judaism. Some adherents of Judaism during the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD totally rejected Greek philosophy which is known as Hellenism. Others embraced Hellenism in different degrees. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language of Judaism. The New Testament, which espoused Christianity was transmitted in Koine Greek, the language of the Hellenists.  The descendants of the Hebrews are called Jews in the New Testament. Why did the Jews en bloc (or for the most part) reject Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, upon whose teaching the religion was founded? For these Jews, the Messiah had not yet come. Most Jews today still believe that the promised Messiah of the Old Testament has not yet come. If you were a Jew in the 1st century, would you have accepted Jesus Christ?

2016-03-30
Syncretism in Christianity
An enormous amount has been written about the historical origins of Christianity, much of it very well-researched, and enlightening (though hardly likely to bolster belief in the orthodox Christian story). I often wonder why the same kind of thing has not been done about the origins of Islam - or have I missed it?

DA

2016-04-06
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan
You must remember that the most authentic as well as the most voluminous information on the history of Islam is written in Classical Arabic. 

2016-04-06
Syncretism in Christianity

Hi Lascelles

RE: You must remember that the most authentic as well as the most voluminous information on the history of Islam is written in Classical Arabic.

Well, I presume that can be readily translated (and doubtless has been).

Besides, I am talking about modern research by well-qualified historians – the kind of thing that has been around for over a century about the origins of Christianity. I can go to any well-stocked bookshop or library and find books of that kind. I never seem to see anything like it for Islam. Why not, I wonder?

Actually, since writing, I've heard a couple of interviews with French scholars about the origins of Islam. Both indicated that it is heavily indebted to earlier, pre-Islamic religions in the Arabian peninsula, and to Christianity and – believe it or not – to Judaism. Which is not at all surprising of course. All religions in the Middle East borrowed from others in some way.

But my questions remains: why are well-researched books on the subject so rare? Or have I just missed them?

DA


2016-04-11
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan
There is a book written by Tamim Ansary titled Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes published in 2010 that seems to be quite well researched. You may find this book at 

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781586488130


2016-04-12
Syncretism in Christianity

RE: There is a book written by Tamim Ansary titled Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes published in 2010 that seems to be quite well researched

Hmm. Not the kind of thing I have in mind by the look of it.

I am talking about a well-researched, well-informed, no-holds-barred study of the origins of Islam. Preferably by a scholar who knows a lot about pre-Islamic religions in Arabia, and about early Christianity and early Judaism (to which Islam seems to be heavily indebted).

My point is simply this: Christianity has for a long time – over a century – been the subject of careful and well-informed scrutiny by highly qualified historians. Books on the subject have been readily available for decades (I remember many years ago reading one in Penguin called “The Death of Jesus” which was devastating as far as the orthodox Christian story is concerned – and there have many more like it since). Now why can’t I walk into a bookshop and find the same kind of thing about the origins of Islam?  Has no one researched the topic?  I know that’s not true. Are publishers reluctant to publish such books?  Are bookshops reluctant to carry them?  Or do they exist and have I simply missed them?

DA


2016-04-15
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan
For now, while searching for the kind of objective, no-holds-barred study, I will commit to taking some notes with a view to tackling the project and compiling relevant data suitable for unbiased examination. The history&philosophy of Islam, its hierarchy, domain, and its methodology of propagation are some elements critical to understanding its existence and purpose. 
In your opinion, what are some crucial elements that must be incorporated for a veritable analysis? What approaches would elicit the answers you seek? What are some of the questions that would drive this research?

2016-04-16
Syncretism in Christianity

Oh don’t worry about it yourself, Lascelles. I was only asking the question in a general way and wondering if anyone on the thread knew of such studies.

 DA


2016-04-25
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan

Assuming it is correct, this comment from a book I’m reading at the moment seems to answer the question I was asking:

… there has not been a scholarly “quest for the historical Muhammad” the way there has been, and still is, a quest for the historical Jesus. The true identity, words, and deeds of the Prophet of Islam are topics that have only been lightly explored by scholars, largely owing to the paucity of early, reliable sources, and the entrenched Islamic resistance to any questioning of accepted Islamic beliefs, even if that questioning is based on non-polemical, scholarly principles. While historical critics of the Bible have operated freely and wielded tremendous influence in the Christian and post-Christian West, in the Islamic world such studies are virtually nonexistent. The few scholars who work in this field, such as Christoph Luxenberg, receive death threats and publish under pseudonyms.

DA


2017-01-18
Syncretism in Christianity
Most Jews of the time period would have assumed the Messiah would come and save the Jews from Roman rule, be a victorious conquerer, and set to his kingdom in earth. Jesus was captured by the Romans and executed as a criminal. That wasn't very messianic according to the expectations of most Jews at the time. Compare: many Jews believed that Bar-Kochba was the messiah. After he died, most gave up on that belief.
As for the resurrection: 1) most Jews just didn't believe it, 2) it still left the question why there was no (earthly) kingdom.

2017-01-23
Syncretism in Christianity
The Christian doctrine of the resurrection is resonant with the belief of the Pharisees. The details of the Pharisaic resurrection in Rabbinic literature are not as clear as that which which is presented in the New Testament and differs in a number of ways.
Trends of Rabbinic thought indicate that the resurrection will follow the coming of the Messiah.

2017-01-24
Syncretism in Christianity
My apologies; I see there's an ambiguity in what I posted: "As for the resurrection: 1) most Jews just didn't believe it..."

I meant that specifically in the sense of *Jesus Christ's* resurrection, for which most Jews would have felt they had very little evidence.

Certainly the Pharisees believed in the *general* resurrection, which would happen -- en masse -- following the coming of the Messiah, as you mention.
 But (so far as I know) there is no indication that Pharisees would have been likely to buy into a single, specific resurrection of the Messiah, much less, a single, specific resurrection, followed by a long hiatus between that and the general resurrection.

They would have expected the Messiah to come, set up a literal, earthly kingdom, and effect the general resurrection right then and there. Indeed, Christ's resurrection as a "first fruits" of the general resurrection, one has to admit, is pretty unexpected on the basis of the Old Testament. Not to say there's an explicit contradiction, just that it would be unexpected.

2017-01-25
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Beau Branson

Interesting. Correct me if I am wrong (and I may be) but beliefs in resurrection were a fairly late development in Judaism, were they not?  I seem to remember reading once that “sheol” was originally a fairly vague concept but that there was no question of an exit.

DA


2017-01-25
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan
I believe that's the scholarly consensus. Of course, many believers will look for evidence of belief in resurrection going all the way back to Genesis. For example, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, through whom God's promise was supposed to be fulfilled. There is an argument somewhere in the Talmud, I believe (I would have to look it up), to the effect that this indicates a belief in resurrection, because God promised that Abraham would have many descendents through Isaac, who as yet was too young to have had any children. Or Job's saying "And yet I know I shall see my Lord in my flesh" when he appeared to be about to die. (The latter obviously assumes that Job was really written around the *time* of Job, rather than being written much later).
But those sorts of interpretations, as you might expect, don't typically hold much sway with modern Biblical scholars, who look for more explicit references to the resurrection, like Daniel 12 or Ezekiel 37's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Daniel was almost certainly written quite late (maybe a few centuries before Christ). Ezekiel, or parts of it, may have been written as early as the sixth century B.C., but there was clearly a lot of redaction to it.

Sheol is certainly an interesting word to study, but I would be too far outside my own areas of study to say much about it. I don't know if I would use the word "vague," but it definitely admits of various reasonable interpretations. It could be some kind of "underworld," but it may be something as simple as just "the grave" or a pit in the ground. Of course, different authors might have used it differently as well.


2017-01-26
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Beau Branson

Interesting again. Thank you. What you say about sheol chimes with what I had thought.

If we assume that at some stage – presumably an early stage – the word simply meant grave or pit or, at the most, some sketchy notion of an underworld, then we could, I imagine, conclude that at that point notions of an afterlife did not play a significant part in Jewish faith (which may still be the case today for many Jews, perhaps?).

I know there have been other religions without a notion of an afterlife so Judaism wouldn’t have been unique in that regard, but it’s interesting all the same. For people (like me) who have grown up in a basically Christian atmosphere, it’s quite hard to dissociate religious faith from a belief in some kind of afterlife. One wonders how the believer reconciles him/herself to the idea of complete extinction – nothingness. How do you think Judaism dealt with that problem?  Was there some compensating factor in the belief system? Perhaps at that point Judaism placed much less emphasis on the individual than we do now and individual “survival” mattered less - so what I see as a "problem" was not a significant problem at all. 

I should perhaps explain that I am an agnostic so I have no personal stake here. But religious belief in all its forms interests me. (Also I realize I may be asking questions that are outside your main fields of study.)

DA


2017-01-26
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan
Hello again, Derek. I would say you pretty on-target with your observations, and within what (given my, really, only amateur interests in the area) I understand to be pretty standard views among scholars.
In the interest of full disclosure, I also grew up in a Christian home (Baptist), later converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and am not an agnostic, so I am more inclined to give some credence to the view that there might have been a view of an afterlife even fairly early on. But that's certainly not what mainstream scholarship would conclude. Your ideas seem to fit well within that general consensus.

Having just taught a course in World Religions to a mostly Islamic and Christian audience, and given my own background, yes, it's difficult I think for us to wrap our heads around the idea of, say, a religion with no God (like Jainism, for example), or in which there is not necessarily an afterlife.

Re: the "pit," I think a lot of scholars would agree that "Sheol" was probably originally just a literal grave. Personally, I don't think this precludes the idea of an afterlife of any sort. It would just mean that the religion, logically, would focus on a physical resurrection. In general, Jewish / Hebrew thought was always much more physically-oriented than Greek thought. A big clue to the way a religion thinks about the relation between body and soul (or whether there is any important distinction, etc.) is its burial practices. There's usually a correlation between dualism and cremation -- if the body is a distinct thing, and maybe even a kind of "prison" for the soul, then it makes a certain kind of sense to want to burn it as a favor for the newly-departed. If a person more or less *is* just his body, or if the body is at least an essential part of the whole person, then it makes sense to want to preserve the body. In the case of Egyptian mummification, you have a kind of magical or maybe even pseudo-scientific idea that maybe the person can be brought back to life later. In the case of Judaism, I think you probably avoid mummification because of a reliance on Jehovah to do it all miraculously, so mummification would be both superfluous and maybe even in some way potentially an insult to God's power.

But, let's suppose there was no idea of an afterlife in Judaism, at least at *some* point in its early history. How would we understand it? I think there is still a lot of room for religious beliefs in the absence of an afterlife. In a lot of religions, God or the gods serve very practical, mundane purposes. If you are sick, you can pray to the god of healing; if you are unsure about the future, make a sacrifice to the god of prophecy and maybe consult an oracle. Think about how people today are drawn to fortune-tellers or New Age crystal healing, etc. A lot of powers are attributed to Jehovah, besides just being "All-"powerful. In particular, He seems to have been pretty bad-ass in battle (pardon the French). A Protector, Healer, a Mighty Fortress, etc. The Ark of the Covenant was brought into battle in order to destroy the enemy. Etc. So there's definitely some very practical, earthly reasons behind religion(s) as well. (All of this, obviously, is bracketing off questions about whether such beliefs are rational. As I'm sure you agree, people aren't always rational, so...)

Finally, in Judaism, I think there's even an element beyond all of that, which is more ethical in nature. Namely, the Covenant between God and Abraham. At the risk of cheapening and over-simplifying things, we have a tendency to think of religion as a kind of bargain with God -- If we are nice and good during our earthly life, He will set us up with an eternal afterlife of infinite bliss. But you can see in the early books of the Bible (again, at the risk of cheapening and oversimplifying), that there's something similar going on with Jehovah and the Israelites, but instead of focusing on an eternal afterlife of infinite bliss, it's centered on the acquisition of some prime real estate in the Middle East, that is supposed to be held from that point onward. It's not exactly infinite bliss, but it's a pretty good deal. And again, totally focused on the here-and-now. Or maybe for your children or grandchildren. But people are naturally concerned to secure prosperity for their offspring, and you can see that in the early books as well.

You mention the community. I think there's a great deal to be said for that idea as well -- and for the idea that you are helping to secure some good real estate for them to prosper for the rest of time. But my message is already probably too long.

2017-01-27
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Beau Branson

Hi Beau

RE: “I think there is still a lot of room for religious beliefs in the absence of an afterlife.”

Yes, I agree, though it’s not easy to see it - for many post-Christian Westerners anyway. (Actually, I imagine Muslims would struggle with the idea too.)

Some religions – I’m not sure which – divorce God from Creation – i.e. he’s not responsible for the creation of the universe, man etc. That I find hard to grasp too.  As you say, “in a lot of religions, God or the gods serve very practical, mundane purposes”. Granted, but if he(she?) is not the Author of Creation (as the phrase goes) one seems compelled to ask: “Well who is? And wouldn’t that entity be God?” (All very Western thinking again, I realise, but still very hard to shake off). I guess one could just leave the question of creation aside and just consider God to be somehow “there” to help (well, one assumes to help). But then who created God? The same mysterious, unknown, Creator?

So many questions...

PS. If it’s not too personal a question, what drew you to Eastern Orthodoxy? Not that I find that surprising. If one is going to be a Christian, I imagine there are good arguments for the view that Eastern Orthodoxy is as close to – if not closer to – the roots of the faith than anything else. (Dostoyevsky thought so, I gather – though his was the Russian form of course.)

DA


2017-01-30
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi again, Derek,
I've taught a course on World Religions here in Kazakhstan (I don't remember if I already mentioned that), which is predominantly Sunni Muslim (but not at all the al-Qaeda/ISIS variety of Salafism/Wahhabism -- the culture really prides itself on religious tolerance), with a large Russian Orthodox minority. I can certainly say that introducing the idea of religions with no God, and no gods, or religions with a Supreme God who nobody worships (as in a lot of African religions, where worship is directed to lower gods, rather than the Highest God) certainly throws these Muslims for a loop, just as much as it would any Westerner.

If you think of the universe as eternal, then God, or a god might just be an extremely powerful spirit that is eternal alongside the universe. In fact, even in the West, this is essentially how Process Theology does things (although I think Process Theologians generally reject the idea that God is "all" powerful). So, the idea would be that *nothing* is really created in the "ex-nihilo" way that traditional Christianity claims. You have to remember, that idea was new with Christianity, at least vis-a-vis Greek thought. Aristotle thought matter could neither be created nor destroyed, so it must be eternal. Given the way he analyzed the concepts of generation and corruption, both are really just matter taking on different forms. The Christian idea of creation ex-nihilo required big changes in the underlying metaphysics of the time. In other words, to even make sense out of creation "out of nothing," you have to have an entirely different way of analyzing "coming to be" and "passing away" that would allow for something to just "pop into existence" or potentially "pop out of existence." So, to Greeks at the time, it would have seemed *more* natural to think of God / the gods as eternal beings alongside an eternal universe (or, maybe, in some sense "constituting" aspects of the universe, depending on the theology).

Partly, we may be hindered from seeing certain things as intuitive because of how Christianity has influenced our language over the centuries. For example, when you talk about the author of "creation" -- that just *assumes* / *implies* that the universe is created. Of course, it's very natural for us to call the universe "creation" or, say, to call animals "creatures," which then automatically implies that there's a Creator / creators. But the Greeks would have just called it the "cosmos," which meant "order." So, they wouldn't find it natural that it just *has to* have a Creator. Rather, they would have (and did) find it natural to ask what that order is, and what explains it, what the principles of that order are (which led to a kind of proto-scientific inquiry by the pre-Socratics, and ultimately to modern science, over the course of centuries.)

No worries on the personal questions. Your guess is right. I grew up in an environment where I learned very little about Church history, and what little I did learn was mostly false. Since I was very interested in Judaism, and in spiritual practices, I got interested in the Kabbalah, and the extent to which Jesus could be read in the gospels in a kind of proto-Kabbalistic way, and a friend of mine who knew something about Orthodoxy pointed out a copy of the Philokalia in a bookstore to me one day. That got me very interested in the early history of Christian spirituality, which I imagined had just been lost somehow. From there I learned more about Orthodoxy -- and Church history. And yes, ultimately I decided that it was the closest one could get to the roots of Christianity. Besides that, though, I just felt that, even if Orthodoxy as it's come down through the centuries isn't exactly perfect, why reinvent the wheel? The division between Protestant and Catholic, for example, at least in my opinion, is difficult to justify (on the part of Protestants) without saying that Catholicism is so far gone as to be heretical. That indeed was what most of the earliest Protestants would say. But if you don't really think it's heretical, and if none of your beliefs would preclude you from being Catholic, then what would justify dividing the "Body of Christ"? So, I sort of went through the big differences between Orthodoxy and my own beliefs at the time, and decided that either they pretty much believed and practiced the same things, or in some cases they didn't, but I actually thought Orthodox theology made more sense than what I had thought before, once I understood it. (For example, prayer to saints, or the use of ikons, or calling Mary the "Mother of God" were all foreign to me, but after I read up on the explanations of these, I decided they actually made more sense. So I went with it.)

Sorry again for the length of the response -- I hope the moderators don't mind either!

2017-01-31
Syncretism in Christianity
Reply to Beau Branson

Hi Beau

Thanks for your interesting post. Good points about Greek thought. There’s one school of thought that says that the “ultimate” Greek god, for whom there was no temple, was Destiny – the inscrutable, implacable fate one encounters in Oedipus and other tragedies, for example. Not necessarily a punisher, but a force that simply crushes man if it so wishes.

Your comments on history are interesting. I must confess that, for my part, it was history that put the final nail in the coffin of Christian belief. I read a number of books on the origins of Christianity – not necessarily hostile ones, but books that took a purely historical approach based on close examination of sources – and I realised just how much seemed to be due accretions of various kinds etc. I’m sure you know the kind of thing.

I realise that some people would tell me that faith is a deeper issue than history. And I agree with that. But where a religion is closely linked to accounts of “what happened”, as Christianity is, I think there’s a real problem. (For example, Christianity without the resurrection would seem an odd kind of Christianity. Yet the historical evidence for the resurrection is very shaky.)  No doubt the same kinds of problems crop up with Islam but I gather historical examinations of its origins are not encouraged.

DA