Did Christianity evolve from Greek religion?
Is Christianity a Greek religion clothed in Roman rituals?
The question was put before me one night, and it's a very thought-provoking idea. Could major religions - or religion itself - evolve rather than spontaneously appear through prophets? Could the prophets have utilized prior world views and spiritual traditions to transform old beliefs to fit an ever-changing world?
Assuming that religion can evolve, and thus has from prehistoric times to today, by elaborating on the basic prehistoric concepts of other religions, this statement can seem true. For example, there are many similarities between Christianity and the Roman Mystery Cults, which can be assumed to be at least somewhat adopted from the Greeks as almost all Roman things were adapted from someone or another). The Cult of Isis practiced celibacy, an ascetic priesthood, and used blood as a divine object (which can be related to the blood of Christ).
Mithraism, another mystery cult, was very similar to a central idea of Christianity: Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was the savior in Christianity, so was Mithra in Mithraism. Mithra was a Persian god of protection who protected the souls of the just, was born of a virgin on December 24 (although the date was placed in mid-200 BCE whereas Jesus was assumed to have been born around the turn of BCE to CE), and promoted celibacy and brotherhood. Jesus, with a few alterations in dates and names, holds the same aspects as Mithra.
The relationship between Christianity and Greek religion is also evident in Roman public religions, which were usually Romanized versions of Greek practices. In Dionysian belief, the wine - a much-beloved symbol of the gods - is also used in church ceremonies in Christianity. In Apollonian belief, the idea of protector and savior is reinforced just as it is in Mithraism.
To answer this question, though, we must dig a bit deeper into the Greek and Christian religions.
Polytheism is always different from Monotheism?
The main argument against this view is that Greek religion is polytheistic while Christianity is monotheistic. However, a little digging can show that the transition from one to the other is not as hard as one might believe.
First, there is the fundamental question of a pantheon versus one god. The Greeks believed in a pantheon of gods (with Zeus – in its later traditions – as the "head") while Christianity has only one God who is sometimes accompanied by Jesus and the Holy Spirit as a "trinity". It can be argued that the Greek pantheon of gods is only the various aspects of a one, true god (perhaps Zeus in some respect, or even Gaia, although she has become more a representation of the Earth than one of the original immortal beings). This would then agree with the Council of Nicea, which in 325 CE decreed that Jesus and God were of “one substance” with different aspects, thus preserving the ideal of monotheism while explaining polytheistic-leaning aspects.
This then leads us into the nature of god or the gods. Is God only spirit or is God both man and spirit?
In Greek religion, gods were mainly spirit, and they could appear in man or animal form (perhaps as spirit incarnates), which does agree with the Council of Nicea in maintaining a boundary between the two. As spirit incarnates, Greek gods often had limited interactions with mortals (and Zeus hardly ever spoke, preferring only to bed certain women and then leave to deal with Hera).
However, in Greek religion, gods fathered children with mortals. What, then, are these children if – since they have divinity by blood – they can be of only one substance? Even if one were to argue that they were not one-hundred percent god and thus could only be man, it could probably never be agreed upon by religious scholars as to the true nature of these offspring.
This brings to mind the point that there is evidence of Jesus Christ being a real person, which continues the debate on offspring. In Christian doctrine, God is only spirit with Jesus, who is of the same substance as God, as the “spirit incarnate” who has chosen the form of man (rather than an animal or some other type of material being). Thus, the two aspects are separated, though Jesus is imbued by God with certain powers that appear God-like (as children of Greek gods often were).
If Jesus Christ was the offspring of God and the mortal Mary, as Christianity would have us believe, then what is Jesus? Is he man or god? Is he demi-god, like Hercules? The debate over this continues today in many religions over the various prophets through time. If Christianity did evolve from Greek religions, it could have borrowed the concept of a god being able to mate with a mortal.
Actions of the Gods
Another supporting point in the argument that god(s) are only one substance stems from the differences in the actions of the Christian God and the Greek gods.
The Christian God is portrayed as celibate, forgiving, and promoting a brotherhood among men. God is, in every way, a perfect and compassionate being, thus becoming an ideal standard to which humanity may aspire in their own lives.
The Greek gods, however, were nowhere close to perfect - in fact, many scholars believe the gods were modeled after humans to educate mortals on behavior. Aphrodite was in no way celibate; in fact, none of the gods were celibate because, at one time or another, they all fornicated or conceived offspring with each other and with mortals!
The Greek gods also did not highly aspire towards a brotherhood. In every battle or war on Earth, the Greek pantheon played some part - often as the driving force of Fate. Whether commanding Odysseus to sail home or granting the wish of a boy too infatuated with Helen of Troy to care if a war started, the gods helped to create conflict in the mortal world.
Even within the pantheon, the gods could not maintain a brotherhood: From goddesses arguing over who was prettier (and thus getting mortals' opinions and condemning poor mortal souls to wicked fates) to Zeus and Hera's infidelity-ridden conflicts and revenges (which also often involved mortals cast to wicked fates), the Greek pantheon is seeming chaos compared to the Christian God. All this bickering and revenge also shows a lack of the forgiving aspect which is found in the Christian God. Thus, the Greek gods behaved more like mortals than superior beings above mortal passions.
In this aspect, it is hard to see a relationship between the soap-opera-like Greek pantheon and the ever-compassionate Christian God. However, perhaps there is an evolution here. What if the early Christians, the writers of Christian scripture, were sick of bickering, bullying, mortal-like gods? Perhaps the conflicts during the creation of the Roman empire as the Greek era ended led to a revolution in what was needed from God. We no longer needed gods who were like us, whose failures would serve as our lessons. Instead, we needed a God (or gods) to whom we could aspire - a mother or father-like figure to guide and understand our failings, but also to forgive us for being imperfect. Perhaps, then, arose the compassionate Christian God.
Philosophy and Politics
There is one final point to consider here: the inherent philosophies of the religions. Greek religion was far more philosophic, enabling its worshippers to question the nature and authority of the gods, while Christianity is far more akin to a monarchy with God being the "king" that no one disobeys or questions.
Greece is widely known for its philosophers - Artistotle, Plato, etc. Greeks openly debated the nature of right and wrong, and thus could even debate man-made (civil) and divine law. In such literary works as Antigone, civil and divine law were openly debated as to which one was the correct one to follow. In the story, Antigone defies civil law (which decrees that one of her dead brothers who was, more or less, the "rebel," could not be buried), and she buries her brother, thus obeying divine law and allowing his soul to partake in the afterlife instead of forever wandering the earth. In her defiance, she ignites the rage of civil law and eventually commits suicide (along with quite a few other characters). Antigone chose to obey divine law and, through civil law's defiance of divine law, died. This clearly illustrates how Greeks were allowed to debate divine law, to question their mortal and divine rulers without immediate fear of death or eternity in hell.
However, this is not true of Christianity. The Christian God is the only god; He is the "king," an ideal to which humans not only aspire but also obey without question. He is a monarch with doctrines and commandments which clearly state that any acceptance of other gods or questioning of His authority is unacceptable. Although early Christian doctrines stated no direct punishment for disobedience, through the centuries it has been made clear that disobedience is punishable by eternity in hell. This has been done indirectly through doctrine (the Bible). Thus, in Christianity, divine law always overrules civil law. For example, if Antigone were to be present in Christianity, she would have had to obey divine law or possibly face eternity in hell despite whatever she faced on Earth as punishment for disobeying civil law.
Another point to consider is the politics of each time. Greeks lived in city-states, with no true monarch. They were a democracy of sorts, with councils of men deciding upon wars. Though there may have been some kings (such as seen in the movie Troy), and thus ruling families, these kings often consulted with various officials in debates over the right course of action (which is also seen in Troy). Thus, there was always some way to keep rulers in check, as they could be easily overthrown if their generals did not like what was ordered.
Comparatively, Christianity arose during Roman times, primarily after the implementation of Roman Emperors, who possessed sole authority over the Empire. Christianity's progression followed the development of empires and kingdoms in Europe, which were ruled by leaders who held absolute power (and who, unlike in Ancient Greece, were not expected to confer with others on their decisions). Perhaps, then, we can see that Christianity may have evolved its monotheistic obedience from the new monarchies - further reinforcing to lower classes and lesser nobles the idea of absolute obedience to one's ruler.
What Do You Think?
Through all the debates above, various scholars and individuals across time have debated whether religion can - as many other aspects of society do - evolve from older religions. By debating the basic tenets of polytheism versus monotheism, the separation of divine from mortal, the separation of civil law and divine law, and the politics of each time, it can be possible to sway either way.
Whatever the answer, perhaps it is mixed. Perhaps early Christians, much like their contemporary Romans, borrowed from different religions - some from Greece and some from elsewhere. Perhaps in exposure to different world views, the early Christians were forced to combine Jesus's prophetic teachings with the stark realities of a world thrown into chaos by Roman domination. In doing so, they created a new religion - one that would dominate the world in the coming centuries.
And perhaps, if Christianity could have evolved from the Greeks, we are not so far off from our cave-dwelling ancestors. Do we not still paint our religious idols, hoping to find perfection in our ideas of them? Do we not write poetry and sing songs that aspire to capture the rapture at a world we inhabit but cannot fully understand? Do we not still look at the stars and wonder if someone, or something, is looking back? Do we not still hope that we are not alone, meant to live our mortal lives and then be cast to dust without any rhyme or reason for existence?
More by this Author
Brief introduction to insight meditation, its history, practice, and key points to remember when starting your practice.
Examines the how, when, and why of creation myths to show how creation myths define cultural norms by comparing Enuma Elish, Hesiod's Theogony, and Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Hellenistic and Hellenic civilization were time periods in Ancient Greece. But what's the difference between the two? Wasn't "Ancient Greece" just Ancient Greece? Not really...