Monday, 3 May 2010

Greece: from empire to economic disaster

The news coming out of Greece these days is not good. The country is in serious economic trouble, after racking up debt to the tune of around 115% of GDP, and the government has been forced to go cap in hand to the IMF and EU for a bailout. Riots have broken out in protest against severe austerity measures, and the crisis has sent shockwaves through global stock markets. What a contrast to the times of ancient Greece, when during just one century of splendour under King Philip and his son Alexander the Great, the country was at the centre of an empire that stretched all the way from Egypt to northern India. Although this period of greatness was brief, the intellectual and creative achievements of the Greeks had a profound influence on the history of mankind.

Greek Empire

Greece’s rise to prominence started after the defeat of the Persian Empire which attacked Athens in 480 BC. Then followed the Golden Age of Greece, in which there were great advances in the fields of government, art, philosophy, drama and literature. Great thinkers of that time included Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. A form of governance known as “democracy” became established in Athens and other city states. King Philip of Macedon, from the kindred kingdom just north of Greece which is today known as Macedonia, took control of all Greece following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. He developed what is known as the Macedonian phalanx, an infantry formation which proved to be lethal on the battlefield. Philip had had a thoroughly good Greek education and he ensured his son Alexander also received the same. After his conquest of Greece, he set his sights on Persia but was assassinated. It’s rumoured his wife, Queen Olympias, was jealous Philip had married a second wife and secretly conspired to kill him.

Alexander ascended the throne, and in 334 BC crossed into Asia, defeated a not much bigger Persian army and captured a number of cities in Asia Minor. In 332 BC he took Egypt from the Persians and built great cities at Alexandretta and Alexandria. In 331 BC he marched into Babylon and at Arbela, near the ruins of Nineveh, he defeated the Persian emperor Darius III. Then Alexandar made a military parade of Central Asia, going all the way to northern India. There he fought a great battle on the Indus against the Indian King Porus. The Macedonian troops encountered war elephants, which terrified them, but eventually they emerged as victors.

Alexander was forced to head back west when his troops refused to go further into India. He sought to win over his new subjects and assumed the robes and tiara of a Persian king. He arranged a number of marriages between his Macedonian officers and Persian and Babylonian women - the famous "Marriage of East and West" meant to symbolize the new racial unity he was hoping to create. He did not achieve the integration he planned, and he died in 323 BC when a fever seized him after a drinking bout in Babylon. Immediately his vast dominion fell to pieces, and the heady days of Alexander came to an end.

Early Church

The result of Alexander’s conquests and his policies was that elements of Greek civilization combined, in various forms and degrees, with other elements taken from conquered civilisations. This was known as Hellenism. Although the nature of Hellenism varied from place to place, it did provide the Eastern Mediterranean with a certain degree of unity that opened the way to Roman conquest, and then the preaching of the gospel. Roman law and Hellenistic culture were the context in which the early church took shape.

The Romans were not great thinkers like the Greeks, but they were very pragmatic people. They built well paved and well guarded roads that connected distant provinces, and since trade flourished travel was constant. The circumstances in the first century favoured the spread of Christianity. In other aspects the circumstances were a threat to Christianity. To communicate their faith in the midst of this Hellenistic culture, Christians found two philosophical traditions particularly attractive and helpful: Platonism and Stoicism.

Platonism is the philosophy associated with Plato, who criticized the ancient gods and taught about a perfect and immutable supreme being. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul, and he affirmed that far above this world of fleeting things there was a higher world of abiding truth.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded by Zenon. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving one’s ethical and moral well-being.

Defence of the faith

The objection to Christianity on the part of many cultured pagans was not purely an intellectual matter, but it was deeply rooted in class prejudice. The majority of early Christian converts in the Roman World were from the lower sections of society. The cultured pagans could not conceive the possibility that this Christian rabble were more enlightened than them. To them Christianity was the religion of a peasant from Galilee. Jewish teachers had never risen to the level of Greek philosophers; so if anything good is found in Jewish Scripture, this was because the Jews copied the Greeks.

Some Christians, such as Tertullian, believed many of the heresies that circulated in their time were the result of mixing pagan philosophy with Christian doctrine, and they insisted on a radical opposition to pagan culture. Tertullian’s “Address to the Greeks” is an attack on everything the Greeks considered valuable, and a defence of the “barbaric” Christians. Since the writings of the Jewish prophets such as Moses are much older than those of Plato or Homer, any agreement between Greek philosophy and the religion of the Christian “barbarians” is because the Greeks derived their wisdom from the barbarians.

Other Christians took a different stance. On becoming a Christian, Justin Martyr did not cease being a philosopher, but rather took upon himself the task of doing “Christian philosophy”. He claimed that there were several points of contact between Christianity and pagan philosophy. For instance, Plato and Socrates believed in a Supreme Being and life after death. The partial agreement between the philosophers and Christianity could be explained by the doctrine of the Logos, a Greek word meaning “word” and “reason”. The Gospel of John affirms that in Jesus the logos or “word” was made flesh. Thus, according to Justin, what happened in the incarnation was that the underlying reason of the universe, the logos or Word of God, was made flesh. Other early Christian intellectuals such as Augustine and Origen also drew on Greek philosophy to explain and defend Christian doctrine. While accepting truths found in the philosophers, they insisted on the superiority of the Christian revelation.

Other Greek influences

All the New Testament gospels were written in Greek. The word “Christ” is the English translation of the Greek word Khrist├│s meaning "the anointed one"; and “Christian” means “belonging to Christ”. The ancient Greek word “Ichthus” means "fish". It was used by early Christians as an acronym for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior": I=Jesus, Ch=Christ, Th=Theou (God's), U=Uios (Son), S=Soter (Savior).

In the first few centuries after Christ, when the early Christians faced persecution in the Roman Empire, they used the fish symbol as a secret symbol to identify safe meeting places and tombs as well as a fellow believer in Christ:
"…when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Current bumper-sticker and business-card uses of the fish hearken back to this practice. The symbol is still used today to show that the bearer is a practicing Christian."
—Christianity Today, Elesha Coffman, "Ask the Editors".


Empires never last but their legacies often do. However miserable the situation is in Greece today, there’s no doubt that the creative output of its brief Golden Age of antiquity still endures with us. Probably the biggest contribution of ancient Greece to our modern world is democracy. Greek philosophy also had a profound influence on man and still continues to provoke intellectual thought. It was often used by pagans to attack Christianity, but many early Christians also embraced it to show that Christians too could do philosophy. Any shortcomings in Greek philosophy, they said, could be answered by the fullness and superiority of the Christian doctrine.


Joseph Pulikotil said...

Hi JL:)

This is an amazing post with wonderful research and study .Every time I visit your blog there is always something new to learn.

It is true Greece was the centre of learning and the Greeks considered themselves that they were the only civilized nation in the world. All others were looked down as barbarians. The very fact that a small nation conquered most of the known world clearly shows their level of sophistication, modern method of fighting, cunningness or cleverness, diplomacy etc. Alexander was responsible for coining the phrase-CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT.

Yes, Greece gave democracy to the world. They did not believe in the rule of one man or aristocracy. They always looked for collective wisdom. Is this not the reason why Julius Caesar was murdered?

They also gave us the Marathon and also the Olympics. Iliad by Homer is wonderful classic and I never get tired of reading the stories.

Many countries in the world have adopted democracy for government except few countries like UK,JAPAN ETC. still have the king or queen as the figure head with no powers. Even here democracy prevails. In Nepal recently the king was ousted.

It is amazing how Christianity prevailed over Greek theology. I understand one of the New Testaments was written especially with the view to convince the Greeks and convert them to Christianity. Perhaps you know about it already.

The Greece of today is not the original undivided Greece. Many new countries have come up and they hate each other. There are frequent wars. They are not as clever as the Japanese in commercial ventures. In these days strength alone will not help; Even in Olympics they are not doing well. But a few years back they surprised the world by winning the European Cup Football. They played a well planned and clever game.

Christianity is facing a tough time all over the world. As you wrote in my blog, there are people who call themselves Christians without even reading the Bible. For them it is a symbol of modernity to call themselves Christians. They will read other religious books without having a basic foundation in their own religion and start doubting their own religion. It is time for the Catholic Church to think very carefully not only to retain the youngsters of today and also to covert people belonging to other religions. Money has become a demi-god and the youngster of today especially in the IT field earn huge sums of money. They have no time for God. Besides in countries like India there are too many restrictions on conversions.

Many thanks for sharing this excellent post based on great research, study and careful thought..

Have a wonderful day JL:)

JI said...

Hi Joseph,

I am impressed by your knowledge. You are obviously a well read man.

The Greeks gave us a lot, so it’s rather sad to see what's going on that country today. This is what happens when corruption, excessive borrowing, and poor management go on for a long time. The shock waves are being felt throughout Europe. Each European nation is scared of becoming the next Greece!

Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, but the New Testament was written in Greek. This was because Greek was the dominant language of the ancient world at the time. What the New Testament has in its favour is the unprecedented number of copies (more than 5,000) from different geographical locations that have survived and date back close to the original writings. The manuscripts are so remarkably consistent with one another that scholars conclude the New Testament has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5% pure.

I find it rather sad that so many people who are born Christians have so little understanding about the fundamentals of their faith. Very few of them even bother to read the bible. Some are even embarrassed to be Christians and make all sorts of compromises to people of other faiths. In contrast, I find people from other religions like Islam and Sikhism are extremely proud of their religion. Unlike Christians they actually study their scriptures and texts and pose all sorts of tricky questions to the uninformed Christian. If you believe in nothing, you'll believe anything; you're not really in a position to defend your faith.

I used to be a bit sceptical myself about the bible. So I decided to read books, including the bible. The book that really convinced me was "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel. Strobel was an atheist, but after a two year spiritual journey he came to believe in Christ. The book retraces that journey, in which he asks some direct questions to biblical scholars. I recommend the book to anyone. It’s like a modern day defence of the Christian faith.

I'm still learning about my Christianity myself. I'm no expert; but the more I read, the more everything makes sense. I feel this has to come from within individual - it can't be forced. So a little bit of curiosity is healthy. In Acts it says, "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams." Christ is constantly knocking at our hearts. We just have to listen and turn to Him.

I agree Christians in many parts of the world face a tough time. In the west and in Kerala they have an easy time. Often hardship makes people's faith even stronger. Whatever happens, we should not be afraid. If we persevere our reward will be great in the next life.