Hellenism: Center of the Universe

Hellenism: Center of the Universe

Satan tempted the first humans in the Garden of Eden in a clever way. "Did God really say...?" (Gen. 3:1) he asked. Adam and Eve were faced with an earthshaking choice. Who or what is the ultimate source of truth in the universe. God's command, "you must not eat from the tree..." (Gen. 2:16) was unexplained. It was to be accepted simply because God was God. Obedience would demonstrate that in spite of the nearly total freedom God had given them, the humans acknowledged him as the Lord of the universe. But for some reason the temptation to see themselves as the ultimate authority in the world was significant. "We can decide for ourselves, We know what is right and best for us, we don't have to depend on God for our own minds can determine the proper course of action" they apparently reasoned. They responded as Satan hoped. They crowned themselves as the ultimate in the universe free to determine their own actions and even God's. The stage was set. A battle was joined which would dominate history until the final act in which all will again acknowledge the true Lord of all (Dan. 7:13; Rev. 7:12). That battle was raging when Jesus sent his followers into a secular pagan world and it rages today.

Hellenism: A View of The World

The cultural tradition of the Greeks is called Hellenism. Many schools of thought made up Hellenism. There were Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans each espousing a differing interpretation of the world around them. Some elements of these philosophies would have great impact on Christianity in the future. Declaring the physical world to be transitory and evil and the spiritual world eternal and good Greek philosophy provided the background for the development of the monastic movement, which encouraged the discipline of the body to free the spirit. Greek emphasis on the rational mind created a tendency in Christianity to emphasize knowledge at the expense of obedience.

Hellenism as a worldview is based on a belief that human beings are the ultimate source of truth and authority in the universe. ?Man is the measure of all things of what is and what is not,? said the Greek philosopher Protagoras (481-411 BC). This philosophy provided the foundation for a culture devoted to the supremacy of human beings and human accomplishment known as Hellenism. Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean world not simply for empire building but to convert the known world to the worldview he consider superior to all others: Hellenism. His successors had the same agenda as did the Romans whose empire succeeded the Greeks. In this Hellenistic world Greek language became the language of the educated. Schools were organized according to the Greek model. Libraries were established to collect and disseminate Hellenism writings. Art and drama were popular media to present the Greek philosophy in all its glory. The Greek educational system was effective, instilling Greek ideals into entire cultures. Busts of Greek gods and heroes celebrated the ultimate ideal: the human form. People read Homer, Euripides, and Plato to absorb the man centered values. The gymnasium (school), the theater, the baths, the stadia, and the temples all presented Greek way in all its implications and practices.

The high level of learning and human accomplishment brought about by the Greeks was very attractive to people of Bible times. The flowering of culture, architecture, medicine, and the latest technology proved irresistible to many people. Hellenism became the accepted way. Since the human being was the ?measure of all? people believed that human wisdom is the greatest wisdom. What cannot be understood or explained by people must be true. Human accomplishments in athletics, the arts, and architecture became the motivating drive of society. The human body was considered the ultimate in beauty so nudity in art, in the baths, and in sports was acceptable and even expected. Accumulation of the greatest of material things to provide luxury and comfort for ones self?the ultimate in the universe after all?was considered the normal pursuit of ones life. Anything to improve the quality of human life. Since humans are the ultimate reality, the ultimate human was the greatest of all. To be the best, better than all others at any pursuit was life?s great goal. What could be more natural than to get the most out of life for one?s self?

The Greeks tried to build their society on their gods. Their gods though greater in power were little different in character from the people who worshipped them. They were glorified humans: deities created in their own image. This meant that the foundation of their society "their worldview" came from their own imagination. Their gods were not an objective basis for truth or right. Their value system had no basis outside their own desires. In spite of having dozens of gods, they really worshipped themselves as the god creators. They had nothing bigger than themselves on which to base their society. Their society eventually collapsed under its own decay.

Christianity was different. Its worldview was based on an objective point of reference;God. His revelation became the source of their vision of society and the basis for knowledge, right and wrong and even truth itself. The values that resulted were absolute, agreed upon by all Christians, and universal. They formed a strong basis for the dignity of each person created in God's image. This is a very relevant fact for our own world. Once God and his truth is rejected as an objective source for what is right or correct, a society creates its own and eventually each individual their own. Since there is no common ground, a society cannot exist for long. It will collapse under the weight of a self-centered population, each person using others for their own benefit. It will not survive as the Greeks and Romans did not survive. They wasted away, in their own obsession with pleasure and increasing perversion as each person determined that what I want or like or desire is right and good for me and don't tell me otherwise. The battle begun in Eden is lost again.

Jewish Resistance to HellenismAlexander the Great brought Hellenism to the Jewish people in 330 BC. when he conquered Judea. For the next two hundred years, the Jewish people were part of Hellenistic kingdoms. Much of Jewish aristocracy was attracted to the new way of thinking. Greek Institutions like the gymnasium were founded in Jerusalem. Toleration of the pagan Greek religious practices was encouraged. But many Jewish people recognized Hellenism as antithetical to the Bible. Humans were not the ultimate in the universe:God is. Life is not to be lived for self but for him. The ultimate in beauty is what God has created. Truth is what God has revealed and allowed people to discover. Whether understood or not his Word is not questioned. The rise of groups like the Hasidim (pious) and the Pharisees was a reaction against the Hellenism that threatened the Biblical view. Faithful Jews who would not compromise their religious commitments led the Maccabee revolt (167 BC) against the Seleucid Greeks. Unfortunately, the Maccabees and their descendants soon adopted Hellenism themselves. The Sadducean priesthood similarly combined Hellenistic lifestyles with serving God in his house. The Pharisees reacted bitterly to blending such antithetical beliefs. They taught "either God is Lord and his word is truth or the human mind becomes God." They detested the Sadducees for their compromise. When King Herod (37-4 BC) built a Greek theater, an amphitheater where Jews and Greeks wrestled naked the zealots (an extremist Pharisee group) resisted violently.

While the religious Jews resisted Greek culture much of the rest of the world did not. When the Spirit filled disciples left Jerusalem for Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, the people to which they went were living Hellenistic lives convinced that they were the authority in the universe and their minds the arbiters of truth. Paul, trained in Jewish thinking as a Pharisee, committed to God's sovereignty in the universe wrote to an audience in Corinth steeped in Hellenism. I was sent "...not with words of human wisdom," he wrote. "Greeks look for wisdom...but we preach Christ crucified...foolishness to Gentiles... For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:17-31) (Note that 1 Corinthians 1 is an indictment of a Hellenistic world view. God's truth, though it may seem foolish is true wisdom. Human wisdom, though appearing wise is often foolishness. Paul urges the converts to adopt the Biblical view of reality.) Presenting God?s truth about Jesus would ignite a war of worldviews that began in Eden. But God?s truth, because it is truth, would prevail in Asia. However, not without courageous effort on the part of the believers and not without the pain of frequent compromise with the very worldview they would confront.

The Gymnasium

The educational institution of the Greeks was the gymnasium, a word based on the word gumnos or naked. Originally devoted to athletic competition it eventually was dedicated to the development of the intellectual and physical aspects of Hellenism. A gymnasium was normally composed of three parts. The palaestra where physical exercise took place was a large open area with a sand floor. Nearby were rooms for exercise, bodies massages and oil treatments that followed the physical exercise. Training included calisthenics, the development of various parts of the body, cardiovascular training for endurance as well as major sports especially wrestling, boxing, jumping, and discus and javelin throwing. The athletes were nude without separation of the sexes. This helps to explain the negative view religious Jews had toward the gymnasium. During the time of the Seleucid occupation of Jerusalem the Sadducees were drawn to the activities of this Hellenistic institution. The writer of the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees describes the gymnasium set up next to the temple in Jerusalem by the High Priest Jason. His account of the priests abandoning their service at the altar to watch the games (which the writer considers immoral) illustrates the opposition to this institution among the god-fearing Jews (1 Maccabees 1:13-15; 4:14). Young Jewish men began to frequent the gymnasium and to participate in the games. Since circumcision effectively barred them from public competition because of the Greek glorification of the body, many chose to have their circumcision surgically hidden so their bodies would not be marred. The activities of the palaestra were usually devoted to the God Hermes making them even more offensive to those who followed the Torah.

The second area of the gymnasium was the didaskaleion where the academic subjects were taught. Usually there were classrooms around the outside of the physical training area (palaestra) used for this instruction. Education was in three stages: primary, where boys and girls learned to read and write (from Greek philosophy); secondary, where young men and women studied the Greek classic writings to mold their thinking, and math and music; and higher education for men from wealthy families to study one of the schools of philosophy and medicine or other disciplines. Every level included the physical training in the palaestra as well. The educational training was not neutral but designed to convince the students of the superiority of Hellenistic culture and to instill its values and lifestyle in them.

The Romans added the third element of the gymnasium?the baths. In fact during this time (100 BC-300 AD) the institution was know as a gymnasium bath because they always occurred together. There were usually three baths: hot (caldarium), warm (tepidarium), and cold (frigidarium). There were also changing rooms, massage rooms and latrines. Here the students could relax, go through the series of baths, a proper health practice. Because of the nudity and the mixing of the sexes, religious Jews considered these practices immoral and more than one rabbi warned the people to stay away from the immorality of the baths.

Usually the gymnasium included religious shrines to the gods to whom the institution was devoted. This could be a special room or courtyard or even a small temple. Many had special courts for the emperor worship. The enormous gymnasium in Sardis and the Harbor gymnasium/bath in Ephesus have spectacular courts to honor the emperor. Before training, physical or academic, the students offered allegiance, some sprinkled incense on the altar in front of a statue of the emperor, to the one who was the guardian of the truth. This was certainly consistent with the view of Hellenism that exalted the human to the pinnacle of the universe. It also made the gymnasium offensive to the God-fearer. In addition, many gymnasia had temples or courts for Hermes and Herakles who were the gods of physical culture and exercise. They too required the allegiance of the students. The gymnasium was not a neutral place but an institution carefully designed to propagate the Greek worldview.

The Bible does not mention the gymnasium though it was a significant institution of from 300 B.C. until well beyond the New Testament time. Paul hints at its existence in his letter to his friend Timothy writing, "For physical training is of some value..." (1 Tim. 4:8). The expression "physical training" is based on the Greek root word for gymnasium. In addition he used metaphors (1 Cor. 9:24-27, boxing and physical training; Gal. 2:2;running; Gal. 5:7;running; Phil. 2:16;running) activities taught in the gymnasium and not in the synagogue school of the religious Jews. Paul also writes that the law (Torah) was put in charge to lead us to Christ using the Greek word paidagogos also used to designate the slave attendant who accompanied the students from wealthy families to tutor them in the lessons they received from their teacher (Gal. 3:24). These texts make clear that Paul's audience, both Gentiles and Jews in a Hellenistic Roman world were familiar with the Gymnasium. Whether they participated or not is an interesting question. Could one participate in an institution devoted to the view that the human being is the ultimate in the universe? Was it acceptable to learn anything; physical exercise, math, reading, science, which was based on this premise? Religious Jews said no. There is no record of the reaction of the early Christians to the gymnasium but one would like to believe they established alternative education systems based on the truth that God is supreme and only truth built on his truth is valid. At the very least, the believers must have vehemently resisted the Greek worldview found in the gymnasium.

Hellenism Today

Today Hellenism has taken on a new face...in some ways a more honest face. It is called Humanism. Nevertheless, it's worldview is the same. The human being is the ultimate in the universe. Truth is that which the human mind can discover, demonstrate and understand. Creation is not a believable viewpoint because it cannot be proven so evolutionism reigns. The glorification of human accomplishment, the drive to be number one, the obsession with comfort, pleasure, and self, the focus on the human body and sexuality, the lack of compassion and sympathy for others, the commitment to the will of the majority (of humans) as being right all are built on a foundation as old as the Garden of Eden and first articulated by the Greek philosophers. The phrases that describe our culture could have come from Asia where the gospel first reached. If it feels good just do it...because who can tell you that it is wrong for you? You deserve a break today but since when does any sinful human deserve anything? I have the right to choose for my own body. Since when is it "my" body? Doesn't everything belong to God?

The gymnasium of our world is our education system. Unfortunately, many people believe that public education is neutral in our culture. Unfortunately it is not. It is based on the modern form of Hellenism called humanism clearly descended from the human centered worldview of the Greeks. Truth is defined as that which each person can logically understand and demonstrate (or at the least that which the majority decides is right), human accomplishment is the ultimate goal with ultimate focus on the self (the strongest human survives after all) and where there are no ultimates (except that it is up to humans to decide there are no ultimates). Protagoras still lives: "man is the measure of all things." The battle of Eden continues. What will be the response of the people who know the truth and the lie? That remains to be seen.

We live in the same world as the early missionaries did. The great task of the believer is to live in a world where humanity is deemed supreme and declare in life and in speech how false that view is. God alone is supreme. The great danger is that we may compromise and live as Humanists (read Hellenists) and lose the opportunity to witness to our world.