Gospel & Universe

Currents of Christianity

This page summarizes proven and speculative influences on Christianity, as well as the major schisms and challenges of the last millennium

Influences - Greeks and Romans - The Multiplication of Truth 


Christianity was shaped by Levantine accounts of a man named Jesus, yet these accounts surfaced amid the politics and prophecies of Jewish religion, culture, and history, all of which were staunchly at odds with the polytheism of the Ancient and Classical worlds. In this section I will touch on some of the other influences on Christianity, starting with the least obvious ones. I don't pretend to be expert in these very difficult histories, yet I want to suggest some of the possible sources and influences that often get forgotten when we think about the originality of Christianity. I also want to question why some influences get ignored while others don't.

It's quite possible that both Judaism and Christianity may have been influenced by Egyptian and Zoroastrian ideas about the afterlife. Like the Mesopotamians, the early Hebrews believed in a shadowy, grim afterlife, which was close to no afterlife at all. At some point this bleak scenario brightened, perhaps influenced by Egyptian beliefs in 1) a journey after death to a place of judgment, and 2) an afterlife in which the soul either lives in a heavenly state (in a garden or in the sky) or dies in fire.  

Persian Zoroastrianism may also have had an indirect influence on the development of Judaeo-Christian thought. Based on early Indo-Iranian religion and on the teachings of the obscure figure Zoroaster or Zarathustra (c. 1000 BC), Zoroastrianism contains the following:1) a supreme being (Ahura Mazda) who wins a cosmic battle over a satanic figure (Angra Mainyu), 2) free will to choose good or evil, 3) the notion that you sow what you reap, 4) an afterlife journey (over a bridge) at which point the soul is judged, and 5) the belief that everyone will eventually be redeemed from their sins (this includes even the worst of sinners, as with the early Christian thinker Origen). The influence of Persian thought isn't clear in the Bible however, despite the Persians being held in much higher regard than the Babylonians (during the very powerful Persian Achaemenid Empire -- 550-330 BC -- Cyrus the Great liberated the Jewish people and is therefore lauded in the Old Testament).

Frieze of Archers from the Palace of Darius I in Susa, Achaemenid Persian period ...

Frieze of Archers from the Palace of Darius I in Susa, Achaemenid Persian period ...

The scope of the Achaemenid Empire: in green Cyrus II (559-530 BC), in blue Cambyses II (530-522 BC), and in crimson Darius I (521-486 BC).

The scope of the Achaemenid Empire: in green Cyrus II (559-530 BC), in blue Cambyses II (530-522 BC), and in crimson Darius I (521-486 BC).

... reign of Darius I, c. 510 BC, from the Louvre (Wikimedia Commons)

... reign of Darius I, c. 510 BC, from the Louvre (Wikimedia Commons)

It's hard to pin down the influence of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia on Jewish thinking. It's also hard to see what influences these civilizations had on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, that is, on the Christian tradition seen as an offshoot of Judaism. For instance, to what degree did the figure of Osiris influence the idea of Jesus as a risen god? Finally, it's hard to see what influences they had on Christianity in the late Roman world, which was rife with polytheistic religions and philosophies.


Greeks and Romans

On the other hand, it's much easier to see how the accounts of Jesus were influenced by two cultures that permeated the eastern Mediterranean: Greece and Rome. One example of Graeco-Roman influence can be seen in the Neoplatonism of Saint Augustine, author of City of God, which was written after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD. In this work, Augustine argues that while Rome may be sacked, the spiritual reality Rome represents can never fall. We sit here in this physical world in front of our desks (like Augustine in the image below) yet above us there's a spiritual world. In Plato, too, there's a higher realm of Ideas or Forms (in which, for instance, one can find the permanent idea of a desk). 

This can be a liberating vision, yet it can also mean that this world is secondary, and that we all must conform to the Ideal Realm -- and to the way certain people conceive this Ideal Realm. In his early years, Augustine argued for Manichaeism and Neoplatonism. In his Confessions, (397-400 AD) he says that when he was young he pleaded with the Lord to make him chaste, yet not quite yet (Confessions 8:7). In his later years, he argued against different views of Christianity and was a key figure in the articulation and advancement of the doctrine of original sin.

Augustine was a Latinized Christian from North Africa (he seems to have had Berber and perhaps Phoenician blood) who wrote in Latin but wrote Greek imperfectly. This is an important point since the Roman world was crumbling and the Greek world was still extremely influential culturally and philosophically, as it had been for the last thousand years. The Greek world still had enormous influence in southern Italy: the Greeks founded Syracuse in Sicily in 600 BC and influenced southern Italy throughout the Roman Empire. Greek Constantinople also became the centre of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome. 

By Augustine's time, numerous councils had already established Christian doctrine. Some early Church fathers were silenced, forgotten, or excommunicated -- for instance, Origen, who believed in universal redemption, transmigration of souls, and the superiority of the Father (God) to the Son (Jesus). 

In North America and Western Europe people often think of Christianity as coming from Israel and Rome, an historical trajectory that split Europe (and the Americas) into a Catholic south and a Protestant north. No doubt Rome is central: the Empire of Rome directly influenced the Catholic Church -- for example, Latin as the language of the Church and scholarship for over a thousand years, as well as such things as diocese (a Roman administrative division) and pope (from Pontifex Maximus, the head of the college of priests in Ancient Rome). Yet Greece is an even more crucial player in the development of Christianity (in addition, of course, to the development of the Eastern Orthodox churches). 

Greece was a staging base for much of early Christianity. Greek language and culture was current in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of Jesus. Many of the earliest gospels appear to be written in Greek, and were certainly disseminated in Greek. Greece was also home to many Hellenized Jews and early Christians. After Paul of Tarsus (Saul in Hebrew) converted to Christianity, he wrote much of the New Testament in Greek. He travelled to many cities in Greece (which included the Western coast of what's now Turkey) and addressed many of his letters, such as Corinthians and Thessalonians, to the Christian communities there.

The Conversion of Saul , fresco by Michelangelo, 1542–45 (Wikipedia)

The Conversion of Saul, fresco by Michelangelo, 1542–45 (Wikipedia)

(Map from sothl.com)

(Map from sothl.com)

The influences on Christianity can’t be summed up so easily, although I think it's important to remember that Hebrew culture, with its deep antagonism to Mesopotamian culture, is crucial to the foundation of Christian attitudes. It's difficult to say how Christian thought was influenced, indirectly or in reaction against, by such things as 1) Zoroastrianism, which prevailed during the Achaemenid Empire that dominated the Middle East from 550 to 330 BC., 2) the dualism of the Gnostics and Manichaeans, or 3) the rites and mysteries of Mithraism. It's also important to remember, especially in the Americas and Western Europe, that Greek culture and language were crucial 1) to the articulation and dissemination of the gospels, 2) to the early foundation of doctrine, both in the use of earlier Greek thinkers like Plato and in the formulation of specific doctrines, and 3) to the Church in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, particularly i) after Rome's collapse, ii) during the Byzantine Empire, and iii) in the development of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. For instance, the Macedonian Cyril evangelized in Eastern Europe and helped to devise the earliest version (Glagolitic) of the Cyrillic script, which was later augmented by Greek letters and is still in use today. 

The origins of Christianity is an enormous and difficult topic, and I certainly don't pretend to understand it in a scholarly way. What I want to suggest, however, is that Christianity has historical roots and that it picks some strains of thinking and eliminates others. The resulting doctrine isn't a divine inevitability, but rather a function of geography and history, and of the choices made by individuals and councils, especially in the late Classical Age. My complaint is that Christianity could have accepted diverse perspectives, like those of Origen or Zoroaster, and could have insisted on diverse definitions of God. It could have allowed many ways to personal liberation, or salvation. It could have allowed each person to freely choose which path seemed right for them. It could have made principles such as honesty, openness, or the golden rule more important than belief -- and in particular, more important than belief in things we cannot see or verify. 

In general, however, it did none of these things.



The Multiplication of Truth

M    E    D    I    E    V    A    L     MODERN
                        Eastern Orthodox
500 The Church 1000                     1500  
                         Roman Catholic + Protestant

Three major changes altered the overall structure of Christianity in the Medieval and Modern Ages.

1. The Eastern Church (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) separated from the Western Church (Catholic) and finalized this division around 1054. This is referred to as The Great Schism.

2. The Protestant Revolution (or Reformation) divided Western Europe into a largely Catholic south and a largely Protestant north.

3. The third change, Modernism, was more internal and more challenging to the basic doctrines of all three branches of Christianity. Starting during the Renaissance, Modernism brought together two powerful historical currents: humanism, which focused on human activity as opposed to divine revelation; and science, which supplied a practical and theoretical framework that directly challenged the religious framework of the Middle Ages. By the 19th Century, astronomy, geology, and biology supplied specific proof that the Church’s view of time and space did not make sense: the astronomical observations of Brahe, Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th to 17th Centuries showed that the earth’s rotation around the sun contradicted the Bible's notion of a geocentric universe; geological evidence lead James Hutton at the end of the 18th Century to argue that the earth was older than the Bible indicated; and finally, Darwin's biological theory of natural selection, published in The Origin of Species (1859) made the Bible's Creation story sound like a fanciful myth. One must add to this the devastating effect of a deeper understanding of other religions and comparative mythology, begun in the Renaissance and deepened in the 19th Century by Orientalists such as Sir William Jones and Max Müller, and by Assyriologists such as Edward Hincks (who helped decipher cuneiform in the 1850s). For many thinkers in the 20th Century, especially once genetics and the Big Bang were added to the picture, the Biblical stories about our origins sounded more and more like what I believe they were in the beginning: a combination of tribal history and mythology.



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