Hellenism was the ancient Greek culture that arose after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It represented a merging of Greek culture with the cultures of the Near East and Southwest Asia. Hellenism had a significant influence on early Christianity as the early church took shape amid Greco-Roman culture.
Here are some key aspects of Hellenism and how they impacted the early church:
Greek philosophy placed a heavy emphasis on reason, rhetorical skills, and discussion. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle set the intellectual stage for more systematic ways of thinking that shaped early Christian thought. For example, Platonism influenced early church fathers like Augustine to see this world as a faint reflection of spiritual realities.
Greek philosophy provided the conceptual framework for more precise Christian reflection on the faith. It offered early Christian apologists and theologians the tools to articulate Christian doctrines like the Trinity and Christology at the Council of Nicaea. However, some Greek philosophical notions also crept into heretical groups like the Gnostics who held to dualistic views of spirit and matter.
Alexander’s conquests established Koine Greek as the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. It was the language of early Christian writings like the New Testament. Koine Greek enabled the spread of Christianity through a shared language. It also allowed early Christian writings to build off a common Greek lexicon and grammatical structure.
The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, also influenced the New Testament authors. About three-fourths of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament come from the Septuagint. The availability of the Jewish Scriptures in Greek aided early Christian apologetics with Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles.
Greco-Roman Urban Culture
After Alexander, Greek urban culture spread across the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Cosmopolitan urban centers like Corinth, Ephesus, and Alexandria shaped the world of the early church. Urban life provided connections, resources, and opportunities for early church leaders.
But pagan temple worship and the patronage system deeply embedded in these cities also presented challenges for early believers. The cosmopolitan culture introduced different beliefs and philosophies that infiltrated the churches. Urban environments brought positive exposure but also heresies and persecutions for the early Christians.
Mystery religions arose across the Hellenistic world in the centuries leading up to Christianity. They emphasized mystical visions, secret knowledge, and ritual purity. Religious groups like the Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries as well as the cult of Isis initiated people into their rites.
The mystery religions shaped early Christian practices like baptism and the Eucharist which also centered on spiritual mysteries. The stirring rhetoric of Christian preachers like Paul also reflected the preaching styles associated with these mystery cults. But early Christians entirely transformed these practices by grounding them in the historical Jesus.
Relation to Judaism
Hellenism also influenced the world of Second Temple Judaism. In the centuries before Christ, Greek culture had infiltrated Jewish society. This eventually led to a backlash by more traditional Jews who saw the Greek ways as threatening.
Hellenistic Jews sought to integrate their faith with Greek philosophy and culture. This Hellenization of Judaism created tensions with Early Christianity seeded within Second Temple Judaism. Debates over issues like circumcision and food laws reflected some of the broader clashes taking place in the Hellenistic Jewish world.
Early Church Responses
The early church contended with how much to accept or reject aspects of Hellenism. Some vocal Christian voices like Tertullian saw little positive contribution made by Greek philosophy and culture. Tertullian asked in Prescription Against Heretics, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”.
But other apologists and church fathers saw the value in engaging Greek thought. Leader like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen argued Christianity fulfilled the aims of Greek philosophy. They found concepts like the Logos helpful for communicating the gospel.
The early church usually rejected elements of Hellenism deemed contrary to Christian doctrine. But Christians also tried to reform and transform Greek thinking in light of the gospel. This engagement with Hellenism led to key developments in theology, apologetics, and worship practices in the early church.
Traditional Greek and Roman religions were still prevalent in the early days of Christianity. Temples to gods like Artemis and Apollo dotted the landscape of cities where the faith spread. Early Christians rejected these polytheistic systems in favor of monotheism centered on the God of the Bible.
Pagan worship practices like idols, divination, sorcery, and sacrifices were denounced by Christian leaders. The pagan temples aimed at glorifying the created order while the early church placed worship solely on the Creator. Christians refused to participate in the imperial cult that venerated Roman emperors as divine.
The exclusivity of early Christianity compared to the syncretism of pagan religions led to clashes within Greco-Roman society. But Christian apologists could also subvert traditional Greek assumptions about the pantheon of gods using philosophy and reason during this era.
Early Church Councils
The early church relied on councils to establish orthodoxy and respond to heretical movements. Major gatherings like the Council of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451) articulated Christian doctrine using Greek philosophical terms.
For example, the Nicene Creed reflects the influence of Greek metaphysical notions in statements about Christ being “begotten not made” and “of one Being with the Father.” The ecumenical councils showed Christianity moving from primarily Hebraic/Semetic thought-patterns to engagement with Hellenistic philosophy and rhetoric.
The church councils also communicated ideas through the common Greek language used across the empire at that time. This reflects the role Hellenization played in the formation of early Christian orthodoxy across geographic and cultural lines.
Rhetoric and Preaching
Greek and Roman oratory and rhetoric served as a major model for early Christian preaching. Public speaking was an esteemed practice in ancient societies. Early church gatherings were shaped by rhetorical patterns and flourishes from skilled speakers.
Preachers like John Chrysostom were influenced by both classical rhetoric and the methods of Greek philosophers. Their application of rhetoric follows in the footsteps of eloquent apostolic preachers like Paul. Communication styles reflect the intersection of biblical proclamation with Hellenistic literary and oratorical preferences.
Art and Architecture
Classical Greek and Roman art and architectural features influenced early Christian iconography and church buildings. Greek aesthetic notions like symmetry, harmony, and idealized human forms were incorporated into Christian artwork and basilicas.
For example, the early iconic images of Jesus often portray him as a noble, philosophic sage. And the basilica design of large Roman public buildings was adopted for early Christian places of worship. Of course, Christian art added its own theological motifs and symbols to distinguish itself from pagan society.
Literature and Poetry
Great literary figures like Homer, Sophocles, and Virgil shaped the Greek-Roman educational system. Early church leaders frequently alluded to and even quoted pagan authors in their writings, sermons, and commentaries.
Christian authors like Prudentius pioneered new forms of expression like lyrical poetry set to music. Other forms of Christian literature also developed like the robust tradition of Roman martyr stories. Even the New Testament writings exhibit rhetorical techniques and linguistic resonance with classical literature.
Science and Medicine
Classical foundations in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine influenced the worldview of early Christians. Thinkers like Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Ptolemy established key principles in the sciences that shaped education within the early church.
Christian perspectives differed from ancient approaches that tended to blur the distinction between science and pagan spiritualism. But a basic appreciation for the natural world and human anatomy present in Greek learning provided common ground for early believers living within the empire.
Education in the Greek and Roman worlds centered on training in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, mathematics, astronomy, and music. This classical paideia curriculum was embraced by both pagan and Christian institutions of learning in the early centuries of the church.
Christians taught pupils the classical liberal arts often paired with biblical instruction. Important early Christian teachers like Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, and Cassiodorusincorporated this Greco-Roman model. It shows Christianity engaging aspects of Hellenism that align with biblical revelation.
Politics and Government
The Greek city-state and Roman imperial system framed how the early church related to secular rulers. As an illegal religion in its first centuries, Christianity did not openly vie for political power or governance.
But Greek political thought and Roman law influenced early Christian reflections on government and the state. Theologians like Augustine pondered the place of divine authority vis-à-vis the temporal realm. Hellenistic views on politics and power were “baptized” to align with biblical principles.
Early Christianity emerged within an ancient economic system utterly dependent on slavery. Greeks and Romans saw slavery as foundational to their social structures. Though the church proclaimed spiritual liberation in Christ, social abolition of slavery was virtually unthinkable.
Some early Christians like Gregory of Nyssa wrote against slavery, but others like Chrysostom upheld it. Given Christianity’s marginal status, the early church lacked opportunity as well as precedent for directly dismantling institutional slavery in the empire.
In sum, the world of early Christianity was fundamentally Hellenized across culture, philosophy, language, and society. The intertestamental period saw a significant synthesis between biblical thought and Greek ideas which continued into the early church period.
Early Christian leaders contended with both the positive and negative implications of Hellenism. At times they strongly rejected elements of Greek culture and philosophy incompatible with Scripture. At other times, they found areas of commonality to build bridges for presenting the gospel.
Through creative engagement, apologetics, and critique, early Christians transformed aspects of Hellenism and offered something radically new to the Greco-Roman world. The positive reception and spread of Christianity was aided by Christians addressing people in familiar Greek-philosophical categories.
The Hellenization of the early church presents complex historical debates and questions. But Hellenistic culture clearly played a major role in the development of early Christianity as it took shape in the dominant milieu of the ancient Mediterranean world.