Saturday, 21 January 2012

The myth of the Greek ‘dark ages’ and the Orientalising revolution

Except the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origins. (Sir Henry Maine)

Robin Lane Fox’s book, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer is a mesmerising account of the journeys Greek traders, settlers and adventurers made across the Mediterranean in the eighth and seventh centuries BC,  their contact with beguiling landscapes and exhilarating stories that helped them explain the origins of the Greek gods and advance Greek civilisation.

Not that Lane Fox’s book is an exercise in wonderment at Greek endeavour or an anthropological quest to explain the origins of Greek myths. Rather, it is an assertion that the so-called Greek ‘dark ages’ were, in fact, quite luminous; that between the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation (1200 BC) and the Archaic Period (800 BC), Greek civilisation was not introverted and lacking in ambition but sophisticated and progressive and the evidence of this is the intrepid seafarers from the island of Evia who, in their journeys to the Near East, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily and Italy – where they mingled with Greeks and barbarians alike –  absorbed what they saw and returned to Greece not with a new culture or new ways of thinking but with a deeper understanding of their own culture and an enhanced appreciation of their distinctive worldview.

Cyprus plays a key role in this narrative, the island’s strong Greek presence providing a natural place for western Greeks to trade and settle, and an ideal launching pad for further Greek exploration of the Levant. Lane Fox doesn’t deny these Levantine adventures left cultural and intellectual impressions on the Evians – it was from Phoenician colonists in Cyprus that Greeks learned the Alphabet – but he does refute the suggestion that this amounted to a Levantine or Oriental colonising of the Greek mind.

The theory that Greece only emerged from its ‘dark ages’ due to an Orientalising revolution, the massive importing and borrowing by Greeks of religion, literature and crafts from Anatolia, Assyria, Phoenicia and Egypt, is most associated with Walter Burkert, who is explicit about his objective; which is to mock the West’s traditional anti-Semitism by showing how Semitic culture shaped Greek and hence Western civilisation. For Burkert, the denial of formative Semitic influences on Greek culture was a calculated act of anti-Semitism devised by 18th and 19th century German classicists.

But for Lane Fox, these modern political considerations fly in the face of the evidence; which is that the East did not come to Greece, it was the Greeks who went to the East and that the Greeks used what they found there not to transform their identity but to embellish or explain what they already knew or believed. Thus, Greek originality and innovation not Oriental influence and models remain the key elements in any narrative on the origins of Western civilisation.

*The video above is the BBC documentary with Robin Lane Fox based on his book. Watch it while you can, before Metacafe takes it down.


Hermes said...

I have been reading Traveling Heroes over the last week too. I have always been skeptical about Burkert's theories because there was simply very little evidence. Lane Fox's theory needs more evidence but it is much more plausible. The whole issue is a perfect example of politics getting in the way of science. The origin of Dionysos is also another interesting example. Many scholars came to believe he was an Asian import. However, more recent evidence concludes that Dionysos was of Greek origin (or the very least of very ancient Greek origin) but the Greeks sometimes gave him a foreign origin because he represented attributes which they deemed to be foreign in certain states of themselves.

As we move further away from WWII and the trend of championing of Jews subsides, there will be other correctives also. Firstly, monotheism is not of Jewish origin. The origin of faith in a single absolute entity or deity began with the Greeks as rationalism acted as a solvent on traditional religion and so paganism tended towards monotheism. Does anybody wonder why Celsus considered Christianity blasphemous because it was not monotheistic? Secondly, the modern obsession of saying the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. Apart from the data, there is not much in Christianity which is Jewish. The early dressing is Jewish but that is about it. Beyond that, the dressing is Greco-Roman and the content is Hellenistic. Speaking scientifically, when we go to Church we are largely partaking in a personalised Neoplatonic mystery religion.

Anonymous said...

Hermes I agree with your first paragraph. But don't you think that you have embarked on a slight flight of fantasy in the second paragraph?

Isn't Christianity as unthinkable without Judaism as Western civilization is without ancient Athens? Isn't monotheism with it's belief in an omniscient and omnipresent god antithetical to the rationalist democratic heritage of Athens?

The Greeks were polytheists to the end. Their world view was inherently humanistic. They believed that man made his own history albeit with a little help from incomprehensible gods. This world view is simply irreconcilable with the epistemological and ontological foundation of monotheism. The Jew believed that truth derived from from god given law that is to be found in the bible and the Torah.The Greek believed that the quest for truth was a hermeneutic exercise undertaken by man unfettered by a priori assumptions about the cosmos.

Can't we accept that our Christian heritage is derived from Judaism? Must we attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable? Judaism is not just "dressing" it is the substantial body which Christianity has dressed with the heavily filtered sauce of Greek philosophy.


Hermes said...

Anonymous, have you read Plato? Monotheistic ideas were gaining currency in Greece before Judaism had developed strict monotheism, whilst they were simply monolatorous. Have you read the Neoplatonists? Have you read Philostratus’s biography of Appollonius? Many Greeks ceased to be traditional polytheists many years before Constantine. Have you read Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity? Judging by what you have written then it is obvious you have not. And why, as you imply, would a God-centred world not be humanistic?

Anonymous said...


You want to avoid the hole you have dug for yourself by raising red herrings. Monotheistic "tendencies" did not exist in classical Greece.

Constantine was emperor 300 years after Christ's death. It should come as no surprise to anyone that by then many Greeks had ceased to be polytheists. Judaism has been in existence for 3000 years and it is the oldest living monotheistic religion. It thus easily predates whatever
monotheistic "tendencies" that may have existed amongst
Greeks before Constantine.

More importantly however Christianity arose from Judaism and not from pagan monotheistic "tendencies". So it is nonsense to talk as you do about Christianity being a Greco-Roman religion with Jewish "dressing".

What is the relevance of the neo-platonists in our discussion ? They came to prominence in the 3rd century
a.d. and to use your expression their influence amounted to applying Hellenic "dressing" to an essentially Judaic monotheism.

I an not interested in whether a god centered society can or cannot be rational and humanistic but the evidence does suggest that Greek polytheism was far more conducive to the development of a humanistic rational society than say Ancient Israel, Byzantium or the Holy Roman Empire. I draw the conclusion that theocratic monotheism's emphasis on god given laws tends to militate against scientific enquiry don't you?

Finally you would do well to carefully read your own sources and not make assumptions about your interlocutor's knowledge.It is a little condescending and makes you sound like a preening panjandrum which I am sure you are not.

Hermes said...

One more thing Anonymous, history is not some children's modern football competition where prizes are given for everyone regardless of whether they have won or lost. If a certain people have not contributed as much as say the Greeks, Romans, Germans and so on then we cannot hand bits of other people's history to compensate. The Skopjan issue is a case in point. Some people say, "Oh let them call themselves Macedonian, even if they have no relationship to the Macedonians, as you Greeks have so much history anyway". Unfortunately, this is not the way it works. The truth is that these people to the north are not Macedonians. Likewise, the Jews were considered a rather pedestrian people in Antiquity, below the Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians and Syrians and slightly above the Scyths. And just because there is a growing strategic cooperation between Greece and Israel it does not mean we should distort history so as not to make them unhappy.

Hermes said...

Unfortunately, for you Anonymous scholarship in this field has moved on from the 1950's. Judaism became monotheistic much later than when you think. Read this article published in Boston University's Arion magazine which summarises a lot of the recent work in the field.

Anonymous said...

You are swinging a little wildly Hermes. I have no truck with cultural relativism, the skopjans nor in saying things for the sake of promoting the Israel alliance.

I just happen to know and believe that Christianity as a body of theology derives from Judaism and not from Hellenic paganism as you seem to believe. In holding that belief I am not for a moment denying that hellenism influenced the development of Christianity.

What I do notice in your argument however is a slightly hysterical desire to create a seamless continuity between Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity and a readiness to deny reality in that quest. Its the kind of national megalomania we see in the Gulem movement and other neo fascist movements that see their past in terms of a seamless and glorious narrative.

Hermes said...

Anonymous, I have provided several updated scholarly references to support my argument, whereas you have provided none.

Again, history is history. Glorious narratives are for nation building or political movements, which in this context, I am not interested going into. In regards to continuity between Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity, neither was there seamless continuity neither was there complete rupture. However, neither was there seamless continuity between Classical Athens and the Second Sophistic period, Myceanae and Archaic Greece, Iconoclastic era and the Macedonian/Comnenon dynasty.

Anonymous said...

Name dropping aside you have provided a couple of references in your penultimate post. I will see how scholarly they are.

But references aside, I have provided you with uncontroversial dates for the origin of Judaic monotheism, Constantine's reign and neo-platonism to refute your argument that Christianity emerged from Hellenic paganism rather than Judaism. You have failed to seriously challenge either the dates or my underlying assertion.

Instead you want to pull out red herrings in order to muddy the waters.

What pray tell has the question of the continuity between pre-classical and classical Greece got to do with my contention that Christianity emerged from Judaism and your contention that it emerged from pagan monotheism? About as as much I dare say as Constantine's reign, neo-platonism or Appollonius.

Anonymous said...

I have just read your one "scholarly" reference and unsurprisingly there is nothing in it that that disputes my uncontroversial assertion that Christianity emerged from Judaism. That it did so in the first century as a jewish sect is beyond dispute; that I need to tell you that is embarrassing.

Hermes said...

The scholarly reference I provided to you was in regards to the monotheism question.

Anonymous said...

Dear Hermes,
Another anonymous I am afraid. Your concept of history suggests you are not a historian. Arthur Marwick in his book "The Nature of History" defines history as humanity's long term memory. Recent research in neuroscience suggests that long term human memory is not reproductive but reconstructing. I am afraid I have to agree with the other Anonymous that Christianity is much more closely allied to Judaism
that Hellinism. Was Jesus not a Jew?

Hermes said...

Apologies for not providing more comprehensive answers but I have been quite pre-occupied. And admittedly, the level of discussion has been poor.
Firstly, Anon made the following comment, “Isn't Christianity as unthinkable without Judaism as Western civilization is without ancient Athens? Isn't monotheism with it's belief in an omniscient and omnipresent god antithetical to the rationalist democratic heritage of Athens?”
I did not say that Christianity was possible without Judaism. Please read more carefully. However, there were a number of moderate and radical Jewish sects preceding and following the birth of Jesus. Why is it that a religion, that initially grew amongst Hellenised Jews, then spread to Gentiles, was reshaped to be probably almost incomprehensible to the original adherents, became the predominant religion of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East (at least for 700 years)? Is it because of the Jews? No, because many Jews did not become believers. There is ample evidence that once Paul took control of the ministries, most of the new adherents were Gentiles. Read the Acts to comprehend the difficulties Paul faced when he engaged with Jews abiding by Mosaic Law. Gradually, Jews turned away from this new religion. Is it because of Judaism? No, because many of the other sects were extinguished and left very little trace apart from Rabbinic Judaism. What made this new religion different than the other Jewish sects and which helped it succeed in a predominantly Greco-Roman world? The one major difference was that it was expressed in a language (Greek), utilized concepts (Heraclitian-derived logos etc), forms of literature (epistles), partially incorporated an ethical outlook popular in the Roman Empire (Stoicism) and even used quotes from Greek tragedy (Euripides). Once this religion moved further into the Gentile world it continued to evolve taking on rituals and practice, figurative imagery (icons and statues), forms of argumentation (Origen, Athanasius etc), metaphysical concepts (Dionysios Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene), bureaucratic administration and governance practices from the Greco-Roman world. One could make a very strong argument that it was the surrounding Greek culture which was indispensable to the growth and ultimate development of Christianity, otherwise Christianity would have remained just another lost sect.

Hermes said...

Secondly, Anon made the following comment, “The Greeks were polytheists to the end. Their world view was inherently humanistic. They believed that man made his own history albeit with a little help from incomprehensible gods. This world view is simply irreconcilable with the epistemological and ontological foundation of monotheism. The Jew believed that truth derived from from god given law that is to be found in the bible and the Torah.The Greek believed that the quest for truth was a hermeneutic exercise undertaken by man unfettered by a priori assumptions about the cosmos.”

One of the most difficult aspects we are confronted when we try to understand the Greek world is its incredible diversity. The Greeks that believed that the quest for truth was a hermeneutic exercise……..were very few. They were usually an aristocratic elite, and much like today, they held views which differed markedly from the average Greek. Do you think that the average Greek from Tarentum thought like that? Or, from Paphos? Or, from Heracleia Pontica? Or, from Alexandria? Do you think the average Greek soldier or farmer partook in hermeneutic exercises? No, the evidence that we have from excellent sources like Oxyrhyncus Papyri shows that they did not. Even Greeks of noble birth like Aelius Aristides and his almost stupid piety towards Asklepius, abided dogmatically with their local or favoured cult.
Thirdly, Anon stated, “I an not interested in whether a god centered society can or cannot be rational and humanistic but the evidence does suggest that Greek polytheism was far more conducive to the development of a humanistic rational society than say Ancient Israel, Byzantium or the Holy Roman Empire. I draw the conclusion that theocratic monotheism's emphasis on god given laws tends to militate against scientific enquiry don't you?”
We are getting sidetracked here. But here goes. The method of scientific enquiry that arose amongst some intellectuals in Miletus, Athens, Syracuse, Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamon was because these intellectuals had moved from away from simple forms of polytheistic practice and belief. If Thales was a complete adherent of polytheism then he would have remained wedded to the idea of the Titans, Cronus and Zeus. Likewise, John Philoponus, Gregory Choniades, Leo the Mathematician, Francis Bacon, Gallileo used the scientific method when they had moved away from Christianity. Often, they claimed there were still fully fledged Christians.

Finally, another Anon stated, “Was Jesus not a Jew” as if to mean just because Jesus was born a Jew then the ultimate development of Christianity was Jewish. Using this logic, all modern scientific findings are Greek because the father of the science, Thales was Greek. Or, Marxism is Greek because Karl Marx was heavily indebted to the Atomists and Epicureans. Or, the theatre of Samuel Beckett is Greek because Thespis invented theatre. Do you see how ridiculous this statement is? If Jesus was to return to this world and attend one of Paul’s sermons he would find some of the things Paul said were odd. If he attended the Nicene Council he would hardly recognize “religion” he supposedly started. If he sat in a monastery with Gregory Palamas and other Hesychasts, he would probably think he landed on another planet. The point I am making is that Christianity changed materially from the sayings of Jesus. In fact, it even changed materially by the time of Paul.

Anonymous said...

I actually read all the arguments. Hermes actually gave references and made an argument. The two anons just relied on canned statements and name calling. And the argument that Jesus was a jew is pretty weak.

The old testament is quite different to the new. The hellenistic influence on the new testament is quite undeniable.


Hermes said...

The Old Testament is significantly different from the New and that is why Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa had to use an allegorical approach to interpret it. The Christians stuck by the Old Testament (despite calls to rid themselves of it such as Marcion) to give their new religion some sense of antiquity, which was important for some believers and to gain acceptance from the Roman authorities. However, they interpreted it in a Hellenistic way, finding meanings in it which were comprehensible to the Greco-Roman world rather than the Jewish world. By the way, pagan thinkers were also using an allegorical approach in interpreting Homer and Hesiod by this time because the encroachment of rationalism and mystery religions made the Olympians appear petty, immature, immoral.

Even the Old Testament shows signs of influence from Hellenism. Isaih, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Daniel show the influence of Hellenism in varying degrees. Before Daniel, Judaism had no concept of immortal soul and salvation. Once they came into contact with Greek Platonic and Middle Platonic theological ideas, they percolated into the Old Testament literature. In fact, many of the internal revolts within Judaism before Christ was because of disagreement over the influence of Hellenism.

Another useful reference is Early Christianity and Greek Paideia by great German scholar Werner Jaeger.

Note, Werner Jaeger is one of the greatest scholars of ancient Greek thought and had the intellectual capability to sustain a complex argument over hundreds of pages. And the issues he dealt with were complex. By the way, his three volume Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture is compulsory reading.

Anonymous said...

Hermes consistently and deliberately understates the influence of judaic monotheism on Christianinty. He wants to exorcise Christianity of what he sees as the odious taint of Judaism by emphasising the influence of Hellenic philosophy on the develpment of early Christianity.

He would have us believe that the Jews provided the rough "data" but is was the Greco-Roman Christians with their immersion in Hellenic culture who transformed Christianity into what it resembles today.

All along in this exchange I have not sought to deny the profound influence of Hellenic culture and philosophy on the development of Christianity.

However to assert as Hermes does that the Judaic influence on Christianity amounted to no more than "dressing" and apart from the "data" "there is not much in Christianity that is Jewish" is plainly wrong.

In fact the most important elements of Christianity derive from Christianity's jewish origin. The Christian concepts of monotheism,genesis,divine revelation, god given laws,redemption,apocalyptism, zealatory,messianism and the notion of the faithful's personal connection with God through prayer, derive from Christianity's Judaic heritage and not from Hellenic paganism.

The reason that Christianity spread amongst the Hellenes was partly because Paul used Greek but more importantly it was because Paul preached a universal Christianity that was no longer restricted to Jews.

Hermes further asserts that Greek rationalism was not understood by the ordinary man. But does he think that stoicism,neo-platonism and other Christian currents were understood by the ordinary Christian. Throughout the ages the prevailing world view of the community has been determined by intellectual elites and not by the "people". However that does not preclude us from characterising a particular community as being guided by the dominant world view of its elites. To paraphrase another influential Jew, in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.

Herme's final point about the compatabilty of Hellenic monotheism and rationalism is misplaced.I was comparing classical Greece with biblical monotheism. One only has to compare the level of intellectual achievement of the Greeks of the classical polytheistic period with the dark dogmatic obscurantism and mysticism that enveloped the Hellenic world following its Christianisation to appreciate the enormous intellectual chasm that opened with the demise of classical Greece and its descent into biblical monotheism.

Anonymous 1.

Anonymous said...

I have just read your most recent post Hermes.

Not everything-thank God- has its origins in Greece.

To assert that Karl Marx was heavily indebted to the Epicureans and the Atomists is stretching it just a bit don't you think?

I would have said that he was more indebted to French Utopian Socialism,German materialism, Spinoza and Hegel. All of these currents have more in common with Judaic teleology and messianism than Epicurus or the Atomists.

Anonymous III

Anonymous said...

Is this an anti semetic blog?

John Akritas said...

Anonymous III: I think you'll find that Marx's indebtedness to Democritus and Epicureanism is quite well established. His doctoral thesis, for example, was on the The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.

Anonymous said...

Yes I know about his doctoral dissertation but one can hardly say that his body of thought is heavily indebted to these currents of philosophy.

John Akritas said...

Actually, Anonymous, I think the point H was making was that because Marx was indebted to Epicureanism – its materialist ethos and so on – doesn't mean we can call Marxism Greek; in the same way, that just because Jesus was steeped in Jewish culture doesn't mean we can call Christianity Jewish.

Hermes said...

Anon, in response to you one of your posts above, I have no agenda. I do not find Judaism odious and if it was the dominant contribution to the Christianity practiced after the Council of Nicaea I would not care. I am merely stating the positions of very learned people.

Before I start, when I refer to Christianity I mean Orthodoxy.

We have already discussed monotheism and I have provided references. I am not quite sure what you mean by genesis as an important element. Arguably, the concept of divine revelation pertaining to God’s role in salvation does not play a large part in Christianity. Salvation in Christianity comes by grace alone through faith in Christ. Again, God given laws play little part in Christianity. Christians do not live under the Law but under God’s grace. Zealotry was a Jewish political movement. A type of Messianism is found in almost all religions including Greek mystery religions. However, it is not really that important in Orthodoxy.

Anyway, most of these are not the key elements of Christianity (I suspect you have been heavily influenced by non-Orthodox Christianity). The key elements are the Trinity and its three persons. The whole conceptual framework and individual elements have absoloutely nothing to do with Judaism. The Incarnation is critical. Obviously, God becoming Man is nowhere to be found in Judaism. Salvation is important, but it comes through Christ, and the ultimate goal is Theosis or Deification. Perhaps this is the most important goal of Christianity. Again, these concepts and the way they are understood have next to nothing to do with Judaism. Resurrection is also important and again this has very little to do with Judaism. Tradition is also important and most of the traditions have pagan roots such as the figurative representation of the Divine. Finally, the Sacred Mysteries (or sacraments) are also critical. Most of these elements are original Christian creations or have roots in the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Or, they have roots in Greco-Roman culture but were altered. For example, the concept of the Logos has roots, as far as we know, in Heraclitan philosophy, but Christianity developed the idea of the Logos Incarnate. Of course, Christian theologians will deny most of these claims because they see the need to source everything from Jesus, the New Testament and the Patristic corpus. However, if we study Christianity scientifically then it cannot be denied.

On the subject of rationalism and monotheism and their incompatibility or compatibility, I think if you read history more comprehensibly you would learn that “dogmatic obscurantism and mysticism” began to envelope the Hellenic world at the expense of skepticism before its Christianisation. One has only to study Middle Platonism (a period when Christianity had either not come into existence or was only a very minor religion) to realize that Greek thinkers such as Maximus of Tyre and even Plutarch, were increasingly focused on Plato’s Timeaus, theological issues and even really silly things like theurgy. By the time, we get to the Neoplatonists this trend is almost completely fulfilled. By the time of Plotinus, Christianity was still a relatively small religion. Some estimates from people like Ramsey McMullen put it at less than 5% of the population of the Roman Empire.