August 12, 2020

God’s Marvelous, Massive, Messy House

God’s Marvelous, Massive, Messy House
Part 1: A Thousand-Year Foundation

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity has an intriguing subtitle: “The First Three Thousand Years.” Of course, Christianity per se has only been in existence for two thousand of those years. However, it was built upon a foundation laid down in the millennium that preceded its emergence. So MacCulloch does not begin with Jesus to talk about Christianity, but examines the three great cultures that provided the context for the faith and its development: (1) Greece, (2) Rome, (3) Israel.

In terms of religious ideas, it was Greece and Israel together that shaped Christian expression of its faith. MacCulloch puts it like this:

The book conceives the overall structure of Christian history differently, I believe from any of its predecessors. Within the cluster of beliefs making up Christian faith is an instability which comes from a twofold ancestry. Far from being simply the pristine, innovative teachings of Jesus Christ, it draws upon two much more ancient wellsprings, Greece and Israel. …The first generation of Christians were Jews who lived in a world shaped by Greek elite culture. They had to try to fit together these two irreconcilable visions of God, and the results have never been and never can be a stable answer to an unending question.

The importance of Greek culture and philosophy for the development of the Christian faith may be seen in the simple fact that the sacred book of this Second Temple era Jewish sect was written, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in the Greek language. Jesus is the “Christ,” (christos) and the “Word” (logos), and, as MacCulloch says, these words “tell us what a tangle of Greek and Jewish ideas and memories underlies the construction of Christianity.” Throughout church history, theologians of the Christian church have looked not only to their Jewish roots and the stories of the Hebrew Bible but also to Plato and Aristotle in order to explain the mysteries of God and his ways. In fact, the work of historians like N.T. Wright even in our own day reveals that Western Christianity’s preoccupation with Hellenistic ideas over the centuries has often diminished our appreciation for Jesus’ primary connection with Israel’s story.

In the days of Jesus, it was Rome that ruled the world. In the centuries before the beginning of the Common Era, it had transitioned from a Republic to an Imperial Monarchy, and, when Jesus was born, the memory of its miserable seventy-year civil war was still relatively fresh. The Gospel of Luke sets Jesus’ birth in the context of Caesar Augustus’ rule and the Pax Romana for which he received praise. Using imperial language, Luke 2 announces Jesus’ coming as “good news for all people,” bringing “peace on earth.” This baby, like Caesar, was exalted as a royal “savior.” Luke is describing a Christianity that came into the world as an alternative empire. Early Christians were accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7). On the other hand, Christians like Paul were able to make practical use of the Pax Romana and their Roman citizenship to advance the cause of Christ around the Mediterranean. This mixed relationship with imperial power continued for a long time, surviving both severe opposition and persecution as well as benign neglect until the fourth century when Constantine issued his edict of toleration, and later Christianity became the official religion of Rome. The Church became “Christendom,” and it is only in our own day that we are beginning to speak of a post-Constantinian church and the end of Christendom’s rule.

One reason that the story of God’s people is so marvelous, messy, and multifaceted is that our faith, from the beginning, has been so intimately connected, not only with Israel, the fount of God’s revelation to the world, but also with the history, people, and cultures among whom Israel dwelt. We’ve been a motley family from the beginning.

And this is just the beginning of our tour through this labyrinthine household…


  1. Isaac (except when I'm Obed) says

    Regarding the Greek connection, I’m currently reading FF Bruce’s book on the canon of Scripture. Apparently, when St. Jerome first decided to use the Hebrew OT for the basis of his translation of the bible into Latin it was highly controversial and unpopular. The Greek Septuagint had become sacrosanct within the Church by this time. In fact, the only surviving copies of the Septuagint that we still have are Christian versions. The Jewish versions have been lost for centuries. I found that to be very interesting.

    • Isaac/Obed,

      It’s more complicated than there being a “Jewish” version and a “Christian” version of the Septuagint. From my reading, especially of Wright, my understanding was that the 1st century Jewish canon was not entirely fixed. From other sources, particularly ancient ones (I think the first complaint about this was by St Justin in the 2nd century), it seems that, as the rabbis were regrouping after the disaster of the bar Kochba rebellion, translation choices were made which intentionally downplayed things that could be used by Christians as prophetic indicators of Jesus.

      The Septuagint we have today is in fact probably “the Jewish one” that was most widely in use in the 1st century.


      • Isaac (except when I'm Obed) says

        Looking back, my statement was a bit unclear. What I mean is that all of the manuscripts we have are of Christian origin. None of Jewish origin have survived.

        • Isaac (except when I'm Obed) says

          The Jewish canon was definitely in flux up until there really wasn’t any Judaism other than that of the Pharisees (late 1st/early 2nd centuries, post Temple destruction). One of the reasons Jerome was criticized is that the Hebrew Bible (his main OT source) was smaller than that of the Septuagint, as the former did not contain the duetoercanonical books. One of the reasons Jerome downplayed the dueterocanonical books is because they weren’t in the Hebrew Bible as he was taught it when studying Hebrew under Palestinian Jewish teachers. One of the reasons Christians liked the dueterocanonicals was that they had some really beloved Messianic passages. Something I find really funny is that in some of the early Christian canons, a couple of books (e.g. Sirach) were sometimes put in the OT list and sometimes in the NT list, usually because while written prior to Christ, they were modern enough to belong to the NT period.

          As far as the Jewish canon goes, one (way over-simplified) theory is that the Pharisees’ canon (essentially today’s Hebrew Bible) represented the “Babylonian school” while the Septuagint represented the more Hellenized “Alexandrian school,” and the Dead Sea Scrolls were more in use by the Qumran folks in Palestine proper. Due to the great influence of Greek language and culture, the Septuagint probably was indeed the most widely-used among 1st-Century Jews.

  2. Wow….just home and back “in the world” after a retreat at a Francisian Retreat House, mostly me and God and lots of books about Him.

    I’ll have to put this one on my list, but I have some Thomas Merton first in line.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Jewish, Greek, and Roman — the three foundations of Western Civilization.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “God’s Marvelous, Messy House”

    And we don’t like Messy. Must cut it down to something clean and neat — Four Spiritual Laws, TULIP, Dispensationalism, YEC, you name it — until it’s nothing more than a step-by-step engineering textbook we have All Figured Out.

  5. I started reading this book over a year ago and reached page 500 rather quickly. Since then it has sat untouched,but now I will tackle it again. Since Constantine the church and governing powers have gone hand in hand using each other to their own benefit. The French revolution threw out God altogether and thousands died. The United States separated church and state, but kept the Judeo-Christian philosophy to our benefit.Today people invoke religeon to help their pet causes. There is nothing new under the sun. Religeon and Jesus is Lord are not always the same thing!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The French revolution threw out God altogether and thousands died.

      And its direct descendants from St Petersburg to Phnom Penh did the same and millions upon millions died.

      • Don’t forget before the Revolution, there was the little matter of the cruelty of the ancien regime and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And “Men of Sin” will glom onto any Cosmic-level authority — God or Reason or Marx or Science — to get Cosmic-level Justification for what they wanted to do anyway.

          • Well, I haven’t heard of anybody killed by the scientists yet. Well, aside from perhaps killed by the products of science. I’ll definitely sit up and notice when they start firing up the tumbrels for the deniers of the theory of Gravity.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Remember the Eugenics Movement? “Life to the Fit, Extinction to the Unfit”? Very popular in the early 20th Century.

            If it wasn’t for the NSDAP in Germany taking that popular theory and firewalling it to the max, Eugenics and Master Race Theory would still be respectable mainstream science.

  6. It seems like a very readable book, from perusing it at Amazon. At least MacCulloch includes a substantial amount on Orthodoxy.

    The longer I am exposed to the writings of the Greek fathers and the Orthodox Liturgy, the less I believe that Platonism caught hold there. Wright writes that St Paul rejected Platonism, and the “official teaching” that came out of those early centuries of theological struggle continued to reject it. It seems the consensus of the Greek fathers, esp. the Cappadocians, was that Platonism may have had some ideas worth thinking about, but who God is and what he has been up to is actually much bigger. So much bigger that all those brilliant thinkers really struggled with language to even attempt to describe it. There’s a reason, besides it being used universally, that the documents of the church are written in Greek. My understanding is that Hebrew is a very basic language, very down-to-earth, without all that much vocabulary. Greek, on the other hand, is a much more flexible language, allowing for the transferring of Hebrew thought forms into a more expansive vocabulary, with the ability to coin new words to try to express all of this. Words were borrowed and new words were formed from Greek, not as a throwback to Greek philosophy, but with new definitions in the attempt to talk about that which cannot be fully expressed with words.

    ISTM from my reading that if Platonic duality got a foothold anywhere in the church, it has been wherever there is a sharp delineation between “heaven” and “earth”, making them out to be two entirely different places, rather than being, as in Jewish thought, the two aspects, unseen and seen, of Reality.


  7. This post was way too short!!!!!! I kept reading only to be rudely interrupted by it’s conclusion.

    Love it.

  8. “… until AD 312, when Constantine pronounced the upstart faith the official religion of Rome.”

    Incorrect. In 312 AD, Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, which lifted the ban on Christianity. It wasn’t until Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

  9. So, what does one do with this information, that early Christianity was influenced by Greek culture? Is Plato, whose philosophy was so well-regarded by the early fathers, to be excised from Christian thought? In the past few years there has been an attack on the influence of Plato’s dualism in modern evangelicalism, given that the Bible teaches that God’s created world is good, and that the biblical stance is therefore at variance with Plato’s dualism. Are there other teachings ingrained by the early church fathers which must be done away with? If so, then how do we go about that? Surely the faith we have now was passed down through them, and we live in a culture influenced by Greek thought, making this seem a nearly impossible task.

    I mean, how deep does this go? John and Paul both use the Greek concept of Logos to describe Christ – is that up for grabs? If so, how do we go about debating with an apostle? Or maybe this just points out the inadequacy of language…that no matter which culture you’re in and what language you speak, the words and concepts you connect with Christ will never quite describe Him adequately?

    Sorry for the ramblings…I hope at least some pieces of the above paragraphs are coherent…

    • What do we do with this? We continue to learn to recognize the factors that are influencing the way we think and modify our thinking accordingly. As mentioned in the post, I think N.T. Wright provides an excellent example of this. Through his historical and theological work, he has challenged many of our conceptions of Jesus and Paul and encouraged us to think more clearly about them and their mission.

      • Chaplain Mike,

        Thanks for pointing me to NT Wright in regards to my questions. I’ve only read one of his books (they’re quite a commitment!), but clearly I’ll need to dig in deeper to what he says.