The Christian Church emerged from Judaism slowly, over the course of decades.
At the earliest moment we are able to distinguish Christians from Jews, Christians had already laid the foundation and were building their “New Jerusalem” on a shifting system of syncretic beliefs.
The term syncretism[i] is controversial among Christian Scholars, and believers.
I do not use the term syncretism lightly.
It is a term ripe with negative connotations among Christians scholars, and the studied faithful. It connotes, compromise, impurity, heresy.
It is still the mission of Christian apologists, even in the 21st century, to insist that in the Christian witness, the “New Testament,” the writings of the Apostles, and of the apostolic age, something fundamentally new, distinct, and unique was being communicated to the world.
There were some among the people I studied with who would even deny that the teachings of the Church grew out of the historical Judaism. Rather than accept the historical correlates between Christian and Jewish traditions after the common era, they insisted that the “Holy Spirit” gave the Church a new, complete, and perfect systems of belief, with no antecedent in the cultural repository of the Hebrew people, and that any similarities a person might think that they are be able to discern between the two traditions are merely coincidental.
For these scholars, the revelation of Christianity to the world is a divine dispensation. It does not emerge from the Jewish tradition, but corrects it.
For instance, even at the time of Christ the Jewish people had a ritual of “purification by water” for those seeking to convert to the Jewish faith, but these Christian apologists would insist that such rituals bore no relationship whatsoever to the baptism offered by John, in the river Jordan, or the later traditions of baptism practiced among the first generation of Apostles.
They would suggest that the Jewish ritual of water purification merely foreshadowed the dispensation of the Sacrament of Baptism. They would suggest that the Sacrament of Baptism did not emerge from the Jewish ritual, but that the Jewish ritual anticipated the coming dispensation.
While it is true that these traditions were significantly different in practice, the basic premise, that water is a vehicle for ritual purification is at the core of each. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual was a prominent feature of spiritual praxis among the sect of Jews known as the Essenes, who lived in a proto-monastic community, in the desert at Qumran, a community which is strongly identified with both John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth.
It requires a profound act of denial, has always required a profound ability to deny reality, to overlook these facts, and claim that despite these facts the Church in its use of baptism brought something new to the world, a brand-new creation, a-historical and perfect.
Christian apologists in any age might believe that this is a qualitatively more “faithful” position to take.
They are wrong.
It is not.
Faith in the witness of the Church can never be predicated on lies, irrationality, or absurdities.
The Christian Church is a syncretic institution; borrowing language and thought systems, rituals and organization, from every culture it encounters. From the time that Jesus was crucified, to the drafting of Saint Paul’s first letter, the Church was adapting, changing, learning to communicate to an ever-widening audience, synthesizing their diverse beliefs and values, as if they were pulling together thousands of individual threads to form a single piece of cloth.
Good scholarship cannot view this as a negative, because it is true.
Recognition of the truth and abandoning what is false, this is a pillar of the faith.
The Christian Church, emerging as it did from the traditions of the Pharisaic Judaism, is the first great syncretic system of beliefs
This is not a negative commentary.
There is nothing pejorative in these statements of fact. It is merely a statement of what is, the inevitable result of inter-cultural dialogue.[ii]
The Church has handled our natural inclination toward syncretism and synthesis with caution and diligence, too much, always acting to filter our syncretic tendencies, to manage them, to mitigate them, seeking to include and affirm outside ideas only in the narrow light of orthodoxy.
This always involves considerable mental gymnastics, for instance, in the Church’s desire to incorporate the writings of the Hellenistic philosophers, such as; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, into its cannon, the church felt compelled to find in the writing a prefiguring of the coming of Jesus. They found a way to say that, while the great philosophers were not Christians, they were nevertheless visited by the Holy Spirit and given a vision of the coming of Christ, thereby legitimating their work, allowing for its use as a tool in the construction of a Hellenic/Christian world-view.
The record of the Church on this score is one of mixed success, marked by a constant application of effort. Depending on who you talk with, you will get a different idea of how much and to what extent the Christian tradition has syncretized itself with other traditions.
The truth is this; the Christian narrative is one of continuous syncretization, from the myth of the Virgin Birth, to the Saint Constantine’s vision of the Chi-rho at the battle of the Milvian Bridge…and beyond.
There is little that differentiates the customs and rituals of the Christian tradition, after its transformation into the Imperial Church from the traditions of the Indo-European culture that gave birth to it.
At the beginning of the Christian movement, Jews looked at Christians in their own community as people who were guilty of syncretizing their tradition with the customs of the broader Greco-Roman world.
In the time of Christ, the Sadducees (the most traditional sect of Jews in Judea, in the 1st century) would have named any Jew who held a belief in angels or the resurrection of the dead, a syncretizer.[iii] The chief proponents of such doctrines at that were the Pharisees, a sect to which both Jesus of Nazareth, his disciples, and Saint Paul belonged.
In the first century of the common era, Saint Paul is credited with forming most of the Christine communities outside of Judea, his writings, being the earliest in the Christian cannon, formed the core of what became Christian doctrine. From the perspective of traditional Judaism Saint Paul was synthesizing a new religious tradition, not from their own tradition, but from a corrupt and syncretic system of beliefs popular throughout the Ancient Near East and broader Greco-Roman world.
By the Late Fourth century, when Saint Jerome issued his famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he was looking back on 350 years of Christian syncretization with the categories of Hellenistic philosophy, and calling the Church out for what he perceived to be its failing in this regard, criticizing it, and admonishing it, calling it back to what he believed was its true locus, the Jewish faith of 1st century CE.
Saint Jerome was mistaken.
There was no pure form of Christianity true to its Jewish antecedents. The movement to syncretize the Jewish, and then the Christian tradition with the work of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others began at the beginning. It was contemporaneous with the ministry of Jesus. This movement had its finest, most articulate pre-Christian proponent in the person of Philo of Alexandria, in many way, the Christian movement was an extension of Philo’s work.
Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, developed a scheme by which he demonstrated that the figure of Wisdom in the Jewish cannon was analogous to the Word or “rational soul” of Hellenistic philosophy.[iv]
In the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as being both Wisdom and Word. Philo shared the Stoic and Platonic view that all rational beings share in a part of the “rational soul.”[v] In the cannon of Hellenic philosophy, this teaching goes back to Socrates, and Pythagoras.
In the first century of the common era, just after the death of Jesus, after Saint Paul had written his letters and was martyred, but while the books of the Gospel were still being written, the Stoic philosopher turned Christian, Saint Justin the Martyr developed his theology of the Spermatikos Logos.
Saint Justin carried on the work of Philo and the Stoics. He described a system in which Jesus was identified as the Word of God, as the complete and perfect Word. He taught that the Word of God was disseminated into every rational creature. He taught that the principle that we are crated in the Divine Image was this, that each of us bears within us a seed of the Word, and that this seed is the house of reason, and rationality.
Saint Justin syncretized the work of his predecessors with the teaching and traditions of the Church, utilizing the Hellenistic philosophical categories to augment the emerging narrative of sin, the fall, and redemption through the death of Jesus into his schema.
Saint Justin taught, that as rational beings we share not only a similarity to, but in the actual being of God, the creator of the universe. And that despite this fact, nevertheless, sin has corrupted our nature, and cut us off from God who is the source of our being, and therby sin has limited the full development of our potential.
Saint Justin taught that despite our vitiated nature, the seed of the word endures in us, like a seed that lies dormant. People are still able to live rationally, and come into the knowledge truth, but it is a difficult and uncertain process.
Through the categories of Hellenistic philosophy Saint Justin established the foundation of sacramental theology. He taught that we encounter Jesus (The Word) through the sacraments in a mysterious way that activates our true nature.
Like a dormant seed, made to germinate, we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit.
In this way, Saint Justin Christianized those categories of Hellenistic philosophy, while simultaneously Hellenizing the narrative of the early Church.
This is synthesis, it is syncretization.
In the span of years that passed between the lifetimes of Saints Justin and Jerome several Christian theologians rose to positions of prominence through their mastery of Hellenistic philosophy, such as Origin, and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons.
These philosophical systems were used with remarkable effect to fend of rival interpretations of Christianity, loosely referred to as “Gnostic,” and thereby to set standards for what must be considered orthodox, and normative. Saint Irenaeus was the greatest champion of these efforts.
The Gnostic interpretations of Christianity he struggled with, were themselves the product of a different trend in the ongoing process of Christian syncretization with the broader Hellenistic and Near Eastern world, such as the so-called “mystery traditions” and the traditions at the root of the Hebrew Qabalah.
To put it simply:
What prevailed as Orthodox and Catholic Christianity syncretized itself according to the mainstream schools of Greek philosophy.
What was condemned as Gnostic and Heterodox, either took the categories of Hellenic philosophy too far, which was a problem with the popular work of Origin, or they were syncretized in the direction of the Greco-Roman and Persian mystery cults.
While these were the main dividing lines in the Church in that era, every faction influenced every other faction. These thought systems were living traditions of belief. They were dynamic and evolving.
There was a push and a pull, what emerged from the dialog was a compromise, and as with all compromise, it did not fully satisfy anyone.
Hellenistic Philosophy was used by Christians to defend itself from heterodox interpretations of its tradition. They were also used to provide a rational explanation of the Christian movement to the Roman Empire.
Christians adopted the prevalent language and thought system of their day in order to demonstrate that neither Christianity nor Christians themselves posed a threat to the stability of society. Such was the motive behind Saint Justin’s 1st & 2nd Apologies.
In this way, the Church was protected and preserved through its syncretic use of the categories Hellenistic philosophy, even as it was transformed by them.
By the time of Saint Jerome, the Christian Church had so completely identified itself with the categories of Hellenistic philosophy that those categories precipitated major conflict in the Church over the use of single words, such as homoousious vs. homoiousious or Theotokos vs. Christotokos, which were at the epicenter of the Arian and Nestorian schism.
These conflicts led to centuries of bloody warfare, and the breaches in the unity of the Church never healed.
In the time of Saint Jerome, the Christian tradition had crossed the threshold of its second major syncretic transformation. This was not a theological, or a philosophical transformation. This was not a liturgical or ritual transformation, though it should be noted that syncretic transformations in each of those spheres was ongoing and continuous.
The second great syncretic movement was the transformation of the Church, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, into the imperial Church of the Roman Empire.
When Saint Constantine, the first Christian emperor achieved his decisive victory over the armies of his enemies in his quest for control of the Roman Empire, he did it in the name of Jesus Christ, and what it meant to live the Christian life was changed forever.
The battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October, 312 CE) was an epoch defining event.
The transformation of the Church, from the Church of Jesus, to the Church of Rome was not sudden. The emperor, Saint Constantine did not snap his fingers and make it so. It had been happening slowly over the course of generations, and centuries.
Since the time of Jesus, from one generation to the next the changes were gradual. From the beginning of the 1st century in the common era, to the beginning of the 4th century the change was also extreme.
Jesus of Nazareth, murdered by the Romans, executed for treason and sedition, murdered for preaching on the necessity of love, and mercy, and justice, became Jesus the Christ, a godling who brings victory in battle, and the cornerstone of the imperial government.
After the conversion of the Church, the range of vocations that qualified as “Christian” had drastically expanded. The act of filling these new roles: Christian emperor, Christian consul, Christian governor and Christian warrior is what constituted the new phase of syncretization in the Christian tradition according to the cultural norms of imperial society.
Bishops went from being the shepherds of a persecuted minority to being judges wielding authority in ecclesiastical courts, responsible for the prosecution of heresy, holding lands and titles, levying taxes and raising armies.
Bishops and priests went from being promoted by the members of their own community, to being appointed by the state.
The conversion of Saint Constantine and the mythology associated with it, provide an excellent example of the syncretic process at work on a symbolic level, between the state and the church.
In Constantine’s conversion narrative we are able to see the complete synthesis of a religious tradition, Christianity, founded on the story of the life and death of a Hebrew prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, with that of the good old time Indo-European religion, with their pantheon of deities, and their cults of sacrifice.
Prior to Saint Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, even on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was not yet a Christian. He was an adherent of the Celtic cult of Sol Invictus, which was itself a syncretic variant of the Romano-Persian cult of Mithras Invictus, Zoroastrianism.
This so-called “mystery-cult,” the cult of Mithras-Sol Invictus was the most prominent religious tradition among the officers and ranks of the Roman armies. At the beginning of 4th century, roughly thirty percent of Roman citizens had some affiliation with it, approximately equivalent to the number of Christians living in the empire at the time.
On the eve of the battle that brought him his decisive victory, Saint Constantine purportedly had a vision, revealing to him that he would conquer under the sign of Christ, and so he ordered his soldiers to paint the sign of Christ, the Chi-Rho on their shields, and he was in fact victorious.
This event became the justification for transforming the Christian religion into the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Some might like to view Saint Constantine’s conversion as a radical transformation, but it is a murky matter.
This was not divine intervention.
The soon to be emperor made a political calculation.
Saint Constantine’s opponents had seen the burgeoning Church as a threat to themselves and the imperial government. They saw the suppression of the Church as their path to victory, and control.
They were wrong.
Saint Constantine saw the balance of power tipping in favor of the Christians, he saw their strength in urban centers throughout the empire, he witnessed and acknowledged their ownership and control of various systems of social welfare, the most important of which was the grain dole. He courted their favor and threw in with the Christians.
Not only did the Christians come out for him at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, opening the gates of the city for his soldiers, bearing the mark of Chi-Rho on their shields. When the battle was over they exercised their influence in their communities through the empire, backing the new emperor, allowing him to consolidate control.
Beyond the political calculation that Saint Constantine made, it was insightful, his conversion to Christianity was not that remarkable.[vi]
It must be noted that, in the first three centuries of the common era, there had been an affinity between Christians and members of the cults of Mithras-Sol Invictus.
This affinity went beyond a basic philosophical agreement about the nature of reality, good versus evil, salvation and redemption, Christians and the members of these cults shared seach other’s worship spaces and participated in each other’s liturgies.[vii]
There is evidence that some groups of Sol/Mithraites identified Jesus as Mithras or Sol, seeing the Invictus (the unconquered son) in the risen Christ, believing that they were the same entity.
Given this context, it must be note that even though Saint Constantine gave credit for his decisive victory to Christ, when he was crowned emperor, the coins that were struck to commemorate the event bore his countenance with the inscription Sol Invictus.
This is an example of Saint Constantine’s self-identification with Sol, the Celtic solar deity. His simultaneous embrace of the Christian Church indicates that he also identified Mithras-Sol Invictus with Christ, and we must allow for the probability that Saint Constantine confused himself with Christ as well.
In Saint Constantine’s mind, he was an incarnation of Sol, of Mithra, of Christ. He took their birthday as his own, December 25th. He saw himself as the second coming of Christ, as the Invictus, the Unconquered Son.
Saint Eusebius was the chronicler of Saint Constantine’s life, as well as the dramatic transformation of the Church during the emperor’s reign, including the first plenary council of the Church at Nicea c. 318 CE.
Saint Eusebius hails the rise of Saint Constantine, and explicitly depicts the transformation of the Christian Church, into the state of Christendom that became the Holy Roman Empire, as the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, as a moment of eschatological triumph for the Church.[viii]
Saint Eusebius interpreted the events of Saint Constantine’s life this way, either because he genuinely believed it to be true, or to flatter his emperor. It does not matter which it was. It is consistent with the thinking Saint Eusebius’ expresses, to see Saint Constantine in the role of Christ! For Saint Eusebius, the emperor is the Messiah, returning to usher in the New Age.
Like other Caesars before him, the syncretic transformation of Saint Constantine the emperor, into an allegory of Christ Invictus, represents deification, uniting the ancient imperial pantheon of the state with the new religion institution of the Christian Church. In that moment the new synthesis of Church and State was both symbolically complete, and complete in reality.
This is a seminal event, in it the pattern of syncretization changes.
The growth and spread of the Church is now modulated in accordance with the reality that it has become an apparatus of imperial government.
The Pontifex Rex, an ancient title and station, once held by the head of the Imperial Pantheon, and since the time of Julius Caesar, held by the reigning emperor, was a title now given to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, the Papa, and the synthesis was complete.
[i] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/syncretism Syncretism: The combining of different religions, cultures, or ideas; an instance of this: We are seeing a new syncretism that is uniting parts of different religions.
[ii] David Krieger, The New Universalism, Foundations for a Global Theology, The Faith Meets Faith Series, An Orbis Series in Interreligious Dialogue, General Editor Paul Knitter (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 20.
[iii] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, v. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1984), 10.
[iv] The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Philo, 592; also, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Philo, 1297, for a list of his writings.
[v] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, v.1, 13.
[vii] Please see, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, by Leroy A. Campbell, published by E. J. Brill, 1968. Mithraic Studies, edited by John R. Hinnells, published by Manchester University Press, 1975. Mithraism in Ostia, edited by Samuel Laeuchli, published by Northwestern University Press, 1967. The Mithras Liturgy, edited and translated by Marvin W. Meyer, published by Scholars Press, 1976. Mysteries of Mithras, by Franz Cumont, translated by Thomas J. McCormack, published by The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, published by Oxford University Press, 1989.
[viii] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, v. 1, 133 – 135.