Hellenistic culture

Christianity of the first centuries can be understood only in relation to the place of the metropolis in Hellenistic culture and in the social and political life of the Roman Empire. With Athens and Antioch, it was one of the three hubs of Greekspeaking culture and thus a primary center of philological, philosophical and theological study. Greek-speaking Hebrew culture also arose and developed in Alexandria, producing the Septuagint and the work of Philo. Socially and politically, Alexandria was a perfectly Greek island, deliberately created within the territory of the old Egyptian Empire for the purpose among others of controlling the exploitation of the latter’s agricultural and commercial riches in the best way possible. It was inherited by the Roman government as such, and it also sheltered a strong Jewish colony. Its relations with the Egyptian population of the Nile valley were consequently varied and complex, changing with different historical periods. Clearly Alexandria must have been an early target of Christian propaganda. The tradition accepted even by Eusebius, HE II, 15, 1 ascribes the earliest preaching to Mark the evangelist, Peter’s disciple, but this cannot be confirmed though, see Oden; in fact, the development of the Christian church is totally obscure until the end of the 2nd c. Beginning with Demetrius bishop 188 231, documentation actually becomes abundant esp. Eusebius of Caesarea, and we find a well-formed ecclesiastical organization which must therefore have been in place for some time, and a very important theological catechetical school. The silence surrounding origins is conjectured by some as being due to the fact that the Alexandrian church was of a gnostic character. Not a few gnostic texts in fact must be traced to Alexandria, some of which survive in Coptic translations of 4th-5th-c. MSS see Nag Hammadi. Other factors tend to exclude this hypothesis C.H. Roberts, Manuscripts, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, Oxford 1979. The Alexandrian theological school moved in the world of Late Antique Platonism its main exponents being Clement, Origen and Didymus the Blind and thus of international Greek culture, but recent contributions also identify an influence on some of the monastic movements that developed beginning late 3rd c., esp. the group of Scete and Kellia, whose principal figures were Macarius of Alexandria and Evagrius of Pontus, but also Anthony himself see S. Rubenson, The Letters of St. Anthony: Origenist Theology, Monastic Tradition and the Making of a Saint, Lund 1990 and the group of the Pachomians see J. Goehring, Ascetics, Society and the Desert, Harrisburg, PA 1999, 137-186. Organizational relations within the Nile valley were rather tortured. Although the bishop of Alexandria was always recognized as the undisputed head of the whole Egyptian church, his behavior also aroused movements of criticism and rejection. The first of these known to us developed during the last great persecution, that of Diocletian and Maximian, during which Peter went into hiding and Melitius, bishop of Lycopolis and perhaps his official representative for S Egypt, for a while acted as Peter’s substitute without his authorization. Peter condemned Melitius, and a schism began that caused many troubles even for Athanasius, continuing until the 7th c. The great Alexandrian patriarchs of the 4th and 5th c., Athanasius, Theophilus and Cyril, conducted an active ecclesiastical policy toward the other imperial metropolises, dominating the ecumenical councils of Nicaea Athanasius took part as Alexander’s secretary, Constantinople and Ephesus. They were actively supported by the monks, who both within and without the country acted as something of an assault force for them. The Council of Chalcedon 451, however, saw the defeat of the Alexandrian bishop Dioscorus, signaling the decline of Alexandria’s dominance. The Egyptian church had to submit to the sending of Chalcedonian bishops named by the emperor of Constantinople and backed by the army; whenever possible they opposed these with their own bishops until, with the Arab invasion 641, the autochthonous Coptic Orthodox Egyptian church became the church officially recognized by the state. T. Orlandi II. School. Regarding culture as well, the Christian origins of Alexandria are wrapped in obscurity. Apollos, collaborator and rival of Paul, is for us little more than a name, and there is no serious basis for placing at Alexandria works of unknown origin such as the letter to the Hebrews; attribution of the Epistle of ps.-Barnabas to Alexandria is also hypothetical. A Jewish Christian influence over this nascent culture can easily be hypothesized, but it certainly must have been less than in Asia. The sparse evidence we have does allow us to hypothesize a virtually absolute cultural dominance of the gnostics for a good part of the 2nd c., especially of those who professed more philosophically elaborate doctrines and were also the most Christianized Basilides, Valentinus and disciples; this is not surprising if we consider how the culturally syncretistic tendencies of the gnostics harmonized with the intellectual vivacity of cultured Alexandria and the different influences at work there Greek philosophical doctrines, Hellenized Judaism, Eastern religions, apocalyptic literature. Gnosticism presented itself as a kind of superior knowledge with respect to that of the ordinary Christian and thus took hold, esp. among the more cultured and intellectually ambitious of Christian society, who were also those of higher social status. Contact between orthodox and heterodox gnostic Christians was a daily reality in such circles, as is shown by the episode of the young Origen, the rich matron and the gnostic Paul in Eusebius Only toward the end of the 2nd c. did people emerge from the orthodox community capable of challenging the cultural dominance of the gnostics: Pantaenus, Clement, Origen. Precisely at this time it is customary to place the foundation of the Christian Didaskaleion of Alexandria, intended as a center of higher studies, exegesis and theology, sponsored and controlled by the local bishop. Little credit is given to Philip of Side’s assertion PG 39, 329, inferred from Eusebius HE V, 10.1.4; VI,6, that Athenagoras was the first scholarch, succeeded by Pantaenus, Clement and Origen. It is preferable, rather, to consider Pantaenus and Clement as private teachers like Justin Martyr at Rome, with the true Didaskaleion beginning only when Origen, charged with directing the church of Alexandria’s catechetical school, divided the teaching into two grades, reserving for himself the higher, to which non-Christians could also be admitted. The primary task of Clement and Origen’s teaching of Pantaenus we know nothing specific was to oppose the cultural dominance of the gnostics among educated Christians; to achieve this they began to elaborate and examine the data offered by Scripture and the tradition by means of systematic recourse to the instruments provided by profane Greek culture: rhetoric, philology and philosophy. Though still viewed with suspicion, Greek philosophy was considered an important propaedeutic instrument for approaching the study of Sacred Scripture, and the contribution of the basic concepts and hermeneutical and demonstrative procedures deduced from them was fundamental for the development of Christian exegesis and theology. Platonistic spiritualism was preferred, assimilated with greater rigor than by certain representatives of Asiatic Christianity. Origen in particular adopted the Platonic distinction of the two levels of reality one sensible and the other intelligible, the former a faint copy or image of the latter as an interpretive criteria for every aspect of Christian reality: he took from Clement, and more distantly from the gnostics, the division of Christians into two categories, the simple and the perfect the latter also called gnostics by Clement: they were not distinguished by nature, however, as with heterodox gnostics, but only by degree of education and application. According to Origen, the simple or beginner adheres to the lower, sensible level of reality, while the perfect tends to the superior, intelligible and spiritual, according to the correlation: simpleperfect = Christ manChrist God = literalspiritual, which led to the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. On this basis, though without achieving an organic doctrinal system, he developed and explored a collection of ideas and principles which long constituted the foundation of Alexandria’s Christian culture. Here it suffices to mention 1 an organically allegorical interpretation of Sacred Scripture, 2 the theology of the Logos and the trinitarian doctrine of the three hypostases, 3 a depreciation of Christ’s humanity vis- -vis his divinity, 4 a dualistic Platonic anthropology, 5 the spiritualization of eschatology. The activities of Clement and Origen were decisive in diminishing the gnostic threat and contributed in large part to the penetration of Christianity among educated pagans, which until then had been minimal. The intellectual commitment and openness to Greek culture provoked negative reactions particularly within the local church, however, which were felt in the crisis that led to Origen’s condemnation and expulsion to Caesarea in Palestine ca. 232. Nevertheless, while Origen’s transfer to Caesarea favored the spread of the new Alexandrian culture in Syria, Palestine and Arabia, the school of Alexandria directed in the second half of the 3rd c. by Heraclas, Dionysius, Theognostus, Pierius, Achillas, Serapion and Peter does not seem to have modified the orientation established by Origen; only the doctrinal discussions of the preexistence of the soul and spiritual resurrection were abandoned. And given the close relations between school and episcopate Heraclas, Dionysius, Achillas and Peter became bishops of Alexandria, the cultural approach of the school became the official policy of the church of Alexandria and from there gradually spread throughout Egypt, despite significant resistance on Dionysius’s polemic against Sabellianism and millenarism, see Dionysius of Alexandria. Alexandrian culture met an even stronger reaction in its expansion outside of Egypt in regions of Asian culture: the alternating fortunes of this conflict are attested at Antioch in the second half of the 3rd c. by the events of Paul of Samosata and Lucian of Samosata, while the Apologia of Pamphilus praef. shows the bitterness of the debate in Syria and Palestine at the beginning of the 4th c., by then polarized around the figure of Origen. The Arian crisis provoked an important modification in the by-then-traditional Alexandrian trinitarian doctrine, in that Athanasius, in deference to the monarchian approach of the Nicene Creed 325, abandoned the doctrine of the three hypostases for a more unitarian and egalitarian conception of the Trinity. The prestige of Didymus, however, scholarch in the second half of the 4th c. after the fleeting Macarius, testifies to the continuing vitality of the Origenian exegetical tradition. Anti-Origenist polemic, revived in the late 4th c. by Epiphanius of Salamis and encouraged for purely political ends by Theophilus of Alexandria, marked the effective end of the school Rhodo having succeeded Didymus as director. At the same time Antiochene exegetes, who tended toward literalism, thoroughly criticized the systematic Alexandrian allegorism; Cyril of Alexandria 1st half 5th c. submitted to their influence, falling back on a mixture of literalism and allegorism that distorted the organic unity of Origen’s and Didymus’s exegesis. In the field of Christology, however, the Alexandrian tradition continued to make its influence felt: the subordination of Christ’s humanity to his divinity assured the unity of the theandric composition much better than the manGod bipolarity of Antiochene Christology and better met the needs of popular piety. This assured Cyril’s success against Nestorius, but monophysitism immediately radicalized the characteristic aspects of that Christology still further, and the polemic degenerated into brawling and logomachy. On the one hand, monophysitism, heir to Alexandrian Christology in its extreme radicalization, interpreted the religious sense of vast regions of the East, such as Egypt and Syria, much better than the Christology of Chalcedon; but the revival of native Syriac and Coptic culture against the hegemony of Hellenistic culture contributed decisively to its success. On the other hand, openness to Hellenism was the most characteristic component of the Alexandrian school’s cultural policy, so the triumph of monophysitism, despite its descendence from the traditional Alexandrian Christology, meant the definitive liquidation of the legacy of that policy, which had marked an important moment in the Christianization of the ancient world.

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Hellenistic culture Gallery Photos

Hellenistic culture


Hellenistic culture

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Hellenistic culture

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Hellenistic culture

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