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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 2

The Christian Revolution

Figures like the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.–A.D. 50) moved comfortably between the Hellenic and Jewish worlds. A member of a priestly family, Philo was also a Roman citizen and deeply involved in Roman politics. His brothers and nephews served as Roman officials. But Philo categorically understood himself to be a Jew and visited Jerusalem at least once.

Logos and dabhar: parallel concepts

Throughout his writings, Philo employs Greek concepts to elucidate aspects of Jewish belief. The word logos signifies at least eleven ideas in Philo’s reflections. It is one of his ways to describe the Word of God, linking it to the Jewish understanding of a personal and rational Creator who remains active in his creation, giving it meaning and order. Philo also uses logos to explain how human reason reflects God’s reason as the all-pervading Divine Logos. This unique gift of God, Philo writes, enables men to “comprehend the nature of all bodies and of all things” and, unlike other created life forms, to enjoy the power of free volition. Philo’s effort to bridge the Jewish and Greek worlds was aided by a Hebrew concept that in certain ways paralleled logos.

The Hebrew word dabhar joined the notion of “dynamic deed” and the concept of “word.” Dabhar’s most basic meaning was “dynamism,” or what drives forward from behind. But the Israelites also used dabhar to describe how Yahweh made his essence recognizable to human beings, an essence that always had moral and spiritual content. This is one reason the Decalogue is called “the ten words” (Exodus 34:28). Hence the dabhar of Yahweh, the philologist Thorleif Boman stresses, is “never a force of nature.” Rather, it is “always the function of a conscious and moral personality.”

This distinguished Yahweh from the gods of other Middle Eastern peoples, whose deities were personified forces of nature. By contrast, dabhar was the act not of many beings but of one mind. Boman finds in dabhar something resembling “the Greek logos idea.”

The correspondences between dabhar and logos are thus clear. The former stresses dynamism more than the latter. But we can see why someone like Philo regarded logos as a way of conveying some of the associations of dabhar to diaspora Jews.

Given the interpenetration of Greek and Jewish thought, we need to ask, What kept those Greeks and Romans, increasingly convinced of the pagan religions’ irrationality, from embracing Judaism?

The friction between Jew and Gentile

While there is evidence of a sizable number of converts to Judaism (called “proselytes” by the Jews) throughout the Roman Empire by the first century A.D., there were considerable deterrents to conversion, such as the Jewish revolts against Roman rule, which made many doubt that Jews could be loyal to the emperor.

These suspicions were magnified by the Jews’ exemption from military service and, most importantly, from participation in the imperial state cult, from the reign of Augustus onward, of Caesar as the divi filius (son of the divine one). Even the bargain struck between the Jews and Rome for the sake of civil peace – that Jews would pray to Yahweh for Rome and the emperor – did not dispel the sense that Jews were insufficiently patriotic.

Then there was the fact that while the imperial authorities granted various concessions to Jews, Romans and Greeks didn’t particularly like Jews. For many Romans and Greeks, Jews were another species of barbarian because they weren’t Roman or Greek. And, as always, Jewish economic success aroused antipathy.

Another deterrent was that, while Judaism proclaimed a universal God who had worked wonders inside and outside Israel and thus exercised authority in all places and times, this same God was bound by a special link to a particular nation. Jewish rituals and worship were closely connected to specifically Jewish historical events and locations, such as the Temple in Jerusalem, which were largely closed to non-Jews.

Certainly Jews interacted daily with Greeks and Romans. Even those who were strictly observant didn’t live in isolation from pagans. Jews argued among themselves not about whether but about how much they could engage with non-Jews. Nonetheless, they retained a deep sense of “us” and “them.” Even as Hellenized a Jew as Philo appreciated the huge gulf between him and the non-Jew.

It was Christianity that upended this apparently intractable situation, forever.

The revolutionary ideas of Christianity

From the beginning, Christianity taught that being born a non-Jew was no longer an impediment to a full relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The universal mission of the Christian church was reflected in its dispensing with most of the rituals and prohibitions of the Mosaic Law, but without contradicting the revelation given to the Jews. Instead Christianity imparted the essence of this message in its fullness to all men. The Christian religion maintained the Hebrews’ understanding of God as Creator, of man as a created being with reason and free will, and of the material world as subordinate to man, who would no longer worship creatures as gods. It also underscored the Decalogue as the core moral code for all peoples.

Christianity taught that being born a non-Jew was no longer an impediment to a full relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Christianity did not engage in mythologizing. Just as Judaism proclaimed that God actually spoke to a real man named Abraham, the writers of the Christian Gospels insisted that they were relating eyewitness accounts of real events.

Christ’s Resurrection, for instance, was not presented or understood as a comforting fable based on the projection of a small community’s feelings after its gentle leader’s brutal execution by Roman authorities. The Resurrection was depicted as having taken place at a specific moment in history at a particular place and having been verified by eyewitnesses. The Christian church’s earliest councils defended the realism of this account against any inclination to mythologize it.

The parts of the Greco-Roman world that were disillusioned with mythology and sympathetic to key Jewish beliefs proved receptive to the Christian message. The new religion affirmed many propositions that some Greeks and Romans already viewed as reasonable or dimly grasped but could not extricate from the chaos of pagan religion.

Christianity, however, stressed three ideas that were particularly influential in the development of Western culture. The first of these was God’s rational and creative nature, a theme that is powerfully expressed in the opening words of the Gospel of John.

The rationality and creativity of God

The evangelist took the first verse of the book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and adapted it to “In the beginning was the Word” – in Greek, “In the beginning was the Logos.” As if to stress this point, the first words about love contained in the First Epistle of John (2:5) – generally considered to be by the same author as the fourth Gospel – occur after the statement that “God is light” (1:5), referring to the truth, intellect, and intelligibility of God. To Greek, Roman, and diaspora Jewish readers familiar with the language of logos, these words made the point that the Christian God is not irrational. On the contrary, Christ is reason incarnate.

At the same time, many readers of John’s Gospel, especially Hellenized Jews, would have understood “the Word” as “the Word-as-reason,” embracing features of dabhar: moral agency, self-consciousness, dynamism, and creativity. This Logos wasn’t an abstract metaphysical postulate. Jesus was the Logos made flesh: the Reasonable God who stood at the beginning of time and who had entered directly into human history. This God’s innate reasonableness also meant that his love could never be corrupted into sentimentality.

The second point stressed by Christianity was the affirmation that all people are capable of knowing the truth through natural reason.

Truth through natural reason

Pagans noticed the Christian stress on truth’s knowability. In the dialogue Octavius (c. A.D. 200), recorded by the Christian apologist Marcus Minucius Felix, a pagan mockingly refers to Christians as “the high priests of truth” as he defends uncertainty, relativism, and probability.

Christianity’s relentless insistence that human beings can know Truth with a capital “T” extends to moral truth. Paul insisted that the core meaning of the Decalogue given by Moses to the Jews and rigorously reaffirmed by Christ (Matthew 19:16–22) was the very same moral law that God had written on every person’s heart (Romans 2:13–15).

Christianity’s relentless insistence that human beings can know Truth with a capital “T” extends to moral truth.

“Heart,” for Paul, meant the natural knowledge of moral good and moral evil inscribed into human reason itself. Paul was clearly referring to the idea of natural law – a way of thought that had been developed by Stoic and Aristotelian philosophers. By suggesting that there is something essentially unchanging about human nature and the human mind, Paul was proposing more than just another ethical theory. He was daring to say that all people could know basic truths about right, wrong, good, and evil through reason and that people could choose to live good lives even in the deeply imperfect non-Jewish cultures of his time.

This doesn’t mean that Paul believed pagans could be content to be virtuous idol-worshipers. While Greek philosophy had achieved some important insights, they did not, in Paul’s view, encompass the whole truth. Even more basically, Paul regarded the Greek and Roman public cults as abominations.

Paul’s words nevertheless amounted to a radical affirmation of the equality of everyone – not just those males who were full citizens, but also resident aliens, women, children, and slaves. All were fully human and bore concrete responsibilities in the face of objective morality. This equality not only appealed to those who were used and abused by the powerful in the pagan world but also supported Paul’s emphasis upon a new way of living – the doing of good deeds grounded in truth – which followed from faith in the God-Man who was the Word-Logos and from doing what human reason recognized as good and true.

Right choice and action thus reflected this seamless integration of faith and reason, which led Christianity to embrace Judaism’s strict sexual ethic. Christians were not pursuing rules for the sake of rules or even social order. As the Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright observes, Christians saw sexual impropriety as a sure sign that one did not know God and was heedless of his call to freely choose the good.

That people can choose and act rightly implies that they can also choose and act wrongly. The third idea that Christianity stressed, then, is freedom.

The importance of Christian freedom

Christ’s famous admonition to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Mark 12:17) is widely regarded as radicalizing the Jewish conviction that the power of earthy rulers is limited by God’s divine law, a conviction that would become a crucial feature of the Western understanding of government power.

Even more importantly, Christ acknowledged on several occasions that people were free to follow him or not. This freedom is consistent with the Jewish affirmation of free will in the face of good and evil, but it also implies limits on the ability of others – including the state – to tell people what to do.

There was, however, something else that Christianity stressed about freedom, namely, freedom is more than an absence of constraint. Man is free for something.

That something is excellence – the excellence that is the fruit of using our reason to understand the world and unfold its potential and the excellence of freely choosing what reason and revelation show us to be true. This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13–14). Paul means more than not using one’s liberty, to resist the pagan world’s dehumanizing temptations. That is important but merely a preamble to a higher freedom, which is found in living good lives as individuals and communities.

Nineteen hundred years later, the Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Heschel made a similar point. The culmination of the people of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, he argued, was their reception of the Decalogue. The first commandment reminded the Hebrews that it was God who freed them from oppression. But the last commandment, which condemns envy, exhorted Jews to conquer themselves by freeing themselves from base instincts and achieving “inner liberty.”

This extract is taken from Samuel Gregg’s new book, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2019). Used with permission. If you liked this excerpt, you can purchase the full book below!

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Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute.  He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory.  He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.

He is the author of several books, including Morality, Law, and Public Policy (2000), Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (2001), On Ordered Liberty (2003), his prize-winning The Commercial