The Legacy of the Ancient World

A consideration of the impact of the civilisations of Israel, Greece and Rome.

The Hebrews were the first historic peoples to attain the belief in one God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe, and the Father of all mankind. The influence of Greece and Rome on the growth of Christianity has obscured its Hebrew origin.

The Greeks influenced modern religion through their philosophy. Greek religion afforded a rich field for art and poetry, but could not satisfy the intellectual or the moral aspirations of a more reflective age. Hence a breach between the reasoned conclusions of the few and the religious beliefs of the many. There was freedom and individuality – bold experiments in thought and practice (especially in the 5th and 4th centuries) – ruled by self-knowledge and clear judgment – striving to understand the nature of man and the world in which he lives – and to use the world as a field for the realisation of their ideals of life. But the freedom and individuality proved the ruin of their political independence. There was restless ambition, jealousy, factions . . . a lack of national unity.

The Romans were the empire builders. Their religion was subordinate to the political authority – initially they had little appreciation of either art or science. A nation of lawgivers and administrators – subjection of individuality – the history of a people! The nations of today owe a great part of their law, language and their institutions to the genius of Imperial Rome.

The history of civilisation has been the history of the Mediterranean area. The Greeks were the first to realise the worth of individual liberty as the soil in which man’s intellect and imagination can flourish and bear fruit. But there was a need for external authority and government. But it would seem that man is doomed to anarchy and bondage unless inspired by the knowledge of an ideal goal. The Hebrews had a vision – a faith that had its roots in the spiritual life of Israel

Freedom, law and the kingdom of God form the threefold legacy of antiquity to the modern world – with its ongoing changes! Greece provided the ‘thought’; Rome provided the ‘action’. These developments were quite separate from those taking place in India and the Far East (while Christian mystics aspire after direct communion, Hindus aspire to fusion of being with God?).

History has been the story of the rise and fall of empires – early civilisations were centred on the Middle East – archaeology and history suggest that in these valleys man appeared rather suddenly, with a well developed civilisation right from the start.

The Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great (334-323) and the subsequent history of the Middle East becomes part of that Hellenistic culture and civilisation. Little that had passed before was really of great significance for the future, apart from the religion of Israel. The religion of Israel did not seriously influence the West until Greece and Rome had fashioned the structure of their civilisation. Hellenism was the original creation of the Greek genius – a culture which arose, as if by magic, amid an alien world. The originality of Greek science!

(taken from the book by W G De Burgh)


3 Responses to The Legacy of the Ancient World

  1. Dave Price says:

    As this applies to the history of the church, there is also a three part influence on the Christianity we know today. The Hebrew/Jewish culture informed the very beginning, although even by the end of the Apostle Paul’s life the Gentile church as a whole was larger than the Jewish/Jerusalem church. The church thrived under the twin influences of Greece and Rome until geopolitical and doctrinal differences separated the two. As the centuries have unfolded we still have these three main influences upon the church. The Hebrew influence remains in the New Testament canon and the history of the early church, the Western/Roman influence is found in the Catholic and Protestant church, and the Eastern/Greek influence is found in the Orthodox church. That the history and tradition of each influence cannot find unity not only denies the church profound riches of wisdom and experience, it prevents the church from enjoying the full measure of its potential to impact the world with all the love and grace of the Father given to us in Jesus. For as long as these three remain divided, on the corporal and the personal level, the church will never really be whole. The promise and the hope of the future is that each one of us has an opportunity to erase the divisions in our own hearts, in our own beliefs, in our own prejudices and biases. If, in humility, we could honestly look at each other and say “I love you more than I love what I believe” we could make the church, and the world, a very different place.

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks Dave. That leads nicely into ‘What is Life?’ where I have suggested that there is a need to concentrate not on what we believe, but how what we believe affects our understanding of the purpose of life.

  3. rantz72 says:

    I thought these sentiments tied in nicely’ “What if it’s our behavior that matters versus the group to which we belong and the belief systems that reign therein? What if the essence of faith is a divine encounter in daily life? What if we’re wrong about the way we are currently practicing the Christian faith? What if we’ve become captives to our creeds, deceived by our dogma, and prisoners to current practice?”

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