THE GREEKS KNEW A THING OR TWO…..

I haven’t watched much of the Beijing Games but enough to be reminded that athletics is one of the great glories of humanity. One history of the ancient Greeks is that they came into Europe as one of a number of tribes devoted to a warrior cult which made them successful invaders of territories occupied by more peaceful people, but also led them into destructive conflicts of honour such as the war at Troy, which killed their best leaders and impovershed their settlements. Over time, they learned to modify their aggression and to appreciate the arts of peace,channeling their competitive desires into physical and artistic competition. The creation of something splendid, either in art or athletics, became for them one of the highrest expressions of humanity. This is one the great discoveries of their civilisation: that the true virtue (Greek: arete) of humanity is to transmute the desire to conquer into the creation of intellectual, artistic and athletic splendour.bolt

Yes, modern athletics like all modern competetive sport is defiled by nationalistic and financial concerns, not to mention the damaging use of drugs, but watching Mo Farah or Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis-Hill in full flight is to witness a special form of excellence, that unites people in appreciation of human worth. Of course animals have instinctual physicalities which exceed all human effort, but they do not have to learn them through harsh self-discipline and precise control, as humans do. Physical sport unites the diverse poles of human nature, the wit of homo sapiens with the instinctive grace of the animal body, providing at its best a struggle that damages no one.

Some people feel that when thousands of human beings are dying from violence and impoverishment, such spectacles are at best a distraction and at worst a wicked waste of resources, but I feel that if nations could focus on competing in human excellence rather than in power and wealth, tyrants and warmomgers might be seen for the idiots they are.

Well, what’s all that got to do with Jesus? At first sight, not a lot. Amongst all people in the Greek empire of Alexander the Jews were the least impressed with Greek ideals of art and sport. The use of Greek gymnasia in Palestine was forbidden to faithful Jews, who saw the naked display of the human physique as a provocative arrogance towards God and one’s neighbour. Sober men and women had to cover their bodies and control their instincts, so that they could live decently as God’s people. Genuine human worth in Jewish eyes was seen in faithful family life, neighbourly kindness, social justice and the worship of the one God. Jesus was raised in that tradition, which he reverenced and modified; and there is nothing in his life or teaching, that encourages an interest in intellecual, artistic or athletic excellence.

So, is that kind of excellence foreign to Jesus and therefore to Christian faith?

Ennis-GettyThere may be an answer in Jesus use of the phrase usually tranlsated as “eternal life” (Greek: zoe aionion, “the life of ages”). This can be intepreted as life that lasts for all time, or as life of everlasting quality. Allan Dale who translated the heart of the New Testament for school pupils, called it “splendid living”, that is, llife that expresses the nature of human beings as God’s children. St. Paul wrote of the “glorious freedom of the children of God.” Of course, for Jesus, no kind of splendid living can by-pass God and one’s neighbour, but rather must include them, as can be seen in the splendour of his own encounters with people in which the rule of God and the need of his neighbour are always acknowledged.

Perhaps the closest connection between the gospel of Jesus and the Greek ideal of excellence is his ministry of healing. The Jesus tradition has doubtless exaggerated the miraculous nature of this ministry, but it can hardly have invented the ministry itself. Jesus was a  healer, one for whom the diseased human being was an offence to the creator, who used his skill to restore the whole person to family and community life. His special indignation was reserved for those who thought some religious observance was more important than this liberation of human bodies and souls..

Perhaps we can recover the image of Jesus as one who lived splendidly and enabled others to do the same. On the other hand, our contemporary notions of sporting excellence could benefit from reconnection with the ancient Greek tradition, and with Jesus’ more comprehensive practice of the splendid life.

(Desperate Dan’s exceptional fitness and physical prowess are of course due to a healthy diet of cowpies and long walks with his dog Gnasher.)

5 Comments

  1. Excellent, but you forgot to mention the cessation from wars and hostilities that accompanied the Olympic Games every four years. How consistent were the Greeks in applying that designated cessation I don’t know of course, but it was essential part of the athletic competition. Clearly they knew something that we don’t. Not only during the Olympics, but during Christian, Moslem and Jewish high holy days and seasons wars and killings continue unabated. Isn’t it amazing how much internecine killing goes on among Moslems during Ramadan?

    I’m not convinced by your attempt to turn “zoen aionion” into something more Greek-like. The Greeks were unique among ancient peoples, and there is nothing in Judaism and early Christianity that comes close to the Greek humanist ideals. Jesus’ values of family life, neighbourly kindness, social justice and God-worship were not necessarily superior to the values of the ancient Greeks. One could even argue that Jesus had very weak family values, and even preached hatred of one’s parents and children for “his sake.” When I see ISIS destroying beautiful temples in Palmyra, I see the ages-old conflict between “god-fearers” and “paganism.” So I really don’t think it’s possible to reconcile Jesus and the ancient Greeks. Obviously church tradition did precisely that, but in ways that betrayed the ancient Greeks and turned them into mere types of Christ and the victorious church tradition. Sorry for the polemic tone – not aimed at you, but at church tradition and, yes, Jesus.

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  2. Of course, the Greeks are muscle bound thugs who gradually emancipate themselves from their origins, but never completely. Alexander is the ultimate representative of a tradition which combines the most exquisite philosophy with the basest imperialism. Contrast this with the sceptical humanism of the book of Genesis, or the prophetic humanism of the books of Samuel. The western tradition of humanism has an inbuilt bias towards the Greeks, because of classical studies and its uncritical adulation of Greeks and Romans, to the exclusion of the equally creative cultures of Persia, China, and Israel. Christian especially need to get away from this selective history if they are going to be genuinely ecumenical rather than cultural apologists for one vanished civilisation or another.

    Historians claim now that the Philistines were a branch of Mycenaean Greeks who invaded Palestine. if so the contest between Goliath and David is between giant Greek thugs and the modest intelligent God-fearing Hebrews, with a predictable result.

    I am not attacking the humanism of Plato, Euripides and Aristophanes, but I am questioning any uncritical elevation of their culture at the expense of others.

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  3. The Greeks were far from perfect, but “thugs” might be too unkind. I think the Judeo-Christian tradition is just as guilty of elevating “their culture at the expense of others” as the Greeks, perhaps more so. Greeks did not go around destroying the temples and the writings of other civilizations. Herodotus wrote with admiration about Egypt and other civilizations. Thucydides wrote a history with brutal honesty. Euripides showed more sympathy for the Trojans than for his countrymen, if memory serves me right. Socrates was ultra-critical of his fellow Athenians, and they killed him for that. And of course, Aristophanes mocked practically everything about Athenian society. So you’re right to single out names like Plato, Euripides and Aristophanes.

    The Old Testament does, of course, include the prophets, who were brutal in their attacks of their fellow Jews – but always at the service of the deity, who with one breath would exalt social justice while in the next sentence would breathe hail and brimstone on anyone who did not belong to the circle of obedient devotees. I weep at the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS, but can’t forget that Christian imperialists did far worse in destroying temples or converting them to churches, burning books that were not ‘orthodox’ and destroying whole libraries of ancient wisdom. I do not recall any such actions taken by ancient Greeks, if we exclude the mythical destruction of Troy. You mention Alexander. I’ve never been particularly fond of him, but he is a perfect example of a Greek who became more oriental in his habits and beliefs with every step he rode into non-Greek territories. He was a syncretist more than a conqueror. On the other hand, syncretism was the most vile of all the sins condemned in the Hebrew scriptures. The ‘jealous’ god of Israel accepted no co-existence or co-veneration, and no compromise with anything other than his own laws.

    Don’t get me wrong. On many days, I love the Hebrew Bible more than I love the New Testament! But just as I should not elevate my “culture at the expense of others,” I don’t easily capitulate to the ‘jealous’ god of the Bible. I prefer healthy skepticism all around as a safeguard against idolatry. I believe you exercise the same safeguard in your mental and spiritual habits. I love dialogue with you, and I hope I’m not imposing myself on your other readers.

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  4. Yes, this is a good reply and yes, I was teasing a bit. I think it’s important however to distinguish between what a culture says about itself and what a society actually does, Do you suppose for example, it mattered a lot to the average conquered Persian that Alexander was a syncretist?

    Darius: That Greek thug has beaten us and killed 10,000 soldiers!

    Marius: But at least he’s a syncretist!

    Darius: Oh goodness, really, a syncretist. Now if he’d just told us that before the battle, we’d have called it off, wow!

    The Hebrew Bible presents Israel as a warlike, foreigner hating culture, because that was the viewpoint of the Ezrahites who edited the sacred books. In fact, most Israelites got on fine with the Canaanite neighbours over he centuries, shared their Gods and Goddesses a bit, while holding their own traditions too but were not at all evangelical with their own beliefs. Their faith was for Israel. At no point in their history were they ever aggressive towards neighbours, except possibly in the time of David, and many of his triumphs were probably invented.Even the famous conquest of the promised land is almost certainly an invention; probably most Hebrew tribes simply came and gradually settled alongside the Jebusites, Amorites etc.

    On the other hand, the perless Greek culture, with its astonishing achievements in art literature philosophy and science, present a wonderful humanism to subsequent generations, while in fact most of the city states were at war most of the time, with each other, or other empires, until the Romans knocked some sense into their heads.

    No, as distinct from all cultures, the crucial one is Jesus with his insistence that only God, the merciful father, is good; and that goodness can flow from God to humanity, if we love God and our neighbour, and dare to live as God’s dear children. Whether his teaching and example are clothed in religion, philosophy, or any human culture is less important to me than the sober re-telling of his story and the living of his life. But he wasn’t arrogant He didn’t pretend to have furnished all that his followers would need. He told them that God’s Spirit would lead them into all truth and that they would do grater things than he had; so followers like me can find the truth of the Olympic ideal and show gratitude to those who express it today.

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  5. The Romans knocked some sense into their heads? You wish! Merkel can’t knock any sense into their heads or their pockets either! Greeks are hopelessly warlike! Except the weapons if choice have usually been political parties. I like your view of what the ancient Israelites were really like. I agree. The warlike aggressiveness was an invention of post-exilic biblicism, no doubt – just as the ‘jealous’ Yahweh was also an invention of the Ezrahites. This is the kind of biblical revisionism that gets me excited. More please, you’re so good at it. And the Darius bit? Priceless, as the TV commercial would put it 🙈

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