IN MUCH OF THE WORLD TODAY multi-cultural communities abound. There are cities whose residents trace their lineage to every part of the globe, where a host of languages, religions, foods and music abound. At the same time we know that there are also more homogeneous communities – usually smaller or more isolated – where a different ethnic, religious or even regional background would set people apart as being outsiders. In these traditional societies uniformity is more valued than diversity.
Israel during its formative period was such a society. In many respects it was similar to its neighbors in the Middle East with one exception that set them apart from others: Israel held strongly to monotheism, belief in only one God, and to a moral system believed to be given by Him. Neighboring peoples – such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites – each revered a host of gods and goddesses which the Israelites held to be no gods at all. The Israelites classed all these peoples as goyim, a word which first referred to a horde of pests, such as locusts. Our Bibles translate goyim as “Gentiles.”
Jewish identity was to a great extent defined by their monotheism, which was always threatened when they mingled with Gentiles. Their identity – and their purity before God – suffered when “they mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works” (Psalm 106:35). There were numerous occasions during the first millennium bc when the political elite fostered alliances with goyim and adopted some of their ways.
By the time of Christ permissible contact between religious Jews and Gentiles was severely restricted. Thus Jesus sent His disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God first among Jews: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).
The Jews considered themselves the people of God, the nation through whom He worked in the world. The Lord Jesus was referring to this conviction when He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). This did not mean that their place as God’s chosen people was given to them as a privilege but as a responsibility. God would work through Israel for the sake of all who would believe in Him. Gentiles, too, would take their place in God’s People.
St Paul saw Christ as the One who fulfilled Israel’s role in God’s plan by bringing together Jews and Gentiles: “Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as …Isaiah says: ‘There shall be a root of Jesse; and He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in Him the Gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15:8-9,12).
By the time of Christ Jewish territory was part of the Roman Empire, a multi-cultural society. The ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were still worshipped but Greek philosophy had a greater moral authority. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers had more influence over the leaders of the empire than did the traditional Roman deities.
St Paul, whose travels took him to numerous cities in the Roman Empire, knew the ethical dimension of Greek philosophy. He recognized that, even without direct revelation from God, people could arrive at an ethical stance that in many respects paralleled what God had revealed to His people Israel. Thus St Paul wrote, “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:14-15). Through reason people can discover the basic principles of a godly life – what has come to be known as the “natural law.”
Thus the first generation of Christians, who had been led by God to see faith rather than ethnic heritage as the key for membership in God’s people, came to value the highest aspirations of philosophy as compatible with and even fulfilled in the Gospel.
St Justin the Philosopher
Over the next few centuries in the Roman Empire a number of people trained in classical philosophy became Christians. Many would become the intellectual leaders of the Church, the great Fathers to whom we still look for inspiration. One of the first pagan philosophers to embrace Christianity was Justin, born in Nablus into a pagan Roman family who had settled in Palestine in the first century. Justin tells that he was given the classical Roman education and explored the various philosophical currents of his time, ultimately adopting Platonism. In his Dialogue with Trypho 8, Justin writes of encountering an old man – a Palestinian or Syrian Christian – who encouraged him to explore the Biblical prophets who, he said, were more trustworthy than pagan philosophers. Then, as Justin would recall, “Straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while turning over His words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable.”
Justin lived the life of a traveling lecturer promoting his newly-adopted philosophy, Christianity. Arriving in Rome he established a philosophical school advancing his faith by his lectures and writings, several of which have survived. He taught that the writings of the Old Testament prophets were fulfilled in what he called “the memoirs of the apostles” (the Gospels).
Like St Paul, Justin came to see that the most exalted pagan philosophers had “the law written in their hearts.” He called Socrates and Heraclitus “seminal Christians.” They possessed the seed of the Gospel; the mature fruit would be revealed only in Christ.
Justin was also deeply impressed by the fearless witness of the Christian martyrs in the face of persecution. He writes, “For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death …perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man … would not rather continue always the present life” (Second Apology, 12).
Justin was subjected to the same fate in ad 165, denounced by a pagan philosopher, Crescens, whom he had debated. According to his pupil Tatian, Justin was tried with six others by the prefect of the city and was beheaded. The holy martyr Justin the Philosopher is commemorated in the Church on June 1.
Justin’s view of classical philosophers as “seminal Christians” may be seen in the frescos of Plato, Socrates and the rest who often adorn the outer porches of Greek churches. During the Ottoman period the only schools allowed to the Christians were often conducted on these porches under the watchful gaze of these philosophers.
Troparion, June 1