Religious Syncretism, Hellenism, and Christianity

by Lewis Loflin

Syncretism is a process where the fusion of cultures, religions, and philosophies produce both new faiths and cultures or the destruction of older faiths. One definition from states:

Religious syncretism, the fusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices. Instances of religious syncretism-as, for example, Gnosticism (a religious dualistic system that incorporated elements from the Oriental mystery religions), Judaism, Christianity, and Greek religious philosophical concepts-were particularly prevalent during the Hellenistic period (c. 300 BC. ad 300).

The fusion of cultures that was effected by the conquest of Alexander the Great (4th century BC), his successors, and the Roman Empire tended to bring together a variety of religious and philosophical views that resulted in a strong tendency toward religious syncretism. Orthodox Christianity, although influenced by other religions, generally looked negatively at claims of syncretism.

Hellenistic syncretism often took local gods and integrated them with Greek deities. One example found in 1 and 2 Maccabees was placing a statue of Zeus in the Temple caused great outrage among most Jews. That led to a revolt against Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Greek Damascus - this in my view was the beginning of the conflict that produced Christianity. But the story of syncretism begins even earlier.

By 722 B.C. the Twelve Tribes really no longer existed and had fused then divided into two bitterly divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. At this time Assyria destroyed Israel. While many refuges fled to Judah others were deported and replaced by other deported people from other regions of the Assyrian Empire. This was a tactic the Assyrians used on conquered nations to maintain control over a region.

This event had to send shock waves to the Yahweh cult and exposure to new ideas. The concept of some form of messiah coming to save the world from evil was taken from Persian Zoroastrianism flowed into Judaism and later Christianity. From its religious inception Israel had fought off other cultures and ideas something they couldn't do living in foreign lands or under outside control. The entire concept of a tribal God that protected the people from bad things was shattered.

This led to fundamentalist' reaction on the one extreme with those believing "if we only followed Yahweh's rules we wouldn't have been punished." This can lead to internal extremism and violence. There were limits to this where the priest caste lacked political power. The other extreme is many would have been impressed with new ideas and adopted to them and assimilated to their new culture in total.

See Zoroastrianism and Judaism According to the Jewish Encyclopedia

In 332BC the region fell to Alexander the Great and the era of Hellenism began. This was a period when Greek culture, science, religion, and philosophy began to displace and change native cultures. Only during the period of the Maccabees Revolt (~140-63BC) was Judah/Israel free from foreign control. During that time Judaism was forced on many non-Jews - a fundamentalist' backlash which is what the Maccabees was about - opposing Hellenism.

Yet in Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and Syria millions of Jews were influenced by Hellenism with Alexandria the most important. From Hellenism - the syncretism of Judaism, Greek culture and philosophy, and elements of Egyptian culture we produced Christianity. Most notable of the Hellenists were Philo of Alexandria and the Apostle Paul. This fusion produced Christianity and its sister heresies collectively known as Gnosticism.

Of greatest importance was elements drawn from Platonism. See Platonism and Christianity Some Church Fathers noted "elements" of Christianity with Plato while others consider Philo in many ways the first Christian.

See the following for more on this:

Syncretism in Christianity

To quote,

Nascent Christianity appears to have incorporated many European Pagan cultural elements, "baptizing" or "Christianizing" them to conform with Christian belief and principles, at least partially through discarding theologically and morally incompatible elements. One example of this is the strong reliance of St. Augustine on pagan Greek Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas's many quotations of "The Philosopher", Aristotle.

Many scholars agree to this syncretism in principle, though any specific example is likely to be labeled "controversial". Open Theists (a subset of Protestant Evangelicals) assert that Christianity by the 3rd and 4th centuries had incorporated Greek Philosophy into its understanding of God.

I disagree with part of this. Christianity itself was purely the syncretism of many Greek, Egyptian, and Persian elements into Judaism completely replacing it in total. Some of this came from various Jewish sects themselves and other element including the most important from the Gospel writers and Paul. This in particular involved the use of Allegorical Interpretation to reinterpret the Jewish Scripture in an effort to support the alleged revelations of St Paul.

Later other elements such as Christmas (originating from Pagan Yule holidays) and Halloween are examples of relatively late Christian syncretism. Roman Catholicism in Central and South America has also integrated a number of elements derived from indigenous cultures in those areas." Marxism has been influential among some Catholics.

Syncretism can be contrasted with contextualization, the practice of making Christianity relevant to a culture.

Modern Syncretism with Christianity

Today syncretism continues for both Christianity and Judaism in particular the more liberal branches. Unlike fundamentalists that insist on traditional interpretations of Scripture liberal churches are abandoning belief altogether or adding new elements. Some such the Unitarian Universalists, Humanistic Judaism, etc. incorporate various political causes, environmental mysticism/activism, Eastern religion-mysticism, etc. into a bewildering mish-mash operating in an overcoat of religion.

Others my reinterpret Jesus as everything from a social worker to a Marxist revolutionary to a Buddhist wise man. The combinations are endless. Even some Evangelicals are being forced to rethink positions on say literal Six-Day creationism. Pat Robertson recently came out this admitting the evidence can't be ignored and to continue down that path is hurting the faith. The struggles over gay marriage is another issue dogging traditional faiths.

In other cases we have whole new sects such as the Mormons or heretics such as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Islam and the violence shown by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and ISIS in Syria/Iraq is simply a fundamentalist' backlash trying to save historical Islam from having to change to survive in the modern world. This is what Islam has done during most of its history and they are fighting to save it. Either they change or destroy the modern world to prevent it and in their minds there is no in between.

In summery syncretism has always been an element of most cultures and give birth to new ideas and changes old or replaces older ideas. The process continues today with changes in some and backlashes from others.

Ref. My college textbooks, Wikipedia, Jewish Encyclopedia 1904.

Some more for thought ref. Wiki:

Syncretism in Ancient Greece

Syncretism was an essential feature of Greek paganism. Hellenistic culture in the age that followed Alexander the Great was itself syncretic, essentially a blend of Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan-Roman) elements within a Hellenic overall formula. The Egyptian god Amun developed as the Hellenized Zeus Ammon after Alexander the Great went into the desert to seek out Amun's oracle at Siwa.

These identifications derive from the Hellenic habit of identifying gods of disparate mythologies with their own. When the proto-Greeks whose language would evolve into Greek first arrived in the Aegean and mainland Greece early in the 2nd millennium BC, they found localized nymphs and divinities already connected with every important feature of the landscape: mountain, grove, cave and spring all had their locally-venerated deity.

The countless epithets of the Olympian gods reflect this syncretic character. "Zeus Molossos", as worshiped only at Dodona, is "the god identical to Zeus as worshipped by the Molossians at Dodona." Much apparently arbitrary and trivial mythic fabling is the result of later mythographers' attempts to explain these obscure epithets.

Syncretism in Rome

The Romans, identifying themselves as common heirs to a very similar civilization, identified Greek deities with similar figures in the Etruscan-Roman tradition, though cult practices were not usually copied. Syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period found also wide favor in Rome: Serapis, Isis, Mithras are syncretic deities. Cybele, as she was worshiped in Rome, was essentially a syncretic goddess. The Greek god Dionysus was imported into Rome as Bacchus, and the Anatolian Sabazios was converted to the Roman Sabazius.

The correspondences varied: Jupiter is perhaps a better match for Zeus than say the rural huntress Diana is for the feared Artemis. Ares is not quite Mars. The Anatolian goddess Cybele was physically imported to Rome from her Anatolian cult center Pessinos in the original aniconic archaic stone idol; she was identified in Rome as Magna Mater and was given a matronly, iconic image that had been developed in Hellenistic Pergamum.

Likewise, when the Romans encountered Celts and Teutons, they mingled these Northern gods with their own, creating Apollo Sucellos (Apollo the Good Smiter) and Mars Thingsus (Mars of the war-assembly), among many others. In the Germania, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Teutonic worshippers of Hercules and Mercury; most modern scholars conclude that Hercules was likely Thor, and Mercury was Odin.