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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie
Hellenisierung des Christentums. Sinn und Unsinn einer historischen Deutungskategorie.
Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt 2012. 144 S. = Forum Theologische Literaturzeitung, 25. Kart. EUR 16,80. ISBN 978-3-374-03058-3.
James Carleton Paget
Christoph Markschies, in this short but suggestive book, examines the viability (captured in the German words of its subtitle, »Sinn und Unsinn«) of the idea of »Hellenization« as a way of describing the transformation which came over Christianity from the middle of the second century onwards seeking to achieve his goal mainly through an analysis of the historiography of the subject.
M.’s story takes us through familiar territory with admirable succinctness, from Melanchthon’s concerns that Christianity had been contaminated in its early history by Platonism to the work of Droysen and Harnack, with their variant perceptions of the term, and on to the later twentieth century ending up with Pope Benedict’s famous lecture in Regensburg in 2006. A number of things emerge from his account. First, that the term »Hellenization« is often imprecisely defined by those who are most often associated with its discussion, not least Droysen and Harnack (here not only in what it is [M. notes at least three differing definitions in the work of Harnack] but the timeframe in which it is located). To some this might suggest that to those who used the term its usage was less problematic than M. perceives it to be (that is, there was no need for a lengthy and careful definition because everyone knew what the term meant). Secondly, that Harnack’s discussion of the Hellenization of Christianity, which has its roots in the work of F. C. Baur as well as the work of Albrecht Ritschl, with its implicit view that the Gospel was distorted through being hellenized, has left a long shadow over the discussion of the subject, mainly in Germany, and amongst Roman Catholics as well as Protestants (in this context M. has some interesting criticisms to direct against J. Z. Smith’s at-tribution of the hegemony of Protestant presuppositions in this discussion), whether the former be R. Hübner, with his stark presentation of the opposition between the Christian message and the Hellenization process (starker in fact than Harnack’s), or the former Pope, Joseph Ratzinger’s view of the appropriation of Hellenism as having a complementary and beneficial effect upon the development of Christian thinking. M., who holds Harnack’s former chair in theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, is clear that the representation of Harnack’s view of the Hellenization of Christianity as »eine Abfallstheorie« is a misreading for Harnack, though clearly breathing the air of what he calls the piety of Baltic Lu-theranism, was clear that Hellenization was a necessary development in the history of Christianity, whatever its overall effects, but a misreading which is understandable given the imprecision of Harnack’s usage of the term. A third theme, already hinted at, is the contested nature of the subject M. discusses (Christian scholarly works, we are told, use the term Hellenization far more frequently than do ancient historical ones). Agreement on the extent of such a process is rare (was it there in the Gospels? Is the history of the church in fact best described as »Enthellenisierung« or its op-posite?) and where there is agreement, then such a process has either to regretted, or as in the case of Pope Benedict, defended.
M. is clear that the debate as conducted over the past few centuries has in many ways been unsatisfactory, not least in the impre-cision with which the term has been used and the dualistic manner in which it has often been conceived. In fact the book begins with a clear delineation of all the reasons why »Hellenization« as a term is so problematic and with a reference to the arguments of those, like Glen Bowersock, who would favour its quiet disappearance from scholarly discussion of the ancient world. And yet M., in spite of the troubled history of the term, wants to retain it, partly because he doubts the practical possibility of ridding oneself of such a long-established concept, arguing that many significant concepts in individual disciplines are often caked in difficulty (as are terms like inculturation or acculturation, which are often thought as potential replacements for the term); and partly because there is, in his view, a better way forward. In discussing the latter point, M. seeks to return to what he takes to be the origins of the term »Hellenismus«, which, he argues, has a meaning akin to Greek culture (»Bildung« in German). The word came, through Christian usage, to be associated, negatively, with paganism (a negative understanding of the process of Hellenization is, as M., shows implicitly there in ancient Christian literature as early as Hippolytus, and reinforced by the elision of the word Greek with pagan, which M. sees as first evidenced in the work of Origen), but retained its sense of culture, most obviously in the writings of Julian, but in ancient Christian writings, too. With this cultural definition in mind, M. defines Hellenization as »above all else the transformation of the Alexandrian educational institutions and their scholarly culture in the theological reflection of ancient Christianity« (121). But of crucial significance here is how one understands transformation, not as one-sided, or hegemonal, as M. has it, in which Christianity is seen as absorbed or conquered in the Hellenization process, a persistent feature of the discussion of the process, but »bipolar«, as M. describes it, in which the two poles, Christianity and Hellenism, influence each other. In such a view, then, when, for instance Christians misrepresent Greek metaphysics, they are simply exemplars of »Hellenisierung«.
M. has covered a great deal of ground in a short compass and has done so in a typically stimulating way. His plea for the retention of the concept of »Hellenization« on the basis of a more precise definition of the term itself and a more nuanced understanding of transformation might not convince everyone. The former definition might be seen as too narrow, even professorial, though M. hints at a wider understanding of the term; and the latter might be said to beg too many questions, not least in relation to how one might go about demonstrating the bi-polar character of the transformation. M. describes. Of course, in many ways such an understanding of »transformation« is an attempt to remove the dualistic approach to the subject of Hellenization, which M. asserts is an abiding difficulty in the history of its discussion, together with the accompanying hege-monal view of the process, all reasons why Harnack’s view is no longer sustainable, as much present in those Christian scholars who look upon the process negatively as those who view it positively. In this context M. is in part influenced by those who have discussed the topic of Hellenism and Judaism, not just Martin Hengel, whose name is often referred to by M., his former pupil, but also by Erich Gruen. In the latter’s work, Heritage and Hellenism, published in 1998, and to which M. refers, there is a strong attempt to do away with what Gruen thought of as the dualistic spectacles through which the Judaism/Hellenism debate had been viewed, and a call, perhaps reflecting Gruen’s own understanding of his identity as an American Jew, to see Hellenism as something which was simply a given to be engaged with by those who lived after the time of Alexander the Great, and not an obstacle or a threat with which to do battle, or to which one had to accommodate oneself in whatever way.
M. is not quite saying the same as Gruen in his discussion of the Hellenization of Christianity, but he is calling for a similarly less polarized debate about a subject of such moment for the history of early Christianity. Whether scholars will be able, or even be convinced, to rid themselves of such an entrenched way of thinking, whose classic statement is found in the words of Harnack that dogma is »the work of the Greek mind on the Christian Gospel«, remains a question in spite of this book. That the whole issue has been raised again, with such erudite suggestiveness, is, however, to be wholeheartedly welcomed.