Outline

I. Any positive appreciation of the religious life of Greco-Roman culture must begin by eliminating a powerful and threefold bias.

A. Ancient Christian sources are uniformly hostile toward all forms of pagan religious observance.

1. Christian apologists found some virtues in pagan philosophy, especially in Platonism.

2. Pagan worship, however, was regarded as lacking in morality and was dismissed as sponsored by demons (see Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, 10:20-21).

B. These Christian perceptions built on and expanded the intense polemic against paganism found already in Judaism.

C. Both Jews and Christians found fuel for their polemical fires in the critique of pagan religiosity found among some Greco-Roman philosophers.

D. Awareness of the ancient bias and closer analysis of Greco-Roman religious texts provide a more dispassionate perception.

II. If religion is a way of life organized around experiences and convictions concerning ultimate reality (above all, power), then Greco-Roman religion is both all-encompassing and diffuse.

A. In polytheism (a system shared broadly throughout antiquity), the divine power is distributed among a family of gods.

1. The Roman adoption and translation of the Greek gods was a first instance of syncretism that was perpetuated through the conquests of new peoples (Zeus becomes Jupiter, Hermes becomes Mercury, and so on).

2. Polytheism is a capacious and generous religious system that always has room for new members, that sees the membrane between humans and the divine as permeable, and that relaxes the issues of theodicy that haunt monotheism.

3. These same qualities represent, from another perspective, the weakness of polytheism: Polytheism lacks a clear sense of justice that monotheism can supply; the Homeric gods often represented the lowest forms of human morality—and the reason why some Greeks and Romans sought alternatives.

B. Greco-Roman religion did not occupy a separate and private sphere but pervaded every aspect of life.

1. Worship of the gods was a political function in the strict sense of the term; atheism was the equivalent of treason.

2. Temples were places of worship but also served as treasuries and banks, as well as places of refuge.

3. Every part of the universe and every human activity—civic, military, domestic, personal—fell under the power and protection of a god who needed attention for life to be prosperous.

4. In many ways, the religious system strongly mirrored the social dynamic of patronage and the social warrants of honor and shame.

5. The practice of magic can be placed in this system as the effort to more directly manipulate the available powers through secret knowledge.

III. In the Greco-Roman polytheistic framework, several religious phenomena are noteworthy for their ability to make power more palpably present.

A. Prophecy was highly regarded as a revelation of divine power.

1. Some forms of divination (such as the auspices) were routine exercises of technique.

2. Mantic prophecy was feared and respected as an infusion of the divine breath into humans ("enthusiasm"); the shrine of Apollo at Delphi guided early Greek history, and the decline of oracles was a religious crisis.

B. The healing of physical and mental disorders also revealed divine power.

1. The capacity to drive out evil spirits or to heal the sick was a sign that a human being was a theios aner (a "divine man"; see Apollonius of Tyana).

2. The shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus was like an ancient Lourdes, drawing pilgrims for spiritual and physical healing.

C. Mystery cults offered participation in deeper realities, as well as social advancement.

1. The ancient cult of Eleusis remained the prime example of a civic mystery connected to a specific place.

2. Other mysteries of a more transient character and associated with new (or syncretic) deities proliferated: Isis and Osiris, Attis and Cybele, Serapis, Mithras.

IV. Some forms of Greco-Roman philosophy in the early empire also had distinct religious features.

A. The Pythagorean and Epicurean traditions were organized "ways of life" based on the teachings and deeds of founders who were regarded as divine.

B. Some Stoic-Cynic philosophers, such as Epictetus and Dio Chrysostom, had a sense of divine vocation.

C. Philosophers challenged the morality of the ancient myths and sought to improve them through allegorical interpretation.

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