Term Paper: Death of Greek Polytheism in the Face of Christianity

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Polytheism and Monotheism

Christianity and the Decline of Polytheism

Years ago, A.D. Nock wrote in his important book on conversion in the Greco-Roman world, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: the death of Socrates created the type of wisdom and virtue standing in heroic opposition to a world which can kill but which does not have the last word" (Nock 194). This statement illustrates the persuasive power of the image of sacrificial death for a cause. The Romans were tolerant polytheists. Yet they looked at Christianity with suspicion due to its refusal to make oaths and sacrifices to the emperor cult. This disrupted traditional pagan religion. The new emphasis on dedication to one God alone was subversive. The main argument of this paper is that the willingness of Christians to face martyrdom was a powerful symbol to polytheists of the monotheistic concept. It was the practical model of sacrifice that, when combined with other factors such as moral change, new social associations, and the ability to escape fate through belief in a single God, made monotheism appealing. Martyrdom was not the only factor, but this paper will show how the dynamics of challenging Roman "idolatry" through suffering created the conditions for the demise of paganism and the rise of Christian monotheism.

Polytheism was the thriving form of religion prior to Christian monotheism. In his exhaustive study of ancient Greek religion, Burkert shows the structure of polytheistic belief. He defines polytheism to mean that "many gods are worshipped not only at the same place and at the same time, but by the same community and by the same individual; only the totality of the gods constitutes the divine world" (Burkert 216). This belief in multiple divinities shows how without contradiction the Greek mind was able to conceive of supernatural power as multiple. They did not feel mental tension when faced with the thought of many gods. This polytheism expressed itself in various ways. For example, Burkert says that "at festivals of the gods, sacrifice is regularly made not to one god but to a whole series of gods" (Burkert 216). In addition, a sacred place usually belonged to one individual god, but statues of other gods could be erected in it as well and prayer was offered to many gods. People used magic, initiation, and purification ceremonies to different gods. There were families of gods and god pairs (e.g., Zeus-Hera). The gods interact and associate, each with special realms and powers. The various gods gave name to the calendar months based on major festivals. Burkert explicitly emphasizes these festivals as organizing the religious and communal life of ancient Greeks.

Roman religion during the formation of Christianity continued the pagan polytheistic tradition. Roman civilization had its temples to various gods with images of god and rituals. North writes, "Rituals marked all public events and celebrations" (North 44). People endowed nature (water, trees, etc.) with divine forces and lower gods. Mattingly says, "There are the Fortunes, Tuxai, Genii, of persons and places. There are the spirits of human emotions and aspirations -- Felicitas, Pax, Salus, Spes and the rest" (Mattingly 19). The world was pierced with divine animistic presence. The power of the gods was respected for their influence in daily life, for agricultural concerns or personal safety and healing. Humans gave offerings and votive dedications to show their piety and invoked the gods in crisis. Rives says, "In all this we see a general acknowledgement of the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Death of Greek Polytheism in the Face of Christianity."  Essaytown.com.  April 15, 2010.  Accessed November 16, 2019.
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