I have three items for my write-up today on Helmut Koester’s History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age.
1. On page 156, Koester says that “The old Greek religion was a religion of city gods”, in which gods were the patrons of cities. He says on pages 164-165 that “None of these cults would ever claim to be a world religion since the belief that deities were bound to particular holy places was still very much alive.” But Koester narrates that people moved around and economics, politics, and science became increasingly universal, and so people were becoming dissatisfied with local deities. While Koester notes that Hellenistic kingdoms “used the ancient city cults in the service of their more universal policies”, he goes on to say that “this did not result in a new understanding of the gods as universal deities” (page 157). But, according to Koester, philosophy brought about more of a concept of a universal religion. And, within Stoicism, the naming of the planets coincided with this move towards universalism. Koester states that “Zeus, once the ruler on Mount Olympus, was transformed into the planet ‘Jupiter,’ the radiant lord of heaven, as soon as he was identified with the Babylonian healer god Marduk and rediscovered as the brightest planet” (pages 157-158).
There are things about this scenario that puzzle me. Did the old Greek religion seriously believe that (say) Zeus was confined to a city?
2. Koester talks about mystery cults. He believes that their concepts go back to Hellenistic times, and he appears also to think that Paul echoes them in his emphasis on being united with Christ and gaining eternal life, or a new life of service to the deity. At the same time, Koester notes differences between the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Christianity. In Christianity, Jesus dies and rises again, whereas it is not said in the myth of Osiris that Osiris was resurrected, but Osiris after his death goes to the realm of the dead to rule, while his son takes charge of this world.
According to Koester, many turned to mystery religions to escape becoming “unconscious shadows after death”, but the problem was that only the few who could afford to be initiated into the mystery could attain that. Koester states that Christianity essentially democratized this hope, making it available to people without financial cost.
Koester makes interesting points about the goddess Isis. For one, he says that the woman in Revelation 12 resembles Isis, which stood out to me, as one who was raised in a denomination that tried to disassociate from the “pagan” elements of the “world’s” Christianity. Second, according to Koester on page 189, Isis in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 11.5.1-3 is treated as the “one and only god” and “ruler of the the universe” (Koester’s words). As I look at the passage itself, there seems to be therein an acknowledgement that other gods exist, but there’s also an affirmation that Isis is “The single form that fuses all gods and goddesses” (the passage’s words).
3. I know Christians who really wrestle to understand the difference between the soul and the spirit in the New Testament. To be honest, I do not entirely know what the difference is, but the topic was touched upon in my latest reading of Koester’s book. On page 143, Koester says the following:
“It was possibly also [the Stoic philosopher] Posidonius who developed the trichotomic anthropology which later became widely disseminated: the human spirit has its origin in the sun, but from the intermediate world (the moon) it receives the soul which animates and maintains the body provided by the sublunar world. At the point of death, the whole process is reversed; once the spirit has freed itself from the soul, it returns to its solar origin. These concepts, once introduced into Stoic philosophy, reappear among later Stoic and other philosophers, including the Romans Cicero and Seneca…”
I wonder what the spirit was believed to provide, that the soul did not.
(UPDATE: I read somewhere, but I forget where, that the soul was thought to animate the body, whereas the spirit gave the person intelligence. But I should be crisper on this, for there were also people in the ancient world who believed there was a rational part of the soul, indicating they thought that the soul related to intelligence.)