Monotheistic religions have a problem in the modern era. Perhaps one could say that Monotheism in general has that same problem.
Christianity is a religion whose holy scriptures are in Classical Greek. The Catholic Church holds Latin in esteem, but a lot of the individual words in Christian jargon are either Greek, such as “Eurcharist”, or Greek-language inspired, such as “grace”.
The Qu’ran is seen by many as exhibiting many of the same ideas that Plato did in the “Republic”, and ideas of other Greek philosophers as well. It structurally can be seen to resemble Hesiod’s “Theogony”, with stories and praises in between.
The Talmud is a work assembled by the Pharisees, and the basis of all Judaism after the 6th Century CE. But a trained reader literate in Herodotus’ “Histories” and the Homeric Epics will see some direct (and uncredited) quotations from these texts throughout the many-volumed compendium.
Some scholars even go so far as to say that monotheism itself is not a Jewish or a Deuteronomic invention—but a Greek concept, which the Jews borrowed!
So what is the problem? We are all Greeks. We as believers are not ourselves. Perhaps deep inside, we are actually all worshipping those twelve Olympian gods and goddesses instead of that One G-d many of us know and love. Right?
Let’s face reality. All of the ancient cultures, from which the monotheistic religions sprung, existed prior to a contact with Ancient Greece, in whatever form. These cultures had distinctions that made them clearly different from Greek culture on many accounts. They already had their bases founded, and Hellenism had nothing to do with their formation.
According to many accounts, David was King over Israel before the first word of the “Iliad” was put into writing (10th and 7th-8th centuries BCE, approximately). David and Solomon are the heroes of Ancient Israelite culture, and were champions that had values that were imparted to Judah and Israel before anyone who lived there could have heard of “Achilles” or “Odysseus”.
Greece came into contact with Israel and Judaism after the Babylonians and the Persians had imparted a fair share of their cultures onto Judaism already. Greek details were indeed imparted onto the Jewish religion. It is futile to deny that. Thales’ morning prayer was that he thanked the gods that he was created a Greek, not a barbarian, a free man, not a slave, and a man, and not a woman—and ANYONE who has paged through a Siddur (Jewish prayer book) in the first few pages will recognize that an almost identical formula was used for the Rabbinic morning blessings.
But if the essence was already formed of a Jewish religion, after a diaspora dominated by Babylon and Persia, why would that essence suddenly be replaced with a Greek one? The values are already formed, and they are kept, consistently. Those same holy texts used from before any contact with Hellenism still remain as the basis.
The only Greek details that are imparted are those relevant to the essence of the Jewish religion.
A person at my synagogue once questioned me as to why before the primary prayer service (the “Amidah”) one steps backward three times, and then forward three times. I gave an answer related to Moses’ ascension to Sinai, and the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“That’s better than the answer I heard before”, he said.
“And what was that?”
“That it was a Greek custom”.
I had an epiphany, and the reason I write this particular column, in what I realized then. Greek custom or no Greek custom, those two sets of three steps would have never survived for millennia if they somehow had no significance to the original basis of Judaism.
But what about Christianity and Islam? They portray Hellenism to varying degrees, and it is also very futile to argue that Christianity is not inherently Hellenic, because its scriptures are written in Greek. But in both of these, the essence is the same monotheistic essence of Judaism with the same heroes, and with more heroes as well.
Islam also carries elements over from both Judaism and Christianity, and prior Arabic cultures as well. Aristotle, Hesiod, Theogony, Plato—as important as they are to Islamic culture and being, they are certainly not the basis, and neither are many of their values, which are created from the ground up, and not cloned from Greece.
It could indeed be true that Hellenism wraps all of us. Maybe it is not “We are all Greeks”, as P.B. Shelley expressed. My revision: “we all seem like Greeks”—to scholars, perhaps. But we all know what is at our core—and it is something separate from the identity forged on Mount Olympus. And only we—the believers—can decide what culture or basis our religion is formed on…and not scholars of Hellenism or Religion.