This post continues a series on ethics. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. The last post introduced the idea of purity as a core ethical principle and explored the Hebrew concept of holiness. In this post, I turn to Greek and later Christian ideas.
Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Greek Ideal
By the time the New Testament was written, Hellenistic culture (inspired by Greece, spread by Rome) surrounded the Mediterranean and extended into the Middle East. Hellenes never picked up the Hebrew notion of purity. Greek and Roman gods were more like humans than the Hebrew Lord of Hosts. Even if you wanted to appease them, they were not predictable enough for the kinds of ritual compliance present in Israel. Purity cults existed, notably including the Vestal Virgins in Rome, but no single practice could be said to spread over the entire population. Rather there were countless deities, rituals, and communities considered appropriate to different times, places, and activities. Each one had adherents and detractors; Rome was a very plural society.
Hellenes did, however share a number of cultural biases, philosophies that caught on broadly throughout the culture. One such preference, closely related to purity had to do with the difference between body and mind. From the classical period, Greeks were highly skeptical of the changeable nature of the world and a number of popular philosophies presented flesh and matter as imperfect, temporary, and undesirable. Humans, possessed of a rational soul, had the ability to think and participate in a perfect life of contemplation. Some even claimed they had a pure, perfect, and eternal aspect that would outlast the body. The best thing you could do with your life would be to pursue the ideal aspects of your life and disregard or even weaken the physical aspects. The details varied from school to school, but Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics highlighted the importance of choosing to pursue permanent ideal pleasures, rather than temporary physical ones. The Neoplatonists and Pythagoreans went even farther in favoring thought over flesh. [The Stoics and Epicureans, on the other hand, were much more inclined toward physical goods.]
We see this bias throughout the New Testament and it contributes to a particular kind of purity ethics in Christianity. “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:25) “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh;” (Galatians 5:17). Language of perishable versus imperishable, temporary versus eternal, and flesh versus spirit taps into this Greek idea of mind over matter. Likewise, language of Jesus as the “Word” (logoV) appeals to a sense of divine, overarching principle or idea of order.
For the Greeks and Romans, to be fleshly was to be less than perfect. It meant being caught up in the changeable reality of physical nature, rather than the perfect eternity of changeless ideas. It meant suffering illness and disease, bowing to physical limitations, and ultimately dying. If we are to make sense of the New Testament, but particularly Paul, we must understand him to be writing about this way of thinking. I do not think he was in favor of this kind of thinking, but that will have to wait for the next post. For now, know that for many Hellenes, flesh was embarrassing, undignified, and a sign of weakness.
In summary, the Greek ideal of perfection is radically different from the Hebrew notion of purity. Perfection had to do with a commitment to ideal, mental, and universal truths which conflict with the daily messiness of life. In contrast, Hebrew purity had to do with the daily messiness that, regardless of ideals, must be maintained when living with God. The two should not be confused. Nonetheless, they were, even in the first century. Hellenistic Jews had to deal with these very questions and Christianity would provide an answer.
In the next post, I turn to Christian thoughts on purity and perfection.