Properties of Blood, Chapter I part E

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Early Greek poets had never tired of celebrating men of wealth and power or of complaining about their own failures and poverty.  Traditional Greek culture taught that shame (aidos) and honor (time) were important moral values that had to be respected.  A sense of shame included having a regard for social conventions and showing respect to parents, elders, and social superiors, while honor (the Greek word τίμη literally implies price or value) was the respect to which you were entitled, by your family, social status, and personal qualities.  When the great Achilles quarreled with Agamemnon and left the Trojan War, it was not so much that he missed the woman of whom he had been deprived as it was that he was losing his honor in the tangibles form of a woman he had been given as a prize, a mark of the esteem in which he was held.  “Agamemnon has robbed me of my honor,” Achilles cries to his divine mother, “and he has robbed me of my prize.”  There would be little use in telling Achilles (or most Greeks) to ignore public opinion, because they would interpret such a remark to be an indication of a base character (as, indeed, it often is).

If they had dabbled in philosophy, actual Greeks or Hellenizing Syrians in Decapolis might have been less shocked and would have connected Jesus’ preaching with the diatribes of Cynic philosophers who derided the pursuit of wealth and power as vanity and distraction, but in that case they might also suspect that Jesus was one more hypocritical guru, of the type that satirists routinely ridiculed.  Wealth is nothing, say the philosophers?  Then why are they always asking for handouts and taking fees for teaching—rather than practicing—the virtues of self-restraint, chastity, and humility?  Lucian made a living off this theme some hundred years later, and, 5 centuries before Christ’s ministry, Greek comic poets like Aristophanes and Eupolis had lampooned the Sophists and even Socrates. These days, if there were actually satirists in our own world, they would be merciless in exposing the pretensions of well-heeled professors of philosophy at major universities.  Fortunately for the professors, satire is a lost art.

Ancient men and women were not all self-centered hedonists who took no interest in right and wrong.  If they had been amoral, they would not have been prepared to listen to anyone preaching any morality beyond the “gospel of success" proclaimed by so many self-anointed prophets of the profit-driven life.  Christians in nearly every age are always quick to condemn pagans for their sensuality and immorality, while turning a blind eye to the hypocrisy and pharisaism that is rampant in their own community.  Despite the never-ending flood of sermons attacking the sins of ancient pagans, ancient peoples were not all infanticidal sodomites or movie extras in a crowd egging on Nero and Caligula to greater excesses of violence and perversity.  Some of them responded, at least, to the Christian promise of salvation, because they were already accustomed to similar appeals from philosophers.

Jesus had gone up a mountain to preach his startling revelations, but, back down in the valleys and plains, ordinary people had been living, for thousands of years, lives that aimed, at least, at some level of decency.  Jews, Samaritans, Syrians, Greeks, and Romans—although they disagreed on many important points of custom and morality—shared enough common assumptions that they could do business together, read each others’ religious books (The Jewish Scriptures had been translated into Greek in Alexandria), live in the same towns, and even intermarry.  We can get some idea of what Jesus thought of some of these customs, by looking a bit further into the Sermon.

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

Then, if our first impression of the Sermon was that this Messiah had come to destroy all law and custom, we were mistaken.  “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina