About the Book
Table of Contents
Part I: The Silences of God
Four Centuries of Silence
IN THE FOUR
hundred years which immediately preceded the birth of Jesus Christ,
God allowed mankind to conduct a unique experiment. In these
years there was made the profoundest search for the meaning of
life which the human intellect is ever likely to make. This search
took place not only in Greece, where the circumstances are probably
most familiar to Western readers, but also toward the East, in
The Golden Age of Greece
It was a time when exceptional individuals
were engaged in a quest for ultimate truth under peculiarly favourable
conditions. And it was a period when God remained silent, in
which He contributed no further light by means of revelation
from the time that Malachi had put away his inspired pen
(somewhere about 400 B.C.) until a Child was born in Bethlehem
and "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." By
the search for truth in this context, I have in mind the
search for the meaning of life, a meaning which cannot be found
until man has first come personally face to face with his God.
It was in this special sense, I believe,
that Paul spoke of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as being
only "in the fulness of time" (Galatians 4:4). It was
this same circumstance, I think, which led him to exclaim after
his visit to Athens -- as though with sudden insight -- that
it was only after (in the wisdom of God) men by wisdom had not
known God, that it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching
to save them that believe (1 Corinthians 1:21). Let us examine
briefly the events of these four hundred silent years, first
in Greece and then in India.
It is almost
universally conceded that the period from Pericles to Aristotle
marked the highest point in human history in terms of pure intellectual
achievement. Yet it was followed within a few
1 of 18
hundred years by what
must surely have been one of the darkest and most appalling periods
of history for free man and slave alike. It ended in a situation,
during the time of the Roman Empire, in which the elite of society
came to look upon suicide as the only logical escape, while the
slave could scarcely hope for the privilege of even this much
control of his own life. Farrar wrote some years ago of even
the more honourable segment of society of this time: (1)
Its marked characteristic was
despairing sadness, which became specially prominent in its most
sincere adherents. Its favorite theme was the glorification of
suicide, which wiser moralists had severely reprobated, but which
many Stoics praised as the one sane refuge against oppression
It was a philosophy which was indeed
able to lacerate the heart with righteous indignation against
the crimes and follies of mankind, but which vainly strove to
resist -- and which scarcely even hoped to stem, the ever-swelling
tide of vice and misery. For wretchedness it had no pity; on
vice it looked with impotent disdain. . . .
Even for those who had every advantage
of rank and wealth, nothing was possible but a life of crushing
sorrow ended by a death of complete despair.
Both Zeno and
Cleanthes (his successor in the School of Stoics) committed suicide.
Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, Seneca, and many other writers of
the times underscored the frequency of suicide under the empire.
In Trajan's time, suicide had become almost a national pastime;
the number of Latin phrases to describe it accordingly multiplied
to an extraordinary degree! The more violent solution was essentially
Roman, but even in Greece it had led to such a total resignation
to the "bludgeonings of chance" that men in the end
either sought to escape the hurts and cruelties of fate and the
boredom of life by allowing themselves no feelings whatsoever
(which is Stoicism), or by abandoning all restraint and adopting
a policy of eating and drinking and being merry and living only
for the pleasure of the moment (which is Epicureanism).
Meanwhile in India, by a different
route, the same basic problem led to a rather similar kind of
pessimistic solution -- the goal being individual extinction,
not by suicide, but by the destruction of all personal desire,
the achievement of Nirvana. This was the annihilation
of individual identity (which is Nihilism).
Such, then, was the fruit of philosophy
uncorrected and unenlightened in its development by revelation.
The search for the meaning of life was a dismal failure and resulted
in almost universal pessimism. The answer was suicide or abandonment
1. Farrar, Frederick W., The Early Days
of Christianity, Burt, New York, 1882, p.10, and footnote.
self-restraint or the
negation of all human responsiveness. It was really the annihilation
of man as man, while God was both unknown and unknowable.
Looking back upon those centuries
-- which at the outset seemed to hold such promise for so many
reasons but which ended up in such a sad denial of everything
rewarding that life has to offer when lived as God intends it
to be lived -- one cannot help but feel that this disappointing
experiment was allowed to run its course while God deliberately
remained silent, only that He might show once for all the inability
of man to discover the meaning of life by the mere exercise of
his own intellect and without the aid of revelation. Only then
did God break in on the darkness and reveal the truth in the
face of Jesus Christ. Only then did He send forth His Son to
reveal Himself to man, to show man the reality of his own fallen
nature, to demonstrate to man his true potential as originally
created, and to set forth the way of salvation whereby that potential
might be recovered once again and realized in a meaningful life.
Only then was hope restored to a world which seemed to have accepted
hopelessness as an inescapable fact of life.
For all the profoundness of his
search, man had not been able to diagnose correctly his own sickness
and the consequent sickness of society. Nor had he been able,
for all his searching, "to find out God." The end of
his search had led only, as Paul observed, to the erection of
an altar to God Unknown (Acts 17:23).
What happened, then, that such
promise brought forth so little that was either comforting or
reassuring or helpful to man as he faced the central issues of
his existence, leading rather only to a weary and disillusioned
Pilate asking, with little hope of finding the answer, "What
is truth?" (John 18:38).
It began indeed
with great promise. Probably no period in history witnessed such
a sudden liberation of the human mind from stifling and restrictive
devotion to the orthodoxies of the past. Only in the last century
of our own times have we witnessed a similar rejection of all
that has hitherto seemed so reasonable and meaningful in our
world view. The age of Pericles which initiated the Golden Age
of Greece provides some striking parallels in many ways. It could
indeed be that both periods will prove to share this in common
also, that they are harbingers of a sudden breaking of the silence
of God: that God will again burst upon an unexpecting world,
only this time not in the quiet way of the stable in Bethlehem,
but with a shout and the mighty trumpet of the archangel.
(490 - 429 B.C.) epitomized his age. He was a general
of no mean calibrer, a scholar, a philosopher, a patron of the
arts, and a great orator. Will Durant speaks of the society in
which he lived as being one of extraordinary ferment: (2)
No age has ever rivaled that
of Pericles in the number and grandeur of its philosophical ideas,
or in the vigor and exuberance with which they were debated.
Every issue that agitates the world today was bruited about in
ancient Athens, and with such freedom and eagerness that all
Greece except its youth was alarmed.
which it is not necessary to enter into here, circumstances had
contrived to turn Athens into a working democracy while Sparta
had remained essentially an aristocracy. In Athens the climate
was such as to favour the freest possible exchange of ideas and
to encourage every form of art, especially public debate and
monumental civic architectural embellishment. It was a golden
age indeed, spent in an environment that was naturally beautiful
and healthful in every way for the privileged who were free.
In due course, unfortunately, the
Athenians became missionary-minded with respect to their own
democratic way of life and soon engaged to convert neighbouring
Sparta. The Spartans were rugged individuals, accustomed to a
military discipline, despising the effete Athenians and their
profitless discussions: and they took violent exception to the
superior pose of their neighbours. The end result was at first
a disaster for Athens. The Athenians sought to improve their
neighbours by force, and in the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404
B.C.) their missionary zeal, coupled with their irresolution,
reduced them to a state of material impoverishment from which
they recovered only in part -- their land being laid waste, their
olive orchards (upon which so much of their wealth had depended)
being almost totally destroyed, and their pride subdued. The
struggle itself engendered in them a certain corruption of spirit,
as so often happens in wars between relatives.
Something sinister crept into Athenian
life, as it did in Rome once the Empire was established. For
somewhat the same reason, victor and defeated alike were affected
with the same blight. Losing the sense of honour -- for the war
between Athens and Sparta had become more and more vicious and
nasty (as Shakespeare said, "The nearer in blood, the nearer
bloody") -- people no longer behaved honourably, but masked
their behaviour with fine words. The former love of serious discussion
was debased to ingenious dispute,
2. Durant, Will, The Life of Greece,
Part II of The Story of Civilization, Simon and Schuster,
New York, 1939, p.349.
by which the most despicable
actions were made to appear noble. It became more important to
win the argument than to arrive at the truth -- as must sometimes
seem to be the case in our own legal wranglings today. Those
who loved wisdom and sought it for its own sake were replaced
by those who sought only to appear to be wise, and the
legitimate tactics of the sophists degenerated into mere sophistry.
Men became cynics. But not all men: for there was one who sought
to restore integrity and he, Socrates, was made a martyr for
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
We know very
little of Socrates except through the eyes of others. He wrote
nothing. His methods of arguing and his conversations are recorded
for us by Plato, who was his pupil for many years. We assume
that Plato has left us a true picture.
In appearance Socrates was anything
but handsome. To some extent he almost reminds us of Paul in
this respect! The only description we have tells us that in outward
appearance he was "grotesque." He was stout but not
tall, with prominent eyes, snub nose, broad nostrils, and wide
mouth. Plato says nevertheless that he was all glorious within,
the most righteous man of his age. (3)
Socrates' great contribution was
not in the answers he gave, for he is not recorded to have given
a single answer of his own to the stream of questions he proposed.
His great contribution was rather in his method. To every question
asked of him, he turned the tables on his questioner and propounded
a further one in return! He simply demanded the right to ask,
to challenge, to probe, to doubt. He became the first exponent
in Greece of a personal morality, an individual integrity based
rather on private conscience than on public behaviour. It was
this which finally exasperated his own countrymen of the
older generation and led to the demand that he be put to death
as a dangerous and unorthodox corrupter of youth.
As we have noted, sophism had become
sophistry. War had degraded the free spirit of inquiry of a former
generation into a wrangling over words: method had become of
greater importance than content, and winning an argument than
discovering the truth. It was possible to prove that black was
white by a series of graded misrepresentations, each of which
was too subtle to be exposed by the less sophisticated. Socrates
sought to undermine all this by challenging every supposedly
logical conclusion. He did not challenge the reality of the gods,
nor the value of piety and religious
3. Plato. Epinomis. viii, 326.
exercise. He sought to
purify rather than ridicule. But in spite of his intentions,
he succeeded in subtly shifting the direction of argument from
man's relationship to the gods and his destiny, to "What
is man?" He converted a corrupt religious orthodoxy into
an exhilarating humanism. He converted sin into mere ignorance,
which sufficient education could correct. He made the search
for truth of greater importance than the search for holiness.
Nevertheless, under his influence
and through the minds of his disciples, the forms of argument
and analysis were honed to a new kind of precision, and the Greek
language became the most perfect vehicle of logical expression.
It became, in fact, the instrument whereby the religious perceptiveness
of the Old Testament saints was woven by Paul through the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit into a Christian theology. As Barr has shown, (4) Hebrew could never have
become the language of theology in the sense that Greek did;
and but for this transformation, the whole fabric of Christian
faith would have remained experience-oriented and, being unstructured,
its impact outside the Hebrew nation would have remained uncertain
and cloudy. The Christian faith swept the Mediterranean world
because it was cast in a Greek mold, in a language whose capacity
for the conveying of compulsive logic was to a large extent perfected
by the Sophists and by Socrates and his successors, Plato and
Yet, even while this refining process
was going on, the subject matter of philosophy drew steadily
away from the objective of truth which had been conceived by
the Old Testament prophets in experiential form. Pindar (5) at the opening of the fifth
century B.C. had accepted the oracle of Delphi piously; Aeschylus
defended it politically; Herodotus, about 450, criticized it
timidly; Thucydides, at the end of the century, openly rejected
it. As Durant says, (6)
"The Sophists must not be blamed or credited for all of
this; much of it was in the air . . . their role in the deterioration
of morals was likewise contributory rather than basic."
But the Sophists unwittingly quickened the disintegration of
the old order.
Had the trends of the time continued
until intellectualism had discredited itself by its own corrupt
all might have been different. The old orthodoxies might have
returned, purified and "modernized" perhaps, but essentially
as before. But Socrates by his very integrity had the effect
of destroying the old faith by his honest questionings, while
substituting in its place, not a new faith, but
4. Barr, James, The Semantics of Biblical
Language, Oxford, 1961, chaps. 2 and 9.
5. Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Part II in The
Story of Civiization, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1939,
6. Ibid., p.362.
entirely new lines of
inquiry which turned men's attention (via Plato, 427 - 347 B.C.)
first of all to the question of the nature of man rather than
his destiny: and then (via Plato's pupil, Aristotle [384 - 322])
to the nature of the universe rather than its purpose.
Socrates died in 399 B.C. Plato
eulogized him as "truly the wisest, and justest, and best
of all men whom I have ever known." (7) Yet this same Socrates initiated a purely philosophical
movement, entirely divorced in the end from any religious association,
which left men without faith, without hope, and without any certainty
whatever except that the only wise course was to doubt everything.
Centuries later, his followers were to gain almost universal
assent to the fatal idea that human intellect is capable of discovering
the whole truth (in which "truth" can be equated with
our current phrase, "the ultimate meaning of life"),
not by the exercise of faith but by the exercise of doubt,
a principle underlying the methods of scientific inquiry
The Greek concept of human nature
which identified sin with ignorance and saw education as the
answer to all individual and social ills is still with us --
in spite of centuries of dismal failure in its application. It
utterly defeated their search for a social Utopia, and when transplanted
into Roman thinking, the results were not merely equally futile
but even more disastrous for reasons we may now look at briefly.
And insofar as Western man still seeks to build his Utopias along
the lines of the Greek idea, the same tragic error continues
to repeat itself with the same disastrous results. The amazing
thing is that the dialectic method, which Socrates received from
the Sophists who preceded him, was passed down through Plato
to Aristotle, who turned it into a system of logic so complete
that it has remained essentially unaltered for two thousand years.
Yet basically the whole tremendous adventure had proved a failure.
As Durant has put it so effectively: (8)
Every hypothesis had been conceived,
aired, and forgotten; the universe had preserved its secret,
and men had grown weary of a search in which even the most brilliant
minds had failed. Aristotle had agreed with Plato on only one
point--the possibility of acquiring ultimate truth. Pyrrho voiced
the suspicions of his time in suggesting that it was above all
on this point that they had both been mistaken.
Pyrrho was born
at Elis about 360 B.C. His pupil, Timan of Phlius, sent Pyrrho's
opinions abroad into the world in a series of Satires: (9)
7. Plato, Phaedrus, last line.
8. Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Part II in The
Story of Civiization, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1939,
These opinions were basically three:
that certainty is unattainable, that the wise man will suspend
judgment and will seek tranquillity rather than truth, and that,
since all theories are probably false, one might as well accept
the myths and conventions of his time and place. Neither the
senses nor reason can give us sure knowledge: the senses
distort the object in perceiving it and reason is merely the
sophist servant of desire, i.e., "the plaything of bias."
There are no
certainties: the same gods exist or do not exist, according to
the different nations of mankind. Indeed, nothing is quite
true. Even life is an uncertain good. Such broadness of mind,
which today we seem to feel must be applauded, had the logical
effect of leading to complete mental confusion. Arcesilaus, one
of the followers of Plato, introduced complete skepticism into
the thought of his day by setting up shop for himself and lecturing
one morning for one opinion and the next morning against it,
proving each so well as to destroy them both!
Alexander the Great (ruled 336
But Aristotle had a special
part to play in this stream of influence, due to the fact
that he became a tutor of Alexander the Great.
In a work that
has become a classic of its kind, Edward S. Creasy, speaking
of the influence of Alexander on subsequent human history, observed:
The lasting importance
of Alexander's conquest is to be estimated, not by the duration
of his own life and empire, or even by the duration of the kingdoms
which his Generals after his death formed out of the fragments
of that mighty dominion. In every region of the world that he
traversed Alexander planted Greek settlements and founded cities
in the populations of which the Greek element at once asserted
Such was the ascendancy of the
Greek genius, so wonderfully comprehensive and assimilating was
the cultivation which it introduced, that within thirty years
after Alexander crossed the Hellespont, the Greek language was
spoken in every country from the shores of the Aegean to the
Indus and throughout Egypt--not, indeed, wholly to the extirpation
of the native dialects, but it became the language of every court,
of all literature, of every judicial and political function,
and formed a medium of communication among the many myriads of
mankind inhabiting these large portions of the Old World. . .
The infinite value of this to humanity
from the highest and holiest point of view has often been pointed
out, and the workings of the finger of Providence have been gratefully
recognized by those who have observed how the early growth and
progress of Christianity were aided by the diffusion of the
10. Creasy, Edward S., Decisive Battles
of the World, Volume X in The World's Great Classics,
Colonial Press, New York, 1900, pp. 61-62.
Greek language and civilization throughout
Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, which had been caused by the Macedonian
conquest of the East.
It is almost
impossible to overestimate the importance of Alexander's conquests
as a catalyst to prepare the world for the coming of the Lord.
It is equally important to bear in mind that he came upon the
stage of history at the very height of the great Greek intellectual
adventure, for he had Aristotle as his tutor. But it is no less
important to remember that what he conveyed to the rest of the
world in terms of Greek thought was not so much a finished system
of philosophy which had discovered at long last answers to the
most profound questions which trouble men (questions regarding
personal significance, the meaning of life, human destiny, and
the nature of God), but rather a spirit of openness and doubt.
It was a spirit of openness to new ideas which laid aside the
narrow-minded and highly localized religious views that had hitherto
characterized the Middle East, where every nation had its own
gods and priestly rituals and rigid orthodoxies. But it was also
a spirit of doubt which in the end replaced all the old assurances
and certainties that had half-satisfied man's religious instincts
in the past. Alexander destroyed this religious insularity, not
by encouraging disrespect for the old ways and the old deities,
but by spreading abroad a spirit of tolerance for new ideas and
new philosophies of life.
Alexander drew together the East
and the West in an entirely new way by an amalgamation of populations:
not by uprooting people as the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs
had done, but by inviting the colonization of each new conquered
region by those from other regions previously within his jurisdiction.
There came about an extraordinary mixing of the races as a consequence.
Through the dissemination of Greek as a common tongue -- as Durant
has put it -- "a cultural unity was now established which
lasted in the eastern Mediterranean for almost a thousand years.
All educated men learned Greek as the common medium of diplomacy,
literature and science." (11) A book written in Greek could be understood anywhere
in the Middle East or around the Mediterranean Sea by anyone
who could read; a cursive script developed and became more or
less standardized, replacing the multitude of different orthographies
that previously existed.
The unification of this world,
especially during the time of the Roman Empire, made travel possible
both for business and for
11. Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Part
II in The Story of Civilization, Simon & Schuster,
New York, 1939, p.600.
pleasure. The enormous
number of slaves who flooded the market also allowed the mass
production of books. One educated slave would read aloud to twenty
others, who would transcribe his words and thus multiply copies
of the great works of antiquity, until libraries both private
and public became almost commonplace. It has been said that the
facilities for education were actually more widespread from around
200 B.C. onward than they were in 1850 A.D. (12) Even newspapers, likewise transcribed by hand by
slaves, came to be published, thus making possible the wide dissemination
of news. One daily paper was published in Rome, called Acta
Diurna, i.e., "Daily News." (13) The papyri show us how common writing was, even among
ordinary folk; and Romans of any distinction either had their
sons educated by Greeks who not long ago had been slaves, or
by sending them to the University of Athens, or Antioch or Tarsus
and elsewhere. Both Cicero and Horace were thus educated. The
Roman conquests extended the influence that Alexander had initiated,
because of the extraordinary number of slaves on the market,
especially during the period of Augustus and his successors.
The peoples whom they conquered were sold into slavery, and a
very large number of these people were better educated than those
who purchased them. Such slaves often became the tutors of their
masters and their children. The numbers of individuals involved
are extraordinary. (14)
Ten thousand might be sold in a single day in Rome. Caesar actually
sold 63,000 Gauls on a single occasion. In Athens there were
400,000 slaves to 20,000 free men. In Rome there were probably
650,000 slaves at least, and it is estimated that there were
more than 60,000,000 slaves in the Empire. Augustus himself personally
left over 4,000 slaves in his will! Since Eastern slaves tended
to be more educated than their masters, under the Romans such
men had the opportunity of bettering themselves and often purchased
their freedom. Hundreds of thousands did not achieve this desirable
goal, of course, and their lot was truly appalling, since they
had no status of any kind. They were merely "things"
and were fed to beasts to entertain the populace with as little
thought as men fed scraps of meat to their dogs. Yet those who
were educated were in sufficient numbers that they effectively
prepared the way (by educating the children of wealthier Romans)
for the dissemination of Greek culture and the preparation of
a seedbed for the literature of the New Testament. The publishing
of books became so common that the multiplication and spread
of the Gospels and Epistles could actually
12. Angus, S., The Environment of Early
Christianity, Duckworth, London, 1914, p.15 footnote.
13. Ibid., p.16.
14. Ibid., pp. 22, 38.
be taken for granted
and could occur remarkably quickly.
Durant points this out: (15)
The stream of books now swelled
to proportions unknown before...In the book shops that crowded
a district called Argiletum...impecunious bibliophiles furtively
read snatches of the books they could not buy. Placards on the
walls announced new titles and their cost...Books were exported
to all parts of the Empire or were published simultaneously in
Rome, Lyons, Athens and Alexandria. The Roman author, Martial,
was pleased to learn that he was bought and sold in Britain.
. . .
One of the greatest
of all libraries was that founded by Ptolemy in Alexandria. It
is probable that there were over a half-million volumes in its
holdings. Polybius tells us that libraries were quite common
in the second century B.C. (16) Augustus himself established two libraries in Rome.
Another significant effect of Alexander's
conquest -- an effect not nearly so evident in the Roman conquests
which came later -- was the liberation of the colossal fortunes
hoarded by oriental despots, and their release as productive
wealth and as a means of establishing a leisure class which became
patron of the arts. Many of these patrons travelled widely, and
indeed, cosmopolitanism reached its height during the time of
the Empire. As wealthy men may travel in style today, so they
travelled then in safety and over established routes. And as
they travelled, many of them read -- like the modern traveller
on plane or train. So was the eunuch travelling and reading,
whom Philip led to the Lord (Acts 8:28). Numerous bodyguards
were not required. Those who carried the gospel could walk or
ride or travel by boat with every assurance of reaching their
destination. And Paul could, with confidence, convey money from
one city to another, or have a friend bring him books and parchments
from some distant town.
Free speech seems to have been
permitted everywhere, and oratory was always praised. (17) In addition, the cynics
who formed one division of the Stoics of Socrates' time seem
to have made popular a kind of preaching ministry as they wandered
from place to place, challenging the artificiality of their own
culture. In spite of what one might suppose to the contrary,
there was a great tolerance in religious matters. Only later,
when the republic had become the Empire and the authority of
the Senate usurped by autocratic individuals like Augustus (63
B.C. / A.D. 14), did it become dangerous to
15. Durant, Will, Caesar and Christ, Part
III of The Story of Civilization, Simon and Schuster,
New York, 1944, p.234.
16. Angus, S., The Environment of Early Christianity, Duckworth,
London, 1914, p.18.
17. Ibid., pp. 74-75.
have personal opinions
in such matters -- and even then the danger existed for the most
part in the larger cities. In the country and in the provinces
there was still much tolerance and openness toward new ideas.
Yet for all this exchange of ideas
and freedom of thought, there were no certainties about the great
issues of life. It was a time of great disillusionment and pessimism.
The scholar had replaced the prophet, and reason had taken the
place of revelation. As a consequence, morality had probably
reached the lowest ebb it has ever reached among people who were
otherwise so civilized. Hope was virtually non-existent. The
solution sought by those who remained in the empire, representing
the old nobility of the republic, was almost universally accepted
as suicide. And for the rest of the population, the innumerable
multitude of men without faith or money or education or any kind
of personal integrity or freedom, it was to live like animals
from day to day, demanding bread for life and an endless round
of circuses to help them forget it. Each new spectacle quickly
dulled their senses until they urged the authorities to even
more desperate attempts at satisfying their hunger for thrills
and excitement. Whole battles were re-enacted in the arenas in
which men slaughtered each other by the thousands. So totally
removed from any moral sense was the religious sentiment of the
day that the greatest massacres were reserved for the hungry
populace on religious holidays. (18) And the best seats, the front seats, were reserved
for the holiest vestal virgins. Angus remarked: (19)
In studying the religious life
of the Graeco-Roman period one is first struck by its religious
destitution and by the earnest striving after a new faith.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ could
not have come at a better time to find men in a serious mood...A
crisis in religious life had occurred when the idea of a strictly
local god was shattered and with it the traditional culture and
the national faith.
In a curious
way, it came about that the morality of the gods became lower
than that of the worshipers. Thus religious faith, per se,
18. Ibid., p.43. "Gladiatorial
games were introduced 264 B.C. under the pretext of religion:
they were defended as a means of sustaining the military spirit,
like duels in Germany. Gladiatorial shows were given at the public
games and at the banquets of the rich. The combatants were slaves,
criminals or captives; later even freemen entered the arena,
so great was the glory of successful combat. Exhibitors vied
with each other in the numbers exposed to slaughter. Caesar put
320 pairs up at once; Agrippa caused 700 pairs to fight in one
day at Berytus; under Augustus 10,000 fought; Titus, 'the darling
of the human race,' put up 3000; Trajan amused Rome for 123 days
by exhibiting 10,000 captives in mutual slaughter. Rome's holiest
vestals had seats of honour in the arena. Claudius liked to witness
the contortions of the young gladiators."
19. Ibid., p.68.
to have any potent influence
on moral behaviour. Not every man was thus degraded, however,
and not infrequently one sees in the literature of the day a
growing sense of hope that there might yet come by some process
of incarnation some Great One who would right wrongs, who would
provide certainties where there were none, who would show men
how to live and what to live for, and who would rule the world
in righteousness and restore the old ways. In Virgil, both in
the Georgics and the Aeneid, we meet with a conception
of a Messiah. (20) There
is no difficulty in supposing that he derived these beliefs from
an Eastern source, either from a Greek version of Isaiah, perhaps,
or from the Jewish Sibylline Books. The Romans could hardly have
had so much to do with Syria from the second century B.C. onward
without learning something of Jewish messianic hopes. Moreover,
in the library at Alexandria was a copy of the Old Testament
in Greek written specifically at the request of Ptolemy and supposedly
produced by seventy or seventy-two Jewish scholars, whence its
name "the Septuagint." According to Tacitus, the majority
of the Jews were persuaded that the time was drawing near for
the Orient to get the upper hand again and that from Judea should
come the future ruler of the world; Suetonius wrote that an ancient
and persistent idea was circulating that the rulers of the world
in the future should arise from Judea. There is no question that
Cicero strongly believed in a Messiah who would put the world
straight, a belief which he almost certainly obtained from well-to-do
Jewish friends who formed part of the community in Rome.
The Rise of Philosophy in India
Certainly the stage was being set
around the Mediterranean. It remains only to be seen what had
been happening during these years to the East, in India.
Europe has drawn
its inspiration from west of Mesopotamia and owes very little
to the culture of India and the Far East. From Babylonia, via
the Sumerians, we derived much of our original technology; from
Palestine, our spiritual heritage; from Greece, our philosophical
insights; and from Rome, much of our legal and administrative
expertise. We are apt to suppose that to the east of Mesopotamia
little happened either in the realm of technology or philosophy.
Actually a great deal happened.
20. Messianic hope: Taylor Caldwell, in her
masterly study of Cicero under the title Pillar of Iron
(Doubleday, New York, 1965), presents an intriguing and
quite accurate picture of how widespread this hope was among
educated Gentiles. See also S. Angus, The Environment of Early
Christianity, Duckworth, London, 1914, pp.137-38, for a discussion
of this point.
In China, technology followed a course of development
which would astound most Western readers if they but knew the
levels of sophistication which it achieved while we, for our
part, were still barely civilized. (21) But the Chinese did not engage in philosophy in the
true sense of the word. They were intensely practical, and the
idea of pursuing truth for its own sake did not appeal to them.
They loved wisdom only in a canny sort of way, as an aid to personal
success or social acceptance or political advancement.
The people of India, however, had
a natural philosophical bent which engaged them in contemplation
of the deepest and least immediately practical mysteries of life.
(22) They reflected
upon the nature of the gods and the problem of evil and human
destiny, subjects which interested the Chinese scarcely at all.
But unlike the Chinese, the people of India were virtually without
any drive for technological improvement beyond barely getting
Hence it came about that neither
in China nor in India did "science" arise, for science
results only from the application of truly philosophical speculation
to a sophisticated technology. Philosophy and technology must
be married before science can emerge. (23) Thus Western culture, which was the child of such
a wedding, advanced so remarkably as to cast the philosophical
achievements of India and the technological achievements of China
into almost total shade. We grow up, for the most part, with
little or no awareness of the Indian powers of philosophical
penetration on the one hand, or the Chinese capacity for invention
on the other. Only in comparatively recent times has this awareness
begun to stir, especially in relation to ancient Chinese civilization,
largely as a consequence of Needham's massive -- one might say,
encyclopedic -- work on the subject, in process of publication
by the Cambridge University Press. (24)
It is the philosophy of India,
however, that concerns us here, and more particularly that part
of it which came into being during these same silent centuries
in which we have traced very briefly the course of Greek and
Roman philosophical development.
21. Chinese technology: for a useful and fairly
detailed study of this, see "The Technology of Hamitic People,"
Part IV, "The Part Played by Shem, Ham and Japheth in Subsequent
World History" (chapter 3), and "A Christian World
View. The Framework of History" (chapters 4 and 5), Part
V, all in Noah's Three Sons, vol.1 of The Doorway Papers
22. Indian philosophy: see Volume I of the Doorway Papers, specifically
"The Part Played by Shem, Ham, and Japheth in Subsequent
World History" (chapter 3), Part I, and "A Christian
World View: The Framework of History" (chapter 4), Part
V, all in Noah's Three Sons, vol.1 of The Doorway Papers
23. The emergence of science: see "A Christian World View:
The Framework of History" (chapter 4), Part V in Noah's
Three Sons, vol.1 of The Doorway Papers.
24. Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization of China, Cambridge
University Press, 1954 and ff.
As the striking resemblances among the Aryan languages
admitted little doubt that they have all sprung from one source,
so the religions of the various branches of the Aryan race appear
to have had at one time a common faith. (25) It is generally agreed that the chief deity, "the
God of Heaven," was acknowledged by the Greeks, Romans,
and Hindus to be wise, powerful, good, and supreme. Moreover,
He bore a kind of relationship to the human race which is best
described by the title "Heavenly Father." The people
of India derived their religious faith initially from Persia
and with it a profound involvement and concern for the great
problem of evil, the problem of human suffering. Indeed, Hindu
philosophers were even more specifically engrossed, not so much
in the problem of suffering, as in the problem of undeserved
suffering. Their whole object was to find some way of mitigating
human tragedy by giving meaning and value to grief and pain.
According to Maritain, (26) they went astray at the very outset, being misled
by the dualism of Zoroaster which came to them from Persia. It
led them to suppose that there was no escape from evil, no possibility
of a heaven of bliss hereafter, no ultimate triumph of good over
evil. And so they sought, instead, to find means of accepting
evil in such a way that it no longer proved an insupportable
burden to the human heart and mind.
About 500 B.C. an Indian philosopher
named Guatama, later to be named Buddha (which means "the
enlightened one"), spent a lifetime reflecting upon the
problem of how man could find peace in the face of inescapable
evil both within himself and in the universe. Having no revelation
of God to guide him such as exists in the Old Testament, he became
wholly dependent upon his own intellect and powers of reason.
To him the answer to the enigma of suffering was not to be sought
in any appeal to a Saviour-God, but rather by finding a way of
reaching such a state of abnegation of human desire in any form
that the soul ceases to have any real selfhood of its own with
which to react to the hurts of life. The objective was to annihilate
Man should seek, Gautama held, so to
sublimate his own will that by the end of his life there would
be no part of his self left to suffer. Since such a state was
exceedingly difficult to achieve wholly within a single lifetime,
the individual was almost certain to die with a residuum of individuality
still remaining. The sufferer was therefore destined to be reincarnated
and to begin a new existence with
25. On this see "Primitive Monotheism", Part
II in Evolution or Cretion? vol.4 of The Doorway papers
Series and "The Trinity in the Old Testament", Part
V in The Virgin Birth and The Incarnation, vol.5 of The
Doorway Papers Series.
26. Maritain, Jacques, An Introduction to Philosophy, Sheed
and Ward, New York, 1955, p.43
that residuum. If through
that second life he was less successful in reducing what remained
of self, he might enter a third life with even more -- and as
a consequence, be more subject to the pain of living than he
had been two lives ago. The object was so to live that in each
subsequent life the self would be progressively reduced until
the final goal was reached in which it ceased altogether. In
some mystical way such a soul was re-absorbed into the
universe in such a form or state as to be totally immune to further
suffering. Perfection was to be achieved by annihilation of the
individual as such. This was Nirvana.
To us this seems a terribly pessimistic
view of life. Gandhi himself said, "I do not want to be
The philosopher Bhartri-hari said: "Everything on earth
gives cause for fear, and the only freedom from fear is to be
found in the renunciation of all desire." (28) Thus Indian philosophy, which started centuries before
Buddha with a concept of God as the "God of Light,"
ended up first ignoring His existence and then denying it. The
search for truth unguided by revelation led to a complete pessimism
and even the denial of the worth of existence itself.
The Vedas which originated with
a hardy Aryan race to the north were full of optimism. But Buddha,
representing the same racial stock five hundred years later,
denied even the value of life. Some centuries later still, the
Puranas presented a view of life as totally pessimistic
as it seems possible for man to conceive. Philosophy unguided
by revelation led Rome into the same pessimism.
When God is publicly silent and
no longer steps in to correct man's unaided reasonings about
his own nature and destiny and relationship with Himself, then
hope decays in human society as a whole. And when God is privately
silent, personal hope also weakens and decays. It is the
silence of God that is our basic problem. When the righteous
or the innocent suffer unaccountably, when the wicked prosper,
when prayer is unanswered and the heavens are as brass -- when
God seems to be dead -- then human suffering becomes totally
meaningless and all we are left with is a search for escape.
By Stoicism or Epicureanism in Greece, by suicide in Rome, by
annhilism in India, men have sought to come to terms with the
27. Gandhi: quoted by R. Rolland, Prophets
of the New India, New York, 1930, p.49
28. Bhartri-hari: quoted by Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage,
Part I of The Story of Civilization, Simon and Schuster,
Human reason in India, like human reason in Greece,
when left to its own resources discovered less and less about
God, until He became in Greece merely Unknown (Acts 17:23), and
in India denied altogether. It may not be so surprising, therefore,
that a modern educational system fashioned by intellectuals having
little faith in revelation but great faith in the powers of the
human intellect should have produced in increasing numbers thousands
of young people who have lost their way, and in their bewilderment
turn again to the "wisdom" of India in their search
for escape. Indian philosophy proves more congenial in that it
reflects their own despair. It is not that God is dead, it is
only that God is silent: and total silence is virtually the same
Can we not discern
in all this that God had a purpose in terminating a long succession
of inspired writings some four hundred years before He broke
through the gloom in the person of Jesus Christ as a light to
lighten the Gentiles? It was that man might discover for himself
how total is his inability to arrive at truth in spiritual matters,
in things that concern his own destiny and his relationship to
God. Only at the end of this period of silence, after that in
the wisdom of God, men "by wisdom knew not God" (1
Corinthians 1:21), did God send forth His Son. He came only "in
the fulness of time" (Galatians 4:4), when the time was
ripe, and not before. He came when both Greeks and Romans had
been reduced to erecting an altar to the Unknown God (Acts 17:23).
Never will man be able to say that the Incarnation was not necessary,
that man would in time have been able to "find out the Almighty
unto perfection" (Job 11:7), given sufficient intellect.
But in this interval some positive
gains accrued, in that the Mediterranean world was knitted together
with a common language of culture (Greek), a common system of
law (Roman), and with avenues of travel and transport in safety
opened up throughout the Empire. The way was prepared for the
great missionary endeavour of the early church, and even the
ministry of travelling preachers had already been established
as a precedent for the journeys of Paul and Peter and the other
apostles. There is evidence, too, that the liberal policies of
Alexander the Great and his successors had engineered a climate
of opinion favourable to new ideas which had not existed at any
time previously. Provincialism in the realm of religious faith
centred in strictly national deities had been broken down. One
consequence of this was that almost all men were left without
certainty in their religious
faith, with the sole exception of the Jewish people, who, by
reason of their study of the prophecies of Daniel regarding the
near approach of the coming of their Messiah, were living in
an atmosphere of great expectation. This expectation is indicated
in Luke's Gospel (3:15); if we are to judge from Latin authors
of that period, it was an expectancy shared by many Gentiles
of a more thoughtful mien. These latter had been stimulated by
the tremendous increase in the circulation of books, among which
were important parts of the Jewish Scriptures. This literary
activity naturally prepared the way for the spread of the gospel
in printed form. It was a time of preparation, yet it was a time
in which God had remained silent.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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God had remained silent, both in
the sense that He gave no public manifestations of His power
or presence, and in the sense that He had withheld any further
revelation in written form. The records we have from the apocryphal
books which treat of the experiences of the Jewish people during
this interval reinforce this silence in view of the fact that
despite their desperate struggle to maintain some kind of national
identity and their extraordinary sacrifices in terms of loss
of life, it does not appear that God intervened on their behalf
even when the circumstances seemed most proper for such intervention
nor were any inspired writings added to the Old Testament Scriptures.
One must conclude that God's covenant
relationship with this people which had been sustained from Genesis
to Malachi was for these four hundred years, suspended. And its
suspension was accompanied by the cessation of any public manifestation
of His presence or power.
And then, suddenly, a heavenly
host announced to a few shepherds the birth of the Messiah. .