New Religions and Cultural Exchange

New Religions

Jesus of Nazareth did not call his disciples “Christians”… the term was coined by observers in the city of Antioch sometime in the 30s or 40s AD who witnessed Greek-speaking followers of Jesus passionately affirming his unique status as the christos (anointed) Jewish “Son of God” who had risen form the dead (Acts 11:26).  The neologism illustrates a point of exceptional importance in tracing the emergence of Christianity: that it was a process based upon the physical movement of ideas into a world beyond Galilee and Roman Judaea.  And as the ideas travelled, they found themselves in cultural surroundings significantly different from the world that Jesus had known.  This in turn stimulated an astonishingly extensive and diverse series of responses to Jesus and his teachings as reported.  And the emergence of Christianity is the history of the relationship between those ideas and their origins in the ancient Near East.  (John Curran – Queen’s University Belfast)

Religions are not static entities; they are always undergoing transformation as the faith is passed to each new generation.  In a rapidly changing culture, such as that characterizing the modern West, we should not find it surprising that around the fringes of the older religious bodies, new religions are constantly born.  (J. Gordon Melton University of California, Santa Barbara)

Most new religions emerge within a previously existing religious context, a context which initially nurtured it and from which it draws basic insights.  (J. Gordon Melton University of California, Santa Barbara)

New religions arise to challenge the insufficiencies of the older religious communities.  The ferment they cause at the edge of familiar religion reverberates through those whose own religious ideals are family rooted in tradition.  New religious thus become the target of religious polemicists who freely challenge their spiritual credentials.  New religious are, in many cases, religions still in the process of becoming.  They change rapidly and mature slowly.  (J. Gordon Melton University of California, Santa Barbara)

Almost by definition, new religious are dissenters, offering different paths from those that dominate in society.  (J. Gordon Melton University of California, Santa Barbara)

Religions are never static, as they are always, to a greater or lesser extent, in the process of evolution.  They are ways of life that shape, and are shaped by, their contexts.  Consequently, throughout religious history and within every culture, there have been reform movements, revivals and novel developments; new emphases emerge, mystical ideas evolve, fundamentalisms resurge and old forms of religious die out.  In other words, new religious, sects and alternative spiritualties have always been part of the flow of religious history.  (Christopher Partridge Professor Lancaster University)

When religions and cultures meet the result is often the emergence of new lines of enquiry, some of which seek interreligious integration and others of which resist dialogue and explore avenues of “fundamentalist” opposition.  Throughout the world there are numerous examples of movements that have appeared as the result of the merging of religious traditions (syncretism) or as the result of resistance to “foreign” or “heretical” traditions.  (Bronislaw Szerszynski  Lancaster University)

Cultural Exchange


chickenTikka 1456164c New Religions and Cultural Exchange


Robin Cook speech celebrating “Britishness” and saying that Chicken Tikka Massala is now the British national dish

Chicken Balti – invented in Birmingham?

Santa Claus “The modern figure of Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, which, in turn, was part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of Christian bishop and gift giver Saint Nicholas. During the Christianization of Germanic Europe, this figure may have absorbed elements of the god Odin, who was associated with the pre-Christian midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky”.

Days of the week “The days of the week have been named after the seven planets of classical astronomy, since the Roman period”.

Romans and Greek gods  “In matters of theology, the Romans were curiously eager to identify their own gods with those of the Greeks (interpretatio graeca), and to reinterpret stories about Greek deities under the names of their Roman counterparts”.

That the Greeks borrowed from their Mediterranean neighbours is obvious: no human society lives in a vacuum, untouched by the customs of other peoples … More important, however, is what the Greeks made of their borrowings. Consider the Greek alphabet, the elements of which were adapted from the Phoenician around the 9th century. The Greek changes … made possible in just a few centuries the language of Homer’s epics and Sappho’s lyrics, a literary speech unrivalled in expressive power … by anything found among the few remnants of Phoenician writing. (Bruce Thornton – Professor California State, Hoover Fellow)

Woolf talks in terms of deliberate moments of hybridisation – such as the creation of the cult of Isis in Egypt after Alexander the Great’s conquest. That was, he argues, an official fusing of Greek, Egyptian and Macedonian elements as a practical and locally contingent act (though the cult later spread widely through the Roman world, even as far as York). “Someone has to think of a chicken tikka pizza,” he says. “It doesn’t just happen.”  (Professor Greg Woolf St Andrews University) (from article by Charlotte Higgins)

Access to newly discovered or newly available texts is allowing classicists to reframe the terms of engagement between cultures: less a one-way importation, followed by transformation and “perfection” of the original influences, and more a dialogue, or an “intertwining” as Johannes Haubold, Professor of Greek at Durham University, puts it.

Today the study of Hellenistic thought and philosophy at the beginning of the Roman Empire reveals more clearly the syncretism and eclecticism which are characteristic of this epochPhilo borrowed Greek concepts which serve to explain what is the object of his faith and to express it to his readers. He does this unhesitatingly and with confidence.   (C. MONDÉSERT  – Professor Institut des Sources Chretiennes) 

His Jewish name was Saul and his Roman, Paul, which in his extant works written in Greek he naturally preferred.  (W.D. Davies – Professor Princeton and Duke)

As traders, sailors, mercenary soldiers, governmental officials, performing artists, and refugees, Greeks were exposed to and participated in “foreign” cults, either cults of other Greek cities or, more commonly, Egyptian, Syrian, and other non-Greek cults—cults of peoples who now too were moving freely around the Mediterranean world. Delos, which became a major international trading center after 167/166 bce, epitomizes this development. Apollo’s island was soon filled with a bewildering variety of Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, local Greek, and Roman cults, and Delos provides extensive epigraphical evidence of Greeks of many cities now participating and officiating in Egyptian cults, Syrians in Greek cults, and Romans in cults of all nationalities. International centers such as Delos and the new cities founded by Macedonian kings with heterogeneous populations, such as Antioch, became the melting pots for Greek religion, breaking down distinctions between Greek and foreign deities and rituals and between nationalities of worshipers. In these cities Greek deities were assimilated to foreign deities (what is often called syncretism), foreign deities were given Greek names, and foreign cult structures were adopted by some Greek cults. As traveling and emigrant Greeks returned to their home cities, they brought with them their new deities, and these were gradually added to the pantheon of their homelands. Again, the “old” Greek cities of the mainland seem most resistant to the changes, but Greek cities in Asia Minor, physically closer to the homelands of these “new” foreign cults and more open to influences from indigenous peoples, appear more readily and completely to have accepted the new mix of foreign cults that came to characterize late Hellenistic and Greco-Roman religion. (Jon Mikalson – Professor University of Virginia)

it is clear that the existence of the empire between 200 bce and 200 ce must have been a factor giving conditions of relative tranquility and ease of travel throughout the Mediterranean area and also deep into central Europe and the Near and Middle East. Whether it was easy to move around, it is clear that much movement of population did take place and that the cities of the whole empire came to consist not just of locally based communities, but mixtures of different kinds; in many cases, their religious cults and practices traveled together with these mobile groups. We find Greek communities in the west, Egyptian communities and Jewish communities everywhere. The Romans promoted this process themselves, first, by importing and subsequently freeing very large numbers of slaves from all over the eastern world; second, they both exported Roman citizens into the provinces and gave the rights of citizenship to members, especially influential members, of the local elites. Later still, citizenship was conferred on free people throughout the empire. The coexistence of these different ethnic groups certainly led to a religious life of rich variety in many parts of the empire, and the evidence proves not only that a wide range of cults existed, but also that individuals joined them on the basis of religious preferences and a desire for particular kinds of experience. Thus the Egyptian cult of Isis spread far outside Egypt; the cult of Mithras, perhaps from Persia, but heavily adapted to Western tastes, became widespread in frontier areas of the empire; non-Jews attached themselves to Jewish practices although there was little encouragement from the Jewish authorities to do so. (John North – Professor University College London)

Gruen insists throughout on the idea that the
Greeks and Romans were more aware of their connections with, and similarities
to, the ‘other’ than scholars have given them credit for.
his book raises the question of whether ‘other’ – a term he holds at arm’s
length by enclosing it in quotes and capitalising it – is a useful term at all.
While rethinking how the ancient world regarded the ‘other’, he is also
rethinking the ‘other’ as a category of inquiry. Merely by talking about ‘others’, he suggests, we are imposing a
duality, or even an antithesis, that is false to the inclusive spirit of the
ancient world.
(from book review of Eric Gruen – Professor Berkley – by James Romm)

Rethinking the Other [by Erich Gruen] highlights the prevalence of an alternative strand in ancient thought that was both affirmative and inclusive, whilst acknowledging that
Greeks, Romans and Jews occasionally accentuated the differences between
themselves and foreigners. (book review by Joseph Skinner Liverpool)

veritable paean to ancient interconnectedness, it stresses the extent to which, amidst a ‘polyglot and tangled universe’ (253), Greeks, Romans and Jews consistently demonstrated a willingness to ‘reach out’ to others, exhibiting a hitherto unrecognized degree of openness towards people of different outlook, culture and physique. The
reason for modernity’s tendency to generate reductive and misleading analyses
stressing ‘the stigmatization of “the Other” as a strategy of self-assertion
and superiority  … … The chapters dealing with Jewish perceptions of outsiders also represent a significant addition to scholarship by tracing the links between Jews, Greeks, Ishmaelites and Arabs at the expense of the traditional rhetoric of
an impassioned challenge to the lazy monologue of self/other which has cast such a long shadow over modern scholarship. (book review by Joseph Skinner Liverpool) [italics added]

Segal begins his study by tracing the evolution of the Israelite
concept of covenant which, as embodied in Torah, served as the basic myth or root metaphor
not only of ancient Israel but also of the many Jewish groups which developed during the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
As Segal observes, all segments of Jewish society
were affected by Hellenization
, albeit at different rates. The Maccabean
revolt was caused in part by the different responses
to Hellenistic culture among Judea’s social classes. (from Barbara H. Geller Nathanson review of Alan F. Segal “Rebecca’s Children”)

Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been Elvis, there would not have been the Beatles.  (John Lennon)

Philo [of Alexandria] represents a high point in the long-established Greek Jewish
tradition of the Diaspora. This tradition, which produced the Greek translation
of the Hebrew bible, connected Greek education and philosophy with Jewish culture,
and adapted many elements of the surrounding culture, perhaps most importantly
allegorical interpretation.  This technique had been used by Stoics in their interpretation of mythology, but it has been questioned whether or not they influenced Philo directly.  … Other influences came from contemporary Platonism.  Philo perceived the human
soul as the central element in the ascent to divine contemplation.  He considered the divine revelation manifest in the Scriptures equal to the highest form of philosophy.  Another distinctive element of his thought was his perception of the divine Logos and its role in the creation of the world.  The Logos, the active principle of God’s thought, was at times perceived as the creator of the cosmos and at other times as the mediator between God and the world.  (David Runia – Professor Leiden and Melbourne)

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