Medieval Greece

Medieval Greece

ON THIS very hot summer day, the sun beats down on the glittering stones. The extreme heat, however, does not seem to dampen the spirits and fierce determination of a throng of devout Greek Orthodox pilgrims who head for the chapel at the top of the hill.

You see an exhausted old woman, who journeyed from the other end of the country, struggling to keep her tired feet going. A little farther up, an eager man is heavily perspiring as he anxiously tries to make his way through the jostling crowd. And a young girl, obviously in pain and with a desperate expression on her face, crawls on her badly bleeding knees. The goal? To reach on time, to pray before and, if possible, to touch and kiss the icon of the celebrated “saint.”

Scenes similar to this one are repeated all over the world at places devoted to the veneration of “saints.” Apparently, all these pilgrims are convinced that in this way they are following God’s way for approaching him, thus expressing their devotion and faith. The book Our Orthodox Christian Faith states: “We commemorate [the “saints”], and ascribe glory and honour to their holy personages . . . , and we ask their prayers before God on our behalf and their supplications and aid in the many needs of our lives. . . . We recourse to the wonder-working Saints . . . for our spiritual and bodily needs.” Also, according to synodic canons of the Roman Catholic Church, “saints” are to be invoked as intercessors with God, and both the relics and the images of the “saints” are to be venerated.

The primary concern of a genuine Christian should be to worship God “with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) For this reason let us consider some facts about the way in which the veneration of “saints” was introduced as part of the religious practices of Christendom. Such an examination should be very enlightening for everyone desiring to approach God in a way acceptable to Him.

How “Saints” Were Adopted

The Christian Greek Scriptures designate as “holy ones,” or “saints,” all those early Christians who were cleansed by the blood of Christ and who were set apart for God’s service as prospective joint heirs with Christ. (Acts 9:32; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 13:13) Men and women, prominent and lowly ones in the congregation, all were described as “holy ones” while living here on earth. Recognition of their being saints Scripturally was obviously not deferred until after they had died.

After the second century C.E., though, while apostate Christianity was taking shape, the tendency was to try to make Christianity popular, a religion that would appeal to pagan peoples and be readily acceptable to them. These pagans worshiped a pantheon of gods, and the new religion was strictly monotheistic. So a compromise would be possible through the adoption of “saints,” who would take the place of the ancient gods, demigods, and mythical heroes. Commenting on this, the book Ekklisiastiki Istoria (Ecclesiastical History) states: “For those being converted from paganism to Christianity, it was easy to recognize their abandoned heroes in the person of the martyrs and to start rendering them the honor they previously gave to the former ones. . . . Very often, however, the rendering of such honor to the saints came to be pure idolatry.”

Another reference work explains how “saints” were introduced into Christendom: “In the rendering of honor to the saints of the Greek Orthodox Church, we find obvious traces of the strong influence that pagan religion had. Qualities that were attributed to the Olympian gods before [people] were converted to Christianity were now ascribed to the saints. . . . From the early years of the new religion, we see its adherents replacing the sun-god (Phoebus Apollo) with the Prophet Elijah, building churches on, or next to, the ruins of ancient temples or shrines of this god, mostly on the top of hills and mountains, at every place where the ancient Greeks honored the light-giver Phoebus Apollo. . . . They even identified the Virgin-goddess Athena with the Virgin Mary herself. Thus, the gap that was created when the idol of Athena was torn down was eliminated within the soul of the converted idolater.”—Neoteron Enkyklopaidikon Lexikon (New Encyclopedic Dictionary), Volume 1, pages 270-1.

Examine, for instance, the situation existing in Athens as late as the end of the fourth century C.E. The majority of the inhabitants of that city were still pagans. One of their most sacred rituals was the Eleusinian mysteries, a double event, held annually in February in the town of Eleusis, 14 miles [23 km] northwest of Athens. To attend these mysteries, the pagan Athenians had to follow the Sacred Way (Hi·e·ra? Ho·dos?). Attempting to provide an alternative place of worship, the leaders of the city proved to be quite ingenious. On the same road, about six miles [10 km] from Athens, the Daphni monastery was built to attract the pagans and to prevent them from attending the mysteries. The church of the monastery was built on the foundation of the ancient temple devoted to the Greek god Daphnaios, or Pythios Apollo.

Evidence of the integration of pagan deities into the veneration of “saints” can be found also on the island of Kithira, Greece. On one of the island’s summits, there are two small Byzantine chapels—one of them dedicated to “Saint” George, the other to the Virgin Mary. Excavations revealed that this was the site of a Minoan summit shrine that served as a place of worship almost 3,500 years ago. During the sixth or seventh century C.E., “Christians” built their chapel to “Saint” George on the exact site of the summit shrine. The move was highly symbolic; that advanced center of Minoan religion commanded the sea routes of the Aegean Sea. The two churches were built there to secure the favor of Our Lady and “Saint” George, the latter being celebrated on the same day as the “seamen’s protector,” “Saint” Nicholas. A newspaper reporting on this discovery said: “Today the [Greek Orthodox] priest will ascend the mountain, just as in ancient times the Minoan priest would,” in order to perform religious services!

Summing up the extent to which apostate Christianity was influenced by pagan Greek religion, a historical researcher points out: “The paganistic substratum of the Christian religion often remains unchanged in popular beliefs, thus testifying to the enduring nature of tradition.”

‘Worshiping What We Know’

Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “We worship what we know. . . . The true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him.” (John 4:22, 23) Notice that worship with truth is a must! It is therefore impossible to worship God acceptably without accurate knowledge of and a deep love for the truth. The true Christian religion must be founded on truth, not on traditions and practices borrowed from paganism. We know how Jehovah feels when people attempt to worship him in the wrong way. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in the ancient Greek city of Corinth: “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? . . . What agreement does God’s temple have with idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:15, 16) Any attempt to harmonize God’s temple with idols is repulsive to him.

Furthermore, in a very clear way, the Scriptures rule out the idea of praying to “saints” in order for them to act as intercessors with God. In his model prayer, Jesus taught that prayers are to be addressed to the Father only, since he directed his disciples: “You must pray, then, this way: ‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.’” (Matthew 6:9) Jesus further stated: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” And the apostle Paul stated: “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, a man, Christ Jesus.”—John 14:6, 14; 1 Timothy 2:5.

If we truly want our prayers to be heard by God, it is essential that we approach him in the way that his Word directs. Stressing the only valid way to approach Jehovah, Paul also wrote: “Christ Jesus is the one who died, yes, rather the one who was raised up from the dead, who is on the right hand of God, who also pleads for us.” “He is able also to save completely those who are approaching God through him, because he is always alive to plead for them.”—Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25.

‘Worshiping With Spirit and Truth’

Apostate Christianity had neither the spiritual strength nor the support of God’s holy spirit to motivate the pagans to abandon their false worship and follow the truthful teachings of Jesus Christ. It absorbed pagan beliefs and practices in its quest for converts, power, and popularity. For this reason it produced, not sound Christians, acceptable to God and Christ, but counterfeit believers, “weeds” unfit for the Kingdom.—Matthew 13:24-30.

During this time of the end, however, under Jehovah’s direction there is a momentous movement in restoring true worship. Jehovah’s people worldwide, regardless of their cultural, social, or religious background, try to conform their lives and beliefs to the standards of the Bible. If you want to learn more about how to worship God “with spirit and truth,” please contact Jehovah’s Witnesses where you live. They will be more than happy to help you offer acceptable sacred service to God, based on your power of reason and an accurate knowledge of his Word. Paul wrote: “I entreat you by the compassions of God, brothers, to present your bodies a sacrifice living, holy, acceptable to God, a sacred service with your power of reason. And quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” And to the Colossians he said: “We, from the day we heard of it, have not ceased praying for you and asking
that you may be filled with the accurate knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual comprehension, in order to walk worthily of Jehovah to the end of fully pleasing him as you go on bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the accurate knowledge of God.”—Romans 12:1, 2; Colossians 1:9, 10.

Unlikely Use of the Parthenon

“Christian” Emperor Theodosius II, with edicts pertaining to the city of Athens (438 C.E.), abolished the pagan rites and mysteries, closed the pagan temples. They could thereafter be converted into Christian churches. The only requirement for a successful conversion of a temple was to purify it by installing a cross in it!

One of the first temples to be converted was the Parthenon. Major renovation took place in order to make the Parthenon suitably fit for use as a “Christian” temple. From 869 C.E., it served as the cathedral of Athens. Initially it was honored as the church of “Holy Wisdom.” This could have been a purposeful reminder of the fact that the original “owner” of the temple, Athena, was the goddess of wisdom. Later it was dedicated to “Our Lady the Athenian.” After eight centuries of Orthodox usage, the temple was converted into the Catholic church of St. Mary of Athens. Such religious “recycling” of the Parthenon continued when, in the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque.

Today the Parthenon, the ancient Doric temple of Athena Parthenos (“Virgin”), the Greek goddess of wisdom, is visited by thousands of tourists as simply a masterpiece of Greek architecture.