History of Christianity: Lecture Two—The Greco-Roman Context of Early Christianity


This is a summary of the second part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company. The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament. For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

Bart Ehrman has taught courses at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1988. He says the New Testament is the most revered, and yet most unknown book of Western Civilization. This course is designed for those who want to know more about the New Testament using an academic approach.

This second lecture will cover the Greco-Roman cultural and religious context in which early Christianity developed. The Jewish cultural context will be discussed in the third lecture.

1. The Relationship between Context and Meaning

The importance for understanding the historical context of early Christianity is in order to understand what the text of the New Testament meant to the early Christians themselves. If you misunderstand the context, you may end up inadvertently misunderstanding or changing the meaning of the text.

One way to illustrate this issue of the relationship between context and meaning is to examine the phrase “I love this course.” What is the context of that phrase? Depending on whether it is said in a classroom, a golf course, or a restaurant, the phrase will mean different things. And if it said in a sarcastic tone, it actually means the opposite of what the literal meaning says.

Even a gesture can have different meanings depending on the context: if you see someone with their arm stretched out over their head with their index finger pointed upwards, what could that mean? Is it a spectator at an air show (“wow, look at that!”), an athlete at a basketball court (“we’re number one!”), a Pentecostal at a revival meeting (“there’s one way to Heaven”), or a second grader (“I have to go to the bathroom”)?

So the context also determines the meaning of a gesture.

2. Historical Context of Early Christianity

In a similar way, you need to ask what the context of a historical document is in order to understand it. What was the context within which Jesus lived and the books of the New Testament were written?

Prof. Ehrman says that a true understanding of the historical context of the New Testament would take 24 lectures in and of itself, but he will in this lecture at least sketch out some remarks about the religious environment of the Greco-Roman world.

There are three key terms which Prof. Ehrman needs to define: “Greco-Roman world”, “paganism”, and “cult.”

3. Greco-Roman World

They are referring to the lands around the Mediterranean from roughly the time of Alexander the Great who lived around 300 BC to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine who lived around 300 AD. Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC, the son of Phillip of Macedon, who was the ruler of Macedonia. After Phillip’s assassination, Alexander took over and engaged in a military campaign in which he conquered most of the Mediterranean area from his native land Macedonia down into Greece, and then further east to Egypt, Palestine, and Persia. As a youth, Alexander had studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle, from whom he acquired an appreciation for Greek culture. As we conquered the lands around the Mediterranean, Alexander promoted the adoption of Greek culture in these various lands. He encouraged the creation of Greek institutions, the adoption of the Greek language, and tried to propagate Greek culturally. He did this in order to unify the various areas he had conquered under one common Greek culture.

This becomes important for the study of the New Testament because it was written in Greek. The Greek word for Greece is Hellas (Ἑλλάς), and so the “Hellenistic world” refers to the area which had adopted Greek culture. The Romans eventually conquered these lands a few centuries after the conquest of Alexander. Rome was originally a kingdom, but by the time of Jesus, it had been ruled as a Republic for over 500 years, and had just become an Empire ruled by the Emperor rather than the Senate. In the 1st century AD had been a time of great upheaval in the Roman world, including the assassination of Julius Caesar, whose adopted son Octavian (originally his nephew) after avenging Caesar’s death brought about an era of peace and prosperity throughout the Empire, and became the first Emperor called Caesar Augustus. Under Augustus, the Roman empire stretched from England to the West to Syria in the East, from North Africa in the South to the states of modern-day Western Europe in the North. These areas were forced to pay tribute to Rome in exchange for protection by the Roman army from invasion from outside these areas.

The Romans did not have their army situated throughout the Empire, however. Rather they were situated on the frontiers to guard against invasion. Whereas most of the Empire enjoyed a long period (250 years) of peace and prosperity called the Pax Romana, there were often wars on the periphery of the Empire, including one in Palestine itself which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Seen Greek had already been established throughout much of the Empire, the Romans encouraged the use of Greek as the lingua franca among the provinces rather than insisting on the promotion of Latin.

There was also a common coinage throughout the Empire which encouraged trade and commerce, and roads which made travel relatively easy. These benefits were then transferred later to Christianity, because Christians could take advantage of the situation to propagate their faith. Despite having been formed within the Roman empire, however, Christianity did not have an effect on the empire at large until several centuries later.

4. Pagans

The first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity was Emperor Constantine, who ruled in the 4th century AD. Prior to that, everyone in the Roman world except for Jews and Christians adhered to local state religions or cults. These non-Jews and non-Christians are referred to as “pagans” by modern scholars, without any derogatory connotation. It refers to an adherent of a polytheistic religions found throughout the empire, many of which were cults.

5. Cults

Cults is another word which is used by historians that does not necessarily have a derogatory connotation that the word has today to mean that a group is dangerous. The word “cult” comes from the Latin words “cultus deorum”, meaning “the care of the gods.” They are concerned with caring for the needs of the gods, primarily through sacrifices and prayers. The cults of the Roman world can be contrasted with what we call religion today. For most people today, it makes sense to say there is “one God”, but that notion was considered nonsense for many ancient Romans who were polytheists.

6. Contrasts Between Ancient and Modern Religions

i. Polytheism vs. Monotheism

The gods included the Greek-Roman pantheon of the great gods such as Jupiter, Mars, or Venus. But there were local deities that protected cities and towns, or even specific roads or rivers. The family had their own gods that protected the hearth and the health of its various members.

2. Tolerance vs. Exclusivity

The modern concept of religion conceives that if one religion is true, another must be false, but the ancients didn’t see things this way. There was no reason to think any one god was superior to others, and therefore Roman religion was more tolerant of other religions than modern ones. The only exception to this principle of tolerance was when it came to the state gods, which Romans insisted that the local populace venerate as well as their own, often at major state festivals. Refusal to worship them was seen as a political offense. Christians refused to participate in the state cults, and were the exceptions among subjects of the Roman empire.

3. Periodic vs. Constant Observance

Ancient religions were also periodic in their worship of the gods. It was not a matter of continual or daily devotion, but rather of periodic performance of sacrifices at set times. Most gods in the ancient world were completely uninterested in how people lived their daily lives. Ancient people were of course considered about ethics, but they considered it as a matter of philosophy rather than of religion. Religion consisted of ritual sacrifice and prayer.

4. Ritual practices vs. Beliefs

Modern religion is a matter of beliefs, whereas for the ancients it was more important to engage in ritual practices. In the ancient world, it was not what you believed about the gods, but how you worshipped them in cultic or ritualistic acts that was most important.

5. This World vs. The Afterlife

Most people think of modern religion as a way to guarantee that one will not spend a unpleasant afterlife, or as “fire insurance,” as Prof. Ehrman humorously refers to it. The ancients didn’t belief in the afterlife for the most part, based on studies of inscriptions on tombstones, etc. They believed that when you died, that was the end of the story. Why would you bother to be religious in the ancient world? It was not a matter of securing the afterlife, but rather the favor of the gods in the here and now. They lived life close to the edge, without modern irrigation or transportation, technology or medicine. The average Roman woman would have to bear 5 children in order to keep the population constant. By worshiping the gods, you could win favor in battle and in love, and you could keep healthy and grow healthy crops.

6. Human-Divine Continuum vs. Human-Divine Separation

In the ancient world, there was kind of a hierarchy between humans on the one hand and divine beings on the other that formed a pyramid, within Zeus or Jupiter at the top, but several orders of divine beings in between. Under the Olympian gods, there were the state gods, and then the local gods, and the family gods. However, underneath all of the gods was a layer of divine men, like Hercules, who were born of the union of a god and a mortal, and who were more powerful than normal men.

Fig. 1 The Human-Divine Continuum

Here’s a summary of the various contrasts between Ancient and Modern Religions to serve as a reminder of how conceptually different they are.

7. Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana

An individual we know about who lived about 2,000 years ago was a remarkable person. Before his birth, his mother had a visitant from Heaven telling her that her son would not be a normal human being, but rather the son of God. His birth was accompanied by miraculous signs. As a child, he was quite a prodigy, impressing the religious leaders of his own day. As an adult, he went on an itinerant teaching ministry where he went from village to town trying to convince people that they give up the material things of life and focus on the spiritual. He acquired a number of followers, many of whom were convinced he was not mortal, but divine. He did miracles to help them believe, such as healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. At the end of his life, his enemies decided to bring him up on charges before the Roman authorities. Even after he left this world, his followers continued to belief in him. Some even thought they saw him after he ascended to Heaven where he appeared to them to tell them there was a life after death. Some of them later wrote books about him.

However, you’ve probably never read these books, and you probably don’t know who Prof. Ehrman is referring to. He’s not referring to Jesus, but to Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan philosopher, a worshiper of the Greek gods. He lived at about the same time as Jesus, first century CE. They knew about Jesus, but thought that he was a magician, that he practiced magic and was really a hoax. The followers of Jesus thought the same about the followers of Apollonius of Tyana. We have other stories, like those of Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana, who were born supernaturally, who performed miracles, who delivered supernatural teachings, and who ascended into heaven. Why? Because these people didn’t believe that there was unbridgeable chasm between the gods and humans, but rather there was commerce between the divine and the human realm. These stories about divine men like Apollonius may sound unusual to us; we are only familiar with the story of Jesus. But in the ancient world, there were lots of stories told of this sort. People in the ancient world were able to make sense of the story of Jesus because they were already familiar with the stories of divine men who had commerce with the divine realm.

8. Conclusion

We have seen the importance of establishing the historical context for Jesus and his followers, including those followers who went on to write the books of the New Testament. It is important to understand the emergence of the Christian religion in this context of other religions of the Greco-Roman world which were for the most part polytheistic and tolerant of one another. These other religions focus on cultic acts of sacrifices and prayers to the gods rather than on doctrines. They were religions that focused on the effect of gods on the life in the here and now rather than on the afterlife. And they thought there were divine humans who lived among us.

Fig. 2. Contrasts between Ancient and Modern Religion

Ancient Modern
1. Polytheistic Monotheistic
2. Tolerant (syncretic) Exclusive
3. Periodic observance Constant observance
4. Ritual practices Beliefs
5. This World The Afterlife
6. Human-Divine continuum Human-Divine separation

The most important religion for understanding the context of early Christianity, however, is not one of the Greco-Roman religions, but Judaism, which is the subject of the next lecture in this series.

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