The Graeco-Roman context of early Christian literature

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Rather they were situated on the frontiers to guard against invasion. Whereas most of the Empire enjoyed a long period 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. Prior to that, everyone in the Roman world except for Jews and Christians adhered to local state religions or cults. It refers to an adherent of a polytheistic religions found throughout the empire, many of which were 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 cults of the Roman world can be contrasted with what we call religion today. 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. 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.

Journal of Early Christian Studies

Christians refused to participate in the state cults, and were the exceptions among subjects of the Roman empire. 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.

How the poor became blessed

Religion consisted of ritual sacrifice and prayer. 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. Ehrman humorously refers to it. 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.

The New Testament and Early Christian Literature in Greco-Roman Context

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. 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. An individual we know about who lived about 2, 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.

3. The Greco-Roman World

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.

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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. Ehrman is referring to. 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. 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.

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.

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. Filed under: Uncategorized. You are commenting using your WordPress. This was the implication of the common belief that the poor were morally inferior to the rich. They were often regarded as more readily inclined to do evil; for that reason, their poverty was commonly seen as their own fault. No wonder that they were not seen as people deserving help, and that no organised charity developed in Ancient Greece or Rome.

In such societies, giving alms to the poor could not be seen as a virtue, as care for them was often regarded as a mere waste of resources. The distributions of corn to the population by city states or emperors in times of need cannot pass for organised charity because the corn was given to all citizens in equal measure not only to the poor. All this applies to the Ancient Romans no less than to the Greeks.

When a Roman is generous towards others, it is not because they are poor but because he expects to get something in return, and because it confers honour and status upon him. Beneficia are for fellow citizens, not for the poor. Since the beneficiary was usually expected to give something in return, the benefaction could become a burden.

But the idea of reciprocity was deeply ingrained in ancient society, and giving remained one of the chief ways of acquiring status within the social or political group. Neither Ancient Greek nor Roman shrank from admitting that striving after honour was the decisive motive for generosity. W hile care for the poor, let alone organised charity, was a non-item in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is a central concern in the Jewish Bible. Caring for the poor is seen as a major duty and virtue not only in the Torah of Moses, but also in the Prophets and other biblical writings. Most significantly, God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy.

They are his favourites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous. The Torah urges Israel to be generous towards the poor in their midst. The prophets warn repeatedly against oppressing the poor and the needy. The poor were to be allowed to harvest the borders or corners of the fields and vineyards, and the sabbatical year was instituted in order that the poor might eat. In spite of the fact that there is much concern for the poor in the Bible, there still is no organised charity.

The post-biblical Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a Jewish wisdom poem of hexameters written in Greek, exemplify this private as opposed to communal or organised concern for the poor. Fill your hand and give alms to the needy. From what God has given you provide for those in need. When in the first 30 lines of his poem the author turns five times to the importance of taking care of the poor, it is evident how much value he attaches to this part of his message.

The utterly un-Greek motif of love for the poor is one of his main concerns. But again, as in the biblical texts, it is all about private charity.


I t is only in the early rabbinic period, especially the 2nd century CE, that we have concrete indications for institutional charity organised by the local synagogues. There were two such institutions: the quppah and the tamhuy. The quppah was the money chest to support the local poor, who received a weekly allotment; the tamhuy was the soup kitchen that was open on a daily basis to any poor person in need of a meal, including non-Jews. The administrators of the synagogues appointed charity wardens who collected money every Friday, and others for the daily food collection and distribution.

These officers were even allowed to exert some pressure on the members of the community in order to make sure that there would be enough to meet all needs. In order to prevent voluntary impoverishment, however, nobody was allowed to donate more than one-fifth of his property.

It is significant that in the saying of Simon the Just, doing deeds of loving kindness is one of the three pillars upon which the world is standing, a remarkably un-Greek idea. Elsewhere, deeds of loving kindness are said to be equal to all the commandments of the Torah. Often, the motive for doing such deeds was the expectation of being rewarded by God, especially in the hereafter. In rabbinic literature, it is stated repeatedly that the best way of giving to the poor is by doing it in such a way that nobody sees it happen or sees how much is being given.

A gift to the poor must be made privately, with no one else present. A person who gives alms in secret is greater than Moses, says Rabbi Eleazar in the Talmud he added that the gentiles give alms only for reasons of self-aggrandisement. Whether every Jew lived up to this ideal is questionable in light of what the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount:. Whatever one thinks about the authenticity of this saying, its critical note must reflect some form of reality; there must have been concrete practices that made these remarks relevant.

But the sentiment expressed by Jesus above reflects the same mood as the one we find in rabbinic literature. It is likely that the large-scale impoverishment caused by the two great wars against Rome and CE was the most important trigger for producing this systematic care for the poor. The Christians had a system of poor relief right from the start, as indicated in the New Testament. In the earliest phase, when the Church was still a Jewish movement in the early 30s CE, the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem appointed seven men to oversee the daily distribution of food among the widows in their community.

Not much later, the Jerusalem apostles and Paul agreed that the latter would organise a large-scale collection of money for the poor of the Christian community in Jerusalem. But these Christian initiatives cannot be regarded as a proof that Jewish-organised charity was already fully developed by the first half of the 1st century CE.

If there was a Jewish system of poor relief in the period when all Christians were still Jewish and remained within the fold of Judaism, a separate system was not necessary because poor followers of Jesus would be supported by the Jewish system. So on the one hand it would seem that organised charity was a Christian innovation from the beginning. On the other, it is very hard to imagine that the Jews of the early Jesus movement spontaneously created from scratch a system of care for the poor without any Jewish precedent.

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I am inclined to think that they must have followed a Jewish paradigm, a system — however rudimentary — that was already in place in the 30s CE. But unfortunately we do not know anything about that. W hat accounts for the difference between Greco-Roman and Jewish and Christian approaches to the care of the poor?

The Dutch professor of ancient history Hendrik Bolkestein argued in his influential Charity and Poor Relief in Pre-Christian Antiquity that the differences between these two cultural spheres — as far as poor relief is concerned — had little or nothing to do with the differences between their respective religions.