Greco-Roman Influences on Judaism and Christianity


Introduction

Greco-Roman empire

The eastern portion of the Roman Empire was known as the Greco-Roman empire.  It was under Roman rule (government, taxation, money, law), but heavily Greek in culture (language, literature, education, theatre).  The dominant religion was a multi-god paganism.

Hellenization was the process of spreading Hellenic, or Greek, culture through trade and colonisation to non-Greek territories.  This spread was sometimes willingly accepted and sometimes imposed.  It began with the conquests of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian armies around 330 BCE.

Homosexuality was accepted in the Greco-Roman world.  [EPS1, Appendix I].  The Emperor Hadrian (died 138 CE) had statues to his lover Antonio erected throughout the empire; there is one in the British museum. But homosexuality is contrary to Jewish law, as found in Lv 18.22, which says “You [a male] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (see also Lv 20.13; Gen 19).  Likewise, in Rom 1.26-28, Paul condemns homosexuality as ‘degrading passions,’ ‘unnatural intercourse’ and ‘shameless acts’ (see also 1 Cor 1.9; 1 Tim 1.9).

Greco-Roman Gods and Godesses

In the pagan world, multiple gods of both genders were worshipped in many temples, public places, and homes [Bdict, 814].  Major Greek gods and godesses usually had a Roman equivalent.  For example, the top god in the Pantheon (list of gods) is the Greek Zeus which is also the Roman Jupiter.  The Roman equivalents are not always an exact match in characteristics to their Greek counterparts.

In the List of Greek Gods and Godesses, below, the names in bold are referenced in the NT &/or Apocrypha, as shown in the following section, Biblical References to the gods.


Biblical References to the gods

A very serious suppression of Judaism is described in the Timeline of Jewish Civilisation

[TJC, 5].  In 2 Macc 6.1-2 it is described this way:  “Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God; also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus-the-Friend-of-Strangers, as did the people who lived in that place.

This partial list of pagan gods comes from Wikipedia/ Interpretatio graeca

List of Greek Gods and Godesses, and their Roman Equivalents 

Greek Roman God(ess) of What
Zeus Jupiter / Jove King of the gods, ruler of Mount Olympus, Sky father.
Aphrodite Venus Godess of beauty, love, desire and pleasure.
Apollo Established the temple and oracle in Delphi. Prophecy, healing, music.
Ares Mars God of war, bloodshed and violence; Mars is more dignified.
Artemis Diana Goddess of the hunt, virginity and childbearing.
Athena Minerva Goddess of reason, wisdom, warfare etc.
Hades Pluto God of the underworld.
Helios Sol Sun god.
Hera Juno Queen of the Gods & wife of Zeus. Goddess of marriage & childbirth.
Hermes Mercury God of travel, commerce, transitions, etc.

In Acts 14:8-13, Paul performed a healing at Lystra.  “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabus they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.  The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.”

Some Hellenistic Jews, especially in the Diaspora, took Greek names.  An example is found in Acts 18.24: “Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria.”  There are many references in 1, 2 and 4 Macc to an Apollonius.  [Bconc]

Artemis of Ephesus, the mother goddess.

Artemis of Ephesus, the mother goddess.

Artemis had her own temple in Ephesus.  Artemis is discussed in Acts 19.23-41, where they say “who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis.”  A big issue arose from Paul’s preaching, which threatened the livelihood of the silversmiths making idols of Artemis.  These silversmiths and a mob of citizens shouted ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

Cities had their own protector gods, such as Athena, the goddess of Athens. Acts 17.16 says “When Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”

Hades is the Greek god of the underworld.  This Greek word is found only in the Apocrypha (26 times) and in the NT (10 times), since only these two sections of the Bible were written after the start of Hellenization in 332 BCE.  In these references, Hades is always treated as the place – the underworld – and not the god of the underworld.

Jer 43.13 says  “He [King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon] shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he shall burn with fire.”  The Bible footnote and Bible Dictionary [Bdict, On, 725] together tell us that the city On, the Egyptian “city of the pillar [obelisks]”  was also the cultic center for the worship of the Egyptian sun god Re, so in Greek it is called Heliopolis, which means “city of the Sun God.”

The Study Bible article on Greco-Roman Context says that “During the Hellenistic period the traditional Greek distinction between mortal and immortal became blurred” [Bible, liv].  The best example of this is the deification of some of the Roman Emperors:

  • Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and the first Roman to be called Emperor, was deified as a son of God, divi filius, at his death in 14 CE. [Bency, 635]
  • Some of the subsequent Emperors were also deified by the Senate at their death, namely Claudius (41-54), Vespasian (69-79), and Vespasian’s two natural sons who became his two succeeding emperors, Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96). [Bible, list, 2107]
  • Some wished to be worshipped during their lifetime: in 40 CE, Emperor Gaius Caligula (37-41 CE) failed to get his own statue into Jerusalem’s Temple, because there was too much opposition. [PF2, 86]
  • Vespasian, in his campaign to become Emperor produced eyewitness accounts for his miracles performed at the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria. These miracles of healing a blind man and the withered hand of another man, were intended to prove he was also a god, which was later confirmed by the Senate after he became emperor [SPQR, 417].  According to the historian Josephus Flavius, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem both Vespasian and Titus were proclaimed Jewish Messiahs by some people.

Greek Influences  [Bdict, 347].

Hellenization  The Ptolemaic Government of Judah (300 to 200 BCE), and the following Selucid Government (200 to 100 CE) were both Hellenistic.  The fights of the Maccabees against the Selucids and the Hellenized Jews is described in the books of 1 and 2 Macc.

Greek language, literature and culture were promoted through Hellenization.  2 Macc 4.13 refers to  “Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways.”   In Acts 9.29,   “He [Paul] spoke and argued with the Hellenists.”

Many Jewish sons were sent to the Greek-style gymnasium for study and sports.  2 Macc 4.7- 15 (parts)  shows how the corrupt Maccabee ruler Jason established “by his authority a gymnasium and a body of youth for it”;  “He took delight in establishing a gymnasium right under the [Jerusalem] citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat.  There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways”;  and  “they hurried to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the signal for the discus-throwing, disdaining the honours prized by their ancestors and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.”

Judeo-Greek Names   Some Hellenistic Jews, especially in the Diaspora, took Greek names.
Luke addressed his Gospel (v.1.3) and Acts of the Apostles (ver 1.1) to (his probable patron) a Theophilus (lit. lover of god).  The Bible footnote to Luke 1.3 says this is “a common Greek name also used by Jews.”   Here is a second example from 2 Macc 14.19: “Therefore he [Nicanor] sent Posidonius, Theodotus, and Mattathias to give and receive pledges of friendship.” The footnote to this passage says that Mattathias is a Hebrew name, and Theodotus is a Greek name often taken by Jews.  Both mean ‘gift of God.’”   Two more examples (Apollo and Apollonius) are listed above, under the table of gods.

Language  Circa 200 BCE, the Old Testament in Hebrew was translated into a new Greek version, the Septuagint Bible. [Bdict, 935]  The book of 2 Maccabees was originally written in Greek ca 124 BCE  [Bible, 1519].  The New Testament was written in Koine (i.e. “common / marketplace”) Greek. [Bdict, 699]  For Jews throughout the Hellenistic East, Greek became a second language, and for many of those living outside of Judea, Greek became their primary language for daily discourse and literary activity [IG1, 19].  Nevertheless, only 10% of the population or less could read.

Literature   Greek rhetoric, i.e. styles of speaking, were used by Paul.   He debated with Greek Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Acts 17.18.  The Illiad, the story of the Trojan war, is the story of the great hero Achilles and his sacrifice for the people.  The theme of sacrificing heroes was basic to Greek and Jewish culture, so it may have influenced the understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

City Names   Wikipedia/Polis  says that polis is the Greek word for city or city-state.  English words derived from it include policy, polity, politics and necropolis (city of the dead).  There are at least eleven US city names ending in *polis, but only these three are well know: Annapolis, MD, Indianapolis, IN and Mineapolis, MN.  And in terms of current mythology, Superman lives in Metropolis.

In early Christian times, the Decapolis was a federation of ten Hellenistic cities in an area east of Samaria and Galilee [Bdict, decapolis, 190].  They included Scythopolis, Damascus, Gerasa and seven others.  Matt 4.25 says  “And great crowds followed him [Jesus] from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”  Mk 5.20 says that after Jesus healed the Gerasene demoniac, “ he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”  Act 17.1 refers to Silas passing through Amphipolis.  Finally, as explained above under Gods, Jer 43.13 refers to breaking the obelisks of Heliopolis.”

Roman Influence

    Arch of Titus, Rome, marking victory in the first Jewish-Roman war.

    Arch of Titus, Rome, marking victory in the first Jewish-Roman war.

  • Sometimes, there was pressure on Christians to make offerings to Roman Gods. [W/PYC]
  • Persecution of Jews, and then Christians at different times (see Comprehensive Timeline Chart)
  • The products of Roman engineering, especially aquaducts and roads were visible in many places.
  • The spread of Christianity was helped by the good Roman roads and the Pax Romana, the relative peace and security throughout the empire.
  • Local Roman courts provided trials; punishments included crucifixion for serious crimes.
  • Local Forces were maintained to counter revolts and maintain order. The main force in Palestine was at Caesarea. [Bdict, 112]
  • Roman tax collectors collected taxes for the administration [Bdict, 1012]. The disciple Matthew was a tax collector (Matt 10.3).
  • In Mt 8.5-13 (also Lk 7.2-10) Jesus healed the slave of a roman centurian who had faith in Jesus.
  • In Mt 22.21 Jesus said to the disciples of the Pharisees, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Roman currency replaced Jewish currency [Bdict, 647-52].  For example, from 6 to 25 CE, in Judea, Romans isssue bronze coins with Caesar on one side and a Palestinian palm tree or sheaf of corn on the other side, while from 26 to 36 CE, Pontius Pilate issues coins with distinctly pagan decorations on them [Bency, 228].  The denarius that Jesus said should be given to the emperor, would have had the title  Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, Augustus [Bible, footnote to Mt. 22.20].

Rev 17.9-11 has an allegorical reference to “seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come.”  This is taken to be a list of seven Roman emperors.  The HarperCollins Study Bible has a table presenting different ways that scholars have interpreted the references. [Bible, list, 2107]  The lists start with either Julius Caesar or Augustus Caesar.


References

  • Bible         Harper Collins Study Bible.  NY, NY: HarperOne an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.  Based on the New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989 .

  • Bconc        Kohlenberger, John R., III. The NRSV Concordance Unabbridged.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991.

  • Bdict         Powell, Mark Allen, general editor.  HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.   pp. 20-21 Alexander (the Great); p. 67 Augustus (Caesar); p 112 Caesarea; p.190 Decapolis; p. 240 Roman emperor cult; pp. 347-8 Greeks, Greek language; pp. 647-52 Money; p. 699 NT Greek; p.725 On; p. 814 polytheism; pp. 885-8  Roman Empire; pp. 890-894  Rome; p. 935 Septuagint; p. 1012 tax collectors.

  • Bency        Cornfeld, Gaalyhu, editor, with Bible scholars, historians and archaeologists. Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia: a visual guide to the old and new testament.  NY: The Macmillan Company, 1964.

  • EPS1         Sanders, Ed Parish.  Paul: the Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought.  Fortress Press, 2015.  Appendix I. Homosexual Practices in Greece and Rome (pp. 727-746).

  • IG1            Gafni, Isaiah M.  Beginnings of Judaism, course guidebook.  Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses www.thegreatcourses.com, 2006.

  • PF2            Fredriksen, Paula.  Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. NY: Vintage Books edition, 2000.  Original Random House, 1999.  www.vintagebooks.com, 1999.

  • TJC           MacArdle, Meredith.  The Timechart of Jewish Civilization. Worth Press Ltd., 2004.

  • W/PYC     Wikipedia/Pliny the Younger on Christians

  • SPQR        Beard, Mary. SPQR a history of ancient Rome. London: Norton & Company. 2015. Liveright Publishing paperback, 2016.  Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University.  SPQR is from the latin phrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome.”