Reading through the New Testament, the event of one crucifixion takes center stage. Why was the savior of the world killed in such a gruesome manner? Who were these Romans? The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language. If the Romans were ruling the lands, then why was the New Testament not written in their language, Latin? How did the Greeks develop a major influence over the people of the Bible? These questions and many more necessitate our study of the cultures that influenced the Biblical writers at the end of the Old Testament and the time of the New Testament just as we would study the Egyptians in studying the book of Exodus.
The Romans and the Greeks were what we know call super powers; countries that held the political, financial, and military power to dominate other nations. Although there are many definitions of what is considered the Graeco-Roman world, this paper will consider the cultures that greatly influenced the world during the time in which the New Testament events occurred. Although the Greeks did not retain control during this time, their culture was heavily infused in the people and geography that the Romans annexed. In fact, the Romans themselves were heavily influenced by the Greeks. There were so many Greek cities in southern Italy at one time that the Romans called this area Magna Graecia (Great Greece) and thus gave the name Greeks to the people that called themselves Hellenes.[i] While Paul speaks to many Roman audiences he certainly addresses many Greek influences in his writings.
Following, will be brief review of various aspects of the Graeco-Roman culture such as leaders, daily life of its citizens, economy, religion, government, etc. In addition, specific emphasis will be given to the practice of slavery as applied to one of Paul’s writings. While not an exhaustive list, this will serve to offer a glimpse into the cultures by briefly touching on major points that paint a picture of New Testament period.
Emerging from the aftermath of King Phillip’s murder was his son Alexander, perhaps the greatest military commander of the ancient world. He proved to be a skilled tactician, demanded discipline, and enforced strict training, all at a very young age. In the eyes of many, this proved that he must be a prince.[ii] Regardless of his motives, to which many are unsure, he led a military campaign of eastward expansion that took the Greek culture to most of the known world. It is no surprise that Greek was a dominant language in the biblical lands as well as much of Greek culture. If Alexander wanted a large portion of the world to have the Greek culture for hundreds of years to come, he succeeded.
Similarly, Julius Caesar came along at time when Roman expansion was in full swing and had actually annexed many of Alexander’s conquests. The Greeks had spread themselves too thing and could not support their conquered territory, even with the spoils they collected. Historians debate whether the Romans motive for expansion was imperialism or the result of territory conquered in war.[iii] Julius Caesar made himself dictator for life and took control over all aspects of Roman government. This expansion of powers under one person was most likely his downfall but he did establish a rule of one that would be a pattern for the Romans for several hundred years.[iv] Rulers in the future would use the title, “Caesar.” Even the Russian Tsar is derived from this name.
Less well known than Julius Caesar but considered to have created the structure of the Roman Empire, for which modern Europe is patterned, was Augustus.[v] He is credited with ending the civil wars in Rome and considered to be the “first” Roman emperor from whom a line of succession would streak through the New Testament times. Caesars and their underlings played prominent roles within the biblical narrative, particularly with the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts. It was the decree of Caesar Augustus for a worldwide census that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where the greatest birth in history was recorded, that of Jesus Christ.
There are certainly many major leaders that affected events in the Scriptures, but Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Augustus were instrumental in spreading the cultures of Greece and Rome to the region of Palestine.
Religion and Philosophy
One of the greatest interactions recorded in Scripture is that of Paul in Acts chapter 17 when he was invited to speak at the Areopagus to a group of Greek philosophers in Athens. Paul affirmed them for being religious, most likely for purposes of establishing common ground, but he hit on a key element of religion at that time, worship. The Romans and Greeks were polytheists but the extent of ones religion was more of reverence to the gods in control, rather than love. Most students can look back at their study of mythology in eight grade English class for a primer on the types of gods worshipped by the Greeks and Romans in the ancient world.
The Greeks in particular lacked belief in religious morality and no clear belief in future life. Greek religion was a man made creation with no prophet and therefore the average Greek saw religion as somewhere between meaningless drivel and intellectual challenge.[vi] Regarding philosophy itself, the Greeks produced two of the most well known ancient teachers, Plato and Socrates. There beliefs permeated the culture and therefore the thought of much of the world. Their works in dialogue and epistemology are still discussed today. No doubt, their views were discussed heavily among the same group that Paul spoke to on Mars Hill.
In contrast to Greek Religion, the Romans seemed to revere religion as more a function of government. The decisions and public acts of State depended heavily on the god’s approval; therefore, it was necessary to ensure that any assembly of the people included the consent of the gods. With Roman expansion, came the need for an expansion of gods.[vii] As with much of Greek culture, the Romans borrowed from Greek religion to fulfill this need for more gods. Many will say that the Romans seemed so cruel that their religion must have lacked any morality. This is likely explained in that questions of morality, ethics, and salvation were best left up to the philosophers, rather than the religious. The gods were divine counselors with no divine prophets or divine writings. Some of the Caesars, as head of government, considered themselves to hold divine attributes. Any respect the Romans had for religion, would be in its breadth, therefore they held little respect for the Jewish religion that had merely one God. Their tolerance of it was for shear political purposes. Certainly, no prophet who clamed to be the Son of God, would be tolerated for upsetting the political control the Romans held on the people who worshiped one God.
Numerous television shows have been made about life in Rome describing the incredible aqueduct system, public baths, and the great Coliseum. The Romans were brilliant architects, most notably for the development of the arch in construction. While we can appreciate those things, it is somewhat baffling to comprehend the brutal sport they enjoyed. Gladiators, mostly slaves, were forced to fight to the death, sometimes against wild animals to the cheers of the crowd. Perhaps this masochist desire watched with enjoyment at the flogging, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Of tamer fare was the Circus Maximus where games such as chariot races were held. The Greeks seemed more geared toward sporting contests that challenged the athletic skill of the man. The Olympic Games began with the Greeks and were certainly enjoyed by many. Every class of society went to several Gymnasia where in the waning day one could find leisure and refreshment of soul.[viii]
As with any society, the class system was in full regard in the Graeco-Roman world with artisans, slaves, noblemen, peasant, and soldier. The father in a Roman family held great power and it was through him that his family’s tradition would continue. The Greek woman, while not an equal to her husband, was not as distanced in power has her Roman counterpart. She had her duties in running her household and probably took great pride in that. She may have been the teacher for the children’s primary education, especially in cases where the family could not provide a suitable tutor to teach the classics. A significant characteristic of the Greeks is that no group of them settled anywhere without at once establishing a school, which was the most important aspect of Hellenization, the process by which the Greeks taught their culture.[ix]
In addition to good education, the Romans and Greeks spread their appreciation for art, poetry, plays, and food. Even today we can view some of that art, read that poetry, and act in those plays. Bread, oil, and wine were common fundamentals of the diet at that time which was likely for the common man and enhanced with fruit and pastries for the elite.[x] They might eat their meal in a simple one-room hut or an elaborate room surrounded by marble. The typical house had the atrium as its focal point with a few other rooms and an outdoor courtyard with a garden. From the ashes of Pompeii, several houses were discovered describing this layout. Due to the Greek influence on the Romans, the Pompeii type houses were probably similar to those found in Rome.[xi]
It is evident that the daily life of the Roman was similar to that of the Greek. While the Romans are considered more barbaric, their education, appreciation for the arts, and organized government rivaled the Greeks. The average man in each community likely had similar ideas about caring for his family, nationalistic tendencies, and devotion to his duties. The Roman however, probably did not see his daily life as a reflection of Greek culture. Alan Wardman in Rome’s Debt to Greece writes,
The idea of Greek inferiority was a product of the Roman’s pride in their own history. Since Romans were the imperial people, who owed their success to virtue, defeated peoples must be morally worse. If this idea was engendered by experience, it was fostered by the competitive spirit, which characterized the making of Roman Literature.[xii]
Simply stated, the Romans might admire some aspect of Greek culture, but looked to their own supremacy as the catalyst for their superior life.
Politics / Government
The most common reference that is typically tied between the American government and the Roman government is that of the Senate. Although not borrowed or necessarily developed from the Greeks, Roman government was similar. Representative government was typically dominated by the nobility class, so military commanders worked their way into prominent positions with the support of their army to even out the class representation.[xiii] No doubt, many in the army were from the lower classes. The various classes looked to their government to provide for the common defense, build roads, and solve disputes. Their ability to make war was a force to be feared. Alexander was a master at rolling over his enemy but lacked the infrastructure to maintain his conquest. The Romans were skilled at not biting off more than they could chew. The New Testament offers many examples of Roman officials in full command of their regions. While each had failure, their initial success carried the most weight.
As previously stated, the reasons for Alexander and the Romans desire to conquer so much territory is unclear. What is clear is that thousands followed them. Greeks followed Alexander with Hellenistic zeal and Romans were comprised of all societies with many immigrants and barbarians desiring Roman citizenship. While the Greeks were more of a single race nation, the Romans developed a racial diversity, even in the Senate.[xiv] It would be fair to say that Hellenism spawned Romanism, which reigned for four hundred years and was the culture and government encountered by the average Jew in Palestine.
We know that Paul claimed his Roman citizenship allowing the furtherance of his ministry. History records that he was beheaded, rather then crucified, due to his privileged status. The Romans had a “two court” system. One for Roman citizens and one for non-citizens. The punishments were different for each type of citizen as well. There seems to be no end to how far their brutal punishments might reach and anyone who has seen the movie, The Passion of the Christ, knows how far they would go. Less familiar is that of the punishment handed out by the Greeks. Similar to our court system today, the Romans and Greeks brought the accused before an authority to let them plead their case and a jury or responsible party would decide their fate. The Greeks might use public flogging or another humiliating type punishment for minor offenses and they used execution or exile for the most severe crimes. Not as prevalent as the Romans, William Stearns Davis points out that an Athenian citizen facing the death penalty might be “given a poisonous hemlock juice and allowed to drink it while sitting comfortably among his friends in the prison. Little by little, his body grows numb; presently he becomes senseless, and all is over without any pain.”
Many hold the view today that international political capital is heavily weighted by the control of oil, hence energy, evened out by actions of social justice. It is the politics of popular diplomacy as stated by James Baker. The Greeks were convinced that they were a superior race and had no problem communicating that notion to the world leaders they encountered and/or conquered. They thrived on the widespread exchange of trade and ideas.[xv] The Romans were effective campaigners and many times their armies were welcomed to help defend or repeal invading armies, sometimes the Greek invaders. Instituting treaties and offering Roman citizenship typically solved the problem of Rome being labeled a tyranny. Just as a politician will gain a vote by shaking a hand; the Romans spread their political power through effective relations.[xvi]
The mastery of the Mediterranean Sea by the Greeks created markets and customers unlike anything that had been seen in the ancient world trading pottery, fabrics, metalwork, wine, and olives.[xvii] With this trade, created the opportunity to spread their culture to these markets. Where markets seemed closed, the Greeks found a way to open them, dominating land and sea power. Supplementing this cash flow was a challenge for Alexander with the expense of an army that was conquering the world. The demands for soldiers and money were daunting. Sources such as conquered territory tributes, fines, the sale of slaves, and Greek city taxes all supplemented the economy. Alexander was fortunate to have a prolific and stable coinage that corresponded its nominal value to its worth as precious metal. He made effective use of this coin, trading with numerous other nations.[xviii] The Greeks may not have been the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but like the Romans, they were able to effectively control commerce to supply their needs at war and at home.
The Romans are famous for construction of cities that were carefully planned, and similar to government, were models of Roman elitism. It is this type of organization that gave the Romans a stable economy. Certainly, there were extremes at both ends regarding poverty and opulence. While the average Roman could live on what they produced, the government was involved in trade of food and goods, most horrifically the trade of humans. Many citizens traded goods out of their courtyard and there were markets where ordinary shopkeepers could buy and trade stock. Traders of similar goods might congregate on certain streets similar to modern London.[xix] Like the Greeks, the Romans made effective use of the Mediterranean Sea trading with nearly every part of the ancient world. Trade was established from Europe to Africa to India. Romans traders made their way around the long Malayan peninsula to trade with China.[xx] The Romans ability to establish infrastructure in annexed or conquered territories contributed significantly to maintain their wealth and power.
Communication / Transportation
If you speak English, you have the language of the Greeks and Romans to thank for a good portion of your language. The Romans used Latin as their official language and this influence was used by the church for hundreds of years. The first translation of the Bible from the original languages was done in Latin, known as the Latin Vulgate by Jerome. While a modern Bible translation will use the term “caught up” to describe the rapture, we get that word from the Latin Vulgate, where Jerome used the word “rapiemur.” This is an interesting example of the Roman language influence on Biblical interpretation and theological terms. There are Catholic churches in America today that use Latin for their mass. Although Latin is considered a dead language today, it was very much alive in the time of the New Testament. Three languages were prominent during this time in Palestine. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were written above Jesus on the cross as recorded in John 19:20, indicating the Romans desire to communicate to all classes and peoples in the area they controlled.
Many people think that English is the most spoken language of the world, but is actually second to Mandarin in regards to number of people who speak it. However, English is the most widely spoken language geographically speaking. Similarly, during the Hellenistic period of 300 B.C. to A.D. 600, Greek became the universal language of the known world, a testament to Hellenization. Latin may have been the language of the Roman government but Greek was the language of the empire.[xxi] This means that numerous people groups could have read the New Testament had they a copy. The New Testament writers may have spoken Hebrew for the common daily communication, but they wrote in Greek for the Holy Word that could be read by many. Not to suggest that the entire Scriptures are not for all people, it is interesting to consider that the Old Testament, at the time it was written, was in Hebrew for the Hebrew people that spoke Hebrew. The New Testament was written to reach the whole world. What other language would they have used but Greek?
Communication was simplified due to the common language, but the method of communicating over long distances was a challenge. Enter the Roman architectural genius. They effectively used rivers and waterways to transfer information but they were years ahead in road building. Roman roads were sometimes tracks which fit the standard chariot wheel width but later improvements included gravel roads. Initially designed for the military they became arteries for communication and trade.[xxii] H.A. Treble and K.M. King note that not only do “all roads lead to Rome” but that “Roman roads were the best lines of communication till [sic} railways came into being.”[xxiii] Not only were many roads built in multiple layers of leveled earth and stone but many were made of cement. Numerous bridges, using the arch, still stand today.
To understand the nature of Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is essential to understand the issue of slavery in the time of Philemon. Today’s Christian is most likely aware of the abhorrent institution of slavery that existed in America from the 16th to 19th century but how much do we know about 1st century slavery?
Although slavery was never sanctioned by the early church, it was widely accepted in the ancient world and vital to the economies of Greece and Rome.[xxiv] The condition of slavery usually resulted from various means such as capture in war, purchase, debt restitution, etc. By the same means freedom might occur, or simply by the will of the slave owner.[xxv] Slaves intertwined with most every part of society and held numerous occupations. Regardless of their contribution to society, they did not hold the same rights as free citizens. While the rights of slaves throughout this period vary, it is evident that their bodies were subject to insult, abuse, assault, and sexually surrogacy.[xxvi] One could imagine the moral dilemma of a Christian slave forced into prostitution or an illegal scheme and the call to sanctification by their faith. A slave escaping this servitude was subject to various forms of punishment from corporal to execution. Under Roman law, the slave owner’s right to the body of the slave was almost beyond question.[xxvii] The slave owner saw the fugitive slave as a financial loss and thereby regarded the fugitive as indebted to him.
Although the abolition of slavery did not occur during the first century, and the Scriptures never called for an end to slavery, Christian teachings had much to say about this institution. A summary scripture might be found in Colossians 3:22 to 4:1, which calls for Christian slaves to obey their masters and for Christian masters to treat their slaves with justice and fairness as they have a Master in heaven. Economic factors might be credited for the end of slavery, but Christian teachings could be credited for the way many slaves were treated.
Paul’s letter to Philemon certainly acknowledges that Paul recognized the debt of a fugitive slave to his master and Paul’s willingness to abide and assist in the restitution of that debt. But more importantly, verse 14 tells us that Paul was appealing to Philemon’s goodness as a Christian to forgive Onesimus and allow him to be of service to the church. It is likely that Paul’s letter would have been read by prison authorities, thus giving him the opportunity to express this teaching to those who otherwise would not hear it and influence the social fabric of those in authority.[xxviii] Ultimately, Paul exhibits obedience to the law of the land, but shows that Christian compassion can intervene where the law might be unfair and ungodly. Certainly there are Greek and Roman customs today that we as Christians must endure with biblical guidance.
Rise and Fall
The Greek civilization dates back to 3000 B.C., finding its origins in the people of Crete. Colonization spread from the mainland to foreign territory. Just prior to Hellenization, that began around 600 B.C, this foreign colonization provided the Greeks with access to greater food supplies and trade which opened the door to spread their civilization.[xxix] Success in the Persian Wars, and failure in the Peloponnesian War brought the Greeks to a crossroads. Pessimism and uncertainty in leadership led many to question their culture. That all changed with a cultural renaissance of philosophy, literature, and new leadership under Philip and Alexander. While the spread of Hellenization was rapid and successful in the Near East, it began to slow in Egypt due to resistance from their rulers and came to a screeching halt among barbarians and the Middle East.[xxx] Paul speaks in Romans 1:14 of his debt to both “Greeks and Barbarians.” He meant those that adopted Hellenism and those that had not, or Greeks and non-Greeks. The Romans would be a people group who were “non-Greeks.”
Enter the Romans, emerging as a major power in the 3rd century B.C. Where they had no rich and colorful history of people and gods, Roman aristocrats constructed their own.[xxxi] With
military might and effective leadership, the Romans rolled over many opponents but also created several peaceful alliances that needed no military might. Many people welcomed the leadership and stability offered by the Romans. Building campaigns, social and moral reform, and general infrastructure changes not only in Rome, but to a minor extent in annexed regions provided a welcome change to many communities that had endured famine and unrest.[xxxii] Control over such a vast territory proved to be difficult, just as it had been for the Greeks. Poor leadership and efficient supply to armies was a heavy strain on the empires. Pressure from the German tribes of the North and the Huns of the East led to the sacking of Rome in 410.[xxxiii] Numerous sources also cite the rise of Christianity as a cause for the fall of Rome. Increased morality and the desire for hope in something other than mortal men and their ideas were desired.
At the essence of proper biblical interpretation is the understanding of the context for which is written. We can make observations and later applications, but the desire to interpret correctly is of vital importance with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Interpretation is so much more then knowledge of the specific language but rather the culture and history of the people that spoke that language and what was occurring when it was written. This speaks to the way we read our Bible today and how we understand the community in which Jesus Christ was born, matured, ministered, executed, and resurrected.
How did the Graeco-Roman world influence the spread of Christianity? Using solely secular sources, one might find it difficult to have this question answered. One textbook, The Western Experience, answers the question as follows; “Greek was to be the language in which the New Testament was written, and therefore some historians have also seen his [Alexander] campaigns as preparing the way of Christianity and have even called Christianity his most important legacy.”[xxxiv] This begs the question; do we think the same for the Jews and the Romans. We know the answer for the Jews from Scripture. The Romans on the other hand receive much of the credit for killing Jesus and thus empowering the faith. The Greeks and the Romans. Two great empires that rose and fell. There time in history is of vast importance to our understanding of the Word of God.
Balsdon, J.P.V.D., ed., The Romans. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1965.
Butler, Trent C., Ph.D., ed. Holman Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.
Davis, William Stearns. A Day in Old Athens. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1960.
Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hammond, N.G.L.. Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman. Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1980.
Hadas, Moses. Hellenistic Culture: Fusion and Diffusion. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1959.
Levi, Mario Attilio. Political Power in the Ancient World. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975.
Mortimer Chambers and others, eds. The Western Experience, Volume I: To the Eighteenth Century. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.
Orr, James, General Editor, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939 ed. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939.
Starr, Chester G. The Ancient Romans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Treble, H.A. and King, K.M. Everyday Life in Rome: In the Time of Caesar and Cicero. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.
Wardman, Alan. Rome’s Debt to Greece. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.
[i] Mortimer Chambers and others, eds., The Western Experience: Volume I: To the Eighteenth Century (New York:McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995), 91.
[ii] N.G.L. Hammond, Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesmen (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press), 42.
[iii] Mortimer Chambers and others, 97.
[iv] Chester G. Starr, The Ancient Romans (New York: Oxford University Press,1971), 84.
[v] Mortimer Chamber and others, 114.
[vi] William Stearns Davis, A Day in Old Athens, (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1910), 207.
[vii] J.P.V.D. Balsdon, ed., The Romans, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1965), 194-95.
[viii] Davis, 158.
[ix] Moses Hadas, Hellenistic Culture: Fusion and Diffusion (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1959), 59.
[x] Davis, 176.
[xi] H.A. Treble and K.M. King, Everyday Life in Rome: In the Time of Caesar and Cicero (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 35.
[xii] Alan Wardman, Rome’s Debt to Greece (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976), 24.
[xiii] Mario Attilio Levi, Political Power in the Ancient World (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975), 157.
[xiv] Ibid, 185.
[xv] Levi, 27.
[xvi] Ibid, 148.
[xvii] Ibid, 60.
[xviii] Hammond, 156.
[xix] Treble and King, 82.
[xx] Starr, 139.
[xxi] Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991 ed. s.v. “Greek Language.”
[xxii] Starr, 135.
[xxiii] Treble and King, 91.
[xxiv] Holman Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Slave/Servant.”
[xxv] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939 ed., s.v. “Slavery.”
[xxvi] Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002), 93.
[xxvii] Ibid, 14.
[xxviii] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 299.
[xxix] Chambers, 40.
[xxx] Hadas, 10.
[xxxi] Balsdon, 2.
[xxxii] Holman Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Rome and the Roman Empire.”
[xxxiii] Baldsdon, 73.
[xxxiv] Chambers, 86.