The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism

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Moreover, practices such as divination retained their value as they sometimes worked as advertised — often enough to keep trying them, anyway. Academy philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and the rest might speculate that the spirits and deities either did not exist or were not relevant; and some of the rest of the population might have been educated enough to know about this; but pragmatically, the Greco-Roman population behaved as if they did exist and they were relevant to everyday life.

Inevitably, there were efforts to merge varying systems. Some of these were academic in nature, short-lived and not completely thought out; but others took on lives of their own and persisted. The Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, for example, merged traditional Hebrew belief and practice with Hellenic philosophy; he went so far as to claim Plato as the intellectual descendant of Moses Philo claimed Pythagoras, to whom Socrates and Plato owed a great deal of their thinking, had been a student of Moses.

Neoplatonism also merged the older polytheistic notions of the reality and power of deities and spirits, with high-minded philosophy which, under Socrates and earlier philosophers, had suggested otherwise.

26. The "Afterlife" of the New Testament and Postmodern Interpretation

Thus, they have a resemblance to Neoplatonism. These took various forms depending on the locale and degree of education of those involved i. Unfortunately the best-documented mystery-religions were urban in nature; we can understand the rural versions only by supposition and surmise. One might ask why the ancient Greco-Romans retained dependence on a system of beliefs which, in many ways, they no longer needed and had at least begun to speculate was irrelevant. There are two reasons: Need and success. Although the ancients had mastered the world to a remarkable extent, having built massive works, massive cities, and having attained an unprecedented population, the world could still be hostile to them.

The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism by John Granger Cook

The possibility of famine, drought, pestilence, flood, earthquake, etc. Most people lived at a subsistence level, and just one bad crop season could be deadly. Many in the ancient world hovered on the fringe of survival. Moreover, the conquests of the Roman legions and to an extent, those of Alexander before them were seen as phenomenal, even within their own time. People were historically aware enough to realize that no state had ever expanded so far and brought so many peoples and places into contact with one another.

The Mycenean Civilization

In fact, this was often spoken of in awe much as we, today, frequently express amazement that technology has made the whole planet into just a village. By the 1st century CE, then, few people were willing to give up on the traditional deities, since they were so close to peril and because the Roman gods had been so successful. As one might expect in an animist culture, belief in the power of magic was widespread.


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This meant it was also feared. Malevolent magicians could cause all sorts of horrible things to happen, and in the minds of some, they occasionally did so. They also conducted divinations, and used other kinds of auguries. The former was pious, while the latter was shunned. Skip to main content. Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Description Reviews Awards. Luke Timothy Johnson is the R.

By focusing on specific representatives of Greco-Roman religious life, he provides well-defined models of what he is talking about. His typology then allows us to understand better not only Greco-Roman religions but also Judaism and early Christianity in new ways. Harrington, America.

This is a stimulating and provocative work it deserves to be widely read. Balch, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. It is richly annotated, provoking thought and questions and providing the notes and resources needed to pursue those questions further. I believe it achieves the author's goal of presenting Greco-Roman religious practice and sensibility without the Christian apologetics and value judgments that have so often obscured the appreciation of this rich and unique tradition. Dunn, Interpretation. Michael Peppard. 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 years, and had just become an Empire ruled by the Emperor rather than the Senate. 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 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.


  1. Great Trains East.
  2. The New Testament: The Greco-Roman Context (Bart D. Ehrman).
  3. Biblical History and the Greco-Roman World..
  4. 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.

    The Collision with Paganism

    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. 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.

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    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. 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. 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.