We’ve been covering the ancient Greeks in a couple of my classes this week, and it seems that understanding Greek culture sheds some light on the New Testament. Paul’s missionary work took him to the cities of the Roman Empire, many of which were in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
This area had been heavily influenced by Greek culture because of the conquest by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian and Greek army. The fact that the New Testament was written in the koine, the simple Greek that formed the common language in these areas, bears witness to the influence of Greek culture. The cities of this area were often populated by Greeks. Even when the Romans conquered these “Hellenistic” kingdoms, the Greek culture and language remained strong.
A few things about Greek culture that I’ve learned that seem especially germane to the New Testament:
- Greek morality was best defined by concept of moderation, as you may know. This meant that, for men, drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex (heterosexual or homosexual) were all permissible as long as one didn’t get carried away and become a creature of pleasure who was consumed by these things. You can see why Paul had to write a lot about sexual morality to his readers. He was preaching a very different approach to morality, one of avoiding immoral actions completely rather than simply managing pleasures.
- Women were thought to be a punishment on men for gaining the gift of fire from Prometheus. (Of course, Prometheus got chained to a rock and had his liver eaten out each day by a huge bird. The liver grew back and the next day the bird would repeat the process. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that men got the better end of the deal.) This is very different from the Genesis teaching of women as perfect partners for men. Although Pandora opening of the box of evils might be compared to Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit, the difference is pretty clear in that the Bible confers dignity on women from the beginning, while the Greek myth portrays them as a punishment from the beginning. For Christians on the other hand, women were the spiritual equals of men, as noted in Paul’s statement “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I have read that women in the Greco-Roman world were attracted to the increased autonomy that they had in the Christian community.
- According to Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks, the common denominator among the various Greek schools of philosophy was that they rejected the myths’ views of the gods as immoral. You may recall from reading Greek mythology that Zeus was constantly on the lookout for women, spirits, and goddesses that he could seduce. Greek philosophers, like the Stoics and Epicureans mentioned in Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17, believed that the divine had to be more dignified that this. It’s my understanding that one reason that God-fearers like Cornelius were attracted to Judaism was because of the morality that Jews identified with God. I wonder if philosophers might have been among them.
Another good source on Greek culture is James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. This book and Price’s book were my main sources for this post.