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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 2 - THE NEW TESTAMENT WORLD: THE GREEKS

For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.63-79; R.H.Gundry, pp.21-27 Further reading: F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, pp.39-52.

N.J.Bull observes: "The Romans were a practical people. They conquered and organised, built cities and roads, made laws and customs. But much of their thought, culture and religion came from the Greeks". [1]


1. THE GREEK PRESENCE

The Greek spirit and language pervaded the Mediterranean world. Palestine was dominated by Greek rulers from 333-142 B.C. The Decapolis was a league of ten cities linked by the city-state ideal (Mt.4:25).

The Greek culture
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were Greek philosophers whose teaching was far reaching. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was a pupil of Aristotle. During his reign he conquered the world and spread the Greek culture, or Hellenism, wherever he went.

The Greek language
With Alexander the Greek language spread through the world. It was the lingua franca of the Roman world. Common or koine Greek was the language of the market-place and lasted for six centuries. This everyday Greek is the language of the NT.

The Septuagint
Jews at Alexandria in Egypt translated the OT into Greek between 250 and 200 B.C. It is called the Septuagint (LXX) from a legend that it had been translated by 70 scholars in 70 days. The LXX was the Bible of the apostles, Paul and the NT church.

The New Testament
The influence of Greece is seen in the NT. One of the early problems in the life of the Jerusalem church concerned ministry to Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking, Jewish Christians. The seven men chosen to deal with the daily administration had Greek names - Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas (Acts 6:5). It was common for Hellenistic Jews to have both Hebrew and Greek names. Saul of Tarsus has been described as a Hellenistic Jew. Saul was his Hebrew name, and Paul (Lat. Paulluus; Gk. Paulos) was one of his Latin names. Roman citizens had three names. [2]


2. GREEK PHILOSOPHY

The impact of Greek philosophy, beginning with Socrates (c.470-399 B.C.) has never been lost to the West. The good life was analysed, knowledge was taught and the virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude imparted. The thoughts of Plato and Aristotle have found their way into Christian thought and theology. Augustine and Aquinas represented them in the Middle Ages. At first Greek philosophy concerned itself with the place of man in the state. Plato's Republic is a classic example of this. But after the fall of the Greek city- states, when everything seemed so uncertain, different kinds of questions were asked. How could man survive in a world where everything was going wrong? How could one live a life of virtue in a world of evil? How can one find happiness when surrounded by suffering? Different philosophical schools supplied different answers to these questions. (Consider the elements in Rom.8:38-39 here).


The Cynics were disciples of Diogenes, who chose to live like a dog. (The word 'cynic' means 'canine'.) He lived in a large kind of pitcher and did not wash himself. In order to cope with the world a Cynic would retreat from it and live a life of indifference.


The Sceptics were followers of Pyrrho, a late soldier of Alexander's army. The Greek word skepsis means 'reflection' or 'enquiry' - and the school taught that we could be sure of nothing. Certain knowledge was doubted. Doubt became dogma. The person who adopted this doctrine switched off from the world. Why learn? Why worry if we cannot be sure of anything? The school had a popular following.


The Epicureans were named after their teacher Epicurus (342-270 B.C.). He taught that pleasure was the highest good. But his differentiation between active pleasure (the fulfilment of desire) and passive pleasure (which is free from emotional disturbance - or unhappiness) led to asceticism. [3] The greatest evil was fear, and the chief source of fear was dread of the gods and death. Epicurus sought to allay these fears by saying that they were unnecessary. The world came into being by chance and the gods were not interested in human affairs. There was no sensation after death as the atoms of the soul were scattered. The poet Lucretius was a disciple of Epicurus.


The Stoics. Stoicism was founded by Zeno, a Phoenician born in Cyprus, and was widespread in the NT world (Acts 17:18).  It had similarities with Christianity with its emphasis on the brotherhood of man, the rule of God, and the need to live a disciplined life in the will of God. Stoicism held that God is the reason (Gk. logos) behind the whole universe. The Logos is in every man, and virtue lies in living in harmony with nature. Men are free to choose a life of discipline to duty. As the offspring of God all men are brothers and should live as such. All classes may live by God's laws and so be virtuous. Suffering, cruelty and injustice may give a man the best opportunity to live virtuously. In spite of its parallels with Christianity, Stoicism was cold, devoid of passion, sympathy and love. Brotherhood and love were seen as principles - not living realities. Duty was stressed. A Stoic sought to live a life detached from the external forces of good and evil and the changes of fortune. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius were Stoics.


3. THE MYSTERY RELIGIONS

At the opposite extreme to schools of philosophy were the popular mystery religions. Ordinary men and women could find solace and hope, for this world and the next, in these cults. Travel in the Roman world enabled the interchange of trade, ideas and religions. Rome assimilated the philosophies and religions of the countries she conquered. The world of the first century was a new age world.

The cult of the goddess Isis came from Egypt and was popular among Romans. It spread throughout the Middle East and traces of its presence have been left in places like Antioch and Pompeii. The cult had an initiation rite which had three symbolic parts: a death, a visit to the underworld and a resurrection. As the cult spread Isis became identified with other goddesses such as Cybele.


The cult of Cybele, the earth mother, came from Phrygia. Romans called the goddess Magna Deum Mater, since she was believed to be the mother of Zeus, head of the pantheon of gods. Baptism in blood (taurobolium) initiated members. A bull was ceremonially slain and then its blood was dripped through a grating on to the initiate below.


The cult of Mithras came from Persia. Mithras was the sun god and a hero god, the saviour who assured life in heaven after death. The mighty warrior was always pictured as a bull. The cult included the practice of taurobolium. It was popular with the Roman legions, and spread through India and Asia Minor to the West. Mithras was the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun which daily vanquished darkness and renewed its invincible power. Shrines to Mithras have been unearthed in the city of London.


4. GNOSTICISM

In the strict sense Gnosticism refers to the second century heresy which concerned Irenaeus and Hippolytus. Basilides, Valentinus and Marcion held organised gnostic beliefs. In a wider sense the term has been applied to Zoroastrianism, Mandaeism, the Hermetic literature, and the Dead Sea scrolls. Although it is agreed that Gnosticism as such was not organised as a cult in the first century, the seeds of gnosticism were abroad. The doctrine or concept of salvation through special knowledge or gnosis held a central place. This kind of belief is indicated by the Fourth Gospel and some of the Pauline Epistles. Timothy is warned in the pastoral epistle, "Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge (gnōsis)" (1 Tim.6:20). [4]


ENDNOTES

1. N.J.Bull, The Rise of the Church, p.5.

2. F.F.Bruce indicates: "As a Roman citizen Paul had three names - praenomen (first name), nomen or nomen gentile (family name) and cognomen (additional name or surname)" (New Testament History, p.223). 'Paul' was his cognomen.

3. Earlier, Aristippus (c.435-366 B.C.), founder of the Cyrenaic school of hedonism, taught that the pursuit of immediate pleasure is the chief purpose of life.

4. See: E.M.Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, London, Tyndale, 1973.

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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