By the time of the First Century A.D., Ancient Greece was a piece of the Roman Republic. In fact, Roman rule provides a political context for almost all of early Christian history. Because of Rome’s conquest of Greece, the prevailing religion of both lands was the pagan, polytheistic belief in a litany of gods. Christianization of Rome, and by proxy Greece, would not come until the late 4th century, when orthodoxy became the primary concern to the formerly pagan emperors of the Roman Empire. In order for Christianity to gain a foothold in this Greek space, the order would have to overcome the culturally and religiously embedded polytheistic ideas that served as a bridge between the current Greek society and the historical Greek society. Making the cultural transition from this set of religious doctrine to that of the Christian one would not be seamless; however, there were aspects of the Greek religious and cultural landscape that facilitated the shift in parallel to one taking place in the Roman Empire.
The Greek religious context of First Century Christianity was predominantly one of an ideologically opposed polytheism in which a pantheon of different gods and goddesses took part in influencing the course of human and natural events. The hierarchy of gods, with a king Zeus having a level of power over other gods, displays a very anthropomorphic center in the Greek folk religion. Each of these gods and goddesses possessed control over some general category of nature, or, in other cases, some abstract concepts. The Greek deities were immortal but not all-powerful (omnipotent). The gods were subject to a sense of fate that could not be violated. Like human beings, the Greek deities were not perfect, and often had extensive relationships with human beings. The gods had human vices and fell victim to the same kinds of weaknesses in will that humans are famous for, such as the will to outdo others in competition. In addition, the Greeks associated certain individual gods with cities, such as the famous association of Athena with the city of Athens.
Clearly, there are some ideological parallels between this description of Ancient Greek faith and the orthodox Christianity that emerged in the First Century. The Christian God was immortal (though omnipotent), and was profoundly anthropomorphic, especially in the traditional Old Testament conception. The hierarchy of gods in the Greek religion corresponds to the hierarchy of the orthodox faith, especially in what many Christians would come to create with the Great Chain of Being. The popular Greek religions also contained elements of an underworld that represented a kind of spiritual home for the dead. The conception of the Greek underworld as having no distinctions between Heaven and Hell is false: Elysium and Tartarus, two realms of the Greek underworld, roughly correspond to Heaven and Hell respectively. Elysium was a pleasant place in the underworld where the heroic and virtuous, according to the Greek system of morality, found their home after death. In contrast, Tartarus was the home of the damned, a place of torment (Rymer 2006). This rather important aspect of the Christian system, with its notable parallel in the existing Greek religious infrastructure, would be one of those key points that eased the shift from a folk pagan religion to the new Christian paradigm in the First Century.
But more parallels did exist in the existing Greek system. The Greeks believed in extensive involvement of the gods in human affairs; likewise, the Christian Scriptures are based on stories of the effects of God on human populations. Many Greek myths revolved around the Trojan War, and cultural heroes; the Judeo-Christian heroes that would emerge in men like Job would turn out to be primarily religious heroes: men committed to religious virtues like faith and steadfastness. These similarities in the view of the relationship between the divine and human beings created notable similarities in how both religions were practiced in the First Century. Both faiths developed festivals that were celebrated by entire populations to praise the divine. Moreover, in terms of morality, both religious systems were based around systems of virtues and vices; however, the justification for why any characteristic is a virtue or a vice is different. In Ancient Greek philosophy, a virtue is a virtue to the extent that it promotes culturally important ends, like heroism and victory in military contexts. In the developing Christian order, a virtue is a virtue to the extent that it promoted religiously important ends (Hare 2006).
Of course, there was more to the religious makeup of Ancient Greek society than polytheism in the folk religion. Mystery cults required individuals to become initiated in the cult in order for them to learn the secrets of the private belief system that different from the public system in some respect. Mystery cults provided an opportunity for mystical experience, a comprehensive doctrine, and communal worship. Like the mystery cults, initiation into the developing Christian religion was done by means of the same kinds of purifications, rites, baptisms, and lustrations. Christianity presented a unique mystical experience and an exclusive community worshipping the same religious doctrine. The early Christian religion adopted themes of the Hellenistic cults. Christianity and the mystery cults were similar in nature because they shared a place in the Hellenistic religious landscape: different socially, religiously the same product (Hoffman 2007).
These parallels between the established Greek tradition and the developing Christian order made the transition from the polytheistic, or mystery, faiths to the orthodox Judeo-Christian order practically seamless. The paganism of Ancient Greece has had an enormous effect on the practice and doctrine of the Christianity that came to dominate Roman and Greek affairs from the First Century A.D. onward. The shift from Greek folk religion to Christian dogma highlights a more general theoretical transition from cultural values to religious values in religious practices and moral values. Going from praise of the virtues of the Hero Odysseus to the virtues of Job demonstrates a shift in thinking to emphasize the value of religious obedience, and the universal nature of the Judeo-Christian tradition, where religion takes precedence over existing cultures.
Christianity has its origins well within the Jewish tradition. The order began with the earliest followers of Jesus as an apocalyptic Jewish sect. The demand in Matthew 28:16-20 to spread the teachings of Jesus all over the world sparked the dogmatic imperative to incorporate many other communities into the faith, especially gentiles. Based out of the Jewish messianism of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., the martyrdom of Jesus created a demand for a new faction of Judaism to heal internal fissures growing between Sadducees, Zealots, Pharisees, and others. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the period of the First Century A.D. following 33 A.D., in a period known as the Apostolic Age, Christianity developed its order to reflect a growing religious community against the Jewish and Roman backdrop.
As a Jewish sect, the early Christians were primarily motivated by pursuing Jesus as the prophesized Messiah of the Scriptures. Within that framework, Yahweh, the God of Israel, was still the only true God. The Jewish community to whom Jesus preached was homogenously Jewish: a community Matthew refers to as the “Limited Commission” and which is followed by the “Great Commission” (referring to “all nations”). The Jewish Christian combination was nothing more than a heterodoxy within the greater Jewish religious tradition, and therefore the specific theistic background into which Christianity developed in the First Century A.D. ought to be relatively easy to describe.
The period from the death of Jesus Christ in 33 A.D. to the death of John the Apostle in 100 A.D. (that is, the end of the First Century A.D.) is often termed the Apostolic Age in the history of early Christianity. It earned this title for beginning a time of great significance in the creation and development of Christian teachings by the Apostles, the only men to have had direct contact with the Messiah. During the time of the Apostles, early Christianity was a Jewish eschatological (or apocalyptic) faith, with a Jewish continuity in traditions such as Temple attendance, home prayer, fasting, observance of Jewish holy days, and reverence for the Torah. This continuity in the traditions reflects Jesus Christ’s own reverence for Jewish tradition that is well-documented in his teachings.
Jesus emerged in a time of great political friction within the religious communities of the Jews, with deep fissures separating numerous variations in Judaism’s doctrines. Many attempts to create the ideal holy community for Israel occupied the religious authorities, and generated the political distinctions between Sadducees, Essenes, Pharisees, and Zealots. The Sadducees attempted to read the Hebrew Bible literally, and believed in a law of retribution based on eye-for-an-eye punishments. They rejected the Talmud, rejected fate, rejected the immortality of the soul, and rejected the role of God as a regulator of morality (Josephus 2001). The Essenes were mainly ascetics in communities dedicated to voluntary poverty and abstinence. They shared mystical beliefs in, according to Josephus, communities of thousands throughout Judea. They believed in common ownership, elections, peace, and rejected trading, sacrifice, oaths, and slaves. The Essenes believed in a soul’s immortality (Theissen and Merz 1998, 137-9).
The Pharisees comprised both a religious sect and a political party of the Jews, which ultimately gave rise to Rabbinic Judaism sometime in the late First Century A.D. The Pharisees held monotheism to be a central theological doctrine. In addition, while the Sadducees believed in complete free will and the Essenes believed in fate, the Pharisees believed in the a modern-sounding Christian thought that even though human beings have free will, God has knowledge of human destiny. The Pharisees, also unlike the Sadducees, believed in the resurrection of the dead, another Christian adoption (Theissen and Merz 1998). These similarities between the Pharisee tradition and the subsequent doctrines of Christianity suggest that Jesus was in fact a Pharisee. This seems consistent with the kinds of parallels already seen.
However, there is also reason to believe Christianity found its origins in the community of Jewish Essenes with numerous shared beliefs. For instance, the Essenes were the only sect to practice baptism, hold messianic convictions, express belief in a New Covenant, and to see themselves as preparing the way for God’s reign. The Halacha, an Essene body of Jewish religious law, is said to be very similar to Christ’s teachings with respect to both its religious and non-religious dictates (Tabor 1998). Given the structural similarities between both the Pharisee and Essene sects, it is doubtful that Jesus arose strictly out of one and not the other, with the stark opposition between the two groups. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember and bear in mind the kinds of political, social, and religious separations existing within the Jewish religion through which Christianity could arise as an eschatological, heterodox order that would eventually come to gain autonomy as its own orthodoxy and following. Regardless of whether the teachings of Jesus, or the development of Christianity during the First Century A.D., can be pigeonholed into one Jewish mystical tradition, what is most important is that Christianity would develop as a profoundly Jewish religion, with intact Jewish practices, traditions, and beliefs.
Christianity developed in the Apostolic Age in the context of Jewish mystical traditions. Beginning with the demand by Matthew to spread Christianity to “all nations”, the religion began to take shape in terms of the religious and political community. The death of Jesus, and his subsequent resurrection, tied into the beliefs of many Jews in the promise of a Messiah for the Jewish people. The heterodox belief in Jesus as the Messiah was taken as a hope to the end of political and doctrinal fissures between Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots. Against a Jewish and Roman backdrop, the Christians grew their religious order out of Matthew’s Limited Commission and into a community that would eventually seize the heart of Rome. This spread transcended the Jews and made for a new religion of Empire.
Hare, John. “Religion and Morality.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy. September 27, 2006. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-morality/ (accessed October 22, 2009).
Hoffman, Michael. “Equivalence of mystery-religion, esoteric Judaism, early Christianity.” Christianity as Mystery Religion. 2007. http://www.egodeath.com/ChristianityAsMysteryReligion.htm (accessed 2009).
Josephus, Flavius. The Wars of the Jews; or the history of the destruction of Jerusalem. Translated by William Whiston. Rome, October 1, 2001.
Rymer, Eric. The Underworld. 2006. http://www.historylink102.com/greece2/underworld.htm (accessed 2009).
Tabor, James D. “Ancient Judaism: Nazarenes and Ebionites.” The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. Department of Religious Studies. 1998. http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/JDTABOR/ebionites.html (accessed 2009).
Theissen, Gerd, and Annette Merz. Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998.