Christianity's Historical Context

Understanding the world in which Christianity developed helps understand Christian beliefs.

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This article first appeared in Moment magazine, and was also published in Best Spiritual Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.

The Judaism that developed in the late fourth century B.C.E. in the wake of Alexander the Great incorporated Greek cultural views, just as Jews have always been influenced by the countries in which we live. Thus, we find in the centuries leading up to the Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.E. an increasing penetration of Greek thought within Jewish communities. 

This synthesis of earlier Jewish tradition and new ideas is called "Hellenism," and it is in the crucible of Hellenism, supported by the Roman Empire that gained control over Israel in 63 B.C.E., that Chris­tianity was conceived.

Hellenistic Influences

We can see the influence of Hellenism in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14 mentions that a "virgin" would conceive a child who would be called "Immanuel" (the Hebrew means "God with us"). This verse is cited in the New Testament's Gospel according to Matthew as being ful­filled by the birth of Jesus. Otherwise put, some of the attributes accorded Jesus by his earliest followers make sense when seen in a Jewish, Greek-speaking context. Actually, the underlying Hebrew is not "virgin," but "young woman."

By the early first century C.E., more than just Greek language had fully impacted Jewish life and thought in Israel and the Western Diaspora. Retelling their traditional stories in Hellenistic and Roman terms, many Jews began to think of their ancient heroes such as Moses and Abraham, as well as less well known figures such as Enoch and Melchizedek, as di­vine men. Moses and Melchizedek were attributed miraculous births; Abra­ham became known, along with prophets Elisha and Elijah, as a miracle worker; Enoch, transported into heaven, took on the role of future judge of the world.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria spoke of the man­ifestation of God on earth; he called this the "Logos" (Greek for "word"), which is the same term some early Christians applied to Jesus (as in the opening words of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the word").

Wonder Workers & Messianic Figures

At the same time, Jewish wonder workers began to appear: Honi the Circle-drawer, who could make it rain; Haninah ben Dosa, whose prayers could cure the sick. Accompanying this intensification of the miraculous and marvelous was an increasing attention to the afterlife.

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Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also directs the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.