Christianity's Historical Context
Understanding the world in which Christianity developed helps understand Christian beliefs.
In the following article, the author explains the historical and cultural context in which early Christianity was born and developed. It is part of her effort to clear up common Jewish misconceptions about Christianity. A previous essay described some of those misconceptions, and a subsequent essay explains some of the most controversial beliefs Jews hold about Christianity. These essays first appeared in Moment magazine, and were 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.
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").