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.

The Pharisees promulgated the idea that during the Messianic Age the dead would be raised; hundreds of Jews went into the Judean desert by the caves of Qumran to await the final battle between the "sons of light" and the "sons of darkness" (as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls); a Jewish prophet named John (the Baptist) began to immerse fellow Jews in the Jordan River as tes­timony to their having repented of their sins and in preparation for the coming Messianic Age. (From the Greek term for immerse comes the term "baptize.")

This period in Judaism not only witnessed speculation about the Mes­sianic Age or the "world to come"--the time when the prophetic vision of universal peace would arrive--it also saw the rise of several claimants to be the inaugurator of that age. One first-century C.E. candidate, named Theudas, announced that a new era had arrived (Rome executed him); another, called "the Egyptian," proclaimed that the walls of Jerusalem would fall (although he escaped, Rome killed many of his followers).

In the early second century C.E., Rabbi Akiba proclaimed the Jewish mili­tary leader, Bar Kokhba, the Messiah. (Rome killed them both). That Jews in Israel might follow a visionary and a healer who spoke of the Kingdom of God should not be unexpected; nor should that visionary's execution by the Roman Empire.

Enter Jesus

It is also not surprising--it is in fact quite "Jewish"--that those who followed Jesus saw him as a wonder worker, recognized that his birth sig­naled something special, and even believed that after his death he was raised from the dead. If he was the Messiah, surely he would be raised. Jewish messianic belief at the time, and even now, incorporated the idea that the Messianic Age is marked by the resurrection of the dead.

Al­though it has been argued that the disciples stole Jesus' body and invented the resurrection (the Gospel of Matthew states that "this story has been spread among the Jews to this day"), the followers of Jesus were neither hypocrites nor charlatans. That someone would experience such a vision in these times is hardly surprising, especially in cases of extreme stress.

These visionaries lived then with a missionary zeal and commitment to their tradition, a tradition that happened to be Judaism. This is why many of Jesus' first followers believed that shortly after the crucifixion and his resurrection, there would be a general resurrection of the dead. When this did not happen, a number of these Jews probably returned to wait for the Messiah.

For the most part, among Jews, the mission in the name of the crucified and resurrected man from Nazareth was a flop. The majority of Jews at that time and subsequently did not find a need for Jesus in their lives: He filled no gap in their souls; he was not needed to take away their sins; he did not bring about the Messianic Age; they believed in resur­rection already.

Yet among gentiles the movement took hold: It offered the antiquity (in antiquity, "old" was "good"), morality, and community of Judaism, and it also offered what Jews already had: a covenantal rela­tionship with heaven that would lead to eternal life.

Pagan Polytheism?

Was that direction toward the gentile world one of pagan polytheism and idolatry?

Christians, of course, would say "no," as would most his­torians of the early church. Granted, it is not incorrect to think of Chris­tianity as having adopted numerous pagan practices, from setting the date for the birth of Jesus--December 25, the day dedicated to the ancient sun god--to the adoption of Yule logs, Christmas trees, and Easter bunnies.

But adaptation of cultural practices is an important way that religions de­velop; we might think of Jewish non-scriptural traditions, from jelly donuts and latkes at Hanukkah, to hamantaschen at Purim, to whatever the lat­est bar mitzvah fad is. Showing a shared good taste, Jews and Christians both have eggs for our spring festivals (respectively, Passover and Easter).

Jewish Practices

In terms of its relationship to Jewish practice, the earliest Christian movement had at first only one sacred Scripture, the Bible of the synagogue (Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim, or Torah, Prophets, and Writings). However, rather than insisting that all gentiles who joined the new movement convert to Judaism, the church after some debate concluded that this was unnecessary. Gentiles were not to be obligated to perform any distinctly Jewish practice.

Thus, gentile Christians were not bound by circumcision, kashrut [dietary laws], etc. That decision itself, however, was quite kosher: Resident aliens in Israel were not bound by these laws; the few scriptural statements about the "world to come" do not indicate that gentiles must convert to Judaism.

Further, during the Hellenistic period, Judaism developed the idea of the Noahide Laws--seven laws given to Noah and hence binding all humanity, not just Jews. Gentiles who followed these laws (prohibi­tions of murder, sexual sins, theft, idolatry, blasphemy, eating the limb from a living animal; the establishment of courts of justice) were consid­ered "righteous" (as today we have the category of the "righteous gen­tile") and accordingly were worthy of eternal life. Thus, gentiles in the church were required to conform to basic moral precepts only.

Intercessors

As for polytheism, the earliest Christian texts, which were written by Jews (such as Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who came to be known as St. Paul), do not encourage one to pray "to" Jesus. Rather, one prayed "through" him to God (the Father). This is also the role of the Saints and the Virgin Mary in some church teachings (most notably, the Roman Catholic Church). These figures are not "divine," but are viewed as hav­ing special intercessory powers.

The idea that the righteous have a special pipeline to God is not unknown in Judaism. Not only is it anticipated in Second Maccabees, a similar system can be seen in Israel today, where the pious pray at the tombs of Jewish "saints." Jesus himself, in the so-called "Lord's Prayer," speaks only of prayer to "our father, who is in heaven." (Throughout my grade school years in the Massachusetts public school system, children recited the "Lord's Prayer" every morning. I had no idea this was a "Christian" prayer; there's nothing in it a Jew could not say.)

The Holy Spirit

As for the "Holy Spirit," this is the Jewish ruah, spirit--or "wind" or "breath" to give a literal translation to this Hebrew word--used in Gen­esis when God hovered over the face of the deep, according to Bereshit (Genesis 1). The idea of the Spirit coupled with the concept of Wisdom, as found in books such as Proverbs, coalesced into the Christian Holy Spirit (the Greek term for "spirit," pneuma, can also mean "wind" or "breath"; hence, pneumonia).

Later on, when this Jewish movement in­tersected with Greek philosophical thought and as its adherents attempted to explain how God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit were related, the doctrine of the "Trinity" developed.

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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.