The purpose of this essay is to take a look at the Greco-Roman world in which the Apostle Paul lived so that we can better comprehend his ministry. Understanding the historical context helps us to gain such a perspective. We’ll discuss religion, philosophy, the family unit, and the social morality of the Hellenistic culture with a concluding look at the conflict Christians faced.
Let’s begin with the religion of the first century. Two episodes in the book of Acts provide insight into the religious beliefs and practices of that time.
In Acts 19 we read about the trouble Paul’s companions got into over His ministry in Ephesus. Craftsmen who made miniature shrines of Artemis, the local deity, objected to Paul’s teaching that “man- made gods are no gods at all” (Acts 19:26). In Paul’s world, religion was an integral part of everyone’s life. State-sponsored civic cults were one religious expression participated in by everybody. Historian Everett Ferguson notes that “the most deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practice in both Greece and Rome. . . . were associated with the traditional civic cult.”(1) The state both funded and profited by these cults.
Each city had its patron deity. The city of Ephesus honored Artemis, the goddess of nature and of childbirth. The statue of Artemis stood in a magnificent temple, four times as large as the Parthenon in Athens. Deities such as Artemis were honored with festivals, prayers, and sacrifices. Annual festivals included banquets, entertainment, sacrifices, processions, athletic contests, and the performance of mystery rites. Prayers included invocation, praise, and petition with the goal of receiving the favor of the goddess. Sacrifices were offered for praise, thanksgiving, or supplication.
The riot in Ephesus that resulted from Paul’s teaching was prompted partly by monetary concerns; the craftsmen were afraid of losing business. But the chant, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” which went on for two hours–by people who didn’t even know what the specific problem was–shows that money was not the only issue. The strength of religious devotion to the civic cults was such that Roman emperors saw the advantage of identifying with them instead of fighting them. We’ll talk more about that later in this essay.
Ephesus was also a major center of magical activity, another part of the religious practice of the first century. In Acts 19 we read about practitioners of magic or sorcery forsaking their practices and burning their scrolls as they publicly declared their new faith.
The Ephesians’ scrolls contained secret words and formulas which were used to force the gods to do one’s bidding. The precise formula was critical. Practitioners sought wealth, healing, or power; they even used magic in an attempt to gain another person’s love. Because it was also believed that to know someone’s true name was to have power over that person, names and formulas were blended to produce strong magic.
Paul carried his message to a world with a multitude of religious beliefs, and the message he proclaimed showed its power over them. As we look at our culture with its increasingly pluralistic religious spectrum, we must remember that we, too, carry the same gospel with the same power.
When the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he took the message of Christ to the marketplace where a wide variety of people could be encountered. Among those he talked to were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. We read about his encounter with them in Acts 17.
Who were these Epicureans and Stoics? I’d like to give a thumbnail sketch of their ideas about God, man, and the world which will help us understand why Paul what he did.
Stoicism and Epicureanism were philosophies which were developed to free people from the concerns of the present life.
Stoicism was materialistic and pantheistic. That is, Stoics believed that everything was composed of matter. The higher form of matter was of a divine nature, and it pervaded the universe. They called it various things: fire, Zeus, or even God. They believed that this divine “fire,” or God, generated the universe and would one day take the universe back into itself through a great conflagration. This cycle of creation and conflagration is repeated eternally.
Stoicism was thus deterministic. Things are the way they are and can’t be changed. To find true happiness, they believed one should understand the course of nature through reason and simply accept things the way they are.
In contrast to the Stoics, Paul taught that God is personal and not a part of this universe. He also taught that there would be a judgment to come, not a giant conflagration leading to another cycle.
Epicureans focused on the individual’s happiness, also, but they went in a completely different direction than the Stoics. They believed that the way to happiness was through maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Tranquility was sought through a quiet, contemplative life lived among a community of friends.
Epicureans were materialists, also, but they weren’t pantheists. They believed the universe was formed from atoms falling through space which occasionally bumped into each other accidentally, eventually forming the stars and planets and us. When we die, we simply become dissolved into atoms again. Epicureans believed in the gods, but thought they were like men, only of a higher order. The gods resided out in space somewhere, enjoying a life of quiet pleasure like that of the Epicureans. They had nothing to do with men. Apart from participation in sacrifices and religious rituals for aesthetic purposes, Epicureans believed humans needn’t worry about the gods.
Against the Epicureans, Paul taught that God is involved in the affairs of His creation and created us specifically to search for Him. Of course, Paul’s doctrine of a future judgment didn’t fit with their thinking either.
As Paul evangelized the Greek world, he sometimes used their terminology and concepts; he even quoted their poets. But he preached a very different message. Maybe we, too, can find common ground with our culture by knowing what people believe and by putting the gospel into terms they understand. Without modifying the message itself, we must phrase it in a way that it can be understood. If we don’t, we’ll have a hard time getting people to listen.
The Family Unit
We’ve given some attention to the religion and philosophy of Paul’s day, but what about the social structures of the Greco-Roman world? More specifically, what was the family like in the first century?
By the first century A.D., marriage was mostly by mutual consent. Historian Everett Ferguson describes marriage this way: “Consent to live together constituted marriage in all societies, and the procreation of children was its explicit object. Marriages were registered in order to make the children legitimate.”(2) Although marriages were mostly monogamous, adultery was common. Divorce required only oral or written notice.
Men had the dominant role in the family. They had absolute authority over their children and slaves. Wives remained under their fathers’ authority. Men occupied their time with business interests and such social outlets as banquets, and the gymnasia which included exercise facilities, pools, and lecture halls. These functioned as community centers.
In the husband’s absence the wife might conduct his business for him. However, managing the home was the wife’s primary responsibility. Ferguson quotes the Greek writer Apollodorus who said, “We have courtesans for pleasure, handmaidens for the day-to- day care of the body, wives to bear legitimate children and to be a trusted guardian of things in the home.”(3)
Women weren’t necessarily confined to the home, however. Some engaged in occupations as diverse as music, medicine, and commerce. Many held civic office, and some held leadership positions in the religious cults.
Children were not considered a part of the family until acknowledged by the father. They could be sold or exposed if not wanted.
Parents were on their own to find suitable education for their children. Girls could go to the elementary schools, but that was rare. They mostly learned household skills at home. Although most boys learned a trade at home or through an apprenticeship, they could go through a series of primary, secondary, and advanced schooling depending on their class status. Rote memorization was a key element in primary education. Rhetoric was the most important subject in advanced education.
Slaves were a part of the family unit in the Roman Empire. They might be obtained through a number of means including war, child exposure, and the sale of persons to pay debts. Slaves might work in the mines, in temples, in homes as teachers, or in industry; they even held high positions as administrators in civil bureaucracy. Slaves often earned enough money to buy their own freedom, although they had to continue working for their former owners.
Into this society the apostles brought new ideas about the value of the individual and about family relationships. Husbands were to be faithful to their own wives and to love them as their own bodies. Children were to be seen as much more than economic assets or liabilities. Masters were told to treat slaves with justice and fairness. People today who revile Christianity as being “oppressive” probably have no idea how much it elevated people in the Hellenistic world.
Moral instruction in the Hellenistic world was found more in philosophy and custom than in religion. Religion was largely external; that is, it was a matter of ritual more than of inner transformation. Philosophy sought to teach people how to live. Philosophers gave much attention to such matters as virtue, friendship, and civic responsibility.(4)
Historian Everett Ferguson notes that evidence from the Greco-Roman era indicates that many people lived quite virtuous lives. Inscriptions on grave stones, for example, include praises for husbands and wives for kindness and faithfulness.(5)
In spite of all this, history reveals a morally debased culture in the first century. One example is sexual immorality. “The numerous words in the Greek language for sexual relations,” says Ferguson, “suggest a preoccupation with this aspect of life.”(6) As I noted earlier, adultery was common. Men often had courtesans for physical pleasure. Homosexuality between young men or between an older and a younger man was openly accepted. Temple prostitution was part of some religious cults.
A low estimate of human worth was exhibited in the Hellenistic world. Earlier I mentioned child exposure as a way of getting rid of children. Unwanted babies–more often girls–were put on the garbage pile or left in some isolated area to die. They might be picked up to be used, to be sold as slaves, or to serve as prostitutes.
The brutality of the day was seen most clearly in the games in the Roman amphitheaters. Ferguson notes that, “The amphitheaters of the west testify to the lust for blood under the empire. The spectacles of gladiatorial combat–man against man, man against animal, and animal against animal–drew huge crowds and replaced Greek drama and athletics in popularity.”(7) Executions were considered less exciting than mortal combat. Consequently, when executions were included in the day’s program, they were typically carried out during the lunch break. One of the ways criminals were disposed of was by dressing them in animal skins and throwing them to wild animals.
Such brutality was extended to the Christians in the days of persecutions. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records that Nero had Christians thrown to the wild animals. He also had them dipped in wax, mounted on trees, and burned like giant torches in his gardens.(8)
Into this world of immorality and brutality came the message of love and righteousness found in Jesus. As with Judaism before, Christianity put religion and morality together. It revealed God’s standard of goodness and the sacrificial love of Christ, and it provided the power to attain that standard through the regenerating work of the Spirit based on Christ’s work on the cross.
Today, ethics and religion are again separate. And the results are being seen. But as in the first century, Christians today have a message of grace for our society: God not only tells us what is good, He also enables us to be good.
Christians’ Conflict with the Culture
In the early church, the character of Christians was very important for gaining a hearing and for winning converts as they boldly gave testimony of their new faith.
What were these Christians like? The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, written probably in the early second century, said this about them: “They marry as do all; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all.”(9)
If their lives were of such an exemplary nature, what was it that got Christians into so much trouble? Two of the most important factors were their unwillingness to participate in religious rituals and their refusal to bow before the images of the emperors.
Earlier I mentioned the importance of the civic religious cults in the Hellenistic world. The people believed that the gods required their sacrifices and other observances; otherwise, they would be angry and take their wrath out on the people as a whole. For the Christians to refuse to participate was to risk angering the gods.
The other factor was the matter of emperor worship. When Rome conquered the Western world, the rulers saw how important religion was to the people. Rather than fight against this, they took advantage of it by putting images of the Roman emperors in places of worship with the other deities. This wasn’t a big problem for the Greeks. Apart from the fact that the Romans were their rulers, Greeks weren’t exclusive in their worship. To worship one deity didn’t preclude worshiping others as well.
For the Christians, however, Jesus was Lord; there could be no other gods besides Him, and they couldn’t bow before anyone who claimed divine authority, including the emperor. However, since in the minds of the Romans the emperor represented the state, to refuse to bow before his image was to be an enemy of the state.
Thus, because of their refusal to participate in these activities, Christians were called atheists and enemies of the state. Their behavior was baffling to their neighbors. Why couldn’t they just go through the motions? As I already noted, religion was non- exclusive. The people didn’t necessarily believe in the gods to whom they made sacrifice, anyway. And since there was little or no connection between religion and ethics, one’s religious activities didn’t normally affect one’s moral life. So, why couldn’t the Christians just play along? The reason they couldn’t was that to bow before the emperors or the gods would be to commit idolatry which was the fundamental sin in the early church.
Christians in the early church had to decide where they could conform to their society and where they couldn’t. There was a difference of opinion as to what was appropriate and what wasn’t. But it was clear that anyone who would be identified as a Christian had to draw the line here: Jesus is Lord, and there is no other.
1. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 188.
2. Ibid., 68.
3. Ibid., 70-71.
4. Ibid., 303.
5. Ibid., 64.
7. Ibid., 94.
8. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, (Old Tappen, New Jersey: Spire Books, 1968), 13.
9. Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), 136.
©1997 Probe Ministries.