Roman, Greek, and Jewish Worlds Set the Setting

  • Christianity began in a cultural setting defined by three circles of influence: Roman law and government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.
  • Christian attitudes, practices, and social norms showed the influence of pre-existing cultures, yet were worked out within a distinctively Christian frame of reference
  • Judaism provided the immediate religious context for Christianity

Alexander the Great

The setting in which Christianity began was primarily shaped by three key influences: the political rule of the Roman Empire, the cultural impact of Greek expansion, and the religious legacy of Judaism. These three not only shaped the world in which Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and died; they also provided the setting in which Early Christianity grew and flourished. The Roman Empire defined the political and legal environment of the early church. Christians faced charges in Roman courts and their cases were adjudicated by Roman appointed judges. Latin was the official language of government and was especially in use in the western part of the empire. Following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek (Hellenistic) culture spread over much of the Mediterranean world and beyond. Greek was the language most commonly used throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, Hellenistic standards were the primary influences on education, literature, and philosophy. As Christians developed their own theology, they did so mainly using the categories and terminology inherited from Greek philosophy. Christian practices were deeply shaped by the practices of the broader culture.

Jesus was born a Jew and his earliest followers were Jews. Although the Jewish homeland (Israel) was the scene of a number of revolts against Rome and was eventually taken away from the Jews, the principal elements of the Christian faith found their original significance in expectations shared by many Jews regarding the Messiah. Early Christian worship and leadership were modeled on that of the synagogue, and Christians used the Jewish scriptures, especially the Greek Septuagint. Christian ethics owed a great deal to Jewish principles. One of the most remarkable aspects of the story of the church is to be seen in the transformation of a movement centered on a person of Jesus’ humble origins, to become the official religion of the empire and a decisive influence on western civilization and the world.

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