How Hellenism, the Pax Romana, and Judaism Politics Shaped the Early Christian Church

At the time of the early Christian church, Europe and parts of the Middle East were in a state in which diversity flourished, and society was postured for the assimilation of cultures. The successful growth of Christianity was due to centuries of westernization, and much influenced by Hellenism and the Pax Romana. The former grounded in language, philosophy and culture, the latter through order, security, and communication. To understand how a small sect of Judaism grew into a religion shared by diverse communities spread continents apart, we must grasp these two social forces, what they meant, and how they shaped the Western World.

The Pax Romana, meaning the Roman Peace, was an idea ancient Rome used to legitimize its conquests and civilization of the world. It was believed that life under Roman rule was preferable to anywhere else. Thus as territories and kingdoms were swallowed up by the Empire, a considerable effort was made to assimilate the native populace into fellow Romans. This was not always welcomed, least of all in Judea. Jews bitterly clung to their cultural identity in the process of being ‘Romanized,’ however, for Jews living in various parts of the Empire this wasn’t always resisted to the extent as it was in Jerusalem.  The Pax Romana also means to us today is a long reign of prosperity that came along with the Roman Peace. Across the Empire, cities were built in the Roman Design, road systems that exist still today connected all parts of the civilized western world. The economy thrived, and goods were transported all the way from the Africa, Britain, and the Middle East. Along with these prosperous times came a connected world where ideas could spread quickly. It was at this point that the Early Christian church grew and expanded throughout the whole of the Roman Empire.

Before the time of the Roman Empire, Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Greek City States and toppled the Persian Empire. After his death, the conquered lands were divided amongst his generals once again disjoining the Western World. But the cohesion of Greek ideas continued to influence,  combine and clash with the native cultures now free of Alexander’s grasp. This is what historians refer to as Hellenism. By the time of the early Christian church, half of the Roman Empire spoke Greek in addition to any native languages. This is much like how different parts of the world use English as a common language for communication today. In fact, many Jews of the Diaspora, Jews not living in the homeland of Judea, had long since forgotten to speak Hebrew. Jewish Scriptures had been translated into Greek as a result. Jewish apologists, those in defense of the Jewish faith, would use similarities in ancient Greek philosophy and Jewish theology to convince pagans of the legitimacy of Hebrew monotheism. Hellenism was attributing to a diverse mixture of cultures and religions slowly joining into a larger social identity. This was at the time of Jesus and the early Christian church, a church whose prominence would rival that of the Romans or Alexander the Great. 

In Summary, the combined forces of Hellenism and the Pax Romana greatly influenced and assisted the expansion of the early Christian Church. It was possible to spread a message of One God because of the relative safety and ease of travel of the Roman Empire. Early Christian and Jewish writers could relate to intellectuals of the time by using Greek Philosophy to argue for monotheism. Much of the Empire spoke Greek, so the Christian message was accessible to even the lowest rungs of society. This all goes to show just how connected the Western World was becoming. Soon Christian communities, same as Jewish populations before, could be found in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

To understand the early Christian church, we must see its roots in Judaism and examine the politics and ideology of Judaism at the time of Jesus. The history of Jerusalem directly shaped the course of Judaism and thus the course of Christianity. It is hard to over-exaggerate the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem and its role in Jewish history a center for worship and cultural identity. Far greater than the United States’ Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower in France as far as man-made structures are concerned. The city of Jerusalem itself goes back to ancient times far before Rome or Alexander. Many times throughout history Palestine, the territory around Jerusalem, was conquered by a foreign force. This made the Jews a hardy people who had an embedded urge to preserve their faith and traditions in the face of hostility.

In 586 BCE Palestine was occupied by the Babylonians. The sacred Jewish temple was destroyed, and the Jews were exiled. The Babylonian occupation ended as the Persians defeated the Babylonians, allowing the Jewish people who had the means to return to the homeland. The Persians fell to Alexander the Great and with that came Hellenism and its clash with Jewish culture. The land of Palestine fell into one power’s hands onto another’s until it was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 40 BCE when Herod the Great was named king by Roman Authority.  What we should take from this is that because of war and foreign rule many of the Jewish faith had migrated throughout the world, Judaism in Diaspora. While both cultures shared the same religion at the time of the emergence of Christianity, Judaism in Palestine and Judaism in Diaspora were quite different.

Judaism in Palestine was fraught with sectionalism among various political groups. By examining these political parties of the first century CE, we can see the roots of many facets of the early Christian church. Let us first look at the High Priests and Temple officials of Jerusalem who are directly tied with the Sanhedrin, an aristocracy of powerful families in Jerusalem. We can find a highly structured religious hierarchy that managed the Temple as well as city administration. The Sanhedrin being a Greek type of city council even. These offices are preludes to the structure of the Catholic Church but would cease to exist after the destruction of the Temple at the end of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.

 When concerning the interpretation of religious scripture, the Sadducees and the Pharisees battled ideologically. The Former a more conservative group who rejected ideas closer to Greek thought, the latter a more populous sect who made Judaism more practical to common folk. The resurrection of the dead, an afterlife, and the role of fate were contested because of their Greek influence, but with the fall of the Temple in 70CE, the philosophy of the Sadducees gave way as the Pharisee’s ideology continued to shape rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

Finally, we should look at the Essenes, a more isolated group who lived in a settlement outside of Jerusalem. The Essenes doctrine was apocalyptical in natural. They opposed the Greek idea that existence is a circle that repeats itself, and instead that there is a beginning and an end to existence. They believed in Messiahs who would save Jewish people of the true faith. The Essenes were vocally anti-Roman, which would lead to their defeat during the First Jewish Revolt.

All of the aforementioned political groups were in Palestine, and so we must consider Jews in Diaspora as well. In Jerusalem, there was very much a resisting of Hellenism with more conservative groups rejecting Greek thought, but for communities of Jews living throughout the Roman Empire, Greek Culture was a part of their daily lives. These Jewish enclaves had to cling to their religious identity in the face of a Greco-Roman world and thus felt a bond with other Jew of the Diaspora throughout the Empire. This is important because the path of Christianity will grow through these connected Jewish communities, carrying the influences of the Homeland with it. Indeed, early Christianity shared the same struggles as Judaism during this period when the two were less separate from one another.

 

SOURCES

White, Michael L. From Jesus to Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.