Guide to the New Testament- V II

Guide to the New Testament


The New Testament Milieu



Co-Authors of this volume







Specialist contributors



Translated by



Orion Publishers

P.O. Box 3068, Halfway House

Copyright 1998

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photo-copying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

ISBN 0 7987 0695 3

ISBN 07987 0230 3 (Series)

Orders can be placed at:

Perskor Publishers

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Main contributors to this series

F.J. Botha ()

J.C. Coetzee

H.J.B. Combrink

J.L. de Villiers

I.J. du Plessis

J.A. du Rand

A.B. du Toit (editor)

B.C. Lategan

G.M.M. Pelser

J.H. Roberts

W.S. Vorster ()

Volumes in this series

Volume I:    Preamble to New Testament Study

    The Canon of the New Testament

Volume II:    The New Testament Milieu

Volume III:    New Testament Methodology (yet to appear):


    Textual Criticism

    Exegetical Methods, etc.

Volume IV:    The Synoptic Gospels and Acts:

    Introduction and Theology (Message)

Volume V:    The Pauline Letters:

    Introduction and Theology

Volume VI:    The Gospel of John, Hebrews to Revelation:

    Introduction and Theology





Maps and illustrations


Rules of transliteration

Section A

General Orientation

CHAPTER 1    The function and value of studying the New Testament milieu

1.1    Relevant concepts

1.2    Basis for the function of background study

1.3    Problems related to background study and its application to the New Testament

1.4    Two examples of the value of background study

CHAPTER 2    Getting to know the geography, topography and archaeology of the Bible Lands in New Testament times

2.1    Why study biblical geography, topography and archaeology?

2.2    Archaeology and biblical archaeology

2.3    What is biblical archaeology?

2.4    The value of biblical archaeology

2.5    The New Testament and archaeology

2.6    Biblical archaeology’s sources of information

2.7    The general geography of Palestine

2.8    The different Palestinian regions and important places

2.9    Regions and cities outside Palestine

2.10    Other important archaeological discoveries: written records

2.11    Word List

Section B

The Graeco-Roman milieu of the New Testament

CHAPTER 3    Orientational remarks and primary sources for the study of the Graeco-Roman world

3.1    Introduction

3.2    The Graeco-Roman historians

3.3    Other writers and philosophers

3.4    Archaeological discoveries

CHAPTER 4    The political situation in the Graeco-Roman world in the period 332 BC to AD

4.1    Introduction

4.2    Alexander the Great

4.3    Alexander’s successors

4.4    The rise and progress of the Roman Empire to ad 138

CHAPTER 5    Cultural, economic, and social conditions in the Graeco-Roman world

5.1    Hellenism and its cultural influence

5.2    Economic life

5.3    Social conditions

CHAPTER 6    The Roman government and judicature

6.1    The Roman governmental system: a broad survey

6.2    The administration of justice

CHAPTER 7    Philosophical trends in the Graeco-Roman world

7.1    Introduction

7.2    The Sophists

7.3    Socrates (469–399 bc)

7.4    Plato (429–347 bc)

7.5    Aristotle (384–322 bc)

7.6    Introductory characterisation of philosophical trends in the Hellenistic era

7.7    The Peripatetics

7.8    The Cynics

7.9    The Diatribe

7.10    The Epicureans

7.11    The Stoics

7.12    The Sceptics

7.13    Syncretism and Eclecticism

CHAPTER 8    Religious life

8.1    Introduction

8.2    The old national religions

8.3    Religious syncretism and the mystery religions

8.4    Saviour figures

8.5    Divination

8.6    Astrology

8.7    Magic

8.8    The hero cult

8.9    The cult of the dead

8.10    Gnosticism

8.11    The emperor cult

8.12    The Roman state’s attitude to Jewish and Christian religious observances

Section C

The Jewish milieu of the New Testament

CHAPTER 9    Orienting remarks and sources for the study of Palestinian Early Judaism

9.1    Introduction

9.2    Ancient sources for the study of Palestinian Early Judaism in and around the New Testament era

9.3    Contemporary sources for studying Palestinian Early Judaism

CHAPTER 10    History of Palestinian Judaism in the period 539 BC to AD 135

10.1    The Jewish nation in the Persian period (539–332 bc)

10.2    The Jewish People under the rule of Alexander the Great and Egypt (332–200 bc)

10.3    Seleucid rule and the Maccabaean revolt (200–142 bc)

10.4    The Hasmonaean kingdom (142–63 bc)

10.5    The Jewish people under Roman rule (63 bc—ad 135)

CHAPTER 11    Governing authorities in Jewish national life in Palestine in New Testament times

11.1    The Roman administration

11.2    The House of Herod

11.3    The Sanhedrin

11.4    Local authorities

CHAPTER 12    Groups in Jewish national life in the New Testament period

12.1    Introduction

12.2    Priests and Levites

12.3    The Sadducees

12.4    The Ḥasidim

12.5    The scribes

12.6    The Pharisees

12.7    The Essenes, the Qumran community and the Therapeutae

12.8    The Herodians

12.9    The Zealots

12.10    ‘The people of the land’ (˓am hā˒āreṣ)

CHAPTER 13    The social and economic life of the Jewish people in Palestine in the time of the New Testament.

13.1    Introduction

13.2    Social life

13.3    Economic life

CHAPTER 14    Facets of Diaspora Judaism

14.1    Introduction

14.2    The Jewish way of life in the Diaspora

14.3    A few examples of Jewish communities in the Diaspora: the Roman provinces of Syria, Cyprus, Galatia and Asia; the Jewish community in Rome

14.4    Relationship to the first Christians

CHAPTER 15    The Jewish literary background of the New Testament: a survey

15.1    General survey

15.2    Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha

15.3    The Dead Sea Scrolls

15.4    Jewish-Hellenistic literature

15.5    Jewish apocalyptic literature (cf. also §1604–16)

15.6    Translations

15.7    Rabbinic literature

CHAPTER 16    Life in obedience to the Torah: Jewish belief, worship, and everyday religion in the first century AD

16.1    Faith in the one living God

16.2    Israel as the chosen covenant people

16.3    The importance of the Scriptures and the Torah

16.4    Angelology and demonology

16.5    Future expectations

16.6    The temple and its administration

16.7    The great Jewish feasts

16.8    The synagogue (for the role of the synagogue in the Diaspora, see §1212–26)

16.9    The interpretation of Scripture

16.10     Aspects of Jewish everyday religious life

16.11    Jewish religious expansion in the time of the New Testament. Was Judaism a missionary religion?

CHAPTER 17    The Samaritans

17.1    Introduction

17.2    Origin

17.3    The antipathy between Jew and Samaritan

17.4    Other aspects of their history

17.5    The Samaritan faith

17.6    Their main religious feast days and practices

17.7    Language and literature



It is with a feeling of joy and relief that volume II of this series is finally being sent to the press. Far too much time has elapsed since the appearance of the previous volume.

In the meanwhile, another of our esteemed contributors, professor W.S Vorster, passed away quite suddenly in the prime of his life. His contribution in this volume on the Jewish literary background of the New Testament attests to his impressive background knowledge, an area on which he worked intensively for many years. As a tribute, this edition is dedicated to him.

Another setback to the project was the unexpected death of Rev Roy Briggs, who translated all the previous volumes in this series with such extreme care and ability. At the time, twelve chapters in the volume had already been completed. Our sincere thanks and gratitude for his excellent work should be noted here.

The socio-scientific study of the New Testament has advanced greatly since the seventies. For this reason it might be seen as a deficiency that this volume does not reflect this approach more strongly. However, at present there are so many divergent schools of thought on the relationship between the historical-critical approach to the background of the New Testament and the socio-scientific angle, and on the way in which to integrate the two (if at all), that it is impossible at this stage to attempt to do so here.

As is customary, the titles of books and journals have been italicised. However, this has not been done with generally known writings such as the Bible and Bible books, the Septuagint (= LXX), the Mishnah, the Talmud or generic names such as the Midrash. The period after abbreviations has only been left out in the case of Bible books, since the main target readership of this book would hardly mistake the abbreviation for the full title. In the case of lesser known books, the period does assist the non-specialist in realising that this is indeed an abbreviation and that the list of abbreviations needs to be consulted.

The Editor

Pretoria, November 1997



Thanks are due to the following copyright holders for permission to use material as noted:

Messrs. Thomas Nelson & Sons for passages from the Revised Standard Version

The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press for passages from the New English Bible

The United Bible Societies for passages from the Good News BibleToday’s English Version and the New International Version.

Note: Except where otherwise indicated, all scriptural quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.


Maps and Illustrations

Map 1:    First century Palestine: Physical regions and main routes

Map 2:    First century Palestine and its surroundings: important places

Map 3:    Places outside Palestine which are discussed

Map 4:    Regional division of Palestine under the Herods

Illustration 1:    Inscription warning non-Jews not to enter the Inner Court of the temple (see at the back).

Illustration 2:    The Pilate inscription from Caesarea

Illustration 3:    Emperor Augustus

Illustration 4:    The House of Herod

Illustration 5:    View of the caves where the first Qumran scrolls were discovered

Illustration 6:    The Aphrodisias stone

Illustration 7:    Jewish prayer for vengeange from Rheneia

Illustration 8:    The temple of Herod



Biblical books

Gn; Ex; Lv; Nm; Jos; Jdg; Ruth; 1 Sm; 2 Sm; 1 Ki; 2 Ki; 1 Chr; 2 Chr; Ezr; Neh; Es; Job; Ps; Pr; Ec; Can; Is; Jr; Lm; Ezk; Dn; Hs; Jl; Am; Ob; Jon; Mi; Nah; Hab; Zph; Hg; Zch; Ml

Mt; Mk; Lk; Jn; Ac; Rm; 1 Cor; 2 Cor; Gl; Eph; Phlp; Col; 1 Th; 2 Th; 1 Tm; 2 Tm; Tt; Phlm; Heb; Ja; 1 Pt; 2 Pt; 1 Jn; 2 Jn; 3 Jn; Jude; Rv

English translations of the Bible

GNB        Good News Bible—Today’s English Version

JB    —    Jerusalem Bible

KJV    —    King James’ (Authorised) Version

NEB    —    The New English Bible

NIV    —    New International Version

REB    —    Revised English Bible

RSV    —    Revised Standard Version

RV    —    Revised Version

Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (selected)

Add. Dan.    Additions to Daniel

Add. Est.    Additions to Esther

Ahiq.    Ahiquar

Apoc. Abr.    Apocalypse of Abraham

Apoc. Elijah    Apocalypse of Elijah

Apoc. Mos.    Apocalypse of Moses

Apk. Zeph.    Apocalypse of Zephaniah

Ar.    Letter of Aristeas

Asc. Isa.    Ascension of Isaiah

Asc. Mos.    Ascension of Moses

Ep. Jer.    Epistle of Jeremiah

II Bar.    II Baruch (= Syr[ian] Bar[uch])

IV Bar.    IV Baruch (= Gr[eek Baruch])

Bel.    Bel and the Dragon

Bib. Ant.    Biblical Antiquities (Pseudo-Philo)

I En.    I Enoch (= Eth[iopian] En[och])

II En.    II Enoch (= Sl[avonic] En[och])

III En.    III Enoch (= Hebr[ew] En[och])

I-II Esdr.    I-II Esdras

III-IV Ezr.    III-IV Ezra

Jos. As.    Joseph and Asenath

Jub.    Jubilees

Jud.    Judith

I-IV Mac.    I-IV Maccabees

Mart. Isa.    Martyrdom of Isaiah

Od. Sol.    Odes of Solomon

Pr. Man.    Prayer of Manasseh

Ps. Sal.    Psalms of Solomon

Sib. Or.    Sibylline Oracles

Sir.    Jesus Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus)

Test. Abr.    Testament of Abraham

Test. Job.    Testament of Job

Test. 12 Patr.    Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs:

Test. Reub.    Testament of Reuben

Test. Sim.    Testament of Simeon

Test. Lev.    Testament of Levi

Test. Jud.    Testament of Judah

Test. Iss.    Testament of Issachar

Test. Zeb.    Testament of Zebulon

Test. Dan    Testament of Dan

Test. Naph.    Testament of Naphthali

Test. Gad    Testament of Gad

Test. Asher    Testament of Asher

Test. Jos.    Testament of Joseph

Test. Benj.    Testament of Benjamin

Tob.    Tobit

Vit. Ad. Ev.    Life of Adam and Eve

Wisd. Sol.    Wisdom of Solomon

Dead Sea Scrolls (selected)

CD    Damascus Document

1QapGen    Genesis Apocryphon

1QH    Thanksgiving Hymns

1QIsaa,b    First or second copies of Isaiah

1QM    War Scroll

1QpHab    Habakkuk Pesher

1QS    Rule of the Community

1QSa    Rule of the Congregation

1QSb    Blessings

3Q15    Copper Scroll

4QFlor    Florilegium

4QpNah    Nahum Pesher

4QPatr    Patriarchal Blessings

4QTestim    Testimonies

11QPsa,b    Psalm Scrolls

11QT    Temple Scroll

11QTgJob    Targum on Job

Rabbinic writings (selected)

Ab.    Aboth

B. Bat.    Baba Bathra

B. Talm.    Babilonian Talmud

Ber.    Berakhoth

Gn. R.    Genesis Rabbah (also Ex. R. etc.)

Mid.    Middoth

P. Talm.    Palestinian Talmud

Pes.    Pesah\im

Sab.    Sabbath

Sanh.    Sanhedrin

Mek.    Mekhilta

Midr.    Midrash (followed by biblical book, e.g. Midr.Ps.)

Targ. Jon.    Targum Jonathan

Targ. Onk.    Targum Onkelos

Targ. Ps.Jon.    Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

Josephus (= Jos.)

Antiq.    Antiquitates Judaicae

Ap.    Contra Apionem

Bell. Jud.    De bello Judaico

Vit.    Vita Josephi

Philo (selected)

Abr.    De Abrahamo

Exsecr.    De exsecrationibus

Flac.    In Flaccum

Hyp.    Hypothetica

Jos.    De Josepho

Leg. Gai.    Legatio ad Gaium

Praem.    De praemiis et poenis

Quaest. Ex.    Quaestiones et solutiones in Exodum

Quaest. Gn.    Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim

Spec. Leg.    De specialibus legibus

Virt.    De virtutibus

Vit. Mos.    De vita Mosis

Collections of inscriptions and other texts

AM – Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung

BS – Beth She˓arim II. The Greek inscriptions, Jerusalem 1974

CIG – Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, Berlin 1828–77

CIJ – Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum, ed. by J.- B. Frey I, with prolegomenon by B. Lifshitz, New York 21975. II Roma 1952

CJZC – Corpus jüdischer Zeugnisse aus der Cyrenaika, herausg. von G. Lüderitz, Wiesbaden 1983

CJZGKS – Corpus jüdischer Zeugnisse aus Griechenland, Kleinasien und Syrien, herausg. von H. Bloedhorn, Wiesbaden 1993

CPJ – Corpus papyrorum Judaicarum I-III, ed. by V.A. Tcherikover & A. Fuks, Cambridge, Mass. 1957–64

DF – Donateurs et fondateurs dans les synagogues juives, ed. par B. Lifschitz, Paris 1967

GISS – The Greek Inscriptions (at Sardis), ed. by A.R. Seager et al., Cambridge, Mass. 1992

GJS – Jewish symbols in the Greco-Roman period I-XIII, by E.R. Goodenough, New York 1953–68

GLAJJ – Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism I-III, ed. by E. Stern, Jerusalem 1974–84

ID – Inscriptions de Délos, publiés par F. Durrbach, Paris 1926–37

IGR – Inscriptiones Graecae ad res Romanas pertinentes, Paris 1911–27

IGSK – Inschriften griechischer Städte aus Kleinasien, Bonn 1972ff

MAMA – Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua, London 1928seqq.

ND – New Documents illustrating Early Christianity I-VI, ed. by G. Horsley, Macquarie University 1981–92

SBLTT – Society of Biblical Literature Texts and Translations, 1972ff

SEG – Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum, Amsterdam 1923seqq.

Graeco-Roman writers (selected)


Mort. Circ.    De mortu circulari corporum caelestium


Bibl. Hist.    Biblia Historica

Dio Cassius

Hist. Romana    Historia Romana


Diss.    Dissertationes


Serm.    Sermones


Sat.    Saturae


Epigr.    Epigrammata


Sat.    Saturae


Vit. Ap.    Vita Apollonii


Bibl.    Bibliotheca

Pliny (the Elder)

Nat. Hist.    Naturalis historia

Pliny (the Younger)

Ep.    Epistolae


Mor.    Moralia

Superst.    De superstitione


Flac.    Pro Flacco

Off.    De officiis


Geogr.    Geographica


Claud.    Claudius (In: De Vita Caesarum)

Tib.    Tiberius (ditto)


Ann.    Annales ab excessu divi Augusti

Hist.    Historiae


Char.    Characteres

Valerius Maximus

Fact.    Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri

Christian writers (selected)


Civ. Dei    De civitate Dei

Cons. Ev.    De consensu evangelistarum


Hist. Eccl.    Historia ecclesiastica

Praep. Ev.    Praeparatio evangelica


Magn.    Epistula ad Magnesios

Modern publications

AGJU – Arbeiten zur Geschichte des Spätjudentums und des Urchristentums, Leiden 1961ff

ALBO – Analecta Lovaniensia biblica et orientalia, Louvain etc. 1934seqq

ALGHJ – Arbeiten zur Geschichte und Literatur des hellenistischen Judentums, Leiden 1968ff

AnB – Analecta Biblica, Rome 1952seqq

AncB – Anchor Bible, New York 1964ff

AncBD – Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. by D.N. Freedman, New York 1992

ANRW – Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, herausg. von H. Temporini, W. Haase, Berlin 1972ff

ANTT – Arbeiten zur neutestamentlichen Textforschung, Berlin 1963ff

APOT – Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English I-II, ed. by R.H. Charles, Oxford 1913

AThANT – Abhandlungen zur Theologie des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Zürich usw. 3,1944ff

AThR – Anglican Theological Review

AUSS – Andrews University Seminary Studies, Berrien Springs 1963ff

AzTh – Arbeiten zur Theologie, Stuttgart I 1960ff, II 1962ff

BA – Biblical Archaeologist

BARe – Biblical Archeologist Reader, Missoula 1961ff

BBB – Bonner Biblische Beiträge, Bonn 1950ff

BbET – Beiträge zur biblischen Exegese und Theologie, Frankfurt a.M. usw. 1976ff

BEAT – Beiträge zur Erforschung des Alten Testaments und des Antiken Judentums, Frankfurt a.M. usw. 1948ff

BEinlNT – Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Neue Testament (A. von Harnack)

BEThL – Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, Louvain 1948seqq

BEvTh – Beiträge zur evangelischen Theologie, München 1940ff

BETS – Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society

BFChTh – Beiträge zur Förderung christlicher Theologie, Gütersloh I. Reihe 1897ff, 2. Reihe 1921ff

BGBE – Beiträge zur Geschichte der biblischen Exegese, Tübingen 1959ff

BHH – Biblisch-Historisches Handwörterbuch, herausg. von B. Reicke, L. Rost, Göttingen 1962–66

BhTh – Beiträge zur historischen Theologie, herausg. von G. Ebeling, Tübingen 1929ff

Bib – Biblica. Commentarii periodici ad rem biblicam scientifice investigandam

BiKi – Bibel und Kirche

BiLe – Bibel und Leben

BiLi – Bibel und Liturgie

BiTod – Bible Today

BJRL – Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Manchester

BiTr – Bible Translator

BNTC – Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Londen 1957ff

BR – Biblical Research

BRL – Biblisches Reallexikon, herausg. von Kurt Galling, Tübingen 1937, 21977

BSt – Biblische Studien, Neukirchen 1951ff

BTB – Biblical Theology Bulletin

BU – Biblische Untersuchungen, Regensburg 1967ff

BWANT – Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament, Stuttgart usw. 1926ff

BZ – Biblische Zeitschrift

BZAW – Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, Berlin 1896ff

BZNW – Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, Berlin 1923ff

CAH – Cambridge Ancient History, Cambridge 1924ff, 21961, 31970ff

CBQ – Catholic Biblical Quarterly

CBQMS – Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series, Washington 1971ff

CCWJCW – Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World, Cambridge 1985ff

CeB – Century Bible, Edinburgh 1901ff, new ed. 1922ff

CHJ – The Cambridge History of Judaism, ed. by W.D. Davies & L. Finkelstein, Cambridge 1984ff

ChrTo – Christianity Today

CNT – Coniectanea Neotestamentica

CNT(K) – Commentaar op het Nieuwe Testament, Kampen 1954ff

CQ – Classical Quarterly

CRBS – Currents in Research: Biblical Studies

CRINT – Compendia rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum, gen. eds. M. de Jonge & S. Safrai, Assen 1974seqq

CThMi – Currents in Theology and Mission

CTM – Concordia Theological Monthly, St Louis 1930ff

DB(H) – Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by J. Hastings, Edinburg 1898–1904. Rev. 1963

DTb – Dalph Taschenbücher, Bern usw.

EAF – Erträge der Forschung, Darmstadt 1970ff

EB – Echter Bibel

EdF – Erträge der Forschung, Darmstadt 1970ff

EJ – Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. by C. Roth & G. Wigoden, Jerusalem 1971seqq

EJMI – Early Judaism and its modern interpreters, ed. by R.A. Kraft & G.W.E. Nickelsburg, Atlanta 1986

EK – Evangelische Kommentare

EKK – Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, Neukirchen 1969ff

ERE – Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. by J. Hastings, Edinburgh 1908–77

ERT – Evangelical Review of Theology

ET – Expository Times

EThL – Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses

EvQ – Evangelical Quarterly

EvTh – Evangelische Theologie

EWNT – Exegetisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, herausg. von H. Balz, G. Schneider, Stuttgart usw. 1980–3

Exp – Expositor

FRLANT – Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Göttingen 1903ff, NF 1913ff

FZB – Forschungen zur Bibel, Würzburg 1972ff

GLB – (De) Gruyter Lehrbuch, Berlin 1968ff

GNT – Grundrisse zum Neuen Testament, Göttingen 1971ff

GTA – Göttinger theologische Arbeiten, Göttingen 1975ff

GTT – Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift

GuL – Geist und Leben

HAW – Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, München 1922ff

HbNT – Handleiding by die Nuwe Testament, onder redaksie van A.B. du Toit, Pretoria 1978vv

HDB(rev) – J. Hastings: Dictionary of the Bible, rev. by F.C. Grant & H.H. Rowley, New York 1963

HeyJ – Heythrop Journal

HJP – The history of the Jewish People in the age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. – A.D. 135) I-III; originally written in German by E. Schürer; new English edition rev. and ed. by G. Vermes, F. Millar et al., Edinburgh 1973–87 (for more detail, see 732,734)

HNT – Handbuch zum Neuen Testament, begr. von H. Lietzmann, Tübingen 1907ff

HThK – Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, Freiburg in Breisgau 1953ff

HThR – Harvard Theological Review

HThS – Harvard Theological Studies

HUCA – Hebrew Union College Annual, Cincinnati 1924ff

HUTh – Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie, Tübingen 1962ff

IBD – The Illustrated Bible Dictionary I-III, ed. by J.D. Douglas, Leicester 1980

ICB – The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary of the Bible, ed. by C.M. Laymon, London-Glasgow 1971

IDB – The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by G.A. Buttrick et al., New York 1963

Interp – Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology

ISBE – The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. by J. Orr et al., Grand Rapids 1939

JAC – Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, Münster 1958ff

JBL – Journal of Biblical Literature

JJS – Journal of Jewish Studies

JETS – Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

JRLB – John Rylands Library (quarterly) Bulletin

JRS – Journal of Roman Studies

JSJ – Journal of the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman period

JSNT – Journal for the Study of the New Testament

JSNT.S – Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 1980ff

JSOT.S – Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 1976ff

JSPE.S – Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (and related literature) Supplement Series, Sheffield 1987ff

JThS – Journal of Theological Studies

Jud – Judaica. Beiträge zum Verständnis des jüdischen Schicksals in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart

KBANT – Kommentare und Beiträge zum Alten und Neuen Testament, Düsseldorf 1962ff

KEK – Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament, begr. von H.A.W. Meyer, Göttingen 1832ff

KNTTM – Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, by (H.L. Strack) P. Billerbeck, München 21956

KP – Der kleine Pauly. Lexikon der Antike, herausg. von K. Ziegler & W. Sontheimer, Stuttgart 1964–75

KStTh – Kohlhammer-Studienbücher Theologie, Stuttgart 10, 1991ff

KuD – Kerygma und Dogma

LCL – Loeb Classical Library, London etc. 1967ff

LEC – Library of Early Christianity, Philadelphia 1986ff

LingBibl – Linguistica Biblica

LAE – Light from the Ancient East, A. Deissmann (transl. L.R.M. Strachan), New York 1927. Original: Licht vom Osten, Tübingen 41923

LouvSt – Louvain Studies. Semi-annual publication of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Louvain, Louvain 1966ff

LThK – Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Freiburg im Breisgau 11930ff, 21957ff

MBTh – Münsterische Beiträge zur Theologie, 1923ff

MThS – Münchener Theologische Studien, München 1950ff

MTS – Marburger Theologische Studien, Marburg 1931 NF 1963ff

NBC(rev) – The New Bible Commentary revised, ed. by D. Guthrie & J.A. Motyer, London 1970

NBD – The New Bible Dictionary, ed. by J.D. Douglas, London 1962

NCB – New Century Bible, London 1971ff

NCIB – New Clarendon Bible, Oxford 1963ff

NedThT – Nederlandse Theologisch Tijdschrift

Neot – Neotestamentica, Pretoria

NGTT – Nederduitse Gereformeerde Teologiese Tydskrif

NIC – The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids 1951ff

NIDNTT – New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by C. Brown, Exeter 1975–78. Transl. of TBLNT

NIGTC – The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Exeter 1978ff

NKZ – Neue kirchliche Zeitschrift

NLC – New London Commentaries on the New Testament, London

NovT – Novum Testamentum

NovTS – Novum Testamentum Supplements, Leiden 1958ff

NTA – Neutestamentliche Abhandlungen, Münster 1909ff, NF 1965ff

NTaK – Das Neue Testament als Kanon. Dokumentation und kritische Analyze zur gegenwärtigen Diskussion, herausg. von E. Käsemann, Göttingen 1970

NTAp – Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, herausg. von W. Schneemelcher, Tübingen 31959–64

NTD – Das Neue Testament Deutsch … Neues Göttinger Bibelwerk, Göttingen 1932ff

NTOA – Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus, Fribourgh et al. 1986seqq

NTS – New Testament Studies

OBO – Orbis biblicus et orientalis, Freiburg 1973seqq

OCB – The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. by B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, New York-Oxford 1993

OCD – The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. by N.G.L. Hammond & H.H. Scullard, Oxford 1949, 21970

OTP – Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. by J.H. Charlesworth, London etc. 1983–5

PNTC – Pelican New Testament Commentaries, London

PRE – Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, herausg. von G. Wissowa, Stuttgart 1894–1978

PrNT – De Prediking van het Nieuwe Testament, Nijkerk

QD – Quaestiones disputatae, Freiburg in Breisgau et al. 1958seqq

RestQ – Restoration Quarterly

RAC – Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, herausg. von T. Klauser, Stuttgart 1950ff

RB – Revue biblique

RdQ – Revue de Qumran

RExp – Review and Expositor

RGG3 – Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, herausg. von K. Galling, Tübingen 31957–65

RHR – Revue de l’histoire des religions

RNT – Regensburger Neues Testament, herausg. von A. Wikenhauser, O. Kuss, Regensburg 31956ff

RSR – Recherches de science religieuse

RVV – Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, Giessen usw. 1903ff

Sal. – Salesianum, Torino

SBL – Society of Biblical Literature

SBLDS – Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, Missoula 1972ff

SBLMS – Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, Missoula 1971ff

SBM – Stuttgarter biblische Monographien, Stuttgart 1967ff

SBS – Stuttgarter Bibelstudien, Stuttgart 1965ff

SBT – Studies in Biblical Theology, London I 1950ff, II 1967ff

SBTh – Studia biblica et theologica, Pasadena 1971seqq

Schürer: see HJP

Scrip – Scripture (Edinburgh)

Sem – Semeia (Atlanta)

SF – Studia Friburgensia, Fribourgh 1924seqq, NS 1947seqq

SGU – Studia Graeca Uppsaliensia, Uppsala 1962seqq

SHR – Studies in the History of Religions, Leiden 1954ff

SJ – Studia Judaica. Forschungen zur Wissenschaft des Judentums, Berlin 1961ff

SJTh – Scottish Journal of Theology

SK – Skrif en Kerk (Pretoria)

SN – Studia neotestamentica, Paris 1962seqq

SNI – Society of North Indians

SNTSMS – Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series, Cambridge 1965ff

SSN – Studia Semitica Neerlandica, Assen 1955seqq

StANT – Studien zum Alten und Neuen Testament, München 1960ff

StB – Studia Biblica

StEv – Studia Evangelica, 1951ff

SThGG – Studien zur Theologie und Geistesgeschichte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, Göttingen 1972ff

StNT – Studien zum Neuen Testament, Gütersloh 1969ff

STö – Sammlung Töpelmann 2. Reihe, Berlin 1935ff

(H.L. Strack,) P. Billerbeck: see KNTTM

StTh – Studia Theologica: Scandinavian Journal of Theology

TAVO – Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients, Wiesbaden 1977ff

TBLNT – Theologisches Begriffslexikon zum Neuen Testament, herausg. von L. Coenen, E. Beyreuther, H. Bietenhard, Wuppertal 1967–71

TEH – Theologische Existenz heute. Eine Schriftenreihe, herausg. von K. Barth et al., München 1933ff, NF 1946ff

ThA – Theologische Arbeiten, Berlin 1954ff

ThBeitr – Theologische Beiträge

Theol – Theology. A Journal of historic Christianity

ThEv – Theologia Evangelica

ThF – Theologische Forschung, Hamburg 1948ff

ThGl – Theologie und Glaube

ThLZ – Theologische Literaturzeitung

THNT – Theologischer Handkommentar zum Neuen Testament, Leipzig usw. 1926ff

ThR – Theologische Rundschau, 1897ff, NF 1929ff

ThRv – Theologische Revue

ThViat – Theologia Viatorum. Jahrbuch der kirchlichen Hochschule Berlin, Berlin 1948/49ff

TS – Theological Studies

ThSt – Theologische Studien, herausg. von K. Barth et al., Zürich 1938ff

ThW – Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament I-X, herausg. von G. Kittel, G. Friedrich, Stuttgart 1933ff

ThWiss – Theologische Wissenschaft, Stuttgart usw. 2,1972ff

ThZ – Theologische Zeitschrift

TNTC – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, London-Leicester 1960ff

TSAJ – Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum, Tübingen 1981ff

TU – Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, begr. von O. von Gebhardt und A. von Harnack, Berlin usw. 1882ff

TynB – Tyndale Bulletin

UMI – University Microfilm International

US – Una Sancta

UTB – Uni-Taschenbücher, Basel usw.

VF – Verkündigung und Forschung. Beihefte zu `Evangelische Theologie’, München 1940

VoxTh – Vox Theologica

WBC – Word Biblical Commentary, ed. by D.A. Hubbard & G.W. Barker, Dallas

WdF – Wege der Forschung, Darmstadt 1956ff

WMANT – Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament, Neukirchen 1960ff

WStB – Wuppertaler Studienbibel, herausg. von F. Rienecker & W. de Boor, Wuppertal 1953ff

WThJ – Westminster Theological Journal

WUNT – Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, Tübingen 1950ff

ZDPV – Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins

ZKTh – Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie

ZNW – Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche

ZThK – Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche


Rules of transliteration





= ˒

מ / ם

= m

ב / בּ

= b

נ / ן

= n

ג / גּ

= g


= s

ד / דּ

= d


= ˓


= h


= p


= w


= ph


= z

צ / ץ

= ṣ


= ḥ


= q


= ṭ


= r


= y


= ś

כ /כּ /ךּ

= k


= š


= l

תּ / ת

= t




Long Vowels




Short Vowels


= â



= a

ֵ י

= ê



= e (as in well)

ִ י

= ı̂



= i


= ô



= o(as in more) (qāmeṣ ḥāṭûph)


= û



= u


= ā



= ‡


= ē



= ƒ (as in petition)


= ō



= ¡ (as in more)







= a



= x


= b



= o


= g



= p


= d



= r


= e


= rh


= z



= s


= ē



= t


= th



= u


= h



= ph


= i



= ch


= k



= ps


= l



= ō


= m



= nx


= n



= ng



Jota subscriptum
and accents are ignored

Full details of a publication are only given at its first occurrence. Thereafter the title is abbreviated, with the paragraph of its first appearance mentioned in brackets.

In references to Philo and Josephus, the paragraph numbering of the Loeb Classical Library is used.


Section A (chapters 1–2)

General Orientation



The function and value of studying the New Testament milieu

    A.B. du Toit

1.1    Relevant concepts

1    This volume is entitled ‘New Testament milieu’. For this field of study, German scholars use the terms ‘Geschichte‘ (Schürer), ‘Zeitgeschichte‘ (Reickea [in the German original]) or ‘Umwelt‘ (Lohse, Leipoldt & Grundmann). English writers use the designation ‘background’ (cf. Barrett, Ferguson). There can be no serious objections to any of these. Each considers the subject from a particular, perfectly legitimate angle. Therefore some of these terms will also be found in this work. The term ‘background’ may, however, create the false impression of a distance between the New Testament role-players and the world within which they were active. The advantage of the term ‘milieu’ is that it portrays these role-players as being a direct and active part of the world in which they lived.

2    We use the term ‘milieu’ in the singular, but this could cause a problem by wrongly implying a uniform socio-cultural context for all the various sections of the Mediterranean environment with which we are concerned here. To use the plural would, on the other hand, result in the equally incorrect idea that these ‘milieus’ can be neatly separated and distinguished one from another, as if a considerable measure of overlapping did not exist among them. Consequently, ‘milieu’ should here be understood as a kind of umbrella term which acknowledges the degree of commonality which existed, while at the same time it is in no sense meant to deny the diversity.


1.2    Basis for the function of background study

3    Background study is concerned with context, but the use of the term ‘context’ produces a complicated network of viewpoints (Harris, Botha). Right at the outset we have to distinguish between linguistic or literary
context, on the one hand, and referential context, on the other. We may also speak respectively of ‘internal context’ and ‘external context’. The former deals with the structured configuration of linguistic signs consisting of words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on, which in their totality comprise a discourse. Here, then, we have to do with the structure of the text as a linguistic creation with a ‘closed, internally interactive system’ (Harris: p. 42). The referential or external context relates to the milieu or situation outside the text, to which the constituent parts of the text refer. When in the rest of this volume we refer to context, it is in this second sense, namely the concrete external situation or milieu with which the New Testament texts are connected and to which they refer.

4    No normal linguistic expression is unsituated, that is, without an external context. This applies equally to the New Testament writings. Though these documents deal with the most fundamental questions of our humanity, in no sense do they float in space. It is precisely because these New Testament documents take humanity so seriously that they are concretely embedded in the milieu of the people who were involved in their production. To be human is always to be human in situ (= in a situation).

5    It is precisely because of this contextualizing of communication that knowledge of the situation or context in which a linguistic expression occurs is indispensable for successful understanding. Let us take a very simple sentence: I’ll get you! Without knowledge of the actual situation in which this string of structured linguistic signs occurs, all we can do is speculate over its intention. Are there two people making an appointment with each other? Or is it an impatient sleeper’s threat to a mosquito? Or a young lover determined to win the love of the girl of his dreams? These questions are nothing less than a search for context. We shall be able to answer them only when we have clarity concerning the concrete situation in which the statement is made. Text plus context is what makes meaningful communication possible.

6    We might also formulate this last statement in another way, by saying that successful communication between sender and recipient demands at least a modicum of shared contextual knowledge. A certain minimum of common frame of reference is necessary. The less shared frame of reference there is, the more difficult the intelligence process becomes, and then misunderstanding or a breakdown of communication is imminent. Consequently, the sender often has to use his communication in order to bring about a common frame of reference. So, for instance, in his letter to the house-churches in Rome, where he is relatively unknown, Paul has to introduce himself in considerably more detail than he does in writing to the Corinthians or the Galatians, among whom he has already worked.

7    The concept ‘context’, in the sense of the situation external to the text, can be divided into two categories. First, there is the relatively continuous
socio-cultural milieu in which people find themselves. Here we may think of the broad Graeco-Roman socio-cultural context; or, in a more limited ambit, the context of Hellenistic or Palestinian Judaism; or, still more narrowly, the context of socio-cultural circles in Rome or Corinth or Jerusalem; or that of an even smaller circle such as the Qumran community. Secondly, within the first, more abstract milieu, there are the thousands of contingent, specific, concrete milieus which change continually, which are termed ‘immediate situations’. These supply answers to such questions as who does what, to whom, when, where, why, in what circumstances? Jesus’ trial by the Sanhedrin, Paul in the goal at Philippi, John on the island Patmos—these would be just three out of literally hundreds of New Testament examples of an immediate situation. Of both these categories, however, it remains true that the more shared knowledge there is between sender and recipient, the easier it is to achieve successful communication.

8    In the sphere covered by this book we are concerned with the first category. If today we want to understand the New Testament texts of two thousand years ago, we must take our place alongside the original recipients. In our attempt to understand these texts one of our most important efforts must be to expand our referential framework regarding the world of the New Testament in such a way that it will approximate as closely as possible to the milieu in which an informed contemporary hearer/reader would have received those documents. For readers of the New Testament the value of background study is decisively determined by the extent to which it assists us in realizing this effort.


1.3    Problems related to background study and its application to the New Testament


1.3.1    Problems in respect of background study itself

9    We have deliberately just used the word ‘effort’, because here we are always engaged in a continuing, incomplete process. We have to accept that the measure in which we realize our goal will differ from one instance to the next, and that total realization will always remain out of our reach. In particular, there are five reasons for this:


10    a. First of all, there exists between today with its own kaleidoscope of contexts in which we are all subjectively involved and the variety of milieus of two millennia ago such an enormous socio-cultural gulf that we shall never be able to bridge it completely.


11    b. Secondly, there are still great gaps as far as our source material is concerned. Before the discovery of the Qumran material, for instance, we would have known much less of the diversity in the Palestinian-Jewish world. These gaps are due partly to the fact that so much archaeological material has been lost, and partly to the limited explicit information contained by our sources themselves.


12    c. Thirdly, the content of our ancient texts is frequently misunderstood. The following factors can contribute to this:


13    (i) Conclusions are not always based on a comprehensive and penetrating study of all the available primary sources. To take a single example: for a very long time it was assumed that Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism were two watertight, completely distinct entities. Scholars who did not consult the primary sources for themselves uncritically took over this point of view from secondary sources. A more thorough study of the primary sources in the last few decades, however, made it clear that the notion of two such strongly distinctive units is nothing but a myth.


14    (ii) Our ancient texts are products of their authors’ interpretation of reality and intentions. Anyone who does not take into account the particular nature of these texts runs the risk of completely misunderstanding them. If, for instance, as is frequently the case, we were to accept the details given by Josephus at face value as objective information, we would be guilty of naïvety, since this so-called historical source is actually highly coloured by the interpretation and rhetorical strategies of its author. Once the specific character of these ancient documents is disregarded, serious mistakes can be made, as when Josephus’s figures for the number of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for Passover are accepted at face value. In Bell. Jud. II:280 he reckons them at three million, a figure which would have placed an impossible logistical burden on a relatively small city like Jerusalem.


15    (iii) As modern readers we, too, are conditioned by our own reading context and we are dependent on our own subjective interpretation. As a consequence, the scholarly interpretations of our primary sources do not necessarily coincide. The early Jewish-Palestinian religion was, for instance, long regarded as an extremely legalistic form of religion. But, following E.P. Sanders, many influential researchers assert that interpretation was incorrect. They attribute this mistake to the fact that for decades early Judaism was viewed through Lutheran-Protestant spectacles. Now the question is: Who is right? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between? Are Sanders and his supporters, in turn, not to some extent being conditioned by modern attempts at greater rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism?


16    d. There is a fourth factor: When we use the New Testament itself as a source of information, we are especially faced with the problem of what is technically called ‘mirror reading’. The particular dilemma in the mirror reading of texts occurs when certain documents have to be studied without sufficient external information relating to the socio-cultural context or the more specific immediate situation within which they were written. In such a case the investigator is obliged to extrapolate a context from the specific sources themselves. Then the question arises: When can accurate deductions concerning an external context be made from particular formulations, and when can they not? When in Rm 6:1, for example, Paul asks: ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?’, are we to conclude from these questions that there were Christians in Rome who adopted a libertine attitude? Or are these rhetorical questions simply part of the logical development of Paul’s argument? This is the kind of problem with which the often unavoidable exercise of mirror reading faces us. In New Testament scientific literature we are often confronted with glaring examples of illegitimate mirror reading. Consequently, mirror reading must be handled most circumspectly (Barclay).


17    In order to grasp the real problem connected with mirror reading better, we have to penetrate more deeply into the relationship between New Testament texts and external milieu:


18    (i) In terms of textual theory, we must distinguish between the text world and the real world. It would be unscientific to regard these two worlds as identical. Through the use of linguistic signs and linguistic strategies, the author of a text creates a specific intra-textual milieu in which the implicit author (the one within the text), the implicit readers and all other intra-textual role-players share and which they help to constitute. This intra-textual milieu, which naturally has to be distinguished from the structured literary context (equally within the text; see §3), is a construction by the author through which he, in non-fictional types of literature, textually recreates the real world in such a way that he can influence and manipulate his readers according to his authorial intent.


19    (ii) Due to this ‘recreational’ factor we have to accept that there is no one-to-one relationship between the text world and the real world. This implies that the correlation between real world and text world moves on a sliding scale between a position closer to a one-to-one relationship (in the case of informative texts) and one further from it (in the case of fictional texts). As far as the latter is concerned, there must still be sufficient correlation so that intelligible reference is actually possible. Even the wolf in the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood, who in so many respects acts differently from a real wolf, still possesses certain common traits with that animal, otherwise it might just as well be called a lion or a buffalo.


20    (iii) The New Testament documents are not fictional texts. Though here, in terms of the point of view we have mentioned, we do not have a simple one-to-one relationship, there is yet such a measure of correlation between text world and real world that knowledge of the latter can shed a wealth of light on our understanding of the New Testament. And, conversely, the New Testament texts can in turn provide insight into the world of the New Testament. They must therefore be regarded as part and parcel of our background sources. We should, however, be extremely careful as to how we apply background information to the New Testament (see §23f), on the one hand, and, on the other, how we extrapolate background information from the New Testament. These texts do not necessarily always present a typical picture of the socio-cultural patterns of that time. Were we, for example, to conclude from the positive characterization of tax collectors in Lk 18:9–14 and Mt 21:31f that these people were positive role-models in their society, we would be making a serious mistake. From other sources we know that for the most part they were negatively stigmatized. Similarly, it would be incorrect to conclude from Jesus’ positive portrayal of the Samaritan (Lk 10:30–37) that Samaritans generally adopted a positive attitude towards Jews.

21    But this problem does not in any way imply that we should now simply write off background study. Quite the contrary! In reality, background research has achieved a great deal. Today we have available a broad base of knowledge built up by particularly able and dedicated scholars through several generations. With our more refined exegetical methods we are able to use this so as to mine the wealth of the New Testament texts far more profitably than ever before. One of the reasons for this success story has been the fine interdisciplinary co-operation among New and Old Testament scholars, Semiticists, archaeologists, classicists, sociologists, history of religion specialists, and many others. When so many scientists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines are involved, conflicts of interest, intrigues and petty ambitions can create problems. Yet there exists such a measure of co-operation and scientific openness that our background knowledge has increased tremendously. What is more, the discovery and research of new sources is still continuing and we may be on the threshold of some more discoveries. Even after so many centuries, we are continually amazed by fresh finds and new insights. Think only of the mass of inscriptions and papyri made available to us since the end of the nineteenth century. And what of the epoch-making discoveries at Nag-Hammadi and Qumran around the middle of the twentieth century? What an enormous influence these discoveries have had on the state of our knowledge! Background study is probably the one sphere in biblical science in which the most substantial progress has been made in the last hundred years.


1.3.2    Some dangers in applying background knowledge to the New Testament

22    In any evaluation of the benefits of background study for understanding the New Testament, we must at the same time realize that it is not without its dangers. Here we mention only two:


23    a. If we apply background knowledge uncritically, we can completely misunderstand a New Testament text. So, for example, in days gone by information from the Talmud (the Palestinian Talmud dates from the fourth century; the Babylonian Talmud is of still later date—see §1457) was naively applied to Jewish persons in the New Testament, without taking account of the age of the relevant traditions. It is just as incorrect to apply the characteristics of a fully developed second-century Gnostic system without more ado to New Testament texts, though we need to recognize that the New Testament does contain polemic against developing Gnostic trends.


24    b. There is great danger in forcing background knowledge onto a New Testament text. Everyone who engages in background study for any length of time knows how keen scientists, quasi-scientists, and sensation-seeking journalists can be to call on background knowledge and especially recent discoveries to shed ‘new light’ on the Bible. This is easiest when people set out to prove that aspects of the Bible are ‘true’ or ‘false’. This ‘new light’ so frequently becomes a will-o’-the-wisp because the much vaunted background information and the biblical texts in question simply do not match one another. A warning example is the way in which interpretations of the Qumran texts are sometimes applied to the New Testament (e.g. by Barbara Thiering).

25    Quite apart from the question as to whether our background information is correct, we must also continually take account of the distinctive character of the New Testament texts. The New Testament often reverses the expectations we bring to a passage on the basis of our background knowledge. As we know, tax collectors were mostly negative stereotypes. Yet certain New Testament texts turn these ‘rogues’ into positive role-models (Lk 18:9–14; Mt 21:31f). And as for the parable of the compassionate Samaritan, our knowledge of the relationships between Jews and Samaritans in those days would have led us to expect that the Samaritan of Lk 10:30–37 would just have ridden past the bandits’ victim, rejoicing over his fate. But precisely the opposite occurs: he acts quite atypically. It is precisely this clash between anticipation and narrative content which lends the parable its peculiar effect.

26    The basic rule for the legitimate use of background knowledge is that the biblical text must itself enjoy priority. Beneficial background information is that which is consonant with the signals emitted by the textual network in question. Any application of background information which runs counter to the internal flow of the text itself, no matter how refreshingly novel or important it might appear, is scientifically incorrect.

27    We turn now to consider certain aspects of the value of background study, which we shall illustrate by means of two examples. (For another example, see France. The importance of ‘context’ is especially highlighted in the volume of essays dedicated to Lars Hartman; see under T. Fornberg and D. Hellholm [ed.] in the Bibliographical Guide.)


1.4    Two examples of the value of background study


1.4.1    The parable of the compassionate Samaritan (Lk 10:30–37)

28    This parable is a good example of a New Testament passage whose real point would be lost without background knowledge. Fortunately by far the greater majority of hearers or readers would, either from their own milieu or from the information they have gleaned from the New Testament intertext (see esp. Jn 4:9) or from other sources, have sufficient minimum knowledge about the feud between Jews and Samaritans to grasp the basic thrust of this parable. Without that it would fall flat. Additional knowledge can, however, further enhance the communication of this text.

29    Here we shall not concern ourselves with the diachronic questions over the Lucan redaction or the tradition history of Jesus’ story. With nearly all scholars we accept that this exemplary narrative, as an elucidation of the question as to the identity of our neighbour (see 10:29), originally goes back to Jesus himself and seeks to emphasize the command to love others without regard to natural and man-made barriers (cf. Jeremiasb). The evasive, self-sparing question as to the identity of the neighbour to whom we must show love is turned into a command: you become a loving neighbour to everyone who crosses your path. Nor shall we concern ourselves with an extended exegesis of this passage. Our aim here is to illustrate the importance of background knowledge for the understanding of this story.

30    The person addressed in this narrative unit is a scribe. The reason for the parable is his question concerning the identity of one’s ‘neighbour’. Aptly, this question is posed by a scribe. From our background knowledge we are well aware that the scribes were the theologians, more specifically the ‘biblical scholars’, of their day. Their education consisted of study of the Scriptures, theological reflection, jurisprudence and philosophy. Their main task was to expound the Scriptures and give instruction, but they were also required to use their knowledge of the law to make legal pronouncements (Reickeb; see also §932). Determining the extent of the term ‘neighbour’ was, then, precisely the kind of question in which a typical scribe would have been interested.

31    At the same time, however, the question concerning Jesus’ interpretation of the concept ‘neighbour’ was very apposite, seeing that various groups gave it differing content. The command to neighbourly love in Lv 19:18 restricted the concept of ‘neighbour’ to one’s fellow citizens. Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:43) reproduces the broad consensus when he says, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour, but you do not need to love your enemy’ ‘ (in this context ‘hate’ is a wrong translation). This ‘enemy’ was one who was not a fellow countryman—the Samaritan, the Roman, and any other foreign person. The concept of ‘neighbour’ was thus confined to members of the Jewish nation, though to that circle we must add the proselyte, since he identified himself completely with the Jewish national and religious community. But there were groups within the Jewish nation which drew the line still more narrowly. The Pharisees were inclined to exclude the ‘people of the land’ (see further §1047–67)) from the circle of ‘neighbours’, because they did not strictly observe the law. They looked on these people more as outsiders, even as enemies (Billerbeck II; see Jn 7:49). The Qumran community regarded itself as the true Israel, and taught that its members ought to hate all ‘sons of darkness’ (1QS 1:9–10). Now Jesus has to say where he draws the line.

32    V.30. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho: Jesus’ audience would have assumed that the unqualified ‘man’ around whom this parable unfolds was a Jew. Had that not been the case, we could have expected a qualification similar to the one in v.33. That this man was a Jew would further be confirmed if there was a cultic significance to his ‘going down’ from Jerusalem to Jericho, seeing that the temple was par excellence the place of worship for the Jews. The two contrasting phrases ‘go up to’ and ‘go down from’ originated in the fact that Jerusalem and the temple were at a higher altitude than their environs. These two terms soon gained a strongly cultic significance, so that ‘going up to Jerusalem/the temple’ meant to go to worship, and ‘going down’ to go home from the place of the cult (Schneider). In our context, however, it is not possible to say for certain whether the ‘going down’ from Jerusalem to Jericho was cultic or geographic—or whether it might have carried both meanings. In physical terms the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is one long steep descending gradient. Jerusalem is situated in the Judaean highlands, some seven hundred and fifty metres above sea level, Jericho in the Jordan Valley two hundred and fifty metres below sea level. (At one point along the road, today’s traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho comes to a board indicating sea level.) In its twenty-seven kilometres, this road drops a thousand metres as it twists and turns through an extremely harsh, inhospitable limestone landscape of crags and ravines. Josephus rightly describes this road as ‘lonely and rocky’ (Bell. Jud. IV:474). At a later date, for strategic reasons, the Romans constructed an excellent highway between these two places (Beauvery).

33    and he fell among robbers: With their many caves the mountainous Judaean highlands, through which this road winds before it begins to drop down to Jericho, were for centuries the ideal hide-out for fugitives, guerrilla fighters, and robber bands. Here the youth David crept away from Saul. The Maccabees withdrew here and from these haunts launched surprise attacks on the Syrians. Later on Judas the Galilean and still later Bar Kokhba would do the same (Hengel). From rabbinic sources we know of raids by brigands in the years prior to ad 70 (Jeremiasa). As late as the nineteenth century whole villages were known to be nests of thieves (Jeremiasa). Jeremias also mentions a dramatic attack by bandits along this same route as late as 1955 (Jeremiasb)! This parable, then, tells of a situation which was a reality in the everyday frame of reference for Jesus’ audience.

34    V.31f. There was nothing unusual about the priest—and probably the Levite also—taking the road to Jericho. It is quite possible that they were travelling via Jericho to a more northerly destination. In that case the friction between Jews and Samaritans would have made them avoid the shorter route through Samaria. But there is a more obvious explanation: in the time of Jesus, Jericho had by far the highest priestly population in the land (Billerbeck). One detail which does raise a problem is that the priest was on the road alone. Usually priests and Levites travelled in groups, because their rosters of temple duties were arranged by groups. However, we do not need to search labouriously for explanations of this problem. The reason lies in the narrative structure of the parable itself: it concerns the personal reactions of three individuals to the pitiful case of a fourth one.

35    In days gone by a great deal of discussion centred on the questions as to why the priest and the Levite left the half-dead man with his raw wounds lying there to die in the blazing sun. One theory is that the priest thought that the man was dying or already dead, and did not want to make himself ceremonially unclean through contact with a corpse (Jeremiasb). But that would not have applied to the Levite, since it was only during his temple activities that he had to remain ceremonially clean (Jeremiasb). The real question is, however, whether from our background knowledge we have to try to find extenuating circumstances for the behaviour of these two prominent representatives of the Jewish religious elite. That would surely blurr the gravity of their lack of compassion. The real striking feature of this parable is that the people, above all others, from whom neighbourly love would have been expected, and for a fellow countryman at that, did not give it, while a man from whom we would not have expected it was the very one to show it. Any attempt to try to condone the actions of the priest and the Levite on the basis of background knowledge therefore goes clean against the grain of the parable. We have here a good example of how the insensitive application of background knowledge can actually weaken a text’s effect. We may also doubt whether the choice of the first two role-players reflects an anti-clerical peak (Jeremiasb; contra Crossan). The parable is aimed at a restrictive interpretation of the ‘neighbour’ concept, not against clerics per se.

36    V.33–37. What we have just asserted regarding the improper use of background knowledge applies equally to the reference to the Samaritan traveller. It would be absolutely senseless to ask for cultural-historical parallels for the Samaritan’s journey through Jewish territory, even if we could find them. The fact is that by bringing the Samaritan onto the stage, the parable aims at a shock effect which would wrench the concept of ‘neighbour’ out of its traditional setting. According to the well-known triple scheme, and in terms of contemporary social stratifications, at this point in the descending line (from priest to Levite to the man in the street), the Jewish audience would have expected the arrival of an ordinary Jewish man of the people. What must have taken their breath away was that Jesus presented a hated Samaritan as the paragon of true compassion. The Greek text even emphasizes his nationality by placing it in the first slot of the sentence (v.33).

37    From our cultural-historical knowledge we are well aware that at that time the negative relationship between Jews and Samaritans was extremely tense. Even earlier there had been an occasion where it reached crisis proportions, when John Hyrcanus captured the town of Samaria in the year 128 bc and razed the temple on Mount Gerizim to the ground. But what almost detonated the powder-keg was when, one Passover night during the rule of the Roman procurator Coponius (ad 6–9), Samaritan desperadoes strewed human bones over the temple area. This appalling act of defilement fuelled the existing hatred to white heat. After that episode, bloody confrontations, and not just a war of words, would be the order of the day (Jeremiasa). The Jews would go on shunning and despising their Samaritan neighbours (see Jn 4:9; 8:48). The extent of the scribe’s negative attitude can be gauged by the fact that in response to Jesus’ question (v.36) he avoids a direct reference. To allow the word ‘Samaritan’ to pass his lips would be to give recognition to an enemy. Therefore he merely refers to ‘the one who showed mercy on him’ (v.37).

38    The bitter feud between Jews and Samaritans has decided implications for our understanding of this parable. We turn our attention first to the reaction of the Samaritan himself. Of the three travellers he undoubtedly had the strongest reason for leaving the injured Jew lying there to bleed to death. But he looks beyond this man’s Jewishness. All he notices is a fellow human being who needs him. Instead of exclusive love, he exercises inclusive love. So it is he of all people who becomes the role-model of someone who knows no boundaries to neighbourliness.

39    When we glance at the scribe to whom this parable is addressed, we have to recognize the enormous rhetorical force in introducing the Samaritan. To present a Samaritan as role-model would be to throw a bucket of cold water into the face of any Jew, let alone an eminent, highly respected religious leader. The shock effect of this rhetorical strategy could scarcely be exaggerated. To crown it all, Jesus concludes by looking him straight in the eye and challenging him, a leader in Israel, to take the hated, contemptible Samaritan as his own role-model.

40    The way in which the Samaritan is portrayed suggests that he is envisaged as a travelling merchant (Jeremiasb, Wiefel). He has oil (= olive oil) and wine with him, as well as enough additional cash to leave a down-payment with the innkeeper. If he travelled this road regularly, which seems probable seeing that he planned to be back in a few days, he and the innkeeper would not have been strangers to each other. As a travelling merchant, on his return journey to Jerusalem he would be loading his pack animals with dates and balsam from the sub-tropical Jericho area, and possibly corn from the region beyond the Jordan. The very fertile East Jordan region was at that time the most important supplier of corn to Jerusalem (Jeremiasa). In the Jerusalem market he could buy wine and olive oil for his pack train to take down to Jericho. Grapes and olives were both intensively farmed on the cooler, mountainous Judaean highlands. Very old, gnarled olive trees can still be seen on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Nor are travelling hucksters with their pack animals a rare sight in and around Jerusalem even today.

41    In addition to their culinary application, olive oil and wine were widely used for medical purposes. Oil was credited with analgesic and healing properties (Galling; see also Is 1:6; 2 Chr 28:15; Mk 6:13; Ja 5:14). In his notable volume on medicine in the Bible and the Talmud, Preuss refers to the Jews’ appreciation of oil as treatment for oral inflammation, dysentery, skin ailments, and new-born babies. The medical encyclopaedia of Dioscorides, a famous physician in the reigns of Claudius and Nero, praises olive oil as an emetic in cases of poisoning and constipation (Kee). In addition, hot oil-compresses were highly recommended for the treatment of wounds (Preuss). In its turn, wine was known for its internal (1 Tm 5:23) as well as its external (antiseptic) therapeutic effects. Historians of medical science point to the constant belief in wine as a healing agent (Lucia, Maret). As early as Homer people held that wine was good for wounds (Lucia). Hippocrates (460–370 bc), founder of medical science, praised wine as a dressing for wounds, a nutritious diet drink, an antipyretic, a purgative, and a diuretic. As far as wounds were concerned, he stated: ‘No wound should be moistened with anything else but wine, unless it is situated in a joint’. A long line of subsequent medical pioneers from Diocles, Asclepiades (who was nicknamed oinodotēs, ‘the wine-giver’), and Celsus to Galen (ad 130–199), all of them active in the Mediterranean basin, shared the sentiments of Hippocrates (Lucia). Jewish sources also laud the therapeutic value of wine (Billerbeck, Lucia), and Preuss’s book abounds with Jewish references to it. Sometimes, however, a mixture of oil and wine was used (Billerbeck), and the phraseology of our parable may imply that the Samaritan poured such a mixture of oil and wine over the man’s throbbing wounds.

42    The Samaritan takes his protégé to an inn. The ruins of what may have been such an inn are even nowadays pointed out to tourists on top of the mountain pass (see §192.) He gives the innkeeper two denarii for the initial costs of caring for the injured man. The silver denarius was the basic Roman monetary unit. Twenty-five of these denarii were worth one gold denarius. The next lower coin was the as; sixteen of these made up a silver denarius, and each as was worth four quadrantes. It is well-nigh impossible to determine the market price of those coins in today’s terms, for one thing because our own monetary units fluctuate in value, but also because our ancient sources provide insufficient information. Nor is it always easy to reckon the worth of the monetary units of those times in terms of modern cost-items. The two denarii in our parable are a case in point. We might start from the data in Mt 20:1–16; according to this passage the ordinary day-labourer received one denarius a day. But the problem remains that it is still difficult to determine how much such a day-labourer could buy with his denarius. We make some progress if the disciples’ estimate was correct, and two hundred denarii would be needed to feed a crowd of five thousand with bread (Mk 6:37). (We must bear in mind that bread, eaten with water, was the main and often the sole ingredient of an ordinary meal. Other viands were regarded as a bonus.) This would mean that a person would need one twenty-fifth of a denarius for an extremely basic meal. With two meals a day, two denarii would provide for one’s most elementary foodstuffs for twenty-five days. Jeremias’s estimates based on the Mishnah tractate Peah 8:7 agree in the main: for two meals a day one person would have needed a minimum of one twelfth of a denarius (Jeremiasa). In the parable the two denarii would have provided food for twenty-four days. Meanwhile Jeremias’s valuation of the denarius has been queried. According to Ben-David’s calculations (see Stenger), with two denarii one would have been able to buy enough basic food (= bread) for only twelve days. Our difficulties increase when we try to compare the innkeeper’s tariffs for accommodation and board with the ordinary man’s daily food costs. We have to accept that those charges would have been much higher, and then it becomes clear that the two denarii did not represent a particularly large sum. We should not be far wrong in surmising that the two denarii
were intended simply as a prelininary rather than an extensive provision. This impression is confirmed by the Samaritan’s assurance that, if more is spent, he will make up the difference on his return. The two denarii and his subsequent guarantee do not, then, emphasize his broad-mindedness, but rather his moving solicitude: even after he had brought the wounded man to the inn, he continued to treat him caringly.

43    When, in the light of the foregoing, we evaluate the contribution which background information makes to our understanding of this parable, it is clear that without background knowledge its main thrust would have been lost. We have also come to realize that background information gives much more profile and depth to this story. At the same time, however, we have seen how the injudicious use of background information can adversely affect the understanding of a text.


1.4.2    Romans 13:1–7

44    Whereas our previous passage was set in a Jewish-Semitic context, Rm 13:1–7 has the Graeco-Roman world as its milieu. It is a very controversial text. One of the reasons for this is the way in which in the past it was misused in order to demand blind obedience. Here, again, we shall concentrate only on those aspects in the discussion upon which background study can shed valuable light.

45    One of the most important preliminary questions is whether Rm 13:1–7 is an integral part of the letter to the Romans. At first glance it would seem that this pericope concerning the responsibility of Christians to the Roman state is a corpus alienum within its context.

46    The macro-context in which 13:1–7 occurs is 12:1–15:13. The first eleven chapters of Romans have been discursive in character, with a strongly indicative style as they deal with the acquittal which God in his grace declares for those who believe. Chapter 12 marks a clear change. Now the imperative dominates, as Paul summons his readers to a life of obedience in response to God’s mercies (12:1). So this part of the letter is completely paranetic. After two challenging introductory verses (12:1–2), there follows a passage (12:3–8) concerning the correct use of the gifts of grace, with 12:9–21 (as it were) a salvo of staccato admonitions fired at the readers. Like the paraneses elsewhere in the New Testament, this material displays less internal cohesion than is the case with discursive texts. Yet internal bonds are not lacking. On the one hand, they are connected thematically in that they all deal with the Christian ethos and unfold the implications of the Christian life as a living sacrifice (cf. 12:1–2); on the other hand, they are linked together largely by the undertone of Christian love. Rm 13:8–14 links up with the concluding verses of chapter 12, not merely as far as the nature of its paranesis is concerned, but also in the continuation of the love motif. The only difference is that neighbourly love, which was previously the silent undertone, is now the dominant theme.

47    The question is, then, whether and how Rm 13:1–7 belongs in this context. Both Wilckens and de Kruijf are absolutely convinced that it fits admirably within the broader context. Michel, on the other hand, adopts precisely the opposite point of view, and initially it would seem that he might be right. Superficially, the strong continuity between 12:9–21 and 13:8–14 appears to be interrupted by 13:1–7. Where the preceding and subsequent sections are reasonably general in subject matter, here a very specific theme is imported: the Christian’s responsibility to the state. The terminology is emphatically administrative and legislative. Instead of love, we are now concerned with subordination; instead of eschatological expectation, with praise or punishment by the government here and now. There is more distance, greater succinctness, more argument, as the seven occurrences of gar (see also dio in v.5) clearly demonstrate. Rm 13:1–7 certainly creates the impression of an autonomous unit which does not easily fit into its present context. Even Ridderbos, who is a conservative exegete, asserts of this section: ‘And there is more reason to say that it has been inserted into this context than that it should have originated in it’ (Ridderbos: 287). There is no wonder, then, that Rm 13:1–7 is frequently regarded as a later, non-Pauline interpolation (Barnikol, Kallas, O’Neill, Schmithals, Munro, et al.).

48    One problem with the theory of non-Pauline interpolation is, however, that no text-critical evidence for such a conjecture exists. All the Greek texts available to us contain this passage. In such a case, a conjecture of interpolation is always an embarrassing solution, unless a convincing explanation can be offered as to how the alteration to the text could have occurred at so early a stage in the transmission of the text that all available copies reflect the new, amended text. Conversely, there should be a convincing reason to account for the disappearance of all manuscripts which contained the shorter reading.

49    A second problem with the non-Pauline interpolation hypothesis is that in 13:1–7 we find several typical Pauline formulations, as Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher have correctly and extensively shown. Here we select only two of the instances they mention: To agathon is a typically Pauline expression; it is found twice in Rm 13:3f, and it occurs twelve times more in the undisputed Pauline letters, once in Ephesians, and in all the rest of the New Testament only twice. Of the thirty occurrences of suneidēsis in the New Testament, we find twenty in the corpus Paulinum, fourteen of them in the undisputed letters. On the other hand, Wilckens and also Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher have shown that in this passage there are only a few non-Pauline words. But some of these foreign terms can be attributed to traditional material which Paul uses here, as well as to the administrative and legislative terminology of the time. In terms of the vocabulary of Rm 13:1–7 we have thus no reason to regard the passage as non-Pauline. If it was an interpolation, Paul must have incorporated it himself at an early stage, probably before the letter was despatched.

50    There is, however, a third problem, this time with the interpolation theory as such: A more penetrating investigation of the literary context of Rm 12:1–13:14 reveals that 13:1–7 is not so detached a unit within its macrostructure (Wilckens, Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher, Bruce). For one thing, we find a clear connection of link words in tas opheilas in 13:7 and opheilete in 13:8. The ethical contrasting pair ‘good-bad’ in 13:3f links up with 12:(2), 9, 17, 21 and find an echo in 13:10. Several other words and expressions forge a link between 13:1–7 and its wider context (cf. ekdikeō/ekdikos, orgē, pantes anthrōpoi—Dunn; Du Toit). Not all these literary arguments are of equal weight. Certain verbal repetitions can be attributed simply to the subject and to Paul’s typically paranetic style. But the overall force of this literary argument must not be underrated.

51    At a deeper semantic level, however, we need still to point out an important material connection between 12:3–21 and 13:1–7. The section concerning the charismata in 12:3–8 and the first part of the group of paranetic injunctions in 12:9–21 deal with the mutual behaviour of Christians within the Christian community. In 12:14, the window onto the outside world is opened somewhat when the persecution of Christians is mentioned, but up to the end of v.16 the focus remains inside. From v.17 to 21, however, it shifts clearly to Christians’ behaviour in the outside world. Rm 13:1–7 concentrates on one particular facet of that outside world, namely the Christian’s responsibility towards the state. Then follow 13:8–13 as a summary of the exemplary way in which Christians ought to behave towards all people, believers as well as unbelievers. Friedrich, Pöhlmann and Stuhlmacher point out that suppression of the Christians’ political responsibility would leave a distinct gap in the Pauline paranesis, more especially if we compare it with analogous paranetic passages such as 1 Pt 2:13–17; 1 Tm 2:1ff; and Tt 3:1f, where Christian political responsibility is part of a broader paranesis. A possible objection to this view might be that a reference to the Christian’s obligations to the state does not appear in any other paranetic sections in the Pauline correspondence. Leaving aside the problems which usually attach to an argumentum e silentio, this objection is not valid in any case, seeing that the admonitions preceding our passage, especially in 12:17ff, relate to Christian behaviour in cases of opposition and external problem situations. For Paul to turn now to another external problem, namely the Christian’s position within the Roman state, would be a perfectly logical development.

52    Our finding: It is clearly not necessary to regard Rm 13:1–7 as a non-Pauline interpolation. What is more, on literary grounds, as well as from material considerations, we may accept with a high degree of probability that this section was an integral part of the letter to the Romans from the outset. However, at this stage we cannot completely exclude the possibility that, after completing his letter, but before despatching it with Phoebe, he felt it necessary to add a number of urgent remarks concerning Christians’ responsibility to the Roman state. In that case the most appropriate place to insert them would have been between 12:21 and 13:8, and the connecting link between 13:7 and 13:8 would have been created ad hoc. The other literary connections would then be attributed to the type of material and Paul’s characteristic style.

53    The arguments we have advanced in favour of Rm 13:1–7 being an integral part of the letter to the Romans do not, however, in any way explain certain very important problems raised by the contents of this passage: why Paul goes into such detail here over the state; why he gives so many motivations (see the sevenfold gar as well as dio); why he emphasizes so strongly the Christians’ duty of submissiveness and of honouring the authorities; and, lastly, why he concludes by highlighting the necessity of paying taxes and excise. For our purpose the pertinent question is: Can a meaningful explanation be found for these? This brings us hard up against the temporal-historical circumstances of the time.

54    Käsemann has sought the reason for Rm 13:1–7 in internal social conditions among the Roman Christians. In his view, Paul directed these words to an over-enthusiastic group who were so heavenly-minded that an ‘earthly’ matter such as paying one’s taxes appeared completely irrelevant. The objection to Käsemann’s theory is that there is no evidence of any such fanaticism among the Roman Christians. When, for instance, we examine the spiritual gifts in 12:3–8, other than was the case in Corinth, ‘prophecy’ is the only spiritual activity which might perhaps be included among the ‘enthusiastic’ charismata.

55    So we have to turn to the concrete historical circumstances of that time and ask if these might not bring us closer to a solution. Over the last thirty years or so various scholars have researched the temporal-historical context of Rm 13:1–7. Here the pioneer work of Strobel, van Unnik, Borg, Haacker, and Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher (the last three jointly) in particular deserves mention. This investigation has yielded results in two areas: first, valuable information has been produced relating to a better understanding of the content of this passage, and, secondly, important research has been carried out regarding the concrete reasons for its having been written. We shall deal with this second aspect first.

56    Marcus Borg offered a comprehensive historical explanation of the origin of Rm 13:1–7. His basic argument is that by ad 56 (when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans) the Christian community in Rome, which was under strong Jewish influence, had begun to show great sympathy for the growing Jewish national, anti-Roman trends in Palestine, which would eventually result in the tragic Jewish War of ad 66–70. Borg’s views are sometimes one-sided, and he reaches conclusions too easily. For instance, he accepts that the ‘Chrestos, to whom Suetonius alludes in Claudius 25:4 and whose exploits led to Jews having to leave Rome, was a real Jewish messianic agitator. Furthermore, he comes to the conclusion that Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies and Paul’s injunctions in Rm 12:14, 17–21 are aimed specifically at love for the Roman enemy. Yet there can be little doubt that his remarks regarding Rm 13 contain an element of truth. The real-life contact between Jews all over the Roman Empire cannot be denied. It is quite unthinkable that the great number of Jews in Rome (Borg estimates 50,000; this may, however, be somewhat too high—Solin) would not be sympathetic to their fellow Jews in Palestine, who still yearned for political independence, and who had to endure all kinds of brutality from their Roman rulers. Reports about anti-Roman outbursts in Palestine during the administrations of Cumanus (ad 48–52) and Felix (ad 52–60), which were so bloodily suppressed, would surely not have fallen on unsympathetic ears in Rome. We know, moreover, that the Jews in Rome suffered under Roman emperors from time to time. In ad 19 Tiberius drove them out of Rome; for twelve years he allowed Sejanus to follow an anti-Jewish policy; the unstable Caligula hated the Jews, but it was Claudius who in ad 49 issued an edict banning certain Jews from the imperial city. In Rome, these things must have left their mark on Jewish minds and would have found an echo among Paul’s readers, although, unlike the situation in Palestine, in Rome there could, of course, have been no question of a successful insurrection against the authorities. This could also have resulted in a negative attitude towards the Roman state and the paying of taxes.

57    It is surprising that Borg does not pay particular attention to this reluctance to the paying of taxes, which Paul seems to counter in his concluding paranesis in Rm 13:7. From the very beginning, the anti-Roman reaction among the Jews was closely coupled to the tax question. That was the issue at the root of the rebellion of Judas the Galilean in ad 6. Aversion to the paying of taxes is, of course, a general human trait, especially in circumstances of injustice and abuse. Among the Jews, however, it was all the more painful because the taxes had to be paid to an alien power and that very act implied an acknowledgement of Roman authority (cf. Mk 12:13–17 par). In addition, ever since the rebellion led by Judas the Galilean, religious motives were linked to the question of paying taxes: to pay tax was to acknowledge the sovereignty not of the God of Israel, but of a foreign ruler (see Stenger in particular). It is, then, quite possible that anti-Roman feelings in the form of resistance to the payment of taxes began to gain ground among the Jews in Rome, and threatened to involve local Jewish Christians as well. Though up to this point Paul had not been active in Rome, from Rm 14–15:13 it is clear that he was not altogether uninformed about the circumstances of the Roman Christians. Disturbing reports of their negative attitude may also have reached him.

58    In addition to Borg’s exposition, we have that of Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher. In an interesting, well-reasoned investigation they refer to the reaction of Rome’s inhabitants to the oppressive tax-system during the reign of Nero. Their chief witness is the Roman author Tacitus, who writes as follows:


When in the same year [ad 58] the people of Rome with many protests raised objections to the shameless actions of the tax collectors [publicani], Nero wondered whether he should not give an order for the tolls to be abolished … His more senior advisers, however, not without first lauding his benevolence, smothered an over-hasty decision. They pointed out that the empire would disintegrate were the revenue to diminish which kept the state going. To discontinue the tolls would certainly lead to demands for the abolition of all taxes … The blatant avarice of the tax collectors had, however, to be restricted, so that the burden, borne for so many years without complaint, would not turn to bitterness through fresh aggravation.

    Tacitus: Ann. XIII:50f; see also Suetonius: Nero 10.


59    That the protest agitation in Rome, which undoubtedly also reflected the feelings in the provinces, was not simply about indirect taxes (vectigalia) and the abuses associated with them, but also, though to a lesser degree, about direct taxation (tributa) as well is substantiated by the comprehensive Neronian reforms which followed upon the protest action. If the alarm over the Roman tax system came to a head in the year 58, the dissatisfaction over the tax stress must in all probability have begun to build up by ad 55–56, when Romans was written.

60    In this connection we need to note that since the Third Macedonian War (167 bc), Roman citizens had not normally paid personal tax. The Italian mainland was also exempt from land-tax. The question arises as to how there could be any suggestion of objections in Rome.

61    In the first place, we have to bear in mind that in exceptional circumstances Roman citizens were also assessed for personal tax, even though it was a temporary measure. There is evidence that this occurred during the first century bc (Michel). But it recurred in the sixties under Nero (Suetonius: Nero 44; Tacitus: Ann. 15:45; see Schwahn). Even more important, however, is that exemption from land-tax did not apply to the properties of Roman citizens outside Italy (Michel) and especially that they were still liable for the great variety of indirect taxes (Pekáry, Stevenson & Millar—see also §77). Moreover, they had also to endure the malpractices of the publicani. For the freedom-loving, proud Roman the payment of any tax was always cause for offence (see Stevenson & Millar).

62    Secondly, there is the important fact that at this stage Rome had an enormous non-Roman population, of which by far the greater majority did not have Roman citizenship and consequently these people were liable for all taxes. The population of Rome at that time is estimated at one million souls, about a half of whom were freedmen or slaves (Duncan-Jones, Saller). Modern estimates of the number of Jewish persons in Rome vary considerably. For the year ad 19, for example, these range from fifteen to fifty thousand. Of these, some four thousand able-bodied men enjoyed rights of citizenship (Lampe), though a much larger number of Jews did not have this right. In the fifties, the Edict of Claudius notwithstanding, the number of Jews in Rome must have been greater rather than fewer. That edict probably affected only certain prominent figures (Lampe). Furthermore, the Jews who left Rome came back to the city after the death of Claudius in ad 54. As for the Christians in Rome, unfortunately we have few details for this early period. Wayne Meeks is of opinion that the urban Christian communities of those days comprised a reasonable spectrum of people from the various social strata, excluding the very high and the very low. Yet Lampe has convincingly demonstrated that originally the Christian communities in Rome belonged mostly to the more humble social strata. In fact, we may doubt if at that stage more than a few—if any—enjoyed Roman citizenship. The Roman citizens themselves apart, the great majority who were not Roman citizens, among them also Jews and Christians, would thus have had all the more reason to object.

63    Both of the foregoing points of view in respect of the temporal-historical problems which could have given rise to Rm 13:1–7 stand in their own right. They do not need to be set against each other, as sometimes happens. There are so many valid considerations in both hypotheses that we may accept that they both contributed towards the negative disposition against the Roman power and the paying of tax.

64    The further question is why Paul felt it so important for the Christians in Rome to pay their tax. He motivates it, first, by the basic statement, which leans strongly on traditions in the Old Testament and Early Judaism (Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher), that rulers are appointed by God and must be obeyed (13:1–4). His readers must therefore submit ‘for the sake of conscience’ and not simply because they are afraid of punishment by the authorities. We may, however, accept that Paul had other reasons also. He would surely have been concerned lest the Christian house-churches endangered their own survival by ill-judged disloyalty (Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher; Heiligenthal; Dunn; Wolmarans). They were still an extremely vulnerable minority in a large and powerful environment. Resistance or even the suggestion of it could have resulted in their being seriously menaced, leaving them open to all manner of Roman punitive measures, not least being banned from the city. Their very house-gatherings could also have been prohibited.

65    We have to remember that at this early stage the Christians were still associated with the Jews, an association which had positive as well as negative consequences for them. On the one hand, they could share in the great benefits accruing from the fact that the Jewish religion was acknowledged as a permitted religion (see further §690f). On the other hand, suspicion of the Jews would affect them as well. From the time of Cicero, certain groups in Rome harboured serious misgivings against the Jews (Stern, Benko; contra Gager; for anti-Judaism even earlier among the Greeks, see Gabba). We may then easily appreciate that from early on Christians were threatened by insinuations against them. How easily this threat could turn into a crisis can be gauged by their persecution in ad 64. At first the Jews were accused, but eventually the Christians were blamed, something which could happen all the more easily because they, although being recognized as a specific group, were still to some extent associated with the Jews. Though we do not know precisely how well Paul was informed about circumstances in Rome, he read the signs correctly and realized how important it was for the Christians to abstain from any doubtful action.

66    But there was still more at stake: Christianity as such and the Gospel itself could be discredited. From other New Testament passages (e.g. 1 Th 4:12; 1 Tm 3:7; 5:14; 6:1; Tt 2:5, 7f; 1 Pt 2:12, 15; 3:1, 16;) we know how often, for missionary reasons, Christians are warned to be on their guard against this and in every respect to set an example (Van Unnik, van Schwigchem). So they had to bend over backwards to endure injustice rather than bring the good name of Christ and the Gospel under pressure. From the subsequent history of Christians in the Roman Empire we know that this was no imaginary peril. In his volume, Benko goes into detail to show the distrust, misrepresentation, and insinuations Christians would soon have to endure in the Roman environment.

67    If the foregoing argument is correct, it explains why Paul would have thought it urgently necessary to write Rm 13:1–7. We can also realize that it actually fits more strongly into its context than we had first supposed: Rm 13:1–7 is a concretizing of the kind of ethical behaviour which is prescribed in more general terms in the preceding passage. In Rm 12:1f, Christians are summoned to a lifestyle which is different from that of ‘this world’. They engage in it when they do not resist the authorities and pay their taxes in an exemplary way. Heiligenthal describes the kind of behaviour which Rm 13:1–7 requires of Christians as conforming ethics, but this is unfortunate. This passage is concerned not with conforming but with differential ethics. When the environment is filled with grouses and groans about the tax burden, the Christians should distinguish themselves from those around them by their different approach. They obey ‘the will of God’ and do what is ‘good’ in his eyes (12:2; cf. 13:3) by submitting to the authorities he has instituted. When they react positively to the state’s officials and even to the publicani who mistreat and maybe even ‘persecute’ them (cf. v.14), they are concretely not repaying ‘evil for evil’ (v.17), but are living in peace with all (v.18), not reacting, but leaving judgement to God (v.19) and overcoming evil with good (v.21). McDonald, who expresses this viewpoint well, correctly states that Paul aims at curing believers of the anti-syndrome (cf. v.17) which is so typical of worldly people. Now 13:8a also stands in a new light. To ‘owe no one anything’ includes not being in arrears in the paying of one’s taxes.


68    It is interesting that in this connection de Kruijf contends that Rm 13:8a must be regarded as belonging to the preceding section concerning the state. But v.8a is so integral a part of the section which follows that this view is faulty. It is actually a transitional remark, so that, while it may sound like a conclusion to the preceding paragraph, it belongs more convincingly to the injunction to ‘love one another’.


69    The preceding paragraphs help us to see how knowledge of the socio-historical context in which Rm 13:1–7 was written not only elucidates the origin and existence of this section, but also shows clearly how integral it actually is to its context.

70    Without engaging in its exegesis, we proceed to consider certain aspects of it and the way background information can enrich our understanding of the finer details of this interesting passage.

71    Strobel, supplemented by Van Unnik and by Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher, shows how Rm 13:1–7 reflects the legislative and administrative terminology of the contemporary Graeco-Roman world in several ways. The ‘governing authorities’ (exousiai huperechousai) of v.1 and the ‘rulers’ (archontes) of v.3 refer to the Roman imperia and magistrati, that is the enormous bureaucracy which represented the Roman machinery of state over the entire Roman Empire.

72    To approve good behaviour and punish wrong (v.3–4) was from the time of Xenophon seen as part of the typical duties of a ruler. An illustration of this was the Roman government’s custom of addressing eulogies to cities and officials distinguished for their sympathetic attitudes towards Rome. Strobel supplies a long list of these, which include panegyrics to officials, to local authorities and to the inhabitants of a town, to men as well as women.

73    Paul’s statement that the ruler ‘does not bear the sword in vain’ (v.4) has evoked a great deal of discussion. It is often suggested that here Paul is referring to the ius gladii, ‘the rule (power) of the sword’ which indicated the authority of Roman officials in Rome as well as in the provinces to punish and execute criminals. The problem is, however, that there has never as yet been any evidence for a clear link between Paul’s Greek formulation for ‘bearing the sword’ (machairan phorein) and the normal Greek equivalent for the ius gladii (Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher). In this instance, then, the relevance of background knowledge remains problematic. From the literary context we may infer that here ‘bearing the sword’ should signify the right and the ability of the ruler to impose his authority.

74    The phrase ekdikos eis orgēn in v.4, which the R.S.V. renders ‘to execute his wrath’, also raises problems. There are sources where ekdikos means ‘public prosecutor’ (Schrenk), but this does not fit in well with the context of v.4. In a number of Greek texts and also in four Hellenistic Jewish texts (Wis. Sol. 12:12; Sir. 30:6; IV Macc. 15:29; Jos. Bell. Jud. V:377; Ps 98:8 Symmachus), this word is used in the sense of ‘avenger’ or ‘executor (of punishment)’ (see Schrenk, Dunn), a meaning which fits in well with 13:4. In that case orgē must, as inter alia in Rm 1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5, be understood in the sense of ‘sentence’ or ‘punishment’. Then v.4b must be translated: ‘for he is God’s servant who must carry out the sentence on the wrongdoer’.

75    The description of officials, including financial officials, as ‘ministers’ (leitourgoi) (v.6) was a fairly general usage in the Graeco-Roman world of the time, though the addition ‘of God’ reflects the Jewish and Old Testament basis of Paul’s theological thinking (Friedrich, Pöhlmann & Stuhlmacher).

76    In v.7 Paul’s argument reaches the actual point to which he has been heading. The terms phoros and telos, which the R.S.V. translates as ‘taxes’ and ‘revenue’ refer to the two main forms of Roman taxation. The former was the direct tax (tributum), the latter the indirect (vectigalia).
Direct taxation comprised the land tax (tributum soli) and a poll tax (tributum capitis), which were normally not levied on Roman citizens (Schwahn, Schürer, Badian, Millar). Only non-Roman citizens who had received special remission were exempted from these taxes. Men between the ages of fourteen and sixty-five had to pay them; women between twelve and sixty-five. Even slaves were liable (Schürer). As for the rate of direct taxation, there are no figures available. What we do know is that the periodic population counts served as a basis for the payment of taxes. In Syria and Cilicia direct taxation was reckoned at one per cent of a person’s financial ‘valuation’ during such a census (Millar). In Palestine the tax could have amounted to at least one denarius per person per year (see Mt 22:19). We know, too, that in ad 17 the taxes weighed so heavily in Syria and Judaea that a joint deputation went to plead with the emperor Tiberius for tax relief (Tacitus, Ann. II:42).

77    The wide variety of indirect taxation included the importing of goods through harbours and all other territorial, provincial, and district frontiers (= portoria, customs dues), duties on products such as salt, on the purchase and manumission of slaves, sales tax (for Italy this was repealed by Caligula), estate duty, mining tax, and many other levies (Pekáry, Stevenson & Millar; see also Stenger, who distinguishes between indirect taxation and customs dues or tolls). The tax on the purchase of a slave was four per cent of his or her monetary value, and five per cent for manumission (Stevenson & Millar). The problem was that, when more money was needed by resourceful authorities, these indirect taxes were frequently extended or increased (Stenger). To crown everything, the so-called tax collectors or publicani made things even more difficult for the ordinary man. They collected the indirect taxes, but in certain cases assisted also in the collection of the direct tax. They were organized into guilds, and did not hesitate to abuse their position of power to their own advantage (cf. esp. Reickea). They tendered for the indirect taxes, and everything they collected above the tendered figure they could keep (see also §551). No wonder that a man like Zacchaeus had a lot to make amends for (Lk 19:7f)! Taking all these aspects into consideration, we can appreciate that the ordinary man, especially the non-Roman, regarded the tax burden very negatively. The earlier quotation from Tacitus is resounding proof of this.

78    Thus far we have considered certain aspects of the positive use of background knowledge. In the case of Rm 13:1–7, however, we also have a good example of how background knowledge ought not to be used. Paul’s optimistic view of the state in Rm 13:1 is sometimes attributed to his own positive experience of Roman government, with the implication that he would have written quite differently about the state had his experience of it been negative. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans during the good years of what is referred to as the quinqennium Neronis, the first five years of Nero’s reign (ad 54–59), when Burrus and Seneca were still his advisers and many signs of reform in the state economy and the judicature could be discerned. Good appointments were made. The provinces were generally well governed. Nor was there any hesitation in bringing highly placed officials to trial for corruption. These years were the happiest period in the Roman Empire since the death of Augustus (Sanday & Headlam). At that stage no one would have dreamed that the persecution of Christians in ad 64 was remotely possible. It was only later that Nero became a matricide and a persecutor of Christians. Moreover, Paul himself hailed from Tarsus, a city favoured by Rome in various ways. On his journeys he encountered the benefits of the pax Romana. On several occasions he observed how the Roman inclination for law and order exercised a moderating influence on mass violence and lawlessness (Ac 19:35–40; 21:30–36; 22; 23:12–32). When faced with the possibility of injustice at the hands of a local governor, as a Roman citizen he enjoyed the privilege of appealing to the Emperor (Ac 25:11f).

79    In contrast to these positive aspects, it can be argued that Paul had to be aware of the many abuses of power by Roman authorities. He would certainly have known of cases of injustice and brutality at the local level, of Pilate’s trail of blood, of Tiberius’s eccentric actions, of the oppression of the Jews under Sejanus, of Caligula’s megalomania, of the expulsion of the Jews under Claudius. Despite his Roman citizenship, Roman magistrates had had him flogged illegally on three occasions (2 Cor 11:25). These negative factors notwithstanding, the many positive aspects of the pax Romana, of the Roman ideal for the state, and surely also of Paul’s mostly positive experience of the Roman state, particularly during the first years of Nero’s reign, would have caused his over-all vision of Roman government to remain positive. He would have treated the negative aspects we have mentioned more as incidental exceptions to the predominantly positive administration (Zahn).

80    To return to the point we were making: Must we not read Paul’s unqualified positive evaluation of the state in terms of our background knowledge of the quinqennium Neronis (see §408) and Paul’s own positive over-all impression of the Roman administration? In other words, should we not still accept that he would have referred far more negatively to the Roman state had he written the letter to the Romans after the persecution of the Christians in July 64? This point of view would offer a welcome avenue of escape to all who have a problem with the positive attitude towards the state in Rm 13:1–7. Yet this way of using background knowledge would be inadmissible, because it would be going against the grain of the text itself (Boesak). It is clear that Rm 13:1–7 was not formulated in terms of a particular situation. It is a basic generalization, setting out what from a Christian standpoint the state ought to be: a servant of God, instituted by him for the well-being of its subjects, and as such deserving of their respect and obedience. From our background knowledge what we can, however, say is that Paul is able to present his basic point of view without qualification or reserve because of the predominantly positive context in which he writes. In other words, we may accept that, while after ad 64 he would not have altered his basic standpoint, he would have qualified it more circumspectly. As it is, Rm 13:1–7 itself contains several implicit provisos against a state which would no longer act as a true servant of God (see vv.4, 6), which would no longer rule for the good of its subjects (v.4), which would compel Christians to act no longer according to but against their consciences (v.5).

81    Revelation 13 depicts the consequences of such a degenerate administration. According to Revelation, such a state is no longer a servant of God but of Satan. And he rules over his subjects no longer for good but for evil. Christians may not serve him ‘for the sake of conscience’, but for the sake of conscience must actively disobey him. As in Rm 13, however, it goes without saying that they must do so in such a way as befits the exemplary lifestyle of Christian people.




E. Badian, Tribute and taxation, OCB, 781–2

J.M.G. Barclay, ‘Mirror-reading’ a polemical letter: Galatians as a test case, JSNT 31(1987), 73–93

E. Barnikol, Römer 13: Der nichtpaulinische Ursprung der absoluten Obrigkeitsbejahung von Römer 13:1–7, TU 77, Berlin 1961, 65–133

C.K. Barrett, New Testament background. Selected documents, London rev. ed. 1987

R. Beauvery, La route romaine de Jerusalem à Jericho, RB 64(1957), 72–101

S. Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Bloomington-Indianapolis 1986

P. Billerbeck, KNTTM I, 428; II, 66,514–18

A. Boesak, What belongs to Caesar? Once again Romans 13, in: A. Boesak & C. Villa-Vicencio (ed.), A call for an end to unjust rule, Edinburgh 1986, 138–56

M. Borg, A new context for Romans XIII, NTS 19(1972–3), 205–18

J. Botha, How do we ‘Read the Context’?, Neot 28(1994), 291–307

G. Brown & G. Yule, Discourse analysis, Cambridge 1983

F.F. Bruce, Paul and ‘The powers that be’, BJRL 66(1983–4), 81f

C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans II, ICC, Edinburgh 1979, 652f

J.D. Crossan, The essential Jesus: original sayings and earliest images, San Francisco, 159

T.C. de Kruijf, The literary unity of Romans 12:16–13:7a. A network of inclusions, Bijdragen 48(1987), 319–26

R.P. Duncan-Jones, Population (Roman World), OCD, 863

J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, WBC 38B, Dallas 1988, 758,766

P.J. du Plessis & B.C. Lategan, Agtergrond en geskiedenis van die Nuwe Testament, Pretoria-Cape Town-Johannesburg 1983

S. Duvenhage, Die dekor van die Nuwe Testament. ‘n Kultuurhistoriese agtergrondstudie, Potchef-stroom 1975

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Grand Rapids 21993

R.T. France. Exegesis in practice: two examples, in: I.H.Marshall (ed.), New Testament interpretation. Essays on principles and methods, Exeter 1977, 264–81

J. Friedrich, W. Pöhlmann & P. Stuhlmacher, Zur historischen Situation und Intention von Röm 13,1–7, ZThK 73(1976), 131–66

E. Gabba, The growth of anti-Judaism or the Greek attitude towards Jews, CHJ II, 614–56

J.G. Gager, Judaism as seen by outsiders, in: EJMI, 99–116

K. Galling, Öl, BRL, col. 402–4

K. Haacker, Die Berufung des Verfolgers und die Rechtfertigung des Gottlosen. Erwägungen zum Zusammenhang zwischen Biographie und Theologie des Apostels Paulus, ThBeitr 6(1975), 17–19

W.V. Harris, Dictionary of concepts in literary criticism and theory, New York 1992, 42f

R. Heiligenthal, Strategien konformer Ethik im Neuen Testament am Beispiel von Röm 13.1–7, NTS 29(1983), 55–61

M. Hengel (transl. D. Smith), The Zealots. Investigations into the Jewish freedom movement in the period from Herod I until 70 ad, Edinburgh 1989, 138–45,311f,375f,384

J. Jeremias (transl. F.H. & C.H. Cave), Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, London 1969, 52,58f,120ff,352–8 (= Jeremiasa)

___, The Parables of Jesus, London 21963 (= Jeremiasb)

E. Käsemann, Grundsätzliches zur Interpretation von Römer 13, in: Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen II, Göttingen 1964, 216–18 (= Käsemanna)

___, An die Römer, HNT 8a, Tübingen 31974, 338 (= Käsemannb)

J. Kallas, Romans XIII.1–7: An Interpolation, NTS 11(1964–5), 366

H.C. Kee, Medicine, miracle and magic in New Testament times, SNTSM 55, Cambridge-New York et al. 1986, 43

___, Medicine and healing, ABD IV, 659–64

P. Lampe, Die stadrömischen Christen in den beiden ersten Jahrhunderten, WUNT 2.Reihe 18, Tübingen 21989, 53–123

J. Leipoldt & W. Grundmann, Umwelt des Urchristentums I-III, Berlin 1965–66

H.J. Leon (updated by C. Osiek), The Jews of Rome, Peabody 21995

E. Lohse, The New Testament environment, London 1976

P. Lucia, A history of wine as therapy, Philadelphia-Montreal 1963

F. Maret, Der Wein in der Medizingeschichte, Zeitschrift für Allgemeinmedizin 13(1980), 887–97

J.I.H. McDonald, Romans 13:1–7: A test-case for New Testament interpretation, NTS 35(1989), 540–9

W.A. Meeks, The first urban Christians. The social world of the apostle Paul, New Haven-London 1983, 51–73

O. Michel, Der Brief an die Römer, KEK IV, Göttingen 14,151978, 393–407

G.F.B. Millar, Tributum, OCD, 1093

W. Munro, Authority in Paul and Peter, SNTSMS 45, Cambridge 1983, 56–67

J.C. O’Neill, Paul’s letter to the Romans, Harmondsworth 1975, 207

B. Palmer (ed.), Medicine and the Bible, Exeter 1986

T. Pekáry, Vectigal, KP V, 1150

J. Preuss (tr. F. Rosner), Biblical and Talmudic medicine, New York-London 1978

B. Reicke, The New Testament era, Philadelphia 1968 (= Reickea); for the role of the tax collectors (publicani) see p.138f

___, Schriftgelehrter, BHH III, col. 1736f (= Reickeb)

H. Ridderbos, Aan de Romeinen, Kampen 1959, 287,289f

R.P. Saller, Roman Empire, OCB, 657–9

W. Sanday & A.C. Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans, ICC, Edinburgh 5repr1914, xiv-xvi, 371

E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, London 21981

W. Schmithals, Der Römerbrief als historisches Problem, StNT 9(1975), 185–7

J. Schneider, anabainō, ThW I, 516–21

G. Schrenk, ekdikeō, ekdikos, etc., ThW II, 440–4

E. Schürer, HJP I, 372–6,415–27

W. Schwahn, Tributum, Tributus, PRE VII, col. 1–78

H. Solin, Juden und Syrer in der römischen Welt, ANRW II 29/2, 587–789, esp. p.698

A. Souter, Rome, HDB, 805f

W. Stenger,
Gebt dem Kaiser, was des Kaisers ist … ‘, BBB 68, Frankfurt am Main 1988

M. Stern, The Jews in Greek and Latin Literature, CRINT I/2, 1144–59

G.H. Stevenson & F.B.G. Millar, Vectigal, OCD, 1110

G. Strecker, Handlungsorientierter Glaube. Vorstudien zu einer Ethik des Neuen Testaments, Berlin 1972, 27

A. Strobel, Zum Verständnis von Rm 13, ZNW 47(1956), 67–93 (= Strobela)

___, Furcht, wem Furcht gebührt. Zum profangriechischen Hintergrund von Rm 13,7, ZNW 55(1964), 58–62 (= Strobelb)

B. Thiering, Jesus the man, London-Moorebank-Albany 1993

A. van Aarde, Kultuurhistoriese agtergrond van die Nuwe Testament. Die Eerste-Eeuse Mediterreense sosiale konteks, Pretoria 1994

D. van Schwigchem, Het missionair karakter van de Christelike gemeente volgens de Brieven van Paulus en Petrus, Kampen 1955

W.C. van Unnik, Die Rücksicht auf die Reaktion der Nicht-Christen als Motiv in der altchristlichen Paränese, in: W. Eltester (Herausg.), Judentum—Urchristentum—Kirche. Festschrift für Joachim Jeremias, Berlin 1964, 221–34 (= Van Unnika)

___, Lob und Strafe durch die Obrigkeit. Hellenistisches zu Röm 13,3–4, in: E.E. Ellis & E. Grässer (Herausg.), Jesus und Paulus. Festschrift für W.G. Kümmel zum 70. Geburtstag, Göttingen 1975, 334–43 (= van Unnikb)

A.F. Walls, Money II. In the New Testament, NBD, 838f

W. Wiefel, Das Evangelium nach Lukas, THNT III, Berlin 1988, 206–11

W. Wilckens, Römer 13,1–7, in: Rechtfertigung als Freiheit. Paulusstudien, Neukirchen 1974, 215

J.L.P. Wolmarans, The rhetoric and logic of Romans 13:1–7, Ekklesiastikos Pharos 76(1994), 187–99

T. Zahn, Der Brief des Paulus an die Römer, Leipzig 1,21910, 558



Getting to know the geography, topography and archaeology of the Bible Lands in New Testament times

    I.J. du Plessis


2.1    Why study biblical geography, topography and archaeology?

83    The New Testament abounds with the names of cities, towns, regions, rivers and so on. Practically every story, letter, or book in the New Testament is linked to the name of a place, a district, or a congregation. Some names are better known than others, but for the correct perspective we need to be able to identify these names, otherwise there is a danger that the events themselves may also remain blurred.

84    The New Testament describes how God made Himself known in Jesus of Nazareth and how his message was spread, as well as people’s reaction to this message. The events described occurred in a particular country, Palestine, and in surrounding countries to which the Gospel was carried by the apostles, most notably by Paul. In this chapter we wish to introduce the student of the Bible to the geography, topography (description of places) and archaeology of Palestine and the other territories specifically mentioned in the New Testament. In this way we will depict the stage on which those events were enacted.

85    Our concern is not simply with the geological structures, the climatic conditions, or a description of tracts or places, though this is in itself a most interesting exercise (see Baly). We study these fields because the country and its conditions had an effect on the people and on their historical development. If we understand their natural environment, we can often also better appreciate their nature and their actions. We know how drought or soil conditions can affect the human spirit, and so the archaeological, geographical, and topographical details about Palestine will add to our understanding of the New Testament. We develop a better idea not only of the imagery, metaphors and poetry used in the Bible, but also of the people’s philosophy of life, as well as the social, economic and political milieu.

86    Since this volume refers to the New Testament, we concentrate on geography, topography and archaeology as they affect our understanding of this Testament, though here and there we shall refer also to the Old Testament for elucidation. For the student with wider interests, the works we list in the Bibliographical Guide at the end of the chapter include a great deal of material on the Old Testament. In any study of this subject, every reader is strongly urged to keep a good atlas handy. Even a small atlas is suitable (see the Bibliographical Guide).

87    We commence our discussion with some introductory remarks concerning biblical archaeology.


2.2    Archaeology and biblical archaeology

88    As the term ‘archaeology’ indicates, it has to do with a study of things in antiquity, or, as Yamauchi puts it, ‘Archaeology is the study of the remains of ancient civilizations uncovered through excavations’ (Yamauchia, 46). But when we refer to ‘biblical archaeology’, it indicates a particular relationship to the Bible. In some universities both these subjects are taught. The former denotes a broader, more general discipline, usually related to anthropology and with little or no connection with biblical archaeology. This latter is most frequently associated with theologically oriented subjects, and is offered as an auxiliary science along with biblical science and ancient or cultural history.

89    The fact that we speak of ‘biblical’ archaeology helps us to realize that it can be related geographically and chronologically to the locality and time of the Bible. The famous American archaeologist W.F. Albright linked it chronologically to the period from 9000 bc to ad 700, and geographically with all the countries mentioned in the Bible, from the Indus Valley to North Africa and Spain. Most recently, however, a resistance to the term ‘biblical archaeology’ has arisen. Thus William G. Dever would like to completely get rid of the idea that it is a part of archaeology. He regards it rather as an inter-disciplinary undertaking which can be a dialogue between specialists in the archaeology of the Near East and biblical historians. He prefers to speak simply of Syro-Palestinian archaeology instead of biblical archaeology. One reason for this is that he is afraid that the term ‘biblical archaeology’ is too closely associated with fundamentalism, that those who promote it are often regarded as people who wish to prove that the Bible is correct and engage in attempts, for instance, to locate the Garden of Eden or search for Noah’s ark, without stopping to consider the questions surrounding the historicity of these accounts. We may, however, question whether Dever’s attitude does not display ignorance and prejudice against those who do study the Bible scientifically and critically.


2.3    What is biblical archaeology?

90    Biblical archaeology may be described as the science which studies the circumstances, life-styles, institutions, human relationships, customs and ethics of those who lived in biblical times. For our purposes in this volume, we restrict the study to the New Testament era. The New Testament itself offers many examples of the emergence of biblical archaeology. In Mk 7:3f, for instance, two striking customs of the Pharisees are explained; in Mk 12:42 the value of a coin is mentioned; and in Mk 5:41 and 15:22 Aramaic expressions are translated.

91    This science is still relatively new, but it is making giant strides, so that it is no longer possible for any single individual to survey the whole field. Its focus is the Bible and a better understanding of it. It is the technique in which all information recovered by archaeological investigation is applied to understanding the Bible. It may make use of other disciplines such as geology and geography, and sub-disciplines like papyrology, Egyptology, Assyriology, the Qumran investigations, the Nag-Hammadi studies and many other fields of research which have developed into all but independent disciplines.

92    The text of the Bible covers a geographical area much larger than that of Palestine. For archaeological purposes, the student of the New Testament will thus be interested also in Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and even North Africa and Spain. Those engaged in the study of Qumran or Nag-Hammadi or papyrology can reach the stage where they have delved so deep that they become completely absorbed in their task. There is nothing wrong with that, but for biblical archaeologists these spheres will serve merely as aids to the better understanding of the Bible. This balance will always be of great importance to those engaged in biblical archaeology, just as biblical archaeology is itself an auxiliary science for biblical studies, but can also be an independent subject. H.D. Lance (100) rightly says: ‘The biblical archaeologist in this sense is a bridge-builder and interpreter, making available the insights gained from one’s archaeological study to other scholars and to the general public’.

93    Biblical archaeology can thus contribute greatly to shedding more clarity on the written text or the content of the New Testament. In this sense it produces the same results as other historical methods of investigation. We must, however, immediately warn against the danger of supposing that archaeological results can prove the scriptural details correct or true. Archaeological facts and biblical quotations cannot be set alongside each other without further ado as apparently parallel expressions of the truth. We have to remember that it is not possible to prove everything in the Bible by means of archaeological material. The crucifixion of Jesus and its significance, for example, can scarcely be ‘proved’ archaeologically. The fact of crucifixion and the way it was carried out in the time of Jesus can, of course, be illustrated by archaeological material.

94    In the light of what we have been saying, it is necessary to distinguish between archaeology and history. Whereas history recounts the movement and progress of a nation’s life, the archaeologists’ task is to describe the actual conditions. Naturally, both are most closely interrelated, seeing that the life-styles which found permanent forms of expression were the result of a historical process. An illustration which expresses the relationship simply is that of the water which flows in a river and the river-bed itself; the flowing water represents history and the river-bed archaeology. The facts which we can unearth by archaeology are like a snapshot of reality in a certain period. These facts may often shed light on our understanding of a text in the Bible, but they do not necessarily supply the meaning of that text. To aver that archaeology can prove the Bible correct is very relative and most misleading. It does a great deal of damage to the reputation of biblical archaeology. Reacting to these kinds of claims, Roland de Vaux, an eminent archaeologist, rightly points out that archaeology cannot offer irrefutable proof that everything recorded in the Bible happened ‘like that’ (de Vauxb). In 1957, Millar Burrows (4) wrote: ‘Religious truth is one thing: historical fact is another. Neither necessarily presupposes or accompanies the other’. So we have to be aware of the limitations of biblical archaeology: it cannot archaeologically demonstrate that everything in the Bible is authentic. J.A. Thompson (1) sums it up pithily: ‘No excavator can comment, in terms of his science, on the simple statement: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness”.’


2.4    The value of biblical archaeology

95    The biblical narrative gains so much more perspective and significance when we understand the political situation, the economic and social conditions and other relevant aspects of life at that time. This is the kind of background archaeology can provide. Jesus and Paul, for instance, lived in a world where women had a very weak social status, and where slavery was still part of the social pattern. Phenomena of this nature are often recovered and made much more clear through the information gleaned from archaeological discoveries or research. Moreover, we recall immediately that archaeological discoveries also include old manuscripts such as the finds at Qumran, Nag-Hammadi and Ebla.

96    John concludes his gospel by referring to the fact that Jesus did and said much more than the author included in his narrative (Jn 21:25; see also 20:30). The gospel writers did not aim at presenting a complete picture; they were content to select what they needed for their purpose. Through his work, the archaeologist has already contributed a great deal in providing us with much more information which can shed light on the Bible’s contents. To mention only a few examples: Excavations at Nea Paphos have yielded an inscription of Sergius Paulus, the governor of Cyprus, of whom we read in Ac 13:7. A wealth of archaeological material confirms the reference in Ac 14:8–18 to the veneration of Zeus along with Hermes at Lystra (Breytenbach). The excavations conducted by Sir William Ramsay have shown that the unusual term politarchai by which Luke describes the officials in Thessalonica (Ac 17:6) was absolutely correct. The discovery in 1905 of the Gallio inscription at Delphi has helped us to determine with a fair degree of reliability Paul’s stay in Corinth and his chronology. We shall discuss other examples in the course of this chapter.

97    During the last decade or two, the amount of information which has flowed from biblical archaeology could rightly be described as an information explosion (Lance), just as the areas of specialism contributing to our subject have expanded enormously. In addition to the more familiar fields such as Assyriology, Egyptology, epigraphy and papyrology, new fields of specialisation have come to the fore, among them palaeo-ethnography, palaeobotany, palaeobiology, and archaeometry, to mention just a few. One discovery has followed another. As a result of the mass of excavated material, publications dealing with it are getting further and further behind even though the number of periodicals about archaeology continues to increase, so that one person can no longer survey the whole field. Another result is that the various spheres tend more and more to become independent fields of study, so that those who approach our subject with the Bible as their focal point find it ever more difficult to assimilate all the details. At the same time, these areas of investigation are working all the more in isolation as autonomous spheres of study, with the result that the significance of their findings is not always passed on to the biblical archaeologists and fruitful interaction among the biblical sciences suffers.


2.5    The New Testament and archaeology

98    When one consults the periodicals and books dealing with biblical archaeology, the general impression is that the results of archaeology apply more to the Old Testament than to the New. This may be attributed to various causes. In the first place, the history of the Old Testament extends over at least a thousand years, that of the New Testament scarcely one century. Thus the Old Testament covers a broader time span, which has the potential of producing more information, even though it stretches further back into the past, with the possibility that archaeologically important finds may be fewer. What is more, the Old Testament has to do with a whole people and the surrounding nations, while the New Testament is concerned with just a small group from the nations. Then, too, the excavation of cities and discoveries in them from Old Testament times have been more dramatic and impressive, though the story surrounding the Qumran community and its documents, of such special importance to the New Testament, need not be accorded an inferior place. Many of those remains of the Greek and Roman period which are relevant to the New Testament have long been known and are mostly in a fair state of preservation. Nor was it often necessary to dig for many of them, so that their discovery caused less surprise and their news value was much less.

99    Despite what we have just been saying, there are still more than enough archaeological finds which have sufficient bearing upon the New Testament for their consideration to be worthwhile. As far as the New Testament is concerned, it has rather been the written records, the inscriptions and especially the papyrus documents which have been of untold worth. That is not to suggest that the excavations of the agora (market-place) in Athens or the temple of Diana in Ephesus or those in and around Corinth, to name but a few, are not of particular importance, to say nothing about the continuing excavations in Jerusalem. Even the uncovering of the town of Pompeii, buried under lava by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in ad 79, has importance for us; it may not be mentioned in the New Testament, but this town dates from the same period and offers us exceptional glimpses into a cross-section of Roman society in the first century. Since we shall discuss a number of archaeological discoveries later, we conclude this section with the statement that even those archaeological discoveries which impinge upon the New Testament are already almost too numerous to consider.


2.6    Biblical archaeology’s sources of information

100    The sources which archaeological discoveries have brought to light fall into two main categories: cultural objects and written records. This is probably an artificial division, but it does provide a possible indication of how we may classify the material.

101    The cultural objects can include a variety of items ranging from erected structures to implements, from potsherds to coins and jewellery. Some of the structures had long been exposed, while others were hidden under the sand and rubbish. There were different ways in which buildings and whole towns could become concealed: war, epidemics, earthquakes or other disasters killed their inhabitants or forced them to move away. Wind and other natural elements caused the sand to heap up over the buildings or the ruins. Subsequently, the same people returned or others arrived to build on the covered ruins, a process which extended over many centuries. In this way, a hill was formed which we know as a tell (Arabic for ‘hill’) and through the centuries several towns could be built one on top of another. So, for example, it has been established that Beth Shean (Scythopolis) in the Valley of Jezreel, near the Jordan, consisted of some eighteen towns one on top of the other. As for the agora in Athens, its silting up was probably due to the soil which through the centuries washed down from the higher-lying Acropolis. Pompeii and Herculaneum, on the other hand, were buried under lava-ash as a result of the eruption of Vesuvius.

102    Excavations at a tell or at another place where people used to live have yielded many objects which can serve as sources of information and for comparison with the data in the New Testament. However, the tell represents but one type of remnant from the ancient times. In reality, the remnants that are of interest to the New Testament are generally not of the tell mould, since these date to an earlier period. Pompeii, which was covered in lava-ash, is an exception in this regard. Excavations at and around existing ruins still produce new information in a number of fields and work will have to continue for many years merely to document the material already at hand. The New Testament towns in Asia Minor are still largely unexplored and a formidable task awaits archaeologists.

103    Besides cultural objects, it is particularly the written records from the New Testament era that are of the greatest importance. On the whole, it is the written texts of this period which are probably the most valuable archaeological contributions we possess today. Here, of course, we think first of the manuscripts of the New Testament itself which have been brought to light, and then of such finds as the Qumran scrolls, the documents discovered at Nag-Hammadi in Egypt, the writings of authors contemporary with the New Testament writers, letters, wills and all manner of other everyday documents from the same period.

104    Consequently, we will first pay attention to the geography of Palestine. In the course of this geographical discussion, the topography will be dealt with, along with the most important archaeological finds that can be linked to these places. Obviously, the discussion will focus primarily on the New Testament.


2.7    The general geography of Palestine


2.7.1    Situation and size

105    Though every student knows more or less what the name ‘Palestine’ refers to, it is interesting that the name itself never appears in the Bible. While the Old Testament has a few references to ‘(the land of) Philistia’ where the Philistines lived, that was merely a section of the region known as ‘Palestine’. Our present usage derives from the Greek designation of the whole land as we know it today. The New Testament does not refer to this name, but rather to the various Roman provinces or politically oriented regions. Our term ‘Palestine’ is, then, a comprehensive name for the regions referred to in the New Testament, whose extent and boundaries we shall describe later.

106    Palestine stands at the point where three continents meet: Africa, Europe, and Asia. Through all the centuries it was therefore strategically of great importance. Even in our modern times it is the focal point of tension in the Middle East. From earliest times it was the hinge between the great powers of antiquity, Egypt and Babylonia-Assyria. The very ancient trade routes met in Palestine, to proceed from there north and south. What is called the ‘fertile crescent’ stretched from Mesopotamia in the north-east down to the rich Nile valley in the south-west, and had Palestine as its mid-point. All this resulted in a great deal of traffic through the region. But Palestine was never a really great power; its greatest extent was achieved during the reigns of David and Solomon and again later under the Hasmonaeans (see §778).

107    Despite its central situation on the highway between north and south, Palestine is also protected and partially isolated by the deserts which border on it on three sides. The Syrian Desert on the north-east served as a defence against the great armies, and in the east and the south-east the Arabian and Sinai deserts did the same. The most important route through Palestine was certainly the one along the coast from north to south, but there were also other main roads which crossed the country. As a result, many battles between enemy forces from north and south were fought on Palestinian soil. Through the centuries, the people of Palestine had a continuing problem in deciding which side to support as the militants growled at each other from their northern or southern bases. In Israel’s history we hear time and again how the prophets warned against alliances with the forces of north or south. Even Herod the Great had to chop and change his allegiance to gain the favour of the right Roman general once it became clear which one had prevailed in the struggle for domination and the throne of the empire.

108    From any angle, Palestine is a small country. The Bible frequently sets the furthermost points as ‘Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south’, and this was approximately the case in New Testament times. In its breadth the land is about half its length. The surface measures about 28,000 square kilometres (11,000 square miles). To afford an impression of the size of the country, we mention some distances from Jerusalem: Jericho 23 km, Gaza 77 km, Joppa 55 km, Caesarea 83 km, Nazareth 87 km, Capernaum 107 km, Sidon 191 km, and Damascus 211 km. This makes it clear that every corner of the country could be reached in a few days in Jesus’ time, even on foot.


2.7.2    Climate

109    Palestine’s climate is one of opposites and extremes. In general, it could be typified as Mediterranean—long, dry summers with cool, wet winters. It is especially the coastal plain which displays this typically Mediterranean climate, while the highlands are much colder in winter, and the Jordan valley is much hotter in summer, though it enjoys wonderfully mild winter weather. For so small a region, the diverse climates in areas which are close to each other is remarkable.

110    The climate is controlled to a considerable extent by the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Desert. There is a continual movement between the cool air over the sea and the hot air over the inland desert, and it is this which determines the prevailing winds which blow mainly from west to east or east to west. The heat in the desert causes the air to rise and the cool sea air flows in. This cool sea-breeze usually blows in the afternoon, affording relief to the ground baked by the heat. This is the time of day when the inhabitants climb onto the flat roofs of their houses to enjoy the cool movement of air. The reverse process takes place during the night: as the ground cools, especially on the hills and mountains, the wind blows from the land towards the sea. It is this rapid heating and cooling which can result in such ferocious storms on the Sea of Galilee (see Mk 4:35–41 par).

111    In the months marking the changes of seasons (April to June and September-October), there are periods of three to seven days when a most unpleasant wind blows off the desert or from the south; this is the Sirocco, which spreads desert heat over the whole land. The dry air shrivels everything up, and the temperature—even at night—easily reaches ten degrees Celsius above the normal. It is of this wind that Jesus said, ‘When you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens’ (Lk 12:55).

112    The altitude above sea level is a second factor which determines the climate. The highlands and plateaux are cooler and damper. The mountains also serve as umbrellas through the natural processes of condensation which bring rain to the western slopes as the moist sea air rises. The eastern scarps, which drop away into the rift of the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea, receive very little rain from the west. The Jordan Valley has less than a hundred millimetres a year and the Dead Sea area even less. The wind which sweeps across this region in winter is the cold west wind and brings no rain, while in the summer the desert wind scorches everything.

113    Palestine, then, has two seasons: a long, hot, dry summer and a rainy winter. The dry season stretches from about April to September. During those months, the parched plant-life and the dusty landscape know only one relief, the heavy dew which forms in the night. It is this dew which usually makes the difference between a good harvest and a poor one (Hg 1:10). The early rains following the dry season are important for the farmer who has to plough his fields timeously. The heavy winter rains begin by December, and the ‘later rains’ during March/April are needed to carry the crops through to harvest (Dt 11:14).


2.8    The different Palestinian regions and important places

(See Map 1 on p.43 and Map 2 on p.48)


2.8.1    A general survey

114    There is more than one way to divide Palestine into regions. The country consists mainly of those parts which can be cultivated and support a larger number of people, and the desert-like tracts bordering on them where few can make a living. Here we are concerned more with the cultivated areas and how climate, plant-life and soil conditions combine to influence human social patterns and dispositions. We can divide the country in this way:


115    a. The coastal plains

1.    The Plain of Acco—north of Mount Carmel

2.    The Plain of Dor—due south of Carmel

3.    The Plain of Sharon

4.    The Plain of Philistia

5.    The Shephelah—the foothills of Judaea

6.    The Plain of Esdraelon and Jezreel—south-east of Carmel to the Jordan Valley. (This is not really a coastal plain, but stretches from the coast to the Jordan Valley. We include it under this heading because it is a plain.)


116    b. The highlands west of the Jordan

1.    The Carmel range

2.    The highlands of Samaria (the ancient Ephraim and Manasseh)

3.    The highlands of Judaea


117    c. The Jordan Valley

1.    Lake Huleh

2.    The Sea of Galilee and its environs

3.    The Ghor—the valley south of Galilee

4.    The Dead Sea

5.    The Arabah, the narrow strip south of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqabah


118    d. The highlands of the Trans-Jordan

1.    Bashan

2.    Gilead

3.    Ammon and Moab

4.    Edom


119    e. The desert

1.    The eastern plateau of Trans-Jordan

2.    The desert south of Edom

3.    The Negev Desert

120    When we consult a map (see Map 1 on p.43), we realize quickly that here we have four almost parallel regions, with the Plain of Jezreel and the Carmel range cutting obliquely across the north-south lines. The deserts lie like a great basin below and beside the four regions. Let us now examine each of these more closely.


2.8.2    The coastal plains

121    The coastal plains stretch the whole length of Palestine and even further. The coast is relatively inhospitable, with Acco being the only natural harbour of any significance within the Palestinian area; Sidon and Tyre lie further north. Herod the Great built the artificial harbour of Caesarea. Most of the southern section of the coast is very sandy; this is caused by the marine currents which deposit the sand along the coast, from where the natural wind action spreads it further. The plain, which actually lies behind the dunes along the coast, varies in breadth: at Gaza in the south it is some 20 kilometres wide, but becomes narrower to the north. This plain is interrupted by Mount Carmel, which divides the coastal plain. There is a lesser interruption near Joppa.

122    The valley which runs inland from Carmel along the river Kishon to the Jordan Valley is not a ‘coastal plain’ in the strict sense, but we may include it among the plains because it cuts into the highlands and links up with the coastal plain.

123    Because the interior is broken and mountainous, the main traffic through Palestine is along the coast in a north-south direction. This was the ancient trunk route from Egypt to Phoenicia and points further north and east. This famous road was also known as the Via Maris (‘the Way of the Sea’), because it traversed the coastal plain parallel with the sea. It ran from Damascus, beside Mount Hermon, across the Jordan south of Lake Huleh, beside the Sea of Galilee, and onwards to the Plain of Jezreel. From there one could travel either via Dothan and Jerusalem to Gaza or via Megiddo, south-east of Carmel, onto the coastal plain, and thence to the junction with the other road at Gaza. In New Testament times there was also a road which ran from Gaza through Joppa, Caesarea and Acco, continuing further north along the coast. South from Gaza it was a single road along the coast to Egypt. For centuries the commercial caravans and the armies of the great powers moved up and down this Via Maris.


Map 1

First century Palestine: Physical regions and main routes



a.    The Plain of Acco

124    This plain, stretching north from Mount Carmel to Jebel el-Mushaqqah, is forty kilometres long and some twelve kilometres at its widest in the south. It is low-lying and fairly marshy, as the sand-dunes on the edge of the coast hinder drainage. Part of the plain is suitable for agriculture, but it is mainly pasture land and so flocks of sheep are farmed here. Enclosed by the Galilean mountains to the east, the plain stretches along the sea till it reaches what was known as ‘the Ladder of Tyre’, which was Israel’s northern boundary.

125    In biblical times, this plain played no really important part. The only city of significance was the port of Acco at the northern end of the bay formed by Carmel’s projecting tip. This is the sole natural harbour along the coast within Israel’s territory, though it is ravaged by the south-westerly winds. In the New Testament era it was known as Ptolemais (named after the king of Egypt), and during Paul’s travels he landed there to greet the small Christian congregation (Ac 21:7).


b.    The Plain of Dor

126    Many writers regard this as part of the Plain of Sharon. From the Old Testament, however, it would seem that it was reckoned as part of the northern plain. In New Testament times it was not included in the territory of Herod the Great and his successors, but formed part of the northern district of Ptolemais. This was probably due to the difficulty of reaching the plain from the south because of the Crocodile River which flowed between the hill country and the sea. Access from the east was restricted to the road from Jokneam, situated in the north-western corner of the Valley of Esdraelon. There were, then, physical reasons for counting it part of the northern rather than the southern coastal plain.

127    This plain is very narrow, some three kilometres wide, and about thirty kilometres long. The dunes made drainage difficult, thus creating wet, marshy conditions. Movement and construction were also a problem. It was only the little port of Dor which had any significance, and it is the only hamlet in the area to be mentioned in the Bible (see Jos 12:23). Through the centuries the port often changed hands, but once Herod had constructed his harbour at Caesarea, it quickly lost its status and its wealth.


c.    The Plain of Sharon

128    This well-known plain stretches from the Crocodile River in the north to a point near Joppa in the south. At its northern end the hills turn sharply inland, so that it is approximately sixteen kilometres in width and nearly eighty kilometres long. But the presence of low hills and sand dunes near the coast obstruct the flow of the rivers and create marshy conditions. In effect, these hills and dunes divide the plain into two parallel sections between the coast and the interior.

129    The wet conditions resulted in the Plain of Sharon being noted for its flowers—narcissi, daffodils, and anemones (cf. Can 2:1)—with extensive plantations of oak trees in the earliest period. The Old Testament also refers to herds of sheep on this plain (Is 65:10; 1 Chr 5:16).

130    The marshes made movement along the plain very difficult, which was the reason the Israelites never really settled in this coastal area, though they took possession of it. As a result, it contained no important cities in the Old Testament period. It was only in Roman times that well-built roads and bridges over the streams made access possible, and by the New Testament era some important towns were situated here.

131    Caesarea: This city was founded in honour of Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor. Situated nearly forty kilometres south of Carmel, it was built on the same site as Herod the Great’s earlier town. His son Herod Antipas spent twelve years reconstructing the town on Roman lines, with straight streets all running down to the harbour he built. Theatres, a racecourse for horse racing, and a temple in honour of the emperor, as well as the beautiful palace, all increased the glory of this city. The harbour could take small ships, which added greatly to life in this city by the sea.

132    The Roman governors in Palestine chose to live in Caesarea rather than in Jerusalem. Even Pontius Pilate went up to Jerusalem only when there were large gatherings of people, which was why he was there during the Passover when Jesus was crucified.

133    This city is mentioned frequently in connection with the young Christian Church. At the end of his first visit to Jerusalem, Paul was taken there to protect him (Ac 9:29f). Years later he was brought there again in order to be heard by the governor Felix in safety. On that occasion he was confined there for two years, during which time he appeared not only before Felix, but also before Festus and King Herod Agrippa II (Ac 24–26). Philip the deacon settled there (Ac 8:40), and Luke records Paul’s visit to him and his daughters (Ac 21:8f). The Roman centurion Cornelius summoned Peter to his house in this city (Ac 10:1).

134    Joppa: This town was situated at the southern end of the Plain of Sharon. From earliest times it was a busy trading port. Because it could not take big ships, small boats ferried the cargo between the docks and the ships lying out in the roadstead. Today there is a modern dredged harbour named Jaffa. It lies just south of the present-day city of Tel Aviv, the industrial and economic capital of the modern state of Israel.

135    While there are Old Testament references to Joppa, here we mention only those in the New Testament. It is especially the apostle Peter whose name is linked with this town. Here he raised Tabitha (or Dorcas, as she was known) to life again (Ac 9:36–41). Here he also had the vision which convinced him that salvation included non-Jews as well (Ac 9:43; 10:9–16), and it was from here that he went to Caesarea at the request of Cornelius (Ac 10:19–24).


136    Two other villages in this area deserve brief mention. The first is Lydda, about seventeen kilometres south-east of Joppa on the main road to Jerusalem. There was a Christian congregation here; Peter visited it and healed a paralysed man named Aeneas (Ac 9:32–35). The other place is Antipatris (the Old Testament Aphek—see 1 Sm 4:1–11) on the main road from Jerusalem to Caesarea. It was here that Paul’s escort handed him over during the night to the horse guards who would conduct him to Felix in Caesarea (Ac 23:31f).


d.    The Plain of Philistia

137    South of Sharon the Plain of Philistia stretches from Joppa in the north to Gaza in the south. It is about eighty kilometres in length and some twenty-four kilometres wide. Its fertile soil promoted agriculture. Certain parts of this district are fairly high above sea level, but it is still reckoned among the maritime plains because it is reasonably low compared with the highlands of Judaea further inland.

138    From ancient times this was the home of the Philistines, arch-enemies of the Israelites. Neither in Old or New Testament times did the Jews live here, though during David’s reign it was one of his tributary regions.

139    Gaza: This was the most important Philistine city, as well as the only one to be mentioned in the New Testament. It was about five kilometres from the sea on the important trade route from Egypt to Syria. It was the junction of the two main roads from the north, which then continued south to Egypt as a single route. Gaza is mentioned only once in the New Testament, in connection with Philip the deacon. He was on his way there when he had his famous encounter with the Ethiopian in which the man was converted to Christianity and baptized (Ac 8:26–40).


140    The other well-known towns of Philistia—Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron—are mentioned only in the Old Testament. Consequently we do not deal with them here.


e.    The Shephelah
(= Lowland)

141    Between the maritime Plain of Philistia and the hill country lie the Shephelah lowlands. Their elevation is higher than the coastal plain but lower than the hill country, and so they are well named. There are differences of opinion among scholars as to whether or not the Shephelah includes the maritime plain. We need not try to solve the issue here, though the soil structure of the region between the Judaean hill country and the Plain of Philistia has its own character, and in our view is rightly considered on its own in any geographical study of Palestine. It was a fertile region, its agriculture including corn fields, vineyards and olive orchards. It stretches from the borders of Samaria to Beersheba in the south, and was a continual area of dispute between the Philistines on the coast and the Israelites in the hill country.


142    From east to west the Shephelah is divided in several places by valleys—Aijalon, Sorek, Elah, and Zephathah, to name a few—which also provide routes for the most important roads from Judaea to the coast. These valleys and the towns like Gezer, Limnah, Libnah and Lachish which controlled them were very important in Old Testament history. Seeing, however, that nothing is heard of them in the New Testament, we shall pass them by.


f.    The Esdraelon-Jezreel Plain

143    A range of hills stretching from the Galilean highlands to the Carmel promontory separates this plain from the maritime Plain of Acco. It runs north-west to south-east from the coastal plain to the Jordan Valley, and actually consists of two plains: the Plain of Esdraelon and the Plain (or Valley) of Jezreel. The Plain of Esdraelon used to be called the Plain of Megiddo as well, and subsequently was regarded as a unit along with the Plain of Jezreel under the latter name. The Plain of Esdraelon forms a triangle from Jokneam in the north-west to En-gannim in the south-east—a distance of thirty-two kilometres—and the present-day Tell Adashim near Nazareth in the north, some twenty-nine kilometres from En-gannim. The river Kishon curves across the plain, leaving it through a narrow defile near the present-day Tell el-Qassis on its way to the sea. The Plain of Jezreel is a narrow valley, seldom more than three kilometres in width, stretching further south from the triangle to the Jordan valley. It has a steeper gradient than Esdraelon, so that at Beth Shean it is already a hundred metres below sea level. Beth Shean may be regarded as the furthest point in this plain, since from there the Jordan Valley drops away to a much lower level. At the junction of the two plains, the twin mountains Gilboa and Moreh stand opposite each other. The Esdraelon-Jezreel plain is bounded on its southern side by the mountains of Samaria and on the north by the Galilean highlands.

144    The plain is traversed by various important routes. One of these hugs the coast as far as Acco and then swings away to the Plain of Esdraelon, through Haroseth and Jokneam to Megiddo. Another route runs from the Jordan Valley via Beth Shean and the Plain of Jezreel until it meets the route from Damascus. Through the mountains of Samaria there are four passes leading south: From Ibleam (near En-gannim), going first north-west via Taanach, Megiddo and Jokneam, one can travel to the south and to the maritime plains of Dor, Sharon and Philistia. However, the Megiddo route was far and away the most important. It controlled the access to the most notable route from north to south, so that from the earliest pre-Christian era many great battles were waged near that town. It was the terror of those battles which probably led John in Rv 16:16 to refer to the nations’ final decisive battle as ‘Armageddon’ (= Hill of Megiddo).


Map 2

First century Palestine and its surroundings: Important Places



145    Other towns on this plain deserving of mention include Jezreel at the foot of Mount Gilboa, where Ahab and his Phoenician queen Jezebel had their royal palace when he ruled over the Northern Kingdom. As we have already noted, Beth Shean stood at the end of the Valley of Jezreel; in New Testament times it was known as Scythopolis. Because it was easily accessible from beyond the Jordan, it was the only town of the Decapolis situated west of the river. Endor, where King Saul consulted the witch, lay at the foot of Mount Moreh.


146    The only other place in this region to be mentioned in the New Testament is the hamlet Nain (= pleasant), also near the foot of Moreh, where Jesus restored the widow’s son to life (Lk 7:11–16).


2.8.3    The highlands west of the Jordan

147    Between the maritime plain and the Jordan Valley there are the highlands which run almost unbroken from Galilee to Judaea. With the New Testament in view, we shall deal with this geographical region in terms of the three Roman provinces into which it was divided in the time of the Lord Jesus: namely Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea.


a.    Galilee

148    Galilee is a hilly area, as its name implies. It derives from the Hebrew gālı̂l (= circle), referring possibly to the hills which surround the area like a circle and enclose the people. The inhabitants came from various pagan backgrounds, and later Jews from Judaea also settled there (see §783). Though the people were hard-working and fairly pious, not all of them adhered strictly to the Jewish law (see also §1049), so that the general opinion of them was low (cf. Jn 7:52).

149    It was in this region that Jesus spent the greater part of his life, and much of his public ministry was conducted there. Though the Sea of Galilee and the towns on its shores really belong geographically to the Jordan region, we shall include those towns in this section, because in the New Testament narrative they form a special unit with Galilee.

150    The Plain of Jezreel constitutes the southern border of Galilee, as it cuts through the highlands and thus forms a natural boundary. The western border is the Plain of Acco and, further north, the Phoenician coast. To the east the border is, of course, the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. The northern border was the Litani River; with its source in the Lebanon range, it then swings away to the Mediterranean Sea, so that it forms a natural division between Galilee and Lebanon.

151    If we include the Jordan rift, Galilee can be divided into three sections. The first is the Jordan Valley, which gets its water chiefly from the Mount Hermon massif. Four streams feed the Jordan, three from Hermon and one from Lebanon. Some twenty kilometres above Lake Huleh they join to form a single river, the Jordan. From that point there is a sharp drop to the lake, which is already at sea level. Lake Huleh used to be encircled with papyrus marshes, which made the area of little agricultural value. Today it has been drained and planted.

152    Caesarea Philippi: The only town in this area which is important for our New Testament studies is Caesarea Philippi. Philip the tetrarch beautified the older town and named it after the emperor, adding his own name so as to distinguish it from the port of Caesarea. It had a temple in honour of the emperor as well as a shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan. It was situated on the Banias, one of the streams feeding the Jordan, in whose name we catch an echo of the god Pan. It was in this vicinity that Peter acted as spokesman for the rest of the apostles in confessing Jesus the Christ (Mk 8:29).

153    The second
division into which Galilee falls is Upper Galilee, high-lying and looking out onto the mountains of Lebanon, but separated from them by the Litani River. This river probably always formed the northern border of Israel west of the Jordan. It was a region with little mention in biblical history, and even in Roman times contained few villages.

154    As far as the New Testament is concerned, the third and most important division is Lower Galilee. It is a beautiful vista, consisting of several lines of hills with fertile valleys between them. Highland and valley, with their animal husbandry of sheep and goats and agriculture (mainly vineyards and olive orchards), made this region attractive to the farmer. In the light of its agricultural merits and its rich diversity, it is easy to see why Jesus’ metaphors and parables are so full of farming images derived from a countryside where he spent so much of his life.

155    This part of Galilee was traversed with routes from all directions, and we can imagine that Jesus made good use of them during his ministry in Galilee, as may be inferred from the many towns and villages he visited.

156    Nazareth: We begin with his home town. It is situated in the south of Galilee, in a valley encircled by hills. Seeing that it is situated about three hundred metres above sea level, it has a pleasant climate and produces a lot of fruit. It is some twenty-four kilometres south-west of the Sea of Galilee and thirty-two kilometres east of the Mediterranean Sea, near the Plain of Esdraelon. Though it was a small village, it was close to the main routes from north to south, as well as those from the coast into the hinterland. Here, according to Luke, Jesus opened his public ministry as an adult, speaking in the local synagogue, where the people took exception to his preaching and tried to throw him off one of the nearby hills (Lk 4:29). Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament. A hamlet called Japhia is listed in Jos 19:12, and this may be the Japha situated two kilometres south-west of Nazareth. Nor does Josephus mention Nazareth, though he was active in this vicinity for a time. Even the Talmud, which refers to forty-five villages in Galilee, is silent about Nazareth (Finegan). Instead of implying that it did not exist, this would seem rather to indicate the unimportance of so tiny a village. In 1969, a fragment of an inscription was unearthed at Caesarea, dating from the third century, which contained the name Nazareth.

157    In present-day Nazareth there are several sites linked to the life of Jesus, but they are of no real archaeological worth. There is just one good well, which probably goes back to early times, but it is more an attraction for imaginative tourists than anything else. The churches in the town are to be dated later, and offer no archaeological contributions to the New Testament period.

158    Sepphoris: The excavations at Sepphoris are one of the most recent success stories in archaeology. Though it is not mentioned in the New Testament, in Jesus’ day Sepphoris was an important and beautiful city—so important that Batey goes so far as to suggest that at one stage it could have been Herod Antipas’s Galilean capital, before Tiberias gained that distinction. According to Josephus it was the strongest and—next to Tiberias—biggest city in Galilee (Bell. Jud. II:511; III:34; Vit. 232, 346). This is confirmed by the excavations which commenced in 1983. The city had a large theatre which seated four thousand, where all kinds of Greek dramas were staged, an impressive forum, colonnades, Herod’s palace, the villas of the wealthy, and much more. Since Nazareth lay a mere five kilometres south of Sepphoris, Jesus probably went there many times, encountering the world of the elite—of kings and their officials, financiers, merchants and opulent landlords. From several of his parables it would appear that it was not just the rural life which Jesus knew, but also this other world in which power and money played so vital a role. It is possible that he had Sepphoris in mind when he spoke of a city set on a hill which could not be hidden (Mt 5:14).

159    Cana: Not far from Nazareth lay another hamlet which Jesus made famous when, according to John, he performed his first mighty work there by changing water into wine (Jn 2:1–11). Opinions differ as to whether Cana lay eight kilometres north-east of Nazareth (the site of the present-day Cana) or whether the ruins fifteen kilometres to the east mark it. In any event, it was in the vicinity of Nazareth, and thus it is understandable that John would make it the setting of the first miracle. Cana means ‘place of reeds’, because there were marshes near by. In addition to the miracle at the wedding, it was also here that Jesus cured the son of a man who come from Capernaum to meet him (Jn 4:46–54). One of Jesus’ disciples, Nathaniel, hailed from Cana (Jn 21:2).

160    All the towns we now consider were situated beside the Sea of Galilee.

161    Capernaum: This town was situated on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, and was an important centre on the east-west trade route. It was about three kilometres west of the spot where the River Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee. This short distance would explain how, according to Mk 6:33, the crowd could walk overland and across the river and still arrive before Jesus, who had gone by boat. Though the name Capernaum means ‘village of Nahum’, it is unlikely that it refers to the prophet Nahum (in Nah 1:1 he is connected with Elkosh). This town was the home of Peter, and Jesus Himself probably took up residence there during his Galilean ministry. In Mt 4:13 we read: ‘Leaving Nazareth, he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali’; while 9:1 refers to Capernaum as ‘his own city’. Here Jesus performed many of his miracles: for instance, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mk 1:29–31 par), of the paralytic let down through the roof (Mk 2:1–12 par), of Jaïrus’s daughter (Mk 5:22–24, 35–42 par), and of the woman with a haemorrhage (Mk 5:25–34 par). According to Luke, Jesus commenced his ministry in and around Capernaum, since, although the evangelist first describes the sermon in Nazareth, in the same passage he refers to Jesus’ work in Capernaum (see Lk 4:23, 31ff). Some three kilometres from where the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee there are ruins known as Tell Ḥum. Josephus relates how at one time he was based at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, and was taken to the nearest village which he calls Kepharnokon or Kepharnomon (Vita 403). This was probably Capernaum. The name Capernaum doubtless derives from Kƒphar Nāḥûm. If Kƒphar (= town) has with time been changed to Tell, referring to the mound caused by a deserted town, and if the name Nāḥûm has been abbreviated to Ḥûm, then the present Tell Ḥum would no doubt indicate the ancient Capernaum (Finegan).

162    In Lk 7:5 we are told of a centurion who built a synagogue for the Jews in Capernaum, and in Mk 1:21 we read how Jesus taught the people in that synagogue. As far back as the last century travellers pointed to the ruins at Tell Ḥum and a synagogue there. We know that the emperor Vespasian destroyed a large number of synagogues, but that many were rebuilt in the second and third centuries. In the present-day Tell Ḥum there is a particularly well preserved synagogue in what is known as the Galilean style of architecture. This would not be the synagogue of Jesus’ day, since there is every likelihood that that was destroyed. This ruin probably dates from late in the fourth century (Tzaferis). Excavations have, however, brought to light that under its south-eastern corner there is part of the foundation of an earlier synagogue. The difference in the material used points to an older building, probably a synagogue dating from the first century and thus from the time of Jesus. Here the work of the archaeologists has opened a small chink into that era.

163    Two other places linked to Capernaum are Chorazin and Bethsaida (Lk 10:13–15), both situated on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Though Chorazin was already a ruin by the time of Eusebius, it is probably to be identified with a present-day site called Kerazeh or Korazim, about three kilometres north-west of Tell Ḥum. All that remains are the ruins of a synagogue dating from around the same period as that of Capernaum. The most interesting of the remains is a stone seat richly ornamented with engravings and which must have belonged to an important official of the synagogue. We cannot but be reminded of the ruler of the synagogue (archisunagōgos), of whom we read in Mk 5:22ff, named Jaïrus, whose daughter Jesus healed. The synagogue’s president would have sat on so special a seat.

164    Concerning Bethsaida there is little archaeologically relevant information available. Even its precise location remains uncertain. From Josephus (Antiq. XVIII:28) we know that Philip the tetrarch renamed it Bethsaida Julias, to honour the daughter of the emperor Augustus. People point today to at least two places which could have been the site of Bethsaida, but no finality has yet been reached over its location, which was no doubt somewhere along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee or near by.


165    Another town to be mentioned was Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, at some point between Capernaum and Tiberias to the south. It acquired its fame because Mary Magdalene probably came from there, and owed her name to the town.


166    While the New Testament does not record any visit by Jesus to Tiberias, in his day it was a very important town, situated six kilometres south of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, at a point where the Galilean highlands come very close to the water. In the twenties of our era, Herod Antipas
built his capital here, naming it after the Roman emperor Tiberius. Jesus must have had followers in this town, seeing that one of the women who accompanied him was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, a high official in Herod’s service (Lk 8:3; see also Jn 6:23).


b.    The highlands of Samaria (excluding the Carmel range)

167    The natural boundaries of Samaria are formed as follows: In the north it is the range of hills which runs at an angle in a south-easterly direction from Carmel past Gilboa to the Jordan Valley, with the Plain of Esdraelon and Jezreel to the north. To the east it is the River Jordan, and on the west the Plain of Sharon which later became a part of Samaria. The southern boundary is not a natural one, but can be envisaged as a line more or less from Joppa in the west to Jericho in the east. This is the territory occupied earlier by the tribe of Ephraim and half of the tribe of Manasseh.

168    This is hill country, but it is neither as high nor as rugged as the highlands of Galilee or of Judaea. The valleys are broader than those of Judaea and fertile, making them especially suitable for grain and even for olives against the hills. The highest summit is Baal-Hazor, but the twin peaks, Ebal and Gerizim, standing opposite each other, are the best known. They lie in the heart of Samaria, and were always of strategic importance, because the high road from north to south passed between them. The other significant summit is Mount Carmel, which juts out at the furthest north-western corner of Samaria. The Old Testament has many references to Carmel, but the New does not mention it.

169    It is a well-known fact that in the time of Jesus the Samaritans were inimical towards the Jews, and so the Jews preferred not to travel through Samaria. Jesus experienced this enmity for Himself (Lk 9:52f). This is perhaps why the towns of Samaria do not often appear in the gospels, though, as we learn from Jn 4:4, Jesus did on occasion take the Samaritan route. A trunk road from north to south followed the Samaritan watershed, and it was probably this route Jesus took when he went through Samaria. The high road from Damascus to Egypt also traversed a part of Samaria: from the Plain of Esdraelon it passed Megiddo to the Plain of Sharon and on to the south.

170    Numbers of Christians later fled to Samaria to escape the Jews’ attacks. During the early apostolic period, many Samaritans accepted the Christian message, as we see from Ac 8:1–25 (see also Jn 4 and Ac 15:3).

171    Towns of Samaria: Besides the towns on the maritime plain, which we have already discussed, there are few centres of any importance mentioned in the New Testament.

172    Sychar: This little village is mentioned in connection with Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (Jn 4:1–42). It is situated at the foot of Mount Ebal, a few kilometres from Shechem which lies between Ebal and Gerizim. The site of the ancient Shechem is now the village of Nablus, one of the few modern towns where a group (numbering about 150) of orthodox Samaritans still reside.


173    There was a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim which was destroyed by the Hasmonaeans about a century before Christ. This was no doubt the reason for the woman’s question to Jesus as to which mountain should be the place of worship.

174    Other important Samaritan towns not mentioned in the New Testament were: Samaria, the capital built by Omri in the ninth century bc. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom and deported its people, they settled the region with people from Babylon, Cuthah, and other distant places (2 Ki 17:24). Intermarriage with these people caused the Jews returning from exile to despise them, resulting in enmity with the Samaritans. Herod the Great later rebuilt the city in the style of Roman culture, calling it Sebaste (the Greek for Augusta—in honour of the emperor).


c.    The Judaean hill country

175    Judaea is hill country, part of the highlands which run right through Palestine parallel with the Jordan Valley. It is rockier and more rugged than Samaria, and also less attractive. The hills are limestone and are weathered by erosion, resulting in deep rifts and even caves. These rocky hillsides are mostly suitable for small stock farming, and were always occupied by herdsmen and their flocks. It is only in the valleys that there is enough soil for any quantity of vines, olive trees and palms. On the western slopes, the rainy side, there is enough rain, but on the eastern side, where the hills drop steeply to the Dead Sea, it is arid—real steppe country with little vegetation and blazing hot in summer. This dry tract between the watershed along the hills and the Dead Sea the Bible calls the Desert or Wilderness of Judaea. Here there was little possibility of eking out a living. Here John the Baptist lived for a time in solitude.

176    The borders of Judaea were as follows: The natural border to the east was the Dead Sea. The northern border was more or less a line drawn between Joppa and Jericho. The maritime plain of Philistia, which the Israelites seldom controlled, was roughly the western boundary. In the south, Judaea stretched about as far as Beersheba, in line with Masada, Herod’s fortress close to the Dead Sea.

177    From antiquity the steep cliffs and the desert resulted in Judaea being somewhat separated from enemies as well as from foreign influences. Its geographical situation contributed to the character of its people: conservative, but also sometimes provincial and even inclined to fanaticism. It was here that Judaism flourished most strongly and sects like the Pharisees and the Essenes (particularly the Qumran sect) thrived. Here, too, Jesus’ ministry reached its climax in open collision with the spiritual leaders and military rulers, resulting in his crucifixion.

178    In Judaea there are several cities, towns, and villages mentioned in the New Testament, especially in connection with Jesus. We begin with the most important one.

179    Jerusalem: The city of David is situated on a high plateau, part of the highlands and on the watershed. It is about seven hundred and fifty metres above sea level, but the surrounding country falls away rapidly, particularly to the east where the Dead Sea is reached within twenty-five kilometres. On three of its sides, the city is bounded by valleys. To the east is the Kidron Valley between the city proper and the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. On the southern and western sides is the Valley of Hinnom which was the city’s rubbish dump. Since there were usually fires and smoke there, it was named Gehenna (= hell). This valley was used as early as the reign of Josiah as the dumping place for the corpses of criminals and dead animals. Understandably, then, hell came to be typified as a place of unquenchable fire, where the worm does not die (see Mk 9:43ff). Akeldama, the piece of ground purchased with Judas’ blood-money (see Ac 1:18f; Mt 27:6ff), probably lay south of this valley.

180    Jerusalem is almost one large open-air museum of remains of every sort from biblical times. For our purposes we concentrate only on the New Testament period. A great many books have been written about this city, making it impossible within the confines of this chapter to do anything resembling justice to the numerous items of interest which have been known for centuries or which have recently been uncovered.

181    East of the city is the Mount of Olives with its memories of the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. On its slopes nearest to the city there are still the remains of the Garden of Gethsemane, where roots of the ancient, gnarled olive trees go back to the night of his agony there. On the other side of the hill lies Bethany, the village where his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary lived (Jn 11) and where his head was anointed in the house of Simon the Leper (Mk 14:3–9 par). The traveller approaching Jerusalem from Jericho, as Jesus did on his last visit, goes through Bethany. Anyone visiting this peaceful village today easily understands why Jesus preferred to stay the night there rather than in Jerusalem. The present road goes over the southern slope to the city, but in Jesus’ day it took the traveller right over the Mount of Olives, providing a spectacular view of the city as he approached it from the summit. This can still be done today—unless, like the author, one comes up against fences and other obstructions!

182    The old city of Jerusalem still contains many vestiges of the time of Jesus, and for this the notorious King Herod was especially responsible. Despite the poor portrait the New Testament paints of him, he was a skilled administrator and a builder of note, as many structures in present-day Israel can testify. We may begin with the fortress of Antonia which he constructed in the north-western corner of the temple area in honour of Mark Antony. It was to this fortress that Paul was taken when the Roman soldiers rescued him from the Jewish mob. Most probably Jesus was also held and tried here by Pilate. Nothing remains of the fortress except the limestone paving stones of the inner court. That paving may be the Gabbatha John refers to during Jesus’ trial (Jn 19:13). Interestingly enough, on these stones the marks can still be seen of a kind of game the soldiers probably played.

183    We have already referred to Herod’s immense contribution regarding buildings in Palestine. The greatest of these was perhaps the extensions to the temple area. In addition to the restorations to the temple itself, he enlarged the surrounding terrain to accommodate the huge crowds visiting the temple. The platform on which the temple stood was considerably enlarged, especially at the south-eastern corner, where an enormous buttress was constructed to support the square. Remains of this wall can still be seen, particularly in the section known as the Wailing Wall on the western side of the temple area. Here archaeologists have exposed fourteen layers of gigantic stone blocks dating from Herod’s time. The area outside the temple and its inner courts for the priests, the Israelite men, and the Israelite women was the large expanse known as the Court of the Gentiles (see Illustration 8). It was this outer court which Herod enlarged and embellished. Only Jews were allowed to proceed from this court to the inner courts. It was probably in this Court of the Gentiles that the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals plied their trade (see Mk 11:15f par). Josephus states that notices in Greek and Latin were attached to the dividing wall, warning strangers on pain of death not to enter the inner court (Antiq. XV:415). Such a stone with a Greek inscription has been found, and subsequently another was unearthed with its letters coloured with red pigment. (See in this regard illustration 1 and also §274). Thus from two different kinds of sources (a written text and two inscriptions on stone) we have evidence of a custom from New Testament times. It also sheds light on Paul’s reference to a ‘dividing wall’ between Jews and pagans (Eph 2:14).

184    There are divided opinions over the site of Golgotha. Two places in particular are pointed out: the first of these is the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the walls of the present old city; the second is Gordon’s Calvary, beyond the walls of the old city to the north. In 1867, Charles Gordon found a rock-tomb in the slope of a hill on the northern side of the city. This hill has a number of grottoes which from a distance give it the appearance of a skull. It had been indicated as Golgotha as early as 1842 by one Otto Thenius. Gordon’s discovery of the tomb led him to regard the hill as Golgotha and the sepulchre as the grave of Jesus. Since then it has been known as Gordon’s Calvary. The sanctified atmosphere of the garden around the tomb and the hill’s striking resemblance to a skull combine to persuade tourists that this is the correct site of Golgotha. Archaeological investigations do not, however, favour this more sentimental view. Rainer Riesner has re-investigated the whole matter, and with all the archaeological information at his disposal, has concluded with a fair degree of certainty that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and not Gordon’s Calvary is the site of the crucifixion. One telling argument against Gordon’s theory is that the tomb he found dates from before the Exile, so it could not have been Joseph of Arimathea’s ‘new tomb’ (Jn 19:41; cf. Lk 23:53). Riesner points out that in Jerusalem a strong Jewish-Christian community existed in which Jesus’ family had played a significant part for a long time; this group kept deep interest in his grave alive until well into the second century. There is also evidence from other quarters that at that time the believers retained possession of the tomb. Following the Bar Kokhba revolt in ad 132–135, the emperor Hadrian had the site of the tomb and other Jewish and Jewish-Christian shrines dispossessed and filled with rubble. Some of this rubble is still visible today under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the level surface created by the dumping, Hadrian had the town of Aelia Capitolina built over the ruins of what had been Jerusalem before the Romans razed it to the ground. In the centre of this forum there was a temple to Aphrodite, parts of which survive in what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The emperor’s intention that the pagan temple replace the Jewish-Christian cult came to nothing; the pagan-Christian congregation clung to the old traditions, and by the middle of the second century Melito, the bishop of Sardis, could refer to the site of the crucifixion as being ‘in the centre of Jerusalem’ (Harvey). In due course, Constantine apparently had the pagan temple demolished, to be replaced by the Byzantine church, because people were convinced that this was the site of the crucifixion (Riesner).

185    The last of the well-known archaeological locations in Jerusalem which we would mention is the Pool of Bethesda, of which we read in Jn 5, where Jesus healed a paralysed man. According to Jn 5:2, this pool was ‘by the Sheep Gate’. Neh 3:1 and 12:39 refer to this gate, which was probably on the northern side of the city. It may possibly be the same as the Tadi Gate mentioned in the Jewish document Mid. 1:3, north of the temple area. This gives us some idea as to where to look for the Pool of Bethesda. The existence of a place named Bethesda has recently been confirmed by the so-called Copper Scroll (3Q15) from Qumran. The dual form of this name probably means that here we are concerned with a double pool. From the variant readings of the name in the New Testament we may infer that we have to do with Greek renderings of its Hebrew and Aramaic forms, namely Bēthesda or Bēthzatha. The name ‘Bethsaida’ also appears, but this must be attributed to a scribe who mistakenly confused the pool with the fisher-village in Galilee. Modern excavations have revealed such a double pool on the northern side of the temple area. This pool is probably fed by a small water-course leading off the Kidron. It is also possible that it was fed by a fountain like the Gihon spring, with an intermittent flow which caused the water to bubble. To this day, the Gihon spring expels the water from its underground source between two to five times daily, depending on the season. Graffiti on the southern side of the southern pool contain Hebrew letters. Finegan believes that such graffiti would probably have been prohibited once Hadrian had expelled the Jews from the city; consequently in his view these inscriptions must come from a period prior to Hadrian. The outstanding quality of the architecture which has survived is reminiscent of Herod’s work on the nearby temple, and it is thus most probable that this structure was his doing. The archaeological evidence is therefore sufficient to allow us to regard the remains as the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus miraculously healed a paralysed man—and so also confirmation of certain details in the New Testament. Concerning the miracle, however, it proves nothing.


186        Emmaus: Twelve kilometres north-west of Jerusalem is the hamlet to which the two people were walking when Jesus joined them after his resurrection (Lk 24:13ff). Nowadays more than one hamlet with this name is pointed out. The distance mentioned in Lk 24:13 may help in determining which one is correct, but it is very difficult to verify it historically.


187    Bethlehem: The town where, according to tradition, Jesus was born (Mt 2:1; Lk 2:4–7) is situated some ten kilometres south of Jerusalem. Long before his birth it was important. Here Jacob buried his beloved Rachel; here, too, Ruth married Boaz, and one of their descendants, David, was born. Its name probably means ‘house of bread’ or a place where there was food, but some scholars give it a very different explanation.

188    Today Bethlehem is a busy town, and there are very few tourists who do not pay it and the Church of the Nativity a visit. Below the present church is a grotto, held to be the spot where Jesus was born. This is based on the tradition, apparently first mentioned by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, that Jesus was born at Bethlehem in a cave. Around the year 327, Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine and an ardent Christian, visited Palestine and erected churches in many places which were regarded as sacred spots connected with the life of Jesus. Here in Bethlehem, on Constantine’s instructions, she built a basilica over the grotto. Some time later a still larger edifice replaced the basilica. The present church was investigated earlier this century, when under the floor a beautiful mosaic was uncovered, dating from the time of Constantine. Also discovered was the early Christian symbolic word ICHTHUS, the Greek for ‘fish’, but which was actually a confessional code among believers, representing the first letters of the Greek words for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.

189    Our information about Bethlehem derives from the Constantinian era, long after the end of the New Testament period. Thus it provides no archaeological or historical evidence that Jesus was born there. There is the additional problem that the earliest New Testament documents, namely Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel, make no reference to Bethlehem, but only to Nazareth (Mk 1:9) where Jesus grew up. It seems as if the Bethlehem tradition was added by Matthew and Luke, and even they are not unanimous in what they report. We do not want to enter here into the question as to whether Bethlehem is merely a historical theologoumenon (= theological statement) or not (Du Plessis), but restrict ourselves to the statement that the present Bethlehem is of little archaeological value to the New Testament.

190    Jericho: Probably one of the oldest cities in the world, dating
back at least to the seventh millennium bc, Jericho through the centuries appears to have occupied different sites. The city of New Testament times was extended by Herod the Great; here he built the winter palace in which he was to die. Jericho lies about two hundred and fifty metres below sea level, some twenty-seven kilometres north-east of Jerusalem on the main route to the east, and eight kilometres from the River Jordan. It was always plentifully supplied with water, so that its fertile soil produced all sorts of crops and fruit.

191    It was probably in the vicinity of Jericho that Jesus was baptized. Here, too, he cured Bartimaeus of his blindness (Mk 10:46–52 par) and met Zacchaeus, the little man up the sycamore tree (Lk 19:1–10). In his well-known parable of the good Samaritan, he refers to Jericho (Lk 10:30).

192    Excavations have uncovered remains of the Old Testament Jericho, including Elisha’s spring. By Jesus’ day the city no longer occupied its original tell, but was situated two kilometres further south on both sides of the Wadi el-Qelt, just where it debouches onto the Plain of Jericho. In this city, excavations have also been carried out, uncovering various buildings from different periods. In his writings, Josephus refers to some of the constructions of the great builder Herod. One of his aqueducts is still to be seen in the wadi (= dry watercourse). It was along this wadi that the old road to Jerusalem ran, made famous by the parable of the good Samaritan; it still exists, though the modern highway lies a little further south, to ensure an easier gradient for modern traffic. Some eight kilometres up the pass from Jericho there is a ruin which tourists are told is what remains of the inn to which the Samaritan took the wounded man. While the only reference to an inn that we have is in that parable, in the sheer nature of the case it is not beyond the bounds of probability that Jesus could have had this very building in mind when telling his parable. He often made use of landmarks and customs familiar to everyone. Regarded in this way, remains of this sort are interesting and shed a certain light on New Testament data.


2.8.4    The Jordan Valley

193    The Jordan Valley is part of a geological fault which extends deep into Africa. It runs through Syria where it separates the Lebanon and Hermon ranges, down the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea, then further south through the Arabah until it meets the Red Sea at the head of the Gulf of Aqabah, and so down into Africa. We have already discussed the sources of the Jordan and Lake Huleh.

194    From the lake, the river drops quickly to the Sea of Galilee, where it is already two hundred metres below sea level. This lake is pear-shaped, about twenty-one kilometres long and twelve kilometres at its widest in the north. In Jesus’ day there was a large fishing industry on this beautiful inland sea. On the fertile Plain of
Gennesareth on its north-western side there is extensive agriculture. Around the lake, but especially on the east and the south-west, the hills climb steeply, and it is from them that the sudden winds rush down onto the lake, causing violent storms, as the New Testament records (e.g. Mk 4:37). This lake has been known by other names: the Sea of Chinnereth; the Lake of Gennesareth after the fertile plain on its northern shore; the Sea of Tiberias after the town of Tiberias which Herod Antipas built on the western shore.

195    As the crow flies, it is about a hundred and ten kilometres from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, which is some three hundred and ninety metres below sea level. Over this distance, the river twists and turns like a snake, back and forth, in the broad valley of the el-Ghor (= the rift) which varies from three to twenty-four kilometres in width. On either side, at varying distance, the valley is bounded by the Western and Eastern Jordan regions respectively.

196    According to the Fourth Gospel, the site of John the Baptist‘s activities was Aenon near Salim (Jn 3:23), probably the springs about twelve kilometres south-south-east of Scythopolis (Beth Shean). The place where he baptized Jesus, however, was further south, opposite Jericho, close to the spot where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea. This was Bethany-beyond-Jordan and not Bethabara, the reading in the older translations which rested on a weaker text (see Jn 1:28). There was a ford here, by which people crossed the river, and it is understandable why John chose this place to confront them with his message and to baptize them. This agrees with the statement that John preached in the neighbouring desert (Mk 1:1–6 par).

197    The Dead Sea is about eighty kilometres in length and seventeen at its widest point. The latter figure is almost halved in the south where the el-Lisan peninsula protrudes from the eastern shore. The deepest part is north of this peninsula, attaining a depth of probably four hundred metres in the north-east. From both the eastern and western shores the cliffs rise steeply to a height of six to nine hundred metres above sea level. Every now and again these are broken by ravines where dry watercourses or rivers like the Arnon to the east flow into the Dead Sea. Because this stretch of water has no outlet, the intense heat and consequent evaporation combine to give the water a twenty-five per cent salt content, as compared with the five per cent in normal sea water. The climate and soil conditions result in this region seldom being populated. The Qumran sect, whose fanaticism drove them out of Jerusalem and other places, did manage for a time to exist in the north-western corner of the shore, until in about ad 70 the Romans drove them away. (For a discussion of the archaeological aspects of the Qumran saga see §257–61).


198    Further to the south, opposite the el-Lisan peninsula, is the flat-topped mountain Masada on which Jonathan the Maccabee built a fort and Herod later a palace. The bitter-enders among the Zealots, those known as the Sicarii, fled here when the Roman general Titus besieged Jerusalem. They held out for three years before committing suicide in the year 73 when the Romans had constructed a ramp of soil and stones to the summit.


199    The Arabah is a continuation of the Rift Valley. It runs in a south-westerly direction for a further hundred and sixty kilometres from the Dead Sea to the head of the Gulf of Aqabah, where it links up with the Red Sea.


2.8.5    The highlands of Trans-Jordan

200    Between the Jordan Valley and the Arabian Desert are the highlands of Trans-Jordan (or
the East-Jordan region). From the hot, deeply situated Jordan Valley, the land rises rapidly to the cool highlands. The hills are not as high as those of the western highlands. In the north there are some areas with an altitude of a thousand metres, but mostly it does not exceed six hundred above sea level. The highlands gradually slope further eastward towards the desert region and the River Euphrates. From Hermon in the north to the southern end of the Dead Sea, the highlands stretch for about two hundred and thirty kilometres, while their width varies between fifty and a hundred and thirty kilometres.

201    This is a fertile region with a good rainfall, so that agriculture is a very encouraging occupation. Many streams and rivers flow from the highlands into the Jordan, and the winter snow means that many of them flow all the year round. There are springs everywhere. But the fact that this region is so open towards the desert has resulted in its exposure to attack by the desert nomads and other enemies, particularly in the earlier history of Israel.

202    The four large rivers flowing through them divide these highlands into five regions (if we include the arid wasteland of Edom south of the Dead Sea). The only towns here of importance to a study of the New Testament are Caesarea Philippi and Bethsaida, which we have already discussed in the section on Galilee.


a.    Bashan

203    This is the plateau north of the River Yarmuk, which flows into the Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee. This area was always noted for its corn and its cattle ranching, as well as for its oak trees. Its volcanic origin made the soil very fertile, so that in New Testament times it was a veritable granary. In Jesus’ day it fell under the rule of Philip the tetrarch, one of the sons of Herod the Great.


b.    Gilead

204    Between the Yarmuk and Arnon Rivers lies the land of Gilead. The River Jabbok flows through its central section. This rises in Rabbath-Ammon, which Alexander the Great renamed Philadelphia, in the ancient kingdom of Ammon. At first it flows in an easterly direction, then swings north, and still later west to join the River Jordan. Because Gilead is well-watered, it was able to sustain a large population. Grapes, olives, and corn were its major products. This beautiful region is situated almost opposite Samaria in the west, and there was always a good deal of movement between their peoples.


(i)    The Decapolis

205    In New Testament times, a large part of Gilead was included in the Decapolis, a loose federation of ten (sometimes given as fourteen or eighteen) towns with a decidedly Greek character. Their co-operation was not politically motivated, but was aimed at protecting the trade routes through this fertile region and preserving their Hellenistic culture in that Semitic environment. The most important centres belonging to this federation were: Damascus in the north and actually outside the borders of the Decapolis; Philadelphia in the south; Pella beside the Jordan, the town to which many Christians fled before the outbreak of the Jewish War (ad 66–70); Gadara south-east of the Sea of Galilee, possibly the place where Jesus cured the demoniac (cf. the variations between Mk 5:1; Mt 8:28; and Lk 8:26); and Scythopolis (the ancient Beth Shean), the only town of the Decapolis on the western side of the Jordan. The ‘region of the Decapolis‘ (Mk 7:31) through which Jesus travelled encompassed the countryside east and south-east of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan, except for the small wedge west of the river which included Scythopolis.


(ii)    Peraea

206    This region, through which Jesus occasionally travelled between Judaea and Galilee, stretched from the River Arnon (which flows into the middle of the Dead Sea) to Pella, about twenty-four kilometres south of the Sea of Galilee, with a width throughout of twenty to twenty-five kilometres. This is the territory the New Testament calls ‘the region beyond the Jordan’ (Mk 3:8; 10:1), in other words, Trans-Jordan. Like Galilee, it was ruled by Herod Antipas (cf. Lk 3:1).


c.    Moab and Edom

207    In Old Testament times, Ammon was situated in the northern curve of the River Jabbok, but by the New Testament era it no longer existed. The original Moab lay south of the deep Arnon Valley; it is mainly a high plateau, but it includes the fruitful Plains of Moab on the north-eastern shore of the Dead Sea. From there the high hills rise to the famous peaks of Nebo and Pisgah. This region is still well-watered, with pasture lands, corn fields and fruit orchards on the slopes of the hills.

208    Through this region ran the King’s Highway from south to north. Here, too, was Machaerus, the fortress built by the Maccabees and rebuilt by Herod the Great. In the time of Jesus it was included in the territory of Peraea. While it is not mentioned in the New Testament, Josephus states that John the Baptist was incarcerated there and later beheaded in its dungeon (cf. Antiq. XVIII:117–9).

209    The Old Testament Edom lay south of the Dead Sea and the River Zered, which flows into the southern end of the Dead Sea, so that it is no longer part of Trans-Jordan. This region was rich in iron and copper deposits; these, along with the tolls they exacted from merchants travelling through their country, brought the inhabitants a good living since early times. Petra, the picturesque city carved mainly out of the red sandstone cliffs, was the centre of this region. From the sixth century bc the Nabataeans, an intelligent Arabic tribe, moved into the surrounding area, pressing the Edomites against the southern border of Judaea. Their country, now called Idumaea, was the birthplace of Herod the Great. It was in the time of Jesus that the Nabataeans reached their highest point, controlling the whole of the southern and eastern desert area, but it is unlikely that Jesus had any direct contact with them.


2.9    Regions and cities outside Palestine (consult Map 3 on p.66)


2.9.1    Introductory

210    A very large part of the New Testament is taken up with the life, work, and writings of Paul, and so it is important to deal with the topography of these regions as well. It is not just Palestine which belongs to the biblical lands; so do Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean Sea. In describing the topography, we will trace the main phases of Paul’s life and work. We start with the key cities and places in Paul’s life, but we shall also give attention to relevant places in the book of Revelation. Some important archaeological discoveries will also be mentioned. We begin with the great moments in Paul’s life.


2.9.2    Some important cities in Paul’s early life

211    a. Tarsus: Paul’s birthplace was situated where Syria curved round into Asia Minor, and was the capital of the province of Cilicia. This important city on the River Cydnus, with its natural harbour some twenty kilometres from the sea, was on the trunk route from east to west. This made Tarsus an important centre of trade, noted for its weaving and tent-making. The emperor Antony conferred Roman citizenship on its inhabitants, so that Paul was born with this privilege, of which he would make full use in later life.

212    b. Damascus: It was near to this city that Paul was converted. Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and still the capital of Syria, as it was in antiquity. As early as Gn 14:15 we learn that Abraham knew of it! It is situated to the north-east of Mount Hermon, about ninety kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea, on a fertile, well-watered plain where three important routes converge. Along one of these—the one from Egypt along the Mediterranean coast, past Gaza, and through Galilee—Paul travelled (Ac 9:1–8). In his day, Damascus was ruled by the Nabataeans. Their king Aretas IV had captured it from Herod Antipas around ad 33. It was the governor of King Aretas who sought to arrest Paul, so that he had to make his escape over the city wall in a basket (cf. 2 Cor 11:32f).

213    c. Antioch in Syria: The congregation which sent Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey was located in Antioch, situated on the River Orontes in Syria, at the junction of the Lebanon and Taurus ranges. It is five hundred kilometres distant from Jerusalem, and thirty from the Mediterranean Sea. It was founded by Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who built fifteen more cities of the same name in honour of his father! In the New Testament era it was one of the greatest cities in the Roman Empire. Here the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Ac 11:26).


Map 3

Places outside Palestine which are discussed



2.9.3    Important centres on Paul’s missionary journeys through Asia Minor

214    This part of the world was the scene of a large and important part of Paul’s and the early Church’s activities. We shall make brief mention of the geographical situation of the various Roman provinces and the most significant topographical designations.

215    a. Asia: In the New Testament, the term ‘Asia’ does not refer to the present-day continent, but to the Roman province of that name which incorporated the major part of the western section of modern Turkey up to the Aegean Sea. Many centres mentioned in the New Testament were to be found there.

216    (i) Troas: This town is in the extreme north-western corner near the Hellespont which gives access to the Black Sea. It was from this port that Paul set sail for Macedonia across the sea (Ac 16:7–9). It was also here that during his third missionary journey he preached so long that a young man named Eutychus fell asleep and tumbled out of the window (Ac 20:9).

217    (ii) Ephesus: Situated on the west coast on the bank of the River Cayster, five kilometres from the sea, astride the main overland route from the East to Rome, Ephesus was one of the greatest cities of antiquity. Its strategic importance helps us to understand why Paul spent more than two years there, his longest ministry in any one place. According to 1 Tm 1:3, Timothy subsequently laboured there as well.

218    There is much which gives evidence of the great wealth and fame of this city, much of it derived from the cult of Artemis—or Diana, as the Romans called her. Her temple was accounted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The original temple was burned down in 356 bc. Excavations by the English architect J.T. Wood uncovered both that temple and the enormous Hellenistic one which replaced it. In and around Ephesus many images of Artemis, the mother goddess and the goddess of fertility, have been unearthed. In the temple, behind the altar, stood a huge image of Artemis, which the town clerk described as ‘the sacred stone that fell from the sky’ (Ac 19:35). Wright thinks that that remark had its origin in the fact that the image had been sculpted from a meteorite. The worship of Artemis brought the silversmiths of Ephesus such a good living that there was no wonder they were so incensed at Paul’s denunciation of ‘gods made with hands’ (Ac 19:26).

219    The theatre into which the populace rushed, rioting against Paul, has been very well preserved; its size—it could seat twenty-four thousand people—gives us an impression of the extent of the city and of the events in which Paul was involved. Other excavations at Ephesus offer insight into the life-style of its citizens in New Testament times. The inscriptions found there also contain information valuable to biblical archaeology. We might refer, first, to Ac 19:13 and the formula by which evil spirits were exorcised (see also the practice of ‘magic arts’ mentioned in Ac 19:18f). We encounter formulas of this type in Ephesus, and Wright points out that Greek and Roman writers referred to them as ‘Ephesian writings’. Secondly, we would mention that the Greek term asiarchos, whose plural is translated as ‘dignitaries of the province’ (NEB) in Ac 19:31, appears frequently in inscriptions at Ephesus and was apparently the title of a leader of the emperor cult.

220    The archaeological excavations at Ephesus may, then, rightly be regarded as a significant contribution towards a better understanding of the New Testament and a more accurate perspective upon it.

221    (iii) Towns of the Lycus Valley: At one stage the route from Antioch in Syria to Ephesus runs along the valley of the River Lycus, where there were three towns with congregations which had a connection with Paul. These were Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Two of these received Pauline letters, but he had a good relationship with all three. The Colossians are requested to convey his greetings to the believers in Laodicea and also to read the letter he had addressed to that church. In the same context, he refers to the believers in Hierapolis (Col 4:13–16). Paul probably did not found these churches himself, but during his ministry in Ephesus they came into being through the efforts of his fellow workers or through the witness of people from these places who had been converted under his preaching. These three towns were very close to one another, forming a rough triangle, with Hierapolis at the apex, Laodicea at left base ten kilometres away, and Colossae sixteen kilometres east of Laodicea.

222    Laodicea gained notoriety through the way it was referred to in Rv 3:16. While many interesting structures have been excavated at Laodicea, the only fact of direct archaeological relevance to us is the ‘lukewarm’ water mentioned in that verse. Because the town had no permanent water source, aqueducts were used to lead water to it. Parts of those aqueducts are still to be seen along the road south to the modern Denizli. The water was probably drawn from hot springs, as the lime deposit in the conduits testifies. By the time that water reached Laodicea it would have become tepid (cf. ‘lukewarm’ in Rv 3:16); its lime content would have given it a bad taste, and so it had to be spat out.

223    At Laodicea evidence has also been found of a medical school, noted for its eye-salve which was distributed far and wide (Yamauchib). From this C.J. Hemer infers that the statement in 3:18 that the congregation is ‘poor, blind, and naked’ applied, despite its members’ claims that they were good businessmen, good eye specialists who dispensed good eye-salve, and good manufacturers of fine woollen clothes.

224    The sole reference to Hierapolis is in Col 4:13, so that we know nothing more about this church than that it did exist and was in contact with the Pauline mission. As for the excavations carried out there, we might mention that among the graves many have been found bearing Jewish names (Yamauchib). This reveals the presence of Jewish communities in the towns where Paul preached or where the Gospel found entrance, and confirms the fact that in the towns all over Asia Minor there were Jewish communities and no doubt synagogues as well, with which Paul and other early missionaries could link up.

225    The location of the biblical Colossae has been known since the first half of the last century, and the tell of the old city is still clearly visible. In the eighth century, the inhabitants began to leave that site for the safer town of Chonai (modern Honaz), five kilometres to the south. Though on the surface fragments of building material can be seen, to this day there has been little excavation of the tell. As recently as 1975, the Near East Archaeological Society sought permission to dig there, but till recently the Turkish government refused (Yamauchib). In the meantime, valuable archaeological material is being destroyed by human beings and by nature, as can be seen from the fragments ploughed up in the fields. These underline the need for excavations at Colossae, presenting a challenge to future archaeologists.

226    b. Bithynia and Pontus: These two provinces lie along the southern coast of the Black Sea, but Paul did not visit them. They were subsequently combined into one province. Nicaea and Chalcedon, both famous sites in the history of the Church, are situated in Bithynia.

227    c. Galatia: This province lies like a large ‘S’ over the centre of Asia Minor. In the north it borders on Bithynia and Pontus, in the south on Pamphylia. Its name probably derives from the Gauls who migrated from Europe into this region. The southern part of Galatia was, after Cyprus, the first area in which Paul engaged in missionary work. The towns he visited were:

228    (i) Perga: This town in Pamphylia, with its port of Attalia, was situated on the south coast. It was there Paul and his party landed and Mark left them (Ac 13:13).

229    (ii) Antioch in Pisidia: Situated on the Anthius river, on the frontier with Phrygia, this Antioch was about a hundred and sixty kilometres from the coast. It must, of course, be distinguished from Antioch in Syria and the other fourteen or so Antiochs founded by Seleucus I. The presence of many Jews in the town must have drawn Paul to preach there. In Ac 13:16ff we may read his lengthy sermon. The Jews, however, eventually rejected his message.

230    (iii) Iconium: A hundred kilometres east of Pisidian Antioch lies Iconium, on the main route from Ephesus to Syrian Antioch. It is the capital of Lycaonia, a district of Galatia. The region is well-watered. Paul preached there and was persecuted by the townspeople (Ac 14:1–6).

231    (iv) Lystra: This town was some forty kilometres south of Iconium. At first its inhabitants revered Paul as a god, but later stoned him and left him for dead (Ac 14:12, 19). During his second missionary journey Timothy, who may have lived in Lystra, joined Paul there (Ac 16:1f). We have already noted the valuable archaeological work carried on in the vicinity of Lystra (see §96).

232    (v) Derbe: It was situated approximately thirty kilometres south-east of Lystra, and was the last city to be visited by Paul on his first journey. It was situated along the border of the Roman province of Galatia (Ac 14:6).


2.9.4    Important centres during Paul’s labours in Greece

233    The country we call Greece today was divided into two in Paul’s time: Macedonia in the north, and Achaia in the south.

234    a. Neapolis: This was the place where Paul and his companions first set foot on European soil. It was the port for the town of Philippi, fifteen kilometres inland, behind a range of small hills.

235    b. Philippi: From Neapolis the apostle took the famous Via Egnatia (the trunk route between Rome and Asia) to Philippi. A woman named Lydia is mentioned as the first convert there. A slave-girl with a spirit of divination was another convert, as eventually was the gaoler (Ac 16:16–18, 25–34). Nowadays Philippi is just a series of ruins, but interesting remains from the earliest time have been unearthed there.

236    The writer of Acts describes this first town Paul visited in Europe as prōtē(s) meridos (Ac 16:12). If prōtē is to be understood as ‘first’ in a political sense, we wonder why the writer did not know that Thessalonica was the capital of the whole province and nearby Amphipolis the capital of the district. The renowned archaeologist Sir William Ramsay argues that Luke, whom he regards as the writer, was a native of Philippi, and would have known what he was saying. Ramsay’s remark is, however, merely a hypothesis, and does not resolve the issue. The use of the Greek word meris in a geographical sense raises a further problem. Even the textual critic F.J.A. Hort was of the opinion that here the writer had made a mistake (Unger). But Unger points out that excavations in Egypt show that emigrants from Macedonia (where Philippi is situated) used meris in the same geographical sense as it appears in Ac 16:12. This is an instance of archaeology coming forward to show that a seemingly wrong term might well be correct. On the other hand, it still does not explain the possibly wrong designation of Philippi as the ‘first’ in the region. The rendering ‘a leading city in that district of Macedonia’ (REB) or NEB ‘s ‘a city of the first rank’ might be as close as we can come to a solution.

237    Excavations at Philippi have yielded a number of archaeological finds, but most of them are later than the time of Paul. One structure which is partially preserved and which probably predates the apostle, is the archway at the entrance to the city. Most probably this was the ‘city gate’ referred to in Ac 16:13, through which Paul’s party left the city for the river, where they would converse with the people.

238    c. Thessalonica: At that time this was the most important city of Macedonia, with a population of about a hundred thousand. It was situated on the sea, where the coastline swings away southwards. The trunk route, the Via Egnatia, ran through the centre of the city.

239    d. Berea: Some sixty kilometres west of Thessalonica lay Beroea, to which Paul and his co-workers made their way when they had been forced to leave the capital. He had to make his escape again when Jews from Thessalonica incited the local population against him. From there he travelled to Athens.

240    e. Athens: Though Athens had declined from its golden age of political and cultural eminence, it was still one of the most splendid and famous of cities in Paul’s day. It was a free city, enjoying the protection of the Romans. It was dominated by a lofty hill, the Acropolis, adorned with magnificent buildings, with the Parthenon the most beautiful of all. We read in Ac 17:16 that Paul was exasperated over the great number of idols he saw in Athens. For the modern visitor to the city their presence is no longer an offence, but rather they provide pleasing evidence of an ancient culture and a standard of art not easily surpassed. But we can realize how the gorgeous temples on the Acropolis and their images, the modern tourist’s main reason for visiting the city, must have been a stone of offence to Paul with his Jewish background.

241    At the foot of the Acropolis with its flashing white temples was the agora (‘the market place’, Ac 17:17), with its exquisite colonnaded portico and the shops along it. It was here that Paul spoke to the Greeks about the gospel (Ac 17:17f). He was then invited to address the Athenians on the Areopagus (= the hill of Ares, the war-god), a rocky eminence north-west of the Acropolis, a hundred metres higher in elevation than the agora, with steps hewn out of the limestone leading up to a level area which served as the gathering-place for the city’s fathers who composed its council. Though Dionysius, one of the Areopagites, accepted the Christian faith along with a few others (Ac 17:34), the New Testament makes no mention of the founding of a church in this city. The excavations in the Athenian agora are one of the best examples in the world of systematic archaeological work, carried out since 1930 by the American School of Classical Studies (Wright). The whole of this ancient city centre has been excavated and completely restored. This was where Paul argued every day with all whom he met (Ac 17:17). In the earliest period, this council had had supreme authority in matters political and religious. In the age of Pericles it became mainly a court for hearing criminal cases, but by the time of Paul’s visit it had reverted mainly to the discussion of religious and educational issues.

242    Paul’s reference in his address to an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’, creates a problem, seeing that such an inscription has not been found anywhere. In Pergamum there is one referring to ‘unknown gods’ in the plural. Pausanias, who visited Athens between ad 143 and 159 and described it extensively, wrote how he had come across ‘altars of the gods named Unknown’ (Unger). There are similar references to unknown gods, but none of them designates a specific deity who was worshipped in that way. The best solution to this problem is probably to be sought in the fact that Paul (or the writer of Acts) employs rhetoric here to make a particular point in his argument; in that case there would be no need to search for an inscription to bolster this aspect of Paul’s sermon. That archaeology has produced examples of ‘unknown gods’ is interesting in the sense that the writer of Acts, in presenting Paul’s address, is not completely fantasizing. Nor, in the light of the rhetorical techniques of the New Testament writers, is it necessary to look for supporting proofs.

243    f. Corinth: This commercial centre was situated on the isthmus joining the northern and southern parts of Achaia. With a harbour on both sides, the isthmus served as the channel between Asia and Italy. The cosmopolitan character of the city contributed to the low moral standards which became a synonym for Corinth (1 Cor 5:1, 9ff). The city proper lay some three and a half kilometres inland, on a rocky hill. Today the ruins of temples, arched shops, paved streets, beautiful water-courses and swimming baths stand as archaeological evidence of the greatness and beauty of this erstwhile metropolis. Paul worked here for a year and a half, and addressed two (perhaps four—see Vol. 5, §181–5) letters to the congregation. The harbour on the eastern side of the isthmus was Cenchreae. Phoebe was a deaconess in the church there (see Rm 16:1), and it was there also that Paul shaved his head because of the vow he had taken (Ac 18:18). Excavations at Corinth have been conducted for more than a hundred years. The agora in the city-centre has yielded much information of interest. Several shops there have been preserved, from which we gain an impression of the line of business Paul engaged in to support himself (Ac 18:2f). An inscription has been found reading ‘Synagogue of the Hebrews; though it is to be dated later than Paul’s time, it is evidence that a synagogue stood there in which Paul may have preached (Ac 18:4). The open part of the agora, where no buildings stood, was on two levels. At one point the upper level lay over the lower, to form an elevated platform or rostrum. It was probably on that platform that Paul stood before Gallio when the Jews brought him before the tribunal (Ac 18:12–17). At Delphi, on the other side of the Gulf of Corinth, an inscription was discovered bearing Gallio’s name; this has assisted greatly in dating Paul’s sojourn in Corinth (see Vol. 5, §88–91). Yet a third inscription deserves mention: this was unearthed on the north-western side of the city of Corinth, near the theatres, and mentions that a certain Erastus was responsible for the laying of the paving stones. He was probably the official responsible for public works, and may have been the same Erastus whom Paul calls ‘the city treasurer’ (Rm 16:23), who was one of his helpers (Ac 19:22). There is, however, no evidence other than the correspondence of names.


2.9.5    Islands in the Mediterranean Sea

244    Three islands in the Mediterranean Sea are connected with Paul’s activities. First, there is Cyprus, lying in the eastern extremity, in the corner formed by Syria and Asia Minor. It is about two hundred and twenty kilometres in length. Through the centuries it was conquered by a great variety of peoples. Paul visited this island during his first missionary journey, preaching in Salamis on the eastern and in Paphos on the western side, where he made a great impression on the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus (Ac 13:4–12). Near Paphos an inscription was found mentioning the proconsul by name. Paul sailed past under the lee of Cyprus on his voyage to Rome (Ac 27:4). South of the Aegean Sea lies Crete, longer than Cyprus, but not as wide. Three of its ports are listed in the narrative of Paul’s journey to Rome: Salmone on the extreme east of the island, Fair Havens near the city of Lasea in the centre, and Phoenix on the western side (Ac 27:7–12). In Tt 1:5 there is an allusion to Paul having visited Crete at a later date, and leaving Titus there to continue the work. The church in the present capital of the island is named in honour of Titus.

245    The third island is Melita or Malta, situated some hundred and fifty kilometres south of Sicily. This was where Paul and his fellow voyagers came safely to land after the dreadful storm at sea (Ac 28:1).


2.9.6    Rome

246    Luke concludes his description of Paul’s ministry by
bringing the apostle to Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Paul may well have subsequently been set free, but Luke is content to end his narrative with Paul’s arrival in this all-important city on the banks of the Tiber, with its cosmopolitan population, its splendid palaces, temples, theatres and sports stadiums, none of which we can adequately describe in a chapter like this. For Luke, the establishing of the Gospel in the heart of the Roman Empire was probably the climax of its break-through and expansion, which may be the reason why he brings his story (Acts) to a close in Rome.

247    Also known as the eternal city, Rome is unbelievably rich in archaeological treasures. Through the centuries, many of these have been destroyed by fire or earthquakes or during raids on the city. But the greatest damage has been due to the demolition and clearance of ancient structures for use elsewhere as building material. For all that, Rome’s archaeological wealth surpasses anything found in the rest of the West. Here we shall discuss only a few of the most significant treasures.

248    One of the most important monuments in Rome is surely the Colosseum, built on the site of an artificial lake Nero had previously laid out in the palace gardens. Begun by Vespasian, it was completed by the emperor Titus in ad 80. This gigantic stadium could accommodate fifty thousand people, who came to watch the gladiators’ battles or the fights between human beings and animals. The stadium got its name from the enormous bronze statue (the colossus) outside its walls—representing the sun, but with the head of Nero. Here the Christians were compelled to swear an oath of loyalty to the state and its pagan institutions or forfeit their lives for their faith.

249    Below the Colosseum was a valley ringed by the seven hills of Rome. In that valley was the Forum Romanum, the city’s religious, political, and business centre. It was a sacred area in which many monuments were erected in the course of time. Many shops were located here, surrounded by temples, two of the foremost being the Temples of Vesta and of Saturn. At the head of the valley one came to the Curia (the senate house) and the Comitia, the assembly of the Roman people, where they gathered to make laws. This gave significance to the letters SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus—the Senate and People of Rome), inscribed on all their standards and displayed by the Roman legions wherever they went. During this period many temples, basilicas, and statues were erected in the Forum Romanum. During his reign the emperor Augustus had an altar and temple built to honour Julius Caesar, who was then deified. This was the first instance of deification of a human being by the Romans, but from then on it would automatically occur on the death of a Roman emperor. The end of the Forum Romanum was marked by the Triumphal Arch of Titus (erected in ad 80), which has an interesting depiction of a Jewish seven-branched candelabrum, a reminder of his destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70.

250    Nearer to the river Tiber there is the beautiful Pantheon (= ‘all the gods’), an overpowering temple in honour of the Olympian deities whom the Romans called Mars and Venus. It was built in 27 bc by Agrippa, son-in-law and counsellor of the emperor Augustus. It is one of the most impressive architectural buildings in Rome, with its semicircular cupola serving as a model for many subsequent Christian edifices.

251    The great road along which Paul and other Christians reached the eternal city is still known today as the Via Appia, connecting Rome with the south, and following an earlier route. It was built in 312 bc by a certain Appius Claudius Caecus, after whom it was named. As it approached the city, it was fringed by the sumptuous villas of the wealthy and, as was the custom at that time, by their tombs. A visitor to Rome today can still share the memorable experience of treading the uneven stones of the same road along which Paul and possibly Peter came to the city nearly two thousand years ago.

252    In the early Christian period there were many underground burial places known as catacombs lining this road. Prior to ad 200 these were used by non-Christians, and it was only after that date that we come across Christian symbols there. The present Church of Saint Sebastian in the catacombs was visited by early Christian pilgrims who associated it with Peter and Paul, but there is no evidence that that was historically correct. The Christians of Rome expanded the original burial places into an enormous network of catacombs, stretching for about a hundred kilometres, with five hundred thousand people buried there. In addition to the Christian catacombs, there are also Jewish catacombs and those of other religious groups.


2.9.7    Places mentioned in the book of Revelation

253    a. Pergamum: This is the northernmost of the seven towns to whose churches the letters in the book of Revelation were addressed. It affords a view down the valley of the river Caicus. Asclepios, the god of healing, was venerated here; there were also temples to Zeus and Athene. This town gave its name to the term ‘parchment’, the material made of animal skins which had been treated and prepared for writing. The famous library of Pergamum was built up as competitor of the library in Alexandria in Egypt.

254    b. Other towns in Asia which should be mentioned briefly are: Smyrna, the prosperous port; Thyatira to the north-east at a strategic crossroads; Sardis in the Hermus valley, the former capital of the kingdom of Lydia; and Philadelphia, higher up the same river. All of these towns are familiar to us from the seven letters in Rv 2–3. (For Ephesus and Laodicea see §§217–20 and 222–3 respectively.)

255    c.
Patmos: This volcanic island in the Aegean Sea lies some fifty kilometres from the coast of Asia Minor, south-west of Ephesus. It is almost opposite Miletus, where Paul addressed the elders of Ephesus on his last journey to Jerusalem (Ac 20:17ff). According to Rv 1:9, it was on Patmos that John received his revelation.


2.10    Other important archaeological discoveries: written records


2.10.1    Introductory Remarks

256    We turn now to a specific division of archaeology which is of particular value, since here we have to do with written records which enable us to make direct comparisons with the New Testament, itself a written record. Our concern is with literary sources from the New Testament era which afford insight into the thinking of the people of the time in which Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church members lived. We shall also pay brief attention to some archaeological objects on the borderline between cultural items and written sources—inscriptions on stones, coins, potsherds, and gravestones. We begin with what in archaeological terms has been one of the most sensational discoveries this century.


2.10.2    The Qumran discoveries

257    The Qumran community is discussed elsewhere in this volume (see §§970–1003,1352–69). Here we concentrate on the archaeological aspects of the documents found in the caves at Khirbet Qumran and elsewhere near the Dead Sea. Since their discovery in 1947, thousands of books and articles have appeared about them; in fact this literature has grown to such proportions that the study of the Dead Sea scrolls has become a subject on its own. In the limited space available to us we shall simply touch on the most important matters.

258    When the first discoveries were made in 1947, there was great joy among archaeologists, theologians, and other students of the Bible. The first reason for it was that with these finds we suddenly possessed manuscripts which were not translations but were in the original languages of the Old Testament and of Jesus, namely Hebrew and Aramaic. Secondly, these documents from the Palestine of Jesus’ time could provide insight into the world in which He Himself lived and worked. Furthermore, it was clear that by far the majority of these documents were actually pre-Christian, so that we could accept that Jesus and the early Church may have been acquainted with the thoughts expressed here. This new source of comparative material speedily resulted in the overthrow of many cherished hypotheses.

259    At first publications about these documents were slow to appear, but they soon became a flood which could not be stemmed. It took a long time to prepare these centuries-old documents for reading and study—we still await the definitive publication of some of them!—but then their study went ahead and publications were issued. Writers like Geza Vermes, F.M. Cross, J.T. Milik, J.A. Sanders, H. Braun, K.G. Kuhn, J.A. Fitzmyer, and Roland de Vaux, to name but a few, published fine introductions to the scrolls and summaries of them. (For the various documents see §1352–69.)

260    The discovery of the scrolls did more than overjoy the scholars; it also gave rise to flights of fancy on the part of writers and journalists who sometimes made deductions and propounded theories which were far-fetched and not scientifically based. It was Andre Dupont-Sommer who set the ball rolling with his statement that Qumran was actually the spiritual home of Christianity. Though he spelt out his theory carefully, his enthusiastic disciples popularized it, resulting in all manner of outlandish conclusions. Thus Edmund Wilson, for instance, argues that the monastery at Qumran rather than Bethlehem or Nazareth is the origin of Christianity. John M. Allegro, in his turn, maintains that the leader of the Qumran community, known as ‘the Teacher of Righteousness’, was crucified. It is true that in that period thousands of people were crucified, but that kind of sensational reporting enraptured people who knew no better with all sorts of deductions which should never have been made. Most scholars, however, rejected this popular ‘scientific approach’ and proceeded with the painstaking investigation of the scrolls, so that the true picture steadily began to emerge in greater detail. (For some of the implications of the Qumran scrolls for the New Testament see §992–1002.)

261    For all the differences between Qumran and the New Testament, this community and its literary heritage remain one of the most exciting and valuable discoveries of our time. These documents will remain a source for research for many a year. We will not be able to calculate or evaluate their full contribution to biblical scholarship and their influence upon it for a long time to come.


2.10.3    The Nag-Hammadi documents

262    In 1945, shortly before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, there was another very important find in Egypt. Near a village called Nag-Hammadi, fifty kilometres north of Luxor, peasants unearthed a whole library of papyrus documents, written in Coptic (in the Sahidic dialect). They were bound into leather covers and stored in a large urn, with the result that they have been preserved in the best possible condition. Coptic experts have established that they are to be dated in the third and fourth centuries, and are probably translations of original Greek manuscripts.

263    It quickly became clear that here we had to do with gnostic writings, the relics of a community where that line of thought was dominant. Some of the documents are of a mystical nature, containing all kinds of so-called revelations supposedly given to an Old Testament figure (Seth, a son of Adam), while others are of a more Christian nature. We mention a few in Van Unnik’s list:


Gospel of Thomas

Gospel of Philip

Apocryphon of John

Apocryphon of James

Apocalypse of Peter


264    As far as the New Testament is concerned, the so-called Gospel of Thomas is the most interesting, and its publication has created quite a flutter in New Testament dove-cotes. We probably ought not to regard it as a gospel, seeing that it consists mainly of sayings (logia) of Jesus, with practically no narrative material. In all likelihood it dates from the third century, so it could not have been written by Thomas the apostle. There is close similarity between the Gospel of Thomas and the Oxyrhynchus papyri discovered in Egypt in 1897 and 1903 by Grenfell and Hunt (Harrison). Those papyri contain fragments of sixteen sayings of Jesus, all of which are found in one form or another in the Gospel of Thomas. This gives us some idea of information about Jesus and the dissemination of the gospels which had reached Egypt at a very early stage. Scholars soon realized that this Gospel of Thomas is not the same as the gospel of a certain Thomas already published in various translations, and which deals with the boyhood of Jesus up to his twelfth year; nowadays it is referred to as The Gospel of Thomas concerning Jesus’ Boyhood. The Gospel of Thomas found at Nag-Hammadi contains sayings of a definite gnostic nature. On the other hand, there are parallels with the canonical gospels to the extent that about half of it is similar to them. This provides us with a golden opportunity to compare the canonical gospels with a very early tradition, which developed parallel, yet independent of them. Since it is no more than a collection of sayings, we may have here a closely parallel development to what is contained in the hypothetical Q-source. In that case it is possible that the Gospel of Thomas preserves genuine words of Jesus which are not found in the canonical gospels. Everything considered, it offers the scholar a good source of comparison with the recognized gospels.

265    Though there are other interesting documents discovered at Nag-Hammadi, we will rest content with this brief description of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Quite a few translations of it have already appeared. In this connection, a useful book to consult is the one by Cartlidge and Dungan (1980), which includes translations of some of the other writings from Nag-Hammadi.


2.10.4    The papyri

266    In the last century or so, manuscripts written on papyrus have enormously extended the area of New Testament research. They have been found mainly in Egypt, where the dry climate and the sand provide the best conditions for the preservation of these documents through the centuries. The oldest manuscripts of the New Testament were written on papyrus, so, when we find documents written on this material, we know that we have very old writings which may date from the same period as the New Testament itself. A century or two later, papyrus was no longer used for documents of quality.

267    The famous Adolf Deissmann was one of the first to appreciate the significance of the papyri discovered in Egypt, especially as far as the New Testament was concerned. He realized that the type of Greek in them was the same as the ordinary (koinē) Greek used in the New Testament. We need to remind ourselves that most of the papyri were not literary texts, but writings connected with daily life—private letters, accounts, contracts, shopping lists, magical formulas, and so on. Here we have the relics of the daily life of households, businesses, school activities, administration, and every other possible kind of enterprise.

268    Papyrology, as the science of the study of papyri is called, has made a great contribution to a better understanding of the New Testament. C.K. Barrett (23), however, gives us a sober reminder when he writes: ‘The language of the New Testament is not identical with that of the papyri. Simple words with a commercial or legal background, such as arrabōn (earnest) and bebaioun (guarantee), are admirably illuminated by the commercial and legal papyri, but the central words of the New Testament, such as agapē (love) and dikaiosunē (righteousness), cannot be adequately explained on this basis’.

269    The value of the papyri must, then, be reckoned particularly in terms of how they can be employed in testing the vocabulary of the New Testament against the Greek used at that time. Both the possibilities and the limitations are related to the nature and content of the New Testament’s message. Some terms and usages lend themselves better to comparison than others.

270    Technically, the few manuscripts containing the text of the New Testament written on papyrus also belong to this category of archaeological contributions. It is their age—mostly from the third century onwards—which makes them especially valuable, but because this material is so flimsy, their content is relatively small. Such well-known examples as the Rylands, the Chester Beatty and the Bodmer papyri contain only fragments or parts of manuscripts, but through their great age they deserve the fame they have acquired.


2.10.5    Complete literary texts

271    To conclude, we must refer to the archaeological discoveries which have undoubtedly contributed most to New Testament science—the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament itself. It is a scholarly discipline in itself to deal with the history of the oldest texts of the New Testament and to analyse and reconstruct its text. We are fortunate in having complete manuscripts of the New Testament from the fourth and fifth centuries onwards and smaller units or parts of it of even an earlier date. Textual criticism and textual history use these old manuscripts to compile the best text possible of the Greek New Testament. The discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and many other codices is a story in itself into which we cannot enter here. Suffice it to say that, through the discovery of many ancient manuscripts, over the last century or so we have made gigantic advances towards establishing the original text as faithfully as possible. Here the recovery of the papyrus fragments and of the majuscule manuscripts has contributed enormously. Now, as far as the New Testament as a whole is concerned, thanks to the great codices we have mentioned, we can go back at least to the fourth century, and, in the case of smaller sections, the papyri sometimes take us back even to the second century.

272    Among other literary texts which contribute greatly to our understanding of the New Testament are the works of people contemporary with its authors: Flavius Josephus, for instance, the Jewish historian, and Philo, the Jewish philosopher and apologist, as well as the writings of other philosophers and religious leaders, together with the apocryphal writings. All these provide much comparative material, affording us greater insight into the philosophical, religious, social, military and economic life of that era.


2.10.6    Inscriptions

273    Another source of information for the archaeologists are the many inscriptions on stone or metal which add their contribution to our understanding of the New Testament. Though most of these are of non-Christian origin, they often supply information important to our purpose. They deepen our insight into the military, political, social and religious history of the ancient world. Some of them are very dilapidated, but what remains can certainly be regarded as ‘autographa’ (Caiger), since here we have the original ‘writing’ and not a copy or a translation of the original. There is no possibility of dealing adequately with this source; we shall have to be content with the mention of one or two examples.

274    We have already mentioned the very valuable Gallio inscription found at Delphi in Achaia (Greece) earlier this century (see §§96,243). The second example we would cite is the stone tablet attached to the wall between the Court of the Gentiles
and the inner court of the temple in Jerusalem (see §183). A third inscription which caused much excitement was the Lapis Tiburtinus with its reference to a governor of Syria. His name is not mentioned, but there are scholars who maintain that he was the Quirinius of whom we read in Lk 2:2 in connection with Jesus’ birth. That, however, is speculation, and in view of the other problems surrounding the birth of Jesus it is unlikely that this inscription can be used as archaeological evidence for the dating of Jesus and the historicity of Luke’s narrative (see also §§376–82,549,799).

275    In addition to the inscriptions on the types of stone we have mentioned, we find them on many other objects. Those on coins from the New Testament period are very important in dating the environment or the buildings in which they were found and for gleaning much other information. The New Testament has many references to different kinds of coins, and whenever these are found, the discovery serves to broaden and illuminate the information we find in the New Testament.

276    Inscriptions are also found on other objects. Potsherds, for example, also called ostraca, sometimes carried writing if the usual materials were unobtainable or cost too much.

277    The graves of members of the Early Church often provide inscriptions which shed light on contemporary customs. What are called the catacombs, particularly those in Rome, are famous examples of this. Seeing that thousands of people were buried there, many relics have been preserved, which can provide insight into early Christian life-styles. Ornamentation, paintings, verses of texts, symbols (such as the fish) and other remains offer glimpses into the life of those times. Also on sarcophagi and ossuaries (receptacles for the bones of the dead) we find inscriptions and decorations which enrich our knowledge of the period.


2.11    Word List

278    Since some maps contain geographical and archaeological terminology in Hebrew, we append a short word list to explain the most important terms.








khirbet (Arab.)



plain, valley






eroded valley














hill, mountain


city, town

kƒphar (constr.)

hamlet of




sea, lake

wâdı̂ (Arab.)

dry water course




(The t is added to female nouns ending in -a to denote the constructus form, in which case the preceding becomes short.)


BIBLIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE (Geography and topography)


Y. Aharoni & M. Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible atlas, London 31970

Anon., Standard Bible atlas, Cincinnati 1959 (a small atlas)

M. Avi-Yonah, Historical Geography of Palestine, CRINT I/1, 78–116

D. Baly, Geographical companion to the Bible, London 1963 (= Balya)

___, The Geography of the Bible, London 1957 (= Balyb)

J.J. Bimson (ed.), Baker encyclopedia of Bible places, towns and cities, countries and states, archaeology and topography, Grand Rapids 1995

E.M. Blaiklock (ed.), The Zondervan pictorial Bible atlas, Grand Rapids 1969

J.G. Brown, The lands of the Bible, Edinburgh 1967

J. Elster et al., Atlas of Israel, Amsterdam 1970

I.H. Eybers, A geography of biblical Israel and its surroundings, Pretoria 1978

F.C. Fensham, & J.P. Oberholzer, Bybelse aardrykskunde, oudheidkunde en opgrawings, Pretoria 1972

M.T. Gilbertson, Where it happened in Bible times, Minneapolis 1963

L.H. Grollenberg, Atlas of the Bible, London 1956

J.T. Kilgallen, A New Testament guide to the Holy Land, Chicago 1987

J.H. Kitchen, Holy fields, London 1955

C.F. Pfeiffer & H.F. Vos, The Wycliffe historical geography of Bible Lands, Chicago 1967

J.B. Pritchard (ed.), The Times atlas of the Bible, London repr1994

G.A. Smith, The historical geography of the Holy Land, London 1968

A. van Deursen, Palestina, Het land van de Bijbel, Baarn 1945

G.E. Wright & F.W. Filson (ed.), The Westminster historical atlas to the Bible, Philadelphia 1956


BIBLIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE (chiefly archeological)


W.F. Allbright, The archaeology of Palestine, Harmondsworth 1949

M. Avi-Yonah (ed.), Encyclopaedia of archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, London 1975

D. Bahat, The historical atlas of Jerusalem. A brief illustrated survey, New York 1973

C.K. Barrett, The New Testament background. Selected documents, London 1956

R.A. Batey, Jesus and the forgotten city, Grand Rapids 1991

J.C. Breytenbach, Zeus und der lebendige Gott. Anmerkungen zu Apostelgeschichte 14.11–17,
31(1993), 296–409

R.E. Brown, New Testament essays, London 1966

M. Burrows, What mean these stones? New York 1957

S.L. Caiger, Archaeology and the New Testament, London 1948

D.R. Cartlidge & D.L. Dungan, Documents for the study of the gospels, Cleveland 1980

G. Cornfeld, Archaeology of the Bible: Book by book, London 1976

S. Davies, Thomas:
The Fourth Synoptic Gospel, BA 46(1983), 6–17

R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea scrolls, London 1973 (= de Vauxa)

___, On right and wrong uses of archaeology, in: J.A. Sanders (ed.), Near Eastern archaeology in the twentieth century, New York 1970, 64–80 (= de Vauxb)

W.G. Dever, Retrospects and prospects in biblical and Syro-Palestinian archaeology, BA 45(1982), 103–7 (= Devera)

___, Archaeology, Syro-Palestinian and biblical, AncBD I, 354–67 (= Deverb)

I.J. du Plessis, Nasaret of Egipte: Wie is reg? Pretoria 1985

R.H. Eisenman & M. Wise, The Dead Sea scrolls uncovered. The first complete translation and interpretation of 50 key documents withheld for over 35 years, Shaftesbury et al. 1992

J. Finegan, The archaeology of the New Testament, Princeton 1969

C. Foss, Ephesus after antiquity: A late antique, Byzantine and Turkish city, London 1979

D.N. Freedman & J.C. Greenfield (ed.), New directions in biblical archaeology, New York 1971

V. Fritz, An introduction to biblical archaeology, Sheffield 1994

M.-C. Halpern-Zylberstein, The archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine, CHJ II, 1–34

R.K. Harrison, Archaeology of the New Testament, London 1964

M. Har-El, This is Jerusalem, Jerusalem 1977

A.E. Harvey, Melito and Jerusalem, JTS 16(1966), 401–4

C.J. Hemer, Unto the angels of the churches, Buried History 11(1975), 4–190

K.M. Kenyon, The Bible and recent archaeology, rev. by P.R.S. Moorey, Atlanta 1987

M.A. Knibb, Keeping up with recent studies: III. The Dead Sea scrolls: Reflections on some recent publications, ET 90(1979), 294–300

H.D. Lance, American biblical archaeology in perspective, BA 45(1982), 97–101

B. Malina, The New Testament world: Insights from cultural anthropology, Louisville 1993

W.A. Meeks, First Urban Christians (§82)

E.J. Meyers & A.T. Kraabel, Archaeology, iconography and non-literary written remains, EJMI, 175–210

E. J. Meyers, Second temple studies in the light of recent archaeology I-II, CRBS 2(1994), 25–42; 3(1995), 129–52

H.W. Montefiore, Josephus and the New Testament, NT 4(1939), 137–60

A. Negec (ed.), The archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land, New York 31990

J. Rehork, Archäologie und biblisches Leben, Bergisch Gladbach 1972

J.A. Sanders, Palestine manuscripts 1949–1972, JJS 24(1977), 74–83

E. Stauffer, Jesus and the wilderness community at Qumran, Philadelphia 1964

M.E. Stone, Why study the pseudepigrapha? BA 46(1982), 235–43

J.F. Strange, Archaeology and the religion of Judaism in Palestine, ANRW II/19.1, 646–85

___, Sepphoris, AncBD V, 1090–3

J.A. Thompson, The Bible and archaeology, Grand Rapids 1982

L.E. Toombs, The development of Palestinian archaeology as a discipline, BA 45(1982), 89–107

J.N. Tubb, Archaeology and the Bible, London 1990

V. Tzaferis, New archaeological evidence on ancient Capernaum, BA 46(1983), 198–204

M.F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament, Grand Rapids 1962

W.C. van Unnik, Openbaringen uit Egyptisch zand. (De vondsten bij Nag-Hammadi), Den Haag 1958

G. Vermes, The Dead Sea scrolls in English, Harmondsworth 1960

___, The impact of the Dead Sea scrolls on the study of the New Testament, JJS 27(1976), 107–16

G.E. Wright, Biblical archaeology, Philadelphia 1962

E. Yamauchi, Archaeology and the Bible, OCB, 46–54 (= Yamauchia)

___, The archaeology of New Testament cities in western Asia Minor, London 1980 (= Yamauchib)

___, The proofs, problems, and promises of biblical archaeology, ERT 9(1985), 117–30 (= Yamauchic)

___, The stones and the Scriptures, London 1972 (= Yamauchid)


Section B (chapters 3–8)

The Graeco-Roman milieu of the New Testament



Orientational remarks and primary sources for the study of the Graeco-Roman world

    J.L. de Villiers


3.1    Introduction

281    The events which occurred in the period of the New Testament’s coming into being, and which are partially reflected in it, represent one of the most interesting phases in world history. It was a period strongly influenced by Hellenism (see §437–83). Strictly speaking, we ought to restrict the Hellenistic era to the years between the rise of Alexander the Great (356–323 bc) and the Roman conquest under Augustus of the Ptolemies in Egypt, the last Hellenistic kingdom, in 31 bc. Hellenism’s cultural influence, however, persisted for much longer, since the Romans, who were deeply impressed by Greek culture, adopted and promoted it to a large extent. In fact, through their conquests, they turned it into a world culture. This process would continue until the reign of the emperor Hadrian (ad 117–138), who was himself inspired by the Greeks and did his best to maintain this culture. In this way, the particular shape of Graeco-Roman civilization was established, which along with Christianity became the foundation for western civilization.

282    For our knowledge of this period we are especially dependent upon classical sources, though their study is impeded by the fact that the works of practically all the Greek historians of that period have been lost. The only one whose work has survived in more than mere fragments is Polybius (c. 203–120 bc). Fortunately, we have the writings of other authors and philosophers to fill in some of the gaps in this important era, as well as the papyri and other discoveries. We discuss briefly the most significant of our sources.


3.2    The Graeco-Roman historians


3.2.1    Greek historiographers

283    Of the authors who wrote in Greek we may mention the following, albeit their works are not all of the same worth.


a.    Polybius of Megalopolis in Arcadia (c. 203–120 bc)

284    He was a Greek who, after the Roman victory over the Greeks in 168 bc, was taken to Rome the next year with a thousand other prisoners of war, and spent seventeen years there and in other parts of Italy. In Rome he enjoyed the respect and friendship of the noted Scipio Aemilianus, becoming his mentor. He was so impressed by the grandeur of Rome and the rise of Roman power that he compiled a history of it in forty books spanning the period 220 to 146 bc. Only the first five books have survived, as well as fragments collected by Byzantine scholars.

285    On his own evidence, Polybius strove for the truth, and he is regarded as one of the few ancient historiographers who dealt with their material fairly scientifically. In the opinion of many he was bettered only by Thucydides.


b.    Diodorus Siculus (died c. 21 bc)

286    He was born in Sicily, hence his name Diodorus Siculus. A contemporary of Julius Caesar and Octavian, he wrote a comprehensive history of the world, the Bibliotheca. It consisted of forty books, covering eleven centuries from the earliest times to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 54 bc. Only books XVIII-XX survived in complete form, with mere fragments of the rest still extant. This work provides reasonably good information about the first successors of Alexander in the years 323 to 302 bc. Diodorus was, however, nothing more than a compiler who violated his sources, sometimes creating confusion by combining them (Cary).


c.    Strabo of Amasia in Pontus (c. 64/63–21 bc)

287    Born in Pontus of a prominent family, on his own evidence he visited many countries. He was a noted historian and geographer. His historical works or sketches, as he called them, began where Polybius had stopped. They ran to forty-seven books, all of which have been lost, though fragments of them are known to us through Josephus’s Antiquitates. His Geography of seventeen books, written near the end of his life, is the only one of his works to survive. Its information is not of the same value throughout, since he selected his sources uncritically at times. Despite this, it contains a wealth of information.


d.    Plutarch (c. ad 50–120)

288    Born around the year 50 in Boeotia, Plutarch lived to the age of seventy. He was a philosopher and biographer, enjoying high regard during the reigns of the emperors Trajan (ad 98–117) and Hadrian (117–138), as may be seen from his appointment as procurator of Greece. For the last thirty years of his life he also served as priest of the Pythian Apollo at Delphi. He was a prolific writer, but his most important work was his Vitae (Lives), which contained parallel biographies of leading Greeks and Romans, fifty of which have come down to us. Twelve of these Lives offer material for Hellenistic history, including the careers of Demosthenes and Eumenes of Cardia. His biographies are also a valuable addition to the work of Diodorus as far as knowledge of the end of the fourth century bc is concerned. For the beginning and middle of the third century they are our best source of information.

289    The Vitae represent a high level of research, which must have occupied him for a long time, and are also of great literary value. Famous authors, among them Shakespeare and Dryden, have made use of them.


e.    Appian (second century ad)

290    At the end of the preface to his Roman history, Appian describes himself as Appian of Alexandria, who had held the highest office in his native city and had appeared as an advocate before the emperors in Rome, after which they so regarded him that they made him their procurator. References in his work show that he lived during the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius (ad 138–161). His history of Rome was written in the usual koinē Greek on ethnographic lines by recounting the history of the various countries prior to their conquest by Rome. Of its twenty-four books only VI-XI and XI-XVII are complete; of the others only fragments remain. He was an honest writer, an admirer of Roman imperialism. While he was chiefly interested in the wars Rome waged, and though his information relating to Roman institutions and circumstances is not always reliable, his work still contains much important material, particularly in the first book on the civil wars.


f.    Dio Cassius (c. ad 164/163–235)

291    Born in Bithynia around 164 or 163, Dio Cassius spent the greater part of his life in Rome, devoting himself to political life. He was praetor in 194 and consul in about 209. In 229 he served as consul for the second time, after which he retired from public life. The preparatory work and the actual writing of his history took twenty-two years. It recounts the whole of Roman history from the arrival of Aeneas in Latium up to ad 229, and consisted of eighty books; only eighteen of them have survived complete.


3.2.2    Roman historiographers and related sources


a.    Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 bc)

292    He was born on 3 January 106, and died on 7 December 43, a victim of the proscriptions of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. Together with his brother he received an exceptional education in philosophy and rhetoric in Rome and later in Greece. Then he entered Roman public life as an advocate. His speeches and letters are an important source of information about conditions in his lifetime. His letters, addressed to ninety-nine people, are especially valuable in this respect, a fact recognized by Cornelius Nepos (c. 99–24 bc), writer and historian, in his Vita Attici XVI:3.


b.    Livy (c. 64 bc—c. ad 17)

293    Titus Livius, the Roman historian in the days of the emperor Augustus, whose protection he also enjoyed, was born at Patavium (Padua), where he died around ad 17. His great history of Rome, Ab urbe condita (From the founding of the city), was brought up to the death of Drusus in 9 bc. It consisted of a hundred and forty-two books, of which only thirty-five survived, along with a number of fragments, excerpts, and two epitomēs or summaries. The way he controlled his subject, his facility of expression, his profound earnestness, and his knowledge of people combined to make his history live, ensuring its immediate success. His work has been used by other historians and poets.


c.    Tacitus (c. ad 56–120)

294    He was born in ad 56 or 57, and was praetor in 88 and consul in 97. While the date of his death is not known, he seems to have lived into the reign of Hadrian (117–138). Of his two chief historical works the first is the Annales, covering the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—i.e. the period ad 14–68—in eighteen (some say sixteen) books. They are regarded as the most important source for that era of Roman history as well as for the history of Syria. Unfortunately, large sections are missing: books VII-X have been lost in their entirety, and the work ends abruptly in the year 66, before the death of Nero. Of his other important work, the Historiae, dealing with the reigns of Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian in twelve books—i.e. the period ad 69–96—a mere four books and twenty-six chapters of the fifth have survived, though they provide a detailed survey of the civil wars. Because Tacitus did not really approve of the imperial form of government, his historiography is in a certain sense biassed and he exaggerates the mistakes and deficiencies of the emperors. On the other hand, his general accuracy is indisputable, even by modern standards.


d.    Suetonius (c. ad 69–140)

295    There is uncertainty about the dates of his birth and death. What is known is that he was a young man during the reign of Domitian (ad 81–96), that he held the rank of tribune in the reign of Trajan, and that he occupied a secretarial position at the court of Hadrian. The last has been confirmed by a papyrus fragment discovered in 1952 at Bône in Algeria. Of his works the De vita xii caesarum (Concerning the lives of the twelve emperors), which appeared in the year 120, is the only one of any significance for us. While he was less prejudiced towards the emperors than Tacitus, his tales of their scandalous behaviour may have derived from the aversion he felt for all autocracy.


e.    Pompeius Trogus

296    During the reign of Augustus, Trogus produced a world history from Ninus to his own time in forty-four books, with particular reference to the history of Macedon and the kingdoms of Alexander’s successors, the Diadoge. It was copious in content, accurate, and based on good sources. The work itself has been lost; all that remain are a list of contents, an epitome or summary by Justin (probably from the second or third Christian century), and a number of quotations by later writers. But even Justin’s summary is so full of material that it is an important source for the history of the Seleucids.


f.    Res gestae Divini Augusti

297    When he died, Augustus left a report of the most significant events of his reign, with instructions that it be engraved on bronze tablets and affixed to two pillars in front of his mausoleum. Suetonius calls it rerum a se gestarum (things done by him). Unfortunately, the bronze tablets themselves have been lost, but most of what they contained has been recovered in an inscription in Greek and Latin at Ancyra (modern Ankara), hence its designation as the Monumentum Ancyranum. Fragments of another copy of the text in Greek have come to light in a temple in Apollonia in Pisidia, while a Latin version has been found in Antioch in Pisidia. This detailed chronicle is admittedly strongly propagandist, yet, along with the works of Dio Cassius and Suetonius, it represents our most important source for the history of the reign of Augustus.


3.3    Other writers and philosophers

298    The information contained in the historical sources is supplemented by the works of other writers and philosophers; these provide insight into life in general and the thinking of that important period. Here the Roman poet Virgil springs to mind; in his Aeneid he depicts the religious and philosophical background to the achievements of Augustus and the splendour of Rome, while in his Eclogues and Georgics he describes the Roman’s love for his country and its soil. In their works Horace, Ovid, and the satirists Martial and Juvenal provide a picture of the more sophisticated urban life, while Lucian in his Metamorphoses and Petronius in his Satyricon let us see all the facets of Roman social life, not least its decay through the pursuit of wealth and low morality. The writings of Seneca, on the other hand, especially his letters, portray practical Roman philosophy.

299    It was the philosophy of the Epicureans and the Stoics in particular which held sway at that time, when people had lost their confidence in traditional religion and resorted to philosophy to provide them with direction and happiness. Unfortunately, none of the works of the early Stoics has been preserved intact, and our main sources for their views are Cicero and the seventh book of Diogenes Laertius.


3.4    Archaeological discoveries


3.4.1    Archaeological discoveries in general

300    All excavations of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods (i.e. from the time of Pompey) help us to a better understanding of the wider world of the New Testament. The digs in Palestine itself, for instance, yield more information about the Hellenizing process under the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Outside Palestine, the excavations provide useful material for the background to Acts and the Pauline letters. The amphitheatre at Ephesus, for example, and the large number of Artemis statuettes produced in that city—one has been found as far afield as Caesarea—allow us deeper insight into Paul’s duel with those engaged in the service of Artemis (Ac 19:23–40). In Corinth, the main street in the Roman period has been uncovered, and an inscription found which mentions ‘the synagogue of the Hebrews’ (cf. Ac 18:1,4). We have an enormous amount of archaeological material at our disposal, and more and more is being discovered.


3.4.2    Papyri

301    The papyri which have been recovered in Egypt since the beginning of this century provide valuable information about the religious and social life of that country, but also about life in general in the Roman world of that time, of which Egypt offers a good example. These papyri are chiefly non-literary in character, though some literary texts—among them a comedy by Menander and a fragment of a work of Aristotle—have been found and the corpus of Greek literature has profited thereby.

302    Usually the papyri are divided into two classes: private and public or more official documents. The private papyri include the personal archives and papers of Zenon, the personal agent of Apollonius in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and of Menches, a town scribe (c. 111/110 bc), all of which shed light on Egyptian life and economy in the time of the Ptolemies. Under this heading there are also documents of everyday life: personal letters, accounts, receipts, contracts, agreements, and so on. The oldest dated document in this category is a marriage contract of 311 bc which came from Aswan. Official documents include regulations, decrees, official correspondence, and petitions.


3.4.3    Inscriptions

303    Inscriptions on stone and metal in Greek, Latin and Semitic languages also play a large part in increasing our knowledge of the ancient world. In addition to the non-Christian inscriptions which relate in various ways to the New Testament, such as the Gallio inscription at Delphi, which assists us in determining more accurately the date of Paul’s visit to Corinth, the rest of the material is valuable for the study of the religious situation and the political history of the period.

304    They can also be divided into public and private
categories. The public texts concern religious or civil matters: dedications or consecrations, lists of priestly or civil functionaries, commendations of individuals or tributes to them, etc. The existence of various cults, Hellenistic or Eastern, concepts of life after death, the names and dates of governors—all these are matters on which the inscriptions supply information. Those of a more personal and private nature are mainly epitaphs, dedications by individuals, prayers, and execrations.


3.4.4    Coins

305    Among the archaeological finds are many coins. These were first minted in the seventh century bc by the kings of Lydia, subsequently by the Persian emperors, the Phoenicians, and even by the governors of provinces like Judaea. Through intensive study by numismatists, the coins provide valuable information concerning the reigns of the respective rulers, particularly their relationship to the territories subject to them and many other aspects of Graeco-Roman history.




G.J.D. Aalders, Het Romeinse imperium en het Nieuwe Testament, Kampen 1938

M.M. Austin, The Hellenistic world from Alexander to the Roman conquest, Cambridge 1981, 1–5

N. Austin, The Greek historians, New York 1969

C.K. Barrett, Documents (§82)

H. Bengtson, Einführung in die alte Geschichte, München 31959

T.S. Brown, The Greek historians, London 1973, 169–82

J.B. Bury, E.H. Barber, et al., The Hellenistic Age, Cambridge 1923

M. Cary, A history of the Greek world, 323–146 bc, London 21972, 377–80

M.P. Charlesworth, The Roman Empire, London 1951

B. Cunliff, Rome and her empire, London 1978

H. Dessau, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit I-II, Berlin 1924–1930

J.G. Droysen, Die Materialien zur Geschichte Alexanders, Beilage II, in: Geschichte des Hellenismus I/2, Gotha 21877, 375–420

J. Finegan, Light from the ancient past, Princeton 21959

M.I. Finley, The legacy of Greece. A new appraisal, Oxford 1981, 155–84

A. Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines. A history of the Roman Empire, ad 14–192, London 1974

F.C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament, London 1981, xxi-xxix

M. Grant, The ancient historians, London 1970

___, The twelve Caesars, London 1975

___, The Roman emperors: a biographical guide to the rulers of imperial Rome, New York 1985

G.T. Griffith (ed.), The Greek historians in fifty Years (and twelve) of classical scholarship, Oxford2 1968, 182–224

P. Grimal, H. Bengtson, et al., Der Hellenismus und der Aufstieg Roms, Berlin 1965

O. Murray, Greek Historians, in: J. Boardman, J. Griffin, O. Murray (ed.), The Oxford history of the classical world, Oxford 1986, 193ff

L. Pearson, The lost histories of Alexander the Great, New York 21983

C. Préaux, Le monde hellenistique. La Grèce et l’Orient (323–146 av.
J.C.), I-II, Paris 1978

H.E. Stier, Roms Aufstieg zur Weltmacht und die griechische Welt, Berlin 1957

W. Tarn & G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic civilization, London 21974

H. Temporini & W. Haase (Herausg,), ANRW. This extremely comprehensive work contains a virtually inexhaustible source of information and is still being continued.


(For additional sources, see §§356 and 436)



The political situation in the Graeco-Roman world in the period 332 BC to AD

    J.L. de Villiers


4.1    Introduction

307    When Christianity appeared on the scene, it was, to a considerable extent, able to reap the fruits of the activities of two leading world figures, Alexander the Great in the Greek world, and emperor Augustus on the Roman scene. The Graeco-Roman milieu would be the setting in which the Gospel would be proclaimed, and the contributions Alexander and Augustus had made would turn out to be advantageous to its dissemination. This preparation, we believe, was part of God’s gracious plan. We need, then, to survey the reigns of Alexander the Great and his successors, as well as those of the Roman emperors up to ad 138, since that part of history relates directly to the New Testament.


4.2    Alexander the Great


4.2.1    Sources for the life and work of Alexander the Great

308    Any study of the sources concerning Alexander is beset by two problems. In the first place, there is the problem that the various historical accounts evaluate him differently (cf. Schachermeyr). Consequently, as Wilckens remarks, we have to do with different Alexanders, and each writer portrays his own Alexander (see also Schachermeyr). Secondly, all that we have are secondary sources, since every one of the twenty contemporary historical accounts has been lost, except for a few fragments. They can be reconstructed only from the works of later historians who made use of them: Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, and Arrian.

309    The following original sources are important: The king’s Ephēmerides or journal, a daily account of his activities and decisions. Its official character has, however, recently been questioned (among others by Pearson). Then there was Callistenes, who at the urging of his uncle Aristotle accompanied Alexander on his campaigns to write an account of them for the Greeks and Macedonians. But he described Alexander in far too flattering terms, setting him on the same exalted level as Achilles and some of Homer’s other heroes. Other sources were provided by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals and later king of Egypt, and Aristobulus, an engineer who enjoyed Alexander’s confidence. Later authors like Arrian considered their writings trustworthy, and used them. Then there was Cleitarchus, a Greek who did not follow Alexander on his campaigns and who had a predilection for the sensational, who evoked the criticism of classic writers like Cicero. His portrait of Alexander is less favourable. Of the later writers like Plutarch and Arrian, the latter’s account of Alexander is considered the most reliable.

310    There are thus two contradictory views of Alexander: a favourable one which sees him as an attractive, genial person (e.g. Tarna), and a less favourable one stemming from the tradition of Cleitarchus which views him as a tyrant who suffered from megalomania and a sexual deviate into the bargain. R.L. Fox, who has made an intensive study of the subject, doubts if it is possible to write a history of Alexander which will do him full justice. None the less, there is a large measure of unanimity over the particular contribution this remarkable man made to the establishing of Western civilization. Through it the eventual spread of Christianity was immensely furthered.


4.2.2    Alexander the man

311    He was born in 356 bc, the son of Philip II, king of Macedon, who succeeded in creating unity, not merely between Macedon and Greece, but also among the many Greek city states on the Greek mainland which had for decades lived in mutual discord. Alexander was to take over his father’s task of attacking the Persians, the common foe of all the Greeks, and checking the westward expansion of the Persian Empire.

312    His mother Olympias was a princess of the mountainous Epirus, which allowed her son to claim descent from Achilles. Alexander certainly inherited his tremendous energy from his father, while his mother, who seems to have been particularly susceptible to the ecstasies of the Dionysian feasts, may have been responsible for other traits, among them his superstitious attitudes. Philip gave his son the best education available at that time. Leonidas oversaw his physical development, while Lysimachus was responsible for his literary education. To introduce his thirteen year-old son to Greek culture, Philip selected none less than Aristotle, the illustrious philosopher. This versatile teacher so inspired his pupil with a love for Greek poetry, in particular that of Homer, that on all his campaigns Alexander kept a copy of the Iliad at his side, annotated by his mentor. That love and admiration of Greek civilization he retained throughout his life, though his appreciation of other cultures and his striving for a world empire subsequently caused him to deviate from Aristotle’s views.

313    As a youth he excelled in many spheres: he was a good runner, a fearless horseman, an expert archer, and a bold hunter. He loved hard work, and could not bear to rest. In the realm of the spirit he was a studious investigator, with (according to Plutarch) an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which simply increased as time went by. He liked all sorts of books and every branch of knowledge. After a day’s march or even a day-long battle he loved nothing better than to spend half the night in discussion with scholars. ‘As far as I am concerned,’ he wrote to Aristotle, ‘I should far rather outstrip others in knowledge of what is good than in the extension of my power and territory.’ It may have been at the urging of Aristotle that he despatched a commission to search for the sources of the Nile and generously lent financial support to many different scientific projects. He was a brilliant orator, especially on political or military subjects. He was, moreover, a born leader who could command thousands and rule over millions with great good will after he had conquered them. He was faithful to the agreements he entered into with army commanders and with cities, nor would he tolerate any oppression of subject people by those he had appointed over them. In all his campaigns he had one supreme goal: to unite the whole of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard into a cultural whole, controlled and encircled by Greek civilization.

314    His greatest weaknesses were that he never learned to recognize his own faults and limitations and that he allowed his judgement to be swayed by adulation. He lived in the intoxicating atmosphere of excitement and renown, and was so obsessed with waging war that his spirit never knew an hour of rest. His overwhelming ambition warped his personality. In his passionate desire for attainments, he tackled every possible task, braved every danger. Another weakness was, of course, his superstitious attitude: he had great faith in soothsayers and astrologers, having a large number of them accompany him on his wars of conquest.


4.2.3    Alexander’s campaigns

315    When his father died suddenly, Alexander was a mere twenty years old. Now he had not only to accept the inheritance from his father, but also to demonstrate that he possessed the power and the energy to hold the throne. At various places in Greece, people were taking steps to free themselves from Macedonia’s autocratic rule. Athens was the centre of this movement, where Demosthenes took the lead, sneering at the young king’s ability. But Alexander acted so quickly and resolutely to suppress every vestige of rebellion that Athens begged for pardon and conferred divine honour upon him. A conference of all the Greek states, with the exception of Sparta, was held in Corinth, where Alexander was named commander-in-chief of all the Greek forces. The conference then promised men and material for the Asian campaign against the Persians.

316    In this way Alexander adopted as his own his father’s plan for a decisive war against the Persian foe. Before he could proceed with plans for it, he had to make sure that no one would stab him in the back. West of Macedonia, in Illyricum and east in Thrace, there were tribes which were not well disposed to Macedonian rule. Alexander launched a campaign against them, which took him to the banks of the Danube. Even in this early campaign he displayed all the talents of generalship which were later to make him the conqueror of Asia. He had scarcely completed this campaign when reports reached him that a rebellion against him had broken out in Greece. The rumour had spread among the Greeks that he had been fatally wounded in the campaign and his army had been destroyed. The Thebans declared independence and laid siege to the Macedonians occupying the acropolis in their city. Alexander struck back, punishing Thebes severely, but treating Athens very leniently, despite the fact that she had been involved in the conspiracy and had actually been ready to solicit help from the Persians against Macedon. To the end of his life Alexander had great respect for Athens and, like his father before him, regarded the city as the centre of Hellas.

317    Once he had made certain that his rear was secure, Alexander returned to Macedon to complete his preparations for his march against the Persians. In the year 334 bc he crossed the Hellespont, never to return. He would live another eleven years, but he would not see Europe or his home again. With an army of thirty-five thousand, he advanced against the Persians to liberate the Greeks from their domination. The empire against which he directed his attack was at least fifty times greater than his own kingdom, with about twenty times as many inhabitants. It has been asserted that the Persians could muster an army of a million men. Initially, Darius III did not take Alexander’s advance seriously, alleging that he was suffering from megalomania. He ordered an army of Persian cavalry, Greek mercenaries and local soldiers to take him prisoner and convey him to Susa. The two armies met at the River Granicus in 334; though Alexander nearly lost his life in this battle, he gained a resounding victory. On his march through Asia Minor, one city after another in Phrygia and Cappadocia yielded to him; most of them simply opened their gates without offering any resistance. He came up against the Persians’ main might at Issus the following year—six hundred thousand strong, and led by Darius III himself. Once again Alexander gained the victory. Darius fled, leaving behind his family and a large amount of money, but Alexander treated him chivalrously by not pursuing him. He also treated Darius’s family with the utmost leniency.

318    The way to the heart of the Persian Empire was now open to the conqueror, but there was more to his strategy than that. He held to his original plan to conquer the whole of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, since there was always the danger that a Persian fleet could foment a rebellion in Greece. At all costs, Alexander wanted to keep contact with Greece; consequently his first step was the subjection of Syria. After he had taken Damascus and Sidon without resistance, he laid siege to Tyre, where there was a large Phoenician contingent in Persian service. This ancient city held out for a long seven months before Alexander could capture it. Gaza submitted after a siege of two months. Jerusalem offered no resistance, and was treated generously. The Jews were so overawed by the offensive force of the Greek armies that they unhesitatingly acknowledged the authority and rule of the new overlord. Seeing that they had comported themselves in that way, their rights were guaranteed as they had been under the Persians, so that they could continue to worship as in the past.

319    The Macedonians continued their triumphal advance through the Sinai Desert to Egypt, where Alexander, after tactfully venerating the gods of that country to the extent of sacrificing to the god Apis, was hailed as one sent by the gods to liberate the people from Persian domination. A strange episode in Alexander’s Egyptian campaign was his visit to the temple of Ammon at the oasis of Siwa in the middle of the desert. The Greeks identified Ammon with Zeus, and regarded the oracle of Ammon as one of the most important in the whole world. The priest of Ammon addressed the young king as son of Ammon, the customary greeting given to an Egyptian monarch. This conferring of divine recognition on their king made a deep impression on the Greeks who had accompanied him. With the generous assistance of his friends, the word spread throughout Greece that this famous oracle had pronounced Alexander a son of Zeus.

320    When he returned to the Nile delta, Alexander hit on the idea—or at any rate endorsed it—of building a new capital to be named Alexandria at one of the mouths of the river. He laid out the course of the city walls, indicating the main streets and the sites of the temples of the Egyptian and Greek gods. The further details he entrusted to his architect Dinocrates. Alexandria rapidly displaced the Persian city of Tyre as commercial metropolis, and subsequently developed into the most impressive centre of Hellenistic culture in all the Middle East. It was described as the jewel of the Hellenistic world, the dazzling scientific, artistic, and commercial metropolis, the home and confluence of the culture and literature of East and West.

321    Alexander’s sojourn in Egypt displayed certain features that would typify the period ahead. The first of these was the founding of Alexandria, the first and most important of a series of seventy cities he created in countries of the East. From these cities, the Hellenizing process would be conducted. Secondly, Alexander showed his respect for the gods of the country by visiting their temples and sacrificing to them. He went so far as to order altars for the Egyptian deities to be raised in Alexandria. Yet in the same city of Memphis, where he had worshipped Apis with sacrifices, he allowed Greek games to be held, without questioning what significance such games, which also were religious in character, would have for the land of the pyramids. It was here that the mixing of the religions of the East with the religious ceremonies of the Greeks took place for the first time, a phenomenon which would become characteristic of the whole Hellenistic period.

322    In 331 bc, Alexander marched back through Palestine and Syria to meet the army of Darius in the plains of Mesopotamia at Gaugamela. The numerical superiority of the Persians was terrifying: Darius’s army has been calculated at a million strong. This was to be Alexander’s most decisive battle. By seizing the initiative and through brilliant strategy, he gained the victory over Darius and his army, which could offer little resistance against Alexander’s forces. Darius fled, followed by large numbers of his men. Eventually he was murdered by his own soldiers, and Babylon surrendered to Alexander. Some of the city’s treasures he distributed among his troops, but he won its heart by honouring its gods and commanding the sacred temples to be restored. The man who in Egypt sacrificed to the Egyptian deities and was hailed as son of Ammon, sacrificed to Marduk in Babylon. Here, for the first time, Alexander installed a Persian as governor. This was a new facet of his politics, namely his efforts to bring the Persian nobility onto his side and to set the leading Persians on the same level as the Greek officers. By the end of the year 331 he had captured Susa, then Persepolis and Ecbatana.

323    His further campaigns carried him in 326 bc to the River Indus in modern Pakistan, where his troops refused point-blank to go any further. In eight and a half years his army had marched some eighteen thousand kilometres. One part of his force he sent back by sea, while he led the rest under the most intense privations to Susa and on to Babylon. By the time they reached Susa, about ten thousand of his men had died and Alexander himself was half insane. In Babylon, which would become the capital of his empire, he died suddenly of fever in the year 323 bc, while only thirty-three years old. It has been said that his spirit exhausted his body.

324    Aristotle had taught him to treat the Greeks as free men and the non-Greek ‘barbarians’ as slaves. He, however, was impressed by the degree of refinement and good manners he discovered amongst the Persian aristocracy, as well as the ways in which the Persian kings administered their domains. He came to the conclusion that he could make his conquests permanent only by reconciling the Persian nobility to his leadership and employing them in administrative positions.

325    As he became more and more charmed with his subjects, he rejected the notion of ruling over them as a Macedonian, and regarded himself as a Graeco-Persian prince, in whose empire Persians and Greeks lived as equals and peaceably mingled their blood and their culture. To the extent that he subdued the world, he himself changed. Following the bloody battles, it became his chief task to heal the wounds his weapons had caused, to reconcile and bring peace, and then to reorganize. A classic writer described his efforts in these words: ‘He commanded all people to regard the world as their motherland and only bad people as enemies.’

326    The idea of a peaceful blending of the Persian and Greek national characters never left Alexander. Symbolic of the union of East and West he aimed at creating, were the great marriage feasts between Macedonian men and Persian women after his return to Susa. He himself married a daughter of Darius, on which occasion the marriages of eighty Macedonian officers and prominent Persian women were celebrated. In order to promote this union of the two nations even further, he made tracts in Mesopotamia and Persia available to Greek colonists; in this way he relieved the over-population in some Greek city states and the tensions of class warfare. Now Hellenistic Asian cities came into being, which would be of such importance in the Seleucid empire (see §§445,455,462–3). At the same time, he selected thirty thousand Persian youths to be educated in Greek ways and in the Greek methods of warfare.

327    His Macedonian officers could not fathom Alexander’s politics. They could not see why they had to kneel before him in the Persian custom he expected of them. This dissatisfaction led to the death of Philotes, one of his bravest officers, and of his father Parmenio, one of his finest generals. It also resulted in the death of Callisthenes, who had written Alexander’s history; he had refused to make obeisance before him, and had publicly criticised his eastern manners. Callisthenes was Aristotle’s nephew; his untimely death ended the friendship between the king and the philosopher who for years had risked his life in defending Alexander’s case in Athens.


4.2.4    Alexander’s significance

328    We may briefly sum up Alexander’s significance for world history as follows:

329    In his thirteen years of activity he brought much about which greatly revolutionized the world of his era and produced fruits our culture may in many respects still pluck today. Because they were bitterly divided over the succession, those who succeeded him could not maintain the political unity he created, but they were able to reap the results of his activities, so that they continued with the Hellenizing of their world. He introduced a new era, for he was more than an eminent general; he was par excellence a statesman and a man of culture. Through him, Greek culture became a world culture, through which the world of that time was enriched. We would emphasize the following:

330    a. In the first place, we have to recognize the political unity he achieved between East and West. Once he had defeated the Persians on the battlefield, he did not treat them as second grade subjects or as slaves. The high dividing walls between Greek and ‘barbarian’ (i.e. those who did not speak Greek) he broke down, thus becoming the pioneer of the cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic period. To promote this unity, he acknowledged the gods of the peoples he defeated.

331    b. Secondly, through his conquests he opened the way for Greek culture, which he proceeded to introduce in all his domains. His soldiers who followed him, and who hailed from all parts of the Greek-speaking world, began to speak a common Greek language which no longer displayed the properties of their various home-regions. This koinē Greek, as it came to be called, spread over the entire eastern Mediterranean area and over western Asia to become the common language of the time.

332    c. While his activities also spelt the end of the original Greek city-state, the sovereign polis, he built about seventy new cities on the Greek model over the whole area he conquered, many of them named after Alexander himself or after his generals or members of his family. In these cities, many of his veterans settled, as did many other Greeks who came there to trade. Everywhere he left some of his troops in the conquered territories and settled other Greeks there as well. Around the Greek cities, the indigenous population continued their own life, speaking their own languages, though they could not escape the influence of those Greek cities and their colonists. When they came into the cities, they had to learn to speak Greek, if they were to sell their wares.

333    d. People soon came to feel that the gods, like they themselves, were the same the world over, so that Aphrodite was easily equated with Astarte, Athena with Anath, and the chief god Zeus, the Olympian Zeus, with Baal-Shaman, the deity the Syrians worshipped as ‘the Lord of heaven’. It was not only a Grecising which took place in this way; there was also a fusion or syncretizing of the gods of the East and the West.

334    e. Through his conquests, he united the eastern Mediterranean area into one large commercial network which promoted the economy and trade. The gold which had lain heaped up as dead capital in the treasure chambers of the Persian kings he brought into circulation, thus greatly benefiting the economy of the times.

335    f. Knowledge of the East, at that time very vague, was increased by his conquests. For him, his campaigns were at the same time great scientific expeditions through regions at that time virtually unknown. He took scientists with him, and their observations were put to good use by geographers, naturalists, and historians. He also donated large amounts of money for the scientific work of Aristotle. He ordered many other researchers to collect unusual animals, study them, and make notes of their habits. In this way his conquests had important side-results: they laid the foundation for a new, unbelievably rich cultural life.


4.3    Alexander’s successors


4.3.1    Introductory

336    Like so many great men in history, Alexander was not privileged to find a worthy successor, with the result that his empire was divided into several parts under his generals. As his successors, they were referred to as the Diadochi (= followers).

337    Alexander’s legal heirs were his younger brother Philip Arrhidaeus and the son his wife Roxana bore to him after his death and named Alexander after his father. A council of his generals appointed one of their number, Perdiccas, as guardian of the two heirs to the throne; in the meantime six other generals governed large parts of his empire as regents. After much conflict and intrigue, Alexander’s legal heirs were removed from the scene. This marked the beginning of the succession struggle among the generals. By 275 bc, the various dynasties which had sprung up around the various generals had been reduced to three: those of the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Asia, and the house of Antigonus in Macedon. Of these, the first two became more important as far as the Jews in Palestine were concerned. The dynasty of the Ptolemies ruled Egypt until around 31 bc, while the Seleucids held power until c. 65 bc. For most of the time there was tension or open conflict between the two houses. From time to time Judaea, situated between the two kingdoms, was a bone of contention and had to suffer greatly through their mutual enmity.


4.3.2    The Ptolemies in Egypt

338    At first Ptolemy and Seleucus were friends and brothers in arms. When Antigonus expelled him from Babylon in 316 bc, Seleucus was happy to seek shelter with Ptolemy and serve as admiral of his Mediterranean fleet. But when Ptolemy and Seleucus, along with Lysimachus, the ruler of Thrace, defeated Antigonus at Gaza in 312, Seleucus was able to return to Babylon the following year. This marked the beginning of the Seleucid dynasty. Ptolemy also gained a great deal by this victory, as he was able to add parts of Syria and Phoenicia to his kingdom. Antigonus was finally defeated and killed at Ipsus in Phrygia in 301 bc, after which Seleucus gained control of the largest part of western Asia.

339    Ptolemy’s control of the Mediterranean coastline of Asia as far north as the Phoenician ports ensured him much maritime and commercial power, more especially as he also controlled Cyprus. His occupation of the land-bridge between Egypt and Asia gained him further advantages, since he commanded the trade routes north and east of the Egyptian border. With Lebanon in his domains, he had large stocks of wood available for his construction projects in Alexandria, which by this time was his capital, and he intended to make it worthy of a great kingdom. It was near the end of his reign that the great lighthouse was built on the island of Pharos, near Alexandria; it soon came to be known as one of the seven wonders of the world.

340    Seeing that Ptolemy controlled Syria and Phoenicia, he also ruled over Judaea. Josephus tells how one Sabbath in 320 bc he entered Jerusalem on the pretext of sacrificing in the temple, only to seize the city and add it to his possessions. At that time he removed many people from Jerusalem and Judaea and settled them in Alexandria. There they lived as free men with their own laws, and the appeal of this city was such that many other Jews voluntarily settled there, until one of the five city wards was completely Jewish. The Jewish community in Alexandria soon became one of the most important in the Diaspora. They were the most significant section of the city’s non-Greek population, enjoying many privileges, so that with their own laws they were virtually a municipality within a municipality. After a generation or two they ceased to use their own language and spoke Greek like their neighbours. It was precisely for the sake of these Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria that the first translation of the Old Testament was made (for a fuller discussion of this see §1410–4).

341    The Ptolemies did a great deal to promote Greek culture and science. In Alexandria, they built a Museum with a library which contained just about all the works of classical authors. Alexandria became the most important university city in the Hellenistic world. The famous school of grammarians and textual critics worked there, and from the papyri it is clear that even outside of that city people were still reading the classic authors centuries later. In addition to literature, other branches of science flourished; one of these was mathematics, which was used especially in connection with land-surveying and astrology.

342    In religious matters, the Ptolemies were tolerant. The Egyptians kept their own gods, while the Ptolemies actually had temples built for their worship. In the Greek communities, the Greek religion continued to be purely practised, but in the countryside the Greeks also venerated the Egyptian deities, giving them the names of their own gods. There are a few instances in the papyri where a double divine name appears. Alexa, the tutelary deity of Alexandria, was revered throughout Egypt. During their lifetimes, the Ptolemies acted as earthly representatives of the gods, and at their death they and their wives were declared divine, with a Greek cultic name. The most important deity of Hellenistic Egypt was Sarapis, whose cult was introduced by Ptolemy I. He symbolizes the syncretism between the Egyptian and Greek religions for which this king strove. His name points to the Egyptian Osiris-Apis cult, while, on the other hand, it displays the character of the Greek gods Zeus, Hades, and Dionysius. In Alexandria, Ptomely I had a large Serapeum built. Significantly, the cult of Serapis, along with those of Isis and Horus, spread from Alexandria to the East.

343    Under the powerful first Ptolemies, Egypt enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity. These kings reigned as absolute monarchs, with the whole country as their possession. They made the land available to the people in various ways. At this time, Egypt pursued a strong external political policy. Various wars were waged against the Diadochi of the other Hellenistic kingdoms in an effort to gain dominance over the Mediterranean area. For a time Cyrene, Cyprus and the Greek cities in Asia Minor, in the Cyclades and in Syria, were colonies of Egypt. A commercial treaty was concluded with Rome in 273 bc.

344    The decline of Egypt began around the end of the third century bc under Ptolemy IV Philopater, a weak king. Internal unrest increased in the second and first centuries, when the country was involved in conflict with Syria, as a result of which Egypt lost its foreign possessions. In 200 bc, Palestine was incorporated into the Syrian sphere of influence. Antiochus IV Epiphanes advanced into Egypt and had himself crowned there as king; this is confirmed by a papyrus codex dated in terms of his coronation year. It was only the intervention of the Romans in the year 168 which defeated him and compelled him to withdraw from the country.

345    Egypt enjoyed a brief revival at the end of the second century under Ptolemy Euergetes II, but the weakness of his successors brought his efforts to nought. The internal opposition of the native Egyptians continued, culminating in the sacking of Thebes in 85 bc. The decline of the kingdom adversely affected its economic life: foreign trade decreased and money was devalued. The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra, tried to save her country from the expanding might of Rome by entering into an alliance with Mark Antony, but, when he was defeated at Actium in 31 bc, Egypt also fell under Roman domination.


4.3.3    The kingdom of Seleucus

346    The Seleucid dynasty (the house of Seleucus) came into being after the Battle of Gaza in 312 bc. Seleucus I, who was also called Nicator (Victor), united the ancient kingdoms of Elam, Sumeria, Persia, Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, Phoenicia, and at times Palestine under his sceptre.

347    The Seleucids’ governing policy differed greatly from that of the Ptolemies of Egypt, where the emphasis lay especially on the king’s absolute power and his officials were responsible for the management of the country. The Seleucids were not such wealthy rulers as the Ptolemies, since they were more attentive to the interests of their subjects, and that cost money. Tarn, an acknowledged expert on Hellenistic culture, says that the Seleucids strove to raise the cultural standard of a whole continent, whereas the Ptolemies exploited the people of their kingdom and filled their treasure chests. The rulers of the house of Seleucus applied themselves more to urbanization, that is to the building of Greek cities and the Hellenizing of their kingdom. Because its population was so heterogeneous in character, they sought the key to a powerful state in the planting of Greek cities, so that they came to be regarded as the greatest founders of cities in world history.

348    One of those cities was Antioch, situated on the River Orontes in northern Syria, some twenty kilometres inland from its mouth, so that ships could reach it. But it also attracted the trade of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Here the later Seleucids made their home, and under Antiochus IV it became the wealthiest city in the kingdom. With its temples, theatres, gymnasia, palaestrae (= training schools), gardens and parks it was so beautiful that the Groves of Daphne were famous throughout Greece for their laurel bushes and cypress trees, their fountains and streams. Due to its situation on the borders between east and west, its population was tremendously varied, so that different cultures and religions met there and interacted one upon another. But the city also had a very poor reputation, as many unsavoury elements fled there for refuge. When the Roman poet Juvenal came to describe the moral condition of Rome, he wrote that the water of the Orontes flowed into the Tiber and made it a sewer (Juv. III:60ff).

349    Seleucid rule gave the Near East the economic protection and order it needed, so that trade and industry were encouraged. Cities like Miletus, Ephesus, and Smyrna flourished once more. The whole Hellenistic economy turned on trade. It produced great wealth in the country, allowed large cities to be built, and gave work to an increasing number of people. By now monetary transactions had practically replaced barter, and jingling coinage was brought into circulation which was sufficiently stable to promote international trade. Enriched by trade, thickly populated commercial centres developed—Babylon, Tyre, Tarsus, Xanthus, Rhodus, Halicarnassus, and the like.

350    As a result of the urban development, the Hellenizing of western Asia was fairly rapid. Emigrating adventurers, colonists, soldiers, traders, doctors, and scholars came streaming from Greece and Sicily. Greek sculptors and engravers produced statues and coins for Phoenician, Lycian, Carian, Cilician and Bactrian rulers. Schools, libraries, and theatres urged people to write. When someone could not enjoy the works of Menander and Euripedes, it was proof of that person’s barbarism. There are not many details about the literature, philosophy, and science of the Seleucid kingdom, but it is known to have had a flourishing culture, brimming with creative impulse and very productive in the field of the arts.

351    The East was not, however, completely won over by the Greek spirit and thinking. The large mass of the people persisted in speaking their mother tongues, in continuing their old customs, and in worshipping the gods of their ancestors. Nor was there any comprehensive fusion of races or cultures, as Alexander had dreamed. After a time, the influence began to be exerted in the other direction: eastern thinking and sentiments found entry among the ruling Greeks, and from them flowed westward. In Babylon, for instance, the Greek language was ousted into second place in the business world. Astrology and alchemy corrupted Greek astronomy and physics. The oriental monarchy appears to have been stronger than the Greek democracy, and placed its stamp on the West. Greek kings and Roman emperors became gods after the eastern manner. The Greeks accepted the deities of the East, because they equated them with their own gods, but it was the eastern deities who were the real winners. One example of this was Artemis of the Ephesians, who by this process became an oriental mother-goddess.

352    Seleucus was assassinated in 281 bc after a popular and prosperous reign of thirty-five years. After his death his kingdom began to decline, lacerated by division and racial conflict, as well as rivalry for the throne and barbarian invasions. Antiochus III the Great was, however, a man of ability and culture. He reconquered most of the territories which had been lost since Seleucus I. He founded a library in Antioch and promoted literature. Furthermore, he was a supporter of the old Greek practice of autonomous city states and introduced it into his domains.

353    Antiochus IV came to throne in 175 bc. He was at one and the same time the most important and the most vacillating of his dynasty, a curious combination of intellectual ability, dementia, and charm. He had a genuine admiration for Greek art, literature, and thinking. He made Antioch a centre of art in the Greek world; the artists who created statues and temples in other cities of Hellas he rewarded handsomely. He had the temple of Apollo on Delos redecorated, a temple built for Tegea, and paid for the completion of the Olympeium in Athens. Seeing that he spent fourteen years in Rome, he had a predilection for everything Roman. So, for instance, he introduced gladiatorial combats into Antioch; though his subjects wanted nothing to do with these barbarous spectacles, he persisted until the people had become used to them.

354    It was this Antiochus who was so impressed by his own powers that he had the words Theos Epiphanēs (‘the god who has been revealed’ or ‘who has appeared’) inscribed on his coins. Everything he attempted he carried to ridiculous extremes, which made the historian Polybius nickname him epimanēs (the insane) instead of epiphanēs. Historically, he is notorious for his actions in Judaea in an attempt to Hellenize the country and its people. After unsuccessful campaigns against Egypt in the years 170 and 168 bc, he despoiled the temple in Jerusalem of all its treasure. What was more, after the Romans had checked him in his campaign against Egypt, he concentrated on eradicating
the Jewish religion. This led to the Maccabaean revolt, which is discussed in more detail elsewhere (see §768–75).

355    Meanwhile, the house of Seleucus gradually declined. Independent kingdoms restricted its power to Mesopotamia and Syria. Parthia, Pergamum, Egypt and Rome gradually weakened the dynasty by assisting heirs to the throne who vied with one another to occupy it. In so doing, they helped in promoting conflict and civil war. Eventually it was Pompey who, on his victorious campaign through Asia, brought the rule of the Seleucids to an end when Syria became a Roman province in the year 65 bc.




E. Bayer, Grundzüge der griechischen Geschichten, Tübingen 1973

K.J. Beloch, Griechische Geschichte IV/1, Berlin 21925

H. Bengtson, Griechische Geschichte von den Anfängen bis in die römische Kaiserzeit, München 31950

E.R. Bevan, The house of Seleucus I, London 1900, II, London 1902

___, A history of Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty, London 1927

J. Bury, A history of Greece to the death of Alexander the Great, London 41975

J.G. Droysen, Geschichte Alexanders des Grossen, Basel 1883
(first published 1833). Still regarded as a classic.

V. Ehrenberg, Alexander und Aegypten, Leipzig 1926

J.R. Ellis, Philip II and Macedonian imperialism, London 1976

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 5–19

W. Foerster, Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte I-II, Hamburg 1961, especially II, 15–23

R.L. Fox, Alexander the Great, London 1973, 499ff

G.Glotz & R.Cohen, Histoire Grecque III, Paris 1935

G.T. Griffith (ed.), Alexander the Great. The Main Problems, Cambridge 1963

M. Hengel (transl. J. Bowden), Judaism and Hellenism I-II, London 1981

A.H.M. Jones, The cities of the eastern Roman provinces, Oxford 1937

___, The Greek city from Alexander to Justinian, Oxford 1940

J. Kaerst, Geschichte des Hellenismus I, Leipzig 1927

H.G. Kippenberg & G.A. Wewers (Herausg.), Textbuch zur neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte, NTD Ergänzungsreihe 8, Göttingen 1979

H. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament I: History, culture and religion of the Hellenistic age, Philadelphia-Berlin-New York 1982, 1–31

J. Leipoldt & W. Grundmann (Herausg.), Umwelt (§82) I, 126–42

L. Pearson, The lost histories of Alexander the Great, New York 21983

M. Renault, The nature of Alexander, London 1975

C.A. Robinson, Alexander the Great, New York 1947

M.I. Rostovtzeff, The social and economic history of the Hellenistic world I-III, Oxford 1941

F. Schachermeyr, Alexander der Grosse. Das Problem seiner Persönlichkeit und seines Wirkens, Wien 1973, especially 609–32,633–51

J. Siebert, Alexander der Grosse, EdF 14, Darmstad 1972

W. Tarn, Alexander the Great I-II, Cambridge 1948 (= Tarna)

___, Alexander: The Conquest of the Far East, CAH VI, 352–504 (= Tarnb)

___, & G.T. Griffith, Alexander, OCD
2, 390–41

V. Tcherikover, Palestine under the Ptolemies. A contribution to the study of the Zenon Papyri, Mizraim IV-V, New York 1937

___, Die hellenistischen Städte. Gründungen von Alexander dem Grossen bis auf die Römerzeit, Philologus Suppl. 9, I, Leipzig 1927

___, Hellenistic civilization and the Jews, Philadelphia 1959

___, ‘The Hellenistic environment’ & ‘Hellenistic Palestine’, in: A. Schalit (ed.), The world history of the Jewish people: The Hellenistic age I-II, London 1976–77

A.J. Toynbee, Hellenism: History of a civilization, London 1959

___, The crucible of Christianity: Judaism, Hellenism, and the historical background to the Christian faith, London 1969, 98–146

P. Wendland, Die hellenistisch-römische Kultur in ihren Beziehungen zu Judentum und Christentum, Tübingen 41972

U. Wilckens, Alexander der Grosse, Leipzig 1931


4.4    The rise and progress of the Roman Empire to ad 138


4.4.1    Introductory

357    Our Lord Jesus Christ was born during the reign of emperor Augustus (Lk 2:1) and the events recorded in the New Testament occurred in the imperial era. It is thus crucial for us to discuss that period in Rome’s history. We begin with a brief account of the extent of the Roman Empire in New Testament times and of the history that preceded it.


4.4.2    The extent of the Roman Empire in the first century

358    In the New Testament period, Roman rule extended over all the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Of contemporary Europe, all the territories between the North and the Black Seas were ruled by Rome. The empire’s northern borders stretched to the catchment areas of the Rhine and the Danube. In Africa, the empire’s border ran south of Carthage and Egypt to the desert. In what is now termed the Near East, Rome’s sovereignty held Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine (from Galilee to Idumaea) in sway. In their march eastwards, however, the Roman legions had been halted by the Parthians, who offered them stubborn resistance. From the Black Sea to the Red Sea, around the Mediterranean Sea, and as far as the North Sea there was a chain of states which had to pay tax to Rome and acknowledge Roman supremacy. (For more details of the Roman system of government see Chapter 6.)


4.4.3    Earlier history

359    The mighty Roman Empire had a humble, stormy, and chaotic beginning. It had been a republic since 509 bc, but at first it had been weakened by bitter conflict between the patricians (the nobility) and the plebeians (the ordinary citizens). That conflict was settled in 286 bc by admitting the plebeians into the government. Thereafter Rome extended its power over Italy. Its aggressive policies in the Mediterranean area resulted in an exceptionally critical conflict with Carthage in North Africa, which ended only in 146 bc with the destruction of Carthage. By the year 133 Asia Minor and Macedonia were also under Roman rule. After that there was a tremendous collapse, characterized by bloody civil wars. Power came to reside all the more in a few influential people, and social problems loomed ever larger. After the many wars, the Roman legionaries returned home, often maimed and unfit for work, thus swelling the already large crowds of poor people in the city. The wealthy and the leading families became increasingly a closed caste, reserving for themselves the highest civil positions. This new upper class, which called its members the optimates (= the best), controlled the Senate, since it was in this powerful body that the senior officials served at the end of their terms of office. The Senate took the lead as far as foreign policy and finance were concerned—powers which the people’s assembly had conferred on it. Unfortunately, the Senate was no longer predisposed to good government: instead of seeing to the well-being of the whole society, its members cared only for themselves and their own enrichment.

360    Increasingly, the need was felt for someone who could provide an orderly solution, and it seemed that Julius Caesar, who started his political career in 65 bc, would be the man to do it. Through his policy of reconciliation, he gradually gave Rome a different face. In the year 48 he decisively defeated his greatest rival, Pompey, and within three years he was sole ruler of the whole Roman Empire. But just when he had reached the highest point of his career and had practically all the world of that time—Gaul, Greece, Egypt and Syria—at his feet, he was assassinated by Brutus, who, with his co-conspirators, saw Julius Caesar as a dictator set on robbing the Senate of its power. After his murder there followed another period of anarchy, civil wars, intrigues and political opportunism. Caesar had not had the opportunity to prove himself the real creator and builder of a stable Roman Empire. That task would fall to his heir, Octavian.

361    The period of the Roman Empire began with Octavian, who later became known as Augustus. For the sake of brevity, we now list the names of the successive caesars up to the year 138 ad:



(27 bc-14 ad)



Gaius Caligula



























4.4.4    Augustus (27 bc–ad 14)

362    Gaius Octavius, to give him his real name, was a grandson of Julius Caesar’s sister. His father, after whom the young Gaius was named, belonged to an old, respected family, but not to the nobility. It was his family connection with Julius Caesar which would be of great significance for Octavius. When he was four years old, his father died and his mother married a leading Roman nobleman, in whose home Octavius grew up.

363    Caesar took a great interest in his great-nephew. Since he himself had no sons, he regarded Octavius as his own, as his heir, and as the one who would continue his work. To equip him with a military education, he sent him to Apollonia in 45 bc, a town in the south of Illyria (the modern Albania), which was an important mustering point for the Roman legions. There, after completing his studies, he would be able to concentrate exclusively on practical military service. News reached him in March 44 that his uncle had become the victim of senatorial conspirators who refused to accept a dictator, even if he was a Caesar.

364    Though he was just a lad of eighteen, Octavius decided to act immediately by returning to Rome. Caesar had to be avenged. When he landed at Brundisium, he learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son and named him his heir. Now he would be known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. He was not, however, the only one who was preparing himself to assume Caesar’s political inheritance. There was, first of all, Mark Antony; at the time of Caesar’s death he was consul, and his chances were much more favourable than those of the inexperienced youth. Antony had also had experience as a general, and had proved himself one of the most capable of Caesar’s colleagues. But he had neither the capabilities nor the character needed to give the Roman Empire firm leadership.

365    In the second place, Octavian had also to take account of the Roman Senate which would certainly not be prepared to accept one man as dictator. In order to make contact with those circles, Octavian called on Cicero in his country house near Naples on his journey to Rome and won his sympathy, though in their political convictions they were diametrically opposite to each other. When he reached Rome, he discovered that Antony had already assumed Caesar’s place and regarded himself as the executor of his will. Moreover, he had falsified Caesar’s will in his own favour. This marked the beginning of the great struggle between Antony and Octavian. In this the Senate was merely a spectator, deeming it prudent policy to set the two antagonists over against each other and let them settle the issue by force of arms. It took it a full year after Caesar’s murder to act publicly against Antony. It was Cicero who assured the Senate that Octavian had been sent by the gods to protect it and Rome against Antony’s despotism.

366    The tension between Octavian and Antony increased, and a clash was inescapable. At Mutina, Antony was completely defeated by Octavian. Now the Senate began to dread the young man’s great power and influence, so that it did not greet his victory with the necessary joy. As a result of that attitude, Octavian sought to join his former opponent. With a certain Lepidus, Octavian and Antony formed a triumvirate to rule over the whole empire.

367    The first task facing them was to deal with Caesar’s assassins and then to establish order in the disorganized state. The forces of Brutus and Cassius were defeated in the Battle of Philippi in 42 bc. To restore order in the realm, Antony moved to the East, while Octavian was accountable for the West. His was a difficult mission. Not only had Italy been impoverished by the constant wars and civil strife of the preceding years; a hundred and seventy thousand veteran soldiers had to be assisted with grants of land, which had to be expropriated from its original owners. That he succeeded is evidence of his exceptional tact and courage.

368    The triumvirate was not based on unanimity or cordial co-operation; it was simply politically motivated. Conflict between the two main characters would not be long avoided. It broke out in the year 32. Antony felt very much at home in the East, so that the longer he remained there, the more he became estranged from Rome. When he married the Egyptian queen Cleopatra without first divorcing his wife Octavia, Octavian’s sister, a storm of indignation broke out. The affront to his high-born wife was seen as an insult to the Roman people. What was more, Cleopatra was a threat to Rome, seeing that she regarded Caesarion, the son she bore to Julius Caesar, as his father’s legal heir. In this way Antony became a plaything in her hands. This, however, placed Octavian in a very favourable position. He enjoyed the sympathy of the Roman people, who saw him as the defender and protector of their freedom against eastern despotism. The Roman Senate declared war against Cleopatra and discharged Antony from his mandate over the East. The Battle of Actium in 31 bc on the Greek west coast was decisive in the conflict between East and West. Antony and Cleopatra were defeated and fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide.

369    After that victory and the death of Antony, Octavian was the undisputed head of all Rome’s military forces. This meant that he also ruled the empire, which in reality was controlled by the army. The Roman republic, the most virile the ancient world ever saw, was dead.

370    Italy and the Roman provinces had suffered greatly through the many wars and disputes. Many families had been torn apart, with the menfolk having to serve long periods as soldiers. The economy and commerce were in a critical condition. The shock effects of all this were being felt in the furthest corners of the empire, so that there was a burning desire for peace. It would be Octavian who brought about the peace for which every one longed. On his return to Rome after his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, the temple of Janus (the guardian god of the state in time of war) could be closed for the first time in two centuries as a sign that the whole world was enjoying peace under the protection of Roman weapons. Seeing that he could guarantee the peace only as long as he commanded the armed forces, Octavian retained the position of imperator.

371    In public, Octavian upheld the Roman traditions. Though he was in supreme command, he respected the Senate and restored its powers. So as to increase the honour of that body, non-Romans, who had become senators in the time of Julius Caesar, were dismissed. Though the dignity of the old Roman form of government had been restored, in effect authority remained vested in Octavian alone. On 13 January in 27 bc he returned the extraordinary powers the Senate and the Roman people had entrusted to him of his own free will, but the Senate entreated him to retain them, so that through them he could preserve peace and care for the welfare of the state. He then reassumed power, and in so doing introduced a new form of government. The Senate might still be the highest authority in Rome, but Octavian was the first citizen of the state, the princeps civium, senior among the citizens, and also princeps senatus, the senior senator, who effectively held the reins of state affairs. The historian, Mommsen, calls this new form of government which Augustus gave to the Roman Empire the principate. In this way, for all practical purposes and without much ado, there occurred a conversion from the system of the republic to that of the emperorship.

372    In 27 bc the Senate conferred various high honours on Octavian, including the cognomen ‘Augustus’, (= the exalted). Up to that time it had been a title reserved for the gods alone. While he admittedly took account of the Roman traditions which clearly differentiated between the gods and human beings, by allowing himself to be called augustus he let it be understood that his authority was of a particular kind. In 12 bc, by popular vote, he received the supreme priestly power as pontifex maximus, and ten years later these titles of honour were augmented when the Senate named him pater patriae (= father of the fatherland). But when on one occasion the people most enthusiastically wanted to acclaim him dictator, he fell to his knees, tore off his toga, and besought them to refrain from conferring on him a dignity to which so many bloody memories clung. His lifestyle was that of a simple citizen. His home displayed no trace of opulence and he was very moderate in what he ate and drank. Julius Caesar had roused the ire of the senators by demanding that they stand when he entered the hall, but Augustus asked that they remain peacefully seated. His very sympathetic and judicious rule was approved almost everywhere. The interminable wars and the dislocation they caused at last gave way to peace. The Romans no longer went off to conquer, but to attend to the consolidation of the empire and to ensuring the safety of its borders. Commerce, which had suffered greatly under all the turbulence, particularly through piracy, began to flourish once more. Augustus was greeted as the ‘saviour’ or ‘liberator’ under whose rule the world faced a new future. A famous inscription from Priene in Asia Minor, dated c. 9 bc, gives evidence of this. All over the empire new cities were built, temples erected, aqueducts and other public constructions undertaken, and highroads laid out. Military police patrolled the highways at danger-spots, so that people could travel from one place to another without fear. Roman civil law was recognized and highly honoured throughout Italy and in the provinces as well. Every citizen of the empire could travel freely wherever he wished, and it was only at the borders of the provinces that small tolls had to be paid. The population of the whole empire had the feeling of peace, safety and certainty. In these ways, the rule of Augustus ushered in the famous pax Romana (= the ‘Roman peace’).

373    Along with the external ordering of the empire, Augustus did all he could to promote the inner renewal of the Roman people and their society. We might describe the ideal of his forty-four-year reign as the rebirth of the old Roman spirit. Through a process of inner renewal, the Roman world had to demonstrate that its people were worthy of ruling the world, and they had to take care that their rule would be a blessing to the nations and not a curse. The foremost poets and writers of the period, Virgil, Horace and Livy, very enthusiastically hymned this ideal. Augustus aimed at beginning this renewal by restoring the foundation of all healthy society, family life. Because of their love of pleasure, many Romans did not marry. Many marriages remained childless; divorce was the order of the day; and the tremendous number of male and female slaves was a threat to morality. Sulla and Pompey, for example, were married five times, Julius Caesar and Antony four times. Augustus laid down that all men between twenty and sixty and all women between twenty and fifty years of age had to marry. In order to promote family life, he ordered that unmarried people could not inherit; that childless couples could inherit only half an estate; and that fathers with children would receive preference of appointment as officials.

374    All these efforts at improving
the moral life of Rome
did not, however, produce the desired results. People were cunning enough to evade the laws. Time after time Augustus had to yield to the entreaties of the national assembly and of the people to moderate his legislation. The picture Paul paints in Rm 1:18–32 of the moral condition of the Hellenistic-Roman world shows that the decay continued.

375    Through Augustus’s life-work in the cause of peace and quiet and the restoration of the empire’s safety and unity, the possibility was created for the rapid spread of the Gospel. This was his particular contribution to the history of Christianity.


4.4.5    Augustus and the New Testament

376    In Lk 2:1–5 we read that in those days the emperor Augustus issued a decree for a census to be held in the whole empire, and that this happened while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own cities to be enrolled. So Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

377    During the Roman republic, Roman citizens were required to appear before a censor (magistrate) every five years to furnish information regarding their persons and their property. On such an occasion the citizen’s name, date of birth, and residential address were recorded, at the same time as investigations were carried out, among other things, into his property holdings for tax purposes. On the basis of those details, a list of all citizens was compiled with the dual purpose of administering military service and the imposition of taxes. Though this practice persisted in the last years of the republic and during the principate, it gradually lost significance, since the inhabitants of Italy no longer rendered military service or paid direct taxes. In the provinces, however, the practice was continued, with the primary aim of regulating the imposition of direct taxes.

378    Some scholars, including Mommsen and Schürer, assert that Luke’s report regarding the census is not historically accurate. Among the arguments advanced, they claim that secular history makes no mention of such a census, and that Quirinius, under whose authority it was held, was not governor of Syria at that time.

379    There is, however, sufficient reason for accepting the historical accuracy of Luke’s statement. The fact that the ancient world does not mention such a census is not decisive. Mommsen, who doubts the historicity, has to admit that we do not know of all the institutions in the time of the emperors. It is, moreover, well known that the emperor Augustus engaged in the reorganization of the empire, paying special attention to its provinces. In such circumstances Syria, with Judaea as part of that province, would also have come under the spotlight, and we may assume the holding of a census as a necessary measure.

380    Papyri which have been discovered show that censuses were usually held every fourteen years. They also reveal that the practice was for each man to go to his birthplace for that purpose, as Joseph and Mary did.

381    It is also well known that a census was carried out in Egypt, Syria, and Judaea in ad 6, to which Ac 5:37 refers. Fourteen years earlier would bring us to around 8 bc, and we know that in that year there was a census in Egypt and other parts of the empire. Luke refers to ‘all the world’, which must surely be understood to mean the Roman Empire (cf. Jos. Antiq. XVIII:26). The political tension between Augustus and Herod might explain why the enrolment in Palestine took place a little later, c. 6 bc when Jesus was born.

382    It has been established that P. Sulpicius Quirinius accepted the procuratorship of the province of Syria in ad 6. The most recent research shows, however, that he held this official position in Syria not once but twice. In addition to his appointment in ad 6, there must have been an earlier occasion when he governed the province. Scholars point out that in ad 6 he led the Syrian legions and was concerned with foreign affairs, while other legati, first Marcus Titius and then Sentius Saturninus, were responsible for internal matters. Quirinius would have ranked alongside or above them. (But see also §§549,791 & 799).


4.4.6    Tiberius (ad 14–37)

383    Like Augustus himself, his successor Tiberius is mentioned only once in the New Testament, in Lk 3:1, with reference to the dating of John the Baptist. He was, however, the emperor in whose reign Jesus’ public ministry and his crucifixion took place.

384    The question as to who would succeed him in governing the empire was a matter of great importance for Augustus. He would have to be a capable ruler who could carry on the life-work he had himself taken over from the great Julius Caesar. In addition, his desire was that his successor should be a member of his own family. But Augustus’s domestic life had been sorely tried. His only daughter, Julia, had brought shame upon his house by her scandalously immoral behaviour. Her two sons, Gaius and Lucius, had both died young, while his beloved step-son, Drusus, had been killed years before in Germany.

385    For the ageing ruler there was thus no alternative but to name as his successor his eldest step-son, Tiberius, who with Drusus had been born to his second wife, Livia, in a previous marriage. By then Tiberius was already fifty-six years old. He had in fact never been young; even as a youth he had been nicknamed ‘the old man’. Augustus esteemed him for his sense of duty and for his talents as a general, but never personally got on well with him. By nature Tiberius was surly and morose. Consequently, he had always been passed over in any thought of succession. Bitterly he had had to accept the second place, while younger men were preferred to him. But he had kept silent, since he knew nothing but unquestioning obedience, which he demanded of himself as much as from others.

386    Just as silently he obeyed Augustus’s command to marry his daughter Julia, the widow of the emperor’s faithful friend Agrippa, though he knew how notorious she was. He felt that the purpose of that marriage was for him to give a lead to her two sons Lucius and Gaius. It meant that he had to divorce Vipsania Agrippina, whom he had married in 15 bc and with whom he had lived happily for twenty-six years. Later, when his responsibilities for Lucius and Gaius had been carried out, he would be relegated once more to the second place.

387    His day-to-day association with Julia was to prove too much for him, and he determined to retire from public life. With Augustus’s agreement, he went to live on the island of Rhodos, in those days a centre of science and the arts, to seek diversion through study. But this voluntary exile became compulsory when in 1 bc the emperor’s eyes at last were opened to Julia’s immorality, which the whole of Rome had known for years. He meted out severe punishment not only on her but also on many whom he considered her associates in profligacy. Tiberius had to spend eight years on Rhodos as an outcast, despised by many who never dreamed that one day he would reign over them. Eventually his mother Livia manage to persuade Augustus to give him permission to return to Rome, on condition that he did not involve himself in public affairs. Then the unexpected happened, for which Tiberius had never hoped. Lucius and Gaius, the grandsons of Augustus, died in ad 2 and 4 within eighteen months of each other, compelling Augustus to frame new regulations for the succession. He adopted Tiberius as his son, thus designating him the future ruler of the Roman Empire. But even then he was not free to do as he liked. He was forced to adopt Germanicus, son of his deceased brother Drusus, and to prefer him above his own son Drusus. What was more, the honours due to him for his military successes were denied him for a long time. It was only after an eight-year-long campaign along the northern frontiers that he was given a triumphal procession in recognition of his victories.

388    As we have seen, Tiberius was a man of fifty-six when Augustus died and he took over control of the empire. By nature morose, and through the humiliations he had suffered he became ever more withdrawn and suspicious. Because he was used to taking second place, he found it difficult to rule alone. Hence his actions in the Senate were often vacillating and uncertain. The early years of his reign were almost a model of moderation and wisdom. His actions and his legislation were circumspect, while his policy was characterized by the maintenance of the status quo. In very few matters did he depart from the policies of Augustus, nor did he commence any new military projects, though he did strengthen the navy. He put a stop to animal fighting and to the squandering of public money, while forbidding extravagant honours such as the naming of a month after him, and severely punished criminals, including guilty officials and governors. He treated the Senate with respect, and earned a good name for himself in the provinces by his first-rate financial policy and the appointment of competent governors. But he had few friends whom he really trusted. One of them was Sejanus, commander of the household guard, but he was not the loyal servant he pretended to be. He was am ambitious man who shrank from no act, however low. He stoked the emperor’s suspicions and distrust of potential heirs to the throne, and managed to persuade Tiberius to do away with them on the pretext that they would have been guilty of high treason and would have impaired the emperor’s honour. Even members of the emperor’s family were not exempt; without Tiberius being aware of it, his own son Drusus fell victim to Sejanus.

389    After the death of Drusus in ad 23, Tiberius took less and less interest in public issues, and four years later withdrew completely to the island of Capri. It became more evident to him daily that he could expect no thanks for all he had done for the empire. His subjects saw only his harsh external appearance. They could not forgive him the reluctance with which he allowed gladiatorial and animal combats to be held, and that he never, like Augustus, graced these bloody public amusements with his presence. The people felt only fear for him, and he responded to it with contempt. He detested people who fawned over him and crept on bended knee before him, but insulted him behind his back.

390    When he discovered the treachery of Sejanus and realized that he had been responsible for the death of his son Drusus, his anger flared up against humanity. The abhorrence he had felt for so long for his environment burst out with the force of a volcano, sowing death and destruction all around him. Many people were to perish in Rome as a result. On the other hand, the stories which were spread abroad of his total degeneration on the island of Capri and of how his life was given over to debauchery were possibly not all true.

391    Tacitus, for instance, describes him as an overbearing, cruel tyrant and lecher, but we have to bear in mind that in principle this writer was opposed to the emperorship. The picture we now possess of Tiberius is relatively more sympathetic.

392    Tiberius was essentially not a bad ruler and many of his measures and his financial policy testify to his insight. His control of the provinces was particularly sound. He made every effort to appoint capable governors to manage foreign regions. When he noticed that they were unsuited to this task or that they were treating the people of the provinces badly, they were recalled and punished. It is a fact that various governors preferred to commit suicide than to be exposed to the emperor’s punitive policies. We can understand, then, why Pilate took fright when the Jews warned him that he would not be a friend of the emperor if he released Jesus (Jn 19:12). Although Tiberius is only mentioned once in the New Testament (Lk 3:1) we deal with him obliquely in the description in Mk 12:13–17 par. There it is told that Jesus held a coin in his hand and asked whose face was on it. It was a silver coin, a denarius, and the face on it was that of Tiberius. When Jesus was born, Augustus reigned and Tiberius was about 35 years old. When Jesus was sentenced to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate and nailed to the cross (approximately 30 ad), Tiberius was about 72 years old. ‘Crucify him’, the Jews in Jerusalem had shouted. A few years later the Roman crowds allegedly shouted: Tiberium, in Tiberim (= into the Tiber with Tiberius) (Lissner).


4.4.7    Caligula (ad 37–41)

393    Gaius Julius Caesar, or Caligula, was a son of Germanicus, whose father Drusus was a brother of Tiberius. He was born in ad 12. When he was three years old his father’s regiments nicknamed him Caligula because of the small soldier’s boots his mother allowed him to wear. Despite his displeasure at the name, it was one he would carry to the end of his days. His memory of his father, whom he lost when he was twelve, and his enormous popularity largely determined his life. His youth was spent while Tiberius was under the influence of Sejanus and wrought havoc on his own family, which must have caused Caligula a great deal of tension. Tiberius spared his life and allowed him to come to Capri, but the court with its intrigues and insinuations was scarcely the best setting for a future ruler of the empire to spend his formative years.

394    When he succeeded Tiberius in ad 37, he was an extremely popular figure, so that all went far better than had been anticipated. After the tyranny of the preceding years, the Senate and the people once again drew breath, for it seemed as if the golden age of Augustus had come round again. The new princeps wished to reign only in collaboration with the Senate. The people were also satisfied with the new emperor who, unlike the tight-fisted Tiberius, gave expensive games in the amphitheatre.

395    This joy was, however, of short duration. Some six months after his official accession, Caligula fell so seriously ill that the worst was feared, and people dreaded the confusion which would arise in the empire if he died. In this tension, the Roman world offered sacrifices and prayers for the emperor’s recovery. He did get better, but along with the physical healing there came a mental disturbance which led to insanity and gruesome acts. The idea of his great power was too much for him and drove him to megalomania. He was no longer an ordinary person; he was a god, and those who did not yield him the necessary honour had to pay for it. He could not abide the notion that anyone else should enjoy greater honour than he, the ruler of the world. It was only through guile that many leading people remained alive. The philosopher Seneca, for instance, survived because his friends told the emperor that he suffered from consumption and had not long to live! All the famous images of the gods which he managed to lay hands on he had beheaded and replaced with his own features. At the gladiatorial games the tyrant was never satisfied when blood did not flow freely in the arena. If there were not enough miscreants to be torn to pieces by the lions, he had some of the spectators seized and thrown to them.

396    The Jewish people also suffered from his megalomania. While he was in residence at the court on Capri, he came into contact with the Jewish prince Agrippa; this man would later be known as Herod Agrippa I, the king of whom we read in Ac 12. He was a grandson of Herod the Great, and had led an adventurous life before he sought and received the protection of Tiberius on Capri in ad 36. He fell into disfavour with Tiberius, however, when he expressed the wish that Caligula could hold the reins of power, and was imprisoned. After Tiberius’s death, Caligula set him free and he became a privileged favourite of the new emperor. In the year 38 he was allowed to leave Rome for his kingdom in Palestine, which had been given to him by Caligula. On his voyage home he called in at Alexandria.

397    The arrival and appearance of the Jewish king in the Egyptian capital was more than enough to let the ever smouldering fire of hatred against the Jews burst into flame. What began as a riot developed into a full-blown persecution of the Jews when the Roman governor Flaccus allowed his subject a free hand. The Jews were, of course, unpopular with the emperor because they would not acknowledge his divinity or allow his image into their synagogues. A deputation of Alexandrian Jews, led by none other than Philo, had waited on Caligula, only to be received unsympathetically, so that it had returned unsuccessful. Throughout the reign of Caligula, the position of the Alexandrian Jews remained critical. Enmity against the Jews spread as far as Syria.

398    In Palestine itself, a revolt threatened against Roman authority. Once again it was the emperor who was the cause of the ferment, though its immediate provocation was different from what had happened in Alexandria. The village of Jamnia, some twenty kilometres south of Joppa, had a mixed population of Jews and pagans. In the spring of ad 40, the latter raised an altar in honour of the emperor, which the Jews immediately destroyed. When the emperor learned of this, he ordered the procurator of Syria to install a huge image of the emperor in the temple in Jerusalem. Petronius, a cautious and sensible man, received the order with a heavy heart, and set off with two legions—but only as far as Ptolemais. When the Jews heard of the imperial injunction, they arrived from far and near at Petronius’s camp to beg him to desist from his intentions. The governor was in danger of forfeiting Caligula’s favour, yet he wrote to him, requesting that the order be countermanded, since it would cause trouble. From his side Agrippa did what he could, and eventually Caligula commanded that the image should not be placed in the temple. But a few months later he changed his mind, and ordered an image to be made in Rome; during his visit to Egypt it could be off-loaded along the Palestinian coast and carried unnoticed to Jerusalem. As for Petronius, who had dared to delay in carrying out the imperial order, he received a letter commanding him to take his own life. Fortunately for the Jews, nothing came of Caligula’s crazy plan, because he was assassinated by members of his household guard on 24 January in ad 41. Petronius did not receive the emperor’s instructions until a month after his death, and naturally did not feel compelled to carry them out.


4.4.8    Claudius (ad 41–54)

399    When in the year 41 the Roman people were at last free of Caligula and the horrors he had inflicted on them, the Senate wished to avoid any repetition by restoring the republican form of government. But the praetorians, the members of the emperor’s household guards, were not in favour, seeing that their whole existence depended upon the principate. It was, then, in their interests to act quickly, before the idea of restoring the republic found favour with the people. The problem, however, was to find a suitable candidate for the emperorship. A few soldiers running through the palace, apparently in search of Caligula’s assassins, noticed two feet sticking out under a curtain. They turned out to be those of Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, who had hidden behind the curtain in terror. The praetorian guard pulled him out and declared him emperor on the spot. The Senate was faced with an accomplished fact, and had to submit in order to prevent irregularities.

400    That was how Tiberius Claudius Germanicus came to hold the reins of power. He was a son of Drusus, brother of the emperor Tiberius, but before being raised to the purple at the age of fifty, he had played only a very modest and unimportant role in the imperial family. As a result of poliomyelitis in his youth he was a cripple, and never able to overcome his debilities. Consequently, he had led a very withdrawn life, engaging in the study of history and particularly that of the Roman republic. He had his inferior and lowly position to thank for having survived the reign of Tiberius and for having escaped becoming a victim of Caligula’s insanity.

401    Though Claudius had had no schooling or experience in the affairs of state, his reign was reasonably successful. He followed the system of Augustus by working closely with the Senate. He did his best to restore the harm in Italy and beyond which Caligula had done during his short reign.

402    As far as his government of the Roman provinces was concerned, Claudius acted most discreetly, looking to the men who controlled those regions to carry out their duties. He put an end to the persecution of the Jews in Alexandria, so that peace returned to that city. Not only did he see to the safeguarding of the empire’s frontiers; his generals extended Rome’s sovereignty by conquering part of Britain, which he visited personally once peace had been restored. To commemorate that successful campaign, he gave his son the honorific title Britannicus.

403    But there were two factors which hampered his rule, causing him to do things which ensured a bad reputation for his reign. In the first place, his manumitted slaves Narcissus, Pallas and Callistus held important posts and put their own interests before those of the state. Secondly, there were his wives. When he ascended the throne, he was married to Messalina, but her infidelities led to her execution. Then he married Agrippina, daughter of his brother Germanicus and sister of Caligula. Unlike Messalina, Agrippina meddled in state matters, doing her best to set her son from a former marriage, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (later the emperor Nero), on the throne. Once she had succeeded in displacing Britannicus, Claudius’s son, and marrying Nero to Octavia, Claudius’s daughter, she made her son’s position unassailable by simply poisoning Claudius.

404    Claudius’s actions against the Jews
were somewhat ambiguous. At the beginning of his reign he revoked certain oppressive measures which the Jews had brought upon themselves by their refusal to worship the previous emperor. Moreover, he brought to an end the persecution of the Jews in Alexandria. It was also he who had made Herod Agrippa I king over the whole of Palestine—a reign of short duration, however, since he died in ad 44 (Ac 12:20–23). After that Claudius placed Palestine under the direct control of Rome and appointed a procurator. This was one of the causes for the strong surge in the resistance movement in Palestine.

405    The action of Claudius as reported in Ac 18:2 is strange: he commanded all Jews to leave Rome. Suetonius asserts that he expelled them after a riot caused by a certain Chrestus. Whether Suetonius has confused the name Chrestus with Christos (Christ), whose Gospel had already been proclaimed to the Jews in Rome, we do not know, but it is not impossible. His action is probably to be explained as stemming from the mysterious dread he cherished against alien religions which posed a threat to the Roman state religion and so to the Roman state itself.

406    The only other mention of Claudius in the New Testament is in Ac 11:28, where the prophet Agabus forecast a great famine over the whole world, which would occur during the reign of the emperor Claudius. Historians such as Eusebius, Tacitus and Suetonius also report famines in those days in various parts of the world.


4.4.9    Nero (ad 54–68)

407    Nero was only seventeen years old when he became emperor in ad 54 without the Senate or the legions outside Italy offering any opposition. At the outset two people in particular exerted a strong influence over him: Seneca, the great Stoic philosopher, and Burrus, commander of the emperor’s household guard. At the beginning of his reign, Seneca wrote to him under the title De clementia (= Concerning clemency), pointing out that compassion is the chief virtue of a ruler. At that stage it seemed as if under the new emperor, with Seneca and Burrus as his advisers, Rome would experience a new period of peace and prosperity.

408    During the first five years of his reign things certainly went well in the Roman Empire—so well that they became known as the quinquennium Neronis, which the emperor Trajan was later to regard as the best period in the history of the empire (cf. §80). When the Senate ordered images of gold and silver to be cast of him, the seventeen-year-old emperor refused. In an address to the Senate, he promised that in his kingdom the clementia Seneca recommended would be upheld. He abolished heavy taxes or reduced them, and granted pensions to leading, but impoverished, senators. He granted permission for slaves to bring complaints about the behaviour of their masters, allowed a greater measure of independence to the Senate, assisted the Jews, and encouraged various arts such as poetry and the stage.

409    But this state of affairs did not last. Various intrigues at the imperial court were partly responsible. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, did not try to conceal her ambition to have a share in the governing of the country. She saw the emperor’s friendship with Poppaea Sabina, wife of Otho, Nero’s most intimate friend, as a threat to herself. So she informed Nero that he had her alone to thank for his high position, and that Claudius’s son Britannicus, Nero’s step-brother, was actually the legal heir to the throne. As a result Nero not only removed the threat of his step-brother by having him poisoned, but in the year 59 freed himself of Agrippina on the pretext that she was planning the emperor’s assassination.

410    After that Nero knew no peace. From that moment there would always be a frenzy in everything he did. He gave himself more and more to a hedonistic life. In ad 62 the last bands were broken which had held him in check: Burrus died and was succeeded by Tigellinus, a man who would stoop to any kind of crime provided there was profit in it for him. Seneca also withdrew from the court, knowing that Nero was jealous of his fame and wealth. He would live in peace for only three short years. Poppaea Sabina and Tigellinus both hated Seneca and turned Nero against him. When a charge was brought against a nephew of the philosopher, alleging that he had taken part in a plot against the emperor, it meant the end for Seneca also. As a favour, Nero did allow him to take his own life.

411    For Nero all the brakes had been released, and nothing could stop him from repudiating his wife and marrying Poppaea Sabina. Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria and shortly afterwards murdered. It goes without saying that with such a tyrant, who could rid himself of his own closest family, no member of the Roman aristocracy was safe. The merest suspicion or possession of great wealth could be fatal. Amid the executions, banishments and confiscation of property, which made the leading citizens and the people hate their emperor, a fresh disaster hit Rome in ad 64: during the night of 18 July fire broke out in the centre of the city near the Circus Maximus, and rapidly spread to the whole city, so that the greater part of it lay in ruins. The conflagration lasted for nine days. Thousands were left homeless, all their possessions lost. Many buildings from Rome’s great past were destroyed.

412    As to the cause of the disaster, even in the ancient world people could only conjecture. The rumour spread among the people that Nero himself had started it—a rumour so persistent that later historians recorded it as established fact. According to them, he watched the fire from the Maccenas Tower, while reciting his poem, ‘The Fall of Troy’. The zeal with which he rebuilt the city afterwards gave the impression that, even if Nero had not ordered the fire, it greatly advanced his building plans.

413    It is, however, a historical fact that Nero unleashed the
brief, but large-scale, persecution of the Christians in order to shift suspicion from himself. Tacitus (Ann. 15:44) gives a description of that persecution. It was so fierce that people felt sympathy for the Christians, realizing that they were victims of one man’s ferocity—Nero’s. According to reports by early Christian writers, the apostle Peter suffered a martyr’s death during this persecution. Eusebius tells how, after preaching the Gospel in many different regions, Peter arrived in Rome; there he was arrested and crucified upside down in the Circus of Nero (Hist. Eccl. II 25:5–8). We cannot be sure of the historical accuracy of that tradition, though what is certain is that Peter died in Rome. Whether or not Paul lost his life in the same period is not certain. Possibly Nero had him executed by the sword a little earlier.

414    After two conspiracies against Nero in 65 and 66 had come to nothing, he took his own life in the year 68. Earlier that year he had returned home from a tour of Greece where he had affected to be an admirer of the arts, and then learned that the Roman governor in Galilee had rebelled against him. The rebellion was put down, but the opposition was increasing, until the Senate and the imperial guard turned against the emperor. He committed suicide on the small-holding belonging to one of his manumitted slaves, to which he had fled.


4.4.10    Vespasian (ad 69–79)

415    With the death of Nero, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end. In Spain, Galba was hailed as emperor by his troops; in Rome the household guard wanted to make Otho emperor, while the legions in Germany declared Vitellius Nero’s successor. None of these, however, could gain acceptance over the empire as a whole, so that civil war again threatened. The most unsettling feature, according to Tacitus, was the realization that someone from outside Rome could become emperor. The legions in the provinces now entered the political sphere, introducing a new phase in the history of the empire. The situation stabilized with the advent of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, a general, who would give his name to the new Flavian dynasty.

416    While Vespasian’s name does not appear in the New Testament, he is significant for the history of both Jews and Christians. In ad 68 he was fifty-eight years old, but still in full vigour. During Nero’s reign he received orders to quell a rising among the Jews in Palestine. He was still engaged in that operation when the legions in Egypt, Syria and Palestine called him as their popular general to the emperorship. He returned to Italy and took control of the empire.

417    When Vespasian became emperor, his son Titus assumed command of the siege of Jerusalem. It was only after the Romans had set fire to one of its gates that they could storm the city. Titus wished to spare the beautiful temple, but in the fighting against the Jews who were streaming out of the shrine one of the Roman soldiers threw a burning torch at the building, and it was quickly alight. After a siege of five months the city was taken and razed to the ground. Titus’s triumphal arch close to the Colosseum in Rome is a memorial to the brilliant triumphal processions the emperor and his two sons Titus and Domitian were accorded by the city in the year 71. On that arch there are depictions of the table with the shewbread and the golden seven-branched candlestick carried off from Jerusalem to Rome.

418    When Vespasian died on 23 June 79, his last words were reputedly, ‘Vae! Puto deus fio‘, which may be translated, ‘Alas! I think I am becoming a god’—from which we may infer that he was none too happy with the Roman custom of making their emperors divine. For all that, he was immediately declared a god. His humble attitude went a long way towards winning the favour of the aristocrats. Tacitus asserted that he was the first emperor to change for the better (Hist. 1:50). He was a hard worker, and the simplicity of his life was an example to the senators of his day.


4.4.11    Titus (ad 79–81)

419    Vespasian died in 79 ad at the age of sixty-nine, the first emperor since Augustus over whom there was no doubt that he died a natural death. He was succeeded by Titus, who had been co-regent with his father since the beginning of his reign. Physically and mentally he was an imposing man, who had an exceptional love for his fellows. His happy reign was, however, clouded by the shadow of a terrible natural disaster, the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum at the foot of the mountain were completely destroyed. Titus repaired them as far as possible, as he did Rome, which had suffered from plague and fire in ad 80.

420    At first he was not popular with the Romans, because, even while his father reigned, he was very severe with everybody who did not agree with the emperor. He also drew a lot of criticism for his relationship with the Jewess Bernice (see Ac 25:13), which had started while he was still in Judaea. Around the year 75, she arrived in Rome and stayed three or four years. Before his father’s death, Titus had, however, to distance himself from her. As soon as Vespasian had died, she returned, but Titus sent her back. Though the people were initially afraid of him, by his friendly attitude and his gifts he soon earned their favour.

421    In the year 81 this popular emperor died of fever, though he was only forty years of age. The whole empire was plunged into mourning. His ambitious brother Domitian, who by his intrigues had already been making a nuisance of himself, quickly ensured the power for himself.


4.4.12    Domitian (ad 81–96)

422    Titus Flavius Domitianus was ten years younger than his brother. His education, unlike his brother’s, had been neglected, because he had lost his mother at an early age and his father was always occupied with military campaigns. It soon became apparent that he could not be trusted, though he had respect for his father.

423    When on the death of Titus he ascended the throne, a moment to which he had long looked forward, he showed himself a strong ruler. He had no patience with an arbitrary administration of justice or with disobedience towards official government. The building projects begun by his father and brother he continued and completed most energetically. Generally speaking, his foreign policy was successful. But his virtues were overshadowed by his failings. He demanded that everyone kneel before him. At state meals he would sit in lonely eminence at a separate table, when his guests were forbidden to say a word. He had chosen Tiberius as his model, the personification of disdain and suspicion, but, unlike Tiberius, he insisted on the divinity of the emperor. He refused to be princeps civium (first among the citizens), demanding to be called dominus et rex (lord and king).

424    For all practical purposes Rome had become a monarchy again, something the Romans simply could not tolerate. Because he was aware of this, Domitian appointed spies and informants to report conspiracies to him. There was no lack of attempts to bring an end to his regime, but all resulted in wholesale executions. In the year 96, however, the tyrant was killed.

425    Christians, too, had to experience the emperor’s suspicion and cruelty. A bloody persecution of them broke out. This time it was not like the persecution under Nero. Now it was not confined to Rome, but spread to other parts of the empire, particularly to Asia Minor. The Revelation to John was written at this time, when John had been banished to Patmos.

426    At his death, the Senate repeated the revenge it had taken in the case of Nero by proclaiming the damnatio memoriae (the cursing of his memory). His death also marked the end of the Flavian dynasty.

427    Though Rome had been shaken by many things in the course of the first century of the empire, the empire Augustus had founded endured. In the provinces Roman influence continued undisturbed, without being adversely affected by the events in the capital.


4.4.13    Nerva (ad 96–98)

428    With the death of Domitian, the Senate introduced a change by choosing a man to be emperor who was a member of an old Roman family. This was the sixty-year-old Nerva, one of the country’s quietly living people. He was a lawyer and a highly respected judge, yet he was not a strong figure. To pacify the legions and the emperor’s guard, the new emperor adopted Trajan, one of the most famous generals, as his son and made him his colleague in ruling the empire. With these two excellent men at the helm, Rome’s ship of state seemed destined for a prosperous future. Nerva introduced strict order and economy, at court as well. He put an end to Domitian’s opulence, placing his own great ability at the state’s disposal. After a reign of only two years he died, and Trajan succeeded him.


4.4.14    Trajan (ad 98–117)

429    With Nerva the emperors began what, in terms of the teachings of the philosophers, they were equipped to do, devoting themselves to serving the community. The Stoic ideal for a ruler would now be realized, namely that the best person should rule and devote that office to the service of the community.

430    Trajan was the first man from the provinces to ascend the imperial throne. He had been born in Spain, son of a Roman family which had emigrated there. Hailing from the provinces, he was well aware of their circumstances, and did everything in his power to ensure their prosperity.

431    From his exchange of letters with Pliny the younger we gain an impression of the way this emperor went to work, especially with regard to the Christians. Pliny had written to Trajan to ask how he should act towards the Christians who stubbornly refused to renounce their faith. Trajan replied that there should be no witch-hunts. If people were accused and their guilt could be proved, they should be punished. But those who denied that they were Christians, and could confirm it by sacrificing to the Roman gods, should be pardoned, no matter how suspect their past. Anonymous accusations were not to be investigated, ‘seeing,’ as he put it, ‘that that would set a bad example and unworthy of our times.’

432    While Trajan was emperor, there was not, then, persecution of Christians as there had been during the reigns of Nero and Domitian. On the other hand, just as in the past, the Christian religion was regarded as asocial and therefore punishable. Near the end of his reign a Jewish rising broke out in the eastern part of the empire; there were many bloody casualties, but eventually it was put down.


4.4.15    Hadrian (ad 117–138)

433    Hadrian, who succeeded his adoptive father Trajan, was like him of Spanish origin. His father was cousin to Trajan. Though he was a good general, his main aim was the consolidation of the regions belonging to the empire and the safeguarding of its frontiers, rather than the expansion of Rome’s territories.

434    Hadrian was a cosmopolitan character and travelled extensively in the empire. Trajan had been the ideal Roman, and had consequently been greatly respected by the Senate. After his reign that body greeted each new princeps with the words: ‘Be more fortunate than Augustus and more honest than Trajan!’ Hadrian, by contrast, was more a Greek and a citizen of the world than a Roman of the old stamp. Thus the Greeks rejoiced at his accession. He did more than most of the other Roman emperors to unite Hellas and Rome mentally and spiritually. During his reign the western part of the empire underwent a deliberate Hellenizing process. More than half his time as emperor he spent travelling, so that he has been labelled the greatest tourist of antiquity. Everywhere he went he made the circumstances of the people his chief priority, so that bad living conditions were greatly improved. The provinces were never better off than in his time.

435    There were also, however, the darker aspects caused by his temperament. He did not possess the psychological balance or the true greatness of Trajan. At times, his inordinate power made him unreasonable,
and it was not only individuals but also nations like the Jews who had to pay for it. By prohibiting circumcision and by ordering a temple for Jupiter Capitolinus to be constructed over the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem, he roused the ire of the Jews. To a man they revolted under Bar-Kokhba in ad 132–135. That war was waged with much ferocity and ended with practically the whole Jewish nation being banished from Palestine. In the year 138 Hadrian died at the age of sixty-two, after suffering greatly from an illness which drained him physically and mentally.




G.J.D. Aalders, Imperium (§306)

H. Bengtson, Einführung (§306)

A.E.R. Boak, A history of Rome to 565 A.D., New York 1922

J. Buchan, Augustus Caesar, London 31937

M.P. Charlesworth, The Roman Empire, London 1951

B. Cunliff, Rome (§306)

H. Dessau, Geschichte (§306) I-II

W. Durant, Caesar and Christ, New York 1944

S. Duvenhage, Dekor (§82)

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 19–44

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356) II, 23–42

V. Gardthausen, Augustus und seine Zeit, Leipzig 1891–1904

E. Gibbon, The decline and fall of the Roman Empire I, London 1776 (many reprints)

M. Grant, Caesars (§306)

___, Emperors (§306)

P. Grimal, H. Bengtson, et al., Hellenismus (§306)

K. Hönn. Augustus und seine Zeit, Wien 41953

H. Koester, Introduction (§306), 281–320

I. Lissner, The Caesars. Might and madness, New York 1965, 84

A. Massie, The Caesars, London 1983

B. Reicke, Era (§82), 225–317

I.A. Richmond & F. Castagnoli, Rome, OCD
2, 925–36

M. Rostovtzeff, A history of the ancient world II, Rome-Oxford 1928

E.T. Salmon, A history of the world from 30 B.C. to A.D. 138, London 31957

H.H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero. A history of Rome from 133 B.C. to 68 A.D., New York 1959

E. Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars, London 1955

H.E. Stier, Aufstieg (§306)

H. Temporini & W. Haase (Herausg.), ANRW I/2



Cultural, economic, and social conditions in the Graeco-Roman world

    J.L. de Villiers


5.1    Hellenism and its cultural influence


5.1.1    The concept ‘Hellenism’

437    The concept ‘Hellenism’ derives from the word Hellas, the Greek name for ancient Greece. The verb hellēnizein means, first, to speak Greek, and then to live like a Greek, to imitate the Greeks in speech, clothing, sport, theatre, art, and so on. The concept as we know and use it was, however, initiated by Johann Gustav Droysen in the nineteenth century with the appearance of his Geschichte des Hellenismus, to denote the period of post-classical Greek history from the death of Alexander the Great and to the rise of the Roman Empire.

438    But we may wonder whether ‘Hellenism’ actually describes that period, seeing that in it there was a large-scale fusion of Greek and eastern cultural elements. Alexander the Great’s conquests quickly resulted in the spread of Greek culture. This Grecising of the East was carried out by him and his successors in various ways, but it did not exclude a reciprocal influence. It is, then, also a
characteristic of Hellenism that Greek and eastern cultures met and fused, bringing about their synthesis.

439    Though the designation ‘Hellenism’ is thus in a certain sense one-sided, we use it to indicate a cultural phase in human history, whose foundation was laid by Alexander the Great; it began after his death in 323 bc and lasted at least until the incorporation of Egypt (the last of the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Diadochi) into the Roman Empire in 31 bc. The precise extent of the Hellenistic period and when it ceased are, however, differently determined by scholars. Tarnab views the time of the Roman Empire as a new period, which did not belong to the Hellenistic era. Other historians date its commencement as early as the year 360 bc and extend the period from the end of the post-classical era to the end of ancient paganism. F.C. Grant asserts that Hellenism never really came to an end, seeing that its influence penetrated deeply into the entire Roman world, in the West as well as the East, and in great measure so determined the course of history that its influence can be seen as late as the Renaissance.

440    In view of these variations of opinion, it seems best to date Hellenism from a political perspective as continuing until 31 bc, and as a cultural phase extending at least to the time of the Roman Empire. The fusion of Greek cultural elements with those of eastern culture, so characteristic of the period, had particular results. In the religious sphere, for instance, there was a fusion of gods and myths: Greek religion adopted eastern features and eastern deities were equated with Greek gods—a process known as the interpretatio Graeca. On the other hand, it is difficult to obtain a uniform picture of Hellenism, since it assumed different forms in various parts of the world of that time. In Egypt, for example, the process was different from that in Asia Minor; in Palestine it differed from what happened in Mesopotamia, but basically there was a similar pattern in all areas: the meeting and fusion of Greek and eastern cultures, in which the former took the initiative.


5.1.2    The cause and the spread of Hellenism

441    The beginnings of Hellenistic culture lay in the will of one man, Alexander the Great. He aimed at founding a world empire in which his Macedonians would live side by side with Greeks and non-Greeks, enjoying the same rights, intermarrying, honouring one another’s customs and ideas, and blending the different cultures into a whole. No doubt he was relying on the ascendancy of the Greek spirit and expecting his world empire to bear a Greek hallmark.

442    This ideal which Alexander cherished had, however, though on a smaller scale, been part of the deep desire of the Greece of his day and especially of his father, Philip II of Macedon, who had aimed at bringing the Greek city states together as a unit in their fight against the Persians. When his father had ascended the throne, it had been a very critical moment in the history of Athens and of Greece as a whole. After the conflict with the Persians and the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Athens was physically and mentally exhausted. The harm the Persian incursions had caused Greece was not to be compared to the destruction of Greek lives and property through the Peloponnesian War. This latter war had demonstrated clearly that Athens was not able to unite Greece; Sparta in turn had also failed, as had the Theban hegemony. The wars and the class struggles which had waged had crippled the city states, leaving them too weak to defend themselves against the Persians. The time had been ripe for someone like Philip II of Macedon to appear on the scene and unite Greece under himself in the struggle against the Persian foe.

443    It is especially from the pen of the orator Isocrates that we learn of this desire for greater unity in Greece at that time. In the year 376 bc, like his famous mentor Gorgias, he called on Greece to forget her little city states and become one state. Isocrates was a proud Athenian, but he was also a proud Greek. For him, as for people in the subsequent Hellenistic period, what was most important was not that one belonged to a particular race, but that one shared a culture, Greek culture. As far as he was concerned, culture was the greatest human creation.

444    Alexander’s achievements were a fulfilment, but also an expansion, of these ideals. His conquests were much more than simply the military or administrative subjection of an enemy. For him and his successors the basic aim was a common culture for all people. In this process three phases may be distinguished, though they did not follow the same pattern in all the territories he conquered.

445    The first phase was marked by the rapid spread of Greek culture and civilization. Greek colonists were settled in the conquered territories, where cities with Greek names and Greek character were established. Greek soldiers along with many Greek scholars and other citizens such as merchants also settled in those areas. It was not long before gymnasia, theatres, running-tracks, museums, baths, etc., were constructed in genuinely Greek styles. Greek dress and Greek customs were adopted, particularly by the well-to-do. But this first phase actually affected only the highest strata of the population in the various places. The general populace was scarcely attracted by the Greek spirit. In fact, in most countries the Grecising process was met by opposition of one sort or another.

446    The second phase, in reaction to the first, led people to a fresh appreciation of their own cultural assets, and sometimes, as in Palestine under the Maccabees and in Egypt, to open confrontation with the Hellenistic powers.

447    We may describe the third phase as that of syncretism, which reached its zenith with the founding of the Roman Empire. With the empire administratively controlled from Rome, the genuine Hellenistic culture achieved its richest development, for, with the rise of Rome, Alexander’s dream of a world culture became a reality.


5.1.3    The influence of Hellenism

448    The usual view of the Hellenistic era and its culture is that, in contrast to the classical era of Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, this was a period in which there were no culturally creative activities. The classical era ended with the advent of Alexander the Great, giving way to the era of the epigonoi (the second generation, i.e. the descendants of the Diadochi), until eventually Rome appeared on the scene. But that idea of the Hellenistic era does not do justice to it or to its significance. It had its own vital force and made important contributions in political, cultural and technical spheres, as well as in the domains of the economy and political government, to which the Romans added their own universal system of government. Any historical atlas of that time shows a worldwide network of economic and cultural links uniting states and nations.

449    In general we can say that Hellenism created a new culture whose influence continues to be felt to this day. It produced new types of literature, while bringing the older forms to their highest development. The same was true of the technical sciences. Hellenism also had the great merit of being the channel by which the Attic intellectual attainments and cultural development became the possession of all cultures and nations. In a word, in addition to Christianity, Hellenistic culture became the basis of our civilization.

450    The influence it exerted may perhaps best be summed up in the concepts of cosmopolitanism and individualism. The most significant characteristic of the Hellenistic era may well have been the disappearance of the ancient Greek city state with its closed social structure, its own cultic activities, and its devotion to its own gods and heroes. This had the result of breaking down the dividing walls between various nationalities, social classes, religions and cultures. The people for whom Alexander’s conquests opened up new worlds and vistas could no longer be called Hellenes or Greeks in the usual sense of the words (Wendland). Differences of language disappeared, as the common Greek, the Koinē, allowed people to understand one another. It permeated every department of life—the juridical, the educational, the moral, the commercial, the industrial, and the religious. In all these spheres individualism developed as a reaction to it.

451    In the social sphere these two factors of cosmopolitanism and individualism developed as follows. As with difference in race, so difference in social standing was no longer regarded as the norm by which someone’s worth was assessed. A person’s character, what he or she actually was, became the basis of appraisal. Thus people even came to treat slaves, previously reckoned merely as merchandise, as fellow human beings, though this development was very gradual and initially remained an article in the Stoic philosophical theory. The two sexes also experienced this change in social life. The idea that a woman had the same rights as a man steadily gained ground in practical life, now that the man’s interest was no longer completely absorbed in the city state’s politics and that he could pay more attention to his domestic life. With the rise of the Graeco-Macedonian and Roman world empires, participation in the government of a country was naturally restricted to individuals. The ordinary citizen could devote more time to his own affairs, his own home and family, his own occupation and business. The basic possibility for the development of personality was now evident.

452    The result was that a free society, with freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of professional choice came into being and issued in private ownership and a flourishing economic life. Furthermore, the concept of ‘freedom’ was (if we may put it that way) ‘depoliticized’ and individualized. It was no longer so much a case of external political freedom, but of inward mental freedom. But this concept of inner freedom which was attainable by everyone, even the slave, did not abolish slavery. The real slave was the person who was inwardly chained by fear and evil, while it was possible for the physical slave to be mentally free. On the other hand, the new concept and appreciation of humanity, found particularly among the Stoics, did lead to slaves being treated better.

453    The Christian message was first proclaimed in a world which in many ways had been prepared for it. Its adherents could make use of Greek, which was understood everywhere, and the appreciation of human beings and their liberty could be linked to the emphasis that this is precisely the Gospel which is intended for all people of all sorts and conditions (Gl 3:28; Col 3:11), and that it is Christ who gives them true freedom (Jn 8:36; 2 Cor 3:17).


5.1.4    Hellenism’s influence on the Jews

454    Because of its situation, Palestine had always been exposed to influence by the cultures of the countries around it, and this was also the case in the Hellenistic era. Hellenism completely surrounded Palestine. To the south lay the powerful kingdom of the Ptolemies, who ruled over it for a century; those kings, along with their officials and soldiers, were Greeks or Macedonians with the Greek language and culture. To the east and south-east, on the edges of the desert, lived the Nabataeans, a strong Arab tribe, who controlled the trade routes from southern Arabia to Egypt. As excavations have shown, Hellenism exerted its influence even in that distant region. To the north, all along the Mediterranean coastline, were the Phoenician cities, whose coins and inscriptions yield evidence of how rapidly they changed into Greek poleis. They adopted the Greek political structure, participated in international Greek athletics, held their own athletic meetings, built gymnasia, theatres, and running-tracks and exchanged their traditional life for a Hellenistic one.

455    Tyre, Sidon and Beirut, cities not far from the borders of Palestine, quickly adopted Hellenistic culture, and there is sufficient evidence that Damascus also did so as early as the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. As is clear from the Zenon papyri, Palestine had living contact with its neighbours. Good roads crossed the country, and hundreds of Greeks visited it as officials, merchants, and tourists. But the most important channel by which Hellenism was disseminated throughout Palestine was the Greek cities. These cities can be divided into two groups: the first was situated along the Mediterranean coast from Egypt to Tyre, the second in Trans-Jordan, especially in the vicinity of the Sea of Tiberias. There were, in addition, isolated towns in Galilee, Samaria, and Idumaea. Thirty Palestinian Hellenistic cities are known to have been founded in this era or to have changed into that type of city. Acco, Dor, Joppa or Jaffa, Gaza and Ashkelon were some which received a Greek character. In Roman times, the Greek cities of Trans-Jordan were known as the Decapolis (= ten cities). According to Pliny the original ten were Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa, Canatha and Damascus (cf. also §205).

456    Following Alexander’s capture of Jerusalem and the subsequent rule of Ptolemy I, there was no significant change in the religious or social pattern of Judaism in Palestine, but in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes the Jews were forced to accept Hellenism despite their objections. Under Greek influence, Greek buildings were constructed, Greek theatres and baths introduced into the towns, and Greek customs imitated. People’s sympathy for the more sublime culture and civilization of the Greeks was so great that in the second century bc there were Jews who believed that they were related to the Spartans. In 1 Mac. 12:7f, 19–22 there is reference to a letter which Areus, king of Sparta, wrote to the high priest Onias, reporting that an ancient document had been found asserting that the Spartans and the Jews are brothers and that both descend from Abraham! This feeling went so far that in the same century a Hellenic party arose in Jerusalem to promote the acceptance of Greek ideas and practices. The priestly aristocracy in particular, as represented by the Sadducees, was in favour of Hellenistic culture.

457    The Jews outside Palestine were always exposed to the influence of their environments, though they succeeded to a great degree in maintaining their identity. But the situation changed when Hellenism made its entry into the world. An indelible mark was imprinted on the Jewish communities in foreign parts, of which Alexandria is perhaps the clearest example. Judaism’s confrontation with Hellenism in that city brought into being a distinctive Judaeo-Hellenistic culture, and Philo with his extensive literary activities was its most important representative. He was possibly the first scholar to expound the Bible on the basis of Greek philosophy. He adopted the allegorical method which the Stoics had employed to make the myths about the Greek gods acceptable to later generations.


5.1.5    The Greek language

458    The Roman Empire was a cosmopolitan entity in which the Hellenistic-Roman culture could fully develop unhindered. Everywhere in the eastern and western halves of the Empire Greek was spoken and understood, which since the time of Alexander the Great had been the common parlance in the Mediterranean area. This Greek, also known as Koinē (= common), was universally accepted as the language of commerce and international correspondence. It was simpler than the Attic Greek spoken in the era of the tragedians and of Plato, and some words had crept in from the East and from Latin. Everybody sought to master this Greek and so be accepted as a Greek and not as a hitherto despised ‘barbarian’, thus laying claim to a modest share in the culture of the Greeks, no matter how limited that share might be.

459    The language of the Greeks was spoken not only in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, but also in Rome. Greek culture had first reached Rome through Greek colonists who had settled in southern Italy some centuries earlier. But it was only after Rome had conquered Greece and had brought to the imperial city many Koine-speaking slaves that the language gained a firm foothold there. The Romans were well aware that, though they had conquered Greece, it was still their cultural and intellectual superior, which was why they were so receptive to that wealth. They learned the language of the Greeks, read their literature, and attempted to imitate their poetic art and to relate it to Roman history and Roman lives. That the use of the Koine was widespread in both East and West is attested by the large number of private letters which have been preserved from Hellenistic times. These were written on papyrus, which Egypt provided for the whole Roman Empire. Short private letters were usually individually written, though wealthy people sometimes had a scribe make notes and then compose a letter, which they themselves would sign. Important letters and documents were carefully dictated, since accuracy of formulation was all-important (cf. Rm 16:22). The conclusion would be penned in the sender’s own hand (cf. Gl 6:11).

460    The language of the New Testament is also this Koine, the colloquial language of the time, and the inscriptions, the ostraca and papyri which have been discovered have greatly assisted in the understanding of certain expressions and formulations in the New Testament. The Greek of the Septuagint with its Semitic character, of course, also had an influence on the Greek of the New Testament.

461    As far as the characteristics of the Koine are concerned, we may make the following brief points. This popular Greek of the Hellenistic era differed considerably in its grammar and sentence construction from the literary prose of the classical period. Many earlier subtle linguistic distinctions no longer existed. Not that sensitivity to the language had lessened! The linguistic mechanism was simplified and in large measure normalized. The moods and the participles were no longer used with their erstwhile Attic finesse (the optative was disappearing), while in the inflection system unnecessary forms such as the dual were eliminated. Nor were the tenses of the verb any longer so strictly or consistently distinguished. In the same way, the sharp differentiation in the significance of the prepositions was no longer a matter of consistency.


5.1.6    Diffusion centres

462    As we have already had more than one occasion to note, one of the important factors which promoted the spread of Greek culture was the large number of Greek cities founded by Alexander and his successors. There were also other centres which became Greek in character as a result of the Hellenizing process. This had been one of Alexander’s main aims, which the Seleucid rulers in Syria shared. In Egypt, on the other hand, apart from the enlarging of Alexandria, the Ptolemies paid little attention to it.

463    These cities, which were to be found in the furthest eastern corners of the empire, became centres of art and commerce. The most important of them were Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. Around the middle of the third century bc a great research institute for literature, mathematics, astronomy and medicine was founded in Alexandria, known as the Museion or Museum, and associated with it the largest library in the ancient world. Also Antioch on the Orontes, which was to play so great a part in the history of Christianity (cf. Ac 13), became a leading trade centre of the Roman Empire, second only to Rome and Alexandria. The island of Delos grew into the financial headquarters of the East, swarming with foreign buyers, commercial houses, palaces and many temples for the alien worship services. Rhodes reached its peak in the third century, when it was generally regarded as the most cultured and most beautiful city of Greece. Because of its favourable situation at one of the intersections of the trade routes through the Mediterranean area, the spacious harbours of Rhodes ousted Tyre and Piraeus as the transshipping points in the eastern Mediterranean. The merchants of Rhodes earned a good name for themselves through their fair dealing, their banks and their stable government in a world of treachery and inconstancy. Their powerful fleet, manned by their own citizens, swept the pirates from the Aegean Sea and so promoted the safety of trade. Pergamum was another beautiful city, famous for its altar of Zeus, its luxurious palaces, its library and theatre, its palaestrae and baths. Due to the number of books the library contained and to the fame of its scholars, it ranked second to Alexandria, while the pinakothēkē housed a fine collection of paintings. For half a century, Pergamum was reckoned the most beautiful of all the Hellenistic cities. All those cities enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, even though (as in the Seleucid Kingdom) they formed part of a monarchical system. In this respect they were not all that different from the city states of ancient Greece. During this period, as we shall see, science was pursued in a specialized way.


5.1.7    Cultural standards and scholarship

464    In every sphere of Hellenistic life, excepting the stage, we encounter the same phenomenon: the spread of Greek culture. Athens itself gradually declined and the Greek settlements in the West, excepting Syracuse, fell into decay. But the Greek cities of Egypt and the East reached their zenith in cultural and material achievements. Around ad 148 the historian Polybius could speak of the rapid progress which the arts and sciences were making. Through the spread of Greek as a common language a unity arose in the eastern Mediterranean area which would last for nearly a thousand years. All educated people in the new empire learned Greek as the medium of communication in the diplomatic service, in literature and in science. People spoke of the oikumenē or inhabited world as one culture, and in the course of time adopted a cosmopolitan attitude to life.

465    For this extensive public many authors wrote a great number of books. The standard of the literature might not have been that of the classical period, but there were a great many people writing books; we know the names of more than a thousand authors of that era. A cursive script developed to make writing easier, and in the fourth century before Christ there was already a system of shorthand. Books were written on papyrus and parchment. With the rapid increase in the number of books, libraries became a necessity. In earlier times they had been a luxury of the Egyptian or Mesopotamian rulers. Apparently Aristotle’s library was the first public collection of value. The Ptolemies rendered a great service to literature by founding and maintaining the famous library of Alexandria as part of the Museum. The library was soon more important than its other sections. The profession of librarian was one of the highest offices the king could grant, and it included the duty of educating the crown prince. The poet and scholar Callimachus arranged the collection of some three hundred thousand volumes in a catalogue of one hundred and twenty scrolls. A large contingent of slaves made copies of the valuable originals, while the many scholars divided the material into groups. Some of the scientists recorded the history of the various literary and scientific periods; others produced editions of the classics of the ancient world; still others compiled commentaries on the texts for the information of the laity and posterity. By the end of the third century the Museum, the library, and their scholars had made Alexandria the intellectual centre of the Greek world in every sphere excepting philosophy. Other Hellenistic cities also had libraries. We have already mentioned Pergamum, where in 196 bc Eumenes II founded the library and lured some of the foremost scholars in Greece to it. Towards the end of the Hellenistic era, Pergamum was striving to recover the linguistic purity of Greek prose and to preserve the works of the Attic authors.

466    It was a time of intellectuals and scholars, though not much original work appeared, and (as we have already pointed out) scholars busied themselves with the collection and classifying, the publishing and exposition of the literary accomplishments of the masters of the previous centuries. In this way they laid the foundation of textual and literary criticism in practically all their forms. Without their patient application, the work of the Greek masters might well have been lost to us.


5.1.8    The scientific position

467    Alexandria was the centre of Hellenistic science. Ptolemy I brought together the best scholars of the day and cared so well for their livelihood in this city that they could devote themselves uninterruptedly to science. For their research they had scientific collections and other resources available such as a library, an observatory, a zoo with rare animals and an anatomical institute.

468    The story of the development of Greek science is very interesting. Helmut Koester offers a very useful survey in this regard, and he serves as our main source. In the Hellenistic era Greek scientific enquiry reached its zenith. We know how the Greeks sought to gather knowledge of other peoples, for example, through travel. As early as the fifth century bc the Carthaginians had journeyed to Great Britain, but it was the Greek Pythias of Massilia (Marseilles) who sailed into the North Sea and reached the island of Thule six days north of Britain. Some think that Thule was the Shetland Islands, others argue for Norway, since he saw the midnight sun. In the sixth century Euthymenes, also from Massilia, had ventured along the west coast of Africa to the mouth of the Senegal or of the Niger River. As a result of such journeys, a series of books appeared called periploi, with accounts of the coasts of foreign countries. Seafarers used these writings as handbooks, while geographers consulted them for their own works. The earliest geographer and ethnographer (one who describes various peoples) was Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 560–480), who attempted to divide his map of the earth into zones. Herodotus (c. 484–430) was more interested in the description of other peoples, their ethos and customs (nomoi), as well as the nature of their country (phusis tēs chōras). In this way ethnography supplanted geography in the service of historical science for the first time. Closely related to this was the birth of medical science. In the fifth century bc, Hippocrates and other members of the medical school of Cos set out to explain or describe the connection between the physical characteristics of a country and the appearance of its people

469    In the fourth century bc astronomy as a science came into being. That the earth is round had been discovered in the previous century, but it was Heracleides Ponticos, a pupil of Plato and contemporary of Aristotle, who established that the earth rotates on its axis, and probably also assumed that some of the planets revolve around the sun. Eudoxos of Cnidus (c. 400–355/347), another member of Plato’s Academy, and with Aristotle one of the finest scholars of the fourth century, produced an authoritative description of the starry heavens, though he still believed that the sun, moon and planets moved in concentric circles around the earth. Eudoxos applied scientific principles formulated by the Pythagoreans and the Eleatics, systematizing and expanding them, so that at the beginning of the Hellenistic era Euclid (he was active in Alexandria from 306 to 283) in his Elements could in many respects establish the basic principles of mathematics because of their work. In this period practical mathematical principles, such as the law of the lever, were invoked in the construction of simple machines and in the waging of war (Koeste).

470    It was Aristotle, the natural scientist and philosopher, who carried science to its highest point in this period. In 335 bc he founded his own school, the Lyceum, in Athens, where he himself engaged in research and allowed it to be conducted in the most diverse spheres. Alongside the study of nature there was scientific work done on politics: a hundred and fifty-eight different state or governmental systems were assembled and compared with one another. Aristotle’s own particular contributions were in the spheres of meteorology, botany and zoology. In this last discipline some of his findings are still used by natural scientists. In botany he described plants which could be used medicinally. Of Aristotle’s own writings nothing has survived. His pupil Theophrastus continued his work: he compiled a classification of plants, describing their structure, and gathered together the material physicians and other travellers had entrusted to him. Consequently, scientific work in the realm of biology had already reached a high point by the beginning of the Hellenistic era (Koester).

471    Greek science’s flowering time actually occurred, however, in the second century after Alexander the Great. Contributory factors were his conquests and the influence from the East which resulted from them, as well as the scientific interest of rulers such as the Ptolemies in particular, and centres such as Rhodes.

472    In the Peripatos, Aristotle’s school, the research already commenced was continued. Next to Theophrastus, his contemporary Eudemos of Rhodes was its leading scholar. The curriculum included anthropology, hydrology and mineralogy, as well as music, with Aristoxenos as the first musicologist. A great deal of attention was also paid to the history of science. One significant result of this was the compiling of biographies of great men of the past. This school gradually lost its influence, though it remained an important centre of study for those who had an interest in political science, the history of science, biography and natural research

473    In antiquity mathematics reached a high point in Archimedes of Syracuse (born in 287 and killed in 212 bc by a Roman soldier during the capture of Syracuse). Koester mentions the following achievements of this remarkable man: A great many mathematical calculations and geometric discoveries which science owes to antiquity can be traced back to him. He used the Greek letter pi to indicate the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its diameter and calculated that pi must represent an amount between 310/70 and 310/71, i.e. between 3,1428 and 3,1408. The relationship or value accepted today is 3,1416! The knowledge that an object in water (or a liquid) loses the same weight as that of the water displaced is known to this day as ‘the law of Archimedes’. He also studied practical mathematics and physics, so that he was able to develop a machine which could be used to pump water in ships and in irrigation. He also devised defence mechanisms by which he helped to counter the Roman attacks on Syracuse.

474    Koester draws attention to the remarkable fact that the most ingenious astronomical discovery in the Hellenistic era was made right at the beginning of it: the discovery or the anticipation of the Copernican world view by means of the heliocentric system of Aristarchus of Samos (first half of the third century bc). He taught that the sun is about three hundred times greater than the earth, that the earth and all planets revolve around the sun, and further that the earth rotates on its axis. But Aristarchos was charged with blasphemy by the Stoic Cleanthes and could not defend his theory to the end, with the result that the old world view persisted. Yet there were important astronomical discoveries in this period, due in part to a significant contribution by Babylonian astronomy, as relevant Babylonian material was translated into Greek in the course of the third century bc. But we cannot be absolutely certain of the extent to which the leading astronomer of antiquity, Hipparchos of Nicaea, who worked at Rhodes from 160 to 125, used Babylonian calculations. His most notable discovery was the precise determination of the equinoxes. He also calculated the length of the year, differing from our own by a mere six minutes and twenty-six seconds. He estimated the moon’s circumvolution as twenty-nine days, twelve hours, forty-four minutes, and two and a half seconds—just one second more than the present figure. He compiled a stellar catalogue of eight hundred fixed stars, divided into three groups according to their brightness.

475    With the discovery that the earth is round, the way was opened for the scientific study of geography (Koester). Alexander the Great had paved the way for this with his policy of surveying a country once he had conquered it, chiefly so as to have a map of it drawn. Eratosthenes, the leading geographer of antiquity, also published philosophical and mathematical works and a history of comedy. From 246 bc he was librarian of Alexandria. He developed a system by which he could map all known countries. He argued that all the oceans were linked together and that the inhabited earth—Europe, Africa, and Asia—must be an island; therefore it was possible to circumnavigate the earth. He calculated its circumference, and was only three hundred kilometres out in his results. Hipparchus the astronomer would later query the cartographical efforts of Eratosthenes, and would seek to determine the latitude and longitude of as many places as possible through the co-operation of observers in various localities.

476    As for medicine, progress in anatomy was due chiefly to the physicians Herophilus and Erasistratus who worked in Alexandria in the third century bc, and bequeathed their bodies for dissection. From a later report we learn that the bodies of criminals condemned to death were also dissected. Herophilus succeeded in discovering the nervous system and perhaps the blood’s circulatory system as well. These two colleagues were able to confirm the discovery of Alcmaeon that the brain, not the heart, is the centre of human consciousness. Previously it had been held that the arteries were full of air. Increasing knowledge of anatomy, together with the use of narcotics like opium and atropine, meant that surgery could become an autonomous branch of medical science (Koester).

477    It was in the Hellenistic period that philology first developed into a scientific discipline through the expansion of grammar and the editing and reissuing of texts. Several generations of scholars in Alexandria were engaged in this activity, of whom Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 216–144 bc) was the most notable. Copies of original writings were collected, compared, and corrected, making new editions possible. To this end commentaries, monographs and glossaries were compiled, greatly assisting the work of editing the texts. Alexandria spearheaded these operations from the beginning of the third century before Christ until the third century of the Christian era. Christian scholars like Origen, Lucian of Antioch and Eusebius of Caesarea could associate their work on the text of the Greek Bible with this tradition (Koester).

478    In conclusion we would point out that really original research took place up to and during the first century bc. What followed would be the collating and systematizing of data from the earlier period (Koester). That was not, however, the case in every sphere. It was his medical profession which brought a great physician like Rufus of Ephesus to the fore amid the quackery, magic and sorcery of the imperial era. During the reign of the emperor Trajan at the beginning of the second century ad, he collected and clarified his predecessors’ knowledge of anatomy; through his account of the various symptoms of illness he contributed greatly to the development of internal medicine. His contemporary, Soranus of Ephesus, was responsible for advancing ancient knowledge of obstetrics and infant care to a high level.

479    The leading physician in Roman times was Galen of Pergamum (ad 130–199). With his wide experience as a medical practitioner, supplemented by his own research, he summarized ancient medical knowledge in most areas, publishing many works. In all respects these show that Galen’s own judgement was frequently better than that of his predecessors. His was not only the last great medical work of antiquity; it was also its final high point as far as natural science was concerned (Koester). It remained the authoritative book on medical theory and praxis until the end of the Middle Ages.


5.1.9    Hellenistic art and literature

480    Typical of the art and architecture of that era was its colossal character; the altar of Zeus in Pergamum, the temple of the Olympic Zeus in Athens, the temple of Apollo at Didyma and the temple of Artemis (Diana) in Ephesus were examples of this. The island of Rhodes, which remained independent in the conflict with the Diadochi and grew into a flourishing commercial state, became a home for famous artists and scientists. The Laocoon group is one of the most famous works of the Rhodes art school. The Colossus of Rhodes, a bronze statue of the sun god who was the protector of the capital, was characteristic of contemporary taste, standing as it did more than thirty metres in height. Regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, it was apparently so huge that one was not able to grasp its thumb. In 225 bc the statue, which had taken twelve years to construct at a cost of three hundred talents, was destroyed by an earthquake in a matter of moments.

481    Just as in its literature, a further feature of Hellenistic sculpture was its realism. Classical art, as we know it from the works of sculptors like Phidias and Praxiteles, gave expression to a quiet and sublime repose. The sculptors of the Hellenistic era, by contrast, saw their task as reviving movement. They did not flinch from the pain of capital punishment or the agonizing cry of despair—as witness ‘the dying Galilean’.

482    Painting flourished in this era. The best painters, like the sculptors, preferred tragic and gripping events. One of the foremost names in Greek painting was Appelles.

483    In the sphere of literature the high standards of the classical period were not attained, though poets like Theocritus of Sicily, Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus of Cyrene produced works which retain their worth to this day. As for drama, the ‘new comedy’ found its best exponent in Menander, whose concept of human beings and their feelings gave him the nickname of ‘the Shakespeare of the ancient world’. Historical works were more popular and read more widely than previously, as Polybius strove to promote the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. His account of the years from 221 to 146 bc is very important.


5.2    Economic life


5.2.1    Commerce

484    It was in the Hellenistic era that economic life gained its international and capitalistic character. Factors which promoted the rise of world commerce were the worldwide empire which Rome brought into being, the pax Romana (the peace dominating that empire) and the linguistic unity of the known world, as well as the single universal culture upheld on every hand. The Roman Empire offered protection against robbers on land and sea and maintained a network of roads which facilitated travel between the various countries. A relatively stable coinage also fostered commerce.

485    But this process had already begun before Rome appeared on the scene, in the Seleucid kingdom, for instance. Under its protection, the economy of Asia flourished. The valleys of the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Jordan and the Orontes were irrigated by a canal system overseen by the state. Commerce and the cities became very specialized: Miletus, for example, was a bustling textile centre, while Antioch imported raw materials which were processed into consumer goods. The entire Hellenistic economy hinged on its commerce, which produced large fortunes, helped build great cities, and provided work for an ever-increasing number of people. Monetary transactions almost entirely replaced the barter trade. The governments of Egypt, Rhodes, Seleucia, Pergamum and other cities brought hard cash into circulation which was sufficiently stable and of equivalent value to facilitate international trade. Banks were created everywhere, providing state and special credit. Ships also became larger and faster.

486    But the developments in the economic sphere also brought their difficulties. The rich became richer, the poor poorer, especially in Italy. There the free or tenant farmers were driven off the latifundia (the large landed estates), particularly in Campania, so that their land could be given to the army veterans. They streamed into Rome, where they had to receive state assistance, thus creating the conditions of poverty which Augustus and the other emperors tried to ameliorate. In general, the emperors sought to improve economic conditions in the provinces and to raise the standard of living.


5.2.2    Labour

487    The important place which slave labour occupied in the ancient world left its mark on all ideas about labour and the various professions. Cicero (Off. 1:42) graded professions, to show which were less honourable. Slaves were not mentioned, seeing that, in the ancient view, they did not follow a ‘profession’. Nor were gladiators, actors and athletes specifically listed, since their professions were regarded as less honourable. Manual labour came lower on the list than any other form of work, while an occupation with limited emoluments was not fitting for a respectable man, since it showed that he was dependent upon it.

488    To be a landowner stood highest on the list, for it liberated one from being concerned with material things. In classical Greece—and eventually in Rome as well—there was the notion that the only proper professions were those relating to politics, philosophy, education and poetry. Among the Romans the profession of officer was also highly regarded. The contempt for manual labour reached such proportions in Rome that the crowds regarded it as their right to be provided with corn by the state—hence the cry, Panem en circenses! (= We want bread and circuses!), in other words, a demand for food and games. There was, moreover, the custom among wealthy Romans of surrounding themselves with people (not slaves, but free Roman citizens) in order to boost their prestige. For services rendered they reimbursed those people with money and foodstuffs.

489    The Stoic views which were disseminated more and more widely in this period also fostered a certain disdain for manual labour. The Stoic philosophers taught that external things like wealth and poverty, and high or humble positions in society, could not affect a person’s essential worth; consequently in every life-situation one had to endeavour to protect one’s inner freedom from external things. Thus it did not matter if one was a slave, an emperor, a manual labourer or a politician; one had simply to apply oneself to fulfilling the role Providence had allotted. Yet this depiction in relation to assessing manual labour is not exhaustive and partly one-sided. There is also evidence from the ancient world that there were those (not slaves) who worked hard to provide for themselves and their families, and who found happiness in doing so, despite the contempt the more affluent and the more educated displayed for manual labour.


5.2.3    Roads and road transport

490    Traffic on land and sea was much heavier than one might have supposed. The various parts of the Roman Empire were connected by trunk roads and fixed sea routes, so that we may well speak of world traffic. Along those roads radiating from Rome in all directions to the frontiers of the empire, the legions, caravans and individual travellers journeyed. Of the last group we must refer first to the merchants. What they carried and sold may be inferred from Rv 18:12–16. How they travelled may be gleaned from an inscription on the grave of Flavius Zeuxis, a merchant of Hierapolis in Phrygia, which stated that he had made no less than seventy-two trips from Phrygia to Rome!

491    Then there were soldiers and officials, artists and actors, and missionaries as well. It was not only the apostles of Jesus Christ who undertook journeys, but all manner of pagan religions and philosophical trends had their own preachers and propagandists. Many tourists travelled about to see the sights. Just as today people visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the grave of Napoleon, in the old world they took a trip to see the grave of Achilles or the pyramids and the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt. On the latter, the names of seventy-two tourists were inscribed, some with poems added. There is also evidence that maps for travellers were available in the shops, as well as travel guides they could consult. One of the best known was compiled by Pausanias for use by travellers to Greece. A highly placed officer in the reign of Augustus drew a large map of the new empire.

492    The Roman Empire was provided with more and better roads than most countries before ad 1850. Though these roads were not wide, they were so well made that remains of them can still be seen and some are still in use. They were straight, and ran over the hills and through the valleys. They were usually constructed of three layers of material: the statumen, consisting of stone and cement; the rudera, of gravel and broken stone; and the upper surface, of large stones accurately laid side by side. Some of these roads were famous in the ancient world. The Via Appia was the highway between Rome and southern Italy; it ran from Rome through Capua to Brindisi. From Brundisium (as it used to be called) the traveller could sail east to Dyrrachium on the coast of Illyricum. From there the Via Egnatia traversed Illyricum and Macedonia to Byzantium, the present Istanbul. Another road ran from Troas to Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor, then inland and east through Laodicea and Colossae to Antioch in Pisidia; from there it continued south through Iconium and Derbe, through the pass known as the Cilician Gates to Tarsus and Antioch in Syria. From Antioch roads ran east to the River Euphrates, where they joined the trade routes to India. Other notable roads were the Via Flaminia, the Claudia Augusta, the Via Aurelia, the Via Augusta, and the Via Domitia.

493    The vehicles on these roads varied according to the means of the travellers. Some, like Paul, went on foot. Others rode on donkeys. The more affluent rode horses and mules, while officials and the elite used light vehicles of various kinds (cf. Ac 8:28ff). Along the roads there were inns where travelers could eat or spend the night, but they were usually so inadequate that wherever possible people made use of the hospitality of friends. While the Roman authorities did what they could to ensure the greater safety of those who travelled, there was always the danger of brigands, as Paul found out (2 Cor 11:26).


5.2.4    Shipping

494    Commerce made great use of navigation. The Mediterranean Sea was well provided with good harbours, which were very busy from March to November, the safe season for voyaging (Ac 27:12). Alexandria was the most important port, seeing that Egyptian corn was shipped from there to Rome. Alexandrian ships were the largest and the best. Some of them had a length of sixty-one metres overall, displacing twelve hundred tons. The largest vessel known to us carried one thousand two hundred passengers in addition to its cargo. Paul sailed for Rome in a ship which had two hundred and seventy-six passengers, Josephus in one with six hundred. Most of the Alexandrian ships were used to supply Rome with corn. Under Claudius, the Roman government subsidized their maintenance so that the imperial city could be assured of a regular supply of grain for the needs of its citizens. Paul twice sailed in an Alexandrian vessel (Ac 27:6; 28:11). The second of these was named Dioscuri, i.e. Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus. These two deities were regarded as the protectors of seafarers. On deck stood their statues, to which daily sacrifices were offered. Since there were no regular schedules for passengers, they travelled by the larger commercial ships. But there were exceptional occasions when ships would be chartered for the exclusive transport of pilgrims on festive occasions. So, for instance, ships must have conveyed Jews from various parts of the empire for the festivals in Jerusalem.

495    Warships were lighter and faster than the commercial vessels, and were usually propelled by galley slaves. Ships with two, three, or five banks of oars one above the other were not uncommon, and some had as many as ten banks.


5.2.5    The postal system

496    The state made no official provision for the conveyance of passengers or the despatch of postal articles from individuals, with the result that they themselves had to see to the delivery of their letters. Nor did their correspondence reach its destination quickly, as may be seen from the fact that a letter from Syria to Cicero in Rome took a hundred days to reach him.

497    The emperors established their own travel and postal services, the cursus publicus, by which their decisions could be sent to the provinces and official travellers could journey to the frontiers of the empire. The imperial couriers reached their destinations fairly rapidly. According to the records, it took them sixty-three days from Rome to Alexandria along the northern overland route, and fifty-four days to reach Caesarea. It was the emperor Augustus who instituted this courier service, along with a kind of ministry of transport to see that everything ran smoothly. The use of vehicles, horses and inns was mostly restricted to imperial officials; very seldom were these facilities extended to ordinary people. Each section of the road had its own supervisor, with his own staff to maintain the road, the vehicles and the rest-houses, and to look after the travellers. All these people were paid salaries out of the state treasury.

498    There was a standard list of those persons who could make use of these travel conveniences, and each traveller could take one servant to see to the baggage, while each vehicle was attended by two or three guards, whose duties were to ensure that nothing was stolen and to protect the travellers from robbers. There were two types of transport: the express service or cursus velox, which used the fastest horses, and the cursus clabularis or heavy transport, which was normally used to transport goods.


5.3    Social conditions


5.3.1    The family, family life, and the place of women

499    Like most other nations in ancient Europe and the Near East, the Greeks and Romans originally had a strong patriarchal family system. The family was a miniature state under the absolute authority of the pater familias (=
father of the family), whose rule over it was similar to the imperium of the early Roman consul. He could sell his own children, pack them off, or even put them to death. The sole restriction on him was the unwritten law that he had to summon a family council whenever serious breaches of the family code occurred. When the pater familias died, all male members of the family received their personal liberty, and when they married, they in turn were vested with the authority of the pater familias. A woman could never escape tutelage. As long as she remained unmarried, she was under the authority of her father or of another male blood relation, while a married woman came under her husband’s authority. The marriage was arranged without her by her father or guardian and the bridegroom’s father; with the payment of a sum of money as compensation for the loss of her services, she was transferred from one household to the other. She possessed no property apart from her own personal wardrobe; if she had a dowry, it went to her husband. Should she not satisfy him, she would be sent back to her own family or given to another man.

500    Yet in the home the wife occupied a position of dignity: she could take part in discussions concerning family affairs, receive visitors, and appear in public. Divorce or the dissolution of a legal marriage was not easy. The marriage age was low, eighteen to twenty for young men, thirteen to fifteen for girls.

501    The history of the Greek and Roman family in the Hellenistic era is chiefly characterized by a change in the patriarchal set-up, which was broken down through various factors and circumstances, to be replaced by a more moderate system. The scattering of the family as a result of trade, colonization or war undermined the authority of the pater familias. But the main reason for the change from the patriarchal system was the growing conviction that the individual should enjoy greater freedom, with the result that a woman’s total subservience was no longer tolerated. This process, however, was a gradual one, and the change did not take place everywhere in the same way.

502    During the imperial Roman era there was another change: now a woman did not come under her husband’s authority when she married, but remained under her father’s power, so that her husband had no right to her personal property. Divorce also became easier and became much more frequent. This process had been introduced prior to the imperial era; Julius Caesar, for instance, was married four times, while Sulla and Pompey each had five wives in succession. But this was just one aspect of the general trend in the breakdown of family life. Though the emperor Augustus tried to save the marriage situation by legislation passed in 18 bc, he could not achieve very much.

503    Various factors combined to cause the decline of married and family life. Material prosperity brought great temptations to the Roman family. Among the more affluent in the large cities there was increasing moral decay. Slavery also contributed to it, as more and more opportunities became available for people who could not control themselves. But it was the Greek influence in particular which imperilled Roman married life. The marriage laws in Greece were not all that different from those in Rome, but certain philosophical attitudes regarding marriage brought it into discredit, even to the point of suggesting that it was merely a necessary evil. Immorality was encouraged by certain cultic practices in pagan temples. In Corinth, for example, the temple of Aphrodite is reported to have had a thousand girls who were prostitutes.

504    Yet this depiction of the decay in marriage is a trifle one-sided. There were also marriages which were founded on love and mutual trust, as some of the ancient epitaphs testify.

505    In the time of the New Testament, the apostles—and especially Paul—who moved around the Graeco-Roman world, took issue with this moral decline. It is especially in his letters to the Romans, the Corinthians and the Thessalonians that we find evidence of Paul’s concern and hear his warnings against it (cf. Rm 1:24–27; 1 Cor 6:12–20; 7:10–16; 1 Th 4:2–5). The Christian standpoint concerning marriage and the relationship between man and wife is also clearly set out (1 Cor 7; Eph 5:22f; Col 3:18f).


5.3.2    The place of the individual and the child

506    As we have already noted, Hellenism gave rise to cosmopolitanism and individualism. To a considerable extent the disappearance of the city state promoted this. The ties of the state, society, and religion which had bound people together became looser. The individual found the opportunity and the freedom to be himself—something more easily achieved in a monarchy than in a city state. One could now give more attention to one’s own life and to the development of one’s own personality. So people began to want to act as individuals and to establish their individuality.

507    Morality was no longer forced upon them by the authority of the state, but became a matter for the individual conscience. In the current philosophy, the practical interest was very strong, with the emphasis falling on the development of the individual. The Stoics’ apathy, the Epicureans’ tranquillity of mind, and the Sceptics’ ataraxia (imperturbability) had one thing in common: the ethical ideal of a person’s independence from external circumstances. The wise man, who stood unmoved above all the events of his life, dependent neither on human love nor on human hate, was regarded as the ideal. The individualizing which became evident in many spheres was also clearly discernible in the literature of the period. This was when biography as a literary form originated. The great personalities in history now enjoyed special attention. Polybius, for instance, stresses the significance of personalities for human history, while Sallus and Tacitus relate history in terms of the people who were active at the time.

508    In the Hellenistic world, the worth of the child was generally recognized, and along the lines laid down in Athens, he was brought up and educated. Rome subsequently also abandoned the former strictly military education and concentrated on bringing her growing children into contact with the intellectual world of the Greeks. The Hellenistic world had, however, to grapple with the problem of too many mouths to feed, so that from 230 bc families with only one child were usual in Greece (Tarnab). Furthermore, unwanted babies—girls in particular—were exposed so that they would die. The child mortality figures were very high in any case. In Rome, material prosperity led to a drop in the numbers of children, so that births had to be subsidized and childlessness was made a punishable offence. Yet children were generally treated with love, and there was a loving relationship between parents and their children. Children could also take part in religious activities.

509    Their education was considered most important. The Hellenistic era may also be described as one of education (Greek: paideia). Marrouw regards Hellenism as ‘a culture of paideia‘ in contrast to the preceding period which he calls ‘the culture of the city state, the polis‘. Some time before Alexander the Great appeared on the scene, Isocrates had broken down the dividing walls between Greeks and non-Greeks by regarding all who had enjoyed a Greek education as better Greeks than those who were simply Greek by birth. A century later, under Stoic influence and in defence of Alexander, Eratosthenes asserted that there should no longer be any distinction between Greek and non-Greek, but between virtue and vice. The virtuous man was one who had a feel for law, for the community, for education and for oratory. Thus the Hellenistic era produced a new human image in which paideia played a key role.

510    Alexander’s conquests also
gave further stimulus to education along Greek lines. The Graeco-Macedonian soldiers, officials and merchants set up their customary institutions, the Greek school and gymnasium, in the larger towns and cities of the conquered territories. Both of these were established and developed on a private and a communal basis. The papyri discovered in Egypt afford good evidence of this. The schools protected the Greeks from being assimilated into the indigenous environment, and provided the foundation on which Greek culture would be built. The mingling of Jewish and Greek culture in Egypt from the third century bc must be chiefly attributed to the access the Jews had to Greek education. In the Greek schools, the educational programme was as follows: from seven to fourteen years of age the child attended the elementary school, and from fourteen to eighteen the secondary, after which he underwent two years of military training. In the elementary school the child was taught to read, write, count, and perhaps draw, with physical education and music by a special teacher. At the age of fourteen, the boy went to the high school where he was taught literature, particularly the Iliad of Homer and poetry in general, as well as advanced mathematics by a special tutor. In Rome, the senior scholars had up to seven or nine artes liberales. Cicero lists philosophy, mathematics, music, literature and public speaking, while Varro supplements the list with astronomy, medicine and architecture.

511    In the ancient world we come across the interesting phenomenon of the paidagōgos, the slave who had to keep an eye on the boy, accompany him to school each day to protect him and take note of his behaviour, and punish him if he did wrong (cf. Gl 3:24).

512    Further development was the concern of the schools of philosophy, like Plato’s Academy and the itinerant Sophists. These latter were sceptical of the philosophers’ claims that they could lead people to the truth. Consequently, their instruction was especially of a literary and scientific kind, with much attention paid to public speaking. Education was seen as a lifelong process. As Seneca put it, we must learn as long as we lack knowledge, and that means our whole life long.


5.3.3    Slavery

513    Ancient society was characterized by the gulf between those who were free and the slaves. The institution of slavery, then, exerted a great influence on family life and on the entire ancient world. A slave did not count as a person, but as the property of his owner, who could treat him as he wished. He could decide to buy him or sell him, to punish him or reward him. Roman law did, however, impose a certain limitation on the owner’s authority, since gross maltreatment was prohibited. Only a judge could decide if a slave was to be condemned to a fight with animals, and there was provision whereby a slave could lodge complaint over brutal ill-treatment. All the same, slaves had extremely few rights. They had no legal individuality. Though a slave could not contract a marriage, it was tacitly accepted that a male and a female slave could live together as man and wife. In some cases it was possible for slaves to save money, but the owner’s absolute authority was not thereby diminished.

514    The number of slaves was enormous, since many prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves to be sold. Others had been caught by slavers. Slaves’ children were also slaves, while many foundling children rejected by their parents grew up as slaves. There are no accurate statistics concerning the number of slaves in the Roman Empire, though it has been asserted that less than half of the population was actually free. The price of a slave was low, so that wealthy people kept large gangs of slaves, setting them to work in their hundreds on their estates and farms, and employing them in their commercial undertakings. To own no slaves was just as serious as having no money or house. The possession of three or four slaves was a sign of poverty; ten was scarcely sufficient; two hundred was quite a lot. But anyone who really wanted to count in society had to be able to call a thousand slaves his own. Pliny (Nat. Hist. XXXIII:135) reported the highest recorded number of slaves in the possession of one master to have been 4,116! A slave’s worth was determined by his or her health and physical stamina.

515    On the other hand, it was possible for slaves, especially those who had served their owners well, to obtain their manumission. As a matter of fact many slaves were set free by the age of thirty (Alföldy). One possibility to be manumitted was for them to save money to purchase their liberty for themselves. The ransom procedure was for the sum of money to be deposited in the temple of a god, and for the priest of that temple to pay it to the owner. The manumitted slave could return to the land of his birth or remain where he was. Seeing that it was a frequent occurrence for slaves to be ransomed in Rome, the composition of its citizens gradually changed. If the former owner was a Roman citizen, the ransomed slave received Roman citizenship with certain qualifications, though his children after him became full Roman citizens (see for further details Alföldy)..

516    But a slave could also be freed without this sacral routine being followed. In Rome it often happened that, as the owner’s last act of kindness, his will provided for his slaves to be set free. Sometimes they would receive money at the time of their liberation, more especially if they had served in positions of trust. As free people they would go on working, and many of them came to be highly respected, as they were accorded status and amassed wealth. Fearing that the manumission of slaves would result in the thinning of Roman blood and the decline of Roman customs and traditions, the emperor Augustus decreed that only a limited number of slaves could be set free in a single will.

517    The dark picture writers draw of the maltreatment of slaves in the old world is certainly one-sided. There are epitaphs in which owners express gratitude towards their slaves. A large part of the young Christian Church was made up of slaves. This is why Paul sometimes refers to them explicitly and includes them in his prescriptions for the household (see Eph 6:5–8; Col 3:22–25; 1 Tm 6:1f; Tt 2:9f). His letter to Philemon sets out very well the change the Gospel produces in the relationship between owner and slave.




G. Alföldy (tr. C. Helm), The social history of Rome, Baltimore 2.paperb.1991

R.H. Barrow, Slavery in the Roman Empire, London 1928

F. Baumgarten, R. Poland & R. Wagner, Die hellenische Kultur, Leipzig-Berlin 31913

F.A.G. Beck, Greek education 450–350 bc, Oxford 1964

G.W. Botsford & E.H. Sihler, Hellenic civilization, New York 1915

A.C. Bouquet, Everyday life in New Testament times, London 1970

W. Bousset, Jüdisch-christlicher Schulbetrieb in Alexandria und Rom, Göttingen 1915

K.R. Bradley, Discovering the Roman family, New York-Oxford 1991

J. Burckhardt (Herausg. von F. Stähelin & S. Merian), Griechische Kulturgeschichte I-IV, Berlin-Leipzig 1930–1931

J.B. Bury, E.A. Barber et al., Hellenistic age (§306)

J. Carpocino, Daily life in ancient Rome, New Haven 1940

M. Cary, The Greek and Roman world, London 1940

S. Dill, Roman society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, London 1904; New York 1956

___, The Roman city in the last century of the Western Empire, New York 21910

S. Dixon, The Roman family, Baltimore-London 1992

B. Farrington, Science and politics in the ancient world, London 1939

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 45–136

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356) II, 64–107

T. Frank (ed.), An economic survey of ancient Rome I-V, Baltimore 1933–1940

K.J. Freedman, Schools of Hellas, London 1907; 3rd rev. ed. by M.J. Rendall, 1922

L. Friedländer (tr. J.H. Freese & L.A. Magnus), Roman life and manners under the early Empire I-IV, London 1910–1913

P. Garnsey & R. Saller, The Roman Empire. Economy, society and culture, London 1987

J.F. Gartner & T. Wiedeman, The Roman household. A sourcebook, London-New York 1991

G. Glotz, Ancient Greece at work, London-New York 1926

___, The Greek city and its institutions, London 1929

L. Goodwater, Women in antiquity: an annotated bibliography, Metuchen 1975

F.C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament, New York 1962

M. Grant, The world of Rome, London 1960

T.L. Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, Oxford 21960

___, History of Greek mathematics I-II, Oxford 1921

W. Jaeger (tr. G. Highet), Paideia: The ideals of Greek culture I-III, Oxford 1943–1945

I. Jenkins, Greek and Roman life, Cambridge Mass. 1987

A.H.M. Jones, The Roman studies in ancient economic and administrative history, Oxford 1974

W.E. Kaegi & P. White (ed.), University of Chicago Readings in Western civilization: 2. Rome: Late Republic and Principate, Chicago-London 1987

H. Koester, Introduction (§356), 39–120

M.R. Lefkowitz & M.B. Fant, Women’s life in Greece and Rome, London 1982

N. Lewis & M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization I-II, New York 1951–1955

H. Licht, Sittengeschichte Griechenlands I-II & Supplement, Stuttgart 1925–1928

H.I. Marrouw (tr. G. Lamb), A history of education in antiquity, London-New York 1956

M.P. Nilsson, Die hellenistische Schule, München 1955

L. Paul, Ancient Rome at work, London-New York 1927

W. Ramsay, Roads and Travel in the New Testament, DB(H), extra vol., 375–402

B. Rawson (ed.), The family in ancient Rome: New perspectives, Ithaca-New York 1986

M.I. Rostovtzeff, Hellenistic world (§356)

___, The social and economic history of the Roman Empire I-II, Oxford 21957

G. Sarton, A history of science I-II (Vol.2: Hellenistic science and culture of the last three centuries bc), Cambridge Mass. 1952

A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman society and Roman law in the New Testament, Oxford 1963

W.W. Tarn, Hellenic civilization, London 1927 (= Tarna)

___, CAH VI, ch. 12–13 (= Tarnb)

J. Wachner (ed.), The Roman world I-II, London-New York 1987

P. Wendland, Kultur (§356)

T. Wiedeman, Adults and children in the Roman Empire, New Haven-London 1989



The Roman government and judicature

    J.L. de Villiers & G.M.M. Pelser


6.1    The Roman governmental system: a broad survey


6.1.1    Introductory

519    In the Roman Empire there were basically three kinds or groups of people: the Roman citizens, the free inhabitants of the provinces, and the slaves. Roman citizenship had originally been restricted to the citizens of Rome, but in the imperial era it was extended to include all free citizens in Italy, and later still certain people in the provinces were granted this status. The following privileges were enjoyed by a Roman citizen: he had the right to help elect the governing body of the city of Rome; he was exempt from personal taxes; in Rome and in the provinces he could be tried only by Roman courts. He could not be tortured or flogged, nor could he be imprisoned without conviction (cf. Ac 16:37; 22:25,29). It was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen or to throw him to the wild beasts or to sentence him to forced labour. In legal proceedings, a Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor (Ac 25:11f). Moreover, Roman citizenship was hereditary (Ac 22:28).


6.1.2    The emperor

520    When Octavian returned in triumph to Rome after the Battle of Actium in 31 bc, he was on the crest of the wave. In the period 30–27 bc, the Roman principate was established, and Augustus (as he was now honoured) officially became the princeps (the first citizen) and thereby also the princeps senatus (the first in the Senate), i.e. the first to express himself in that body. This made the position of Augustus unassailable, so that the year 27 bc must be regarded as the beginning of the Roman Empire, a system of government which would dominate the next three centuries. It succeeded the previous republican system, though it did not entirely replace it. The republican system retained a limited power and at least an important symbolic significance by allowing the perception that the sovereignty resided in the Roman people and not the emperor.

521    Thus the principate was not just a monarchy, though the highest authority was de facto vested in the emperor as the first citizen. He was formally nominated by the Senate, though after his accession to office he had the most say. While the situation naturally varied from one emperor to the next, depending on the person involved, there was seldom any despotism on his part, seeing that he would only hurt himself by ignoring the republican institutions and the will of the people. Consequently, there was more than a symbolic significance to the acknowledgement by most emperors that their authority, their actual ‘office’, was conferred on them by the people. The principate as an institution of peace and justice was pervaded by a different spirit from that of the earlier eastern and Hellenistic monarchies.

522    The emperor combined several offices in his person: he was commander in chief of the Roman army outside Italy; he had direct control over all the imperial provinces, in fact wherever there were soldiers stationed; he enjoyed legal immunity, and had the right of veto over all laws and every decision taken by officials, while in legal matters he was the highest court of appeal. In addition, he formally held the office of
pontifex maximus
(high priest).


6.1.3    The orders

523    After the institution of the principate, an essential prerequisite for any overhaul of the administration was the reorganization of the orders from which officials were to be recruited.

524    In Roman society there were three orders. These were


525    a. The senatorial order, the highest, the repository of the best Roman traditions and the purest Roman blood.


526    According to tradition
the Roman Senate was called into being by Romulus when he selected a body of a hundred leading citizens to form a council supporting his rule. The number was subsequently increased several times, until there were nine hundred senators in Julius Caesar’s time. Augustus reduced the number to six hundred. Senators could be recognized by the scarlet edge to their togas and by the best seats reserved for them in the theatre.


527    Members of the Senate were generally affluent people whose wealth was derived from their estates and from shares in commerce and industry. Though it was formally forbidden for them to engage in business transactions, they got around it by making use of agents, managers and members of the family who were not themselves senators. Membership of the Senate was not hereditary, and so the senators, who were all former magistrates, had to be elected to the position. When, however, someone once occupied this public office, he automatically became a senator for life. This gave his family and his descendants an advantage above others to be chosen for this position, so that the trend developed for certain families to serve as political functionaries for generations. Seeing that all Roman politicians had to be particularly well off, this prevented ordinary citizens from aspiring to become senators.

528    The young members of the senatorial families who were interested in a political career (cursus honorum) and who were successful, usually commenced with ten years’ military service as tribunus militum (age 16–26), advancing through the positions of quaestor (27), tribunus plebis (30–35), aedilis curulis or plebis (37), and praetor (40), to consul (42).


529    The rank of tribunus militum was that of a junior officer in the army. A quaestor was a magistrate who could be appointed to administrative duties in Rome or placed in charge of government funds or of the navy which was stationed around Italy. It often happened that, at the end of his term of office, a quaestor would be appointed as second in command to a provincial governor, which would give him valuable experience in administration. Every former quaestor could legally become members of the Senate. While a tribunus plebis was not technically a magistrate, seeing that he was elected by the plebeian order (see below), most plebeians with political aspirations strove for this position. As representatives and mouthpieces of the ordinary citizens, they wielded great power in Rome, and were popular because they protected the ordinary citizens from all kinds of exploitation. The office of aedilis (two curilis and two plebis each year) was the first senior position in the cursus honorum. These officials were responsible for the administration of the city; the maintenance of public order, public buildings and roads, the control of weights, measures and supplies and the organization of the religious festivals and the public games. The praetores were senior government officials; as a rule during their year of office they presided over the various courts (treason, murder, extortion, etc.). At the end of their term they were usually installed as governors of the provinces. The position of consul was the highest anyone could hold in the republican system. Each year there were two consuls who functioned jointly as heads of state, while one or other of them presided over the Senate when it was in session. In addition to the two regular consuls (ordinarii), whose term of office commenced on 1 January, there were also those elected later in the year (suffecti, additional), who therefore served in this capacity for the last few months of the year. The consuls had great prestige and power, and were seldom slightingly esteemed or addressed.


530    Through the censor (the overseer of the lists of the senatorial and equestrian orders), through the rule that only capable people be elected to the Senate, and through marriage legislation (the obligation of senators to marry, and the preference given to those with three or more children) Augustus sought to keep this order virile. As a result of the nomination of provincial nobles, even non-Romans, people from other parts of the empire increasingly became members of the Senate.


531    b. The equestrian order originally comprised people who had made a horse available to the authorities in the case of war. Besides being free born, members of the order had to be people of some means. Because they could carry out monetary transactions, these men made up the financial aristocracy in Roman society.

532    The foremost offices in the equestrian career were those of tribunus militum (which a knight normally held longer than a senatorial tribune), praefectus (commander) and procurator (deputy, administrator) which extended from the financial administration of a province to independent control of it. In contrast to the senatorial officers, the equestrians usually remained in the same office for many years. Consequently they were on average older officials, more conversant with administrative matters.


533    c. The plebeian order comprised people with such professions as tutor, orator, physician, merchant, manual worker and farmer.


6.1.4    Civil rights and justice

534    There was no such thing as imperial civil rights but only civil rights pertaining to the city. The civis Romanus (Roman citizen) could exercise certain rights—such as the franchise—nowhere else but in Rome, though Roman citizens outside the city did enjoy a measure of legal protection so that, for instance, they could not be flogged without a court injunction (Ac 16:37–39; 22:25–29).

535    The right of a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor in legal proceedings had a long history and there were two terms used in this regard: provocatio and appellatio. In the case of the provocatio, the Roman citizen had the right to appeal to the gathering of the people against the judgement of the consul. This privilege was not accorded to everybody; women, slaves and strangers were not allowed to use it, and initially it was restricted to the citizens of Rome and those within a one-mile radius of the city. Later it was extended to the provinces. The appellatio was introduced to protect the Roman citizen against unfair treatment by a magistrate. In later times, however, the appellatio and the provocatio became conflated. According to Acts Paul made use of this right of appeal at one point in time (Ac 25:11f).

536    Prisoners who were sent to Rome were probably entrusted to the commander of the imperial guard. In Rome, Paul was subjected to the custodia militaris, which was a light form of incarceration (cf. Ac 28:16–31). The apostle could receive visitors, and there was the opportunity to spread the gospel, possibly even to practise his craft.

537    In the provinces there were free cities, which were not actually subservient but were regarded as allied entities. They had a common infrastructure on which the Romans built, while the right of final decision always rested with the procurator.

538    Besides them, there were Roman colonies in the provinces, comprising cities in which Roman citizens resided. Philippi was one such colony.

539    Finally there were also vassal principalities which were largely independent; in certain circumstances these were even allowed their own armed forces. But external political activity was denied them, so that in fact they existed by the grace of Rome. One example was Palestine: despite the comparative independence which Herod the Great enjoyed, Augustus still had the final say as to who would inherit his domains.


6.1.5    The administration of the provinces

540    In the empire there were two categories of provinces, senatorial and imperial.


a.    Senatorial provinces

541    Those provinces where peace prevailed and which gave no problems were controlled by the Senate. At the head of such a province was a proconsul (a former consul) or a propraetor (a former praetor) with the title of proconsul. Unlike the imperial provinces, the senatorial provinces had a civil government. There were no military units stationed in them. The proconsul held the ius gladii (the power to impose the death penalty and to carry out executions), but this could be set aside if an appeal to the emperor was sucessful.

542    Asia was the most important senatorial province, with Macedonia and Achaia close seconds.


b.    Imperial provinces

543    The provinces along the frontiers of the empire, as well as those which were not easily subjugated and thus were difficult to rule, were placed under the emperor’s control, and were known as imperial provinces. In such a province the emperor was represented by a legatus Augusti pro praetore (a general delegated by the emperor), which meant that it was under military government. That official was also invested with the ius gladii. Over provinces of lesser status a praefectus or procurator was appointed. After ad 6 this was the status of the province of Judaea, which now fell under the jurisdiction of the legate of Syria. In order to prevent officials from exploiting the provinces, they were paid a fixed salary.

544    Excepting Egypt, the most important imperial provinces were Syria, Cilicia and the Spanish provinces. Egypt occupied a special position, probably because it exported the corn Rome needed to feed its masses. It was ruled by the emperor through a prefect who, like the procurator, belonged to the equestrian order. Senators were not allowed to visit Egypt, as it was feared that they might turn such a visit to their own advantage at the expense of the emperor and the state.

545    Augustus put Samaria and Idumaea as well as Judaea under a procurator directly responsible to himself, but who in military matters was dependent upon and subordinate to the legate of Syria. This legate was also the governor of the coastal regions
of Palestine from Jamnia to Gaza and of the Decapolis.

546    The Roman Empire was not a unitary state in the modern sense of the word, and, since communication was not easy, a great deal of authority was delegated to procurators. For most of the time affairs in the provinces proceeded virtually undisturbed, despite the succession struggles and other distractions which took place in Rome. On the other hand, many things happened in the provinces which were not immediately related to events in the capital city. The outbreak of the Jewish War in ad 66, for instance, had nothing to do with Nero’s politics. Similarly the defeat of the Jews in that war did not endanger the position of Jews in other parts of the empire.


6.1.6    Military organization

547    As far as the presence of troops was concerned, Rome and Italy were in an exceptional position. No troops might be stationed there, apart from the Imperial (Praetorian) Guard. Originally the army of Augustus consisted of twenty-five legions and later of thirty, recruited from among the Roman citizens. (A legion, numbering six thousand men, was composed of ten cohortes of six hundred men each, in their turn composed of six centuriae of a hundred men each.) In addition, there were the auxiliary troops from the provinces (who were entitled to Roman citizenship on honourable discharge) and the fleet. To these we must add the imperial bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard, which developed into a special corps, a core group at the same time serving as a kind of military school for future officers.

548    The officer in command of a legion was an imperial legate drawn from the senatorial order. Under him were six military tribunes (the RSV translates the Greek chiliarchos in Jn 18:12 as ‘captain’ and in Ac 21:31 as ‘tribune’); one of these was from the senatorial order; the other five, as well as the officer commanding the auxiliary troops, belonged to the equestrian order. Generally, these officers served for a limited period. By contrast, there were the centuriones (the RSV renders centurio, commanding a centuria, as ‘centurion’—Mt 8:5, 8; Ac 10:1, 22; etc.) who were drawn from the common people; they were more permanent officers, seeing that they usually regarded their army service as a lifelong profession.


6.1.7    The census

549    An institution which had been introduced into Italy during the republican regime and which the Romans extended to the territories they conquered was the census, held originally every five years but subsequently at longer intervals. It had a dual purpose. On the one hand, it was held to provide an indication of the number of able-bodied men available for recruiting for military service; on the other hand, and more importantly, it was used for tax purposes. As far as this latter aspect was concerned, the holding of a census had two parts: first, the registration of the taxable subjects (the owners of property) and of the taxable objects (the properties owned by these people); and, secondly, the determining of the tax payable in each case, i.e. the assessment. Provisions applicable to a census included the following: In presenting himself for registration by the censor (the official conducting the census), a man had to be accompanied by his wife. If a man was not in his home area at the time of the census, he had to go there to be registered (cf. Lk 2:4f). The tax on property had to be paid in the area where the property (e.g. ground) was located. (See also §§376–82,799).


6.1.8    Financial administration

550    The financial administration was also reorganized. At the head of the provincial financial administration was a procurator who was directly responsible to the emperor.

551    In order to finance the state’s administration, taxes had, of course, to be imposed on the provinces. There were two types of taxation: direct and indirect. Direct taxation was also of two kinds: a tax on (the produce of) the land (farming, the tributum agri) which was paid partly in money and partly in kind, and a personal or poll tax (tributum capitis). This latter was calculated on a percentage basis according to a man’s registered income, and was particularly the tax paid by the landless, manual working section of the population. For the collecting of these direct taxes in Judaea, the procurator held the Jewish Council responsible, the leading figures severally, actually indicating those of their number he selected for the task. Indirect taxation (portorium)—such as tolls, market levies and taxes on goods—was collected by tax agents, the detested tax collectors (publicani). We know, for instance, that in Jericho, on the eastern frontier of Judaea, there was a ‘chief tax collector’ (Lk 19:2), because this was a notable centre for importing goods. An agent would tender to collect on its behalf more or less the amount the Roman authority expected in taxes. He would then fix the tariffs in such a way that, after he had remitted the government’s share, he would be able to pocket a sizeable percentage for himself. It was precisely this practice which made the tax collectors such hated figures, since people believed—and not without grounds—that they made exorbitant profits out of it and fleeced the taxpayers. Though the procurator in Caesarea could have employed Roman receivers, he refrained so as not to incite the Jews. This explains why the tax collectors mentioned in the New Testament were usually Jews.


552    That concession on the procurator’s part did not, of course, change anything; the Jews still fulfilled their fiscal duties with the greatest reluctance. This was particularly the case with what was called the fiscus Judaicus. After the temple of Jupiter (the chief god in the Roman pantheon, equivalent to the Greek Zeus) in Rome burned down in ad 69, Vespasian decreed that the annual temple tax (cf. Mt 17:24–27), which had to be paid by every adult male adherent of the Jewish faith, and which amounted to about four days’ wages for a labourer, should in future be paid to the Roman state as a war debt in aid of the rebuilding of that shrine. This fiscus Judaicus continued in force and provided all the emperors with welcome revenue; it was abolished only in ad 361 by Julian. Understandably, this regulation was regarded by the Jews as an intolerable religious offence.


6.2    The administration of justice


6.2.1    Introductory

553    The Roman judicial system occupies a special place in the history of our culture (Wolff), while it also has several points of contact with the New Testament. It goes without saying that Roman law would make its mark on all the territories over which Rome ruled. Here, however, we must restrict ourselves to a general survey and a few references to the way in which it impinges on the New Testament.


6.2.2    The Roman Empire as a legal state

554    As far as the administration of justice was concerned, Augustus made two basic demands: that no offence should go unpunished and that no legal process should drag on too long. There was also the assumption that in the eyes of the law there should be no distinction between high and low, though in practice this was not actually realized. But that did not alter the fact that basically the Roman Empire was a legal state.


6.2.3    The administration of justice in Rome itself

555    In Rome itself criminal legislation was divided, seeing that serious crimes against people, society, and the state were included in a number of statutes, the leges publicae (public laws), which related, for instance, to adultery, fraud, murder, bribery, and treason. This entire system was known as the ordo iudiciorum publicorum, which may have been a list of national courts (Sherwin-White). Exceptional crimes such as those against the state religion and arson, as well as such crimes of the common man as theft and rape were not covered by this ordo, which actually dealt with the crimes of the upper class and of the people in power.

556    The crimes of the common people were left to the summary jurisdiction of the annual magistrate. In the latter part of Augustus’s reign this was replaced by the jurisdiction of the more permanent state officials, the praefectus urbi and the praefectus vigilum, who were in essence magistrates of the police courts. Their jurisdiction was extra ordinem, because the cases they handled were not covered by the ordo. Unlike the praetors who tried the ordo cases, these magistrates had no formal juries in their courts.


6.2.4    The administration of justice in the provinces

557    Roman practice was for the domestic laws and judicial institutions of the conquered territories to continue to function, subject to the procurator’s oversight, who, of course, had the right to intervene. The domestic courts dealt with cases of local concern. For this the Romans used the technical expression: urbem agrosque et suas leges reddere (to administer town and country and its own laws). This type of autonomy probably varied from country to country.

558    In the provinces, then, as in Rome itself, there was a type of dual legislation. The governor would leave a large part of the lesser judicial business to the local, domestic courts, while he mainly supervised the ordering of the province.

559    This was also the position in Judaea. While we have no direct evidence, it is very unlikely that the Romans interfered in the ordinary lawsuits of the Jews. Their domestic courts were free to pass sentences on religious, civil and criminal offences, though the procurator could, of course, intervene. Of these courts the most important was the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the highest domestic governing body in Judaea. Its spiritual authority over the Jews extended worldwide, while within Judaea itself it had extensive political and juridical powers. Many of these continued in the period of the procurators, who depended on the Sanhedrin to assist in keeping the peace in the country (see further §780–95). The Jewish historian Josephus is explicit in stating that the procurator of Judaea had the power of life and death over the population, which was essentially the ius gladii (Bell. Jud. II:117). This power was usually given to the governors of all the provinces. (For the trial of Jesus, see §823.)

560    In cases where the procurator had to deliver the verdict, especially in Judaea, the procedure was simple. Cases were heard solely in particular places, possibly only in Caesarea and Jerusalem. The hearing was seldom lengthy, and the procurator had the authority to deliver the verdict immediately. But it was also in his power to defer a case for an unspecified time, as happened when Paul appeared before Felix (Ac 24:26f). In such instances, the accused were held as prisoners. Papyri discovered in Egypt contain evidence of people complaining that the hearing of their cases had been long drawn out. This arbitrary power on the part of the procurator could be misused, as, for instance, in the temptation to accept bribes to acquit prisoners (cf. Ac 24:26), to convict unjustly, or simply to remand the case. We read that Felix left Paul in prison because he wished to do the Jews a favour (Ac 24:27). There were, however, Roman laws to punish a procurator if there was proof that he had accepted a bribe.




C.K. Barrett (ed.), Documents (§82), 1–21

H.J. Cadbury, Roman law and the trial of Paul, in: F.J. Foakes Jackson & K. Lake (ed.), The Beginnings of Christianity V, Michigan 1966, 297–338

W. Dommershausen, Die Umwelt Jesu: Politik und Kultur in neutestamentlicher Zeit, Theologischer Seminar, Freiburg 1977, 46–51

R.J. Evans, A short history of Rome 753 bc–ad 476, Cape Town 1991, 4–47

H.G. Kippenberg & G.A. Wevers, Textbuch (§356), 48–54

H. Koester, Introduction (§356), 322–6

W. Kunkel, Römische Rechtsgeschichte, Köln-Graz 41966

E. Lohse, Environment (§82), 23–35, 146–67

L. Mitteis, Reichtsrecht und Volksrecht in den östlichen Provinzen des Römischen Kaiserreiches, Hildesheim 21963

B. Reicke, Era (§82), 77–84, 163–97

A.N. Sherwin-White, Society (§518)

E. Schürer, HJP I, 357–427,454–543,564–84

E. Stauffer, Jesus and his story, London 1960, 27–36

W. Stenger, Kaiser (§82)

H. Temporini & W. Haase (Herausg.), ANRW I/2, 1–314; II/13–15

P. Wendland, Kultur (§356), 11–35

H.J. Wolff, Roman law: A historical introduction, Oklahoma 1951



Philosophical trends in the Graeco-Roman world

    J.L. de Villiers


7.1    Introduction

562    Seeing that the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic era built on the thinking of such great philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, we shall briefly discuss them before turning to the Hellenistic schools. Before doing so, however, we need to consider the Sophists, who ushered in the era in which Socrates and others were active.


7.2    The Sophists

563    It would seem that it was not before the end of the fifth century bc that the word sophistēs received the connotation it ultimately bore, namely to indicate people of a particular profession. Originally it usually denoted someone who possessed wisdom or who displayed proficiency in one or other direction. Pindar, for instance, applied it to poets; Aeschylus and Euripides used it of musicians, and Plato saw it as an attribute of the creator of the universe.

564    But by the end of the fifth century bc, teachers from all over the world had come to Athens, cosmopolitan types like Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, Thrasymachus and Hippias, to name a few, who were called Sophists because they set out to instruct people how to succeed in various spheres of life. Their instruction was concerned mainly with public speaking or rhetoric. They went from city to city, holding public lectures, impressing people with their eloquence. They also gave private lessons in rhetoric, for which they received payment. They founded no philosophical school, and their instruction was of a practical nature: how to make a success of life, particularly in the political and forensic spheres.

565    While the Sophists did not intentionally set out to undermine the foundations of traditional Greek life, their ideas contributed to it, as did those of their pupils who carried their teaching further. For example, they distinguished between things which came into being through tradition or convention (the nomos, the law) and those which arose naturally. They raised questions over the relativity of the former category. Protagoras, for instance, asserted that he could not know with certainty whether the gods existed or not, nor what they looked like. There are many things which prevent certainty—the obscurity of the matter itself and the brevity of human life. Concerning the existence of the gods, Prodicus, for his part, maintained that they were the deification of those things which appeared to be advantageous.

566    They had to endure a great deal of criticism from Socrates and especially from Plato, chiefly on the grounds that they claimed to teach wisdom, which cannot be taught. It was Plato in particular who brought their profession into discredit by unfavourably comparing their rhetoric with philosophy. He maintained that philosophy sets out to discover wisdom by means of discussion, based on a sound method, while their rhetoric sought to gain the victory through words. He labelled them the paid hunters of the wealthy and of the youth, as well as traders of knowledge. In the fourth century bc, the Sophists’ most important successor was Isocrates. Like them, he also stressed the value of rhetoric, but in contrast to them he insisted that education must teach a person to lead a virtuous life in society. For him, the truly educated person was the one who made the right decisions, not the one who knew everything. The Sophists were the pioneers in the sphere of higher education, who began the formal study of rhetoric, logic and grammar.


7.3    Socrates (469–399 bc)

567    Ancient writers traced all the Hellenistic philosophical schools back to Socrates. The philosophers prior to him were mainly nature philosophers, concerning themselves with such questions as the origin of the world and with the search for the first ‘principles’ responsible for it. Judging by Aristophanes’ caricature of him in the Clouds and the autobiography Plato attributed to him in the Phaedo, Socrates was interested also in the scientific philosophy of his day in his earlier years. By the time we know most about him, however, he had abandoned that interest, dedicating himself to the task of enquiring into and seeking the right way to live and act. For this he employed what has come to be known as the Socratic method: he would interrogate people concerning the principles by which they lived and which through the years they had unthinkingly accepted as self-evident. He proceeded by a dialectic way of arguing: through questions and answers he would reach accurate conceptual definitions.

568    Socrates lived in a period of widespread criticism and discussion, especially among the Sophists, who were creating a sceptical attitude towards morality and the possibility of objective knowledge. It was while they were busy undermining the ideals of truth and morality that Socrates appeared on the Athenian scene. He was destined to create order in the chaos threatening the intellectual and moral life of his day.

569    His father was a sculptor, his mother a midwife. Very little is known of his earlier years or of his education other than that initially he followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a sculptor. Fairly early in his life, however, he abandoned his profession to dedicate himself to philosophy, which he regarded as his calling, and more particularly to ethics, the precepts concerning human beings and their actions. It is generally accepted that his vocation was related to the utterance of the Oracle of Delphi which a student received when he enquired whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The Oracle replied that there was no one, which struck Socrates as impossible, since he was conscious only of his ignorance. To demonstrate that the Oracle was wrong, he approached all those with a reputation for wisdom—statesmen, poets, and the like—to prove that they knew more than he did and were wiser than he. He discovered that, while they all thought they possessed knowledge, they did not. So Socrates was wiser than all of them in that, though he also had no knowledge (that is, of moral issues), he knew that he did not. What the Oracle meant was that the first step towards acquiring knowledge is the awareness of one’s own ignorance. The vocation to which the Oracle summoned him was thus to bring this idea home to everyone.

570    Except for three short periods when he took part in military expeditions as a member of the Athenian army, acquitting himself honourably in the fulfilment of his duties, Socrates spent his whole life in Athens. For twenty to thirty long years he devoted himself to his philosophical mission, until in his seventieth year he was arraigned on the triple charge of failing to reverence the national gods, importing his own new gods, and corrupting the youth of Athens by leading them astray. He was condemned to die by drinking a cup of poison.

571    Broadly speaking, the three most distinctive characteristics of his philosophy may be seen in three well known statements: (1) in Cicero’s dictum that Socrates brought the philosophy of heaven to earth; (2) in Socrates’ own contention that, just as his mother had been to the human body, he was a midwife to the human soul, in that he assisted the soul to give birth to and become aware of truths it had possessed all along, but of which it had been unconscious; (3) in Aristotle’s proposition that Socrates was the first to introduce inductive argument (from the particular to the general) and general definitions into philosophy.

572    As we have already noted, Socrates’ philosophy is essentially ethical: it deals with human beings and their duties. It is only in this respect that he shows resemblance to the Sophists. Along with them, he takes all his predecessors’ questions about the origin of the world and the nature of ultimate reality, and subordinates them to ethical knowledge. Mathematics, physics, and astronomy, he maintained, were not worthwhile forms of knowledge. He asserted that he had never walked outside the city, since there was nothing to learn from the open country or from trees. His ethical teaching was based on a theory of knowledge. The Sophists based knowledge on perception, with the result that all standards of objective truth were jettisoned. Socrates saw his task as basing knowledge on reason, and in that way restoring the objectivity of truth. His epistemology may be expressed succinctly in the statement: all knowledge is knowledge through concepts or ideas. When one looks at an object or a proposition, one becomes aware of it and can form an image or idea of it. Such perceptions and images are always ideas of individual or particular objects. In addition to these ideas of particular things or objects, however, there are also universal ideas, that is ideas not of particular things but of classes of things. If one were to say, ‘Socrates is mortal’, one would be thinking of Socrates the individual. But if one were to say, ‘Man is mortal’, one would not be thinking of any single particular human being but of the class or sort of humanity in general. All class-designations—such as person, tree, house, or river—which refer not simply to one thing but to a multiplicity of things, represent concepts or ideas. These universal concepts or ideas are formed by including in them all the properties or qualities which the whole class of objects has in common, and by excluding from them all the qualities in which they differ from one another, that is the qualities some of them possess, but others do not. Knowledge therefore means knowledge of things as they are objectively, independent of individual things, and such knowledge is knowledge through concepts or ideas of things. To link up with Aristotle’s proposition, Socrates formed concepts or ideas inductively by comparing a large number of examples of a class, whereas deductive argument is always the opposite process, namely the application of general or universal principles to particular instances. A definition is constructed in the same way as a concept, through the inclusion of the common attributes of a class of things or objects and the exclusion of those properties in which the members of the class differ one from another.

573    Thus, as against the Sophists’ teaching which based all knowledge on sensory perception by equating knowledge with concepts or ideas, Socrates restored credence in an objective knowledge which held good for every one and was binding on every one. His philosophizing, then, consisted almost exclusively in making people aware of true and correct concepts. He went about asking, ‘What is virtue?’ ‘What is wisdom?’ ‘What is moderation or self-control, chastity?’—by which he meant, ‘What are the true concepts or definitions of these things?’ In this way he sought to find a basis for belief in objective truth and an objective moral law. The central point of Socrates’ teaching was his equation or identification of virtue and knowledge. He believed that a person cannot act correctly unless he or she knows what is right, knows the concept of what is right. Moral action is thus based on knowledge and must issue from it.

574    Knowledge and right are the same for every one. It is only through ignorance, error and confusion that they appear different to different people. It is also through ignorance that people are led to do wrong things. No one sins deliberately, says Socrates, for to do the right things is the only certain way leading to happiness—and everybody wants to be happy. Therefore virtue is knowledge of the way to happiness; more universally stated, the right conduct is the one based on reason. Virtue, then, is wisdom, and every particular virtue is wisdom in respect of those particular circumstances and in respect of that particular class of objects. So the brave man is the one who can distinguish between actual and imaginary danger, and who knows how to guard against it, as, for example, a sailor in a storm at sea. The man who is pious is the one who knows what is right in God’s sight, and the controlled (chaste) man is the one who always knows that he has to distinguish between actual good and apparent good. Consequently, teaching and discipline are indispensable for attaining virtue, and especially training in self-knowledge: to know what a person’s needs and desires are, as well as his weaknesses. No act can be really virtuous if it is not born of this self-knowledge.

575    Though in matters of religion Socrates often employed the usual terminology of the popular polytheism of his day, it is still clear that he believed that there is only one Supreme God, who is to the universe what the human soul is to the body. He held that this Being orders and directs everything for good, that man is a special object of his Providence, and so guidance may be sought from him through oracles, prophecy, and so on. The soul, Socrates believed, is immortal and contains a divine element. As for him himself, he considered that he was favoured above other people because at times he was granted a warning sign, a daimonion which held him back when he intended to do something injudicious. He gave us no precise indication of the nature of his daimonion; it could have been a highly developed sensory capacity, something akin to the voice of his conscience, but prior to the deed.

576    More important, however, than any philosophical method was Socrates’ immense personal influence, his strong will, his indifference to the conventional, and his passionate gravity, both in the ethical and in the intellectual spheres, which was in sharp contrast to the sham learning of the Sophists. To these qualities we may add his warm interest in and sympathy for all aspects of life and all sorts of characters, his tremendous humanity, humour, and irony, as well as his gift of conversation. This made a profound impression on all who came into contact with him. The story of his defence against the charges brought against him, his conviction, his last days in prison, and his eventual execution by having to drink the poison-cup are recorded for us in three dialogues of his disciple Plato—the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo—and are acknowledged as being of the most moving narratives in all the world’s literature. Socrates died with the calm and unshakeable conviction that truth is dearer than life itself, and not only truth, but even the unsuccessful search for it (Gilbert Murray).


7.4    Plato (429–347 bc)

577    Plato was born into an aristocratic family in Athens. His writings show the enormous influence Socrates’ life and especially his death had on him. In his Seventh Epistle he tells how, because of the politics of his day, during the rule of his own people as well as under the democracy, he gradually abandoned his original intention of becoming a statesman and was driven to the paradoxical conviction that there could be no hope for cities until philosophers became their rulers or their rulers became philosophers. After Socrates’ execution in 399 bc, along with other of his disciples, Plato spent some twelve years in exile at Megara. During that time he visited several countries, including Egypt. In 387 he also visited Italy and Sicily, where he met Dionysius I and began a lifelong friendship with Dion of Syracuse. He also met the Pythagorean philosopher, Archytas of Tarentum. In that same year, he returned to Athens, and for the remaining fourteen years of his life he taught in the school he founded in the Academia, a suburb of Athens, named after the hero Academos—hence the name ‘Academy‘ for his school. His publications consist of twenty Dialogues and the Apology. There are also thirteen Epistles whose authenticity is not completely accepted by every one. Plato chose the dialogue form because it came closest to Socrates’ method of instruction.

578    Ferguson rightly points out that the Dialogues may be roughly divided into three groups. In the earliest—like the Euthyphro, Crito, Protagoras, and the Apology—he approaches most nearly to Socrates’ method. There we find enquiry into the definition of virtue or qualities and such questions as: what are bravery or courage, self-control, sanctity, justice?

579    This attempt to reach concepts resulted in the complicated theory of ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’. Previously, when a person sought for a definition of bravery, he would be referred to a brave man. But Plato began to think in terms of what is typical of all brave people. In the most characteristic period of his activity, in the Parmenides, for instance, he most clearly develops his theory of ideas, his view of ideas which is the core of his philosophy. Ideas are neither physical nor things of the understanding. They fall outside time and space. Ideas are real. The physical world is but a miserable imitation of them. An idea is independent of its copy or image discerned in space and time. To actualize something is to degrade it (Ferguson). The things in the physical world are imperfect copies or imitations of the idea.

580    All ideas are summed up in the one final ideal which he calls the idea of the Good (the principle of perfection). This idea of the Good can be regarded as Plato’s closest approach to the biblical idea of God (Ferguson), but for him the Good was a ‘form’, not a ‘god’. His thinking is deeply religious, but it is the impersonal principle of perfection which he worships. None the less, in referring throughout to a ‘First Principle’—absolute, unchangeable, the true Being—and to the divine principle of order in the cosmos, he prepared the way for the religious thinking of the Hellenistic era (Ferguson).

581    On the other hand, Plato’s concept of the soul was more favourably received than his theory of ideas (Ferguson). His emphasis on the soul as a spiritual reality apart from the body, his doctrine of the soul’s immortality, and his analysis of the soul in terms of the ethical theory concerning the virtues of justice, self-control, courage and wisdom met with more general acceptance than his doctrine of ideas.

582    With his view of the soul, Plato linked up with the earlier Orphic and Pythagorean thinking. Man possesses two separate realities: the body is the vehiculum, the vehicle of the invisible soul. Only the soul is able to comprehend ideas, and so it belongs to the sphere of the ideas. The soul’s relationship to the body is the same as that of the ideas to their material manifestation. The well-known dichotomy in Western thinking between the body and the soul is a product of the Platonic tradition. For Plato the soul is immortal and survives the body. The soul’s home is not the earth, but the sphere of the planets. The reality of the divine, he maintained, can be demonstrated or deduced from the soul and from the stars, which he regarded as gods. Consequently he advocated that everybody should be taught astronomy, and that atheists should recant or be put to death. Plato’s immortality of the soul is, however, a natural immortality inherent in the soul because of its quality or nature. This philosophical theory of the immortality of the soul differs from the Christian doctrine of a life after death, the resurrection of the body, and God’s gift of eternal life through the merits of Christ.


7.5    Aristotle (384–322 bc)

583    Aristotle was born at Stageira in Thrace in the year 384 bc. His father, Nicomachus the physician, sought to inculcate a love for natural science in his son from an early age. The lad was also exceptionally gifted in this direction. At the age of seventeen, he arrived in Athens and became a pupil of Plato. After his mentor’s death in 347 bc, he left Athens to become, among other things, tutor to Alexander the Great for three years. At the end of that period he returned to Stageira, where he continued with his studies of natural science. In the year 334 he settled once more in Athens. There, however, he did not link up with Plato’s school, the Academy, but founded his own school in the gymnasium (called the Lukeion or Lyceum because it was dedicated to Apollo Lukeios). He was an exceptional worker and a person of profound mental power. For political reasons he had to leave Athens in 323 bc. He was accused of disrespect to the gods, but the real reason was that he had been under suspicion because of his love for Macedonia. The following year he died at Chalcis.

584    The foundation of Aristotle’s system is his ontology, also known as metaphysics, because in his books it is placed after physics. It was in this that he moved furthest away from Plato. In contrast to Plato, who sought the true existence of phenomena in the world of ideas, Aristotle regarded the phenomena themselves as reality. Every thing is a reality; there is only one world, which is everlasting. Universal ideas possess a derived reality. This reality is, however, always in motion; each thing strives to become what it is intended to be. This purpose (causa finalis) is the cause of all origin or motion. In matter, which is eternal, resides the possibility, the potential, which in the telos becomes actual, the form which is immaterial. There are two extremes: formless matter and immaterial form. This immaterial form, in which all is actuality, and no potential is any longer unrealized, where all striving thus ceases and perfection is attained, Aristotle calls God. This God, who in himself is sufficient and perfect, who is not moved, none the less moves the rest of the cosmos by his power of attraction which he exerts on all forms so that they might strive towards their highest telos. As an object of desire, he causes the universe’s perpetual motion.

585    Ethics does not search for what is good, but teaches us to do good; in this way a person strives towards his own goal. Among all people, despite all differences, this goal is the same: eudaimonia, happiness. This is achieved when all potentials develop rationally, in harmony and balance. Virtue is always the middle path between two extremes. Seeing that matter is not a negative, but the bearer of all potential, Aristotle refuses to accept Plato’s theory that external things and virtue would have no significance for true happiness. For him material things also have value. There is dianoetic (intellectual) virtue and there is practical (character) virtue. These virtues, which are a potential in everyone, should be developed through exercise. The highest virtue is justice.

7.6    Introductory characterisation of philosophical trends in the Hellenistic era

586    During the Hellenistic period it was especially the systems of Epicurus and of the Stoa which greatly influenced philosophy. That did not mean that the famous philosophical schools in the golden age of Greece disappeared from the scene. But the teachings of the Epicureans and of the Stoics held greater attraction, because a shift in emphasis had taken place. The purpose of philosophy was no longer concerned with epistemological issues, but with the search for an answer to the question: how can a person live happily? The earlier philosophy had, of course, also paid attention to ethics, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s dialogues. The philosophical systems in the Hellenistic period, particularly the Stoa, also applied themselves to the correct study of science. What now occurred was, however, that ethics became the most important part of philosophy.

587    Various factors were responsible for this shift in emphasis. With the creation of Alexander the Great’s world empire, a basic change was introduced into the structure of the Greek cultural world—and not only in the sphere of politics, but across the whole broad dimension of the human spirit. Alexander brought an end to the existence of the Greek city state, replacing it with a world empire in which the closed society of the Greek state made way for a greater interest in the individual. People no longer belonged to a particular state; they felt they had been admitted to a far-flung empire with norms different from those which had applied to the city state. In the Hellenistic Empire, with its large variety of population groups, the individual became more and more prominent. It was no longer a question of what was advantageous to society; every person in this world must live and act in order to fulfil his or her role. Philosophy also developed in this direction, so that the individual came to occupy the centre of the stage, and the ethics of the individual became of primary importance.

588    When the Greek city state disappeared, the state religion lost its significance as a religious factor in the lives of its citizens. People who were loosed from their links with the city state soon derived little comfort from an impersonal faith in the traditional gods, and sought their well-being in another direction. Along with the mystery religions, philosophy offered a way out for those who sought a more personal religious experience.

589    Furthermore, interest in philosophy penetrated to the broad level of the population, while the itinerant philosopher with his staff and knapsack became a normal figure in the Hellenistic environment. His street preaching attracted the attention and interest of ordinary people, and in this way they became accustomed to this type of teaching. The subsequent proclamation of the Gospel by the Christian missionaries could link up with this tradition. Of these philosophical movements and trends we shall now briefly discuss the following: the Peripatetics, the Cynics, the Diatribe, Stoicism, Scepticism, and, finally, Syncretism and Eclecticism.


7.7    The Peripatetics

590    The Peripatetics were disciples of Aristotle. The Greek word peripateō means ‘I walk’. There exists difference of opinion as to why the school of Aristotle was associated with the idea of ‘walking’. Some suggest that he walked about delivering his lectures in his school, the Lukeion or Lyceum in Athens.

591    Others suggest that he lectured in a shadowy walkway at the Lyceum. When the school ceased to exist in Athens, the scholars who had continued working in the spirit of Aristotle retained the name. They concerned themselves particularly with physical and cultural-historical studies, which the work of their mentor had developed into separate spheres of scientific work. It was especially in the university in Alexandria (the Museum) that their spirit predominated. We have them to thank for the literary-historical science and the biographical details which have come down to us from the ancient world.

592    The history of the Peripatetic School may be divided into three phases:


1.    The earlier Peripatetics up to the death of Strato (322–270 bc). Here Theophrastus must be mentioned: he succeeded Aristotle, and is known for his book Characters and fifteen volumes on botany.

2.    The decline which crept in after Strato, prior to Andronicus (270–70 bc).

3.    The last three centuries from around 70 bc to ad 230, when Andronicus and his successors concentrated chiefly on the publication of Aristotle’s works and commentaries on them.


7.8    The Cynics

593    Plato and Aristotle created an aristocratic circle of selected disciples in their philosophy and in their writings, which, while intended for a wider public, were chiefly directed at the circle of the most intelligent. In the Hellenistic era, however, philosophy frequently took on a democratic character. In addition to the quiet work of the philosophical schools, there issued, especially from the Stoa, preaching or activity aimed at the masses. Among the factors which gave rise to this we might include the levelling of people in society, the increasing need for education and learning, and the concentration of philosophy on ethical axioms and practical issues in life. It was also well known that Socrates had roamed the streets and squares, engaging everyone he could in conversation and challenging them to give account to themselves of their own aims in life.

594    Without making any of Socrates’ tenets their own, the Cynics allied themselves with his practice. Diogenes of Sinope (c. 400–325 bc) is usually regarded as the founder of the Cynic way of life. He and his disciples started no school, but established a certain radical way of life through which to propagate their message. Though in his views he was influenced by Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ dedicated adherents, Diogenes was the first to be nicknamed ‘the Dog’ (in Greek, kuōn, from which the word ‘Cynic’ is derived) because of his public shamelessness. He stopped at nothing in demonstrating his rejection of all civic or cultural values and conventions. For instance, he would urinate in public without batting an eyelid. The ideal life is the simple life, a life of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), in which a person has as few needs as possible, freed from all the evils of culture and all the prejudices and habits which have become second nature. A person is really free only when he lives according to nature. Freedom was a watchword among the Cynics. The path to true satisfaction in life is to learn to wish for as little as possible and to live on the minimum. It is said of Crates (c. 365–285 bc), the most faithful disciple of Diogenes, that he donated all his possessions to his home city Thebes, and then stood up in the public meeting to announce, ‘Crates, son of Crates, liberates Crates!’ He kept his word, and went about preaching voluntary poverty. But freedom from possessions was merely the beginning and the external sign of a deeper freedom which could be gained. The Cynics’ uniform or badge consisted of a rough cloak, worn summer and winter, and serving as a covering at night, a staff and a alms-wallet; these distinguished them from people living by the conventions and from the conventional thinking about reality, which is nothing more than the appearance (doxa) of reality (Malherbea, Meeks). People must live according to nature, as the Stoa also taught.

595    Diogenes and his followers did not found their own philosophical school, but were later influenced by the Stoa. There is a collection of pseudonymous letters attributed to people like Socrates, Antisthenes and their disciples, which may have been written at various times from the third century bc to the third century ad and which promote the Cynic way of life on a rational basis. In this Cynic tradition we often hear stories of conversions in which people had been so shocked and disenchanted by the behaviour of the Cynic preachers that they had abandoned their unthinking acceptance of the conventions and of the appearance of things, to transfer the focus of their lives to those things which were of real significance.


7.9    The Diatribe

596    From the preaching of the Cynic mendicant philosophy there developed the diatribe. Basically this word means ‘pastime’, and in the fourth century bc, in addition to the term scholē (free time, school), it was the name of a philosophical school. During the third century bc the method of conducting discussions called diatribe replaced the dialogue as a form of philosophical style. Unlike the dialogue, the diatribe appealed to the laity, not to the experts and the specialists. Avoiding technical terminology, it made use of the common language in the images and examples it used, so that at times it became coarse or naïve. Interjections by imaginary opponents, rhetorical questions, drastic examples, anecdotes and apposite quotations were characteristic of this popular preaching. As time went by, elements from other schools were adopted, while the style of the diatribe later had an influence on other circles, particularly on the Stoic philosophers.

597    The diatribe may have originated with Bion of Borysthenes (c. 325–255 bc), but it received its distinctive character from Teles (third to second century bc). Orators and writers of various opinions were to introduce changes to it, as they applied it to their circumstances.

598    The diatribe was essentially a popular philosophical treatment of an ethical theme, with the practical aim of persuading people to action rather than to reflective thinking (Malherbeb). Hermogenes succinctly described it in this way: ‘The diatribe is a moral exposition of one or other subject’ (Dudley, 111). In the literary sphere, especially in the early Christian decades, the influence of the diatribe appeared in Philo of Alexandria, Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, Maximus of Tyre, Lucian, and, in Christian circles, in Paul.

599    The dialogic character of the diatribe, combining elements of philosophical dialogue and satire, makes it particularly clear, lively and effective. We find this in Paul, in the question or interjection of an imaginary opponent, for instance. This is frequently introduced with the words, ‘But someone will ask …’ (1 Cor 15:35; cf. Rm 9:19), or ‘But someone will say …’ (Ja 2:18). The opponent’s question may also be answered by counter questions put to him (Rm 9:19–24) or by a response which demonstrates the absurdity of his objection, as in 1 Cor 15:36—’You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies’. On occasion it receives a serious answer through a corroborative quotation (Rm 3:1–8). Impatience with the listener is expressed in exclamations like: ‘You foolish man!’ (1 Cor 15:36) or ‘Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those …’ (Rm 2:1, 3; cf. 9:20), or by ironic wishes or desires as in 1 Cor 4:8—’Would that you did reign, so that we might share your rule with you!’; or in 2 Cor 11:1—’I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!’; or Gl 5:12—’I wish that the people who are upsetting you would go all the way; let them go on and castrate themselves!’ (TEV)

600    In the diatribe, the rhetorical questions are often introduced for emphasis (see 1 Cor 4:7; 9:4–6; Ja 2:14–16, 20f). The same effect, with reference to a generally accepted fact, is achieved in such introductory questions as: ‘Do you not know?’ (see Rm 6:16; 1 Cor 3:16; 6:2, 15; 9:24) and the use of pithy sayings (see Rm 14:7; 1 Cor 5:6) or quotations from the poets (see 1 Cor 15:33).

601    Lists of virtues and vices also appear frequently (see Rm 1:29–31; 1 Cor 6:9f), while lists of trials (peristatic lists), in which much use is made of paradox, were very popular (see 2 Cor 4:8f; 6:8–10).


7.10    The Epicureans

602    Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in 341 bc of an Athenian father. By the age of twelve his interest in philosophy was already evident. In his youth he diligently studied the writings of Democritus, whose materialism saturated his mind. When he was nineteen he went to Athens to study at the Academy. In the year 306 he opened his own philosophical school in the city, in a house with a magnificent garden which his admirers had purchased for him. This is why his school was often referred to as the Garden. Women were also admitted to the circle of his disciples, and some of them played an important part in it. There, the adherence and admiration of thousands notwithstanding, he lived by his motto of ‘simplicity’ until he died. After intense suffering he died in 270 bc, but for many years after that he was still gratefully honoured by his disciples. Some even regarded him as a god. Epicurus turned his back on metaphysics, thus also rejecting the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle. Instead, he adopted the tenets of Democritus, who had taught that nothing exists or can be known by us except space and atoms. All phenomena originate through the combination of atoms.

603    Ethics had a central place in his philosophy. In his view, the other divisions of philosophy, logic and physics, were of secondary importance. He did not concern himself with logic, but he regarded physics as useful, since, if people know nature, they are freed from superstition and fear. Everything which exists is composed of atoms, which move downwards in a void. When in their haphazard movement atoms touched or collided with one another, the world came into being. According to Epicurus, an underworld, evil spirits, and similar entities, which played such a large part in the Greeks’ religious life, did not exist; they were sheer phantasies. Anyone who devoted himself to the study of nature would reach the conclusion that all these baleful and disturbing things had no existence. Thus physics is able to serve ethics. The person who lives in anxiety and alarm cannot be happy, for the highest goal in life is to be happy or to live in a condition of pleasure. The consequences of this view of the origin of things were far-reaching. Epicurus accounted for everything in a materialistic way. Even a human being is the product of nature; the human spirit is another type of matter. The human soul is formed only from matter, and it is mortal because it cannot exist outside the body. Since the body dies, the soul also dies.

604    Yet Epicurus did not deny the existence of a deity or of the gods. If they exist, they do not concern themselves with humanity. So people have nothing to fear from the gods, but they can expect nothing either. Cicero declared that by this tenet Epicurus had plucked religion from the human soul. In fact, Epicurus regarded religion as an absurdity, even something which makes people unhappy, since it shatters the soul’s silence, and makes people fear death and the gods who condemn them to death. According to Lucretius, a later disciple of Epicurus, all the misery on earth has been caused by religion. The fear of death and belief in gods who punish must be eradicated root and branch.

605    For Epicurus the pursuit of pleasure is
philosophy’s chief function and the highest goal for human beings. But this does not mean that one must give rein to one’s appetites and devote oneself to a life of unbridled pleasure. The ideal life is one which is free from every kind of unrest, the body’s freedom from pain, the soul’s from disquiet. Therefore we must not understand pleasure as the highest goal in life in a banal or a senseless way. In fact, Epicurus asserted that it is not possible to live pleasurably and not also be understanding, good and just. One of the most important elements in happiness in life is friendship. Justice and laws must be respected, but they have no divine origin, nor must they be regarded as objectively normative. The natural law, he maintained, is a contract entered into to prevent people from mutually harming one another. To act unjustly would not be wrong, if in doing so it did not threaten our happiness as we ran the risk of being caught and punished. Though the laws have no absolute value, they are practical and useful for the wise people to whom they have been given, not in order that they might do no wrong, but so that they might not act unjustly.

606    There can be no doubt that on his missionary journeys Paul encountered the disciples and tenets of Epicurus and his school. In 1 Cor 15:32 he writes: ‘If the dead are not raised,—”Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”.’ There we probably find a reference to this philosophy. He contrasts it with the Christian belief in Christ, which has significance for this life and the life to come. Understandably, his audience on the Areopagus would not want to listen further to someone speaking about the resurrection of the dead (Ac 17:18, 32).


7.11    The Stoics

607    The founder of this school of philosophy was Zeno, who was born in 336 bc at Citium on the island of Cyprus. He was a merchant who settled in Athens and set up his own philosophical school in a colonnade at the side of the public market, the famous Stoa Poikilē. His successor, Cleanthes (born c.
330 bc), is famous as the composer of a beautiful hymn to Zeus, which has been preserved. For the rest, practically nothing has come down to us of the works of the great figures of the Old Stoa, the first period of this school. This is true also of the most eminent among them, Chryssipus, who was the real architect of Stoic teaching. Born in 280 bc, he was a fine scholar and a prolific writer, though of his seven hundred books nothing remains.

608    The leaders of the Middle Stoa were Panaetius (born in 180 bc) and Poseidonius (born in 130 bc). They were celebrated scholars, but little of their work has been preserved. On the other hand, nearly all the works of the famous personalities of the Later Stoa have come down to us. Seneca, who lived from c. 4 bc to ad 65, wrote a large number of letters and various moralizing treatises. Epictetus (c. ad 60–140), was a manumitted slave of Epaphroditus, one of Nero’s ‘ministers’; though he himself wrote nothing, his pupil, the historian Arrian, recorded the content of his teaching in the form of written reports of his lectures and a small handbook, the Encheiridion. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor from ad 161 to 180, was another adherent of Stoicism. In his busy and turbulent life, even on campaigns, he found opportunities to compile a kind of diary full of philosophical thoughts; this has been preserved as the Meditations instead of the original title he gave it, ‘To yourself‘. It consists of conversations with himself, brief remarks or a quotation which had struck him, as well as fairly comprehensive contemplation of certain subjects.

609    Just as for Epicurus, for the Stoa the purpose of philosophy resided in the practical life. For them ethics was also the most important subsection of philosophy; logic and physics were of minor significance. For all that, the Old Stoa did make important contributions in the spheres of logic and epistemology by attempting to determine how knowledge originated and what criterion for truth our knowledge possesses.

610    The Stoa’s physics or theory of the physical world is materialistic, for matter is all which exists. Not only things, but also their properties are material. What is more, it is pantheistic: the deity, the divine—or whatever name Stoicism gives to the supreme power ruling the cosmos—permeates matter, so that both together comprise a unity. The divine is nowhere localized in matter, but is totally dissolved in it, as water and wine are mixed together. Briefly, what that theory amounts to is this: There is only one primeval matter, which has existed from eternity and is imperishable. It consists of two principles, an active and a passive element; these do not exist alongside each other, but together form a complete unity. The passive element of this matter, without form or motion, is brought to life by the active element, which is also material. In this eternal, imperishable matter the active element operates by tension and relaxation through which the four elements come into being: fire, air, water and earth. These four can combine with one another in endless variations, thus creating the cosmos. In this cosmos everything is ordered in terms of fixed laws and takes place according to a fixed plan. This is the Stoic idea of ‘creation’ or ‘the path down’. From primeval matter, through the four elements, the whole cosmos emanates. But there is also ‘the way up’. There will come a stage when the cosmos, which emanated from primeval matter, will be reabsorbed into it; everything which exists will be consumed in the creative fire which with formless matter forms a single element. The Stoa called this the ekpurōsis, the universal conflagration. Then the same process repeats itself: a new cosmos comes into being, which in its turn will be reabsorbed into primeval matter. So the eternal cycle continues from primeval matter to cosmos and from cosmos to primeval matter once more. The Stoa used various terms for the active element in primeval matter: god, logos (reason), spirit, fate, Zeus, creative fire, and so on. This deity, immanent in matter and himself matter, rules over the universe, which is perfect and could never be improved upon. There is wrong, of course, but it fulfils a necessary role in that it allows good to show to better advantage.

611    The deity or the divine pneuma permeates the whole cosmos, but manifests himself in various ways: in lifeless matter only through the fact of its existence, in the world of plants also, but since here there is growth and motion, they belong to a higher class and have a nature. In living beings the manifestation of the divine occurs in the human soul, which also displays another aspect of the divine, namely reason. Reason is the soul’s guiding principle and controls it. The soul is material and mortal. True enough, after death it remains in existence for a brief while, but after a shorter or longer period it goes to nothing. According to Cleanthes, however, all souls remain in existence until the world conflagration, but Chryssipus makes a distinction by asserting that this applies only to the souls of the wise.

612    Epicurus denied that the gods concerned themselves with humanity; there is no contact between them and human beings, and their worship makes no sense. As a mark of respect the temples and the cultic practices may continue, so long as people free themselves from the wrong traditional conceptions relating to the gods. For the Stoa, however, it was different. They acknowledged the divine as the supreme ruling principle through which the cosmos originated and exists, but, because their theology conflicted with the current ideas about the gods, they sought a synthesis. By employing allegorical interpretation, they brought the existing ideas into harmony with their own. The name Zeus, for instance, was for them merely another name for the force which gives life to all.

613    The goal of philosophy is ethics. On the question of how one must live, the Stoa answered: in conformity with nature. The cosmos, which came into being according to a fixed plan and is governed by unchangeable laws, is a perfect product of the divine Reason. In it, essentially perfect as it is, humanity takes its own place. No person may disturb the harmony in it, and this can be achieved only by living in concord with nature. This becomes possible because in the human soul the guiding principle, reason, is a spark of the divine creative fire which brought the whole cosmos in its completeness into being. As a person allows himself to be led by reason and submits himself to it, he may achieve the ideal. Reason supplies him with the correct insight into the essence of things, and will allow him on the basis of this insight to act in conformity with nature.

614    Everything is subject to an unavoidable inevitability. One must therefore subject oneself to the course of events, sometimes referred to as Fate. Everything which happens to one must be accepted with resignation: sickness and pain, a good and a bad reputation, liberty and slavery, life and death. In fact, one must suppress all feelings which might impede the course of nature or cast doubt upon its wisdom. One must attain complete apatheia or insensitivity. Moreover, one must make oneself independent of everything binding one to this world. This inner freedom, which cannot be affected by anything external, enables the Stoic to endure everything which happens to him. With the same equanimity and peace which he achieves in this life he may serenely go to meet his death.

615    In practice, the Stoics were good counsellors who taught their adherents to submit, to control their passions, to strive for inner harmony, not to fear death, and to believe that they had been linked to a higher order. They also freely taught the brotherhood of all people, who were in fact equal because they shared in the divine Reason—a theory which fitted in well in the Roman world-empire with its variety of nations. This theory resulted in a greater appreciation of slaves, and led to an improvement in their lot. The Stoics also criticized bad conditions, including gladiatorial combats and imperialism, as well as other vices. It is not surprising that they had a large following, or that an emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and a former slave, Epictetus, could feel at home among them.

616    It is often asserted that Paul was strongly influenced by Stoicism, especially with reference to Ac 17:28, where Luke portrays him as saying:


‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your poets have said,

‘For we are indeed his offspring.’


But it is clear that, according to Luke, Paul was making these references to establish a link with his hearers, and that he gave them a totally new significance. When Paul wrote that he had learned to be content, whatever his circumstances (Phlp 4:11), it was no apathetic Stoic attitude, for he immediately added that he was able to do all things through Christ who strengthened him. The acquiescence taught by the Stoics was quite different from the Christian endurance of which Paul writes (Rm 5:3f). They disregarded all suffering, attempting to defeat it by a fatalistic and apathetic attitude to life. As Christians we can submit and accept suffering, because Christ has drawn its sting, namely sin (1 Cor 15:55; 2 Tm 1:10). He has not only freed us from the dread of death (Heb 2:14f); in addition he has made it possible for us to be more than conquerors (Rm 8:37–39).


7.12    The Sceptics

617    Scepticism, which was found among the Sophists and other philosophers, was a characteristic phenomenon in the three centuries preceding the birth of Jesus. People lost their faith in human cognition, perception and thinking, despairing of ever finding a criterion for truth. Some complained despondently: there is no truth, and if there were, it would be beyond the reach of human understanding. This mistrust of the human intellect had important consequences for the moral life as well. If truth is unknowable, there can be no norm for the good. Then everyone must do as he thinks best. The first of the Sceptics was Pyrrho of Elis (died 275 bc). The second stage is represented by the philosophers of the Middle Academy, and a third stage by certain investigators of nature who, while they do not fit in here chronologically, must be regarded as the last representatives of this trend.

618    Pyrrhonism proceeds from the relativity of our perceptions and judgements. Our perceptive ability misleads us; frequently we see and hear incorrectly (an oar which a rower holds in the water appears to be broken). When we perceive correctly, it is not the essence of things which we perceive, but only their external appearance. As with our perception, our understanding also misleads us. We think in order to progress through or by our reasoning, but this is not always the case. In the most complex syllogistic reasoning one reaches no further than the point from which one started. Moreover, they contended that every proposition could be refuted. There exists no proposition whose opposite cannot be demonstrated by the same logical arguments.

619    This raises the question: when nothing can be known with certainty, what is one to do? Where does one find a yardstick to learn what is good? The Pyrrhonic answer: one must do as little as possible. One must expand the number of adiaphora (things which have no essential significance) as much as possible, and adopt a reserved attitude regarding all actions and judgements. While we have the freedom to judge and to agree, we must use this freedom as little as we can, and so withhold judgement. By consciously refraining from every judgement and every action, one achieves happiness in life, eudaimonia. In this resides the calmness of soul, the ataraxia, of the wise man. It is best to say absolutely nothing and observe things calmly, pursuing a speculative life. ‘Scepsis’ is derived from the Greek verb skeptomai (= I observe or examine).

620    Among the Sceptics we also number the Academy in its second phase, the so-called Middle Academy. While the Sceptics of the Academy opposed the dogmatism of the Stoa with all their powers, their scepticism was not as radical as that of the Pyrrhonists. They acknowledged that one cannot abandon every judgement or action, and, when it is impossible to reach certainty, one must be satisfied with probability. Carneades is the representative of the theory of probability. One cannot attain certainty; in all one’s knowledge one has to be content with probability. He distinguishes three grades of probability. The first of these is when a proposition impresses us as accurate; the second when that impression is strengthened by this proposition’s agreement with others; the third or highest grade when, after diligent investigation, it finds a place in the system of our propositions.

621    We find offshoots of Scepticism among researchers into nature and physicians both prior to and after the beginning of the Christian era, who repeated and expanded the views of the earlier Sceptics. They pointed to the relativity of our perceptions, to the difference in time, place, circumstances and ability of the perceiving subject, and so on. The conclusion they reached was that in no sphere, logical or ethical, is there any stability or certainty.

622    Scepticism characterizes the inward uncertainty and decay of the ancient cultural world around the commencement of our era. It was in the face of this scepticism that the Gospel arrived with its liberating message of certainty. People who doubted the existence of truth could hear the invigorating assurance of Jesus: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6).


7.13    Syncretism and Eclecticism

623    Towards the end of this period, the Greek philosophical schools lost their distinctive character: the differences among them grew less, and the typical divisions between the Academy, the Lyceum and the Stoa disappeared. Only the Epicureans continued to occupy an individual position. For the rest, it was a time of Eclecticism and Syncretism: heterogeneous elements from various systems were selected and fused into a single entity.

624    It is to the syncretistic trend that the Stoa belongs in its second phase, the Middle Stoa. Its leading representatives were Panaetius (180–110 bc), who introduced the Stoa to Rome, and Posidonius (130–50 bc). The Later Academy also belonged to this group, as its members turned away from the scepticism of the Academy in its second phase, seeking to link up again with the Old Academy.

625    Roman philosophy was pre-eminently eclectic. The Romans adopted Greek philosophy, uniting its various motifs, but they did not deal with them independently, so that in this period there was no development of a distinctive Roman philosophy.

626    We find a clear example of Eclectism in
Cicero (died 43 bc); he studied in Athens and on Rhodes, making himself conversant with Greek philosophy. His significance for our present purpose is that he explained that philosophy to the Romans in their own language, though his efforts were at times superficial and reveal a lack of originality.



627    General:

A.H. Armstrong, An introduction to ancient philosophy, Boston 21963

E.V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism, Cambridge 1911

C. Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus, Oxford 1928

E. Bevan, Hellenistic Popular Philosophy, in: J. Bury, E.A. Barber et al., Hellenistic age (§306), 79–107

E. Brehier, The history of philosophy II: The Hellenistic age and Roman age, Chicago 1963

C.J. de Vogel, Greek philosophy I-III, Leiden 1959

H. Diels & W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker I-III, Berlin 1951f

W. Durant, The life of Greece, New York 1939, 641–58

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 254–314

K. Freeman, Ancilla to the pre-Socratic philosophers, Oxford 1948

___, The pre-Socratic philosophers, Oxford 1946 (a companion to Diels)

W. Jaeger (tr. E.S. Robinson), The theology of the early Greek philosophers, Oxford 1947

G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, The presocratic philosophers, Cambridge 1957

J. Leipoldt & W. Grundmann (Herausg.), Umwelt (§82), 342–70

A.A. Long, Hellenistic philosophy, London 21986

___, & D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic philosophers I-II, Cambridge 1987f

B.E. Meyer & E.P. Sanders (ed.), Jewish and Christian self-definition III: Self-definition in the Greco-Roman world, Philadelphia 1982

R.E. More, Hellenistic philosophies, Princeton 1923

A.D. Nock, Conversion, Oxford 1933, ch. XI

W.J. Oates, The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, New York 1957

G.A.A. Reale, History of ancient philosophy III: The systems of the Hellenistic age, Albany-New York 1985

W.T. Stace, A critical history of Greek philosophy, London 1924

H. Temporini & W. Haase (Herausg.), ANRW I/4; II/36–37

J.H. Waszink, W.C. van Unnik, & Ch. de Beus (red.), Het Oudste Christendom en de antieke cultuur I, Haarlem 1951, 263–363

W. Windelband, Geschichte der abendländischen Philosophie im Altertum, München 1923

___, (rev. von E. Rothacker), Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, Tübingen 111924

M. Wundt, Geschichte der griechischen Ethik I-II, Leipzig 1908–11

E. Zeller (transl. L.R. Palmer), Outlines of the history of Greek phi- losophy, New York 1931


628    Socrates:

J. Burnet, Greek philosophy: Thales to Plato, New York 21962

Th. Gomperz, Greek thinkers. A history of ancient philosophy II, London 61964, 45–118

N. Gulley, The philosophy of Socrates, New York 1968

W.K.C. Guthrie, Socrates, Cambridge 1972

G. Murray, A history of ancient Greek literature, London 1911, 170–7

L.E. Navia, Socrates: The man and his philosophy, Lanham 1985

C.E. Robinson, A history of Greece, London 171976, 176f, 274f

J.C. Stobart, The Glory that was Greece, London 81951, 258–62

A.E. Taylor, Socrates, New York 21953

J.P.J. van Rensburg, ‘n Oorsig van die oud-Griekse Letterkunde, Stellenbosch 1959, 156–62


629    Plato:

I.M. Crombie, An examination of Plato’s doctrines I-II, New York 1963

R.Demos, The philosophy of Plato, New York 1939

A. Fox, Plato and the Christians, London 1957

R.K. Gaye, The Platonic conception of immortality and its connection with the theory of ideas, London 1904

G.M.A. Grube, Plato’s thought, London 31970

D.J. Melling, Understanding Plato, Oxford 1987

P.E. More, The religion of Plato, Princeton 1921

D. Ross, Plato’s theory of ideas, Oxford 1951

P. Shorey, What Plato said, Chicago 1933

A.E. Taylor, Plato, the man and his work, London 61949

M. van der Hoek, De groote denkers deur eeuwen: Plato: Overzicht van zijn Philosophie. De Staat, Amsterdam 1902

J.P.J. Van Rensburg, Oorsig (§628), 163–74


630    Aristotle:

D.J. Allan, The philosophy of Aristotle, New York 1963

F. Grayeff, Aristotle and his school, London 1974

W. Jaeger, Aristotle, Oxford 21948

G.R.G. Mure, Aristotle, New York 1964

W.D. Ross, Aristotle, New York 1964

J.P.J. van Rensburg, Oorsig (§628), 174–85


631    Sophists, Stoics, Sceptics, Cynical School, and the Diatribe:

In the second volume of his work, Die religiöse Umwelt des Urchristentums I-II, KStTh 9, Stuttgart-Berlin-Köln 1995f, H.-J. Klauck presents us with a most useful introduction to philosophical trends in the first century ad.; see vol. II, 75–143. See further:    

E. Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics, New York 21959

R. Bultmann, Der Stil der paulinischen Predigt und die Kynisch-stoische Diatribe, FRLANT 13, Göttingen 1910

J. Burnet, Greek philosophy I, London 1914, 107–25

W. Capelle & I. Marrou, Diatribe, RAC III, col.990–1009

D.R. Dudley, A history of Cynicism, London 1937

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 299–371

K. Freeman, Philosophers (§627: Freemanb), 341–423

H. Koester, Introduction (§366), 141–55

A.J. Malherbe, The Cynic epistles, Montana 1977 (= Malherbea)

___, Moral exhortation: A Greco-Roman sourcebook, Philadelphia 1986, 129–30,138–41,141–3 (= Malherbeb)

___, Paul and the popular philosophers, Minneapolis 1989 (= Malherbec)

___, Hellenistic moralists and the New Testament, ANRW II. Principat 26/1, 267–333 (= Malherbed)

W.E. Meeks, The moral world of the first Christians, Philadelphia 1986, 52–4

M.M. Patrick, The Greek Sceptics, New York 1929

S.K. Stowers, A critical reassessment of Paul and the Diatribe: The dialogical element in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Michigan 1979

H. von Arnim, Stoicorum veterum fragmenta I-IV, Leipzig 1921–4

E. Zeller, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, New York 1962



Religious life

    J.L. de Villiers


8.1    Introduction

632    The Graeco-Roman world, in which the Gospel was first proclaimed, was not without religion. According to Luke, Paul told the Athenians on the Areopagus that he perceived that in every way they were very religious (Ac 17:22). People worshipped and feared a variety of gods (cf. Ac 14:8–18). The question is, however, what these religions were like. In the cultural world of Paul’s day one can really no longer speak of the Greek and Roman religions, seeing that the different religions adopted so much from one another, and the influence of the eastern religions had become so strong, that scarcely anything had survived of the original faiths. Yet—and this was just as true in the religious sphere—the Hellenistic period displayed its own character, and one can understand the religious situation of that era only after examining the Greek and Roman religions which preceded it.


8.2    The old national religions


8.2.1    Greece

633    No sooner is there mention of the religion of the Greeks in antiquity than we are inclined to think of Homer and his writings. There we encounter a pantheon (= the totality of the gods) over which Zeus reigned as supreme deity. These gods in human form, for whom nothing human was foreign, except that they themselves were all-powerful and immortal, undoubtedly played a vital part in Greek religion, and, thanks to the enormous influence wielded in Greece by Homer’s works, were acknowledged by the state as the official state religion. What happened in the case of Homer around the year 800 bc and in the cultural period in which he lived was that the various beings and forces by which the Greek felt he was surrounded in nature became more clearly defined and received fixed form in this deity or that.

634    Prior to Homer, the Greeks believed that they were surrounded by a multitude of divine beings. In fact, all natural phenomena for which they could not find an explanation were for them the manifestation of as many divine beings who helped them or who threatened their existence. The sun and the moon, the thunder and the lightning, the earth and the sea, the rivers and all the forces of nature were originally objects for the Greeks to worship. And in addition to the gods or divine forces which were generally revered there was a large number of local gods whose sphere of influence was restricted to particular localities. After Homer this vague, more or less impersonal veneration came to an end. Out of the misty shadows the gods emerged with clearer definition so that each received a particular and fixed delineation. As the head of the family of gods residing on lofty Olympus there was Zeus, the supreme god. In this way the anthropomorphic deities gained entrance into Greek religion, each with his or her own sphere of activity and his or her own history. When the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed, it was Zeus who was busy. Poseidon ruled over the sea and created storms. Apollo oversaw sickness and healing. Aphrodite awakened love and symbolized beauty. The gods married one another, and each had his or her own genealogy. The complete systemizing of this pantheon, which we first encounter in the writings of Homer, was the work of the poet Hesiod, who lived c. 700 bc; in his Theogony he gave a description of the origin of the world and of the history of the gods.

635    After Homer there were two currents in Greek religion: the old folk-religion with its spirits, demons and the ideas of primitive people, and alongside it the religion of Homer with its anthropomorphic gods. The result of the spread of Homeric religion was, however, that the number of deities was diminished and that many local gods lost their significance or were reduced to the stature of heroes or demigods, beings who were only partially of divine origin. When Homer’s religion was adopted as the state religion, its influence increased, even though the gods were guilty of all manner of vices—adultery, wrath, witchcraft, intrigues, and the like.

636    Societies, cities, and towns had their own gods, portrayed in human form. The goddess Athena protected the city of Athens; Artemis was the tutelary goddess of Ephesus (Ac 19:28), but these deities were venerated throughout the whole country. Temples were built for them in which their images were placed. Through his or her image the deity was present and entered into union with the people. The will of the gods determined that a city or society would live in terms of a fixed order, and they saw to it that the city’s laws were honoured. The most serious sin, the greatest transgression, was pride or hubris, when a person overstepped the boundaries set for him as a mortal and thus brought down upon himself the wrath of the gods. Veneration of the gods took place in cults which came into being through tradition and custom. The Greeks and Romans had no weekly day of rest like the Jewish Sabbath, though they did have a great number of festivals when people could rest and worship the gods. The main festivals venerating the Greek gods were linked to games held at scheduled times across the whole of Greece. Most famous of these were the Olympic Games every four years, during which sacrifices were offered to the gods and participants competed in the various events. The victor here would be honoured throughout the country. At two-yearly intervals, the Isthmian Games were held in Corinth, also attracting many competitors and spectators (cf. 1 Cor 9:24–27).

637    The question arises as to whether the Greek religious spirit could find satisfaction in this religion with its anthropomorphic gods, which no one could regard as his or her superiors on the ethical plane. But the Greek deities actually presented a paradox. Though the supreme deity Zeus was not all that serious about his own marital fidelity, it was still the gods who watched over marriage. It was this same Zeus who made Aegisthus pay with his life for his scandalous adultery with Agamemnon’s wife. Despite their human character and vices, the gods were still regarded as the custodians of justice. None the less, there was criticism of this polytheism. It began with Xenophanes (570–480 bc), and continued with Plato (429–347 bc). But the fiercest antagonist of the traditional religion was Euripedes (480–406 bc); he directed his attack especially against the moral aspects of belief in anthropomorphic gods who were guilty of all kinds of misdeeds, concluding that such deities were fabrications (see his Heracles).

638    Euripedes had been strongly influenced by the Sophists, who were themselves a threat to Greek religion. The rationalism and scepticism in their views of life and the world had to bring them into conflict with religion in general and with polytheism in particular. Protagoras (c. 485–416 bc) and especially Critias (c. 410 bc) expressed themselves on this subject. The latter, for example, asserted that religion was an invention by a clever man to use fear of the gods to frighten the wits out of people who could not be kept in line by laws.

639    As for the populace in general, we have to accept that the philosophers’ and scholars’ sharp criticism of polytheism largely passed over them. Along with the old folk belief in natural forces, the official state religion continued to enjoy recognition. Gradually, however, the mystery religions began to make their appearance, offering people the opportunity of personally experiencing religion. The most ancient of these were the Eleusinian mysteries, celebrated at Eleusis, a town in Attica north-west of Athens.


8.2.2    Rome

640    The religion of the Romans was totally different from that of the Greeks. At first they knew nothing of images or temples. Innumerable ‘forces’, each with its own limited sphere of influence, governed the lives of the Roman farmer and his family. When his son was born, it was Cuba who laid the infant in its cradle; Edusa and Potina taught him to eat and drink; Statina, Abeona, and Adeona taught him to stand and walk, while Fabulinus, Farinus and Locutus taught him to speak. In the fields there was an individual power which allowed the strewn seed to germinate, but there were other forces overseeing the growth, flowering and fruiting, while the herd, the house, the grazing, and so on each had its own tutelary deity. In this religion there was no notion of piety. The suppliant and the god to whom sacrifice was made had a contractual relationship with each other. The people had the duty of sacrificing to the gods according to a fixed ritual, and the god, in a quid pro quo reaction, was obligated to protect the worshipper and his whole family—on the principle of: I give so that you can give. In this way the pax deorum, the good understanding with the gods, was preserved.

641    These religious exercises were carried out, in the first instance, in the context of the family, where the father, the paterfamilias, took the lead in appearing before the gods on behalf of the family. There was also, however, the civic sphere, where the priest had to maintain contact with the gods and ensure that the pax deorum was preserved. In addition to the individual deities, in the Roman religion there was the veneration of the Lares and Penates. In antiquity we find mention of a lar familias, probably the spirit of a deceased ancestor. He had a close link with the protection of the family and its possessions. The Penates also were part of the cult of the family; presumably they were the protectors of the food in the storeroom.

642    Gradually, through external influences, the Roman religion lost its character. The influence of the Greek pantheion was so great during the Hellenistic period that all the gods in the Homeric pantheon were given their Roman counterparts. When the cult of Cybele was imported towards the end of the Second Punic War, the way was opened for oriental influence as well. In 215 bc, with the consent of King Attalus of Pergamum, an official legation brought her symbol, a black meteorite, from Pessinus in the Phrygian hinterland to Rome. As in Greece, faith in the gods declined drastically in Rome. In the higher echelons rationalism wished to dispense with them; at the same time in the lower circles of society there was increasing interest in mystical cults, such as the service of Dionysus or Bacchus, which spread all over Italy. This process continued despite the emperor Augustus’s attempts to restore the old religion, erect new temples, and appoint priests. One cult which gradually gained ground and under various Caesars had grave consequences was emperor worship. In course of time it became state policy for the emperor to be highly extolled in this way and to be venerated. Generally speaking, by the time of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem the old Graeco-Roman idol worship was a thing of the past. The links which bound the Roman citizen to the national religion were crumbling, and the world was spiritually and religiously bankrupt.


8.3    Religious syncretism and the mystery religions


8.3.1    Introductory

643    It is quite impossible to provide anything like a comprehensive survey of religious life in the Hellenistic era. It takes on so many forms and has so many aspects that here we are able to touch on only a few of them.

644    Two remarkable aspects of Hellenistic religion are syncretism and the role of the mystery religions. When, as a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests, the city state disappeared from Greece and the national borders were blurred, the frontiers between the domains of the various deities were also effaced. In Alexander’s world empire and in the large Hellenistic kingdoms of his successors, an enormous cultural and religious commingling gradually occurred. People came to know one another’s gods and accepted them as their own, because they no longer regarded them as alien forces. They were simply worshipped under other names and with different rites in the various countries. So the Greek goddess Artemis and Cybele of Asia Minor were equated: they were no longer regarded as two different goddesses, but as one and the same divinity with various names.

645    Another characteristic of the Hellenistic period is that people felt themselves threatened and took refuge in superstition, astrology and witchcraft for protection against demons, sickness and fate’s unforeseen blows. The problem of how to save oneself from ruin and anxiety demanded a solution. The mystery religions, entering the Roman Empire from the East, offered a partial answer to human longing. They gave people the power which enabled them to resist death and suffering and the uncertainty of human existence. Religion now became more a private concern than of the state. These cults are called mystery religions because those taking part in them were pledged to absolute secrecy. One consequence of that oath is that details about these religions are meagre, though it is possible to gain a general impression.

646    The most important characteristic of the mystery religions is the folllowing: In these cults the various cultic myths, which in several ways came to be mutually commingled, were made applicable to the initiated in different ways. In the cult they received the victory, the resurrection, and the immortality of the godhead they worshipped. In the cult, in which one could take part according to the degree of initiation achieved, the initiate was deified or became one with the godhead. This happened in a mystical way by immersion in or sprinkling with water or blood, by wearing holy vestments, and by eating certain foods. The chief aim was to enter the god’s presence. In the various mystery religions there are also differences here. In some it occurred wildly and ecstatically, as in the cults of Attis and Dionysus; others, like the cult of Mithra, displayed a more sober image. But in all of them there was the belief that those who were admitted to the mysteries of the cult thereby received a means to deification, became new people, and were blessed with immortality. In contrast, then, to the other religions of that time, the mystery religions took seriously the questions of life after death and immortality. The Greeks and Romans had a very vague idea of the hereafter, generally accompanied by great uncertainty and dread of death. The mystery religions were not national in the strict sense of the term, but international religions, intended for individuals. It was only by personal participation that a person could be initiated into the cultic mysteries. Anyone who wished could become a candidate for initiation—free people and slaves, Greeks and non-Greeks, men and women. In each cult, the initiates became a strong fraternity in which the divisions between the races and social status were abolished.

647    We turn to consider some of the most prominent of the mystery religions.


8.3.2    The cult of Isis

648    An Egyptian myth which took various forms was best described by Plutarch in his work entitled On Isis and Osiris, which told of Isis and her husband Osiris, a godly king of ancient Egypt; he was murdered by his brother Seth who hacked him into fourteen pieces and scattered them over the whole Egyptian countryside. Isis goes out to search for the pieces, and when she has found them, she restores Osiris to life. Because one of the pieces landed in the Nile, people believed that Osiris also entered the underworld. Now he lives as ruler of the kingdom of the dead.

649    This myth found expression in a rite which was enacted in the Roman Empire in the first Christian century. The most important of the Isis mysteries was, of course, the ceremony of seeking for the god who had died and finding him. The initiates would move sadly around, dramatically depicting the mythical details. After about two days of searching and mourning, the discovery of the god was accompanied by exuberant joy, while the deity came alive in the conceptual world of the revellers. When the initiate of this cult was united mystically with Osiris, death would cease to hold any terror, as he was assured of a life after death.

650    In the Hellenistic period, the Ptolemies allowed the name of Osiris to be changed to Sarapis, so that the new name would designate the highest deity Egyptians and Greeks should worship. The god Sarapis was equated with Zeus, the father of the gods and of humans, and was praised and worshipped as the saviour and redeemer who helped everybody. At his side stood Isis, the divine mother, who was venerated as a goddess.


8.3.3    The cult of Cybele

651    The cult of Cybele and Attis came to the western world from Phrygia. Cybele was a nature goddess in Asia Minor. As ‘the great mother of the gods’ she enjoyed particular veneration by the primitive people of the Anatolian highlands, for whom she was a vague, impersonal figure. The myth of Cybele and Attis tells of Attis, a herd boy whom his beloved, the goddess Cybele, made insane because he had been unfaithful to her, and who committed suicide by castrating himself. Deeply disconsolate and in mourning, Cybele seeks everywhere for her lover, until she finds him and after his resurrection is reunited with him.

652    The festival of Cybele was celebrated in the autumn, when her devotees accompanied her in the search for Attis. This was accompanied by wild ecstasy, flagellation and even self-laceration. When spring arrived, the reunion of Cybele and Attis was celebrated in the form of a sacred meal, including the sacramental eating and drinking from the tambourine and the cymbal, the sacred musical instruments which served respectively as the plate and the chalice.

653    At first this cult was not very popular in Rome, since it was accompanied by ecstatic excesses. By the beginning of the imperial era, however, its influence increased, especially when the emperor Claudius extended his patronage to it. From that time Roman citizens could become priests of Cybele. Many people were initiated into this religion. Included in that ritual was the taurobolium, the sacrifice of a bull, which was also part of the worship of Mithras. The person to be initiated climbed into a pit over which planks were laid with spaces between them. A bull was slaughtered on the planks, so that its blood dripped into the pit onto the person being initiated. Once he had been baptized by blood, the initiate was born again for ever.


8.3.4    The cult of Mithras

654    Though in practice it had no influence on the Greek world, the service of Mithras was a doughty opponent of early Christianity. Its main propagandists were Roman soldiers, and we find Mithraic shrines wherever there were Roman garrisons in antiquity. This cult was Persian in origin. In the Iranian religion, Mithras was a god of light alongside Ahura Mazda. Though subsequently he had to occupy second place, he never completely lost his influence, and in the Hellenistic era actually gained great significance.

655    The Persian or Iranian religion was dualistic. The gods of light, truth and the good stood opposed to those of darkness and evil. Ahura Mazda, the great god of light, is in continual conflict with his opponent Ahriman. In this warfare, which will ultimately result in the victory of good over the forces of darkness, human beings are also involved. They can help Ahura Mazda by lives based on purity and truth. Mithras also has his part to play in the conflict. At a particular stage in Persian religion he is depicted as the mediator between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. Later he becomes the god who assists people as they strive for good, and he is able also to deliver them from the dark power of evil. As in the other Hellenistic mystery religions, in Mithraism there is reference to salvation. Once Mithras has engaged in every sense in the conflict with Ahriman, he returns to the abode of the immortals, from where he supports his followers in their battle against evil.

656    According to Tertullian, one of the Church Fathers, the cult of Mithras also had its baptism and sacral meal, and its adherents believed in the resurrection as well. They practised asceticism, and were far superior to the other mystery religions in ethical matters. Understandably, then, this cult was very persuasive.

657    While we do not encounter the mystery religions in the New Testament, some religious historians assert that New Testament baptism and the Lord’s Supper were influenced by these cults, seeing that they also make mention of baptism and a sacral meal. Closer investigation, however, shows that there was no influence of that kind, because the New Testament’s baptism and holy meal had a distinctive character which can be understood only in the New Testament context. The mystery religions did render an indirect service to the Gospel: in a certain sense they prepared the people of that time for its coming. They undermined belief in polytheism; on the other hand, they stimulated the longing for a personal religious life.


8.4    Saviour figures

658    In the ancient world there was widespread belief that in a miraculous way a person could obtain divine help in the healing of sickness and disease. The gods who healed people were known as sōtēres (= saviours). The most notable of these was Asclepius, whom many worshipped and whose assistance was widely sought. His cult was practised at an early stage in many localities around the Mediterranean Sea, and it was imported into Athens after the great plague had ravaged the city in 420/419 bc. There had been forerunners of this cult; in various places images of human limbs have been found gratefully dedicated to a deity by the people who had received healing.

659    Asclepius’s badge or symbol was the snake, seeing that he was originally venerated as the serpent god in Thessaly. His main shrine was at Epidaurus, where large buildings were erected in the Hellenistic period. In the temple dedicated to his service there were spacious halls in which the sick lay to rest and received healing as they slept. This sleep in the temple was known as the incubatio. As they slept, the sick people would dream that they were being healed by the intervention of Asclepius, so that the following morning they would wake in good health. The lame could walk again, the dumb speak, the blind see. Many people experienced miraculous healing and in gratitude donated gold or silver images of the limbs which had been healed or brought offerings to the temple. Asclepius was lauded as the god of healing and as a saviour who came to the aid of human beings and cared for them.

660    Other saviour figures or gods who effected healing included Isis and Sarapis. If they listened to her, Isis also healed people through their dreams. Sarapis was also credited with many cures and miracles. Healing was also attributed to the images of gods and heroes, since in antiquity people believed that the deity was present in his or her image.

661    Wonderful things were also ascribed to men who emitted divine power. Such a person was called a theios anēr (= a divine man; see, however, Du Toit, who criticizes this viewpoint). Wherever he moved about the country, it was said that the grass became green, sick people were healed and marvellous things happened. According to Suetonius, the emperor Vespasian healed a blind man who had sought his help in Alexandria. The philosopher Apolonius of Tyana, who travelled around Asia Minor in the first century ad teaching, was also hailed for the marvels he performed in helping suffering people and healing the sick.

662    When Jesus appeared on the scene, the world was already acquainted with saviour figures who alleviated human distress. The gospels portray Jesus as one who offers people healing for soul and body. The wonderful works he performed were, however, in the service of the kingdom of God, not isolated instances of the manifestation of power.


8.5    Divination

663    In the mantic arts, which the Romans termed divinatio, we have to do with augury or the foretelling of the future. In the ancient world this played a great part. For instance, the flight of birds was studied to determine from it whether or not the future was propitious. The entrails of a sacrificial animal were examined in order to read in them signs for the future. Before any important decision had to be made—to set out on a journey, say, or pilot a significant venture—the attempt was made to establish in this way what the will of the gods was. When a serious attempt did not yield sufficient clarity, the sacrifice could be repeated and the entrails consulted once again. In Rome the study of such natural phenomena as lightning and the flight of birds was entrusted to an official priestly body.

664    In certain shrines one could make enquiry and from the oracle of the deity learn the god’s will. From the earliest times, the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was visited by the Greeks so they could lay their requests before the Pythia. She was a priestess who sat on a tripod to learn the gods’ will and reveal it. People from near and far resorted to her with their personal cares or ills or with their domestic and family problems. She was also consulted over political matters. Another sanctuary was located at Dodona, where the priest was held to discover the divine will through the rustling of the wind through the leaves of the oak trees.

665    In the ancient world there were the collections of oracles associated with the Sibyl. She was a priestess of Apollo and also a prophetess. There is mention of a Sibyl in various places, but the most famous was the Sibyl of Cumae, who was reputed to have lived for centuries in a cave, from which she issued her oracles. She was held to have accompanied Aeneas to the underworld and to have compiled the Sibylline Oracles which set out the destiny of Rome. Several collections of these Sibylline books or oracles were in circulation; the best known of them is the Libri Sibyllini, which was kept in Rome and in an emergency was consulted by an official commission of the state.


8.6    Astrology

666    From the days of Alexander the Great astrology increasingly came to the forefront, supplanting belief in the gods and oracles. People studied the stars in order to deduce the law of the macrocosm from their position and draw conclusions for the microcosm (mankind and its destiny) from it, since—so it was believed—what happens to a human being is written in the stars.

667    The knowledge which the Babylonians had collected regarding the position and movement of the heavenly bodies was carried further by the Greeks and intensified by their scientific insights. In the Hellenistic period this scientific knowledge was linked with many popular ideas and with magic, resulting in a wide variety of practices in the sphere of astrology. On the one hand there was the more scientific application by scholars, on the other the usual fortune-telling which for a fee would read one’s future in the stars. A person’s horoscope, based on the position of the stars, would be drawn up, through which insight could be gained over that one’s destiny. Days which promised no good fortune had to be avoided. Occasions which appeared to fall under a good star had to be seized. Superstitious dread had people gazing at the stars in anxiety and suspense because they believed that they had been delivered to the cosmic powers. The stars had to be studied if there was to be any protection from harm or danger, and those occasions which seemed to enjoy the favour of the heavenly bodies had to be utilized. Astrological knowledge was disseminated through writings and books which one could use whenever important decisions had to be made or ventures undertaken. In Papyrus Tebtunis 276, for example, we find the following advice: ‘Saturn in opposition to Mars signifies misfortune. Jupiter in conjunction with Mars or in opposition to it causes immorality and divorce … When Mercury stands in conjunction with Jupiter or in opposition to it, it results in prosperous actions and business …’

668    When Paul refers to slavery to ‘the elemental spirits of the universe’ (Gl 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20), he could have been alluding to these things. From this bondage Christ has set mankind free. It is striking that it was his star in the East which led the astronomers to the crib in Bethlehem (Mt 2:2). The New Testament hails him as ‘the morning star’ (2 Pt 1:19; Rv 22:16).


8.7    Magic

669    Witchcraft was known in classical Greece, but through the Persian wars Assyro-Babylonian sorcery flooded into the Greek world. Its greatest flowering was, however, in the Roman imperial era. In this we discern the uncertainty of the masses who could no longer depend on the help of the old gods and consequently took refuge in magic to curb the demons and menacing powers. The recent socio-scientific research into the world of the New Testament has shown clearly the enormous role of sorcery and witchcraft in this period (Malina & Neyrey, Elliot). In Gl 3:1 Paul alludes to contemporary witchcraft.

670    Great value was also attached to dreams. One had to be on one’s guard against evil spirits and powers which could do one harm, and so escape becoming their prey. Preventive measures were adopted and amulets were worn to ward off demons and stop them from gaining access to a person. Mysterious charms, which were considered very effective because of their strangeness and their repetition, kept the demons at a distance, while at the same time promoting a person’s happiness. Large numbers of papyri containing such formulas have been found. In Egypt, where sorcery had been practised from the earliest times, various languages and religions were merged, with the result that charms invoking different gods were also composed. Egyptian divine names and Old Testament words and formulas were combined to create spells which would restrain the power of the spirits and determine people’s destiny.


8.8    The hero cult

671    One of the most important sources from which emperor worship developed in the Roman Empire was the veneration of the Hellenistic ruler, which in its turn derived to a considerable extent from the Greek hero cult.

672    People of previous generations with a record of exceptional achievements were regarded as heroes. They were seen as simultaneously human beings and gods. Thus their graves were venerated, and it was especially around them that the cult was concentrated. Presumably it was the ancestors of important clans who were the first to be accorded this veneration, no doubt principally by their descendants and the people dependent upon them. The same honour was later conferred posthumously on the founders of cities, as well as on significant lawgivers and kings, the assassins of tyrants and leading poets and thinkers.

673    More and more, great merit of any kind seems to have been enough for a person to be granted the dignity of a heros, until ultimately nearly everyone became a heros after his death. Inscriptions from the fourth century bc and later show, for instance, that national assemblies, associations and families frequently declared their deceased members heroes.


8.9    The cult of the dead

674    In the Hellenistic period a cult of the dead came into being through which clubs or foundations honoured the dead. Wealthy people created a fund through which their heirs or a club could care for the grave and the memory of a dead person. We find such clubs in Greece from the fourth century bc, but they were most frequent on Roman soil during the imperial era. They were formed by people who were linked by such common bonds as religion or profession. Nearly all of these had their own god or heros as guardian, while their existence was assured by monthly contributions. Their members united to care for the burial and the memory of their deceased fellows, so that they were sometimes referred to as ‘death clubs’. A club often had its own cemetery. It saw to the costs of the burial and the care of the grave, while the dead person was honoured by memorial meals which were usually held annually in the club premises. Some religio-historical scholars see in these memorial meals a connection with the Lord’s Supper. The Christians, however, did not worship a dead hero but Jesus Christ, the living Lord.


8.10    Gnosticism

675    Recent discoveries have brought to light that Gnosis or Gnosticism was a distinctive world religion which around the second century ad
strove for primacy against Christianity and other religious trends. For a long time our knowledge of Gnosticism was restricted to the second century Church Fathers’ quotations from the works of the Gnostics. According to these quotations, their opponents proclaimed a doctrine which was inimical to this world: they concentrated on involved mythological speculations and in some instances advocated a libertine ethic. They were charged with separating the God of the Old Testament from the Father of Jesus Christ and falsifying Christian teaching. Consequently they were regarded as heretics.

676    Recent research has, however, shown that the phenomenon of Gnosticism must not be viewed merely within the framework of early Christianity. It was a widely ramified movement in the Hellenistic world, subject to the influence of various religions and currents. In certain instances it incorporated Christian elements, giving rise to a large number of Christian-Gnostic communities. How precisely Gnosticism with its fusion of Iranian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Old Testament and Greek elements originated we are still not able to determine. Nowadays it is generally accepted that it had pre-Christian roots, that it existed alongside Christianity as an influential movement, and that in some cases it linked up with Christianity. The startling discovery of a Gnostic library with its apocryphal gospels and other documents at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945/1946 shows how a Gnostic exposition of the Christian message was formulated (see §262–5). The Corpus Hermeticum, which originated in Egypt, is a good example of non-Christian Gnosticism. It consists of seventeen tractates dating from around the middle of the first to the end of the third century. Its most interesting document is the Poimandres tractate, in which the transcendent God reveals himself to the world through the Logos.

677    The term gnōsis means knowledge; in Gnosticism the basic concern is with the knowledge a person gains through revelation—the knowledge of who he is, what he was, and from what he must be saved. Gnosticism is, of course, dualistic: from his original spiritual home man has been flung down to this material world. He must be set free from the prison of this world, of which his physical being is a part, and brought to salvation. Without knowledge one will be lost. Whoever has knowledge knows from whence he comes and where he must go. This knowledge one obtains by being gripped by God, the object of one’s knowledge. God is the inaccessible Unknown, nor is there any direct route to him. But he paves the way to himself for the soul, which sees him in ecstatic visions. Once a person discovers his situation in this world and understands that he is caught fast in materialism, this knowledge at the same time enables him to return home to the divine world which he left. From this knowledge there issues a negative view of the material world, which is evil and inimical to the power of light which lies dormant in a human being.

678    Gnosticism also makes use of a myth which explains why the world is like it is and how the way to liberation and salvation can be found once more. Creation occurs when from the divine sphere of the pure world a part falls down and links itself to matter. Because the world has come into being through a fall, it is not the true world but the alien work of God, and it is now ruled by enemies. For Gnosticism the world is not, then, God’s good work, nor, as in the case of the Stoa, can one deduce from the works of creation that God rules over his creation. The cosmos is enveloped in darkness and given over to iniquity; this then is also the gaol in which the sparks of light are kept imprisoned. The first man, who was made in the beginning, did not land in the condition of deprivation through his own fault; in an accidental fall he came into the world, where he remains captive. The powers of this world which guard it overpowered him, made him drunk, and sent him to sleep, so that he has forgotten his heavenly home and has no knowledge of where he came from. But seeing that in a human being a divine spark lies dormant, it all depends on whether or not that spark can be resuscitated. The powers of this world will seek to prevent that at all costs.

679    Because God who rules over the world and the divine substance which resides in the human soul belong together by virtue of a natural relationship, the soul must rise again to the higher world out of which it fell. Human beings must be restored to what they were originally and to what has always been concealed in them. For this to happen, they must be roused from sleep and drunkenness to discover that the world is alien to them and not their home. This knowledge they receive through the call which comes to them and makes them aware of their heavenly origin. The knowledge awakened by the call means not only that they are made aware of their original condition, but it lends them the ability to come out of the prison and to begin the journey back to their heavenly home.


8.11    The emperor cult


8.11.1    Sacral kingship

680    In the East kings were regarded as sons of the gods and venerated as such from earliest times. From the deity’s hand the king received the law by which he ruled. On the stone on which the famous Code of Hammurabi is inscribed there is an account of how this happened to that king. His office he received direct from the deity, so that it was inviolable. In the king the god revealed himself to people, and through him he entered into union with the people.

681    In Egypt the pharaoh was the son of the sun-god. As such he was elevated above his subjects and stood between them and the gods. His subjects were compelled to absolute obedience to him, nor could they in any circumstance rebel against a king who was acting unjustly. In practice, however, such kings were assassinated in palace revolutions.


8.11.2    Oriental emperor cults

682    The Greeks did not identify with this eastern concept; with their love of liberty they were opposed to any such absolute rule. Nor were their gods exalted so high above the people, since they could visit the earth to have intercourse with people (cf. Ac 14).

683    Through the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, they came into contact with the oriental concept of the divine kingship. When he visited the famous oracle of the god Ammon at the oasis of Siwa in Egypt to enquire about the future, the high priest greeted him as the son of Ammon, which to the Greek mind meant ‘son of Zeus’. Not only did Alexander fall in with this; from then on he allowed himself to be regarded as the son of the supreme god. After his death he was buried in Alexandria, where a priest was installed for him as the founder of the city and as the son of Ammon. People began to revere him in cultic fashion, not only in Egypt but in other parts of the East, so that in Asia Minor and even in Athens itself temples were erected for him. The Greeks were used to the idea that gods could appear on earth and that divine men could do marvellous things (see §671–2), but up to this point they had never bowed before a ruler as the epiphany (appearing) of a deity. Alexander’s successors, the Diadochi, appropriated this veneration to themselves. The Rosetta Stone, dating from 196 bc, shows how the Ptolemies—in this instance Ptolemy V—were venerated. The Seleucids were also revered as gods, especially because these kings had satisfied the populace’s longing for peace.


8.11.3    The emperor cult in Rome

684    When Rome came into contact with the Greek states and the East, and conquered those territories, the cult of the ruler acquired a new element: the conqueror was revered as a deity, and this veneration was extended to the generals and the rulers of the provinces. In several cities of Asia Minor altars to Dea Roma (the goddess Rome) were erected, while religious feasts were instituted in honour of Rome, known as Romaia.


a.    The veneration of Julius Caesar in Rome

685    Caesar wished to introduce into Rome the Hellenistic cult of the ruler which he had enjoyed in the East, thereby obtaining sacral legitimation for his permanent dictatorship, even though this conflicted with Roman civil law. He probably thought that the Egyptian and Oriental influence was already so strong in Rome that his wishes could be realized. In order to achieve his goal and to link up with the Roman past, he laid great emphasis on his descent from Venus (Venus Genetrix). But in all this he miscalculated. The cult of the dead might be familiar to the Romans, so that after their death the Gracchi were venerated as gods by many and the souls of the deceased enjoyed divine honour as Dei Manes, but Rome was not yet prepared to accept the cult of a live person.


b.    Caesar Augustus

686    The murder of Julius Caesar was a warning to Octavian not to be hasty in advocating the veneration of the living. In the East he permitted the deifying of his person as long as it did not affect Roman citizens. But the Romans who lived in those parts were allowed only to build a temple for Rome and for Divus Julius (= divine Julius), namely Julius Caesar, who had adopted him. By this conniving a beginning was made with the emperor cult in the provinces. In the year 27 bc, Octavian assumed the title Augustus, a name which found an echo in the East, with the result that many temples were erected for Rome and Sebastos (= Augustus). In Egypt, Augustus was immediately recognized as a god. The Roman authorities acceded to this, but also took account of the Greek population, with the result that the new ruler was revered as sōtēr (saviour) and euergetēs (benefactor).

687    In Italy, Augustus went to work with the utmost circumspection. He rejected all official deifying of himself. By contrast, Julius Caesar, as one already deceased, was officially exalted to Divus Julius; subsequently a temple was dedicated to him. In the Pantheon of Agrippa, Divus Julius was installed among the other gods, but Augustus, though as son of Divus Julius he occupied a special place, refused to have his image placed among the other gods, and was content to have it set up in the vestibule. In 13 bc he refused to allow an altar to himself to be erected in Rome, though he did allow one which would celebrate the peace he had brought about, the Pax Augusta. Through this altar, however, the famous Ara Pacis Augustae, peace and Augustus were linked together.

688    Though in the official state religion there was for the time being no deifying of a living emperor or any placing of him on an equal footing with the gods, there was one aspect which closely approximated to such veneration. In 29 bc the Senate laid down that at every meal held on a state or private occasion there should be a sacrifice to the genius of Augustus. (The genius was the guardian spirit specifically linked to a particular person and also regarded as that person’s soul or divine element.) In the army the emperor’s genius, depicted with his features, was venerated along with the militares, the military gods, and eventually he was for a time the chief deity. In the worship in the homes of the people the imperial genius was frequently revered along with the Lares and Penates. In Italy and in the provinces there arose fraternities of the Augustales, instituted to venerate the living emperor. In this way the emperor cult, which at the outset was certainly not compulsory, became a vinculum binding the whole empire together. In Italy, too, the veneration of the emperor gradually changed into his deification. Originally this deifying process applied only to deceased emperors, but later to living ones as well.


c.    The emperor cult and the other emperors

689    Tiberius took the same line as Augustus, except that he prohibited the provinces from venerating his person in this way. But with the reign of Caligula there came a radical change. He considered himself the incarnation of all the gods and in Rome allowed himself to be worshipped officially
as a god. The emperors who came after him did not all attach the same value to emperor worship; some like Vespasian did not take it seriously, while a man like Domitian demanded to be addressed as Dominus et Deus (Lord and God), basing the legitimacy of his reign on the emperor’s divinity.


8.12    The Roman state’s attitude to Jewish and Christian religious observances

690    The Roman authorities granted the Jews many extraordinary privileges. What contributed to this was, first, the renewed friendship treaties between Rome and the Jewish leaders during the Maccabaean revolt and, secondly, the positive relationship which existed between Julius Caesar and the Jews. While the position of the Jewish communities was not the same everywhere, in general they could practise their religion freely. It had been declared a religio licita (= legitimate religion); in consequence the Jews were not persecuted for their religious practices. They were exempted from worshipping the gods of the Roman state. A sacrifice on behalf of the emperor twice a day in the temple was considered sufficient proof of their loyalty. So as not to offend Jewish sentiments in connection with the celebration of the Sabbath and other Jewish festivals, their menfolk were released from military service in the Roman armies. Nor could they be compelled to appear in court on the Sabbath. Couriers carrying the temple tax to Jerusalem from outside the country were given special protection. Jews in Rome who were entitled to grants of grain or money from the state could collect these on the following day.

691    Schürer points out that we know of only three instances where the Roman state actually threatened or disadvantaged the Jewish religion per se. The first occurred in ad 39–49 when the emperor Caligula commanded twice that his image be erected and venerated in the temple in Jerusalem. Fortunately for the Jews, matters took in both instances a timely turn. Before the order could be finally carried out, Caligula died and Claudius revoked it. A second blow to the Jewish religion occurred when Vespasian decreed that Jews living abroad should henceforth pay their temple tax to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. For a time this tax provided a welcome boost to the Roman treasury. A third, extremely critical threat arose when the emperor Hadrian prohibited circumcision. His successor, Antoninus Pius, relaxed the edict by restricting it to non-Jews.

692    The large measure of religious freedom which the Jews enjoyed did not, however, mean that they were regarded favourably by every Greek or Roman. While it was true that the Jewish religion commanded the respect of many ordinary people and gained many disciples (see §1195–202,1712–7), many people of culture referred facetiously and disparagingly to the Jews and their religion (see also §§1190–4,1716). Though the Jews did not take all this lightly, and made attempts to present their religion more positively, the official protection they received for their religious practices was decisive. The official measures which were occasionally taken against the Jews, for example, under Tiberius and Claudius, were the result of criminal acts such as unauthorized appropriation of funds or threats to the safety of the state.

693    Because the Christianity which was emerging was initially regarded simply as a Jewish sect, in the earliest decades it shared the legal protection enjoyed by the Jewish religion (see Ac 18:12–17; 25:18f; 26:31f). Ferguson, however, reminds us that the attempts by the Jews to distance themselves from the Christians (see Ac 13:50; 14:2, 19; 17:5f, 13; etc.) and the riots which accompanied these efforts not only brought the Christians into discredit with many of the authorities; they also contributed to the increasing differentiation between Jews and Christians. The first historical evidence of a clear distinction being drawn is the persecution under the emperor Nero in ad 64, which involved only Christians.

694    It would be incorrect to suppose that the Roman state persecuted the Christians simply because of their religious convictions. We have to bear in mind, first, that religion as such did not enjoy a high priority with the Roman state, except when the activities of a particular group carried implications dangerous to the state; secondly, that Rome exercised a large measure of religious tolerance. This was fostered by the fact that in this period various religions were blended (the syncretistic trend) and the respective gods were seen as in many respects complementary. By far the majority of the Roman Empire’s subjects thus had no problem with practising their own religion and at the same time venerating the emperor as a divine being and worshipping the Roman state deities. For the state itself, the emperor cult and the worship of the state gods were not of paramount importance as religious acts; they were, however, exceptionally relevant as political acts through which its subjects attested their loyalty to the Roman imperium and the empire was united.

695    Yet it was precisely on this point that the Christians’ problem arose. Like the Jews, they believed in one exclusive and unique God. As long as they had been equated with the Jews, they enjoyed their privileged religious immunity. But the more they came to be regarded as a separate entity, the less that immunity applied and, as a result of their refusal to take part in the emperor cult and to
worship the Roman state
gods, they were regarded as a danger to the state. In course of time that perception was reinforced by all sorts of calumny—that they were cannibals, practised magic, worshipped an ass’s head, and so on. But always the most serious charge was that they were atheoi (= atheists), because they repudiated the accepted gods of the time and the Roman state gods in particular.

696    How far this labelling process had gone by ad 64 we do not know precisely, but it must have existed, otherwise Nero would not have found it so easy to point to the Christians in Rome as those guilty of the city’s great fire, or to persecute them. By the time of Domitian, the Christians were clearly regarded as ‘atheists’. Emperor worship helped him to give his reign a legitimate character, so that, when the Christians refused to worship him as a god, they were persecuted as ‘atheists’ who were a danger to the state. During the reign of Trajan the legal status of the Christian religion was again examined. By this time Christians were generally expected to carry out the orders of the Roman official concerned by venerating the emperor and the Roman state gods. When, however, the Roman governor, Pliny the younger, enquired of the emperor Trajan as to the correct procedure, he was ordered to carry out the accepted policy but not deliberately to ferret out the Christians. The application of this policy meant that the persecution of the Christians varied in occurrence and intensity from one place to another and from time to time, particularly in terms of the prominence of specific charges, the attitude of the local population, the political situation in the Roman Empire, and the policy of the individual Roman officials. ‘The threat of persecution was ever present, but persecution was not a constant experience’ (Ferguson: 484). In all fairness to the Roman state we must accept that the persecutions occurred more sporadically than is sometimes asserted in church circles.

697    It is, of course, a historical irony that the Christians were slandered as ‘atheists’. Nor were they in any sense a danger to the state. In fact, the New Testament demands obedience to the state in so far as its demands do not collide with our loyalty to God (Mk 12:13–17 par; Rm 13:1–7; 1 Pt 2:13f). This prescription requires Christians even to pray for the emperor and those in authority under him (1 Tm 2:1–3). Yet they did not consider the emperor a divine being who should therefore be worshipped. To have done so would have impaired their integrity as believers. The religious fortitude and constancy of so many Christians under persecution demands our greatest respect.




698    The ANRW I/2 Religion, 317–453, as well as II/16–28, contains an enormous amount of material on religions in the Roman Empire, including Christianity.


699    Religion in general:

J. Adam, Religious teachers of Greece, Edinburgh 21909

F. Altheim (tr. A. Mattingly), A history of Roman religion, London 1938

C. Bailey, Phases in the religious life of ancient Rome, Berkeley 1932

E.R. Beavan, Later Greek religion, London 1927

F. Cumont, Die orientalischen Religionen im römischen Heidentum, Darmstadt 91989

W. den Boer, De godsdienst van de Grieken, Leiden 1948

L.R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek states I-IV, Oxford 1896–1909

___, Greece and Babylon, Edinburgh 1911

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 137–70

F.F. Fowler, The religious experience of the Roman people, London 1911

F.C. Grant, Hellenistic religions: The age of syncretism, New York 1953

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§631) I, 27–76 (introduction to ordinary city and home religion)

M.P. Nilsson (transl. F.J. Fielden), History of Greek Religion, Oxford 21949

___, Greek piety, Oxford 1948

D.G. Rice & J.E. Stambaugh, Sources for the study of Greek religion, SBL Sources for biblical Study 14, Missoula 1979

H.J. Rose, Ancient Greek religion, London 71946

U. von Wilamowitz-Moelendorff, Der Glaube der Hellenen I-II, Berlin 1931–2


700    Mystery religions:

B.M. Metzger, A classified bibliography of the Graeco-Roman mystery religions 1924–1973 with a supplement 1978–1979, ANRW II/17.3, 1259–423 offers an extensive list of relevant sources. Other useful sources are:


G. Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen in seinem Einfluss auf das Christentum, Göttingen 1894

F. Cumont, Les mystères de Mithra, Brussels 31913; English translation of second edition by T.J. McCormack, The mysteries of Mithra, London-Chicago 1903

S. Eitrem, Orakel und Mysterien am Ausgang der Antike, Zürich 1947

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 235–82

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356) II, 211–18

H. Gressmann, Die orientalischen Religionen im hellenistisch-römischen Zeitalter, Berlin 1930

W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek religion, London 21952

H.A.A. Kennedy, St. Paul and the mystery religions, London 1913

O. Kern, Die griechischen Mysterien der klassischen Zeit, Berlin 1927

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§631) I, 77–128

H. Koester, Introduction (§356), 164–204,372–4

H. Temporini & W. Haase (Herausg.), ANRW II/17.3–4


701    Saviour figures:

L. Bieler, Theios aner. Das Bild des göttlichen Menschen in Spätantike und Frühchristentum I-II, Wien 1935–6

D. du Toit, Theios anthropos. Zur Verwendung von theios anthrōpos und sinnverwandten Ausdrücken in der Literatur der Kaiserzeit, WUNT II/91, Tübingen 1997

E.J. & L. Edelstein, Asklepios I-II, Baltimore 1945

L.K. Farnell, Greek hero cults and ideas of immortality, Oxford 1921

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 207–12

E. Herzog, Die Wunderheilungen von Epidauros, Leipzig 1931

E. Kerenyi, Der göttliche Arzt, Basel 1948

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§631) I, 130–46

J. Leipoldt & W. Grundmann, Umwelt (§82) I, 68–71


702    Divination:

D.E Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the ancient Mediterranean world, Grand Rapids, 1983, 23–79

A. Bouché-Leclerk, Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquite I-IV, Paris 1897–1882. Repr. New York 1975

P. Courcelle, Divinatio, RAC III, col. 1235–51

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 206f

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356)
II, 203–9

Th. Hopfner, Mantik, PRE XIV, 1258–88

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§631), 147–67 (with latest literature)

J. Leipoldt & W. Grundmann, Umwelt (§82) I, 89–97

H. Preisker, Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte, Berlin 1937, 83f

A. Sizoo, Uit de wereld van het Nieuwe Testament, Kampen 1948, 209f


703    Astrology:

F. Boll & C. Bezold, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung. Geschichte und Wesen der Astrologie, Berlin 41931

F. Cumont, Astrology and religion among the Greeks and the Romans, New York 1912

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 222–7

H. Gressmann, Die hellenistische Gestirnreligion, Leipzig 1925

W. Gundel, Astralreligion und Astrologie, RAC I, col. 810–31

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§631) I, 185–97 (with extensive literature)

H. Koester, Introduction (§356), 376–9


704    Magic:

S. Eitrem & J.H. Croon, Magic, OCD
2, 637f

J.H. Elliott, The Fear of the Leer: The Evil Eye from the Bible to Li’l Abner, Forum 4(1988), 42–71 (= Elliotta)

___, Paul, Galatians and the Evil Eye, CThMi 17(1990), 262–73

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 212–20

Th. Hopfner, Griechisch-ägyptischer Offenbarungszauber I-II, Leipzig 1921–24 (= Hopfnera)

___, Mageia, PRE XIV, 301–93 (= Hopfnerb)

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt1 (= §631) I, 169–84 (with latest literature)

___, Magie und Heidentum in der Apostelgeschichte, SBS 167, Stuttgart 1996

H. Koester, Introduction (§356), 379–81

B.J. Malina & J.H. Neyrey, Calling Jesus Names. The Value of Labels in Matthew, Foundations and Facets, Sonoma 1988, 3–32

E. Massoneau, La magie dans l’antiquité romaine, Paris 1934


705    Hero cults and cults of the dead:

S. Eitrem, Heros, PRE XIII, 1258–88

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356) II, 188–91

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§361) I, 68–76

J.Leipoldt & W. Grundmann, Umwelt (§82) I, 69–71

H.J. Rose, Hero-cult, OCD
2, 505f

J. Stambaugh & D. Balch, The social world of the first Christians, London 1986, 42–4,124–7,132–7,140–3

M.N. Tod & G.H. Stevenson, Greek and Roman clubs, OCD
2, 255f


706    Gnosticism:

U. Bianchi (ed.), The origins of Gnosticism, Leiden 1967

W. Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis, Göttingen 1907

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 282–98

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356) II, 222–7

R.M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, New York 1959

H. Jonas, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist I, FRLANT 51, Göttingen 31964; II, FRLANT 63, Göttingen 1954

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (361), 145–98 (an excellent overview)

___, Gnosis als Weltanschauung in der Antike, in: Alte Welt und neuer Glaube. Beiträge zur Religionsgeschichte, Forschungsgeschichte und Theologie des Neuen Testaments, NTOA 29, 163–79

M. Krause (ed.), Gnosis and Gnosticism. Nag Hammadi studies XVII, Leiden 1981

B. Layton, The Gnostic scriptures, New York 1987

A.D. Nock & A.J. Festugière (ed.), Corpus Hermeticum I-II, Paris 1945

J. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi library, New York 1977

K. Rudolph (Herausg.), Gnosis und Gnostizismus, WdF 262, Darmstadt 1975

H.J. Schoeps, Urgemeinde, Judenchristentum, Gnosis, Tübingen 1956

K.-W. Tröger, Gnosis und Neues Testament, Gütersloh 1973

R.McL. Wilson, The Gnostic problem, London 1958


707    Emperor cult and attitude of the Roman state:

E. Beurlier, Essai sur le culte impérial. Son histoire et son organisation depuis Auguste jusq’á Justinien, Paris 1891

J. Cáge, Basileia. Les Césars, les rois d’Orient et les mages, Paris 1968

P.R. Coleman-Norton, The Roman state and the Christian church I, London 1966

G.E.M. De Ste. Croix, Why were the Early Christians Persecuted?, Past and Present 26(1963), 6–38; 27(1964), 23–33

J.R. Fears, ‘Princeps a diis electus?’. A study of the monarchial theory of divine election in the Roman Empire before the official adoption of Christianity, D.Phil. thesis, Harvard 1970

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 185–99

W. Foerster, Zeitgeschichte (§356) II, 51–63

W.H.C. Friend, Martyrdom and persecution in the Early Church, Oxford 1965

P. Herz, Bibliographie zum römischen Kaiserkult, ANRW II/16.2, 840–901 (extensive bibliography)

D.L. Jones, Christianity and the imperial cult, ANRW II/23.2, 1023–54

P. Keresztas, The imperial Roman government and the Christian church I. From Nero to the Severi, ANRW II/23.1, 247–315

H.-J. Klauck, Religiöse Umwelt (§631) II, 17–74 (well-documented overview)

R.A. Markus, Christianity in the Roman world, London 1974

H.P. L’Orange, Expressions of cosmic kingship in the ancient world, in: The sacral kingship, Numen Suppl. 4, Leiden 1958, 481–92

A.M. Rabello, The legal condition of the Jews in the Roman Empire, ANRW II/13, 662–762

E. Schürer, HJP III/1, 114–25

F. Taeger, Charisma. Studien zur Geschichte des antiken Herrscherkultus I-II, Stuttgart 1957–60

L.R. Taylor, The divinity of the Roman emperor, Philological Monographs of the American Philological Association I, Middletown Conn. 1931

V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic civilization and the Jews, Philadelphia 1961, 296–332


Section C (chapters 9–17)

The Jewish milieu of the New Testament



Orienting remarks and sources for the study of Palestinian Early Judaism

    A.B. du Toit


9.1    Introduction

708    There are two reasons why we had to consider the Graeco-Roman world in Section B. In the first instance Judaism, which may rightly be regarded as Christianity’s native soil, was by no means an isolated island within the Roman Empire. It was influenced by the political circumstances in the wider Mediterranean environment of which it was a part, as well as by the cultural, social and religious impact of Hellenism. Secondly, it is necessary for us to have knowledge of the Graeco-Roman world because the more early Christianity in its expansion detached itself from its Jewish origins, the more it was confronted by the world of Greece and Rome.

709    Now we must turn to examine the Jewish milieu itself. Not all the aspects we will mention are of direct relevance to our understanding of the New Testament and the development of early Christianity. Yet the various viewpoints together make up a kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle which the Judaism of the era around Christ represents, and without which it cannot properly be comprehended.

710    The term ‘Judaism’ is somewhat misleading, since it can create the impression that we are dealing with a homogeneous entity. Nowadays scholars stress that we should speak rather of ‘Judaisms’, seeing that in the early Christian era Judaism was in no sense monolithic. On the other hand, too sharp a distinction is sometimes drawn between the various Jewish groups, thus wrongly absolutizing their differences.

711    We shall consider, first, the difference between the Judaism inside Palestine and that beyond its borders. The latter is known as the Judaism of the Diaspora (= dispersion, scattering) or Hellenistic Judaism. By the sheer nature of the case, those Jewish communities, dispersed over large sections of the Roman Empire, were more strongly exposed to Hellenizing influences than those in Palestine. But even Palestinian Judaism itself does not present a uniform picture. It was made up of a variety of groups and schools of thought, some of them more open to external influences than others. We know now that in Palestine and even in Jerusalem the influence of Hellenism was considerable. Actually, no single Jewish circle completely escaped the pressure from outside. Martin Hengelab goes so far as to assert that the distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism is an artificial one, and that, strictly speaking, the former ought also to be classified as Hellenistic. He maintains that what justifies us in treating these two entities separately is merely the difference in geographical situation and the consequent variation in attitude towards the surrounding environment.

712    While there is an important element of truth in Hengel’s contention (see Hengelab) that in the New Testament period Palestine was far more strongly influenced by Hellenism than had previously been accepted, he carries his argument too far (Collins). (For a further discussion of Hellenistic Judaism see ch. 14.)

713    Conversely, the pluralistic nature of the Judaism of that time must not be exaggerated, as if the existence of varying Judaisms represented completely different milieus. Despite their variations, the respective Judaisms—including that of the Diaspora—possessed a religio-ethical and national bond which distinguished the Jews from all other nations, thus justifying the use of the term ‘Judaism’ in this more nuanced sense. There can be no denying that there were many influences which acted upon this Judaism. Yet, viewed as a whole, it could resist the suction of Hellenistic and eastern syncretism to such a degree that the essence of its faith was kept in tact. For one thing, belief in the one, invisible, living God remained unaffected. Furthermore, though it was variously interpreted, the concept of the Torah bound all Jews together. The covenant motif was another uniting factor. To these must be added a strong, shared future expectation in the form either of a dawning kingdom of God or of a messianic utopia (Hengela). Moreover, the Jewish life-style, viewed as a whole, was typified by a quality (ethos) far higher than that of their pagan neighbours. Their sacred scriptures, along with such religious observances as circumcision, their festivals and their Sabbath, served as definite identity markers. Of central important also, as unifying factors, were Jerusalem and its temple (see Tanzer). The variations in Judaism were indubitably held together by a unique overarching concept of identity. At the same time, however, it makes good sense to differentiate between Palestinian and Hellenistic or Diaspora Judaism, and for three reasons: first, because of geographical difference; secondly, because of the varying degrees in the process of Hellenisation; and, thirdly, these two entities, due to their differing contexts, each had its own history and developed certain specific characteristics.

714    In turn, the Palestinian Judaism of the first century ad cannot be understood apart from the five hundred years or so of Jewish history, beginning with the Persian period. Many Old Testament strands run through to the New Testament via the Judaism of that time. However, in addition to the ways in which the religion of Israel and of the Old Testament continued and was adapted in Early Judaism, there were other developments in this era which placed their particular stamp on the Jewish world of that time and had an influence on the first Christians. Anyone who chooses to ignore the inter-testamental period forfeits a significant tool for understanding the New Testament.


715    In days gone by it was customary to refer to inter-testamental Judaism as Late Judaism. Such a designation was materially incorrect; since then Jewish history has continued for nearly two millennia, and so it would be an anachronism to call that early period Late Judaism. It was also experienced as pejorative, since it was linked strongly to the idea of a legalistic degeneration of the Jewish faith in this period (Tanzer). Consequently, scholars now refer to Judaism up to c. ad 70 as Early Judaism, or Ancient Judaism, which was followed by Rabbinic Judaism. Early Judaism is often also called Second Temple Judaism, because, broadly speaking, it covers the period of the Second Temple, the one which was built after the Babylonian Exile and was destroyed in 70 ad.


9.2    Ancient sources for the study of Palestinian Early Judaism in and around the New Testament era


9.2.1    Literary sources

716    Our most important sources for studying Palestinian Judaism are literary. Here we shall defer a detailed discussion of the Jewish writings of this period (see ch. 15), and focus merely on the most prominent aspects of their contributions to our background knowledge.


a.    The latest Old Testament books

717    These include the prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, as well as some of the ‘Writings’—1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes and Daniel. Of these, the three prophets, Ecclesiastes, and in some measure the book of Daniel offer a fair insight into the religious climate and certain trends in Jewish thinking in the inter-testamental centuries. The eight visions in the book of Zechariah and Dn 7–12 are good examples of apocalyptic, which had such an important part to play in that period and in the New Testament era. Ezra, Nehemiah, and to a lesser extent Chronicles, supply important historical information about the post-exilic phase, as well as useful insights into the religious thinking of Palestinian Judaism of that time.


b.    The Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

718    In the Apocrypha (for this concept see Vol. I B §21–23) the first two books of Maccabees—and the first book in particular—contain a great deal of valuable material relating to Jewish history and religious convictions from c. 170 bc to the end of the Maccabaean period in 142. III Ezra (= 1 Esdras in the LXX) is a free rendering of parts of 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Judith is a paranetic story: not only does it laud Jewish patriotism; it is also a valuable source for our knowledge of early Pharisaism. Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) is a wisdom book which presents and expands the Jewish wisdom tradition most impressively; it also reflects conservative religious and ethical attitudes in the pre-Maccabaean period.

719    Among the extensive pseudepigraphical literature (for this concept see §1336–41 and also Vol. I B §21) we mention only the Books of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Sibylline Oracles, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Psalms of Solomon, the Assumption of Moses, IV Ezra and II and III Baruch. The value of these works resides not on the level of historical information but in the insight they provide into the uncertainty, the ferment and the speculation of those times, especially concerning the mystery of God’s actions in history and the search for theological answers to these questions (Russella). These are mainly apocalyptic writings which wrestle with profound problems of faith.


c.    The Qumran literature

720    Since 1947 our knowledge of Palestinian Early Judaism has been immeasurably enriched by the discovery of literally hundreds of documents, some complete, others merely fragments, as well as many artefacts (= objects of human manufacture, such as potsherds) in an area stretching from the vicinity of Qumran north-west of the Dead Sea as far south as Masada. Archaeological controls and Carbon 14 tests have shown that by far most of these writings date from the third century bc to ad 70. Their historical value is enormous. Quite apart from the information they provide regarding the Qumran community itself and the Essenes, they supply fresh evidence that contemporary Judaism was far more diversified than scholars had previously been prepared to admit. These documents evidence many points of contact with the New Testament, but many striking differences from it as well.

721    Until very recently by no means all the documents relating to the Qumran discoveries had been published. Lamentable political intrigues caused certain of these to be withheld from the world of international scholarship for more than forty years, so that it is only now that we are gaining insight into them. None the less, it is unlikely that these texts will dramatically alter our picture of the community of Qumran. (For further information relating to Qumran see §§970–1003 and 1345–69)


d.    Josephus

722    The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is our richest source regarding Jewish history, religion and national life in the last two centuries bc and the major part of the first century ad. For our purposes the most important of his four surviving works are his seven-part Bellum Judaicum (= The Jewish War) and his Antiquitates Judaicae (= Jewish Antiquities). His presentation is, however, strongly tendentious and the modern historian must take that into account.

723    In Josephus we meet various people who also figure in the New Testament—people like John the Baptist, the members of the house of Herod, Pilate, James the brother of Jesus, Judas the Galilean (see Ac 5:37) and ‘the Egyptian’ revolutionary (see Ac 21:38). Strangely enough, Jesus Christ himself is mentioned only twice (Antiq. XVIII:63–4 and XX:200), and then rather cursorily—an under-emphasis which must be attributed to Josephus’s apologetic aims.


e.    Rabbinic literature

724    The extensive Rabbinic literature includes the Mishnah, the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, the Midrashim and the Targums. All these are valuable for the information they contain about the religious convictions and the theological thinking of the Jewish scribal community. Since most of these documents are not to be dated earlier than the end of the second Christian century or even a good deal later, they have to be used with the greatest circumspection as far as conclusions are concerned which relate to the first century. Since, however, they are relatively old, and particularly to the extent that they contain first century traditions, they are valuable for our purposes. (See further §§1443–72 and esp. §1470–1)


f.    Greek and Roman writers

725    There is not much information about Jewish history to be gleaned from these sources. Yet historians such as Polybius, Diodorus, Strabo, Dio Cassius, Tacitus and Suetonius do offer useful details concerning events in and around Palestine in the Seleucid and Roman periods. What we learn from them is important, if for no other reason than that the destiny of the people of Palestine was very closely interwoven with the history of their environment, and especially with that of Syria (Schürer). But these writers also provide all manner of interesting glimpses of foreigners’ impressions of Judaism. We learn that even at that time there were anti-Semitic feelings. These Greek and Latin sources, which deal, of course, not merely with the Jews of Palestine but also with those of the Diaspora, are most conveniently available in Menahem Stern’s three-volume Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (abbreviated as GLAJJ).


g.    Lost works

726    The documents we have listed actually represent only a fraction of the ancient literature which could shed light on Palestinian Judaism. Schürer mentions more than twenty other writers whose works are known to us only in fragments or by references to them.


9.2.2    Archaeological material

727    The wealth of archaeological material available to us—and which is continually increasing—is another important source of information. Through it we gain a deeper understanding of the life-styles, the tectonics and the culture of those times. It also frequently provides valuable historical details.

728    In this connection we must mention especially epigraphy, which studies the large number of inscriptions available and numismatics, which concentrates on the enormous amount of coins discovered in Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine.


9.3    Contemporary sources for studying Palestinian Early Judaism

729    The modern student of Second Temple Judaism is fortunate in having access not only to primary sources, but also to a wide variety of present-day sources, which will expand his or her knowledge of this subject.

730    There are, first, various introductory handbooks intended to provide orientation to the Jewish world of that period. One of the most useful volumes to appear recently is E. Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Grand Rapids 1993 (second edition).

731    Secondly, there are the many articles and monographs which reflect the results of detailed studies of the ever increasing primary sources. The most convenient way to keep up to date with such detailed studies is to consult the periodical New Testament Abstracts. Relevant to our purpose is the section entitled ‘The world of the New Testament’, which appears both in the section which deals with newly published articles and in the section which deals with books.

732    In the third place, there are the large standard works which offer an extended survey of the most recent state of our knowledge of Early Judaism and to a significant extent the results of individual research. No present-day source available to us can supersede the famous classic of Emil Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volks im Zeitalter Jesu Christi. After a modest beginning in 1874 as a Lehrbuch, in its third/fourth editions of 1901–1909 it grew into an imposing standard work. More recent discoveries necessitated its revision and updating. It is now available in a three-volume English edition, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 bc–ad 135), abbreviated as HJP and edited by G. Vermes, F. Millar and M. Good-man. It speaks volumes for the scientific quality of Schürer’s work that so much of his own material could be retained a century later. In addition to this work, we may mention the large joint project between Jewish and Christian scholars under the general title, Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum (abbreviated as CRINT), in which Dutch initiative plays a significant part. The third work which stands out in this connection is the massive publication of the Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (abbreviated as ANRW), edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase, of which almost ninety volumes have already appeared! Nearly all leading scholars have been invited to contribute to this gigantic work. The problem with it is that one has to page through the volumes in search of relevant material, which often pops up in unexpected places.

733    For the study of parallels between the New Testament and the most important Jewish sources, the most useful reference work is still the large four-volume Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, München 1922–1961 (abbreviated as KNTTM), produced by H.L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, but eventually the latter’s life work (J. Jeremias edited the index). This work must, however, be used with caution as far as conclusions relating to the New Testament era are concerned, since it is sometimes very difficult to decide whether traditions appearing, for instance, in the two Talmuds actually go back to the first century. As a result anachronisms can easily slip in.




[Note: Some of the works listed contain or discuss both Palestinian Jewish and Hellenistic Jewish sources. A watertight division is impossible.]


E. Bickermann, The Jews in the Greek age, New Haven 1988

P. Billerbeck, KNTTM I-V

J.J. Collins, Judaism as praeparatio evangelica in the work of Martin Hengel, RStS 15(1989), 226–8

W.D. Davies & L. Finkelstein (ed.), CHJ II, Cambridge-New York et al. 1989, 352–523

M. de Jonge & S. Safrai (gen. ed.), CRINT I/1, I/2, II/2, II/3.1; especially I/1,1–77 (sources)

G. Delling, Bibliographie zur jüdisch-hellenistischen und intertestamentarischen Literatur 1900–1970, Berlin 1975

E. Ferguson, Backgrounds (§82), 406–480

M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (§356) (= Hengela)

___, The interpenetration of Judaism and Hellenism in the pre-Maccabaean period, CHJ II, 167–228 (= Hengelb)

R.A. Kraft & G.W.E. Nicklesburg, EJMI, 117–486

J. Maier, Zwischen den Testamenten, Die Neue Echterbibel: Ergänzungsband 3 zum Alten Testament, Würzburg 1990, 65–92

___, & J. Schreiner, Literatur und Religion des Frühjudentums, Würtzburg 1973

Y. Meshorer, Jewish numismatics, EJMI, 211–20

E.M. Meyers & A.T. Kraabel, Archeology (§280), 175–210

G.W.E. Nickelsburg, Jewish literature between the Bible and the Mishnah, Philadelphia 1981

B. Reicke, Era (§82), 1–4

D.S. Russell, The method and message of Jewish apocalyptic, London 1971 (= Russela)

___, Pseudepigrapha, OCB, 629–31 (= Russelb)

E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi I-II, Leipzig 3/41901–1909 (= HJP)

___, HJP I, 6–122,428–41 (references to Jesus in Josephus, with literature); III/1, 177–704; III/2, 705–1015

M. Stern (ed.), GLAJJ I-III

S.J. Tanzer, Judaisms of the first century, OCB, 391–4

H. Temporini & W. Haase (Herausg.), ANRW Iff


The numerous biblical and other encyclopaedias which are available also contain useful articles dealing with aspects of the Early Jewish period.



History of Palestinian Judaism in the period 539 BC to AD 135

    A.B. du Toit


10.1    The Jewish nation in the Persian period (539–332 bc)

735    When in the year 539 bc the priests of Marduk threw open the gates of Babylon to the victorious Persian king Cyrus II, he became the ruler of an empire which overshadowed all its predecessors in the Near East. It stretched from the west coast of Asia Minor almost to the Indus Valley, and it would be further expanded by those who ruled after him.

736    For the Jews and other subject nations, it ushered in a totally new era. Cyrus and his successors adopted a very tolerant policy towards them. Unlike his Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors, he did not set out deliberately to eradicate the religion, culture and national consciousness of the nations he subjugated. On the contrary, he acknowledged and actually promoted these aspects, as may be seen, for instance, from his instructions recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum (Reicke).

737    Aramaic had become the commercial and political language in Palestine towards the end of the monarchy of Juda. During the exile it ousted Hebrew as the Jewish national tongue. The priests and aristocrats who would return to Jerusalem after that would bring Aramaic with them as their colloquial language. Moreover, in this period it was proclaimed the official language of Syria and Palestine (Ezr 4:7). Henceforth, Hebrew would continue to exist mainly as a written (cf. §1297–8) and cultic language (see, however, §777).

738    As a result of the tolerant policy of Cyrus and his successors, the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The first contingent of these people was led by Sheshbazzar during the reign of Cyrus (539–530 bc), but seems to have been only partially successful (Ezr 1:8–11; 5:14–16). The next attempt was in 520 bc, during the reign of Darius. Its leader was Zerubbabel, a Davidic prince who had been installed as Persian governor of Judah. He was accompanied by Joshua, a descendant of Aaron, who would be the first high priest of the new dispensation (Ezr 2:1f; 3:2; Hg 1:1). Under the leadership of Zerubbabel what is known as the Second Temple was dedicated in the year 516, and temple worship resumed.

739    There is uncertainty over the dating of Ezra, but we may probably accept that it was around the year 458 bc (Jepsen) that he arrived in Jerusalem with a large group of returning Jews and considerable financial resources (Ezr 7–8). He reinforced the temple worship, and bound the people to the law with great zeal (Ez 9–10; Neh 8–10). In order to protect the Jewish religion from syncretism, he laid enormous emphasis on preserving the purity of the Jewish people (Ezr 9–10; Neh 9–10). In the original biblical text he is twice expressly described as a ‘scribe’ (Ezr 7:6; Neh 8:9), so that for subsequent Judaism he became the epitome of a true scribe.

740    In 446 bc Ezra was followed by Nehemiah, who had given up a position of trust at the royal court to become the Persian governor of Judah, an office he held for twelve years. He rebuilt and reinforced the walls of Jerusalem and of the temple mount. In this way Jerusalem regained some of its former political and religious significance. Yet its sphere of influence remained limited, since only the regions of Benjamin and Northern Judah fell under its jurisdiction. It would be a good while before Jerusalem’s religious, national and political influence was felt further afield.

741    The only really notable event in the period between Nehemiah and the end of the Persian Empire in 332 bc was the schism through which the Samaritans became a separate cultic community. Like the Jews, the mixed population of Samaria worshipped Jahweh and in the same way was linked to the temple in Jerusalem. The drastic reformation under Ezra and Nehemiah, which included prohibition of all marriages with non-Jews, together with the rise and preferment of Jerusalem by the Persian rulers, evoked a violent reaction on the part of the Samaritans which resulted not only in increasing social estrangement, but eventually in political schism as well. This alienation also led to the erection of a separate Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim during the first half of the fourth century bc. This unfortunate situation is reflected in various references in the New Testament (see further §§37, 1733–45).

742    Though it was by no means from purely altruistic motives, Persian rule contributed greatly to the permanence of the Jew’s religion and national identity. At the same time, like the previous Assyro-Babylonian period, the Persian era did not leave Judaism unaffected. We may summarize its influence, which is also enormously important for a better understanding of the New Testament, as follows (see Reicke in particular):


743    1. The Jews regained Jerusalem as their spiritual and national home. The significance of the city of Zion as a unifying symbol was greatly promoted by the exile (cf. Dn 6:11). Henceforward, not only for the Jews of Palestine but for all Jews, Jerusalem would be one of the essential symbols of their spiritual and national unity.


744    2. Aramaic was now established as the common spoken language. Hebrew would survive mainly as a written language (see §1297f) and in the cult (but see §777). Jesus and the early Church would also use Aramaic.


745    3. In the person of Ezra, scribal scholarship gained prominence. This group would exert a steadily increasing influence on Judaism, until after the fall of Jerusalem it would become the dominant authority and determine the character of the Jewish faith.


746    4. A second entity which became prominent in this period was the ‘elders’, whom Reicke (12) calls ‘patricians’ and ‘noblemen’. The history of these influential people reaches far back into old Israel, and they represent the nation’s aristocracy. They ranged themselves as leaders around Zerubbabel and his successors, and were actively concerned in the spiritual and general reconstruction of Jewish national life. In time, their influence would diminish, though in Jesus’ day they still functioned in the Sanhedrin.


747    5. With the exile, the royal house of Judah came to an end, though the royal line continued. Zerubbabel was a descendant of David (1 Chr 3:19; Hg 2:23; Mt 1:12) and served as Persian governor over Judah. In the post-exilic state the Davidic dynasty could not, however, be re-established. From that time, the concept of kingship would live on and be expanded in the messianic ideal.


748    6. The cental authority would henceforth reside in the high priestly family and in particular in the high priest himself. This family, itself part of the aristocracy, would govern the country, supported by fellow priests and by the ‘elders’. Judah would thus be a religious state, controlled by a priestly aristocracy whose power would be determined by the fluctuating space the rulers of the great powers would allow it.


749    7. In the early part of this period, the prophets still had a role alongside the Persian functionaries, the priests and the nobles. We know of the activities of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. But in the course of time prophecy would disappear into apocalyptic. This development is seen, for instance, in Zechariah’s seven night-visions, where the prophet is replaced by the eschatological visionary.


750    8. Reicke points out that for a variety of reasons—the Persian policy, its own strategic position, the sacrificial system and also as a result of the increasingly leading position of the priestly family, the temple would henceforth have much more than merely an important religious role: it would also become a financial establishment. The Persians stimulated the use of coins in world trade, where they promoted the temples of the various countries as banking institutions. The capitalistic developments in this period, and especially the temple’s economic function, were of enormous advantage to the priesthood, the nobility and the merchants. In this way there evolved the fatal symbiosis of religious, political and economic power against which Jesus was to range himself so strongly (Mk 11:15–19 par).This also significantly widened the social gulf between rich and poor, which was so dominant a feature of the New Testament.


751    9. The basic religious convictions of the pre-exilic period continued to be of decisive importance. Yet in time new trends surfaced which are important for our understanding of Judaism in the New Testament era. The Persian religion contributed to some of these developments. There may perhaps already have been some Persian influence among the Jews who returned from the exile, though in Shaked’s view this rather occurred in the Hellenistic period under the influence of the Jewish community in Babylon, which had been exposed to a Persian environment for centuries. This need not imply that much which was essentially new was added to the Jewish faith. Moments which had been latent in Old Testament religion were developed and applied. It is significant that the later direction taken by the Sadducees did not find all those developments acceptable; instead, they reached back to pre-exilic convictions. The Pharisees, however, took the opposite line. Among the new trends we briefly mention the following:


752    (1) The position of the law was absolutized. We have already noted the tremendous emphasis Ezra placed on obedience to the law. Their traumatic experiences during the exile stoked the fears of the chosen people that through their disobedience to the law God’s punishment would fall upon them. In the Jewish religion there appeared a certain constraint which found expression in a strong emphasis on literal obedience to the law. It included such things as ritual purity, the observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. This emphasis contributed significantly to the particular nature of the Judaism of the New Testament period.


753    (2) Because of the kingship ideal, but also as a consequence of the oppressive political and social circumstances, the messianic idea gathered special momentum (cf. §1596–603, 1616).


754    (3) While the influence of Persian religion must not be overrated, Jewish theology was probably modified in the following respects:


755    (i)    The evolution of a dualistic pattern of religious thinking, expressed in the pairing of such opposites as good-evil, heaven-earth, the present-the future and light-darkness. In certain Jewish circles and also in the New Testament, this dualism is unmistakable.


756    (ii)    The development of a doctrine of angels and demons. While good and bad angels do appear in pre-exilic Old Testament theology, but with a minimal role, there now evolved an extensive angelology and demonology (see §1495–575.


757    (iii)    The development of apocalyptic (§§1397–407, 1604–16).


758    (iv)    The future expectation of a life after death, a resurrection, and a final judgement (§1576–95).


10.2    The Jewish People under the rule of Alexander the Great and Egypt (332–200 bc)

759    The twenty-four year old genial general, Alexander, conquered Jerusalem in 332 bc without having to strike a blow. Here again he pursued his successful strategy of depicting himself as the obedient servant of the local deity, whose commands he was carrying out. According to Josephus, Alexander assured the high priest, who met him wearing his full official vestments, that while still in Macedonia he had seen him in a dream and that the God of the Jews had commanded him to seize control of the Persian Empire (Antiq. XI:331–9).

760    Alexander’s policy was to allow local religious and political authorities and cultures as much scope as possible. After him came Hellenism, that powerful Greek cultural movement which was to dominate the regions around the Mediterranean Sea for several centuries. By far the most important centres for the diffusion of Hellenism were undoubtedly the Greek cities which Alexander and his heirs developed on the pattern of the Greek polis. The gymnasia and the many societies in every centre served as bulwarks for the Greek language and culture. From the fourth century, Koinē Greek began to gain prominence (see §458–61). This simplified Attic spoken language would quickly become the general medium of communication in the great cosmopolitan world over which Alexander’s successors ruled. The large number of Greek papyri discovered in the sands of Egypt attest to this. The Greek way of life and thought gained entry into people’s lives and homes from the Tiber in the west to the Euphrates in the east and deep into the Nile region in the south. As we shall see in the next section, these influences operated in Palestine as well. They also had far-reaching effects on the early Christian movement and on the New Testament. The fact that the books of the New Testament were written in Koinē meant, for one thing, that the Gospel was immediately available to large tracts of the then-known world. Even when Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, he can use Greek. But it is not just the Greek language which finds a deposit in the New Testament. Greek patterns of thought are found there as well. The Epistle to the Hebrews, in which Platonic ways of thinking are so clearly reflected, is a good example.

761    It would, however, be an over-simplification to aver that Greek culture and thought completely ousted the various eastern cultures, languages and religions (see §§321–6, 330, 351). For the most part, these religions continued alongside Hellenism, often in a kind of marriage in which Hellenism itself was influenced in many ways. The local languages also continued to exist side by side with Greek. In the Palestine of the New Testament, Aramaic lived on as the spoken language alongside Greek.

762    Alexander’s early death in 323 bc at the age of thirty-three led to a power-struggle among his successors (see §336–56), with Palestine as the local political football. After years of conflict with Antigonus and his son Demetrius, the rulers of the Phrygian region, Ptolemy of Egypt was acknowledged the official ruler of Palestine in the year 301. The early years of the Ptolemaic dynasty were a time of prosperity, in which the Jews also benefited (Reicke). With their sights on the favourable economic circumstances in Alexandria, many of them settled there, coming strongly under Greek influence. The Septuagint, product of the increasing strength of Hellenistic Judaism, would also receive its final form in that city.

763    During the regime of the Ptolemies, Judaea’s role was fairly insignificant. One reason for this may have been the religious exclusiveness practised from the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (Reicke). But economic and geographical factors also had their effect. After the exile, the Jewish region with its limited resources was not able to produce any dynamic infrastructures, with the result that an economic boom would be only short-lived.

764    Control of Jewish national life in this period resided in the high priest and his fellow priests, along with the Council of Elders. The latter, according to Josephus (Antiq. XII:138, 142), came to the fore during negotiations in 200bc and, along Greek lines, he characterized them as gerousia. This Council of Elders, however, reaches much further back in history. The later Sanhedrin would evolve from a combination of the leading priests and this Council, with the scribes making up a third component.

765    After the decisive Battle of Paneas (or Panion—the Caesarea Philippi of the New Testament) in the year 200, Palestine fell under the reign of the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus III.


10.3    Seleucid rule and the Maccabaean revolt (200–142 bc)

766    Because the Jews had read the signs correctly and in the conflict between Egypt and Syria had timeously transferred their allegiance to the latter, Antiochus III treated them generously. Contributions to the temple funds were partly paid out of the Syrian state treasury, while the scribes and the Council of Elders were exempted from taxation (Lohse).

767    In an attempt to unify their kingdom, the Seleucid rulers actively promoted Hellenism. Judaea and Jerusalem did not escape those efforts. The Jewish leaders reacted in different ways: some, among them even certain priests, had a positive attitude towards Hellenism; others saw in it a grave threat.

768    Under Antiochus IV (175–164 bc), who sought at all costs to impose the Greek life-style on the Jewish population, matters took a serious turn. In the ensuing intrigues, the political position of the high priest was an important factor. In addition to his other offices, he was now responsible for the Jewish tax intended for the insatiable Syrian state coffers. How he in turn collected the money from the nation was his own affair. So as to obtain as much as possible, from that point on the Syrians did not hesitate to farm out the high priesthood to the highest bidder in the priestly family. In this way Onias III, for instance, the devout and legal high priest, was deposed and replaced by his brother Joshua. The high priesthood had now become merely a commercial commodity (Lohse). Within three years Menelaus, who was not even a priest, would purchase the office.

769    Meanwhile Joshua, the new high priest, who supported the Hellenizing process and accordingly Graecised his name to Jason, embarked on the Hellenizing of Judaea with great ardour. Near the temple he set up a gymnasium and arenas for the pursuit of Greek sport, music and military exercises (1 Mac. 1:13f; 2 Mac. 4:9–12). Before the horror-struck eyes of conservative Jews, skimpily clad youths in Attic garb would run around near the temple and in the gymnasium they would engage naked in their sports. Enthusiastic priests would leave serving at the altar to go and watch the throwing of the discus (2 Mac. 4:14). Some young Jews, ashamed of their circumcision, underwent surgery to have it reversed (1 Mac. 1:15). But after three years, Jason was paid out in his own coin: Menelaus offered the Syrians a larger sum of money and became the new high priest in the year 171.

770    Understandably, all this gave enormous offence to the conservative Jewish believers who remained faithful to the law. Their national feelings were also deeply hurt. The situation worsened when Antiochus IV confiscated the temple treasures in Jerusalem to finance his campaign against Egypt. In the year 168 (see Bringmann and Maier; the previous dating was 167) he held a military parade along Jerusalem’s north wall, then had his troops march into the city and occupy the citadel called the Acra in the north-western corner of the temple area. Here, to the great offence of the Jewish citizens, a Syrian garrison would be quartered. Then Antiochus went even further. He prohibited circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath. To crown everything, he had an altar to Zeus erected on top of the altar of burnt offering (1 Mac. 1:54, 59); from 25 December 168 bc a sacrifice had to be offered to the Olympian Zeus on the same day every month. Reicke surmises that this sacrifice was by implication for Antiochus himself; his birthday fell on 25 December, while the addition of ‘Epiphanes’ to his name was intended to designate him the earthly manifestation of Zeus. For Antiochus, this was more a political than a religious act, but for the Jews it was nothing less than atrocious idolatry and sacrilege. This is why in the apocalyptic literature this altar to Zeus is called ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Dn 11:31; 12:11; cf. Mk 13:14 pars). What was more, feasts of Dionysus were introduced, at which young pigs were sacrificed.

771    In reaction, a group now came to the fore with the avowed intention of clinging to the faith of their forefathers. These people were called the Ḥasidim (ḥâsı̂dı̂m = the pious; see §919–24). This purely religious opposition would soon play an important part in Jewish history. Whenever their spiritual inheritance was threatened, they would join forces with political resistance movements, as they did during the Maccabaean revolt.

772    The spark which ignited that conflict was an occurrence in the little village of Modein, north-west of Jerusalem. Syrian officers were attempting to force faithful Jews to sacrifice to Zeus. When one man said that he was prepared to do so, the fiery priest Mattathias, obedient to the law, ‘was inflamed with zeal’ (1 Mac. 2:24–26), and he killed the defector and the Syrian commissar. With his five sons he fled into the Judaean hill country, to be joined there by many supporters. The Ḥasidim also linked up with the resistance movement. Initially, the Syrians thought that they would soon put this ridiculous little band of Jewish rebels in its place, seeing it lacked leadership, weapons and money. But they soon had to sing another song. Bravery, ingenuity and religious fervour more than made up for what the Maccabaean fighters lacked in weapons and training. The term ‘Maccabee’ is probably related to the Hebrew word for ‘hammer’, and derives from the name of Mattathias’s third and most famous son, the doughty warrior Judas Maccabaeus, who succeeded to the leadership when his father died in the year 166. Under his command they defeated the Syrians several times, and in 164 the temple was cleansed of ‘the abomination of desolation’. Four years to the day after that image had been installed, the temple was ceremoniously rededicated on 25 December 164. The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple
(ḥ‡nukkâ) has been celebrated on that day ever since (see Jn 10:22).

773    Now that their religious objectives had more or less been achieved, the Ḥasidim were prepared to cease hostilities. Their attitude was reinforced when in 162 Judas won religious freedom for the Jews. But the Maccabees refused to rest until the Syrian power had been completely broken. Thus what had begun mainly as a religious revolt became a political war of liberation. When Judas died in 160, Mattathias’s youngest son Jonathan took command. In 152 he was unlawfully proclaimed high priest. With him, the previously latent political ambitions of the Maccabee brothers became unmistakably apparent. He died in the year 143 after being taken prisoner by the Syrians.

774    Simon, the second oldest Maccabee brother, then assumed the leadership (143–132 bc). In the year 142 he achieved another goal for his people: exemption from taxation. The last remnants of enemy domination were eradicated when in the June of the next year Simon drove the Syrian garrison out of the Acra citadel in the temple area. By this action, the Jewish people received back their national sovereignty for the first time since the era of the kings of Judah. This long-desired situation would continue for the next seventy-eight years, though the Syrians remained a threat.

775    The heroic Maccabaean conflict would be ineradicably engraved on Jewish consciousness. For the Jewish resistance fighters in the first Christian century it would be a particular inspiration. But right up to the present it has been a beacon of freedom to quicken the heart of every Jew.


10.4    The Hasmonaean kingdom (142–63 bc)

776    One of the ancestors of the Maccabees had been a man called Hasmon. On the basis of his name they were also referred to as Hasmonaeans, and their political regime was known as the Hasmonaean kingdom. This was a period of intense intrigue, but here we shall mention only the main events in it.

777    Though Simon was not of the traditional high priestly family, he had been elevated to that office because the Syrian authorities regarded him and his brothers as part of that family. It soon became clear that he had a far greater ambition for himself than merely a religious functionary. In 140 bc his dream was fulfilled when a large popular assembly acclaimed him high priest, military commander
(stratēgos) and ethnarch (= governor of the nation), with the implication that these titles were hereditary and would devolve upon his descendants. By his own people he was thus sanctioned as their religious, military and political leader, and the Hasmonaean dynasty was established. This regime was speedily recognized by the Roman Senate. The realization that freedom had indeed dawned was followed by an understandable welling up of Jewish national pride. In that spirit a new chronology was introduced. There was also a renaissance of Hebrew as the official civic and cultic language, evidenced, for example, by the library at Qumran (see Reicke). According to archaeological evidence, however, no coins were minted in this period, as had previously been thought (Schürer). Economically and in other ways, this was none the less a time of prosperity: ‘throughout Israel there was great rejoicing. Everyone sat under his own vine and fig tree, and there was no one to make them afraid’ (1 Mac. 14:11f).

778    Simon was murdered in 135/134 bc and succeeded by his second son John Hyrcanus. Like his father before him, he was not merely high priest; he was also military commander and political leader. Though he at no time made any claim to the title of ‘king’, the inscription on the coins he had struck began with his name; it read, ‘John the high priest and the Jewish Assembly’ (= the later Sanhedrin). Hyrcanus I, who ruled until 104 bc, was an able strategist and a brilliant ruler. By capitalizing on the Syrians’ weaknesses and making all kinds of clever moves, he expanded the Jewish state until its territory compared favourably with the Israelite domains under Solomon (Schürer). In the year 128 he destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, an act for which the Samaritans would never forgive him or the Jewish people.

779    During the reign of Hyrcanus, three groups became prominent. Though we cannot establish precisely the dates when the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Qumran community originated, their roots were certainly further back in history. Josephus first refers to them by name in the time of Jonathan (Antiq.XIII:171–3).    

780    The Sadducees were linked to the leading priestly families. Not only were they in favour of the Hellenizing trends; in many respects they became secularized (see §913). Both the Pharisees and the Qumran community, who were concerned with a devout life in obedience to the law, arose from the ranks of Ḥasidim, who became more and more estranged from the more secularized Maccabaeans. This trend very possibly led to the members of the Qumran community breaking away from the ruling group c. 153/152 bc or shortly afterwards, when Jonathan, who did not belong to the traditional high priestly family, was illegally elevated to that office. He may have been ‘the wicked priest’ mentioned in the Qumran writings, who opposed ‘the Teacher of Righteousness’ (Galling). The increasing secularization, the politicking, and the lack of religious earnestness which characterized the activities of the priests make the serious opposition of the Qumran community intelligible, as well as the growing estrangement between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

781    At first John Hyrcanus was very sympathetic towards the Ḥasidim and in particular towards the Pharisees, and for a long time followed the latter’s prescriptions. As his political involvement increased, however, his sympathies shifted more and more to the Sadducees. Politically, they were birds of a feather. Several factors apparently contributed to the final break between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees, not the least of them the brutal way he acted against the Samaritans in c. 108 bc (cf. Schürer), when he razed Samaria to the ground.

782    Another event which had implications for the New Testament period was Hyrcanus’s conquest of the southern region of Judaea which was inhabited by the Idumaeans. In this way, without his being aware of it, his imperialist policies introduced a factor into Jewish history which in time would cause a great deal of misery: the Idumaean (= Edomite) royal house (see further §825–56).

783    In the single year of his reign (104 bc), Hyrcanus’s son Aristobulus did something which would have radical implications for the New Testament and for Christianity: he subjugated Galilee and Judaized its people by enforcing circumcision. Ever since the conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 bc, this territory had been in alien hands. Now, with its recapture by Aristobulus, Galilee and its overwhelmingly Aramaic-speaking population were religiously united with Judaea. Through the arrival of Judaean immigrants, the activity of the Pharisees and the building of synagogues, Galilee became strongly Jewish in its piety. Reicke correctly points out that in these ways Galilee was being prepared for its later role as the milieu of Jesus and the launching of his movement. Its populace identified with Judaea’s nationalistic feelings to such an extent that in the first Christian century Galilee became a breeding ground for political resistance movements against the Romans.

784    Aristobulus was succeeded by his brother Jannaeus, whose Hellenistic first name was Alexander. He ruled for twenty-seven years from 103 to 77 bc, eventually conquering an extensive area. He continued to function as high priest, so that it may have been he and not Jonathan who was ‘the wicked priest’ against whom the Qumran documents inveigh. After he died, his widow Salome Alexandra ruled for nine years (76–67 bc). She adopted a more positive attitude towards the Pharisees, who by this time had acquired the lineaments of a religiously oriented popular party. After her death, a violent conflict broke out between Alexander’s elder son Hyrcanus II, who had been high priest in his mother’s reign, and his younger brother Aristobulus II. Hyrcanus was supported by the Idumaean prince, Antipater, father of the subsequent King Herod, and an intriguer of the first degree. When Aristobulus usurped the high priesthood, Antipater summoned the Nabataeans to the aid of Hyrcanus. The conflict continued in the temple area. The beleaguered Aristobulus appealed to Rome. A word of warning from the Roman general Pompey was sufficient to make the Nabatean king sound a retreat. But that did not end the civil war, though from now on Rome would be the decisive factor, with Antipater a minor actor whose eye was fixed steadfastly on the Judaean throne.


10.5    The Jewish people under Roman rule (63 bc—ad 135)


10.5.1    From Pompey’s administration to the death of Herod the Great (63–4 bc)

785    Since the third century before Christ, the might of the Roman Republic had been growing steadily. A series of victories over powerful enemies like Hannibal (202 bc), Antiochus III (190 bc), Macedon, Corinth and Carthage had made Rome the dominant role-player in the Mediterranean area by the end of the second century bc. From then on the Roman state would dictate events in the Hellenistic world. Yet Rome in her turn did not escape the cultural and religious magnetism of Hellenism. Leading Roman figures zealously adopted Greek culture in the shape of the Greek language, Greek philosophy and Greek rhetoric. Latin was relegated to an internal medium of communication.

786    After more than half a century of internal tension and conflict, Pompey eventually emerged as the leading strong man. In the year 64 he arrived in Damascus to organize Syria as a Roman province. There three groups of Jews came to pay their respects and so win his support: Hyrcanus II, accompanied by a number of influential supporters (recruited by Antipater); Aristobulus II with a group of aristocrats; and several representatives of the people to plead for the abolition of the royal house. But Pompey was crafty enough to defer making any decision.

787    When Aristobulus grew impatient and resorted to all kinds of tricks to sway the situation in his favour, Pompey intervened and captured Jerusalem in 63 bc. He even entered the Holy of Holies in the temple; the horror this action aroused finds an echo in the Psalms of Solomon (Ps. Sol. 2:1–3, 22). After that Hyrcanus functioned as high priest, while Antipater, who used him as a pawn in his own power-game, grew ever more influential. By playing his political cards like a master, and by grace of Rome, he became governor of Jerusalem and soon of the whole Judaean region.

788    Antipater’s energetic support of the brilliant new star in the Roman firmament, Julius Caesar, ensured the Jews many special privileges. They were exempted from military service and enjoyed freedom of religion. Their tax commitments were also reduced. At the same time, the Jews in the Diaspora were also advantaged: they were granted a large measure of social and religious freedom—an exceptional privilege (Reicke).

789    After Caesar’s assassination in 44 bc, his protégé Antipater was poisoned. He was succeeded by his son Herod, who initially ruled only Galilee. He showed himself a chip off the old block! Through his amazing manipulations and opportunism, his political role and stature grew to such an extent that in 40 bc the Roman Senate declared him king over Judaea. At first, however, he would be ‘a king without a country’ (Reicke); because of internal tensions he had to flee to Rome. In actuality he reigned from 37 to 4 bc. His first six years on the throne were notable for their tremendous political upheavals. It was only after the Battle of Actium in 31 bc that he was able to draw breath, because Octavian (subsequently the emperor Augustus), with whom he had timeously sided, had been victorious over Antony and Cleopatra.

790    We need not go into detail over Herod’s further ups and downs (but see §825–41). Suffice it to record that through his political enterprise—eventually not only Idumaea, Judaea and Samaria but also Galilee, Peraea, Ituraea and Trachonitis came under his sway—as well as his imposing building operations and his other cultural achievements, he would enter into history as Herod the Great. But the Jews were never able to accept his antecedents, his double dealing and his barbarous actions. After his death they rose in open rebellion, which was savagely suppressed by Varus, the legate of Syria (see Sterna). Herod’s trail of blood is also reflected on the pages of the New Testament. According to Mt 2:16, it was he who ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem, thus confirming his reputation as a vicious despot.


791    Seeing that Herod the Great died in 4 bc and that his son Archelaus took over the government of Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea in the same year (see Mt 2:22), Jesus Christ must have been born before that date—according to calculation in 5 or 6 bc. Our present chronology is therefore incorrect. The error crept in when in ad 526 the monk Dionysius Exiguus introduced our present calendar and made a mistake in his reckoning.


10.5.2    From the sons of Herod the Great to the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt (4 bc–ad 135)

792    While the emperor Augustus (27 bcad 14) was dominating the world scene, certain less sensational events were taking place in one corner of it, namely in Palestine. One of these—the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (Lk 2:1ff)—would eventually influence world history even more than the mighty Roman Empire.

793    In terms of his will, Herod the Great’s kingdom had to be divided among three of his surviving sons: Archelaus was to rule over Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea (south of Judaea), Antipas over Galilee and Peraea (east of the Jordan), and Philip would inherit the region north-east of Palestine. All three brothers went to Rome for the will to be ratified and each to haggle for the maximum advantage to himself.

794    As they had done sixty years earlier, the citizens of Jerusalem sent a deputation to Rome to plead for the restoration of their national state under the leadership of the priestly aristocracy. Understandably, Edomite rule still left a nasty taste in Jewish mouths. There may be an allusion to these events in Jesus’ parable (Lk 19:12–14) of the nobleman who went on a journey to receive a kingdom, while the people of that country sent a delegation to protest against him (see Lohse).

795    Rome materially ratified Herod’s will (see further §839–41). His three sons all appear in the pages of the New Testament. Because of his brutality, Archelaus (mentioned in Mt 2:22) was deposed in ad 6 and banished to Gaul. The authority of the house of Herod over Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea thus came to an end, after which these three territories were controlled by a Roman governor. Philip, the best of the three, reigned until his death in ad 33/34; he is mentioned in Lk 3:2. The name of Herod Antipas occurs more than twenty times in the New Testament. As a result of his maladministration and all sorts of intrigues, in ad 39 he, too, was banished to Gaul. His path crossed those of John the Baptist (Mk 6:14 par) and Jesus (Lk 23:6–12).

796    Once Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea came under direct Roman rule in ad 6, they were constituted the Roman province of Judaea. The Roman official in charge of the new province had to belong to the order of knights, though he held a lower rank than the governor of the senatorial province of Syria. At first he was styled ‘prefect’ (praefectus), as we see from an inscription discovered fairly recently in the theatre at Caesarea (Sternb). It was not until the reign of the emperor Claudius that he was given the title ‘procurator’.

797    Coponius, the first Roman prefect, commenced his term of office in ad 6. His headquarters were in Caesarea, but on special occasions he would go up to Jerusalem to be on hand immediately to smother riots and similar disturbances (see Mk 15:1–15 par). He had at his disposal a force of three thousand soldiers made up of five cohorts each of six hundred men. These were not Roman legionaries, but mainly auxiliaries enlisted in the provinces. The ordinary ranks did not have Roman citizenship, though it could be obtained in certain ways (see Ac 22:28). Their officers had, however, to be Roman citizens. The main contingent was stationed at Caesarea, and from the New Testament we know the name of one non-commissioned officer (centurio) based there: Cornelius (Ac 10–11). One section of the force, comprising a cohort of five hundred infantry and a hundred cavalry (see Ac 21:31f; 23:23), was permanently stationed in Fort Antonia in the north-western corner of the temple area. While he was in Jerusalem, the governor stayed in Herod’s palace, which had been renamed the praetorium (see Mt 27:27).

798    Though the mandated territory of Judaea (comprising Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea) fell directly under Rome via the Roman prefect, the legate of the neighbouring province of Syria had, on instructions from Rome, more than once to concern himself with Judaean affairs. One such occasion was the order issued to Quirinius to register the Jewish population in ad 6 and thus set up a sound infrastructure for the levying of taxes. For this purpose the head of every family had to be registered along with his assets.


799    The account in Lk 2:1 of a census under Quirinius at the time of Jesus’ birth in bc 6/5 seems to clash with the well-documented historical fact that it occurred more than a decade later. Consequently some scholars are of the opinion that Luke’s account rests on a historical oversight. It could be, as Reicke suggests, that he confused Quirinius’s census with one under Herod the Great. Another possibility is that Quirinius conducted an earlier census in the East, and that under his authority Herod the Great had to undertake a similar registration (Ramsay, Marshall). Others, again, believe that Luke’s account is simply a historical error. Fitzmyer goes so far as to assert that what we have here is really no more than a literary technique to link Joseph and Mary (whose home was actually in Nazareth) with Bethlehem. The lack of sufficient historical facts precludes the possibility of a scientifically satisfactory solution.


800    The census of ad 6 under Quirinius sowed the seed for a development which would radically influence subsequent Jewish history. Though it was restricted to Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea, the reaction this census provoked spilled over into Galilee, which by this time was already a hotbed of Jewish religious and national consciousness (see §783). With a group of supporters, Judas the Galilean (see Ac 5:37) rose in rebellion, only to be defeated by Quirinius. Judas himself perished, but his influence survived for a long time, and for two reasons. The first of these was that his rebellion against Roman taxation found an echo in the man in the street’s continuing irritation over the system of taxation (see Mk 12:13–17 par). The second reason was the theological base he gave to his action: in conformity with the first commandment, Judas’s battle-cry was that God was the only King of Israel. Whoever, then, recognized the Romans as political rulers (amongst other things by paying taxes) was guilty of idolatry (see Hengelb). What ostensibly lent further legitimacy to Judas’s standpoint was the way in which, particularly in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, all kinds of pressure were applied to the populace to venerate the emperor religiously (Hengelb). It is significant that for his part Jesus interpreted the situation differently. He did not view the payment of taxes as an act of obeisance to the Roman emperor (Mk 12:17) but as political responsibility towards the state. But Judas’s war-cry and his rebellion created a lasting impression and formed the basis of a smouldering resistance movement against the Romans.


801    There is no historical evidence that Judas or his supporters used the name ‘Zealots’ for their resistance group (Hengelb). That may also have been the case with his two sons who in the forties were crucified by the Romans for rebellion (see §806). The name was, however, certainly linked to his grandson (see Sternc) and his henchman Menaḥem before the outbreak of the Jewish War (Hengelb). Whatever the historical situation regarding the title ‘Zealot’ may have been, the resistance movement of ad 6 and the religious grounds for revolting against Rome which accompanied it were indubitably the basis for the subsequent Zealot movement and one of the causes of the disaster in the years 66–73.


802    Of the Roman prefects who succeeded Coponius, it was especially Pontius Pilate who had a leading role in history. His term of office (ad 26–36) was marked by brutality and a total lack of sensitivity towards Jewish religious sentiments. Previous Roman officials, out of consideration for the Jews, had ordered their soldiers not to carry their standards with the emperor’s image on them, into Jerusalem, since for the Jews that would amount to idolatry. Pilate, however, had his troops with their standards march into the city during the night. When the Jews in their masses revolted against this, and showed that they were ready to die rather than tolerate his action, Pilate had to climb down. Yet he followed this with other inconsiderate and brutal acts (see Lk 13:1). His trial of Jesus, of course, occupies an extremely important place in the New Testament, and is another example of his arbitrariness. Whenever Christians confess their faith, Pilate enjoys the doubtful distinction of having his name mentioned as the man under whom Jesus Christ was crucified.

803    A year after Pilate left for Rome to give account of his actions, the emperor Tiberius died (ad 37) and was succeeded by Caligula (37–41). The Jews greeted his accession to the throne with rejoicing, but it soon produced a crisis for them. On being provoked by certain Greek citizens of Jamnia, the Jewish majority in the town resisted. To put the Jews in their place, Caligula ordered that a huge statue, ostensibly of Zeus, but with his own features (Sternb), be erected in the temple. To a man the Jews refused to accept this ‘abomination’. It was only the tactful actions of the Syrian legate Petronius and a courageous letter from Agrippa I, followed by the assassination of Caligula, which averted a bloody catastrophe.

804    Under Agrippa I (41–44), grandson of Herod the Great, the direct Roman rule over the province of Judaea was temporarily interrupted. For the last time, a scion of the house of Herod would govern Judaea and its environs. His popularity at the Roman imperial court, and in particular his friendship with Caligula and the next emperor, Claudius, as well as his sustained strategy of not forfeiting the favour of Rome, eventually enabled Agrippa to rule over practically the same extensive area as his grandfather Herod the Great. As far as the Jews were concerned, he was the most acceptable of all the Idumaean kings: first, because his grandmother had been a Jewish princess of the Hasmonaean house, and, secondly, because he made every effort to respect the Jews’ sentiments and their religion. He even participated actively in the temple worship. He did his best to co-operate with the priestly aristocracy and supported the Pharisaic movement to such an extent that it flourished once more. It was probably his patronage of the Jewish leadership which resulted in his having James, the brother of John executed and Peter imprisoned (Ac 12). His religiosity was, however, due more to political opportunism than to any inner convictions. Towards his non-Jewish subjects he showed another face. In the spirit of the Hellenistic emperor cult (Reicke) he made no protest when the people acclaimed him as a god. He died soon afterwards (Ac 12:20–23; see also Jos.Antiq.XIX:343–50).

805    On the death of Agrippa I, direct Roman rule was restored. Never again would the house of Herod wield the sceptre over Jewish territories. From that date, the Herodian rulers would only enjoy the right to appoint the high priest and to have some say over the temple’s affairs. Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II, would be king over other areas and reign for forty-four years. He appears in the New Testament with his sister Bernice, and was present at one of Paul’s hearings (Ac 25:13–32).

806    The two decades prior to the outbreak of the Jewish War in ad 66 were marked by increasing tension between the Roman authorities and groups in Jewish society (Sternb). As early as the administration of the procurator Fadus (44–46) there were insurgencies in which messianic motifs were operative. One of the leaders was Theudas, who was eventually arrested and beheaded (Jos. Antiq. XX:97f). Fadus was succeeded by Tiberius Alexander (46–48), an Alexandrian Jew, who had two sons of Judas the Galilean crucified for their Jewish nationalist extremism.

807    Under Cumanus (48–52) there were several serious clashes; the third of these cost him his procuratorship (see Schürer). Felix followed him in the year 52 and continued in office until sometime between 58 and 60. While he was procurator, the smouldering resistance to Rome assumed more serious proportions. He was a manumitted slave who, according to Tacitus (Hist. 5:9), practised ‘every kind of brutality and lust’ and ‘governed with the instincts of a slave’. Now the Jewish people came out more openly on the side of the political and religious radicals. In this period, the Zealot resistance movement became well organized, with the ‘dagger-men’, the sicarii, as its terrorist left wing. A popular resistance leader known simply as ‘the Egyptian’ (Ac 21:38) marched out of the desert at the head of a thousand sicarii to lay siege to Jerusalem, but was checked by the Romans. Under Felix’s successor Festus (58/60–62)—according to Ac 23:23–26:32, Paul’s path crossed both of them—there was no improvement in the situation. Anarchy increased. Armed bands of Jewish extremists terrorized the countryside, while the sicarii kept Jerusalem under a reign of terror.

808    The Jewish War broke out in ad 66. Jewish patriotic fervour, humiliation and exploitation, burning messianic and eschatological expectations and deeply wounded religious convictions—these were the ingredients for a rebellion seldom surpassed in history for its radical determination. The spark which ignited the conflict was Nero’s order to Florus, the procurator at the time, to demand seventeen talents from the temple treasury. When the public demonstration against this was bloodily suppressed by the Roman soldiers, the captain of the temple ceased offering the daily sacrifice for the Roman emperor—an act tantamount to open revolt.

809    The Christians had probably begun to flee Jerusalem in small groups before this. As early as the year 62 they had suffered a cruel blow: in the interval between two Roman procurators, the high priest Ananus (or Annas) II, a man with strong nationalistic inclinations, misused his authority to get rid of leading figures suspected of unpatriotic sentiments. In