The Problem of Beginnings
One complicating factor in teaching or studying the New Testament is the difference between modern and ancient worldviews. To understand the stories in the New Testament, readers must first familiarize themselves with the culture, society, and assumptions of the Greco-Roman world. To understand the stories about Jesus, we must place them within their first-century context. How would first-century pagans and Jews make sense of these stories?
One Remarkable Life
Traditions about the life of a first-century neo-Pythagorean teacher, Apollonius of Tyana, closely parallel traditions about Jesus. The similarities reveal that Jesus is one of many reputed miracle-working Sons of God in antiquity.
The Environment of the New Testament: Religions in the Greco-Roman World
The term “Greco-Roman world” designates the lands surrounding the Mediterranean from the time of Alexander the Great (356323 BCE) through the first three or four centuries of the Roman Empire. Alexander the Great spread Greek language and culture (a process known as “Hellenization”) throughout his Empire. The Roman Empire arose in the context of the Hellenistic world; it took advantage of the cultural unity of language and custom established through Hellenization.
It is important to realize that pagan religions differ significantly from modern notions of religion. In the Greco-Roman world, polytheism (belief in many gods) was the norm. There were also no Empire-wide organizations that oversaw the worship of the gods. Creedal statements were unnecessary because it was not belief but cultic acts of worship, such as animal sacrifice, that pleased the gods. Moreover, ethical demands played a very limited role in religiosity. In addition, the afterlife was of little concern to most residents of the Empire. Worship of the gods centered on day-to-day survival and was not focused on an otherworldly existence. There was also no separation between church and state. The gods, contingent on proper worship, protected the Empire, and the state, in turn, promoted the proper care of the gods (cultus deorum). Finally, non-exclusivity was a central aspect of Greco-Roman religion, with many disparate religious beliefs and practices coexisting side-by-side.
Although most ancient religions were polytheistic, some philosophers believed there was one supreme god (Zeus, Jupiter, or an unknowable god). Below this one God were the great gods of the ancient Mediterranean world: Poseidon, Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, and others. The next tier of divine beings were the daimonia, a group of lesser deities who had limited power but who were in direct contact with humans. Included in this group were deities of particular villages, towns, or families. The gap between divine beings and humans was bridged by great men, philosophers, or warriors whose lives had been so extraordinary that, at their deaths, the gods made them immortal. Related to this last group were demigods, individuals born from the union of a mortal and a god. Because stories of supernatural births and parental ties to the gods were more or less commonplace in stories of extraordinary men, the story of Jesus as God’s son would not have been incomprehensible to an ancient audience.