A Window On The New Testament

Posted: February 3, 2009 by Scott Kistler in New Testament

We’ve been covering the ancient Greeks in a couple of my classes this week, and it seems that understanding Greek culture sheds some light on the New Testament.  Paul’s missionary work took him to the cities of the Roman Empire, many of which were in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.

This area had been heavily influenced by Greek culture because of the conquest by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian and Greek army.  The fact that the New Testament was written in the koine, the simple Greek that formed the common language in these areas, bears witness to the influence of Greek culture.  The cities of this area were often populated by Greeks.  Even when the Romans conquered these “Hellenistic” kingdoms, the Greek culture and language remained strong.

A few things about Greek culture that I’ve learned that seem especially germane to the New Testament:

  • Greek morality was best defined by concept of moderation, as you may know.  This meant that, for men, drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex (heterosexual or homosexual) were all permissible as long as one didn’t get carried away and become a creature of pleasure who was consumed by these things.  You can see why Paul had to write a lot about sexual morality to his readers.  He was preaching a very different approach to morality, one of avoiding immoral actions completely rather than simply managing pleasures.
  • Women were thought to be a punishment on men for gaining the gift of fire from Prometheus.  (Of course, Prometheus got chained to a rock and had his liver eaten out each day by a huge bird.  The liver grew back and the next day the bird would repeat the process.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that men got the better end of the deal.)  This is very different from the Genesis teaching of women as perfect partners for men.  Although Pandora opening of the box of evils might be compared to Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit, the difference is pretty clear in that the Bible confers dignity on women from the beginning, while the Greek myth portrays them as a punishment from the beginning.  For Christians on the other hand, women were the spiritual equals of men, as noted in Paul’s statement “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  I have read that women in the Greco-Roman world were attracted to the increased autonomy that they had in the Christian community.
  • According to Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks, the common denominator among the various Greek schools of philosophy was that they rejected the myths’ views of the gods as immoral.  You may recall from reading Greek mythology that Zeus was constantly on the lookout for women, spirits, and goddesses that he could seduce.  Greek philosophers, like the Stoics and Epicureans mentioned in Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17, believed that the divine had to be more dignified that this.  It’s my understanding that one reason that God-fearers like Cornelius were attracted to Judaism was because of the morality that Jews identified with God.  I wonder if philosophers might have been among them.

Another good source on Greek culture is James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens.  This book and Price’s book were my main sources for this post.

  1. Great insights Scott. I think that Cornelius was indeed attracted to the God of Israel (who is the God of the nations) because He was truly transcendent. I also think that Paul was able to rightly declare the one true God as superior to all of the Greek notions of deity. In the same way, Christians today must always be pointing to the superiority of the One True God over and against all notions of deity of transcendence in modern culture.

  2. Scott Kistler says:

    Thanks, Rick. It makes sense, as you pointed out, how the transcendence of God was so attractive to Greek philosophers who were offended by low standards for deity in Greek myth. In fact, the Stoics and Neo-Platonists believed in a single god that was the highest reality, although it was more of a nontheistic approach than a monotheistic approach.

    I hadn’t thought of the parallel importance of transcendence today. When we talk about God as supreme and transcendent, I can’t help but think of John Piper’s constant reminders that God is our treasure. This points to the practical importance for evangelism, something in which I am greatly deficient. But we can show that God is the fulfillment of people’s desires for good and transcendent things, to crib an idea from C.S. Lewis.

  3. joelmartin says:

    My understanding is that the philosophers were moving away from the mythology – they really didn’t believe in it anymore. They maintained the Homeric myths as a kind of fond level of fables for the rustics. They were functional atheists who viewed their philosophy as being on a higher plain – and were thus in a more advanced state of degradation. God being incarnate was rubbish – see how they see Paul on Mars Hill. They’re open to ideas and systems of thought, but the notion of god coming amongst us and dying is absurd to these advanced minds.
    We have the same tendencies in our devotion to thought-systems and a consequent devaluation of the life of Christ, his dwelling amongst us in the incarnation.

  4. Scott Kistler says:

    Joel, thanks for your perspective on this. I was thinking the philosophy might bring people closer to belief in God, but you are right that the Greek philosophers were very human-centered. There was not much sense of a human being being able to relate to the divine except through moral behavior or contemplation, and you’re right that the incarnation was crazy for those influenced by the Platonic and Gnostic ideas that the spiritual was superior to the material.

    There was definitely an interesting dispute about how much Christians could use Greek philosophy. Clement of Alexandria believed that Greek philosophy served the same preparatory function for the Greeks that the Law had for the Jews. This view seemed to win out. The most famous counterargument that I know of was made by Tertullian, who blamed Greek philosophy for many different heresies and asked the question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/200Tertullian-pagan.html

  5. joelmartin says:

    Just to be clear Scott, I’m not at all opposed to philosophy. I think the synthesis that the Church fathers attempted was necessary. To me, Tertullian was wrong on this point, but in one sense, I do agree with him. Our priority is the Scripture, and yet we must realize that the conciliar definitions of the Godhead were couched in philosophical language and thought.
    My critique is more of philosophers prior to the incarnation.

  6. […] posts on the web had an intriguing one for me. Scott Kistler on Endued wrote in his article ““A Window on the New Testament” about the story of Pandora: Women were thought to be a punishment on men for gaining the gift of […]

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