Long before the time of Jesus and the early Church, Judaism had spread around much of the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. Jewish communities existed throughout in Rome, in Egypt, in modern-day Turkey, Iraq and various other regions. Beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great [356–323 BC], however, Greek language, religion and culture became the predominant unifying forces for broad portions of Asia, eastern Europe and northern Africa—including many areas with significant Jewish (and, later, Jewish-Christian) populations. Two centuries before the birth of Christ, the majority of the Jewish Bible had been translated into Greek, for the benefit of Greek-speaking Jews, who were no longer as fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic, and made up the majority of the Empire’s Jewish population. The subsequent Roman Empire retained many of the features of classical Hellenistic culture, including the use of the Greek language for official purposes.
It was, however, a challenging world for Jews and Christians to live in:
“Roman presence and imperial ideology were pervasive in the city, a constant reminder of Rome’s sovereignty, and enactment of Cicero’s sentiment that Jews and Syrians were born for servitude (De Prov 10). The legate and his staff, as well as the legions, were visual displays of Roman control … Extensive building activity represented Roman control, displayed the benefits of Roman presence, and attempted to assuage resentment or ensure cooperation through gratitude … administrative buildings, baths, water supply, drainage, aqueducts, the theater, temples, the hippodrome, gates, statues, fountains, and streets.
Coins also demonstrated Roman sovereignty … Coins symbolized Roman accomplishments and the blessings of the gods which the emperor mediated to the people. There was no escaping Roman presence even in daily transactions. Roman control meant … taxes, tolls, and levies on goods and labor. Taxes were calculated on the basis of a census and were collected on land value, on the exchange and circulation of goods, per head, and on the use of public facilities.
This oppressive burden on the provinces and their peasants and artisans paid for Rome’s military presence, the elite’s wealth, Rome’s splendor and food supply, … building projects and infrastructure, and of course entertainment and games. … The center and upper levels of the empire benefited at the expense of the periphery and lower levels. [K.] Wengst summarizes the military, political, and economic situation of Antioch: “Internal conditions ordered by Rome, security from external enemies guaranteed by Rome, paid for by tribute, maintained by obedience… ‘ [Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ, pp. ]. Pax Romana [the Roman Peace] was expressed through these political, military, cultural, legal, and socially.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, pp. 37-39)
In was within this setting that Christian first emerged as a group distinctive from Judaism, and in this world that the books of the New Testament were composed and circulated.
In this section of our Web site, we will provide information to understand the Hellenistic world of Jesus and the early Church, and to explore the meaning of key Greek words used in the New Testament.