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World between the
From Stephen Harris’s
Understanding the Bible
Mediterranean Sea: The Ancient Internet
Web site about ancient Mediterranean cultures
Wikipedia link about Phoenician Alphabet
Roman Empire
• Rome occupies
Judea and much of
known world
• Herod, half-Jewish
governor, has
elaborate building
projects; paranoid
and violent
• Ruler cult. Ovid
describes J. Caesar
ascending into
heaven like a comet.
• “Gospel” is
associated with
Augustus’s reign.
Jewish war against Rome
• Hebrew Bible completed between Maccabees
revolt 168-142 and Jewish revolt; Messianic
hopes shaped canon
• Revolt of 66-73; messianic expectations
• General Titus, son of Vespasian, razes temple
• Jewish Diaspora extended, dispersed
throughout wider empire
• Gradual reinterpretation of “covenant” and
messiah by Jews
Hellenistic culture and Philosophy
• Parallels between Socrates
and Jesus, who eschewed
material things in favor of
spiritual values; both paid
ultimate price for challenging
• Plato’s influence: Immortality
of the soul
• Coexistence of two plains:
physical world and invisible
realm of perfect, eternal
Greek Philosophy, cont’d
• Stoicism: Reason (Word, “Logos”) is divine
principle that directs and shapes the universe.
Human souls are sparks of the divine Logos.
• Hellenistic Jews used translated the creative
power of god in Genesis 1:3 (“say”) as “Logos”
• Human goal to achieve harmony with universe,
indifferent to pleasure and pain.( Paul echoes
this idea as he counsels Christians to abstain
from “lust” and withstand suffering until the end
time. ) Stoics were essentially monotheists.
Philosophy, Cont’d
• Epicureanism: Material, perishable nature
of everything in the universe, including the
• Democritus (460-370): Atomic theory—all
things, including soul, are made up of
small particles. We are chance collections
of atoms which will perish without a trace.
• Paul disputed this theory.
Greco-Roman religion
• 12 gods of
Zeus, sky
god (like
Hades, god
of Death.
• Greek
myth: mating
of Chaos,
Love (Eros)
and Mother
earth (Gaia)
Avernus, traditional entrance into the underworld of Dis
Greek & Roman Pantheon
Later Greek Deities
• Asclepius, mortal son of
Apollo. Had the gift of healing,
so Zeus was jealous and
killed him with a thunderbolt.
• Achieved posthumous divinity
• Professional healers flocked
to his sanctuaries; patients
went for miracle cures
(usually through dreams)
• Hailed as a “savior”;
welcomed poor to his
Later Greek Deities: Dionysus
• Dionysus foreshadows Jesus’s cosmic role.
Divine father and human mother
• Mother Semele incinerated when she looked on
Zeus in true form; Zeus snatched him from womb
and planted him in own body, from which
Dionysus had a 2nd birth.
• Dionysus was dismembered and “eaten” by
Titans; reminiscent of violent death, communal
meal, transubstantiation
• He descended into Hades (“died”) to bring
Semele to heaven. Mary also achieved Immortal
status, according to some early Christians.
Dionysus, cont’d
• Inventor of wine-making.
Euripides describes his “blood,
the blood of the grape”
• Telling of story parallels life of
Jesus: escapes death as infant,
performs miracles, virgin birth
with divine parent, descends
into underworld, rises to divine
immortality, establishes
universal cult
Mystery Cults
• Orpheus and Orphism:
Musician who loved Eurydice.
Humans spring from ashes of
Titans who killed Orpheus. All
have part rebel (Titans) and
part divine (Orpheus).
• We are redeemed by
Orpheus’s death; Underworld
becomes place of
regeneration until we reach of
state of spiritual purity and
• Early Christians used images
of Orpheus and Dionysus to
represent Jesus.
Orpheus as Jesus
Mystery Religions, Cont’d
• Mithras and Mithraism: Name means
• Combination of Persian god of Light with
Hellenistic astrology. Solar deity who presided
over zodiac and planets.
• Born from a rock on December 25 (the solstice).
Slays a bull, from whose semen and blood new
life appears.
• Popular cult among soldiers and merchants;
initiation ceremony was a spiritual rebirth, initiate
was “child of the light.”
Temples of Mithras
• Below: a Mithraem in England. Every Mithraic temple features
Mithras killing a sacred bull, called a tauroctony. Scholars now think
the tauroctony represents the constellations rather than animal
A Mithraeum in Italy
Mithraism, cont’d
• Mithraism was chief
competition for Christianity in
Roman Empire.
• Rites paralleled Christian
rites: baptism, communal
meals, oaths of celibacy.
• Initiates were “washed in
blood of bull.”
• Women were excluded
• Church adopted Mithras’s
birthday for Jesus.
Mithras’ Halo transferred to Coptic Jesus
This halo was adopted by emperors (“Sol Invictus”) and eventually
shows up on representations of Jesus and Christian saints.
Mother Goddess
• Isis, imported from
Egypt, was continually
worshipped. Apuleius
describes being
initiated into Goddess
cult. Isis is his personal
savior, redeems him
from animal nature,
promises care-free life
after death.
First –century Judaism
• Pharisees, chief authorities of Torah during
Jesus’s time. Created first body of rabbinical
teaching, Mishnah. Helped religion to survive.
• Saul (Paul) was a Pharisee, student of Gamaliel,
who argued for tolerance and against
persecuting members of Jesus movement.
• After temple destruction, Pharisees’ Academy of
Jamnia confronted task of living without Temple,
priesthood, or homeland.
• Defined limits of Judaism; excluded Christians
from synagogues (John 9:22)
• Jewish upper class; none of their writings
survive. Landowning aristocrats and
Roman collaborators.
• Chief engineers of Jesus’s destruction;
anxious to remove threat to Judea’s
political survival.
• Conservative; Jesus rebelled against their
literal reading of Torah.
• Northern branch of Jews living between Judea
and Galilee. Jews in Judea regarded as little
better than gentile cult.
• Recognized Torah but not prophets or Writings
as scripture.
• New Testament writers portray them favorably.
Samaritans are first step in worldwide mission.
Sadducees and Pharisees call Jesus a
Samaritan as an insult.
• Samaritans, who survive today, did not generally
accept Jesus movement.
Essenes of Qumran
• Hiders of the Dead Sea scrolls; a
reclusive, ascetic cult. Scrolls show us the
range of textual variants and noncanonical texts.
• Modes of worship, communal meals, and
purification rites show parallels between
mainstream Judaism and Christianity
• Jesus or John the Baptist may have been
an Essene; also, perhaps, brother James
(“The righteous.”)
Qumran today
• Opposed any attempt to bring Judea under the
dominion of Rome, a fanatical war party from the
time of Herod until the fall of Jerusalem and
Masada. Also called Sicarii, from their custom of
going about with daggers ("sicæ") hidden
beneath their cloaks, with which they would stab
any one found committing a sacrilegious act or
anything provoking anti-Jewish feeling.
• Zealots led by Eleazar ben Jair revolted against
Rome in 67-70; Crushed.
• Seige of the fort of Masada led to suicide of
Zealots stationed there.
First century Messianic Hopes
• Many Sadducees denied messianic hope.
• Mainstream Judaism denied Jesus was
messiah (christ) because death on cross
made him “accursed.” (Deut. 21:23)
• Judas of Galilee thought better claimant;
led revolt against Rome around 6 CE
• Josephus reports other claimants of “royal
rank” – a key ingredient
• Messianic “Revisionism”