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Græco-Roman Elements in New Testament Palestine

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Roman Official in Uniform

Roman Official in Uniform

It was a wondrous time, a wondrous and terrible time — a time of new empires, of new peoples, and of new languages; a time of new religion and old religion; a time of conquest, of reeducation, and of organization.  Such were the days preceding — pointing for it — the birth and death of Christ.  It was an unprecedented time, a time when a universal rule and the universal time paved the way for the evangelism of the known world — and, in time, the metamorphosis of an ungodly empire into a Christian empire.  The time, some say, when God himself engineered world situations according to his purposes.

It is said that no Scripture can be correctly interpreted apart from its context.  Unfortunately, many would-be interpreters of the Bible today have failed to give sufficient attention to its historical, as well as its literary, context.  When reading the New Testament, and the Gospels and the Acts in particular, one whiffs the wind of Græco-Roman influence in Palestine during the life of Christ and early evangelical outreach.  There is much that is misunderstood about this influence.  It is fitting and necessary, then, that we give attention to some basic elements of the Greek and Roman influence in the Palestine that Jesus Christ in the apostles knew.

“Roman” and “Greek”

There is a certain ambiguity of terminology when discussing things “Roman” and “Greek.”  On the one hand, it must be considered that Rome, after all, was both a city and an empire.  A resident of that empire, although freed from slavery, was not necessarily a Roman citizen (until the late Empire).  Conversely, a Roman citizen was not necessarily of Roman extraction.  Again, a “Roman soldier” was not necessarily either a Roman citizen or of Roman blood.  These details of Roman citizenship and the extraction of the soldiery shall be discussed in a later section.

On the other hand, when one considers things “Greek,” one must know the following:  the word “Greek” comes from the Latin word Graecus.1  However, the Greeks called themselves, in their own tongue, Hellenes.  Originally, this terminology, in either language, applied to certain tribes who from ancient times occupied the area we now know as Greece.  But with the conquests of Alexander, a change took place:  Greek culture was spread far and wide, becoming particularly entrenched in Asia minor, Syria, and North Africa, and “Greek” became applicable to any people who had embraced Greek culture.  They had become “hellenized.”2  The Greeks, by their advanced and attractive culture, and the Romans, by their organizational abilities and almost irresistible imperialism, had together virtually taken over the known world by the time of Christ.  Just how much, and in what ways, their influence affected first century Palestinian culture and thought — and, therefore, the Biblical documents — is still much under debate.  We must, in many cases, wait for the enlightenment of further research and discoveries.

Language

Latin, of course, was the official language of Rome.  In the early Empire, it was generally expected of every citizen, whether born in Rome itself were born in the farthest province, or granted citizenship as an adult, to learn to speak Latin.  The emperor Claudius is recorded to have once retracted the citizenship of a certain provincial who was found to have neglected to learn the state language.3

However, during this same period, and continuing until about the third century, the major language in the eastern half of the Empire was Greek.  The major reasons for this are discussed in an expert source:

And the Greeks were a very aggressive people, and early learned seafaring from the Phoenicians, and vied with the latter in the extent of maritime activities.  As a result Greek colonies were planted on nearly all the shores of the Mediterranean.  One of the strongest of these colonies was on the eastern coast of Italy, not far from the center of the Latin world.

The mingling of representatives from all the Greek tribes in Alexander’s army matured the development of a common Greek, and the wide introduction of Greek culture under his direction distributed the common tongue throughout the Macedonian empire.  When Rome conquered this Hellenized territory, she in turn was Hellenized, and thereby the civilized world adopted Koine Greek.4

This describes, in simplified terms, the complex situation by which Greek became the lingua franca of the Eastern EmpireIn the third century B.C., the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt thought it necessary to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and thus the Septuagint.  The official seal of Caesar Augustus himself was inscribed in Greek.5  Then, when the apostles and the first century Christian historians wrote what we know as the New Testament, it was distributed in Greek.

An argument rages concerning the idiom expressed in the Greek of the New Testament:  do the thoughts expressed in Greek describe Hebrew/Aramaic thought with its origins in the traditions of antiquity, or are the thoughts corrupted and paganized by Græco-Roman idiom?  The fact is, there is sound evidence of both.  Some ideas have been traced rather conclusively to Semitic thought, others to Western.  As one might imagine, the correct interpretation of many New Testament passages depends greatly upon this question.  Many such passages remain clouded.  It bears upon us to continue our research for the discovery of the truth of Scripture.

Culture

Along with the proliferation of the Greek tongue in much of the Empire, the Romans also adopted many aspects of Greek culture.  Greek artistry reigned supreme.  The Romans accepted the Greek pantheon of gods, and gave them Latin names.  Roman leaders became enamored with Greek philosophy:  the great politician and philosopher or Cicero (106-43 B.C.) spent some time translating the writings of Plato into Latin.

Perhaps of even more consequence was the Greek influence upon the Roman educational system.  In ancient times, the people of Rome were very family-oriented.  Small children were traditionally taught at their mother’s knee, and older children were taught by their father.  In this family setting, each new generation learned from the former the high moral values of ancient Rome.

However, with their infatuation with Greek ways, prosperous Romans began to follow the fashionable Greek practice.  They employed a Greek slave or freedman in the capacity of pedagogue, a type of tutor.  The pedagogue served to take the children off their parent’s hands, escorting them to a Greek school, where they read the Greek classics, and were taught Greek grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic by a Greek teacher.  The children of Rome began to be more under the influence of these Greeks than of their own parents — and the Greeks were not known for their moral fiber.6

Because of the cultural and lingual blending heretofore described, the cultural effect of the Greeks and the Romans can in many ways be seen as one.

Certainly, it must be said that such Græco-Roman influences were not received in Palestine, and in Judea especially, with the open arms they had met with elsewhere.  After the death of Alexander (323 B.C.), his empire had been divided among his generals.  From these rulers came the Seleucid kings of Syria, and the Ptolemies in Egypt.  Beginning in the third century B.C., when Philopater ruled in Egypt and Antiochus III in Syria, the two powers began to vie for that land which lay in-between.  Repeatedly, the armies of both kingdoms invaded Palestine.

In the second century B.C., Antiochus IV, called Epiphanes, decided to force the hellenization of Judea, to the point of depriving them of their religion.  Antiochus authorized the building of a gymnasium in the heart of Jerusalem, where young Jewish men were encouraged in practices contrary to the Law.7  He took over the Temple, dedicated it to Zeus, and polluted it with ceremonial prostitutes and unlawful practices.  He placed a ban up on the right of circumcision, upon penalty of death.8  A rebellion of the Jews began with Mattathias and his sons, who came to be called the Maccabees.

Stubbornly, the Jews seem to have maintained their religion and traditional way of life throughout the New Testament period, to a great extent — but there were still avenues by which Græco-Roman influences crept in:  there were those of the Jewish aristocracy (the germ of the sect of the Sadducees) who were in its favor.9  For instance, the idea of building the gymnasium in Jerusalem actually originated with Jason, the high priest.10  Later, when Herod the Great was king, he catered to the Romans by building the Roman-style city of Caesarea, as well as a temple to Augustus Caesar in Samaria.  Herod renamed the fortress adjacent to the Temple Antonia, after Mark Antony.11

In 63 B.C., Pompey the Great, soon to become a member of the Roman Triumvirate, besieged and captured Jerusalem, leveling its wall.  Judea was forced to pay tribute, and fell under Roman domination.12  Later, Judea (A.D. 6) and Galilee (A.D. 44) became actual Roman provinces, with Roman governors and military personnel.  Then, with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Israel as a nation ceased to exist.  The Jews became a people without a country.

The extent of Greek and Roman influence is evident in the history of many New Testament cities.  Tyre and Sidon, originally Phoenician, were hellenized after the Alexandrian conquests.  (The Stoic philosopher Apollonius was from Tyre.)13  Due to Seleucid rule, much of the territory of Palestine was arranged in “toparchies,” based upon the Greek city state, in which isolated cities control their surrounding territories.  Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, and Jamnia (in Judea) were known to have been toparchical capitals.14  Philip the Tetrarch rebuilt Panias as a Greek city, renaming its Caesarea Philippi (after Caesar Augustus).  Likewise, Herod Antipas built Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, naming it after Tiberius Caesar.15  The cities of the Decapolis (“ten cities”) which included Damascus, Gadara, Gerasa, and Philadelphia, were populated by Greek colonists about 200 B.C.16

As an aside, it should be noted that Egypt, to which Joseph and Mary fled with the infant Jesus, had been largely hellenized as well.  A large Greek-speaking Jewish population resided there.  Egypt was incorporated into the Empire in 30 B.C., after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.17

The Roman Army

The Roman army in Judea consisted, Sherwin-White insists, not of Roman legionnaires (of actual Roman extraction), but of provincial auxiliary troops.18  It stands to reason that there were not enough men in the city of Rome itself to keep the world in check.  It was Roman practice to recruit provincials from its ranks and secure provinces.  Still, it is unlikely that they would have used native Jewish soldiery in such a headstrong nation in such a recent acquisition as Judea.  The common troops in Judea, therefore, were probably neither Roman nor Jewish.

The argument against Jewish soldiery is supported by the fact that the province of Judea was governed by a procurator rather than a proconsul.  A proconsul was used only in secure provinces, which did not require a standing army, and were administered by the Roman Senate.  Proconsuls which are mentioned in the New Testament are Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus (Acts 13:7), and Junius Gallio, governor of Achaia (Acts 18:12).

A procurator, on the other hand, had military powers, and was placed over troublesome provinces.  Procurators mentioned are, in addition to Pontius Pilatus, Antonius Felix (Acts 23:24 ff.) and Porcius Festus (Acts 24:27 ff.).  The procurators of the Middle East were all subject to the imperial legate (Latin propraetor) of Syria.

Galilee, as mentioned before, did not become a Roman province until A.D. 44, with the death of Herod Agrippa I.  Therefore, Sherwin-White maintains, the centurion in Capernaum (Matthew 8: 5-13, Luke 7:1-10), obviously not a Jew, was not a Roman soldier — although Roman terminology is used.  Likewise, the executioner (Latin speculator, also rendered “bodyguard”) of Herod Antipas, who decapitated John the Baptist (Mark 6:21, 27), was not Roman.  Perhaps these men were Galilean Gentiles, or — more likely — foreign mercenaries.20

The offices of the Roman army were, in order of ascending rank:  centurion, tribune (tribunus militum), and prefect (or legate, if the troops were Roman legionnaires).21  Up to the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54), provincial centurions were commonly non-Roman, and it was possible for one to be promoted to higher rank.22  One commentator suggests that Claudius Lysias, the Tribune who rescued Paul in the Temple (Acts 21:31, 22:24, 23:10) was such a promoted provincial, who had been “enfranchised” (made a citizen by decree) by Claudius.  It was standard practice for an enfranchised citizen to precede his own single name with the name of the emperor who had granted his citizenship.  The same commentator further maintains that the “great sum” with which Lysias had purchased his citizenship was not a paid price, but rather of bribe made to the administrators in charge of the nomination process.23  Antonius Felix, procurator of Judea (A.D. 52-59), is known to have been a freedman (ex-slave, or son of a freedman), and may have been promoted in similar fashion.24  However, subsequent to Claudius, it developed that the officers of the provincial auxiliaries were no longer promoted from the ranks, but were commissioned from the Roman legions.  From Tribune up, officers were of Equestrian status, ranking as knights.  Late in the Empire, officers were appointed from the aristocracy.25

Roman Citizenship

“I appeal unto Caesar,” cried Paul.  The great Apostle was calling into action his rights under law as a citizen of Rome.  A total of three instances are recorded in the Acts in which Paul invoked his rights:  having been mistreated and jailed at Philippi (perfectly legal treatment in the case of a non-Roman), Paul and Silas announced their citizenship, lest they be unceremoniously banished as common malefactors, and their ministry discredited (16:37).  Again, Paul asserted his rights as he was about to be beaten by the Romans in Jerusalem (22:25).  Finally, he appealed for trial before Caesar in Rome (25:11, 26:32, 28:19).

In order to understand the ramifications of Roman citizenship, one must first comprehend the evolving nature of the Empire itself.  As the Empire grew in territory, as it incorporated other peoples, cultures, and civilizations, as its ideologies changed and its morals declined, so did its laws change.

At the beginning, of course, only men of the city of Rome itself held the rights of Romans.  As Rome grew into an empire, the Roman army began to recruit provincials to fill its ranks in foreign lands.  In time, these auxiliary forces outnumbered the Roman legions.26  Citizenship began to be granted as a reward for services rendered, especially to army officers.  At its height, citizenship ensured certain privileges, such as freedom from municipal taxes in the provinces, immunity to certain punishments and indignities, and appeal to Caesar in capital cases.  But as the Empire wanes, so did the value of Roman status.  In the third century A.D., the Constitutio Antoniniana declared all residents of the Empire, with the exception of slaves, to be Romans.27  This shows the effective obsolescence of special citizenship status by this time.

Of course, even after the Constitutio Antoniniana, a privileged class still remained.  While in the early Empire the social castes of free men consisted of cives romani (Roman citizens) and peregrini (non-citizen provincials) — with the ruling class of royalty, officials, and equestrians ranking yet higher — in the late Empire that classes consisted of honestiores or curiales (aristocrats) and humiliores (“the masses”).  Above the honestiores ranked the influential potentes.28

Paul held citizenship of both Rome and Tarsus.  During the Roman Republic (before the Caesars), it was impossible to hold such a dual citizenship.29  Some scholars have doubted whether the Acts record is accurate on this point.  However, Pliny mentions one Claudius Aristion, who held dual citizenship in A.D. 106, proving the existence of such a status during roughly the same period.30

A striking difference between the citizen and the provincial can then be seen when it comes to capital jurisdiction.  Before Judea became a province of Rome, the Sanhedrin held the power to administer the death penalty.  The Romans preempted this right, except for, perhaps, the execution of profaners of the Temple.31  Otherwise, only the procurator held capital powers:  therefore, the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment.  Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, who was visiting in Jerusalem, since Jesus was a Galilean.  This may have been a mere act of courtesy, or a matter of legality:  since Herod ruled Galilee, he had the right to judge Jesus, if he so chose.  It is also quite possible that Pilate merely would have preferred to avoid the matter.32

But if the Sanhedrin held no capital powers, how then could they execute Stephen shortly thereafter?  For one thing, this incident might have taken place after Pilate was recalled to Rome, and no replacement had arrived.  Also, the Jewish leaders showed a propensity for doing whatever they felt they could get away with.  Stephen’s murder could easily be termed a “lynching.”33  In fact, in killing Stephen without a trial, the Sanhedrin violated their own statutes.

Jesus and Stephen, of course, were provincials, not Roman citizens.  Paul, on the other hand, could not be sentenced for a capital offense, even by the procurator.  He had the right to be tried before Caesar himself, and not even Caesar’s highest officer could handle the matter for him.  Hence, Paul was escorted under guard — not in chains — to Rome.  Because of this and other peculiar circumstances, Paul was able to continue his ministry for at least two years in Rome itself, the heart and soul of the Empire.

Coinage

The use of Greek currency in Palestine probably coincided with the infiltration of Greek language and culture after Alexander the Great, reaching its height during the Seleucid domination.  Judea and Galilee, after all, were sandwiched between the Greek cities of Alexandria in Egypt and Syrian Antioch, the largest in the world except for Rome.  Greek settlements dotted Galilee, Syria, and the Decapolis.  From Antioch, caravans branched out into the surrounding area.

Roman money was introduced later, when Pompey the Great conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.34  The Jews continued to produce their own currency, but Greek and Roman coinage were quite common from that time on.

Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) was the first Jewish ruler to use Greek, rather than Hebrew, inscriptions on coins.  Herod Philip (4 B.C.-A.D. 34), king of Iturea and Trachonitus during the life of Christ, was the first to use pagan symbols on coinage, while his brothers evidently feared the Jews’ displeasure.  Later Herodian coins became unabashedly pagan.35

The Roman procurator’s also tried not to offend the Jews with pagan symbols, including facial representations, until the governorship of Pontius Pilate.  Roman coins in Palestine were minted locally, but nevertheless bore the name of Caesar and not the procurator.36  A number of Græco-Roman coins are mentioned in the Gospel:  the denarius was the “tribute money” mentioned in Matthew 22:19.37  No doubt it was hated by the Jews, not only for the tax it represented, but for the image of Caesar stamped on one side.  To the Jews this was a “graven image.”

The drachma of Luke 15:8 was of Greek origin, as was the didrachma of Matthew 17:24-27.  The tetradrachma (stater), which originated in Antioch (the former capital of the Seleucid kings), was equal to the Israeli shekel.  It is mentioned in Matthew 17:27.  The tax money was one didrachma — the tetradrachma was equal to two, enough for both Peter and Jesus.  Other coins were the lepton (the “mite” in Mark 12:42), the quadrans (the “farthing” in Mark 12:42), and the assarion of Matthew 10:29.38

Other Influences

Many other effects of the Græco-Roman culture and language are evident in first century Palestine, too many to list here.  Actually, it is quite possible that the use of the Greek tongue, in particular, was more widespread than previously thought.

In Nazareth, where Jesus Christ grew up, a stone was found which bears an edict of Caesar (probably Claudius), warning of capital punishment for grave robbing.39  The very fact that it is written in Greek presupposes that Nazarenes could read it.  An inscription on a gate of the Temple warned, in Greek, that no Gentiles were to enter the inner courts, upon pain of death.40  And, of course, the superscription on the cross of Jesus label him as “King of the Jews” in Greek and Latin, as well as Hebrew (Luke 23:38).

Conclusion

Now, perhaps, the “would-be interpreter of the Bible” mentioned earlier has had his mind intrigued, his heart inspired, and some of the blanks filled in by the information presented here.  This information is, technically speaking, “extra-Biblical” — yet the value of knowing a variety of facts and figures which surround the New Testament record can scarcely be estimated.  Ignorance of the concrete facts behind the Gospel is the worst enemy of true interpretation.  There has been much misinformation disseminated by those who have misunderstood the historical context of important passages.  If the earnest student of the Bible can but picture in his mind the exact situation in which words were spoken and acts committed, it will profit him much toward the cause of Christ, as well as his own personal life.

NOTES

  1. P. G. W. Glare, ed. Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 770.
  2. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, ed., translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 504-16.
  3. Cassius Dio Historiae 60.17.4., cited in A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963).
  4. H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927; rpt. ed., Macmillan, 1955), pp. 7, 8.
  5. Dana and Mantey, p. 8.
  6. Kenneth O. Gangel and Warren S. Benson, Christian Education: Its History and Philosophy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 51-60.
  7. II Maccabees 4:7-17.
  8. II Maccabees 6:1-11.
  9. William Menzies, Understanding the Times of Christ (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1969), pp. 14-15.
  10. II Maccabees 4:7-9.
  11. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Times (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 59, 61.
  12. Tenney, pp. 51-52.
  13. H. Wayne House, Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 59.
  14. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), pp. 127-31.
  15. Menzies, pp. 23-24.
  16. House, p. 59.
  17. House, p. 49.
  18. Sherwin-White, p. 160.
  19.  “Procurator,” “Proconsul,” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 1036.
  20. Sherwin-White, pp. 123-24.  Cf. Oxford Latin, p. 1802.
  21. Sherwin-White, p. 124.  Cf. House, p. 56.
  22. Sherwin-White, p. 155.
  23. Sherwin-White, pp. 153-62.
  24. NBD, p. 1036.
  25. Sherwin-White, pp. 154-55.
  26. Sherwin-White, p. 160.
  27. Sherwin-White, pp. 10, 69, 180.
  28. Sherwin-White, pp. 69-70, 108, 139, 173-74.
  29. Sherwin-White, pp. 181-82.
  30. Pliny Epistulae 6.31.3., cited in Sherwin-White, p. 182.
  31. Menzies, pp. 58-59.  Sherwin-White, pp. 38, 41-42.
  32. Sherwin-White, p. 31.
  33. Sherwin-White, pp. 38-43.
  34. J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 306.
  35. Thompson, p. 309.
  36. Thompson, p. 310.
  37. Stephen L. Caiger, Archaeology and the New Testament (London: Cassell and Co., 1939), pp. 146-47.
  38. Caiger, pp. 147-48.
  39. Tenney, pp. 221-22.
  40. See Tenney, p. 73.

© 2011 Paul A. Hughes.   Originally submitted to Dr. Raymond Levang, in partial fulfillment of the requirements in BNT 532, “Background of the New Testament,”  The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, April 18, 1985.

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