Most of today’s non-Asian cultures can be traced continuously back to ancient Mediterranean progenitors. The two root influences were Greece and Israel, both of which ascended in the -1st millennium. These two heritages crossed paths in the Roman Empire.
C. Ancient Rome
Classic Greek civilization emerged from a dark age in the -9th century. This nation of loosely affiliated city-states was one of the dominant forces of the Mediterranean Sea. Over the next few centuries, Greeks established colonies in present-day Italy and Turkey, including Byzantium. An important contemporary was Phoenicia, from whom Greece adopted the alphabet and improved it with vowels. The Greek alphabet allowed greater precision of expression than any earlier written language, allowing Greece to become a highly literate culture.
The city-state of Athens is well known for its democracy, or direct rule by the people. Democracy evolved out of aristocracy in a series of reforms to expand the rights of the lower classes. A council of aristocrats was balanced with an assembly of citizens, and then the assembly was granted increasing authority. In the -6th and -5th centuries, Athenians debated the virtues of democracy, and sometimes actually reverted to tyranny, before committing to their most democratic constitution in the -4th century. 1 All male citizens were invited to debate and vote about serious matters of domestic and foreign policy. To minimize corruption, many important posts were determined by lot rather than election, and overly ambitious men could be ostracized. 2
Democracy was a boon for stability and the economy. The -5th and -4th centuries were Greece’s golden age, and the accomplishments were almost unbelievable. A well-organized Athens prevented an invasion from the much larger Persian Empire. Athens became an unofficial capital over more than 100 city-states, some of which also became democratic. 3 Herodotus and Hippocrates established history and medicine, respectively, as earthly fields of study without divine intervention. The arts flourished in the age of classic life-like statues and Greek choruses.
The Greek philosophers were especially influential. The Socratic method of education is named after Socrates, an Athenian intellectual alive in -400. His student Plato founded the Academy, one of the world’s earliest universities. 4 Plato and his student Aristotle wrote prolifically on subjects such as politics, ethics, language, and reality. Their works left an enduring impression on all civilizations that came to know the Greeks.
Though ancient Greek democracy is glorified, it was far from perfect. The full benefits of citizenship were not available to women or immigrants. Greeks owned slaves without a second thought. Most importantly, democracy did not help unite Greece in peace. The city-states were nearly constantly at war with each other. King Philip II of Macedon took control of most of Greece by -337.
Aristotle left another legacy besides his writings. His most influential student was Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. Alexander consummated his father’s vision of quelling the belligerent Persian Empire to the east. In one manic decade, Alexander destroyed Persia and invaded Asia as far east as the fringes of India. After Alexander’s short life, the empire was immediately split into four kingdoms. As a political body, it continued to fragment, and was ultimately absorbed into other empires by the -2nd century.
Although classic Greece was gone, its language, philosophy, and way of life were now carried far and wide. Greek influences survived in parts of Arabia and Central Asia longer than they did in Europe. The most important new city of the empire was Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was the site of the greatest museum / library of its era, and was home to well-known “Greek” scholars such as Archimedes and Euclid. The Hellenistic Empire also encompassed Canaan, the eastern Mediterranean shore, where Jewish history was in the making. Greek became the language of Canaan’s educated, including the authors of the Christian New Testament.
Judaism is named after the Kingdom of Judah, in the south of ancient Israel. Jews never became an imperial force, but were famously occupied and exiled by a number of empires throughout their history. Longing for autonomy, then, is deeply ingrained in Jewish psychology.
Early Jews, Hebrews, were most likely polytheistic like nearby tribes. 5 They then went through a period of monolatry during which they believed in many gods but worshipped only one, who came to be known as Yahweh. 6 Monolatry was fairly common practice. What made Judaism unique was its eventual conviction that Yahweh was the only god (and thus now simply called God). Hebrews still believed that God was partial to them. They wrote that God had made a covenant with the “First Hebrew”, Abraham. In exchange for obedience to his laws, God would deliver Abraham and his descendants to Israel as a promised land.
Contrary to popular belief, the Hebrew Bible was written piecemeal through the -1st millennium. 7 It mirrored Israel’s relationships with contemporary kingdoms, personified by God and legendary figures. 8 Even the Torah, the five-book account of early Hebrew mythology ostensibly millennia old, assumed its final form sometime after -586, when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took many Jews into exile. 9 Jews were devastated by this conquest, and the legend of Egyptian bondage and exodus (which was probably fictional 10 ) was especially meaningful to them.
Judea was restored by the Persians after two generations in Babylon. Judaism was profoundly influenced by the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, and incorporated some of its most important themes. These included the concepts of a devil at war with God, a future apocalypse, and an eternal afterlife. Some of these beliefs were not adopted within priestly circles, so they became more influential in early Christianity. 11 One important post-exilic element, though, was central to Judaism’s evolving faith. Prophets taught that God would send a messiah, a priest-king who would complete God’s promise and even strengthen Israel into an empire.
The entire Hebrew Bible, then, was a direct response to the geopolitics of -1st millennium Canaan. This would seem a pretty narrow scope. Its enduring message is its vision of God. Jews saw God as perfectly righteous, the source of goodness. 12 He was omnipotent, yet he had a personal relationship with his worshippers. This is the idea that spread like wildfire beyond Judaism, which has never been a large religion.
By Year 1, Israel was very unhappily under Roman control. This was the situation into which Jesus was born. Jesus believed that the “kingdom of God” was at hand, the reign of God as a king on Earth. He and other Jews looked forward to this liberation of Israel, a reversal of fortune in which the oppressed would become dominant. Jesus also opposed Jewish high priests complicit in their occupation, 13 so he was equally threatening to all authorities. The charge for which Jesus was ultimately executed was sedition against Rome. 14
The first written account of Jesus’ life appeared a few decades later, after a severely traumatic episode. Following a Jewish revolt, Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem in 70. This was the final exile, after which Jews were scattered for two millennia. To the Christians who remained, it may have been imperative to soften Jesus’ anti-imperial message to distance themselves from the Jews. 15 Jesus was presented as preaching a more abstract redemption of the dispossessed: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” 16 The “kingdom of God” was vague enough to mean many things to many Christians. Later gospels magnified Jesus into God incarnate. 17 Early church leader Paul made the vital decision to convert non-Jews. This universality enabled Christianity to outgrow Judaism and to outlast the resistance movement. Jesus’ role expanded from liberator of Israel to savior of all Christians’ souls.
At about the same time that Athens developed its democracy, Rome liberated itself from its kings and formed a republic. A republic is a more moderate form of rule by the people, where citizens elect representatives instead of participating directly in government. The Roman Kingdom had a senate that advised the king. After throwing off the monarchy, the senate elected its own leaders, consuls. Senators came from the upper class, so, as in Greece, oligarchy (rule by the few or the wealthy) was a transitional stage to popular rule. Eventually, the lower class plebeians had their own tribunals, with representatives elected according to residential district. The senate, tribunals, consuls, and courts functioned together in a complex system of checks and balances. This constitutional arrangement was strongly influential on the United States millennia later.
The Romans were better than the Greeks at growth and assimilation. Through a combination of conquests and alliances, the Roman Republic expanded from a city-state to most of Western Europe. It was a very rare state, an imperial republic. As it acquired new territory, Rome offered its subjects citizenship, education, and employment as soldiers. The representative system of government was much more adaptable to a large country than direct democracy would have been. Nevertheless, Rome had its limits and was stretched too thin. Unprepared to administer such a vast territory, Rome suffered corruption, inflation, and slave revolts.
When -1st century consul Julius Caesar created a new office for himself, “dictator for life”, Rome entered its final phase as an autocratic empire. Under its emperors, Rome actually entered its most stable and prosperous phase, the Pax Romana. This transition possibly created the belief, held until the United States’ success, that a king was necessary to hold a large country together. The empire reached its peak in the 2nd century. Roman engineers invented concrete, arches, and domes and created the world’s largest infrastructure projects with lengthy roads and aqueducts. Rome was active in trade and was a cosmopolitan, intercontinental empire.
Christianity and the Roman Empire had a complicated relationship. The emperor was presumed divine, so the concept of a single god was at odds with that mandate. Roman officials persecuted Christians until 4th century emperor Constantine converted. Constantine was engaged in a civil war against other claimants to the throne. According to the classic account, he sought the strongest god to petition for help. He prayed to his parents’ Christian god, who sent a sign before a victorious battle, cementing the emperor’s loyalty. 18 Even more remarkably, Christianity became the official Roman state religion by 400. The Christian population exploded, and the empire treated the church with great political favors, including land grants and tax exemptions.
Constantine established a secondary capital in Byzantium (renamed Constantinople). For a time, Rome and Constantinople each had a co-emperor and a powerful bishop; Rome’s bishop was the pope. The western empire gradually dissolved while neighboring German kingdoms pervaded it. A German tribe captured Rome itself in 476, dethroning the last Latin emperor.
- Blackwell, Christopher, “The Development of Athenian Democracy”, The Stoa, 1/24/03, http://www.stoa.org/projects/demos/article_democracy_development?page=1 (accessed 7/26/16), citing numerous primary sources. ↩
- Christopher W. Blackwell, “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities, http://www.stoa.org/projects/demos/article_democracy_development?page=4) edition of January 24, 2003. ↩
- Cartwright, Mark, “Greek Government”, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 3/17/13, http://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Government/ (accessed 7/23/16). ↩
- Berit and Strandskogen, “Lifelines in World History Vol. 1: The Ancient World”, Routledge, 2015, p. 100, https://books.google.com/books?id=wHqsBwAAQBAJ (accessed 7/17/16). ↩
- Supported internally in the bible by such passages as Exodus 32:1-6, Jeremiah 2:28, and Ezekiel 8:9-16. See also Smith, Mark S., “The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts”, Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-19-513480-X, eBook edition, Location 344. ↩
- 1st – 2nd Commandments (Exodus 20:3-6). See also Eakin, Frank, The Religion and Culture of Israel: An Introduction to Old Testament Thought, Allyn & Bacon, 1971, ISBN 978-0819102089 , https://www.amazon.com/Religion-Culture-Israel-Introduction-Testament/dp/0819102083, pp. 70, 107 – 108, and 263. ↩
- Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 978-0684869131. ↩
- Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 978-0684869131 ↩
- Friedman, Richard Elliott, Who Wrote the Bible? Harper, 1987, ISBN 978-0060630355 ↩
- Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 978-0684869131, Chapter 2 ↩
- Hooker, Richard, “The Hebrews: A Learning Module”, http://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/HEBREWS/HEBREWS.HTM, 1/17/97 (accessed 7/24/16) ↩
- Hooker, Richard, “The Hebrews: A Learning Module”, http://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/HEBREWS/HEBREWS.HTM , 9/20/96 (accessed 7/24/16) ↩
- Jesus and his mentor John the Baptist called the high priests a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34). Matthew 22 – 23 narrates Jesus’ famous remark to the priests to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give back to God what is God’s.” His point was that Rome can collect taxes from its subjects, but Israel itself should be independent under God’s rule. ↩
- “The undisputed fact that Pilate did sentence Jesus to death for sedition was because he was convinced that Jesus was guilty of conduct subversive to the maintenance of Roman rule in Judaea.” Brandon, Samuel G.F., Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity, Manchester University Press, 1967, p. 330, https://books.google.com/books?id=tIC7AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA330#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed 7/27/16) ↩
- Evidence of the evangelists’ intent can be found in their circumstances. The first gospel, Mark, was written just months after Jerusalem’s destruction. Mark lived in Rome and wrote for the purpose of evangelizing to Romans. His account was therefore slanted against Jews in favor of Romans, and he misunderstood / mischaracterized the politics of occupied Israel. Matthew and Luke were written decades later, and John later yet. In this chronological order, the gospels become increasingly fanciful and more sympathetic to Rome. This thesis is fleshed out by Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Random House (2013), ISBN 978-1-4000-6922-4, esp. pp. 120 – 121 and Ch. 12. ↩
- Matthew 5:5 ↩
- None of the gospels except John, the last written, refers to Jesus as “God”. Wansbrough, Dom Henry, “What Did Mark Think of Jesus?” Tutorial Essays for Oxford BA in Theology, http://users.ox.ac.uk/~sben0056/essays/marksviewofjesus.htm , paragraph 2. See also Lozano, Gustavo Vazquez, Jesus of Nazareth: The Historical Search for the Christian Messiah, 2016, Charles River Editors, eBook version, location 239, which shows the progression of describing Jesus from an earthly preacher in Mark (earliest gospel) to a divine figure in John (latest gospel). ↩
- Eusebius Pamphilus, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine (4th century), “# 107: Constantine’s Vision”, translated by Stephen Tomkins, https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/constantine/ (accessed 7/27/16) ↩
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