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     General Greco-Roman Setting

General Greco-Roman Setting to the Emergence of Christianity

  1. By 150 BC, the Roman Empire expanded to include the North Mediterranean, North Africa, Egypt, and to the borders of Armenia and the Persian Empire. It extended over the monarchies of the successors to Alexander the Great, including Palestine.

  2. This expansion coincided with conflict and instability, and saw the assasination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Octavius, Julius Caesar's nephew and adopted son succeeded his uncle and stabilized Rome with such success that he become officially known as Augustus.

  3. Under Augustus' reign, each region was responsible for its own affairs, religions, institutions, as well as for collecting imperial taxes.

  4. The common higher or "Hellenistic" culture, growing up in the wake of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) also contributed to this stability. Greek had become a normal second language. Thus Greek science, religious philosophy and art became enriched by other traditions and created the possibility of a shared world of culture.

  5. Religiously, there were three levels. One was the "civic religion" comprised of the traditional observance of family or community gods, to which we may assign Emperor worship. Second were the "mystery cults" which were generally oriental in origin but also utilized local fertility rites. In the Greek metropolitan, these cults were transformed into voluntary brotherhoods offering salvation from the whims of the dieties Fortune and Fate. Third was the pursuit of fulfillment through the practice of philosophical wisdom, a wisdom founded on a criticism of the traditional pantheon.

  6. The origin of the Roman-Hellenistic philosophical schools is found in the movement of inquiry and speculation stimulated by Socrates of Athens. The first great leader in this movement was Plato (d. 347 BC) whose ideas communicated easily due to their popular dialogue format. The academy which he founded was the first of the great "schools" of Hellenistic philosophy. Plato's pupil Aristotle (384-322 BC) broke away from the Academy after Plato's death and founded the Peripatetic school.

    There subsequently rose the school of Epicurus (342-270 BC) which taught that pleasure, in the negative sense of absence of mental disturbance (atarxia), was the highest human good. The good life is the life which maximizes pleasure by minimizing the pain attendant upon unneccesary desire and anxiety. Thus the greatest pleasure is attained by a life of quiet, retirement and restraint: a life characterized essentially self-control.

    There also arose the Stoics, so named from the Porch (stoa), a public hall in Athens where its founder Zeno (d. ca. 264 BC) originally taught. Stoic philosophy was much more influential, especially in the Latin West, with their teaching that the sole human good is virtue or "the life according to nature". Zeno's doctrines were expanded and developed by his successors Cleanthes (d. ca. 232 BC) and Chrysippus (d. ca. 207 BC), and are found most notably in Lucius Annaeus Seneca (d 65 AD) and emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Like Epicurians, Stoics were materialists and concieved the cosmos as composed of passive matter and active spirit. Called God or Fate or Reason (logos), this spirit is the indwelling divinity whose outflowing powers are the gods of popular reason. The human soul, itself rational, is a spark of this divine Reason.

  7. In the first century before Christ, about the same time Aristotle's philosophical and scientific works were rediscovered and circulated, a movement generally known as "Middle Platonism" emerged which sought to return to the positive teachings of Plato, especially those set out in the dialogue Timaeus. It was typical of this movement, which in the 1st and 2nd Christian centuries rose to virtual dominance, fused Plato's ideas with Stoicism and Aristotle. Middle Platonism took from Aristotle the idea of formless matter as the utlimate substratum of all visible things, as well as the conception of a transcendent God understood as Mind (nous). This God had the platonic forms as the content of his thought and was thus identified with Plato's realm of Being. The visible cosmos is shaped as the eternal World-Soul, formed and emliviened by its contemplation of God. Thus the philosopher who seeks self-fulfillment by conforming his way of being with ultimate reality must take the cosmos and its order as the starting point of his search.

    Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  8. Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  9. Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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