Living Godly in a Hellenistic Culture

By Daniel K. Williams

The test had come. Four godly young men, who were hundreds of miles away from their homeland, had to decide whether they would give in to the worldly culture around them or would remain faithful to the Lord. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego made the right choice. At the risk of their lives, they refused to eat the king’s food, and instead served God in Babylon.

For the next 600 years, faithful men and women of God faced a similar choice. After Cyrus conquered Babylon, the Persians ruled Judea for over 200 years, and infused the Jewish people with near Eastern culture and language. In 330 B.C., the Greeks conquered the Persians, and the Jews became part of a Greek-speaking empire. For the next four centuries, God’s people struggled to remain holy in the midst of a Hellenistic culture. Some gave in to the temptations around them, while others kept themselves pure.

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in the late fourth century, Greek generals replaced the Persians as governors of Palestine. Centuries earlier, Daniel had predicted that Alexander’s successors would fight for control of his kingdom, and would involve the Jews in their struggle (Dan. 8, 11). In the twenty-two years following Alexander’s death, Greek armies passed through Palestine at least seven times.

Greek rule was not a completely negative experience for the Jews, though. After 301, the Ptolemies ruled Judea for a century, and the Jews benefitted from the new technology and economic impetus that these Greek-speaking kings of Egypt brought to Palestine. Artificial irrigation, a more efficient oil lamp, a new coinage standard, and a foot-powered potter’s wheel were only a few of the innovations that the Greeks gave the Jews. Under the Ptolemies, many Jews moved to Alexandria and other Greek-speaking cities, and they soon began to adopt Greek modes of thought. Nearly all of the Jews who moved abroad, and even many of those who remained in Palestine, learned to speak Greek. Some Greek-educated Alexandrian Jews wrote theological works that defended the Mosaic law using Platonic arguments.

A few Greeks who encountered the Jewish people were intrigued by their faith. One Ptolemaic king of the third century B.C. authorized a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Known as the Septuagint, this translation remained the primary Bible of the Greek-speaking Jews and Christians for over five hundred years.

The peace of the early third century B.C. soon gave way to continued warfare between the Ptolemies and their rivals, the Greek Seleucids. Shortly after the Seleucids gained control of Palestine, Antiochus IV, a Seleucid monarch, attempted to hellenize the Jews by force. In 168 B.C., he converted the Jewish temple into a sanctuary of Zeus, and forced the Jews to abandon their religious rites. Many Jews were only too ready to comply. A few years before, the high priest Jason had already built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, where Jewish youths, who had tried to surgically reverse their circumcision in an effort to conform to Greek norms, competed naked in athletic events. As Daniel prophesied (Dan. 11:32), there were Jews who refused to tolerate these pagan practices. The Maccabeans led a revolt that drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem. They established their own Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, which soon became as corrupt as the pagan rulers had been. When the Romans conquered Judaea a century later, they deposed the Hasmoneans, and ruled the Jews themselves, first through the Herodian dynasty, and then through Roman governors. The Romans imposed their own military rule on Palestine, but they did not attempt to Latinize the Hellenic influence that had been present for centuries. The Jews, as well nearly everyone else in the eastern half of the Roman empire, continued to speak Greek. The Romans adopted many facets of Greek religion, art, architecture, and literature, so that the new Greco-Roman culture differed little from the Hellenistic culture that had previously pervaded the area. Faithful Jews, and subsequently Christians, continued to struggle against pagan influences as they tried to worship God in the midst of a Greek world.

There were many aspects of Hellenistic culture that all but the most ascetic Jews accepted. The Greek style of architecture dominated the Palestinian landscape. From the outside, a synagogue could be mistaken for a pagan temple, because the architectural styles were identical. Even Pharisaic Jews, who prided themselves on a strict observance of the law, read Greek literature. When Paul dealt with Gentiles, he quoted Greek poets (Acts 17:28; Tit. 1:12). Most Jews, except for some who lived in rural Palestine, spoke Greek. There were many educational, economic, and technological advantages to hellenization that were not sinful. As long as adaptation to Greek custom did not involve pagan practices, Paul said that he tried to fit into the culture around him for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:21).

Despite hellenization’s benign features, many sinful aspects of Greek culture caused problems for faithful Jews. The two greatest dangers lay in the area of religion and sexuality, as James suggested when he said that Gentile Christians needed to “abstain from the pollutions of idols and from fornication” (Acts 15:20).

The Greeks worshiped a pantheon of impotent, immoral, and competing deities. There were twelve gods and goddesses in the original pantheon, but each city honored its own patron deity above the others. Thus, Athens honored Athena as its patron goddess, while Ephesus worshiped Artemis (the Roman Diana). A number of intellectuals had already abandoned faith in these traditional gods by the first century A.D., but they continued to attend their city’s sacrifices out of a sense of civic duty. Everyone knew that temple sacrifices were not a display of faith, but a ritual obligation. People who wanted more from religion usually joined a mystery cult, where they could engage in a more fervent form of devotion that sometimes involved orgies, sexual immorality, or charismatic phenomena. Others turned to philosophy, which promised to offer atheistic, rational explanations for the questions of life. Athens was the philosophic center of the ancient world, and intellectuals throughout the Roman empire congregated in the city to enroll in one of the academies there. Both Plato and Aristotle founded schools in Athens, and other philosophers followed suit. Greek philosophers differed widely on a number of subjects, but nearly all of them continued to worship the traditional Greek gods, even though they doubted the veracity of Homeric myth. Although a few earlier Hellenistic rulers had tried to quell Judaism, the Romans of the early first century tolerated Jewish religion, because they considered it a local ancestral cult of Palestine that was analagous to the Ephesian devotion to Artemis. They could not, however, understand why a pagan who converted to Christianity would no longer be willing to worship the traditional gods, since they viewed such sacrifices as expressions of civic duty and loyalty to the authorities. The early Roman persecutions usually targeted Christians who refused to engage in public sacrifices.

Even those who truly believed in the traditional pantheon did not make worship the central aspect of their lives. Pagan religion treated devotion to the gods solely as a negotiation for beneficence, since they believed that humans could merit divine favors through service to the deities. They knew that humans could err, but they had no real concept of sin. The Greeks thought that a few sacrifices and offerings could usually make a person right with the gods. In contrast, the Lord’s people knew that humans could not offer anything to merit God’s favor; they could only be saved by accepting God’s grace (Acts 17:25; Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8).

The Greeks’ view of sex differed radically from God’s moral standards. Most Greek literary creations focused on illicit sexual relations, whether they were between gods or between humans. Greek and Latin authors were fascinated with sex in its many forms, including married love, adultery, premarital sex, rape, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, prostitution, and narcissism. The Greeks did not practice all of these forms of sex on a regular basis, but they did write about them. The most common premarital sexual sins in the first-century Greek world were prostitution and homosexuality, while adultery and divorce were common marital problems. The Greeks expected women who did not become prostitutes to remain virgins until marriage, but they encouraged men to engage in homosexual acts, which they perhaps supplemented with visits to a heterosexual brothel, until they married, which was usually not until they were nearly thirty. Greeks considered it honorable for a male teacher to have sex with a male teenage student. After marriage, Greek males sometimes carried on homosexual relationships with young men, and there were a few who committed adultery, although this sin constituted legal grounds for divorce. Although women could sue for divorce, they had few other rights, since the Greeks thought that women were mentally and socially inferior to men. The apostles taught that Christians needed to reject the selfish view of sex that Greek males had, and to treat women and marriage as honorable in the sight of God (Rom. 1:24-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; Gal. 3:28; Heb. 13:4; 1 Pet. 3:7).

The Greeks also differed from Jews and Christians in their view of nudity and the body. Greek males wore no clothing when they competed in athletic games, and Greek artists usually portrayed their heroes and gods in the nude. Some male spectators expressed homosexual admiration for the naked bodies of the youths who competed in the athletic events. Sculptors rarely depicted females in the nude, but  they commonly portrayed women in tight garments that clearly revealed their voluptuousness.

Thus, Jews and Christians in the first-century Greco-Roman world faced the same challenge that Daniel and his three friends faced when they tried to live godly lives in a pagan society. There were certain customs of that society that they could adopt without violating their consciences, but they had to eschew sinful practices. The Jews used the architecture, money, literature, language, and technology of the Greeks without sinning, but the faithful had to refuse the idolatry, pagan philosophy, and sexual behavior of the Gentiles. Christians of the second and third centuries condemned all of the entertainment practices of the Greek world, including the music, theater performances, and athletic competitions of the day. They knew that in order to live godly, they had to reject the practices of the world. Most importantly, they knew that the Greeks, just as much as anyone else, needed a Savior. In Jesus Christ, both Greeks and Jews could be regenerated and become one church (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 3:26-29). At that moment, even Greeks could begin living as God’s people in the midst of a wicked world.

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p12  May 4, 2000