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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Formation of the Gospels, Gentiles, Greco-Roman Background » Greece, Rome, Israel #1

Greece, Rome, Israel #1

Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. . . . He said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
-Mark 7:26, 27.

Our reading of the gospels should take into account three streams of culture. In particular we can says that the times of Yeshua were affected by: (1) the reaction against Hellenism or Greek culture in Israel that had come to the fore in the days of the Maccabees from 165 BCE on, (2) the influence of Rome both for good and bad in the life of Israel, and (3) the struggles of Israelite groups and cultures to define themselves in a changing world.

The three cultural streams of the gospels should come even more into focus as we think, not of the times of Yeshua and his band of disciples, but of the time of the evangelists and their communities.

How do Greece, Rome, and Israel enter into the times of Yeshua and, even more so, the times of the evangelists and the gospel audiences? We’ll explore Greek influences in part 1 and then Roman and Israelite in parts 2 and 3.

Hellenism and the Gospels

Yeshua and his disciples would almost certainly have been able to converse in Greek. In Mark 7:26-27, Yeshua has a conversation with a Syro-Phoenician woman. A simple kind of Greek was commonly known throughout the empire. We might compare it to the way many people in the world today speak at least rudimentary English.

Alexander’s conquests in the 300′s BCE had spread Greek culture (Hellenism) and language all through the Middle East and beyond. The confrontation between Israelites and Greek culture came especially in 165 BCE and following with the Maccabees revolting against compromisers leading Israel to become Hellenistic or to syncretize Hellenism and Torah.

The parties of Judaism developed through this reaction. The Pharisees arose as a kind of reform movement, establishing new traditions to further separate Jews from Greek ways. The Sadducees arose as a priestly and aristocratic movement making the Temple service the key separation between Jews and Greeks. The Essenes were the most separatist of all, insisting on no interaction with gentiles. Common Jews and Israelites were influenced in various ways by these parties.

Yeshua was opposed overwhelmingly by the Sadducees and with some mixed reactions, though mostly opposition, from the Pharisees. In turn, he differed with the Pharisees on some key points:

  • Their reaction to Hellenism involved new traditions to further separate Jews and Greeks; Yeshua criticized new traditions that were about anything other than heightening worship, justice, and love.
  • Their reaction to Hellenism defined Jewishness with narrower circles of association; Yeshua associated more broadly with sinners and even gentiles.

Yeshua was a critic of gentiles, to be sure. He said:

If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? . . . when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do . . . the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all . . . the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant.
-Matthew 5:47; 6:7, 32; 20:25-26

Yeshua also reacted to Hellenism. We might say his reaction was to call Israel to be Israel in a certain way. The way Yeshua called Israel to be Israel was found in the Torah. What was the essence of Jewish identity, the thing that separated Israel from the nations, as Yeshua saw it in Torah?

It was to pursue greater righteousness, justice, and love than was naturally practiced by humanity. The Torah revelation given to Israel should make Israelites rise above human evil.

Hellenism affected the evangelists even more than Yeshua and his band of disciples:

  • The evangelists wrote in Greek for a broad audience throughout the empire.
  • The evangelists usually quoted the Jewish scriptures from the Septuagint (LXX) or Greek version instead of the Hebrew text.
  • The evangelists wrote using Greek ideas about historiography, Greek forms such as the chreia (short episodes of narrative and sayings as we especially see in Mark), and in Luke’s case, specifically mentioning a Greek (Theophilus) as the primary recipient of the document.

Greek ideas and culture to some degree lie behind the gospels and Judaism in general. What started in Torah as a Middle Eastern movement became, in the time of Yeshua and those who followed him, a message with application to the entire Greco-Roman world and beyond.

Read Part 2, “Greece, Rome, Israel #2.”

Read Part 3, “Greece, Rome, Israel #3.”

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Filed under: Background to Gospels, Formation of the Gospels, Gentiles, Greco-Roman Background

One Response to "Greece, Rome, Israel #1"

  1. Rey says:

    Shalom Derek,

    This article is great! It is of great importance to know these facts!

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