Jews and Greeks in the First Century A.D.

jerusalem templeJews and Greeks in the New Testamentgreek temple

Even a casual reader of the New Testament cannot help but notice the frequent use of the expression “Jew and Greek.” To cite just a few examples, Paul writes that salvation is “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16); or, “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24); or, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Although we might notice this language, it is easy to read over it without understanding its significance. In a previous post, I promised to demonstrate how Bible background knowledge (history, culture, language, etc.) can help illuminate our study of the Bible (see my article, “Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?“). In this article I will provide some historical and cultural background that will not only demonstrate the importance of the “Jew and Greek” language used by New Testament writers, but will show how revolutionary the Christian message was as it sought to reconcile Jew and Greek into one body (the church).

Identity: Jews and Greeks

greek dress
Style of dress can be a marker of ethnic identity

The most elementary definition of identity might define a Jew as someone from Judea and a Greek as someone from Greece. This definition not only oversimplifies the problem, but it ignores the fact that by the first century A.D. Jews and Greeks were scattered across the Roman empire and beyond. The Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (722 B.C. and 586 B.C., respectively), had uprooted the ancient Israelites from their homeland and scattered them among other nations. Similarly, the conquest of Alexander the Great (333-321 B.C.) not only brought the spread of Greek culture and language, it also facilitated the movement and migration of Greeks throughout his empire. This means that by the first century, Jews and Greeks were living side by side in cities throughout the Roman Empire. How does a person maintain their ethnic identity when they are separated from their homeland over the span of many years and miles? Christopher Stanley (‘Neither Jew Nor Greek’: Ethnic Conflict in Graeco-Roman Society, JSNT, 64, 1996, p. 111), identifies three important factors: 1) a belief in a shared history; 2) common culture (including language and religious beliefs); and 3) some form of physical difference (which could include bodily appearance, hairstyle, clothing, etc.).

For a Jew these 3 factors are easily identifiable. A Jew would, 1) identify with Israel’s history (the Exodus, the kingship, etc.); 2) believe in the one true God (keeping the Law by observing the Sabbath and the distinction between clean and unclean foods) and; 3) would practice circumcision. These distinctions, however, would not only apply to someone born of Israelite blood, but also to any foreigners who became proselytes (converts). Acts 2:10 mentions such proselytes. Similarly, a Greek came to mean more than just someone who was from Greece, but someone who had also adopted Greek (Hellenistic) culture, and spoke Greek. Ironically, it was these ethnic “identity markers” that could potentially attract or repel people in the other group.

Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians

The terms “Gentile” and “Greek” are often used synonymously by scholars and sometimes by ancient authors. There is some support for linking these two words in Scripture, but it’s worth pointing out that the terms Gentile and Greek are not necessarily referring to the same people group. The word “Gentile” is from the word for “nations” and was used by Jews as a description of those who were outside of the covenant God had established with Israel. Therefore, in the eyes of a Jew, all Greeks were Gentiles, but, to be accurate, not all Gentiles were Greeks. Therefore, context should determine what is meant by these terms. For the purposes of this article, the words will usually refer to the same people group unless otherwise specified. In some cases Jewish use of the word “Gentile” was not meant derogatorily, but in other cases it was. When used derogatorily it could be shorthand for “sinner” (see Gal. 2:15; mention could also be made of the well-known rabinnic saying that God created the Gentiles in order to stoke the fires of hell). The point is that to speak of “gentiles” is a Jewish way of viewing the world. No other group in the Roman world would refer to themselves or others this way (although they might speak of other “nations” of course).

Famous painting of Alexander the Great's battle with Darius III of Persia. The Greeks viewed even the great Persian empire as barbarians.
Famous painting of Alexander the Great’s battle with Darius III of Persia. The Greeks viewed even the great Persian empire as barbarians.

Like the Jews, the Greeks also divided the world into two distinct populations. There were Greeks, and the rest who weren’t Greek were Barbarians. After all, considering the legacy of language, art, philosophy, politics, and culture, who in their right mind would not want to be Greek? This two-fold way of viewing the world by both Jews and Greeks reveals a deep-seated pride on the part of both groups. Commentaries have made us well-aware that the Jews could be capable of arrogance. In fact, “Phariseeism” in our day is synonymous with legalism and pride (although this is an oversimplification). What is often overlooked (although modern studies have come a long way in correcting this view), was that the Greeks could be just as arrogant concerning their culture and way of life. In other words, when it comes to pride and arrogance, there was plenty of blame to spread around whether one is talking about Jews or Greeks in the first century.

Conflict Between Jews and Greeks

Attitudes of arrogance and the natural human tendency toward viewing those outside our group as inferior, naturally leads to prejudice and conflict. But before discussing the differences between Jews and Greeks that led to conflict in the Roman world, it should be noted that many Jews adopted various facets of Hellenistic culture, including speaking Greek. In fact, following the conquest of Alexander the Great, it would have been impossible to not be affected in some way by Hellenistic culture. Indeed, some Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo sought to explain Jewish beliefs and practices by appealing to Greeks using Greek terminology and philosophy. There were also Greeks, and other Gentiles, who spoke well of Judaism. This is further evidenced by the fact that some became proselytes, while others regularly attended synagogue being known as “God-fearers” (e.g., Acts 13:26). In spite of the attraction that some from each ethnic group had for the other, prejudice and conflict were a common response.  As noted above, we are well-aware of Jewish prejudice toward Gentiles (including Greeks), therefore, I will focus on Greek/Gentile attitudes toward Jews (this includes the elite of Roman society who had become thoroughly Hellenized).

ancient-greek-gods_120822_1952_54Ancient Greeks are famous for the glorification of the human body, well-evidenced in the statuary they have left behind. Greeks loved athletic competition and this competition took place in the nude. Circumcision was abhorrent to a Greek and considered to be a mutilation of the body. To demonstrate the detrimental effect that this Greek attitude could have on Jews, the writer of 1 Maccabees informs us that in the days preceding the Maccabean revolt some Jewish youths began to attend the gymnasium (a Greek institution) in Jerusalem, and sought to remove “the marks of circumcision” (1 Macc. 1:14-15). When the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes IV enforced Hellenization of Judea and attempted to terminate Jewish religious practices, war was the inevitable result (168-163 B.C.). When Judea was taken over by the Romans (63 B.C.), Pompey desecrated the Temple by entering it and sent about 100,000 Jewish captives to Rome. Fortunately, the Jews also had some gracious Roman patrons, including Julius Caesar and Augustus, nonetheless, many well known ancient writers derided them for their beliefs and culture. For example, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “the way of life of this accursed group (the Jews) has gained such influence that it is now received throughout the world; the vanquished have given laws to their victors.” The Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “those who have gone over to their (the Jews) way of life follow the same practice, and the earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account” (both quotes are taken from Thomas H. Tobin, “Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts, p. 24). Roman emperors twice expelled the Jews from Rome (once in 19 A.D. by Tiberius, and again in 49 A.D. by Claudius, see Acts 18:2). These examples could be multiplied, but they demonstrate the uneasy tension that existed between Jews and Greeks in the ancient world.

Violent conflict between Jews and Greeks erupted in many of the cities found on this map
Violent conflict between Jews and Greeks erupted in many of the cities found on this map

An investigation of the period between 50 B.C. and 120 A.D. (a 170 year span), produces evidence that there was violent ethnic conflict between Jews and Greeks. This is an historical fact known to scholars, but not as familiar to lay people. Stanley (in the article cited above) categorizes this violence into 4 phases. Phase 1 occurred roughly between the years of 49 B.C. and 11 B.C. and was limited to western Asia minor (modern Turkey). Some of the troubled areas included Sardis (49 B.C.),  Laodicea (46/45 B.C.), Ephesus (43 B.C.), and Cyrene in North Africa (13 B.C.). Phase 2 occurred between the years of 38 – 44 A.D. and centered in the areas of Egypt, Judea, Syria, and Babylonia. Some of the cities included Alexandria, Egypt (38-41 A.D.), Jamnia (39 A.D.), Dora (41 A.D.), and Philadelphia (44 A.D.) which are all areas within the boundaries of ancient Israel (referred to as Palestine by many scholars), and Syrian Antioch (39-40 A.D.). Phase 3 occurred during the years of the Jewish Revolt (66-73 A.D.) and encompassed all of Israel (Palestine), plus Alexandria, Cyrene, Antioch, and Damascus. Phase 4 occurred during the years of the Diaspora Revolt (115-117 A.D.) resulting in violent conflict in Jewish communities in North Africa and Mesopotamia (this info is taken from Stanley’s article, pp. 102-103).

The Significance of the Conflict Between Jews and Greeks

If you’ve stayed with me this long we’ve finally come to the point of this article. First, however, it has been necessary to sketch the historical and cultural background. If you look at the cities mentioned above where ethnic conflict and violence between Jews and Greeks was known to occur you will notice many familiar names found in the New Testament such as Ephesus, Sardis, Antioch, Damascus, Cyrene, etc. It is phenomenal to think that in the midst of this ethnic tension and hatred, often expressed through civic violence, that a group of Jewish believers were commissioned to take the gospel to the Greeks (and the rest of the Gentiles)! In fact, Paul, a former Pharisee, residing in the city of Antioch, which only a few years earlier had been at the center of one of these ethnic uprisings, is called by the Holy Spirit to a mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-2)! That a former Pharisee would become an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13) and would suffer greatly to see Greeks and others won for the kingdom of God, is a testament to God’s transforming power. That a movement consisting of Jews and Greeks in one body could maintain a bond of unity and peace, in a world where ethnic violence was the norm is a witness to the power of the gospel itself!

Gallio shows no concern for the Greeks who beat the ruler of the synagogue. (picture from thebiblerevival.com)
Gallio shows no concern for the Greeks who beat the ruler of the synagogue. (picture from thebiblerevival.com)

The violence between Jews and Greeks also sheds light on the narrative accounts of Acts. In every city that Paul travels to he begins in the synagogue. Some Jews believe, some Greeks believe and this volatile combination creates civic unrest for the remainder of the population. In Iconium some Jews and Greeks believe which causes unbelieving Jews to stir up a mob of Gentiles to persecute the fledgling church (Acts 14:1-5). This same scenario is repeated in cities throughout the Roman empire. In Philippi, Paul and Silas are dragged to the market place before the city authorities. The accusation brought against them is, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city” (Acts 16:19-20). In Thessalonica when a “great multitude of devout Greeks” are converted, the unbelieving Jews become envious and stir up a mob (Acts 17:4-5). In Corinth another mob is stirred up against the disciples, but when the proconsul Gallio refuses to judge the case we are told, “Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat” (Acts 18:17). When one becomes aware of the violence between Jews and Greeks, these accounts recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts take on a sober realism. Relating this knowledge to the Book of Romans, Philip Esler, influenced by Stanley’s research, states, “This mutual hostility between Judeans and Greeks would have formed part of the living memories of most people to whom Paul wrote Romans, and some of them may have experienced it in other cities of the Mediterranean region” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p. 75).

By becoming sensitive to the ethnic problems that existed between Jew and Greek, the above passages, as well as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, take on a richer and deeper meaning. This is just one example of how a study of Bible backgrounds can greatly enhance our understanding and appreciation of Scripture. In the next article, I will take a look at how Bible backgrounds can enhance our knowledge of the Book of Romans. (To read the follow up article, click here).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *