Pagan neighbors of the early Christians

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (August, 2005)

Ever since their sojourn in Babylon in the 6th century BC, many Jews found it more congenial to live outside their homeland than in it. In the major cities of the world - Babylon, Alexandria, Ephesus, Rome - they formed large communities, meeting in their synagogues, but otherwise living side by side with non-Jews. By the 1st centuries BC and AD, Diaspora Jews were so numerous that Josephus could say that "myriads of our race" lived in these countries (Josephus, Against Apion 1,194). In Alexandria, the cultural capital of the world, two-fifths of the population were Jewish. The situation was parallel to the present one, with far more Jews living outside the homeland than in it, attracted especially to the large cities where they engage in commercial life.

Their culture had always valued learning, beginning with the records of their history on tablets which they carried round with them in nomad days. Knowledge kept them together, rather than location. In contact with advanced learning in the great cities, they eagerly absorbed that learning, seeing it as an extension of their belief that the world was governed by law. The book of Ezekiel, with its temple plan, illustrates how study of Babylonian astronomy, mathematics and architecture were absorbed into their religious thinking.

The hellenistic period brought a renaissance of learning throughout the western world following the conquests of Alexander the Great. In pursuit of their commercial aims, Jews living in the great cities met daily with non-Jews in the market-places, in business houses, and in related social activities where current theories about life in general were aired. Such theories were popularly focussed on philosophy - Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and on the consequences of Pythagorean science.

The writings of Philo of Alexandria illustrate the extent to which hellenistic learning had become so much admired by Jews that they claimed it had really been revealed in the first place by Moses. Philo rewrites the creation story, reading between the lines of Genesis to find there an account of how God had created the world according to pure Platonism. In two treatises he goes through the books of Genesis and Exodus, showing how numbers used in them were especially significant for Pythagorean mathematics. Educated Jews of Philo's type continued to maintain Jewish identity strongly, while at the same time internally adjusting its content.

The process was sometimes reciprocal, with Gentiles admiring Jewish theology and ethical rigour to such an extent that they wanted to become proselytes. By the period of Jesus, there were many Gentiles attending the synagogues or informal meetings in houses. They merged to such an extent with Jews that the next step was taken, a new identity that covered both liberal Jews and Gentiles, using the name Christian. These, too, moved readily in Greco-Roman philosophical circles, as is shown in the Acts account of Paul's debates with philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-21).

In the Greco-Roman world, philosophy was by no means a socially separate occupation, but had filtered down to the lower classes, where it became mixed with the remains of pagan religion. Philosophers could act as cult figures do today, attracting attention and adulation by teaching strange and wonderful things, some of them factual and respected, others in the form of fantasies such as uneducated people wanted to hear. With knowledge of medicine , these gurus performed genuine healings, but as a form of advertisement they could arrange for "miracles" of healing.

The best known of these is Apollonius of Tyana, whose very close parallels to the life and miracles of Jesus have been underlined by some scholars, but explained away by others. Another philosopher and moralist was Plutarch, less spectacular and with a greater ethical content, whose writings provide a pagan parallel to the theory of religious writings containing a hidden meaning. In Lucius Apuleius' Golden Ass we have an extreme example of popular literature, at about the level of our "soapies", which at the same time endorses the theology of the pagan mystery religions.

We'll deal with each of these in turn in the following sub-entries.

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