Combined Minutes/Notes from Religious Studies 135 Christian Origins

Robert A. Kraft, University of Pennsylvania (Fall 2001)


General Information on the Course

Basic materials for this class are found on the class home page for which all students are responsible.

The purpose of this class is to provide information about early Christianity, while also learning methods of assessing the validity of the claims made about it in the Bible, as well as in other early Christian and non-Christian works. The course materi al will challenge the thoughts and understanding of persons of any religious belief, and make them more aware of what is involved in the creation and maintenance of religious traditions.

The grading of the course will be based on one research paper (topic of choice, to be cleared with the instructor) and one take home exam (consisting of four parts: contexts of the Greco-Roman world, Jesus, Paul and his letters, and other early Christi an materials). Students should make frequent reference to the exam questions as the course proceeds, and should have their research topic approved by mid-term.

Some Special Helps:

Glossary -- For general information on names, terms, etc., see the "glossary" on the RelSt 002 class page.

Maps -- Use the map site linkages on the RelSt 135 home page.

Classnotes and materials from related classes -- Check especially the pages for RelSt 225 (Dead Sea Scrolls), 435 (Jesus Traditions), 436 (Paul), 525 (Varieties of Early Judaism) and 535 (Varieties of Early Christianity). It is also helpful to look into previous years' classnotes to prepare for and/or supplement what is discussed in class. (The file you are looking at is a synthesis of such notes.)

Bibliography -- Especially for your research papers, the bibliography on the class page may be useful, although most important is your ability to work with the primary sources.

Other helps -- The coursepage contains a number of other helps on various matters such as the canonical scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, various Jewish calendars, important people and events, etc.


Working Back from the Present to Antiquity

Highpoints Along the Way:

Modern interest in "objective" history (to the extent such is possible) in contrast to approaches in the service of a particular viewpoint.

Available "primary" sources from antiquity include:

  • Literature (usually from the educated classes)
  • Documents and Records of all sorts (e.g. written on "papyri")
  • Inscriptions and Monuments
  • Art and Architecture (usually discovered through archaeology)
  • Coins ("numismatics")
  • Human Physical Remains (e.g. tombs)

    The Modern Period:

    Types of Modern Judaism:

    -Classical/orthodox: trying to preserve tradition.
    -Reform Judaism: attempt to be modern and scientific while also maintaining Judaism as a tradition blessed by the deity. The more radical Reform Jews became much more like Christian Unitarians, with a focus on humanitarian efforts. There has been significant change since the Reform movement took hold in the mid-1800s; for example, Reform Judaism had no interest in returning to the Holy Land ("Zion," thus "Zionism") about 100-135 years ago, but tends to be much more supportive now.
    -Conservative Judaism: somewhere between classical and reform.
    -Reconstructionist Judaism: emphasis on Judaism as a "civilization," not simply a religion.

    Types of Modern Christianity:

    -Classical/traditional: Roman Catholic (western world), Eastern Orthodox
    -Protestant mainstream denominations (more or less "liberal")
    -Protestant conservative and "evangelical" groups
    -Independent/unaffiliated groups

    Background of the academic study of early Christianity and early Judaism lies in protestant Christian interests challenging traditional views; development of "the higher criticism" of the Bible, science and religion discussions, new discoveries from the ancient Near East, etc.

    The "protestant reformation" in the 16th century (Martin Luther, et al.) and the Roman Catholic "counter reformation" (council of Trent, etc.).

    - 1520 Protestant Reformation in protest of certain perceived problems in the Latin/Roman Catholic Church

    - Martin Luther major figure in movement challenging Catholicism -- tries to put the authority of the scripture above the authority of the accumulated traditions, etc.

    - Protestantism -- out of this came a proliferation of groups -- Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians etc.

    - individual readings and interpretations of the biblical texts were permitted, producing different practices and ideas; e.g. the Baptists baptize people when they are adult and aware vs. infants

    - Catholics also reformed at this time giving more prominence to the text without losing authority of the clergy

    - all changes affect attitudes towards text/tradition and in the east there was no analogous "reformation" so more focus on continuity of tradition

    - Luther made distinctions in the biblical canon and argued that certain portions of scripture have less authority than others (e.g. Epistle of James is not authoritative for doctrine)

    -canon -- collection of scriptural books considered authoritative

    - dozens of Protestant denominations developed out of the Reformation

    - Protestants say every individual has the right to interpret scripture not just the clergy

    - this idea spiraled out of control encouraging the creation of organized church groupings (denominations) with relatively more structure

    - Martin Luther taught scripture and had many objectives in seeking reforms

    - developments in modern period such as archeology as a science, theory of evolution could have been huge blows to all of Christianity but the reforms of Protestant trad created an opening which lessened the blow

    - In Protestant tradition, lots of emphasis on canonical scripture lessens interest in the early period of Christian development apart from NT

    - RC (Roman Catholic) tradition deals with this early material not only NT; e.g. Mary is important as an "advocate before God" so there is a great wealth of materials not found in NT about Mary but Protestants objected to this because Jesus was viewed as the "one mediator"

    "Medieval/Byzantine" Period:

    Divisions in "classical Christianity," especially the split ("great schism") between the Roman Catholic west (Latin) and the Eastern Orthodox (Greek) churches in 1053 ce, following the lines of the division in the "Roman Empire" between the western part (Latin language, centered in Rome and Italy, no longer an empire after the 5th century) and the eastern (Greek language, with Constantinople [Byzantium, now Istanbul] set up by Constantine [see below] as "New Rome," with continuity into 15th century).

    - in the west law (a Roman preoccupation) becomes a major focus -- emphasis on laws and doctrines within Christianity, and Christianity becomes the main central authority for the Latin world

    - in the east (with more political stabillity), greater variety -- "liturgy" becomes a main focus

    "Late Antiquity" (4th century ce and earlier)

    Christianity becomes legal under Constantine (306-336 ce), and by about 381, is the officially favored religion of the Roman Empire (west and east).

    - Around 303 CE under the Emperor Diocletian, there was a "last gasp" attempt to stamp out Christianity, with various threats and persecutions

    - Roman emperorship changed to Constantine the Great around 306

    - Constantine had been exposed to Christianity in childhood and is said to have had visionary experiences; around 313 he issues an edict that gave Christians rights to practice openly and legally

    In these circumstances, Christian "orthodoxy" was developed with governmental support and "ecumenical" (broadly representative) councils such as Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. The main Christian factions in this period are represented by Arius and Athanasius, and the central theological issue is the Trinitarian definition (how does "the son" relate to "the father"?).

    - in 325 CE Council of Nicea took place in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey)

    - it brought together representative leaders from much of the Christian world making it highly "ecumenical" ("world-wide" to some extent; from the Greek term "household" -- broader than any single region)

    - the council dealt with the problem of Arius and Athanasius -- both were leaders in Christian churches in Greek speaking Egypt (Alexandria)

    - by the time of Nicea (325) the concept of Jesus as God was mainstream thinking as well as Jesus as divine son of God, but how God the Father related to God the Son was at issue

    - tri unity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- the trinity

    - Arius argued that ultimately only God existed and his first creation was his son who then created all else

    - Athanasius took the stance which became mainstream to say that all members of this trinity always existed and that the labels of Father and Son are merely relational not chronological in language

    - by 325 Christians no longer had to fight as much for existence in the Roman world, and they were often found fighting within themselves

    - between 325 and 380 these two positions fight for power

    - From 361-363, the Emperor Julian ("the Apostate") tried to supress Christianity and restore traditional "paganism" but he died in battle and his program also died -- at an official level, the "last gasp" of "paganism"

    The Filters: canon, creed, (anti-)heresy

    - CREEDS meaning "beliefs" (Latin "credo" = "I believe")
    - development of creeds as institution is a password to test to see who agrees with you
    - the Nicean Creed
    -- one God -- father and maker
    -- one Son -- incarnation, life, death, resurrection; all in the physical world
    -- one Holy Spirit
    -- one church
    - Apostle's creed - covers basically the same points, scholars say that it was created around late 2nd century
    - the Nicean creed clearly shows the polemics between Arius and Athanasius using biblical language with a twist to exlude the Arian interpretation; e.g. the Son is "begotten not made," to emphasize the relational not chronological or generative link to God the Father
    - Gnostic Christians believe the ultimate God did not create world -- spiritual being only
    - therefore they would not assent to the "orthodox" creeds because Jesus' God is not "maker of heaven and earth" to them
    - Dualism - ultimate spiritual entity vs. secondary creator of matter
    - both Arius and Athanasius agree Jesus is divine Son but issues come in with the eternal existence of Jesus ("begotten not born"!)
    - Gnostics say Jesus only appears or seems to exist physically, but he's here for the purpose of leading humans from the material world to spiritual salvation
    - Creeds affirm what is considered important and reject what is felt to be false -- they often reflect inner Christian debates

    The Christian "canon" as we know it was pretty much in place by the middle of the 4th century (after much gradual development), and helped to exclude certain views and other books not felt to be appropriate or authoritative (e.g. "Jewish Christian" and "Gnostic" gospels)

    Christian writers against "errant" Christian opponents ("heretics") are known already from the 2nd century (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus), especially in opposition to Christian "gnosticism"

    This brings us back into the period of "Christian Origins," to about the year 200.

    Some Frequently Asked Questions:

    How did we get our "Bible," and what is it?

    The process by which writings came to be viewed as authoritative is called "canonization." The New Testament canon is a collection of writings of various sorts ("scriptures") that became part of the Christian "Bible." It was not until the fourth century that we have evidence for some Christians (notably Athanasius of Alexandria, in his Paschal/Easter letter of 367)accepting as authoritative only the 27 books that now make up the New Testament. The process was affected by many aspects of Christian development, including political, and especially by inner-Christian religious conflicts.

    The technological development of the codex was what enabled the Bible to be conceptualized as a single book. In the time of Jesus and Paul, books were written on individual scrolls, which made it difficult to have a complete collection of works considered "scriptural" (e.g. the Jewish scriptures) or to think of them as some sort of unified "Bible."

    The scriptural collections ("Bible") of classical Judaism and of classical Christianity differ from each other mainly in terms of extent, with the material known as the "Apocrypha" or "Deutero-canonical writings" included in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, but not in the Jewish or the Christian Protestant Bibles. For details, see the chart.

    The Apocrypha include historical and wisdom literature, such as Esther and Daniel additions, Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, etc. Martin Luther's reasons for excluding the Apocrypha from the Protestant Bible involved his historical understanding of what constituted Jewish scriptures in early Christian times (assumed to be the same as among Jews in his own times!), but sometimes he also had "theological" reasons such as the Catholic use of 1 Maccabees to support the otherwise "unscriptural" (to Luther) id ea of purgatory.

    Which Bible translation should we use?

    As a rule, use at least two translations with different perspectives, if you don't know the language being translated. The KJV (or "AV" of1611)- RV (1881) / ASV (1901) - RSV (1952) - NRSV (1989) all attempt to be accurate but readable in public (as from a church podium/pulpit), and represent a Protestant Christian scholarly tradition. NIV is from Protestant Evangelical circles. New American is a Roman Catholic production, as is the "Jerusalem Bible." And there are lots of others! Reflecting various approaches.

    We noted one interesting difference between the RSV and NRSV translations: the NRSV is gender sensitive, meaning, if a Hebrew or Greek word normally translated "brother" occurs in a general "siblings" sense (implying male and female), the NRSV will often render it as "brother and sister."

    Did Jesus write anything that has survived?

    Tradition has preserved for us only one writing claiming to be by Jesus, and that writing is in a form of a letter (modern scholarship agrees that it is not authentic). King Abgar of Edessa (Syria) writes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal him from an illness, and Jesus writes back saying he is too busy but in due time would send one of his disciples to tend to Abgar's needs. After Jesus' death/resurrection, Judas Thomas and/or one of his followers (Addai) visits and heals the King, and Thomas goes further east to India, and is still claimed as the founder of Christian communities there.


    What is the "Trinity"?

    The "classical" Christian doctrine of the trinity is considered to be a "mystery," and thus defies complete understanding. Those Christians consider themselves to be monotheists (there is but one God; compare "gnostic" Christian "dualistic" ideas), but also revere Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as interrelated "persons" within that "tri-unity." But this development of the trinity idea came long after the time of the earliest Christians such as Paul, although references to each of the three "persons" (without the theoretical discussions about how they relate to each other) can be found in the early materials.

    What are "sacraments" and especially "transubstantiation"?

    In the classical (Roman Catholic) formulation of the Lord's Supper, when the priest blesses the bread or wafer, the "essence" of the substance is believed to change into the body of Christ ("transubstantiation"), while the incidental qualities ("accidents" in Aristotleian terms) remain those of bread/wafer. This sort of language, taken literally, has sometimes encouraged the accusation that Christians engage in cannibalism, even in the very early period with which this course deals.

    Some Important People around the latter part of the 2nd century

    By the end of the 2nd century we begin to get relatively more information on various individual Christian authors and their ideas.

    The works of these authors survived largely because they were all seen as part of the FILTERing process that led to classical Christianity. The main "heresiologists" (opponents of "heresy") among them were Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus (see also Justin, below).

    Irenaeus: originally from Asia minor; reported on the traditions he learned; became a Bishop at Lyon in southern France; wrote a 5 volume work against heresies (gnostics); wrote the first coherent preserved account of gnosticism from an opponents point of view.

    Clement of Alexandria: spent the last part of his life in Alex.; mentored by Pantaenus; may not be a reliable source for what Alexandrian Christianity was before he arrived because of influences from his non-Alexandrian background and from Pantaenus, who also came to Alexandria late in life.

    Origen of Alexandria: first Christian known to engage in any type of texual criticism of Jewish scriptures ("Hexapla"); developed the "allegorical" approach to interpretation.

    (Philo: Jewish Alexandrian writer; was a contemporary w/ Jesus and Paul; left many writings, influenced Clement Alex. and Origen.)

    Tertullian: contemporary of Clement Alex. & Irenaeus; lawyer; resided in Carthage (North Africa); joined the Montanist Christian group which emphasized eschatology; wrote against the Marcionites; became a major source for information regarding the Marcionites.

    Hippolytus: non-native of Rome; left lots of writings, including a major "Refutation of Heresies."

    Justin the Martyr: died in 165; 2 major writings survive:
    1. "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew"; Jewish/Christian polemics
    2. "Apology"; a defense of Christianity before Roman rulers
    Justin also mentions writing a work against Marcion, but this has not been preserved; native of Samaria, it is believed he was not Jewish or Samaritan since he claims to be "not circumcised," thus a "Gentile"; went to Ephesus; ends up as a teacher in Rome; taught the Christian apologist Tatian (from the Persian gulf area).

    Types of Early Christianity (overview)

    Heresy originally referred to a subgroup, as the subgroup of Pharisees within Judaism; but it then comes to refer to a false option.

    Jewish Christianity - attempt to maintain Jewish customs and identity while believing Jesus to be the expected Messiah ("Christ"). Jesus is designated Messiah for living exemplary life, or will be designated Messiah in the future (Justin says that it wasn't a problem to have Jewish Christians; a problem only arises when they insist on all Christians also becoming Jews.

    "Mainstream" - what becomes approved or commonly accepted, also known as Gentile Christianity, "orthodoxy," "classical" Christianity; "proto-orthodoxy" refers to the period prior to the 4th century, before Christianity became legal/official, before common practices and ideas ("theology") became standardized.

    Gnostic - "dualism" in which the ultimate and true God is different from the God of the physical/material world ("creator God"); Jesus comes to save the fragmented sparks of the spiritual world that have become "captive" in the physical world and in humans. "Docetism" is a form of gnosticism which emphasizes that Jesus only appeared to be human, but was not actually human. Jesus represents the ultimate God, not the creator, and thus does not have a real physical body (or some variation of this) -- it is declared heretical


    The Worlds of the Greco-Roman Period

    Note Ehrman's use of Apollonius of Tyana to catch your attention -- he wants the readers to think they know who the unnamed person is, then reveals that it is the little-known Apollonius, not Jesus!

    Map survey -- the geographical context of the course, 325 bce - 325 ce.

    Christianity spread from Palestine to part of the Mediterranean world (from Jerusalem counter-clockwise to Rome) via the missionary efforts of Paul. At some point it reached as far as Spain. It is not clear whether or not it reached as far as England by 180 ce.

    Tracing the journeys of Paul will highlight certain locations: Earliest preserved "Christian" materials = letters of Paul but what do we really know about Paul? what sources can we trust? was he really from Tarsus in Cilicia as the book of Acts claims? probably he was educated in Jerusalem, and when he comes to believe Jesus is the expected Jewish "Messiah" (not a "conversion"; he continued to be a Jew throughout his life) Paul goes around preaching the end-times message, from Jerusalem north and west through Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, to at least Rome (if not beyond to Spain and Britain).

    Constantinople (Byzantium, Istanbul) on the Black Sea to the north (and somewhat northwest) of Asia Minor -- not important at first, but is developed as "Constantine's city" in the early 300s ce and Constantine legitimitizes Christianity in that period (before that, Christianity was an "underground" movement, legally speaking).

    --the fact that Christianity was "underground" (not officially approved) for nearly 300 years makes it difficult to know in any detail how it developed and proliferated.

    --325 ce is the date of the first "ecumenical" (world wide) church council, held at Nicea, not too far from Constantinople; after that, Christianity would play an important role in the Roman western (Latin) and eastern (Greek) worlds, providing a new type of "unity" among other things (the conventional modern designation for the eastern Roman world with Constantinople at its center is "Byzantine").

    Paul reaches Corinth on the Greek penninsula -- he is the "founder" of "Christianity" there and visits the city several times, writing letters (how many?) to them as well.

    Paul writes a letter to the Roman Christians before visiting them --a very selfconcious letter, since he had never been there we don't know how far Paul reached, he intended to go to Spain, and some people think he may have reached Britain.

    Evidence shows that Christianity arrived early in Alexandria and Egypt. However, the source from which it arrived is unknown. The earliest attested form of Christianity in Alexandria was a heterodox "gnostic" type. Two major "mainstream" Christian writers in Alex. around the end of our period (200 ce) were Clement Alex. and Origen. This city became a major site for producion of Christian literature. Nag Hammadi is a site in Egypt where gnostic writings in the Coptic language (e.g. Sayings Gospel of Thomas) have been found in recent times (ca 1947).

    North Africa plays a role in Christian expansion, with vague refrences in the book of Acts, but by the end of the 2nd century we find Tertullian in the Carthage area as an influential teacher/author, although Tertullian himself became a "Montanist" Christian in his later life, which slightly tarnished his image.

    Parthia (Persian Gulf area) was never conquered by Rome, but enough roads/connections/commerce existed for people to move back and forth fairly easily; there are strong indications that Christians traveled these roads.

    Christianity also spreads to the east towards Persia and India, with "Doubting Thomas" (Judas the Twin) and his disciples (Thaddeus/Addai) as the key figures in the tradition. However, there is no reliable historical information for how this came about. This territory had been conquered by Alexander the Great and maintained some connections to the rest of the hellenistic world.


    Relevant Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean:

    The main language of the eastern Mediterranean was Greek. Rome did not impose its Latin language on annexed areas, but accepted Greek culture as already established.

    The earliest preserved Christian sources were written in Greek -- Latin comes into Christian use much later, in the western empire.

    In Palestine, semitic dialects survived along with Greek. The semitic language family includes Hebrew and Aramaic. Aramaic was the main language of the Persian empire, and continued under the Parthians. In Palestine, the main language of many Jews was Aramaic or Hebrew.

    In Egypt, Greek is the basic language of government, commerce, and literature, but the old Egyptian language survives in various forms (Heiroglyphics, Heiratic, Demotic), but especially in Coptic (using the Greek alphabet).

    Christianity spreads to India and even China in the east, but little detail is known about the early period.

    Chronology (see web materials under RelSt 002)

    The period from 300 BCE to 200 CE takes us FROM Alexander the Great (died 323) who united eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf ("Babylonia") areas in his empire, using the common language Greek. And we go past 135 CE, the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian who changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina and made it into a "hellenistic" city, to about 200 CE when the development of Orthodox or Rabbinic Judaism in Palestine and Babylonia is underway, and the development of "mainstream" Christianity as well.

    "Hellenistic" setting ("Hellenic" = Classical Greek world, Hellenistic = the Greek expansions and amalgamations under Alexander, etc.)

    Alexander the Great dies 323 bce as a young man in his 30s
    --dies intending to move capital to Persian Gulf area
    --came originally from Macedonia (northern Greece) (modern spinoff, small country has named itself Macedonia, causing much controversy since it is not exactly in that ancient location)

    The life of Alexander the Great (check the details for yourselves!):
    --wants to unite Greece, make it more unified under Greek culture
    --pushes Persia out and conquers Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt
    --armies go toward Indus Valley
    --no male heir - kingdom split among different generals after death

    Northern Area -- general Seleukos = Seleukid (Seleucid) Empire; Antioch becomes capital -- focal point in that area ("Syrian Empire," geographically, but Greek culturally)

    Southern Area -- general Ptolemy = Ptolemaic Empire, new city Alexandria founded, became one of the 4 main cities in Greco-Roman world, with its famous library and schools, and its importance as the main seaport for Egypt (exporting grain and honey, among other things). A "ship of Alexandria" was a special, fast ship.

    Ptolemaic and Seleukid empires (both Greek) have conflicts and each tries to secure Palestine as a sort of "buffer zone"

  • Seleukid -- very huge empire, tends to fracture
  • Ptolemaic -- more stable, much smaller
  • Parthia eats away at edges of Seleukid empire

    Antiochus IV -- newly captured city Jerusalem, wants to integrate it
    --special Jewish name Yave/Yabe for God, not Zeus
    --king decides to incorporate temple into more mainstream Greek culture
    --attempts to negotiate, only moderate success, so tries forceably to change temple into more acceptable hellenistic entity

    Maccabean revolt (house of Hasmon, thus also "Hasmonean") led by Judah, took arms, went to hill country, got more followers and eventually was successful (by about 165 ce); results in 100 years of Jewish rule from Jerusalem (165-63 bce). At about the same time, Parthians rebel and establish independent state --revolt not unique to Judaism in that area and political climate

    "Temple in Exile" founded in Heliopolis (Leontopolis) in Ptolemic empire; see Josephus -- main source for history of the Jews to about 100 ce. Elephantine temple (also Egypt) -- earlier than period we are discussing; found many Jewish papyri there, in Aramaic language (Semitic). There also was a Samaritan temple, on mount Gerizim north of Jerusalem

    Maccabean era of relative independence lasted for a century, 165-63 bce; area was annexed by General Pompey (a rival of Julius Cesear). Rome did not usually forceably conquer -- made treaties but had strong army to back them up! Jewish state incorporated into Roman empire (63 bce), and by about 25 bce Egypt (Cleopatra) also is swallowed up by Roman expansion.

    Herod the Great - A Jewish Ruler ("ethnic king"), under Rome's sponsorship, who gains power about the same time as Caersar (Octavian) Augustus (30 BCE) and dies in 4 BCE. He was a good king in that that he ran a tight ship and kept things together. But he was also ruthless when he felt threatened, and even killed one of his favorite wives and some of his children because he feared that they were going to rebel and try to take over the throne.

    After Herod's death in 4 BCE, his kingdom was split among his heirs, and one son, Archelaus ruled in Judea. By 6 CE there was a petition to get rid of him. Rome therefore sent a prefect, a Roman appointed by the Emperor, not a local or ethnic leader. PILATE - who was prefect from 26 to 36, is key piece of evidence for dating Jesus' death.

    Augustus (Octavian) marks the start of the Roman Empire (the end of the Republic) and brings peace to a very troubled world. He dies in 14 CE.

    Jewish 1st revolt against Rome (66 ce-73 ce; Vespasian and Titus oppose); Romans destroy Jewish Temple 70 ce, Leontopolis Temple is also deactivated. A special tax is levied on Jews in the Roman Empire, as reparations for the war.

    Jewish 2nd revolt (under Bar Kokhbah) against Rome (132-135 ce; Hadrian's rule); Jerusalem is renamed Aelia Capitolina and Jews are excluded from living there

    After the second revolt in 132, Judaism had centers in Palestine (under Rome) and in Babylon (under Parthia), as well as being scattered ("diaspora") throughout the rest of the hellenistic world. Palestinian Judaism was still part of the hellenistic wo rld.


    Greco-Roman Religions and Perspectives

    The goal of this class (as well as through our reading) was to become familiar with the major philosophies and influences of the time, such topics as Plato, Stoicism and Alexander the Great (died 323).

    We began by trying to define the term philosopher. We came up with a person who challenges normal views, someone with an education, the idea of contemplation was also associated with the word philosopher. The word philosopher came from two Greek roots: philo- (to love) and sophos (wisdom), so literally meaning "love of wisdom."

    Socrates was the reputed teacher of Plato -- Our pictures of Socrates have some similarities to the Jesus traditions: - both are known only through their followers (students) - for each, there are somewhat variant depictions (Socrates according to Xenophon, like Jesus in the synoptics; Socrates according to Plato, like Jesus in the Gospel of John)

    Plato (ca 380 bce) -- student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle:
    - metaphysical/ontological dualism (form or idea and matter) -- there is an absolute and ultimate world of ideas/forms, which shapes the transitory and illusory world of the senses.
    - Plato's pyramid of forms/ideas -- at the pinnacle are the most basic abstractions, with the idea of the GOOD at the top, then such ideas as beauty, truth, justice. These ideas/forms act on "raw matter" to produce the physical world of tables, trees, etc.
    - cave analogy: Big cave, thin opening. Captives in the cave cannot see the opening or the outside world, only shadows of it. If they get out, things will be blurred, but soon reality will become clear.
    - Plato's followers produced various branches such as the "Academy" in Athens (the most influential seat of "Platonism" in the Greco-Roman world) and the school of Aristotle.

    Aristotle (died 322 bce) -- student of Plato, teacher of Alexander the Great
    - not as influential as the Platonic Academy at the time
    - called the "Peripatetics" since Aristotle would walk around (peripatein) while teaching his students.
    - he was more of a realist than Plato, focus on formed matter
    - believed material world is eternal (no origin or end)
    - believed that dualism was a way of understanding the world
    - believed perfection cannot change: idea of "unmoved mover" that (logically) causes the heavenly bodies to move in circular orbits, etc.
    - became very influential in later middle ages (preserved through Islamic scholarship), and on developments in sciences

    Cynics (offshoot of Plato's followers): cynical of power, politics and law (Diogenes and his lantern)

    Zeno (around 300 bce):
    - founded school of "Stoicism" (Greek "stoa" means porch, where they met).
    - was the primary philosophical alternative to Platonism
    - Stoics were pantheists, believe God was the totality of reality
    - the primary forces are "nomos" (law) and "logos" (reason)
    - history moves in cycles, through destructions and reconstitutions
    - both Plato and Zeno tried to tell you how to live, they were similar in their value systems and ethical ideals

    Epicurus (2nd century bce):
    - philosophy -- concern for well being, don't worry about things that aren't within your grasp, but if you have it in your power to take care of something, do it, don't call upon the gods.

    Pythagoras (misty figure, pre-Socrates):
    - founded a brotherhood, met as groups
    - talked about nature of reality with numerical relations basic
    - known in geometry for "Pythagorean theorem" for right triangles

    Lastly, the "mystery religions" and "civic cult":
    - mystery religions abounded and emphasized obtaining priveleged knowledge, often also with a focus on fertility (human and otherwise)
    -- Isis and Osiris -- example of one of the mystery religions, from Egypt, with an elaborate "mythology"
    -- Dionysios and Ariadne -- popular Greek example
    -- Mithra -- Persian background, popular in the Roman army (men only!)
    -- Note that unlike Judaism and Christianity, Greco-Roman "mystery religions" were not usually exclusive -- one could belong to two or more at the same time.
    - At the same time, people were expected to reverence their leaders and heros, often considered manifestations of divine power; in the Roman Empire, such reverence for the emperor was standard practice, but it had much earlier roots in Greece and the ancient world in general.
    -- related to "civic religion" was the incorporation of predictive (divinatory) practices and methods into official government life, such as protection and consultation of the "Sibylline Oracles" by the Roman leaders. (A collection of "Sibylline Oracles" survived in later Christianity, possibly with Jewish roots, and may contain some fragments of the earlier materials.)

    Judaism in the Greco-Roman World

    The name "Judaism" derives from the ancestral name of the tribe or clan that traced its roots to the patriarch Judah -- thus "Judah-ism"; this tribe settled in the area in which Jerusalem is located, and the area was called "Judea." The famous kings David and Solomon (about 1000 bce) came from this tribe, and the dynasty that they established came to be called the kingdom of Judah or the "Southern Kingdom" (in contradistinction to the rival "Northern Kingdom" that broke away from Jerusalem rule around 930 bce and established its own center in Samaria, just north of Judea).

    The historical and legendary roots of both Judaism and its Samaritan rival lie in the stories of the ancient "patriarchs," Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob, whose twelve sons formed the backbone of the twelve tribe system in which Judah was included. Those stories are found in the biblical books of Genesis, with subsequent developments in the books of Joshua and Judges. The establishment of kingly rule under Saul and David and Solomon and their successors provides the theme for the books of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles in Jewish scriptures.

    The symbolic center of Judaism was the Temple in Jerusalem, planned by David and built by Solomon in the 10th century bce (much later, the Samaritans built their own rival Temple on Mount Gerizim). This Temple supported a large contingent of priests, who administered the various sacrifices and rituals. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed around 586 bce by king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Persian Gulf), resulting in the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Judeans. Later that same century, the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt under the auspices of the Persian Empire (king Cyrus and his successors), which had overthrown the Babylonians. This rebuilt Temple is usually called "the second Temple" and remained in use until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce. Today an impressive Muslim Mosque stands on the traditional site.

    Josephus (37 to after 100 CE): Jewish author who was an eyewitness to many of the topics he reports from the last part of the first century and who himself came from a Jerusalem Priestly family. His "Antiquities of the Jews" covers from creation of the world, Adam and Eve, until his own time. He was from Palestine but spent the last part of his life in Rome; his writing focuses on Judaism in Palestine, and tells us little about Judaism in places such as Rome and Asia Minor.

    Josephus gave us a list of Palestinian Jewish "sects" including Pharisees, Essenes, and more briefly Sadducees (with some disdain) and a "fourth philosophy" sometimes identified as "Zealots" (from a Greek word for "zeal"), which may also be associated with "Sicarii" (best translated as "terrorists," literal translation is "dagger carriers").

    Other known Jewish sub-groups from the period include "Therapeutae," which means healers or servants (not mentioned by Josephus, but by Philo, and located near Alexandria) and Palestinian Samaritans, whom Josephus viewed semi-negatively, treating them as opportunists, and said they only called themselves "Jews" when it was to their advantage -- they had a similar background to Jews, but they didn't revere the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, since they had their own Temple on Mount Gerizim.

    Also mentioned by other ancient sources are: Herodians, assumed to be supporters of the ruling Herod family (Herod the Great is identified as half Jewish, half Idumean, in some ancient sources, while another source claims he was from good Jewish stock from Babylon), "Hemerobaptists" -- a Greek name for people who do daily water purification rights ("hemero" means daily), and a few others.

    Professor Kraft pointed out that arguments from analogy must be made with care (e.g. "terrorism" then, compared to now), expressing concern about being cautious not to assume too much.

    Discussion of ancient calendars and dating; in early times, dating was based on accession dates of relevant rulers, not by a universal calendar, a situation that may have caused confusion at times. There were at least two different Jewish calendars in use in this period: the luni-solar, which survived to the present, and the strictly symmetrical solar (364 days, 4 quarters, 12 months, 52 weeks).

    The Main Palestinian Jewish Groups, in greater detail:


    Subset of tradition of ancient Israel, inhabiting Samaria which is north of Jerusalem. Samaria was the capital city of the northern kingdom (the northern remnant of the united kingdom which existed under King David and his son Solomon). The Samaritans do not identify themselves as "Judahites" (Jews) historically, but are very similar in traditions and practices (and may have been considered "Jewish" by the Romans). They differ from Judaism proper by locating their Temple on Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem/Zion. In terms of their eschatology, they believed that a Moses-type divine agent, the Taheb (Restorer), would return to the earth to set things straight. The Samaritans still exist, and accept the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) as authoritative, but also have a different sort of written tradition with more focus on Joshua.


    Various levels of priests were associated with the Jerusalem Temple (destroyed in 70 CE), performing various functions. Josephus was actually born into a priestly family, and tried out various options in Judaism, until he ultimately identified with the Pharisees in his public activities.

    -Main rival group to Pharisees; apparently the "elite."
    -"Sadducees" was probably derived from name "Zadok," a former high priest.
    -Josephus describes them as boorish.
    -Although Sadducees were closely associated with the Temple and its priesthood, not all priests were Sadducees!!!
    -They were much more conservative than other sects and focused on the first five books of Moses as authoritative "scriptures," while the Pharisees (and Essenes?) had a much more extensive collection.
    -Not interested in eschatology (Messiah, final judgement, cosmic eruptions, resurrection, etc.), unlike the Pharisees (and Essenes?).
    -Seem to disappear after the fall of the temple in 70 CE.
    -No sources written by Sadducees have survived; our information is based on accounts from people mostly critical of them.
    -Regarding beliefs about "immortality," the Pharisees taught that there was life after death in some sort of "reincarnation" (so Josephus) or resurrection, while Sadducees denied that sort of continuation; possibly Sadducees thought the "soul" or immaterial aspect of human existence lived on.

    -Origin of the name is not known, possibly from a Hebrew word for "separatists" (or could also refer to "Persian" influences).
    -Concerned with purity, separating themselves from the impure.
    -Josephus wrote a biographical defense of his status and conduct (his "Vita"), in answer to a rival author who criticized him; Josephus claims to have studied different Jewish options, then adopted the Pharisees approach -- it is not clear whether he actually joined the group.
    -Pharisees were critical of "Am HaAretz" (rustics, "people of the land") for not being sufficiently careful about the laws (especially purity laws) -- in classical Judaism, which follows a Pharisaic approach, the primary concern is with "orthopraxy," right conduct, in contrast to classical Christianity, with its focus on "orthodoxy," or right beliefs (to speak of "the Jewish faith" is a bit misleading insofar as "faith" is an especially Christian term that does not apply easily to Judaism).


    Several conjectures as to the origins of this name. Philo says that this term designates the groups' focus on being holy and pious (Greek "hosios"). Another theory is that "Essenes" comes from the Hebrew word "asah" which means "to do" -- and these were doers of the law in a devoted way. The Essenes were ascetics, and retreated from society and from procreation (with some possible exceptions). The Essenes are also often identified with the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a literary and pious people, unhappy with what they saw happening in the Temple of their time. They have roughly the same eschatology as the Pharisees, and according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, they believed that they were living in the end times.


    The Zealots were a group zealous for G-d, and consequently zealous in their political rebellion against the Romans. Their enemies could compare them to terrorists. The Sicarii may have been a subset of the zealots, and this word means dagger, for these were the "dagger people," engaging in terrorist practices (as described by Josephus).


    Philo explains that this Greek derived word means "healers" and/or "servants." These people could heal the soul with a message, and could heal the body with power. They were "servants" of God, and lived in an isolated area west of Alexandria. In Philo's description, the Therapeutae have much in common with Philo's Essenes.

    What is it that we need to know about Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? Its not a simple matter. For example, Josephus gives his slant on Judaism in Palestine while it is probable that most Jews lived outside of that area. As a result, we have a picture of Judaism in one particular area, but we don't have a picture of Judaism as a whole. Judaism outside of Palestine is called "the diaspora" (Greek for "scattering" or "dispersion"), referring to the spread of Judaism into other parts of the Mediterranean world, especially after the Babylonian conquest of Judea/Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE and the creation of the "hellenistic" world by the conquests of Alexander the great (died 323 BCE).

    An example of the difficulties in attempting to understand Judaism in the Greco-Roman world relates to excavations at the ancient town of Sardis in Asia Minor (western Turkey) Archaeological findings such as foundations, pots, decorations, etc. suggest that there was a strong Jewish presence in this town. But it is very difficult to determine the type of Judaism, or even when the large synagogue was active during the Greco-Roman period because there aren't any Jewish written records that self-interpret themselves. In other words because there is limited evidence describing the culture of this town it is very difficult to get a connected picture.

    Another reason scholars can't get a larger picture of Judaism is due to the varieties of Judaism in the ancient world. Even though most Jews had common traditions (e.g. Moses), and were for the most part monotheistic, many Jews had practices and/or beliefs that differed significantly from other Jewish groups.

    We also talked about what was involved in the rites of "sacrifice." Basically, a sacrifice was made by a priest and offered to the deity or deities. In an animal sacrifice, certain parts of the animal were burned as offerings to the deity, while other parts were given to the priests, and what was left could be eaten by the owner, or sold to others. Ancient temples functioned as sources for meat -- and also as depositories for money (banks).

    Josephus' picture of early Judaism in Palestine was mentioned again, in relation to the "recent" discoveries in the Judean desert (since about 1946/47).


    The class has so far discussed the general Greco-Roman world, and has moved to the more specific study of Judaism. Our focus as a class becomes more specific. World (Greco-Roman and Parthian) > Judaism > Palestine Israel Area > DSS (from the area of Qumran).

    The discovery of the DSS in Qumran. A map was presented in class depicting the location of Qumran, the ruins nearest to the discovery of the DSS caves. Qumran is noted as a difficult place to get to. About 1947, a young Arabic bedouin lad looking for his goat found a cave with big pottery containers in it. There were written leather scrolls in the pots. Some scrolls were sold through a dealer. This first cave ("cave one" or "1Q") produced 50 or 60 written texts. Overall, texts were found in eleven caves in the area. Designation of caves: "1Q-" first cave at Qumran, "4Q-" fourth cave at Qumran, and so forth. 1Q and 11Q preserved the largest sized fragments; 4Q gave us the most volume of writings, but the writings in 4Q are very fragmentary. Some people suggested that 4Q was a depositary for damaged manuscripts -- a geniza(h) [treasury or storehouse], or place for collection of damaged writings. Geniza(h)s were created because one couldn't just throw away a piece of scroll that contained sacred writing (especially the special name for God). Most scholars argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated between 200 BCE and 70 CE. Can we trust that the DSS are correctly dated? There are several checks on the dating of the DSS. Handwriting experts, archeological evidence, DNA, etc. all agree within reason.

    It was first believed that the DSS were written by the Essenes (known from Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, a Roman Encyclopedic writer and naval officer who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce), and that the Essenes lived in the area of Qumran. This may be too simple an identification.

    The DSS give us an idea of at least one Jewish community of that time. The DSS give lists of rules governing the community. They had a community apparently organized very similarly to what is described in the book of Acts in the Christian New Testament.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that there were dissentions and disagreements between various Jewish groups. A potential problem -- can we conclude that the DSS are representative of mainstream Judaism at the time, as some scholars argue? Others claim the authors represent a special type of Judaism. Professor Kraft emphasizes the importance of this question. Is the picture of Judaism presented typical? Can we extend this picture of Judaism of that time to other geographical areas? Or is this a unique group? Or something inbetween? If it is, where do we draw the line between typical and unique?

    The halakic (law) side of the DSS was not studied as much early on. Christian scholars were more active in the discovery and early analysis of the DSS (with some exceptions) and tended to focus on specifically Christian interests. In a general sense, Christianity has focused on "orthodoxy" (right opinion), or what one ought to believe, while Judaism tended to emphasize "orthopraxy" (right practice), or how one should conduct (religious) life.

    Scholars agree that the authors of the DSS were not the originators of the traditional scriptural texts found there. The scriptures were widespread at the time and the authors were influenced by the scriptures, as were other Jewish groups.

    "Eschatology" = the study of last things. The DSS give us further info on Jewish eschatological expectations. More details on angels, demons, and revelations from God. The authors of many of the DSS felt that they were living in the last days. They were thinking about the end. "The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness" is the title of one of the writings from 1Q. This writing gives us a very detailed description of the final war between good and evil forces. A demonic figure, Belial, has angels operating on his side. The Prince of Light/ Messiah/ Righteous Person is the leader of the forces against Belial. The lines between the angelic/demonic beings and the humans in this war are sometimes very thin. "Apocalyptic" (what is "revealed") includes traditions of what Enoch is allowed to see in the heavenly books. He comes back to earth and writes about such mysteries (some of which are eschatological).

    What else do the DSS contain? The texts we study often speak of Messiahs. The word Messiah has various connections. Messiah literally means anointed one, and can refer to an expected military or priestly leader. Note that in the New Testament "Epistle to the Hebrews" Jesus is pictured as a priest like Melchizedek (who is mentioned in one of the DSS as a special, "son of God" figure), and replaces the temple and its "cultus" (formal conduct in worship). The idea of religious "cult" also is very strong within many of the DSS texts.

    The language of the DSS: The DSS are mostly written in Hebrew (perhaps 75% or so). Most of the rest are in Aramaic. There are a handful of writings in Greek. None are written in Latin.

    In studying the DSS, use the word "bible" with caution. The idea of a defined canon of scriptures as it later was understood did not exist at the time of the DSS. The invention of the large-scale codex in the 3rd-4th centuries CE was a key development in establishing what became the traditional concept of biblical canon.

    Regarding recent scholarship on the DSS, Kraft explained that Strugnell had an alcohol problem, which loosened his tongue and contributed to his "fall" from directorship of the DSS project. Based on his studies and his personal theological viewpoint, Strugnell concluded that the Jews should have recognized Jesus as the messiah (this is the Christian "supercessionist" viewpoint). At the time that Strugnell made his remarks, many people were embarrassed and offended by the anti-Semitic statements. Strugnell was less suited to be the administrative head of the operation than Emanuel Tov, who took over as Strugnell's successor and has done an excellent job.

    There is no longer any "protection" of scrolls; anyone can read them. The question was raised as to why the scrolls weren't released sooner, even in the non-translated form. Kraft explained that there are standard procedures followed by almost every museum and library that were followed as well in the DSS case. Kraft went on to say that the internet (with its digitized images, etc.) is going to revolutionize the way that ancient artifacts are released to the public. Seventy or eighty years ago by international agreement, archeological finds became the property of the country in which they were found, which has sometimes restricted convenient access.

    The question was then raised about what the scrolls in fact tell us. Kraft's response was that right now we look at the scrolls to throw light on what we know about Judaism and what we don't. There are still many questions about where and when the DSS came from. They were most likely from the Essenes or a similar subgroup, who had a wider collection of authoritative writings than later became traditional (ie. the temple scroll, the war of the sons of light vs. the sons of darkness, etc.). All of these works are considered "parabiblical," which literally means: along side of the bible.

    About 20% of the DSS are what we think of as "bible" today. Other things in addition to the "parabiblical" include the "sectarian" rules of community living and commentaries (often with cryptic references such as "man of lies" and "teacher of righteousness"), hymns & prayers, astrological materials, and tefillin ("phylacteries").

    Then we discussed Qumran itself. It was perhaps a military fort at some time in its history, but some argue that it could have been a resort of sorts. The area was occupied at least three different times in antiquity, and could have been used for different purposes each time.

    A formal letter (4Q MMT) was discovered amidst the DSS in five or six different copies. The leader of the community that presumably preserved the DSS may have been the author of the letter. It was a friendly letter discussing certain halakhic practices and became a cornerstone of the hypothesis that the Sadducees were the authors of the DSS.

    The question was then asked as to how long people actually lived at Qumran. Kraft responded that we have no exact way of knowing. Furthermore, although it was originally thought that the scrolls were placed in the caves not long before the catastrophe of 70 CE, some scholars now argue that they may have been put there a century or more earlier. We also discussed the fact that cave 1 is a couple of miles north of cave 4 and the Qumran ruins.

    Regarding the "biblical" fragments in the DSS, when compared to the traditional Hebrew text, some DSS manuscripts of Exodus and Jeremiah are significantly different, as are some of the biblical Psalms. About 800 different copyists contributed to the physical writing of the scrolls. Perhaps when a new member was initiated into the community, the member was required to show ability to copy some of the texts.

    The question was then asked about whether women wrote any of the scrolls. Kraft responded that it was not very likely. Although some of the DSS mention women, the men apparently were the ones who operated everything.

    Someone asked if it was possible that the caves were used for depositing discarded writings (the "geniza" theory). Kraft responded that although it was possible, it was perhaps more likely that at least some of the caves were used as libraries or similar storage areas. Furthermore, there was a copper scroll/plaque found in cave 3 that would never have been thrown in the trash because of its sheer value. The copper plaque contains a description of where various treasures are hidden throughout the land. The copper plaque was written to be difficult to read, because it was a treasure map. Thus, it was written in a mixture of Greek in the Hebrew. We left our discussions of the Dead Sea Scrolls by learning that the scrolls written on leather could, if dampened, shrink and turn into a sort of jell, and the scrolls written on papyrus were attacked by bugs, causing the scrolls to be only a shade of what they once were.


    The Development of Traditions about Jesus

    After looking at various photographs of DSS and Septuagint scholars on Kraft's web site, we shifted our focus to Joshua/Jesus and the synoptic problem concerning the literary relationship between the first three gospels of the New Testament. The "new covenant" of Jewish expectation gave its name to the "New Testament" collection of early Christian writings. Christians believed that God had made a new covenant with people who will be obedient.

    [To Be Continued}