Introduction to New Testament: The World of the New Testament
Five Distinct Geographical Divisions
Early Empire 31 BC – AD 117
Augustus 27 BC – AD 14
The year of four emperors (68-69)
Roman Provincial Administration
Palestine under the Roman Rule
Major Philosophies during the time of Christ
Major philosophies during the time of Christ were Platonism, Epicurianism, and Stoicism. Gnosticism also began taking shape in the first Christian century but did not reach full development until the second century. The New Testament world did not experience these philosophies in delineated or pure form. Often philosophical ideas from different points of view overlapped. The people of the first century usually encountered these philosophies in popular forms or mixed with each other.
Plato (427–347 B.C.) proposed two worlds, or dimensions, of reality. First is the world of change or becoming. This world, our world, is in constant flux; entities are born and then die. It is a world of the senses, and the senses cannot be trusted for the perception of reality. The second dimension is the world of forms or ideas, a world of perfect and changeless prototypes or patterns. This world is true and real. All realities in the world of change are imperfect, material copies of the changeless types or forms. Even expressions of concepts in this life have behind them perfect forms. Court cases, for instance which express justice, share in the perfect form of justice. Such court cases are copies in this material world of the perfect form in the immaterial world.
For Plato, the soul of a person was a spiritual, eternal, and immaterial entity that resided in a physical body. The soul existed before the body and also survived the body at death. As it resides in the body, the soul has the capacity to remember, although imperfectly, the world of forms. Generally, the Platonic tradition has depreciated the body and exalted the soul, holding that the soul is central to identity, intellect, and character.
The Platonic concept of soul permeated much of the philosophical thought of New Testament times and even modern-day thinking. In the Jewish-Christian view, however, a person does not have a soul; a person is a soul. The whole person is involved in a unity of personhood. Sometimes the New Testament speakers or writers view a person from different perspectives, but the whole person is still meant. At the beginning of her song of praise, Mary knew that she was to bear the Christ-child; she said, “My soul glorifies, the Lord / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47). Mary referred to herself as “soul” and “spirit.” As is true with some Hebrew poetry, the second line of her song, which contains the word “spirit,” means the same as the first line, which has the word “soul.” In both cases Mary referred to her whole self, not a compartment or an element of her body.
At times Christians adapted certain concepts and ideas of Platonism to convey the truth of the Christian message to their contemporaries. The writer of Hebrews, in order to give a more pointed witness to his readers, may have employed Platonic expression in the statement, “They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5). Of course, in the heavenly sanctuary there is one high priest forever, the exalted Lord, as the context of Hebrews 7–8 makes clear. Such terminology and concepts were a point of contact between Christians and the world around them through which they gave convincing witness to Jesus Christ.
Epicureanism, named after its founder, Epicurus (342–270 B.C.), contrasts with Platonism. Epicurus rejected Plato’s ideas about the senses. He believed that the senses should be trusted in determining reality. Epicurus taught that pleasure was the purpose and goal of a person. Reason should lead an individual to simple, natural, and necessary pleasures. Later Christians would find wisdom in the Epicurean Effort to seek wise virtues.
Epicurus held an interesting belief about the gods. Gods did exist and were national and temporal, but had minimal participation in human life. They concerned themselves primarily with their own pleasurable fulfillment. In other words, Epicurus allowed the existence of gods in his thought system, but they made no difference to human life. A human being, even the soul, consisted of atoms. Body and soul disintegrated at death, leaving no possibility for an afterlife. Many sophisticated people found Epicurus’ philosophy attractive amid the fantastic religious claims of that day, especially since the gods of many religious systems appeared implausible.
The name for Stoicism came from the place where the adherents met: a stoa, or porch, in Athens. Zeno of Cyprus (336–263 B.C.) was their founder. Stoics believed that divine reason pervaded the whole material world and that humanity’s goal should be to live in cooperation with that divine reason. The soul was the divine spark in a person’s body. The Stoics believed that when the divine spark, or soul, was in right relationship to the divine reason, a person could live above the circumstances of life in a steady, stable existence. Even today, a person who seems to be relatively unaffected by emotions, keeping equilibrium amid positive and negative circumstances, may be said to be “stoic.”
Stoics believed that living in harmony with their own natures and the nature around them determined their destiny. According to their thought, divine reason (logos) pervaded all things. To be in harmony with the divine reason, humans needed to accept their destinies in order to be set free from the destructive excesses of life. Also, embracing virtue, they believed, freed them from the passions that led to life’s destructive excesses. The divine reason which pervaded all things, made a unity of all things. People who were in harmony with divine reason were also one with each other, which meant that they were brothers and sisters.
With a strong moral emphasis and its attempt at unity of thought, Stoicism became a widely accepted philosophical approach to life. However, Christianity provided the superior and realistic unity with God in Jesus Christ. Also, Christianity challenged the unhealthy repression of emotion and the Stoics’ unhealthy belief that people’s lives were determined by natural law. Some first-century Christians admired the Stoic call for courage in the face of difficulty and suffering. Paul preached to those holding this philosophy as well, as is indicated in Acts 17:18.
Gnosticism is a modern term given to philosophic ideas present in the first century. These ideas became somewhat more systematized in the second century. The term arises from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” Adherents of this diverse philosophical approach put great emphasis upon knowledge and reason. Also, they had a dualistic world view which posited the spiritual and the material (or matter) in opposition to each other. The spiritual was good and the material was evil. On the other side stood evil, darkness, and manifestations of unrighteousness. To some adherents, an evil god, who belonged to a hierarchy of intermediary beings between the good god and creation, created the world. Since creation had an evil source, all matter inherently was evil.
Gnostic groups, therefore, rejected the belief that the creation of the world was a good act by a good and sovereign God. Furthermore, they rejected the humanity of Jesus since they believed that the word of God could not become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. After all, flesh was matter, and matter was evil.
Human beings also were of a dual nature in the Gnostic view. They were composed of matter; therefore, they were evil. Within the evil body was a divine spark, which was good, deposited in some who had been especially elected by the deity. The human body, evil as it was, imprisoned the divine spark. Since human beings could think and reason, however, the elect had a route of escape. Special knowledge and secret rituals could awaken the divine and enable the elect to overcome the evil deity who had created them. They then could live in relationship to the good god and be reunited with him at death. Not just any knowledge would do, however.
To some gnostic groups Jesus was the source of a revealed knowledge that came from outside the created order. They could then lay claim to a body of revelation that included but went beyond the witness and teachings of the apostles and traditional teachings of the church. “Christian” Gnostics convinced some Christians to follow their heretical teachings.
The Gospel of John, Colossians, 1 and 2 John, and 1 and 2 Timothy countered heretical teachings and beliefs influenced and sometimes dominated by proto-Gnostic ideas. Gnostic ideas became attractive to many who labeled themselves as Christians in the latter part of the first century and in the second century. The ideas were attractive in part because they enabled people to fit certain Christian beliefs into a complex of Greek philosophical ideas which dominated the scene at that time. Christian converts were in danger of being enticed away to such “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col. 2:8), so leaders such as Paul met the challenge head-on with sound teaching and preaching of the gospel.
Sometimes we think Christians had an easier time proclaiming the gospel of Christ in the first century than we do in our scientific, skeptical age. But on every hand were those, such as the Epicureans, who scoffed at the claims of Christianity. When Paul proclaimed the resurrection at Athens, for example, the Epicureans and others ridiculed him (Acts 17:18, 32).