Every Sabbath Paul reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.Acts 18:4
If you wanted something to be widely understood in the 1st century, the Greek language was your best option. This is why the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, and why the sign affixed to Jesus’ cross was written in three languages: Hebrew, the local language; Latin, the official language of Rome; and Greek, the “common denominator” of the Roman Empire.
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
The ubiquity of the Greek language in Jesus’ day is one of the enduring legacies of Alexander the Great, whose military exploits established Greece as the dominant power from Egypt to India before his death in 323BC. Over the centuries that followed, Alexander’s successors endeavored to build an empire that was united by a common culture, language, and religion. In short, the Greeks didn’t merely want more subjects, they wanted their subjects to become Greeks.
Not surprisingly, Greek religious beliefs were particularly offensive to the Jews and they fiercely resisted assimilation. This led to periods of intense persecution from their Greek overlords, but rather than defeating them it galvanized the Jewish people as they struggled all the more to maintain their heritage and their national identity. And thanks in large part to the Pharisees, a relatively obscure group that emerged as the preeminent defenders of historic Judaism, they succeeded.
Jewish resistance notwithstanding, the Greeks were so effective in transforming the mindset of the ancient world that the authors of the New Testament consistently referred to people as either “Jews” or “Greeks.” Paul in particular characterizes his ministry exclusively in terms of “Jews and Greeks,” even though his journeys throughout the Roman empire brought him into contact with numerous peoples and nationalities. Hence the distinction between “Jews” and “Greeks” was not a reference to ethnicity or geography, it was a tacit acknowledgement of the extent to which Greek ideology had changed the world. Because even though Rome had subjugated the nation of Greece by the time of Christ, Greek influence remained.
The New Gentiles
Throughout the Old Testament, Israel and the nations they came into contact with had a theistic understanding of the world around them. Generally speaking, this meant that one or more “gods” were in charge and these various deities expected human beings to worship and obey them. Thus one of the primary differences between nations came down to which god (or gods) each nation chose to worship; moreover, wars between nations essentially became proxies for which nation served the mightier god. Regardless of where each nation placed its bets, though, they all started from a similar perspective: there is a divine power at work, and we will be rewarded for faithfully serving it.
This worldview sets the stage for the central theme of the Old Testament, namely Israel’s claim to worship the one true God. They professed to be His chosen people, such that they alone were the recipients of God’s revelation, His promises, and His favor. All other deities were false and not worthy of worship, which in turn meant that all people of non-Jewish descent – collectively referred to as Gentiles – were separated from God and stood condemned before Him by definition. The disconnect between “Jew” and “Gentile” was analogous to how we think of “saved” and “unsaved” today, and although this did not mean that only ethnic Jews could be “saved,” from the standpoint of the Old Testament salvation could only be found by renouncing the worship of false gods and embracing the God of Judaism.
In similar fashion, the New Testament juxtaposition of “Jews” and “Greeks” parallels the Old Testament dichotomy between “Jews” and “Gentiles.” For just as Israel had struggled to maintain its identity by preventing the adoption of “Gentile” beliefs and practices, so too had Israel fought under Greek rule to preserve the essence of what it meant to be Jewish. Hence it’s not surprising that Paul uses the terms “Greeks” and “Gentiles” interchangeably:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 1:22-24
In spite of the vast disparity between “Jews” and “Greeks,” however, they nonetheless share a common bond that didn’t exist between “Jews” and “Gentiles.” Because according to the authors of the New Testament, “Jews” and “Greeks” are now faced with the same dilemma: they both stand condemned before God. Any prior spiritual distinction along the lines of “Jew” versus “Gentile” has therefore become irrelevant because of what God has done in Jesus, and all people are now called to embrace a new mindset that has Christ at its center.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Therefore remember that previously you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision” which is performed in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the people of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who previously were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…
And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
For the “Jew,” the appeal was to embrace Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of their Scriptures that foretold of the coming Son of David. Israel’s entire history had been building to this point, and the “Good News” was that the long-awaited King had finally arrived! The invitation was thus to take the final step in becoming a “true Jew,” to enter into the promised Kingdom of God by embracing Jesus Christ as Lord:
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.
Persuading Jews of the need for this step was no easy task, for not only was the proclamation of a crucified King completely at odds with the expectations of almost all Jews (including the apostles!) but by virtue of accepting Christ all of the rituals and customs that had set them apart for centuries – things they had literally fought wars to preserve – were no longer necessary. They felt as if they were forfeiting their identities as Jews, and to a certain extent they were right.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17
So while accepting Jesus may have been the last step in becoming a “true Jew,” it also meant walking away from family, community, and security. It was a giant step fraught with risk and uncertainty, and yet as daunting a proposition as the Gospel was for “Jews” to accept, in many respects it paled in comparison to convincing “Greeks.” For even though Jesus was a “stumbling block” to the Jews, at least they were on the right path to begin with; “Greeks,” on the other hand, had to completely change their way of thinking.
The Rise of Rationalism
At the heart of virtually every philosophical debate lies the age-old question: why are we here? Indeed, why is there something rather than nothing at all? From a Jewish perspective, the answer comes down to the existence of God and His sovereign act of creation. It is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Judaism, that an eternal, omnipotent God spoke the universe into existence ex nihilo…literally “from nothing.” Greek cosmology, on the other hand, is based upon the premise that the matter of the universe is itself eternal and uncreated.
As we know from Greek mythology, though, their naturalistic assumption of an eternal universe did not preclude the existence of divine beings. On the contrary, Greeks believed that the world was governed by the actions of gods like Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, and that placating them was the best way to both earn their favor and avoid their wrath. So like the Jews, Greeks too were theists…at least initially. For about the time that the Old Testament was coming to a close, a revolution was gaining momentum in the nation of Greece. It was a philosophical upheaval that changed the way that Greeks thought about the world, set into motion by those who began to question the role and the relevance of the gods.
This break from theism had profound ramifications on Greek culture and society, as men like Parmenides, Heraclitus, and a host of others began proposing alternative paradigms of the natural world that did not rely upon the capricious and often amoral behavior of the gods for explanation. They stopped looking “up” for answers and focused on looking “around” instead, rejecting supernatural causes in favor of naturalistic propositions that allegedly offered more predictable and objective models of reality.
To be clear, it’s not that the Greek quest for truth was something novel or innovative, but rather their frame of reference. For instead of relying upon Divine revelation and activity to help them understand reality and guide their lives, which was how both Greeks and Jews understood wisdom from a theistic perspective, the Greek philosophers endeavored to discern transcendent, absolute truth by observing the world around them and speculating on how it worked. They essentially rejected a “top down” view of wisdom and truth in favor of a “bottom up” paradigm, and as a result all manner of new theories emerged about the true nature of reality. The era of the philosopher had begun.
Figure 4 – Theistic versus Naturalistic views of Truth
Interestingly, the one thing that both Jews and Greeks would agree upon is that our ability to fully comprehend truth is inherently limited. That being said, whereas Jews believe that any limitations are a function of what God chooses to reveal versus what He has kept hidden, Greeks would argue that we are limited primarily by our ability to obtain knowledge.
So what does this mean from a practical perspective? For Jews, you grow in wisdom by embracing Divinely revealed precepts by which we are supposed to order our lives; Greek philosophers contend that truth can be ascertained through a process of observation and speculation. Moreover, while Jews are admonished to diligently apply their minds and intellects to the truths that God has revealed, they believe that gaining wisdom is ultimately a spiritual discipline; Greeks, on the other hand, rejected revelation and proclaimed that our minds are the pathway to discovering truth.
Figure 5 – Revelation versus Rationalism
In light of the Greek emphasis upon logic and reason, it might be tempting to conclude that the spiritual dimension of the Jewish worldview renders it somehow “irrational” or “unintellectual” by definition. This is a false dichotomy, though, since theism doesn’t preclude reason, it just starts from a different source. The “Jew” searches for transcendent truth by turning to the One who transcends the world, while the “Greeks” believe they can apprehend timeless, absolute truth by piecing together clues from the temporal, changing world in which we live. Tell me again who’s inherently irrational???
Indeed, the commandment to love God with our minds makes little sense apart from intellect and rational thought, hence the application of logic and reason is not somehow antithetical to theism – in fact just the opposite. The crucial difference between “Jew” and “Greek” is therefore not that one is “religious” while the other is “intellectual,” rather, the primary differentiator is the source of the precepts upon which their respective philosophies are built.
Again, the point is that “Jews” believe you increase in wisdom primarily by deepening your relationship with God as opposed to simply thinking more or thinking clearer. Moreover, just because the “Greek” approach is conspicuously “rational” does not guarantee that it yields superior or even correct results. For as we have already seen, it is possible to come to very wrong conclusions through the application of faulty reasoning (e.g. the sidewalk is wet so it must have just rained) as well as the acceptance of invalid premises to begin with (e.g. John must love sports because he is a man).
Finally, it is worth noting that Israel’s claim of superiority vis-à-vis their “Gentile” neighbors in the Old Testament was not based upon an assertion that they ascribed to a better worldview – since all nations had theological underpinnings – but that they knew and worshipped the one true God. This is an astonishing claim in and of itself, yet even when confronted with philosophies which proclaimed that the key to wisdom had very little to do with any Deity – Jewish or otherwise – their declaration remained the same. They maintained that wisdom is not merely a function of getting more knowledge, formulating better arguments, and making the correct deductions; rather, truth and wisdom only come from knowing the one true God.
Thus the most egregious disconnect between “Jews” and “Greeks” involves human ability to both apprehend and rely upon absolute truth. “Jews” believe that God is the source of everything, including truth, while “Greeks” perceive truth – including the truth about “god” – as something that is up for debate. Put differently, whereas “Jews” believe that God defines us and gives us purpose, “Greeks” define “god” to the extent that he serves our purpose. Given this unbridgeable gulf, is it any wonder that Pontius Pilate responded as he did to Jesus?
Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”
For as all “Greeks” had come to believe, there was only one answer to Pilate’s question: “It depends...”
New Choices, Old Problem
In spite of the fact that the New Testament speaks in terms of “Jews” and “Greeks,” it would be a mistake to conclude that this implied consensus within either worldview. The Gospels clearly depict the animosity between the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees, and even within the Pharisees there were competing factions that were constantly squabbling and vying for supremacy. In similar fashion, several “Greek” schools of thought had become entrenched by the first century, particularly the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.
So while the mindsets of both “Jews” and “Greeks” were far from uniform, when compared to “Greeks” at least “Jews” were in general agreement about those things that were indeed true. After all, since truth came from God there was no point in trying to refute it. Hence the main point of contention amongst “Jews” was how to properly interpret and apply God’s revealed Law to everyday life: in the areas of worship, business, family, and even politics. “Greeks” were likewise concerned about the practical aspects of truth, but they had an even deeper problem to wrestle with. Because unlike “Jews,” they couldn’t agree on what was true in the first place.
This conundrum was nothing new, for having come from a polytheistic background, “Greeks” were somewhat accustomed to receiving conflicting guidance from different gods. Since the gods were constantly scheming against each other and each had their own agendas, there was simply no such thing as authoritative “truth” like there was with the Jews. Did you believe Zeus or Poseidon? Apollo or Athena?
Whatever was “true” in any given situation thus ultimately came down to the choice of the individual and which deity they decided to bet on. This inability to define objective truth was perhaps the main frustration that prompted the earliest philosophers to look for other answers in the first place; yet even as the Greek thinkers progressively pushed the gods to the sidelines, the average person was faced with the same problem. They simply had new names to choose from: Socrates or Pythagoras? Plato or Aristotle?
Ironically, the rejection of theism did nothing to simplify or otherwise clarify the answers to the ultimate questions of life. For since the philosophers were no more able to prove their theories than theists were able to prove the existence of gods, the question of whether Plato, Aristotle, or anyone else was correct ultimately came down to how well their ideas withstood logical scrutiny and investigation. Plausibility was consequently the highest status that any particular philosophy could hope to claim, thus spurring endless debate about whose ideas were indeed superior.
For that reason, we now prepare to call our first witnesses: the philosophers. This may seem like an unnecessary detour, but there is really no other way to understand the impact of “Greeks” upon the ancient world without wading into some deep waters. Because as new “Greek” believers tried to reconcile their prior belief systems with Christian doctrine, every attempt to synthesize them inevitably compromised or contradicted an essential aspect of Christianity. This is not terribly surprising, since the entire Greek worldview starts from the naturalistic assumption of an eternal, uncreated universe; and yet, this fundamental disconnect didn’t prevent the early converts from trying to apply the conclusions and ideas of the philosophers to their understanding of Christianity.
We certainly won’t try to depose them all, and neither will we attempt to explore every nook and cranny of their ideologies. Indeed, a thorough treatment of Greek philosophy is beyond the scope of this book, but it is vital nonetheless to have a basic grasp of some of the formative ideas which shaped the mindset encountered by the early church as it spread across the Roman Empire.