Ancient Greco-Roman Religions


CULT – The word derives from the Latin “cultus deorum” meaning ” to care for god”.  In ancient times,  all religions were known as cults because they were concerned with the worship and care of a god or gods.

PAGANISM – This term was used in ancient times to distinguish those religions with many gods (polytheism) from those with only one god (monotheism).

 Judaism of the 1st Century CE(1)

The most distinctive features of ancient Judaism in the Greco-Roman world were:

It Became Monotheistic:

A.  Jews believed that God had made a covenant with their ancestors to protect and honor them so long as they agreed to worship Him and behave as He had instructed them to under the law.

B.  The Law of Moses represented the obligation of the Jews to God as governed by the covenant

C. They had distinctive places of worship.  The Temple in Jerusalem was the one and only Temple and the only place where animal sacrifices could be offered to God. Where Jews were located far away from the Temple Synagogues (from the Greek term meaning “gathering together”) were used for worship and required a quorum of ten adult men present in order to conduct a service.  No sacrifices were performed in the Synagogues.

Early Judaism was not Monolithic

Jews in the first century had different beliefs and practices which fell generally into one of the four following classes:

A. Pharisees – Jews who stressed strict adherence to God’s laws, as reveled in the Torah, and who devised oral laws to interpret how to apply the law to the vagaries of daily living.  This oral traditions later developed into the Mishnah the heart of the Talmud.

B. Sadducees – the upper class Jewish aristocracy who served as the liaison with the ruling power. Their religious outlook stressed the Temple and the need to perform animal sacrifices to God as prescribed by the law.  The Sadducees did not subscribe to the oral law.

C. Essenes – Consisted of a group of highly religious Jews who believed that the rest of the people of Israel had fallen away from God and therefore were now impure.  They remained in segregated communities to retain their purity expecting that the end of days was near when God would bring the bring and end to the world and defeat the forces of evil.  Qumran was an Essene community and the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947.

D. Fourth Philosophy (Zealots) – A collection of Jewish groups who believed that God had given them the land ofIsrael and that it should be taken back by force from those who currently ruled it.  This group would in 66 BCE lead the 3 year revolt against the Romans that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple . This was a milestone event in the history of Christianity.  It was at this point that Christian-Jews made the a historic decision to distinguish themselves apart from the Jewish community at large by forming a new religious identity called simply “Christians”.

Tenets of Hellenistic Apocalypticism

Alexander the Great, having conquered most of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, exported Greek culture (Hellenism) to all of his new kingdom.  Hellenistic Apocalypticism was an important Greek philosophy that had the following characteristics:

A. Dualism – both good and evil exist

B. Pessimistic – no chance of improving life in this world

C.  Day of Judgment – God will come and correct the injustice in the world and punish the persecutors.

D. Timing – Day of Judgment and end of the world is imminent.

Hellenistic Apocalypticism made it clear to the Jews why the Diaspora happened and further explained their plight in Babylonian exile.  As a consequence, it forever changed the face of Judaism and planted the seeds of Christianity to come.  Christianity would not have emerged without Hellenistic Apocalypticism and the consequence of the Diaspora.

Nature of Greco-Roman Gods

Hellenistic Paganism had a powerful influence on the Jews of the Diaspora as they redefined Judaism in the face of their exile. Christianity is a direct consequence of the syncretism that resulted from influence that Hellenism had upon Judaism. To understand the origin of many of Christianity’s philosophies it is therefore important to understand which Hellenistic philosophies had the most influence on Judaism. For example, it is not hard to see how the Hellenistic demigods became a model for the story of the Immaculate Conception and the birth of Jesus. There were, for example, stories of divine men who were miraculously born, who could perform divine miracles as healing the sick and raising the dead, who delivered divine teachings to their followers and who at the end of their lives ascended into heaven to live among the gods forever. Does this sound like the story of Jesus? In this case it’s not; it is, instead, the story of Apollonius of Tyana and similar stories were not unique among the people of the Greco-Roman world. Such stories made perfect sense to these people but today they are to us completely unique. In fact, the selling of Christianity relies, in part, on the expectation that its followers will see the story of Jesus as unique in history. But now we know that it is not.

It is important to note that in the days of the Greco-Roman world the people did not find such stories unique. Every demigod would have had similar stories told about him. Today’s Christian, on the other hand, wants to believe in the uniqueness of the story of Jesus in order to validate a belief in Jesus’ divinity and that he was without rival.

William T. Benson
September 9, 2003


(1) Source: “New Testament” by Bart Ehrman – The Teaching Company Lectures