02.04 Differences Between First Century Roman-Greek And Jewish Worldviews

02.04 Differences Between First Century Roman-Greek And Jewish Worldviews

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Unit 02

Cultural Background Studies


Chapter 04

Differences Between First Century Roman-Greek

And Jewish Worldviews


02.04.00.A. SALOME’S EXOTIC DANCE by Armand Point (1860-1932). (2)

02.04.00.A. SALOME’S EXOTIC DANCE by Armand Point (1860-1932). Salome dances exotically before her step-father, Herod Antipas. Displays of entertainment as this were common among Greeks, Romans, and Hellenized Jews, but were revolting to orthodox Jews.

02.04.01 Introduction

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02.04.01 Introduction

As with any capital city in ancient times and today, Jerusalem was a melting pot of many cultures. This caused a degree of constant tension for those who were faithful to their Bible and the Hellenistic Jews.  Consequently, as stated previously, there were significant differences in worldviews between the European Roman-Greeks and the common Jewish people. The Romans accepted the Greek lifestyle and are often referred to as Roman-Greeks or Greco-Romans.  Modern students generally do not realize the vast degree of cultural and religious differences between these groups. Understanding these differences will not only bring insight to the Scriptures but will also bring interesting reflective insights into modern Western culture. In this chapter, the brief descriptions of ten opposing philosophical and theological positions presents a foundation of the opposing worldviews that people held.

An example of a basic cultural difference is this: If an American or European asks you what you believe, you will tell him.  However, if a first century Jew wanted to know what you believed, he would have followed you for a month and then told you.  Now who would have the greater degree of accuracy?  The answer is obvious. The first century Jew would have placed you in your cultural context. So likewise, our perspective in understanding the gospels needs to be focused on the context to perceive the full message.

Video Insert    >

02.04.01.V The Ethnic Diversities of Jerusalem. Dr. Petra Heldt discusses the ethnic diversities of Jerusalem — a melting pot city of many cultures. Introduction by Dr. Bill Heinrich. (10:25)


02.04.02 View of God

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02.04.02 View of God

The Romans simply accepted the Greek gods but changed the names. When a people group were defeated and brought into the empire, their gods were accepted by the Romans as a method of controlling the people. Pagan gods had all the sinful vices of humanity.  While Romans gods were looked upon for guidance and wisdom, the prevailing culture really looked upon the reasoning abilities of wise men to resolve problems. The Jews were persuaded by miracles, which were signs of the continuation of God in their midst, whereas the Greeks were persuaded by logic and reason (1 Cor. 1:22).  Hence, man is his own god. Emperors were frequently deemed as gods, not only among the Romans, but in many other cultures as well. Likewise, emperors were often worshiped, which is why, for example, Herod the Great built a temple in Samaria for the sole purpose that the Samaritans could worship the Roman Emperor.[1]

The Jews accepted only one God as the God of the universe.  It has been suggested that for this reason alone they may have suffered many centuries of persecution. Recognizing only one God, they therefore claimed that all other gods were in fact impersonators of the true God.  This most certainly would upset their neighbors.  The God of the Jews does not have the sinful vices of humanity, but rather, instructs humanity to be pure and holy as is He. In ancient history they were the only people who believed in a single deity, with the exception of one Egyptian pharaoh who also believed likewise – and he was hated by the local priesthood.

Finally, among the Greeks, the idea that a god might appear in human form was accepted in mythology.  So when they heard that Jesus was God, they could accept this fact easier than the Jews who had great difficulty with it. This belief, coupled with the expectation of a messianic figure, explains in part, as to why Christianity exploded in Gentile nations. Some scholars have suggested that the New Testament had to be written in Greek for these new believers.

[1]. See 03.05.21.I, the temple ruins of Emperor Augustus; Kelso, “Samaria, Territory of.” 5:240.


02.04.03 Significant Writings & Truth

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02.04.03 Significant Writings & Truth

The Romans found significance in the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers and poets, to whom truth was relative. This philosophy of thinking was revived in the 1960s by Anglican priest Joseph Fletcher with what is known as Situational Ethics.  His theory was that moral Christian principles can be occasionally set aside for the better good of any situation.[1]

To the Jews, the Scriptures were of ultimate significance because these were the inspired Word of God given to man to teach him how to live. To the Jews, truth was not relative, but was established by the decrees of God. All their decisions were based on Scripture and its interpretation (the Oral Law) and they believed they had to live in obedience to their Scripture.

However, the Greeks and Romans could not understand how God could direct men to live. To them, the gods had the same passions, vices, and problems experienced by humanity. Consequently, the worldview and related writings between the Jewish people and their Greek and Roman neighbors were vastly different.

[1]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situational_ethics Retrieved September 16, 2012.

02.04.04 Position of Mankind, View of Life

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02.04.04 Position of Mankind, View of Life

In all ancient cultures one was born into a class system or social order in which one was expected to live out his life.  To the Romans, abortion and infanticide was acceptable and elderly people were expected to end their lives peacefully so as not to burden families. On occasion a prominent figure would object to the lack of value of human life, but such individuals were rare. The prevailing Roman opinion was that human life was expendable, not sacred, and dedicated to the state.

The human body was admired and worshiped. For this reason, athletic events were performed in the nude and statues of gods and goddesses were likewise nude. Sex was not restricted to marriage, but was thought best to be unlimited. Pleasure and sensuality were considered goals to be achieved, which is why the Herodian dynasty was known for lavish and outrageous parties and celebrations. On the other hand, to insure ultimate punishment, when the Romans crucified anyone, he/she was completely nude.

To the Jews, all men were created equal and in the image of God. Therefore, human life was sacred.  Those Jews who lived in slavery did so for economic reasons, but with a limit of seven years.[1] Abortions and infanticide were strictly forbidden and elderly people were highly respected and admired for their wisdom.  In the early days of the Enlightenment, European artists painted biblical scenes of various personalities.  The fact that these artistic renderings were often either nude or scantily clothed is reflective of the Greco-Roman influence in the church, and not reflective of the Jewish roots of Christianity.[2]

A final point on the sacredness of the human body is this: modesty in dress was stressed and nudity strictly forbidden. For example, Jewish fishermen fishing at night on the Sea of Galilee would wear only a small loin cloth to permit freedom while working the nets even though there were no women in the area.  Sex was considered sacred and ordained to be only within marriage.

[1].  God hates slavery, but it was part of the human predicament, which is why He permitted slavery for a limited duration of seven years (Ex. 21:2 ff.; Deut. 15:12). In Amos 2:6 He brought judgment upon Israel for the enslavement of its own people. The way the Apostle Paul dealt with Philemon, demonstrates how God changed the slavery-based economy by changing the hearts of men.


[2]. The divine plan of salvation of the Old and New Testament was taught by the Hebrew prophets, as outlined in Appendix 9.


02.04.05 Individualism vs. Community

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02.04.05 Individualism vs. Community

At the time of Moses, the cultural system of families, clans and tribes was strong.  Some fifteen centuries later at the time of Christ this cultural characteristic was still strong among the Jews, but much weaker in some Gentile groups.  Among the Gentile family and clans, loyalty was becoming secondary to a national identity. Gentile prayers were almost always individualistic.

The Jews, however, did not see themselves as individualistic, but rather as part of a community of believers. Jewish prayers are nearly all prayed in the first person plural such as the well-known Lord’s Prayer.  This was underscored when Jesus prayed His prayer of unity in the church (cf. Jn. 17:21). The strong sense of community was enforced during the Babylonian exile, when the community center was established within the synagogue system.

02.04.06 Sabbath Day Observances

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02.04.06 Sabbath Day Observances[1]

It is almost impossible for anyone who has a Western mindset to fully comprehend the importance of the Sabbath (Gk. Sbbaton 4521)[2]  day and its regulations of first century Jewish life. The Sabbath day was ordained by God for His people to rest. But to rest was defined as ceasing from work activities so one could reconnect with God, family, and friends, and reflect upon the blessings of God in the past week.[3] Its origin is in Genesis 2:2, where God, when He finished creating the world and universe, rested on the seventh day.  The observance of the seventh day became one of the Ten Commandments. However, that day of rest is more than what the English term implies. The day is a day to worship, as sacrifices were to be made on that day (Num. 28:9-10). Therefore, it is more than just resting and doing nothing, but one is to be actively mindful of God. For that reason, other days of worship became known as Sabbaths. The following examples are a brief summary:

  1. Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:31)
  1. The Festival of Trumpets (Lev. 23:24)
  1. The Festival of Booths (Lev. 23:39)

In addition, in every seventh year the land was to rest and no crops were to be planted (Lev. 25). When the Jews honored the Sabbath, God blessed them.  However, in the course of time they failed to do so and were taken into captivity for 70 years (2 Chron. 36:21) so the land could rest (see 02.04.06).

By the first century, life had become extremely challenging for Bible-believing Jews. The Sabbath day became a significant identity that separated them from all other cultures. Observing it was probably the most important way they stood against the encroachment of Hellenism.  To understand the issues involved, it is necessary to first observe the Sabbath restrictions given by God to His prophets. There are several, beginning with four by Moses:

  1. Moses mentioned the following two together: plowing and reaping (Ex. 34:21)
  1. Starting a fire (Ex. 35:3)
  1. Gathering sticks of wood (Num. 15:32-36)
  1. Jeremiah said not to bear a burden on the Sabbath (Jer. 16:19-20)
  1. Amos prohibited business activities on the Sabbath (8:5) which was confirmed by Nehemiah (Neh. 10:32; 13:16-23)

While these six were identified, Jewish scholars emphasize that these were random examples of the general customary law which was expanded over time to meet the needs of the people in changing circumstances.[4] While the laws had a good intent, by the time of Jesus, the Sabbath restrictions were overwhelmingly burdensome. The Essenes recorded in their Damascus Document 28 Sabbath prohibitions[5] and the Pharisees identified 39 prohibited categories of work in the Oral Law.[6] These were beyond the understanding of the Gentiles.

The Romans and Greeks labored every day of the week. To them the concept of not working on one day in the week was considered laziness.[7] They could not comprehend why anyone would not work on a particular day of the week in order to worship a god they could not see. Therefore, observing the Sabbath Day was often a point of confrontation.[8]  This was especially true for Jews who were economic slaves of the Romans. Early Christians found themselves in the same predicament when they refused to work on the first day of the week.

Within the world of Pharisees, there were several schools of theology, of which the two most influential were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. The latter held it was unlawful to comfort the sick or visit the mourner on the Sabbath, but the School of Hillel permitted it. In the case of a violation, the school of Shammai demanded physical punishment whereas the Pharisees, as strict and legalistic as they were, offered a milder punishment that was often in the form of a monetary fine.[9] Those who confronted Jesus on healing on the Sabbath were most likely to be followers of Shammai, rather than Hillel.

The leading Pharisees were passionate about observing the strict Sabbath regulations because they believed that their forefathers failed to observe the Law, as stated below 2 Chronicles 36:21.  That resulted in the destruction of their temple by the Babylonians, and exile to Babylon. They based their opinion on the following prophetic words by Jeremiah and Nehemiah:

19 This is what the Lord said to me, “Go and stand at the People’s Gate, through which the kings of Judah enter and leave, as well as at all the gates of Jerusalem. 20 Announce to them: Hear the word of the Lord, kings of Judah, all Judah, and all the residents of Jerusalem who enter through these gates. 21 This is what the Lord says: Watch yourselves; do not pick up a load and bring it in through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. 22 You must not carry a load out of your houses on the Sabbath day or do any work, but you must consecrate the Sabbath day, just as I commanded your ancestors. 23 They wouldn’t listen or pay attention but became obstinate, not listening or accepting discipline.

24 “However, if you listen to Me, says the Lord, and do not bring loads through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day and consecrate the Sabbath day and do no work on it, 25 kings and princes will enter through the gates of this city. They will sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses with their officials, the men of Judah, and the residents of Jerusalem. This city will be inhabited forever. 26 Then people will come from the cities of Judah and from the area around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin and from the Judean foothills, from the hill country and from the Negev bringing burnt offerings and sacrifice, grain offerings and frankincense, and thank offerings to the house of the Lord. 27 If you do not listen to Me to consecrate the Sabbath day by not carrying a load while entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, I will set fire to its gates, and it will consume the citadels of Jerusalem and not be extinguished.”

Jeremiah 17:19-27


15 At that time I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath. They were also bringing in stores of grain and loading them on donkeys, along with wine, grapes, and figs. All kinds of goods were being brought to Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. So I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 The Tyrians living there were importing fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah in Jerusalem.

17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them: “What is this evil you are doing —profaning the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same, so that our God brought all this disaster on us and on this city? And now you are rekindling His anger against Israel by profaning the Sabbath!”

19 When shadows began to fall on the gates of Jerusalem just before the Sabbath, I gave orders that the gates be closed and not opened until after the Sabbath. I posted some of my men at the gates, so that no goods could enter during the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and those who sell all kinds of goods camped outside Jerusalem, 21 but I warned them, “Why are you camping in front of the wall? If you do it again, I’ll use force against you.” After that they did not come again on the Sabbath. 22 Then I instructed the Levites to purify themselves and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Nehemiah 13:15-22a


Because the Jewish people did not observe the Sabbaths as stated above, the Pharisees agreed with the writer of 2 Chronicles that their forefathers were sent out of the Holy Land so the land could enjoy its Sabbath rest.

This fulfilled the word of the Lord through Jeremiah and the land enjoyed its Sabbath rest all the days of the desolation until 70 years were fulfilled.

2 Chronicles 36:21


Nehemiah 13:15 clearly states that violation was conducting business on the Sabbath day in the same way as it was done on any other day.  Some four centuries later in the days of Jesus, the leaders of the Pharisees took this passage to the extreme legalism and argued that one could not carry a needle or walk with an artificial (wooden) leg on the Sabbath Day. Jesus totally disagreed with this.[10]

While a number of Jewish writings are quoted within this eBook that reflect the rigid Pharisaic Sabbath rules, this may be a good place to introduce chapter 50 of the book of Jubilee. It shows the opinions in the Inter-Testamental Period, namely 150 – 100 B.C.  The book reflects the strong attempt to return to Orthodox Judaism in light of the encroachment of Hellenism.  The more the values of the Greek culture permeated Jewish society, the more legalistic the Jewish leaders became. At no time in Jewish history were Sabbath regulations as severe as they were during the time of Jesus. The book of Jubilees is considered one of the most important authorities on Jewish customs and opinions at the time of Jesus, second only to the Mishnah.[11] Note the following:

6 And behold the commandment regarding the Sabbaths, I have written (them) down for thee and all the judgments of its laws.

7 Six days shalt thou labor, but on the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it ye shall do no manner of work, ye and your sons, and your men-servants and your maid-servants, and all your cattle and the sojourner also who is with you.

8 And the man that does any work on it shall die: whoever desecrates that day, whoever lies with (his) wife, or whoever says he will do something on it, that he will set out on a journey thereon in regard to any buying or selling: and whoever draws water thereon which he had not prepared for himself on the sixth day, and whoever takes up any burden to carry it out of his tent or out of his house shall die.

9 You shall do no work whatever on the Sabbath day save what you have prepared for yourselves on the sixth day, so as to eat, and drink, and rest, and keep Sabbath from all work on that day, and to bless the Lord your God, who has given you a day of festival and a holy day: and a day of the holy kingdom for all Israel is this day among their days for ever.

10 For great is the honor which the Lord has given to Israel that they should eat and drink and be satisfied on this festival day, and rest thereon from all labor which belongs to the labor of the children of men save burning frankincense and bringing oblations and sacrifices before the Lord for days and for Sabbaths.

11 This work alone shall be done on the Sabbath-days in the sanctuary of the Lord your God; that they may atone for Israel with sacrifice continually from day to day for a memorial well-pleasing before the Lord, and that He may receive them always from day to day according as thou hast been commanded.

12 And every man who does any work thereon, or goes a journey, or tills (his) farm, whether in his house or any other place, and whoever lights a fire, or rides on any beast, or travels by ship on the sea, and whoever strikes or kills anything, or slaughters a beast or a bird, or whoever catches an animal or a bird or a fish, or whoever fasts or makes war on the Sabbaths:

13 The man who does any of these things on the Sabbath shall die, so that the children of Israel shall observe the Sabbaths according to the commandments regarding the Sabbaths of the land, as it is written in the tablets, which He gave into my hands that I should write out for thee the laws of the seasons, and the seasons according to the division of their days.

Jubilees 50:6-13


Another example of the Jews not “working” on a holy day was when the Romans besieged Jerusalem in 63 B.C. After the Roman General Pompey captured Damascus,[12] he traveled south to capture all of Judaea in only three months – the time it took to walk from one end of the country to the other and back. With mechanical engines, namely stone-throwing catapults, and battering rams shipped in from Tyre, the Romans battered Jerusalem until victory was secured.[13]  Ironically, the Jews felt that since the attack occurred on the Day of Atonement which was a holy day, they should not fight as fighting was considered “working.” Consequently, Pompey’s army entered Jerusalem and slaughtered 12,000 men, women, and children.  It was the one day of the year Jews thought God would forgive them of their sins, and instead they became servants to a pagan master. Additional details on the complex Sabbath Day issues are given in the appropriate places within this eBook.

Finally, some scholars have suggested that the church has lost the definition of rest as it pertains to the Sabbath.  Often the term rest has only a modern definition while its biblical definition is forgotten and those who desire not to focus upon it claim it is legalism to do so.

While Jesus did say that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, that statement tends to open more questions than it answers. Some Messianic believers say that for six days God performed His work in the creation, and the seventh day is set aside for His superior creation (mankind) to focus attention on Him.[14] When one’s attention is focused on Christ Jesus, then the issue related to many potential activities becomes a moot point.

[1]. For further study of the Sabbath regulations that were a constant subject of discussion of Jesus and the leading Pharisees, see the two sections of the Mishnah, titled Shabbath and Erubin. See also Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, eds., “Sabbath.” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. 747-48.


[2]. Vine, “Sabbath.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:542.


[3]. Parry, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud. 60.


[4].  Sharvit. “The Sabbath of the Judean Desert Sect.” 43.

[5]. Dead Sea Scroll, Damascus Document. 6QD 10:15-16.


[6]. Mishnah, Shabbat. 7:2.


[7]. See the quotation by first century Roman historian, Tacticus, in “Jews” 02.01.13, concerning his opinion of the Jewish people.


[8]. During the Maccabean Revolt, since the Jews refused to fight on the Sabbath, the Greeks slaughtered more than a thousand men, women, and children. Thereafter they decided to defend themselves so as not to be removed from the face of the earth (1 Macc. 2:31-38).


[9]. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 2:106.


[10]. See also 02.02.18 “Oral Law” and 02.02.20 “Oral Tradition.”


[11]. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:560.


[12]. Damascus was the capital city of the region and the districts of Galilee, Perea, Samaria, and Judea were within its domain. It was also a busy commercial city and the hub of well-traveled caravan routes.


[13]. Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.2.

[14]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 199-202.  


02.04.07 Work and the Purpose of Education

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02.04.07 Work and the Purpose of Education

To the Greeks and Romans, the pursuit of study was to enter a “spiritual realm” and, therefore, escape the rigors of work.  The pagans believed the world was in two dimensions: spiritual and temporal.  The goal was to escape from the temporal world and live in the spiritual world.  Everything physical in the world was evil and to live in the spiritual world was the ultimate goal.  This is the essence of Gnosticism. In recent Western church history this philosophy was reflected in “sweet bye and bye” hymns, Negro spirituals, and other songs of escape.

The Romans believed work was evil, and was for those in the lower classes of society, namely slaves and the poor. Those in the lower classes saw that the purpose of an education was to acquire material things and become socially elevated. On the other hand, a scholar was one who pursued the spiritual life. Hence, “scholar” by definition meant “leisure.” Philosophers, priests (incl. theologians), etc., were the ideal spiritual class.  The Greeks studied to comprehend while the Jews studied to revere God.[1]  The Greco-Roman philosophy teaches that man is basically good, but has the potential for doing evil. Jewish thought is that man is by nature evil, but has the potential for making good decisions. To the Greeks and Romans, the highest level of education was philosophy, and logic, in the form of dialectic, was common to philosophy and rhetoric. “Learned people” knew how to argue philosophically and theologically.[2]

To the Jews there was only one subject of study: theology.  Mothers taught children Bible stories prior to entering the synagogue school at the age of five. The Scriptures were studied daily by all, as it was the only way by which one could learn what God required of humanity.  If one did not study, he had no opportunity to be obedient to God. It was the method of understanding and attaining the character of God.  Work was not seen as an evil endeavor, but a divine blessing.  To the Jew, all men were equal before God, an idea that was completely foreign to other religions.

Another unique feature of Judaism was that all men, including priests, were trained in an occupation, in the event they would be called upon to support themselves.  Work was admired and considered to be God-given.  The work ethic had no hierarchy, but was considered to be a blessing for all.

[1]. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian. 65.


[2]. Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages. 32, 128.


02.04.08 Views of Body, Soul, and Spirit

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02.04.08 Views of Body, Soul, and Spirit

This issue will no doubt be a challenge for some readers.  The concept in the culture of a three-part person as body, soul, and spirit is said to be of Greek origin.  This, however, is radically different from the New Testament teaching. The Greeks believed that the ultimate life was to live spiritually and that the body was evil.   This philosophy is reflected in Watchman Nee’s book Body, Soul, and Spirit wherein he states that we should essentially throw away the body and brain to love in the Spirit. The Greco-Roman concept of body, soul, and spirit is radically different from the New Testament concept.

The Jewish tradition of the Bible is that man is a single unity.  In the New Testament the body is the temple of God, but more importantly, body, soul, and spirit function together.  Jesus died for the salvation of the entire body, soul, and spirit. They are not divorced one from the other, but rather, three parts to a whole.

02.04.09 Understanding History and the Future

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02.04.09 Understanding History and the Future

The Greco-Romans saw history as being circular.  Therefore they could look to astrology and read their future by looking at the past. There was no change in humanity, no beginning or end, and according to the proverbial saying, “What goes around comes around.”  There was no meaning to life other than the proverbial “wine, women, and song.”

The Jews on the other hand, believed in linear time with a definite beginning of time and an end of the age. There was no repetition as might be seen in the cyclical patterns of the stars.  Therefore, whatever decisions one would make today would determine his destiny tomorrow or in the future.

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