23 May 2016: “The New Testament” a series of video Lectures by Prof Bart D. Ehrman. Lecture 2 ‘The Greco-Roman Context’ led by Hugh

The key point Ehrman makes in this lecture is that if the context is different the meaning of words change.  As an example “I love this course’ can be interpreted in the context of a golf course, a course of study, a meal course, a river course.  By emphasising the word ‘love’ it could also be heard as being cynical.

The period 300 BCE to 300 CE is known as the Greco-Roman period characterised by cults/paganism.  The area dominated by the Greek language for business, culture and learning was conquered by the Romans.  This was an agrarian economy, which looked for providence from many gods, controlled by Pax Romanu with a common language (Greek), coinage and a good road/communications network.

Characteristics of the pagan or cult society at that time were identified as:

  • Acceptance that there were were many gods – poly-theistic
  • It was accepted that all gods were valid, tolerated; there were gods acknowledged by the Roman state that had to be acknowledged through festivals; all others were a matter for the individual. [Not worshipping the state gods could be seen as insurrection.]
  • There was not a constant, daily devotion to one’s gods; religion was a matter of practice (sacrifice, prayers etc) not ethics.
  • Worship was through the practice of the cultic acts – largely sacrifices. The gods had to be appeased!
  • There was no belief in the afterlife; just day-to-day living was on the edge of survival so securing the favour of the gods was to ensure continued existence.
  • There was a hierarchy of gods from Zeus etc, down to ‘divine humans’ who were the result of a god and a human mother. Apollonius of Tyana was one with many parallels with the life story to Jesus. Stories of such ‘divine humans’ were not uncommon.  Note that we still have lower level gods today – eg saints such as St Christopher, Mary, etc.  In this sense at least, Christianity is not monotheistic.

Note that Judaism stood largely apart from these concepts of the pagan cults, apart from the practice of sacrifices.

Ian Harris