Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | March 1, 2008

The Culture from which the Church emerges (Lesson 2: Part 1)

The Culture from which the Church emerges (Lesson 2: Part 1) 

We want to consider how the ancient church emerges from the apostolic period while confronting two primary cultures.  The Judaic culture and the Greco-Roman culture are the two worlds that Christianity emerges out of in the first century.  We will first be considering the Judaic world in this lesson, which initially had the most influence on the early church.  In the first century the Judaic world may be categorized as two distinct groups, Diaspora Judaism and Palestinian Judaism.  The significant differences between these two groups revolved around how accommodating it was to the surrounding culture.  The Diaspora by its very nature had to be accommodating to the surrounding culture, since they were essentially sojourners in a foreign land.  On the other hand, the Palestinian Jews had at least some within it with an orientation to be much less accommodating to the surrounding culture.  As a result, the Palestinian tended to maintain a much higher level of anticipation for the Messianic advent. 

This less accommodating nature manifested itself outwardly through the various rebellions that occurred in the ancient world.  In 162 BC Palestinian Jews led by Judas Maccabeus revolted against the Seleucid empire who were in the midst of a struggle for this region with the Ptolemaic empire.  This was a traumatic time for the Jews most evidently displayed in the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies.  This Seleucid leader placed an idol in the temple and performed a pagan sacrifice, which fueled the rebellion.  Although, the Jews were religiously incentivized to rebel against the Seleucid’s, they were unable to be successful alone.  In light of this knowledge they appealed to Rome for assistance in their rebellion against the Seleucid’s.  They recognized that this assistance would inevitably be a mistake, but it was a necessary request to defeat what they believed at the time to be a greater enemy. Rome was an ever growing empire and at the time seemed to be a distant power.  However, in 63 BC as Rome was in the process of expanding east, it seized the opportunity to gain control of the land of Palestine.  The Roman general Pompeii captured Palestine in the midst of a dispute over succession that was taking place amongst the Jews.  From this time on, Palestine became a province in the Roman empire, however they were given some measure of local autonomy to rule themselves.  Largely, this autonomy involved the ability for the Jews to observe the Mosaic laws and customs. 

Subsequently, Rome granted to Jews rights to follow their own laws and customs outside of the land of Palestine.  This included things such as paying the temple tax and permission not to worship the Roman God’s, which was imperative to pious Jews.  This was a remarkable sign of Roman toleration that was granted to Jewish people.  Rather than insist on an adversarial relationship with the Jews they granted them exemptions to foster a peaceful coexistence.  This was not beyond Roman interests, since the Jews were a significant minority in the ancient world comprising approximately 10% of the total population.   

Surprisingly, during this period Judaism was actively engaged in proselytizing pagans to their religion and were remarkably successful at this missionary endeavor.  Many Gentiles were drawn to Judaism for their Monotheism and their ordered moral life of Jews.  Consequently, this was a sign of the growing disappointment with polytheism and the moral degradation of the time.  The Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BC for converting too many people.  The Romans did not want to extend these special privileges to more people, since they were a drain on military and economic resources for the empire.   This success in missionary efforts by the Jews continued in a robust way into the early church era.  In 100AD legislation was passed to impose a ban on adult circumcision to further limit the amount of converts to Judaism.  We need to keep in mind that this was well into the early church period and helps us to understand that the church and the synagogue during this period were strong competitors.  Both were religions seeking to convert people to their views.  Thus, during the early part of our period we will be reviewing Judaism was a large and significant presence with special privileges extended to it.



  1. Largely, this autonomy involved the ability for the Jews to observe the Mosaic laws and customs

    Do you know how much of this autonomy extended to Judicial self-control? Why did the Jews bother to (need to?) submit Christ’s execution to Pilate’s (Roman) approval?

  2. Ferguson points out that judicial authority was secluded to Jerusalem only.

    I believe John 18:31 provides the answer to your second question. Jews had authority to judge according to the Mosaic law up to but not including the death penalty. Thus, the need for Roman approval.

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