This and the next lecture are my favourite parts because it is my hunch that Christianity emerged as the result of the Hellenisation of the Jews, in the same manner as modern Hinduism arose as the result of the Westernisation of the Hindus. When one culture dominates over another and the dominant culture seeks to shape the dominated culture in its own image, and both of these are intellectually advanced then the result that arises from the clash between the forces of compliance and forces of resistance is always interesting.
In this post, we consider the situation from the perspective of the dominant party, the Greco-Romans, and in the next blog, from the perspective of the dominated party, the Jews.
The man who initiated the project of Hellenisation was Alexander the Great. Born in 356 BCE, he became ruler of the Greek empire after his father’s assassination in 336 BCE. He conquered Persia in 334 BCE and after his retreat from India died in 323 BCE. In order to stabilise his empire, he wanted to establish Greek cities and get the elites of the conquered world to adopt Greek language and culture. Bear in mind, Alexander was himself Macedonian and so Greek culture was as an adoption even for him as it was for the elites within his empire.
While there had been empires before, such as the Assyrian and Egyptians, all they sought from their subject people was tribute. This was the first empire to aim at the cultural transformation of its subject people, albeit only the elite, and seek a universalisation, a common culture and a common language. The language spoken in the Greek cities established in different parts of the empire is called Koine Greek and this is also the language of the NT.
A typical Greek city or polis consisted of a town with a city centre, surrounded by peasant villages. Greek education was called paideia which aimed at the formation of the young man by imparting to him intellectual, military and cultural skills (women were privately educated, if at all). This occurred at a gymnasium which was also a place where men gathered for discussions and games. Higher education was called ephebeia in which boys from 16 to 22 were trained to become citizens and warriors.
Athens had been a democracy and it had sought to spread democracy in the cities within the Athenian empire. Alexander did not promote democracy but certain political institutions such as the demos, which referred to the citizen body consisting of free adult males survived though with restricted voting rights. There was a boule, a council consisting of elder men, who would decide on issues and put it to vote before the demos. The body that actually voted on the issues was called ekklesia ‘assembly’ and the fact that this was used as the term for the Church in early Christianity raises the question of why a political institution was used in the sense of a religious organisation. Besides the ekklesia, the demos also met at the theatre, where at one time were staged the great Greek tragedies but from the Hellenic period was increasingly used as a platform to depict farces, naval battles, and so on. The hippodrome was the sports arena which came to be used in Roman times to host chariot races. Public baths and latrines were a major part of the civic infrastructure. This was the basic model of the ancient Greek city and it was transplanted in all the townships the Greeks built in the world conquered by Alexander. This Greek overlay which spread over this world and gave it a commonality over and above the local specificities is called Hellenisation.
Religious syncretism was a very important feature of the Hellenic world. The Greeks drew analogies between the local deities of the conquered peoples and their own. This led to an inter-mixing between religious traditions on the model that the various deities were different forms of the same essence. Following the custom of divine kingship in Persia, Alexander styled himself as a god as well. It was common in the ancient world for people to worship multiple gods and so if analogies could not be found then gods could simply be added to the pantheon. This was already in practice but what Alexander and his successors did was to self-consciously, by way of propaganda, use religious syncretism to bring order in their kingdoms. This strategy worked in most of the Hellenic world but it obviously failed when it came into confrontation with the Jews who responded to the polytheistic challenge in multifarious ways.
After Alexander’s death, the empire split between his four generals called Diadochi (‘successor’ cognate with Sanskrit दायाद). The Romans began to supplant Greek power from the second century BCE. They defeated the Greeks at Corinth in 144 BCE and conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE. However, they adopted the Greek system in the conquered lands and let it continue as before.
The major innovation that the Romans brought about was in strengthening the patron-client structure, what would be understood in India as the svamin-bhrtya relationship. The “familia” in Latin means not just the biological kin-group but a household that consisted of the patriarch or paterfamilias, his children, his kinfolk, his freedmen and his slaves. Freedmen were slaves who were freed for their masters and who continued to work for them as their clients. This was an important mode of social mobility in ancient Rome. The Roman legal system favoured the rich over the poor and so it was often in the interest of even free citizens to associate themselves as clients of a powerful patriarch. The early Christian churches modelled themselves on the Greek ekklesia and the Roman familia.
(Aside: The wife was officially included in her own father’s household rather than of the husband to maintain the balance of power between the elite families. I think this is very strategic because it would have kept these families integrated since every married woman in a family would have been like an extension of another family into itself. What would be interesting to note is how this relates to the practice of women being “given away” in marriage or kanya-dana “gift of the daughter” as it exists in Hindu custom. It all seems to relate to the problem of managing power between families and has nothing to do with women being regarded as chattel.)
In the first century BCE, the Roman senate was divided between two factions, the Optimates, who supported the wealthy and elite families, and the Populares, who supported the common people who were the free citizens but without a patron. Julius Caesar supported the Populares and set himself up as a patron or paterfamilias of those without a patron. For example, as he became more powerful as a Roman general winning battles in Gaul, the Roman Senate to check his power, transferred some of his legions to Syria. At the time of their departure he paid his soldiers an annual salary from his own pocket and thus bought their loyalty as their patron. Caesar gained power in Rome by his military strength and was assassinated by 44 BCE by a conservative group led by Brutus.
Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, defeated the alliance of Mark Antony, friend of Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and became the sole ruler of the empire in 27 BCE. He assumed the title Augustus though he refused to call himself king. He reconstituted the Senate and created propaganda that he was returning the Senate and the people their power back. He projected himself as paterfamilias for the whole people of the Roman Empire. He brought to an end a long period of civil wars and the peace that he ushered is called the Pax Romana. The Romans maintained peace by giving freedom to the local populations to practice their customs but when required they destroyed communities and forcibly moved populations. The Pax Romana was beneficial to the elite but oppressive to the poor. Taxes were collected by farming the process to unscrupulous tax collectors.
The Romans made travel easy by building roads and safer by ending piracy. This was a factor in the spread of Christianity. The Romans actually were very tolerant and patronising of local religions. Jews received certain privileges since the time of Julius Caesar, for their political help, such as observing the Sabbath or not serving in the army. They were permitted not to sacrifice to the emperor or the other gods. However, the Romans were intolerant of religious groups that were considered a source of political problem. The special status accorded to the Jews created problems in some parts of the Empire such as Alexandria in Egypt where the locals resented this fact.
The particular manner in which the Romans maintained their Empire, Greek in the East, Latin in the West, as the one world which had been first created by Alexander, was a critical factor in the rise and spread of Christianity.