The Early Outreach of Jesus Christ
Quarter 1, Lesson 8

Lesson Eight

A Complex Age

Among Christians, this was a past common view: the first century world was simple and uncomplicated. In this view, because the Jewish people were the primary people in the Old Testament, they were assumed to be "major players" in the first century world. According to this view, the complex transition confronting Christianity was the transition from Jewish law to the authority of Christ. Other transitions were comparatively "minor."

The Jewish people were not "major players" in the first century Roman world. In the New Testament, they were a conquered people who were part of the Roman empire. They lived under Roman rule. While they enjoyed large measures of independence in numerous internal matters, in some matters they were completely dependent on the rulings of local Roman authorities. Jewish people did not occupy all the territory of the Old Testament's united kingdom. The first century Jews in Palestine lived in Judea and Galilee. The majority refused to visit or travel in Samaria [formerly a part of the united kingdom's territory].

If we consider territory, Israel's most extensive Old Testament borders [in their united kingdom] were a little over one hundred miles north to south and a little over fifty miles [at the widest point] east to west. In Israel's most powerful ages, that nation dominated several small countries. However, Israel did not regard these countries' territory as their tribal territory. Many of our American states are larger than their Old Testament nation!

As noted in previous lessons, the Jewish religious situation was complex. The religious situation in the Mediterranean world of the Roman empire was more complex. We tend to lump this complexity together as "idolatry" and assume all non-Jewish religious systems were basically alike. That was not the case. As complex as the Jewish situation was, the Mediterranean world was more complex. That complexity produced enormous pressures on Christianity. The early church existed in a world filled with varied, competing religions. While these religions were commonly tolerant of each other, their views and emphases differed.

The following is given to illustrate the religious diversity in that world. There were state religions. These religions were impersonal, ritualistic, and political. There were Greek and Eastern mystery religions. These appealed to whose who wanted intimate contact with the gods. They focused on an intimate faith that satisfied personal cravings. Alexander the Great introduced forms of these religions to the Mediterranean world.

There was the popular cult of Serapis that originated from Egypt. Serapis was identified with the sun-god, was focused on nature, and offered protection. It was a religion that expected exclusive devotion to its god.

Those merely begin the list. There were the Greek and Roman deities, Egyptian deities, Phoenician deities, the cult of Atargis [Syrian in origin], the cult of Mitra, astrology, and gnosticism, each with a widespread presence. Add to these large numbers of local deities. Add yet again popular concepts of fate and magic.

Religiously, it was a complex world. [For an introduction to religions in the first century world, two beginning sources are Merrill C. Tenny's New Testament Times (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan) 1975, and Everett Ferguson's Second Edition: Backgrounds of Early Christianity (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan) 1993.

Idolatry exerted a significant pressure on Christians. Idol worshippers frequently regarded Christians to be atheists. In many religions in that world, a person could [and should] worship many gods. Only a few religions excluded other gods. Judaism was exclusive: a Jew worshipped one God and rejected all others. Christianity was also exclusive: Christians, too, worshipped one God and rejected all others. Commonly, forms of idolatry were not exclusive (see Acts 17:16-23).

Acts 17:22-33, Paul's speech to the Areopagus in Athens:

  1. What had Paul noticed (verse 23)? How did Paul use this to introduce his thoughts?

  2. List the things that Paul wanted them to consider about God (verses 24-26).

  3. What did God expect of people (verses 27, 28)?

  4. What should people not do (verse 29)?

  5. What did God do in the past (verse 30, 31)? What does God now expect? Why?

Romans 1:18-32, Paul's letter to Roman Christians living in the capitol city of the empire wherein many religions were practiced.

  1. What in verses 18-25 suggests to you that Paul, in these verses, wrote about the reactions of people who were not righteous Jews or Christians?

  2. What in verses 26-32 suggests to you that Paul spoke, in these verses, of the reactions of people who were not righteous Jews or Christians?

Reflect on some of the problems in the church located in Corinth (1 Corinthians): rejection of the idea that deity could be executed on a cross (1:18); the desire to substitute a "wisdom" emphasis for the emphasis on crucifixion (1:20-24); criteria for determining foolishness (1:13-14); sexual immorality (5); attitudes toward pagan courts (6:1-11); attitudes toward prostitution (6:12-20); worship practices and attire (7); and sacrifices to idols (8). These problems reflect concerns of converts who were not Jews. Corinth was a major port city on a major sailing route to Rome [a significant world market]. That world's religious influences passed through the ports located near Corinth.

Churches in much of the first century world existed in religiously complex environments, and that environment created stresses. The New Testament should be read and understood with that awareness.

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 1, Lesson 8

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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