Early Christians in the Greek World
MUCH of the world in which first-century Christians preached spoke Greek. The Scriptures they used to support the message about Jesus circulated in Greek. When writers were inspired to pen what later became the Christian Greek Scriptures, most of them wrote in Greek, using expressions and illustrations easily understood by people who lived in contact with Greek culture. Yet, neither Jesus nor his apostles nor any of the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures were Greeks. In fact, they were all Jews.—Romans 3:1, 2.
How did the Greek language attain such prominence in the spread of Christianity? How did first-century Christian writers and missionaries present their message so that it was palatable to Greek-speaking audiences? And why should this chapter of ancient history be of interest to us?
The Spread of Greek Culture
In the fourth century B.C.E., Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian Empire and set about conquering more of the world. In order to unify his diverse conquests, he and the kings who succeeded him encouraged “Hellenization,” that is, the adoption of the Greek language and way of life.
Even after Rome later subdued Greece and stripped it of all political authority, Greek culture continued to exert a strong influence on neighboring peoples. During the second and first centuries B.C.E., Roman aristocracy nurtured a passion for all things Greek—art, architecture, literature, and philosophy—moving the poet Horace to remark: “Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror.”
Under Roman rule, important cities throughout Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt flourished as centers of Greek culture. As a civilizing factor, Hellenism touched every aspect of life, from institutions of government and law to commerce, industry, and even fashion. Typically, in most Greek cities, there were the gymnasium, where young men trained, and the theater, where Greek dramas were staged.
“Into this stream of Hellenistic culture the Jews were also drawn, slowly and with reluctance, but irresistibly,” says historian Emil Schürer. At first, Jewish religious fervor resisted the threat of paganism that accompanied the influx of Greek thought, but eventually many areas of Jewish life were affected. After all, observes Schürer, “the small Jewish territory was surrounded on almost all sides by Hellenistic regions with which, for the sake of trade, it was obliged to be in constant contact.”
The Role of the Septuagint
As many of the Jews migrated and settled throughout the Mediterranean region, they found themselves living in cities of Hellenistic culture, where the language was Greek. Such settlers continued to practice their Jewish religion and would travel to Jerusalem for the annual Jewish festivals. In time, however, many of them lost their familiarity with the Hebrew language.* The need thus arose for a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek spoken by the masses. Jewish scholars, likely in Alexandria, Egypt—an important center of Hellenistic culture—undertook the task in about 280 B.C.E. The result was the Septuagint.
The Septuagint has been called epoch-making. It was the key that opened the treasures of the Hebrew Scriptures to Western civilization. Without it, knowledge of God’s dealings with Israel would have remained locked up in relatively unknown writings in a language that was no longer widely understood, able to do little to empower worldwide evangelization. As it was, the Septuagint provided the background, concepts, and language that made it possible to transmit knowledge of Jehovah God to people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Widespread familiarity made Greek unrivaled as a means of telling sacred truths to the world.
Proselytes and God-Fearers
By the second century B.C.E., the Jews had translated many of their works of literature into Greek and were composing new ones directly in that language. This played a significant role in bringing knowledge of Israel’s history and religion to the Gentile world. Historians report that during this period, many Gentiles “attached themselves more or less closely to Jewish communities, took part in the Jewish divine service and observed Jewish precepts sometimes more, sometimes less completely.”—The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ.
Some Gentiles progressed to the point of embracing Judaism, accepting circumcision, and becoming proselytes. Others embraced certain aspects of Judaism but held back from conversion. These were often referred to in Greek literature as “God-fearers.” Cornelius is called “a devout man and one fearing God.” The apostle Paul met many God-fearers associated with the Jews throughout Asia Minor and Greece. In Pisidian Antioch, for example, he addressed those assembled in the synagogue as “men, Israelites and you others that fear God.”—Acts 10:2; 13:16, 26; 17:4; 18:4.
So it was that when Jesus’ disciples began to preach the good news in Jewish communities beyond the borders of Judea, many who heard it were from an essentially Greek background. Such communities were veritable seedbeds of Christian expansion. When it became clear that God was offering the hope of salvation even to the Gentiles, the disciples realized that in God’s eyes, there was “neither Jew nor Greek.”—Galatians 3:28.
Preaching to the Greeks
Given the religious and moral standards of people of the nations, some early Jewish Christians were at first hesitant about opening the Christian congregation to Gentile converts. Hence, when it became evident that God was willing to accept Gentiles, the apostles and older men in Jerusalem made clear that such converts were required to abstain from blood, fornication, and idolatry. (Acts 15:29) This was essential for any who had followed the Greek way of life because Greco-Roman society was riddled with “disgraceful sexual appetites” and homosexuality. There was no place for such practices among Christians.—Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.
Of the first-century Christian missionaries preaching in the Greek world, no one was more prominent than the apostle Paul. To this day, travelers to Athens, Greece, can see at the foot of the Areopagus a bronze plaque commemorating Paul’s famous speech in that city. The account is recorded in chapter 17 of the Bible book of Acts. His opening words, “Men of Athens,” were standard for a Greek orator and surely put his audience—among them the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers—at ease. Instead of showing his irritation or criticizing his listeners’ faith, Paul sought their goodwill by acknowledging that they seemed to be very religious. He spoke of their altar “To an Unknown God” and established common ground by saying that this was the God he proposed to discuss.—Acts 17:16-23.
Paul reached his listeners by using concepts they could accept. The Stoics could agree with him that God is the Source of human life, that all men belong to the same race, that God is not far off from us, and that human life is dependent on God. Paul supported this last point by citing works of the Stoic poets Aratus (Phaenomena) and Cleanthes (Hymn to Zeus). The Epicureans too would find that they had much in common with Paul—God is alive and can be known. He is self-sufficient, requires nothing from men, and does not dwell in handmade temples.
Paul’s listeners were familiar with the terms he used. Indeed, according to one source, “the world (kosmos),” “progeny,” and “the Divine Being” were all expressions often used by Greek philosophers. (Acts 17:24-29) Not that Paul was willing to compromise the truth to win them over. On the contrary, his concluding remarks about resurrection and judgment clashed with their beliefs. Even so, he deftly adapted his message, in form and substance, to appeal to his philosophically-minded audience.
Many of Paul’s letters were addressed to congregations in Greek cities or Roman colonies that had been thoroughly Hellenized. These writings, in fluent and powerful Greek, made good use of ideas and examples common in Greek culture. Paul mentions the athletic games, the victor’s reward, the tutor that accompanied a boy to school, and many other images from Greek life. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Galatians 3:24, 25) While Paul was prepared to borrow terms from the Greek language, he forcefully rejected Greek morals and religious ideals.
Becoming All Things to People of All Sorts
The apostle Paul recognized that in order to share the good news with others, he had to “become all things to people of all sorts.” “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews,” he wrote, and to the Greeks he became as a Greek, in order to help them grasp God’s purposes. Paul, of course, was eminently qualified to do that, being a Jewish citizen of a Hellenized city. All Christians today have to do something similar.—1 Corinthians 9:20-23.
Today millions of people move from one land to another, from one culture to another. This poses a tremendous challenge for Christians, who endeavor to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom and to carry out Jesus’ command to “make disciples of people of all the nations.” (Matthew 24:14; 28:19) Time and again, they find that when people hear the good news in their mother tongue, their hearts are touched and they respond favorably.
For that reason, this magazine, The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom, is published every month in 169 languages, and its companion magazine, Awake!, in 81 languages. In addition, in order to speak about the good news to people who have moved into their neighborhood, many of Jehovah’s Witnesses put forth the effort to learn a new language—including such difficult ones as Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. The objective is the same today as it was in the first century. The apostle Paul put it well when he said: “I have become all things to people of all sorts, that I might by all means save some.”—1 Corinthians 9:22.