Definition.

The Greco-Roman context of the Bible refers to the temporal period when the Greeks, followed by the Romans, were the dominant powers in the ancient Mediterranean world. By convention, this period begins with the victory of Alexander the Great (356–323) over the Persians at Gaugamela (in modern Iraq) in 331 B.C.E. and ends with Constantine the Great (272–337), who in 313 C.E. co-issued the Edict of Milan, which restored to Christians their confiscated property and granted them religious freedom. Although the last books of the Bible were written long before the time of Constantine, and the Roman Empire in the West continued long after his death, his reign marked a fundamental change in the history of the early church, and thus it provides a convenient terminus for this period, which was to be of monumental importance for both Jews and Christians.

Biblical History and the Greco-Roman World.

The necessity of giving attention to the Greco-Roman world arises from Jewish and Christian history. A year before Alexander defeated the Persians, he had already secured control of Judah (332 B.C.E.). Following his death in 323 B.C.E., his generals and their descendants began jockeying among themselves for power. Three major Hellenistic kingdoms emerged from these power struggles; since their founders traced their origins to Alexander, they became known as his Diadochoi or “Successors.” Of these three Greek kingdoms, two proved to be of crucial significance for the history of early Judaism during the Second Temple period. These were the Ptolemaic dynasty, centered in Alexandria, and the Seleucid dynasty, centered in Antioch. The area of Coele-Syria (lower Syria, including Judea) lay between these two competing powers, which fought six Syrian Wars during the third and second centuries in an effort to secure control of the region. Chapter 11 of the book of Daniel traces some of the major outlines of this struggle between the successors of Alexander, “the warrior king” (Dan 11:3), with different Ptolemaic rulers designated “the king of the south” (Dan 11:5–6, 9, 11, 14–15) and various Seleucid monarchs called “the king of the north” (Dan 11:6–8, 11, 13, 15).

From 301 to 198 B.C.E., the Ptolemies were in effective control of Palestine, and it was during this same time period that the city of Alexandria emerged as a major center of Diaspora Judaism. Furthermore, it was here during the third century that the Hebrew Bible began to be translated into Greek. The Jewish pseudepigraphical work known as the Letter of Aristeas purports to give the circumstances under which this translation, known as the Septuagint, was undertaken. Whatever the true history of this translation project, the final result was a Greek version of the Torah, and eventually of the entire Hebrew Bible, as well as some other writings. The Septuagint was used by Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world, and it was read and quoted by the early Greek-speaking Christians as well. For that reason alone, all biblical scholars agree that cognizance must be taken of the Greek text of the Septuagint, and how its translators rendered the Hebrew into Greek. Another book purporting to give information about the Jewish experience during Ptolemaic times is 3 Maccabees, which Eastern Orthodox Churches regard as deuterocanonical. It narrates three episodes that supposedly occurred during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–204 B.C.E.).

During the Fifth Syrian War (202–195 B.C.E.) the Seleucid king Antiochus III (the Great) wrested control of Coele-Syria away from the Ptolemies. Although pro-Ptolemaic Jews were disappointed by this political shift, the Jews of Jerusalem welcomed Antiochus III with open arms and even helped him dislodge the garrison of Ptolemaic soldiers occupying the citadel. Antiochus rewarded the Jerusalemites by granting them various rights and privileges, but these were subsequently revoked by his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The revocation of these rights and other indignities, including the desecration of the altar at the Jerusalem temple, prompted a revolt, led by Judas the Maccabee and his brothers, that culminated in the establishment of an independent Jewish state led by the descendants of Judas’s family (167–63 B.C.E.). The deuterocanonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees deal with the struggles and interactions of the Jewish people with the Seleucids both before and after the revolt, down to 134 B.C.E. In addition, 1 Maccabees refers to various Maccabean interactions with Rome, doing so in laudatory terms (8:1–16) and describing the making and renewal of a Jewish alliance with Rome (8:17–32; 12:1–4). Another work that deals with this Jewish-Seleucid conflict is 4 Maccabees; though not canonical, it does appear as an appendix in some manuscripts of the Septuagint.

Toward the end of this period of Jewish political independence, Rome once again appears on the scene, but this time as an even more formidable military power than it had been when it checked the advance of Antiochus III the Great at Magnesia in 190 and at the beginning of the Maccabean period (167–63 B.C.E.). By this point in time, Rome had expanded far beyond the small city-state that it was when Alexander had become king of Macedon (336). Over the course of more than two and a half centuries, it conquered the Italian peninsula; secured control of the western Mediterranean by defeating Carthage in three Punic Wars; culminated four Macedonian Wars by establishing Macedonia as a Roman province in 148 B.C.E.; razed Corinth in 146 B.C.E. during the Achaean War; solidified control of Asia Minor; completed three wars against Mithridates, the Hellenistic king of Pontus; and brought the Seleucid kingdom to an end with the establishment of Syria as a Roman province. The end of the Maccabean kingdom came in 63 B.C.E., when Pompey the Great intervened in a Jewish civil war between two Maccabean princes and inaugurated the Roman period in Jewish history. A generation later, in 40 B.C.E., the Roman Senate declared Herod the Great, an Idumean ally of the Romans, “King of the Jews.” Herod secured his kingdom by 37 B.C.E. and reigned as a Roman client king until his death in 4 B.C.E. Jesus was born toward the end of Herod’s reign and resided in Galilee, where Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons, was the ruler. Antipas was responsible for the execution of John the Baptist, and Jesus was publicly crucified just outside the city of Jerusalem of Judea, on the orders of Pontius Pilate, a Roman prefect. Agrippa I, a Herodian whose political power derived from his friendship with two Roman emperors, martyred one of Jesus’s apostles, James the brother of John. In short, the ministries of John and Jesus as well as the early years of the church took place within the context of Rome’s occupation of Syria-Palestine and the rule of the Herodians as clients of Rome.

In a similar way, the expansion of early Christianity into the larger Greco-Roman world occurred first and foremost within the provinces of the Roman Empire. Those provinces were not populated exclusively by Romans and other Gentiles, for many, if not most of them contained major Jewish settlements, attesting the wide expanse of the Jewish Diaspora by the first century C.E. Consistent with this geographical reality, 1 Peter makes use of Diaspora language in addressing the recipients of the letter (1:1). The apostle Paul was one of those Diaspora Jews; not only was he born in the Roman province of Cilicia, but Acts 22:39 depicts him as a proud citizen of his native city of Tarsus. Wherever Paul went on his missionary journeys, whether to Syria, Cilicia, Cyprus, Pisidia, Galatia, Macedon, Achaia, Asia Minor, or Rome itself, he went to Roman territory. Both his oral proclamation of the gospel and his letters were aimed at inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Acts depicts Paul as a Roman citizen (22:25–29) who exercised one of his rights of citizenship by requesting a judicial change of venue (25:11). According to reliable early church tradition, both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome, the capital of the Empire, which is the object of fierce polemic by the seer John, the author of Revelation.

As this brief and selective survey is meant to illustrate, the Greco-Roman world provides the overarching context for the biblical story and the postbiblical history of early Christianity in the period from Alexander to Constantine. The political shift from Greek to Roman power did not entail any significant cultural change for the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, as many of the social issues remained the same. Some Jews were attracted to Greek culture and Roman power, whereas others were repulsed by both, and Jews revolted three times against Rome during the period of 66–135 C.E. The first revolt led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E; the second took place from 115 to 117 C.E. in Jewish communities located in Cyrene, Egypt, and Cyprus; and the third, the famous Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 C.E.), resulted in the devastation of Judah and caused the center of Jewish life to shift from Judea to Galilee, where the Mishnah was formed.

As far as early Christianity is concerned, there was a remarkable demographic shift as time elapsed. At the beginning, Jesus and all his followers were Jewish, but already by the end of the first century the vast majority of Christians were Gentiles whose cultural background was the Greco-Roman world. No other religion has undergone such a dramatic demographic shift in such a short period of time. Like their Jewish counterparts, these Gentile Christians had various attitudes toward the larger Greco-Roman world, some positive and some negative, depending on the particular aspect of that world that was in view.

One reflection of this demographic shift is the language of the New Testament. Even though Jesus and his apostles spoke Aramaic, all four of the canonical Gospels were written in Greek. All of Paul’s letters, including his letter to the Romans, were written in Greek, as were all of the other documents that comprise the New Testament. Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean world, and the language of the New Testament is in keeping with that cultural and linguistic reality.

The Greco-Roman Context in Treatments of Second Temple and Hellenistic Judaism.

Interaction between Greece and the Levant began long before the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. As the finds at Lefkandi in Euboea prove, the Greeks had contacts with Cyprus and the Levant at an early pre-colonial stage, with Syria-Palestine a vital part of the Mediterranean exchange network in the late Protogeometric period of ca. 950–900 B.C.E. In the Levant itself, Mycenaean pottery was found at Sabouni, a hill town closely associated with the Iron Age port city of Al Mina. The latter, located in the delta of the Orontes, is usually viewed as the site of the first Greek presence in Syria, perhaps as early as 825 B.C.E., though the preponderance of Greek pottery found there dates to ca. 750. Scholarly tradition regards Al Mina as an important trading post where Greeks resided and perhaps constituted a small colony, but some scholars perceive it as devoid of any true cultural significance. Two other coastal sites in North Syria, located to the south of Al Mina, are also generally viewed as showing signs of a Greek presence from a slightly later period: Ras el Bassit (“Poseidon”) and Tell Sukas (for bibliography on these various sites, see Fitzgerald 2004, pp. 349—350 n. 28). These early contacts between Greece and the Levant played a key role in fostering the so-called “orientalizing revolution” in archaic Greece that significantly affected early Greek culture, myth, and philosophy.

Alexander’s campaigns set the stage for the much greater cultural interaction that occurred between East and West during subsequent centuries. The cities that he founded were his greatest cultural legacy, and it was primarily in and through these cities as well as those founded by his successors that “Hellenization” occurred. “Hellenization” refers to the “interactive process by which Greek customs, ideas, institutions, practices, and terms spread into non-Greek regions and, to varying degrees, were not only appropriated by some indigenous individuals and groups but also resisted and rejected by others” (Fitzgerald 2010, p. 984). As indicated, Alexander did not initiate this interactive process but rather accelerated it.

Diaspora Judaism was everywhere affected by its Greco-Roman context, and all studies of Hellenistic Jewish authors (such as Philo and Josephus) and texts typically seek to situate them in regard to both that context and their Jewish heritage. Numerous scholars have contributed to the study of these authors and texts, as well as to the impact of Hellenization in Syria-Palestine, including such early luminaries as E. J. Bickerman, E. R. Goodenough, M. Hengel, A. Momigliano, E. M. Smallwood, and V. Tcherikover. Among more recent contributors, the work of J. M. G. Barclay, M. Goodman, and T. Rajak has been highly influential.

Debate on the impact of the Greco-Roman world, both positive and negative, on Judaism in the land of Israel has centered on the difficult task of properly assessing the time and degree of that influence. It is generally agreed that it begins slowly during the Ptolemaic period, increases during the Seleucid and Maccabean periods, receives a strong impetus with the Herodian dynasty, and reaches an unprecedented apex with Hadrian’s trip to the Roman East in 129–131 C.E. Suffice it to say that the degree of impact varied according to the place, the individuals involved, and the time period.

For example, Caesarea Maritima was far more directly impacted by Greco-Roman culture than were the villages and towns of Galilee. Caesarea Maritima was a port city constructed by Herod the Great, who, in keeping with a policy designed to placate both his Roman patrons and his Jewish constituents, erected here a pagan temple of Roma and Augustus; it served as a complement to his expansion and beautification of the temple at Jerusalem, which was pleasing to many but not all of his Jewish constituents. It was also at Caesarea Maritima that the Roman prefects (procurators) resided who administered Judea and Samaria. Pilate, one of those prefects, dedicated here a monumental Latin inscription to the emperor Tiberius, and it was here that the apostle Paul appeared before Felix and Festus (Acts 24–25) as well as Agrippa II, a Herodian who functioned as an advisor to the Romans (Acts 26). Yet, while Caesarea Maritima was undoubtedly more Romanized than the villages of Galilee, that does not mean that the latter were not impacted by Greco-Roman culture. Excavations at Yodefat (Jotapata), a hilltop town that served as the Jewish administrative center for central Galilee until it was destroyed by Rome during the First Roman-Jewish War, have uncovered a house with frescoed walls done in the Second Pompeian style of ancient Roman mural painting, and with a “floor decorated with frescoes of red and black pavers,” which thus far have been found in Israel only in the orchestra of the Herodian theater at Caesarea Maritima (Aviam 2011, p. 31). As this finding indicates, people of affluence lived in Galilean towns during the first century C.E., and Hellenization/Romanization is attested there, though not to the degree that it is elsewhere.

The Greco-Roman Context in Ancient Church History and Modern Scholarship.

Already in antiquity it was recognized that the perspectives of certain pagan authors were often similar to those of NT authors. This was especially true of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, whose sentiments so frequently coincided with Christian ideas that Tertullian (De anima 20) referred to him as “often our Seneca.” Some in later generations even regarded Seneca as a convert to Christianity (Jerome, De vir. ill. 12, and Augustine, Ep. 153.14), and the perception of a close affinity between the thought of Seneca and Paul led to the creation of a pseudonymous correspondence between the two thinkers.

The Renaissance witnessed a burgeoning of new interests in the classical tradition, and this led to a renewed discovery of certain similarities in thought and expression between early Christian literature and classical literature. One of the byproducts of this revitalized interest in the relationship of early Christianity and classical culture was the search for parallels between the language and formulations of the New Testament and those of pagan authors who wrote in Greek or Latin (White and Fitzgerald, 2003). Greek-Latin glossaries of the NT began to be published, with the first such glossary appearing in volume five of the Complutensian Polyglot, which also contained the first printed Greek NT (printed in 1514, published in 1522). Commentators such as J. Camerarius (1500–1574) began to cite classical authors in support of their interpretations of the NT text, and various collections of “notes” (annotationes) on individual words and phrases of the Bible were also published, with the most important of those by Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), who gave copious citations of classical authors to support his interpretative decisions. This proliferation of linguistic and comparative studies culminated in the publication in 1751–1752 of an extensive collection of parallels by J. J. Wettstein, who included them in his critical edition of the New Testament text.

By the nineteenth century, the practice of citing non-Jewish authors in NT lexica and commentaries became routine. Compilations of parallels also continued, with that of E. Spiess in 1871 being the best known, but the significance of these parallels now began to be vigorously debated, with some scholars claiming a direct literary relationship between a NT document and a pagan text. These extravagant claims prompted more judicious treatments and the first systematic attempts to explore the relationships of Greco-Roman authors to the New Testament and other early Christian writers.

Especially pivotal was the work of C. F. G. Heinrici, particularly in his commentaries on the Corinthian correspondence. He argued that “there is such an accumulation of analogies with Polybius,…with Epictetus, with Plutarch, with Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and others that it can only be explained by a common spiritual sphere of life” (1887, p. 594). Although criticized by some contemporaries for exaggerating the Greek element over the Semitic in Paul’s letters, Heinrici made it impossible for future New Testament scholars to ignore the Hellenistic character of Paul’s letters. With copious examples he made a compelling case that Paul thought and spoke under the influence of Hellenistic culture. Heinrici influenced others, notably J. Weiss and his student R. Bultmann, and through them a whole new generation of scholars. Bultmann’s 1910 dissertation took up the topic of the diatribe following Heinrici’s observations on stylistic similarities, and his early work on form criticism exploited Greco-Roman materials to understand the transmission of the Synoptic tradition.

During this same period of time Heinrici began to organize a group of younger scholars for the purpose of producing a “new Wettstein,” that is, a new collection of relevant parallels to the New Testament. As co-editors he enlisted the services of A. Deissmann (whose years of work on a NT lexicon illustrated primarily from the Greco-Roman papyri never materialized), E. von Dobschütz, H. Lietzmann, and H. Windisch, all of whom made extensive use of materials from the Greco-Roman context of early Christianity. When Heinrici died in 1915, his place on the team was taken by J. Leipoldt, and the chief responsibility for overseeing the project shifted to von Dobschütz, who apparently bestowed on it the name by which it was subsequently known, “Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti.” The project subsequently moved to Uppsala under the leadership of A. Fridrichsen but, unfortunately, never succeeded in producing the intended “new Wettstein.”

Fortunately, the use of Greco-Roman materials to illuminate the New Testament was not dependent on the Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti project. While that project languished during the first half of the twentieth century, other scholars were actively exploiting Greco-Roman materials for interpretive purposes. They included F. Cumont, F. J. Dölger, T. Klauser, A. D. Nock, R. Reitzenstein, and M. Vermaseren. Among lexicographers, W. Bauer was unsurpassed in collecting Greco-Roman materials to illuminate NT vocabulary. Eventually, however, the Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti project was revitalized, first under the leadership of W. van Unnik, and then of H. D. Betz; it ultimately produced six volumes on individual authors and texts, including Aelius Aristides, Apollonius of Tyana, the Corpus Hermeticum, Dio Chrysostom, and Plutarch. More recently, a multivolume collection, initiated under the direction of G. Strecker and continuing under U. Schnelle, has begun to appear, carrying the title Neuer Wettstein: Texte zum Neuen Testament aus Griechentum und Hellenismus. A much smaller collection of Greco-Roman materials, titled Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, was produced by M. E. Boring, doing so on the basis of a German edition by K. Berger and C. Colpe.

Such collections and studies of individual authors comprise only a portion of biblical scholarship that seeks to interpret the NT in light of its Greco-Roman context. Those collections simply provide a convenient synopsis of the results of research by many scholars, and even the best of them are far from being complete. For reasons of space, only the work of selected contemporary scholars can be mentioned here, and only a few of their works cited in the bibliography. Among scholars who are now retired but still active and productive, three names stand out: David E. Aune, Hans Dieter Betz, and Abraham J. Malherbe. Of the three, Aune has been the most comprehensive in regard to the NT as a whole, writing one book on NT literature in its Greco-Roman literary context (1987) and editing another such volume, as well as co-editing a related volume on Greco-Roman culture and the NT. He has been particularly interested in apocalypticism and prophecy (1983) and fully exploited his knowledge of the Greco-Roman context to illuminate the book of Revelation in a massive three-volume commentary (1997–1998).

In addition to editing two volumes on Plutarch for the Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti project, Betz has made important contributions to the study of the Greco-Roman context in its own right, especially in regard to Lucian of Samosata, the Greek magical papyri, and the Mithras liturgy. He has brought his knowledge of the Greco-Roman world to bear in his various commentaries and studies, especially on the Sermon on the Mount (1995), 2 Corinthians 8–9 (1985), and Galatians (1979). His use of Greco-Roman rhetoric to read Paul’s letters has been highly influential, helping to transform the way in which the apostle’s letters and other NT documents are understood.

Whereas Betz promoted the use of rhetoric, Malherbe emphasizes epistolography, giving particular attention to ancient epistolary theory and various epistolary collections, such as the pseudonymous Cynic epistles, and inspiring similar studies by his students and others (Klauck 2006). Although he has used his knowledge of Greco-Roman culture and society to identify salient social aspects of early Christianity, his real métier is Hellenistic moral philosophy. From the beginning of his academic career he has demonstrated again and again the hermeneutical relevance of the Greco-Roman moralists, such as Dio Chrysostom and Seneca, for early Christian literature, especially in regard to paraenesis and psychagogy (the guidance of souls). Within the NT, he has focused on Paul (1989), especially his correspondence with the Thessalonians (1987; 2000).

Of younger scholars, the work of two Europeans stands out: Troels Engberg-Pedersen and Hans-Josef Klauck (now at Chicago). Like Malherbe, Engberg-Pedersen focuses on Greco-Roman philosophy and Paul, but he is particularly interested in Stoicism and its relation to the thought of the apostle (2000). He is also adamant that it is methodologically wrong to make a sharp division between Judaism and Hellenism in approaching authors such as Paul, and he sees his work and that of others as overcoming this longstanding divide in scholarly approaches to the apostle. Whereas Malherbe and Engberg-Pedersen have focused on Hellenistic philosophy, Klauck, an expert on Hellenistic religions and magic, has employed a new history-of-religions approach in interpreting the New Testament in light of its religious environment (2000).

As this brief survey has indicated, the Greco-Roman context has been used to interpret the entire NT, including Jesus and the Gospels. Its application to research on the Gospels stands in contrast to a general tendency for many years to claim that the canonical Gospels were unique literary documents completely unlike Hellenistic biographies and the memoirs and lives of the philosophers, and a related tendency to use only Jewish “backgrounds” to interpret the words and works of Jesus. Current research indicates that the Gospels are not utterly unique in form and content, but rather constitute a new subtype of the biography (bios) genre of Greco-Roman literature. Furthermore, some scholars have made use of Cynic materials and depicted Jesus and the early Jesus movement in that light, whereas other scholars have used that same Cynic material to stress that the differences outweigh the similarities.

Advocates of using the Greco-Roman context to interpret the NT rarely, if ever, argue that it should be used exclusively. On the contrary, they insist that it should be used in combination with other hermeneutical approaches (e.g., archaeology) and in recognition of the undeniable fact that the NT has a strongly Jewish component. Therefore, scholars typically endeavor to interpret Paul in light of both his Jewish heritage and the larger Greco-Roman world in which he carried out his apostolic work. A similar tendency to utilize both Jewish and non-Jewish materials is also typical in discussing other NT documents. When the NT document makes reference to some person, event, or passage found in the Hebrew Bible, attention naturally focuses on the biblical referent and the treatment of that person, passage, or event in Jewish materials (midrashim, targums, and so forth). When the NT reference is to some nonbiblical person, practice, or site, the Greco-Roman context is often invoked to provide information or an explanation. For instance, Revelation’s letters to seven Christian communities in Asia Minor (Rev 2–3) typically evoke the use of both Jewish and Greco-Roman materials to elucidate particular references, with Jewish materials used to clarify such references as the one to Balaam and Balak (Rev 2:14), and Greco-Roman materials to explicate the enigmatic reference to Pergamum as the site of “Satan’s throne” (Rev 2:13). At times this dual use of Jewish and Greco-Roman materials blends together, as in Revelation’s use of “Babylon” (14:8; 16:19; 17:5, 18; 18:2, 10, 21) as a code name for Rome, which is further identified by the allusion to its famous “seven hills” (17:9). Use of Greco-Roman materials with other NT documents varies according to the topic under consideration. Discussions of NT passages dealing with slavery, for example, typically entail use of Greco-Roman materials on slaves.

The overarching context of the early Christians was the Greco-Roman world, and it is natural that the NT should reflect its cultural, economic, philosophical, political, rhetorical, and social context. To acknowledge the early Christians’ genuine indebtedness to Hellenistic terms, techniques, and traditions does not undermine their theological integrity. Theological significance pertains to what they did with these derived concepts and customary practices, not the sources themselves. Yet determining those Greco-Roman sources and contexts is important for at least four reasons. First, they alert us to the intellectual, cultural, and social matrix in which various ideas and themes appear in the world of the first Christians. Second, they help us to identify the nexus of ideas within a given matrix, that is, the so-called “linkage group” to which they belong. Third, they aid us in recognizing how NT authors selectively adopt and adapt those ideas and practices in service to their theology. Fourth, attention to both the NT text and the Greco-Roman context enables us to recognize similarities as well as differences between them, and thereby to appreciate the distinctiveness of each (Fitzgerald 2001).

Future Directions.

In looking to the future use of the Greco-Roman context to interpret the Bible, it will be important not to isolate that context from antiquity as a whole. To be sure, the Greco-Roman period was a distinct epoch in the ancient world, and that distinctiveness allows historians to distinguish it from the periods immediately before and after it. At the same time, it must be remembered that, while there was much that was new in the Greco-Roman period, there were also elements of continuity with what preceded and what followed. Historically, that is usually the case with different temporal periods, and the Greco-Roman period is not an exception to the general rule. More important for the purposes of this article, the Greco-Roman period may be profitably treated as part of what many scholars refer to as the “axial age” (Achsenzeit) of world history. This term, which originated in the nineteenth century, was made famous by the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), who used it to refer to an unprecedented period of philosophical and religious development. Jaspers himself dated the “axis of history” to approximately 500 B.C.E. and the axial age to the period 800–200 B.C.E., but many subsequent scholars have correctly extended the temporal limits of the axial age to include Second Temple Judaism, early Christianity, and the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism. One of the distinguishing features of the axial age was the idea of transcendence, that is, “a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond” (Schwartz 1975, p. 3). The result was “the perception of a sharp disjunction between the mundane and transmundane worlds” and “a concomitant stress on the existence of a higher transcendental moral or metaphysical order which is beyond any given this- or other-worldly reality” (Eisenstadt 1982, p. 296). The idea of separation from the mundane world and attachment to a higher, transcendental reality became culturally widespread. “The religious goal of salvation (or enlightenment, release and so forth) is for the first time the central religious preoccupation” (Bellah 2005, p. 366) and that entailed a fundamental rejection of this world and its values. As is readily apparent, such concepts are found also in writings from the biblical tradition. Consequently, the axial age thesis is important in placing various developments within Judaism and early Christianity not merely within the immediate context of the Greco-Roman world but also within their larger global context, of which the Greco-Roman world itself was merely a part (Fitzgerald 2011).

[ See also: DIACHRONIC INTERPRETATION; HISTORICAL CRITICISM, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; and HISTORICAL JESUS, QUEST FOR THE.]

Bibliography

  • Aune, David E. The New Testament in its Literary Environment. Library of Early Christianity 8. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987. Treats the genre of the Gospels, including the issue of the Gospels as ancient biographies, Luke-Acts as ancient historiography, early Christian letters within the context of ancient letters, and Revelation in light of ancient revelatory literature.
  • Aune, David E. Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983. A judicious discussion of prophecy in the ancient Mediterranean world as a whole, giving significant attention to oracles and related phenomena in Greek and Roman religious and civic life. Also includes ancient Israelite prophecy, Jesus as prophet, and early Christian prophecy.
  • Aune, David E. Revelation. 3 vols. Word Biblical Commentary 52A, 52B, 52C. Dallas: Word, 1997–1998. Aune’s magnum opus is the preeminent, most exhaustive commentary on Revelation, discussing the biblical text in light of all the various contexts that it reflects and the multiple Jewish and Greco-Roman myths and traditions that the author employs.
  • Aviam, Mordechai. “Socio-economic Hierarchy and its Economic Foundations in First Century Galilee: The Evidence from Yodefat and Gamla.” In Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History, edited by Jack Pastor, Pnina Stern, and Menahem Mor, 29–38. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 146. Leiden: Brill, 2011. An important recent contribution to the discussion of the economy of first-century Galilee by a first-rate Israeli archaeologist, who demonstrates the presence of various social and economic levels in Yodefat, located not far from Nazareth.
  • Bellah, Robert. “What Is Axial about the Axial Age?” European Journal of Sociology 46 (2005): 69–89. A helpful discussion by an eminent sociologist of religion regarding key features of the Axial Age.
  • Betz, Hans Dieter. Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches of Galatia. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979. The first major commentary to discuss a NT letter in light of ancient rhetorical theory and practice.
  • Betz, Hans Dieter. The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain ( Matthew 5:3—7:27 and Luke 6:20–49 ). Hermeneia. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1995. Illustrates the use of both Greco-Roman and Jewish materials to interpret Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s similar Sermon on the Plain.
  • Betz, Hans Dieter. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9: A Commentary on Two Administrative Letters of the Apostle Paul. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985. Treats 2 Cor 8 and 9 as originally two separate letters written by Paul that dealt with the collection for the Jerusalem church.
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. “The Axial Age: The Emergence of Transcendental Visions and the Rise of Clerics.” European Journal of Sociology 23 (1982): 294–314. An Israeli sociologist, student of Martin Buber, and major advocate of the Axial Age hypothesis, Eisenstadt’s research focused on broad social changes and on major dynamics within civilizations. This article discusses the social implications of the emergence of transcendental visions during the Axial Age.
  • Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000. A reading of portions of Romans, Galatians, and Philippians in light of Stoic ethics.
  • Fitzgerald, John T. Cultures of the Greco-Roman World. In The New Interpreter’s Bible One Volume-Commentary, edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David Petersen, 983–987. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. A succinct discussion of the Hellenistic context of Second Temple and Hellenistic Judaism as well as early Christianity, with a focus on the political history of the Greco-Roman world, its cultural interactions, religions, education, rhetoric, and philosophy.
  • Fitzgerald, John T. “Gadara: Philodemus’ Native City.” In Philodemus and the New Testament World, edited by J. T. Fitzgerald, D. Obbink. and G. S. Holland, 343–397. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 111. Leiden: Brill, 2004. A discussion of the Hellenistic town of Gadara, one of the cities of the Decapolis, and its surrounding area, where Matt 8:28–34 locates one of Jesus’s most famous exorcisms.
  • Fitzgerald, John T. “Paul and Paradigm Shifts: Reconciliation and Its Linkage Group.” In Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide, edited by T. Engberg-Pedersen, 241–262. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001. A discussion of the standard paradigm of reconciliation within the Greco-Roman world, showing how Paul’s understanding of reconciliation involves a shift in certain key aspects of the paradigm.
  • Fitzgerald, John T. with William Scott Green. “How Does Religion Imagine Society?” In Judaic and Christian Visions of the Social Order: Describing, Analyzing, and Comparing Systems of the Formative Age, edited by Jacob Neusner, Bruce D. Chilton, and Alan J. Avery-Peck, 1–29. Studies in Religion and the Social Order. Lanham: University Press of America, 2011. Focuses on the emergence of utopian visions of society as one of the characteristic features of the Axial Age.
  • Heinrici, Carl Friedrich Georg. Das zweite Sendschreiben des Apostels Paulus an die Korinther. Berlin: Hertz, 1887. A commentary on 2 Corinthians written with the conviction that Paul’s language, style, and thought was significantly influenced by Hellenistic culture.
  • Klauck, Hans-Josef. Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006. Treats nonliterary and diplomatic correspondence, literary letters, epistolary theory, Jewish letters, and NT letters.
  • Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions. Studies of the New Testament and its World. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 2000. Contains carefully nuanced discussions of civic and domestic religion (including the sacrificial cult, the associations, and the cult of the dead), the mystery cults, astrology, soothsaying, healing cults, magic, ruler cults, religion and philosophy, and Gnosticism.
  • Malherbe, Abraham J. The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 32B. New York: Doubleday, 2000. The preeminent commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians in light of its Greco-Roman context.
  • Malherbe, Abraham J. Paul and the Popular Philosophers. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1989. A collection of eleven of Malherbe’s most important essays from the earlier part of his academic career.
  • Malherbe, Abraham J. Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophic Tradition of Pastoral Care. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987. An enlightening discussion of 1 Thessalonians as a paraenetic letter, comparing and contrasting Paul’s pastoral approach with the method of psychagogy employed by ancient philosophers with their students.
  • Schwartz, Benjamin L. “The Age of Transcendence.” Daedalus 104/2 (1975): 1–6. Focuses on transcendence as the most salient feature of the Axial Age.
  • White, L. Michael, and John T. Fitzgerald. “Quod est comparandum: The Problems of Parallels.” In Early Christianity and Classical Culture: Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe, edited by J. T. Fitzgerald, T. H. Olbricht, and L. M. White, 13–39. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 110. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Discusses the history and contemporary practice of using materials from the Greco-Roman world to interpret early Christian literature.

John T. Fitzgerald