A chronological history of the people, events, and ideas in the period before Christ that would later have important influences on the Christian Church would be a very demanding task that is not necessary to us in our study of the history of the Christian Church. Therefore, in this and the next two chapters we will instead take a look at the contributions that Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, the three most influential centers of civilization in the ancient world, made to Christianity and the world in which it was born. In the chapter on Rome, we will also look at how these three forces were brought together shortly before the birth of Christ and what the world looked like at the time Christ was born.
Jerusalem, as the holy city and center of the Jewish faith, is, of course, representative of that faith as a whole, though the history and message of Judaism did not begin there nor was it ever restricted only to that city. Judaism, in its earliest and simplest form, began in the southern part of what is now the country of Iraq.
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3, King James Version)
This call and promise from God to Abraham was the beginning of Jewish history and the foundation from which its later developments would grow. If seen through the eyes of the ancient Sumerians from whom Abraham came, Abraham’s God with his strange works and demands was a very peculiar figure. The gods of the Sumerians were essentially personal guardians and “good luck charms” who asked very little of their followers. Abraham’s God, on the other hand, made extravagant demands such as his order for Abraham to leave his ancestral home and the later demand that Abraham and all of the males within his household be circumcised. He also did extravagant things like destroying entire cities for their moral failings, such as was the case with Sodom and Gomorrah.
These peculiarities led to a way of viewing the world and man’s place within it that was very different from any other in the ancient world. Many of these uniquely Jewish beliefs would later be assumed by Christianity and have since established themselves so firmly in the minds of people all over the world that it is sometimes difficult to appreciate exactly how radical and strange they were for their time and place.
The most obvious of these peculiarities of ancient Judaism is its monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. The Jews were the first people on earth to come to such a conclusion. They also were the first to draw the implications of such a radical idea. Other ancient peoples were polytheists who worshiped a vast and complex multitude of gods and goddesses, each of whom had their own preferences, wills, and specialties. There was, for instance, a god of thunder, another of fire, and another of water. In addition, the gods were generally seen as capricious, amoral, and uninterested in the needs or wants of human beings.
The God of the Jews, however, was very different from all of this. As he was the only God, he ruled not only over some single natural element or activity but over all of nature. He was, according to the Jews, the creator of the heavens and the earth and of everything that existed. Consequently, the world was not a chaotic place in which a variety of spiritual entities vied for power against one another, but an orderly whole lovingly overseen by its creator.
Not only was he the creator and ruler of nature, he was also the God of all mankind, not just a single nation or person as the pagans had understood their gods. He was also not a god of whim but one who laid down eternal statutes and made eternal promises to those who followed his will. In addition, he seen by the Jews as being morally good and just himself and, more than that, he demanded moral behavior and justice from humans. So far from being uninterested in the affairs of humanity was he that the majority of his words to mankind were injunctions to morality and justice, and, as if we could get any further from the pagan gods, his concerns were not confined to the great of this world but were especially for the poor, the widow, the oppressed, and the orphan! This was a very peculiar God indeed.
The concern which the God of the Jews showed for the weakest members of society, itself a unique and radical idea, stemmed from an equally unique and radical basis. According to the stories of the Jews about creation, their God had not only created the world and the people within it, but had in fact created all humans in his own image and likeness. Because of this, the Jews claimed in opposition to other ancient peoples, all human beings possessed an inherent worth and dignity. All human beings also possessed a kind of equality, they said, because each bears the image of God and because, at the end of the world, God, who stands far above all humans, will judge each alike, whether king or beggar, based on his moral behavior.
With the phrase “at the end of the world” we come to yet another idea for which the Jews are uniquely responsible. Other ancient peoples viewed time as cyclical. They tended to see the repetition of events in nature and consequently patterned their understanding of history, or the lack thereof, on these observations. As a result, they had no concept of history, in the way that most modern people understand the word, as a progression from one point to the next. Instead, they saw events as eternally recurrent. One example of this can be seen in the stories of Sumerian mythology which, to a modern reader, seem to both begin and end in the middle with a somewhat rambling telling in between.
The Jews, however, were the first to develop a view of time as linear. Because the God of the Jews was a God who intervened in history and who recalled past events and promised future ones, the Jews developed the idea that time moved in a single direction from a beginning point to an end point. The Jews, then, were the first people in the world to whom words like “progress” and “evolution” would have had a meaning.
The peculiar Jewish understanding of their peculiar God set them apart from other ancient peoples in a variety of important ways. While their very different ways of understanding their God, man, and the world often made them a target of disdain, mockery, and, occasionally, persecution at the hands of other peoples with whom they came into contact, it was these same strange ideas that allowed them to endure as a separate people with their own unique culture rather than being absorbed into other nations or civilizations as were many ancient peoples faced with similar situations.
Names to know
- Abraham – called by God to establish a covenant; the founding figure of the Judeo-Christian tradition
Places to know
- Jerusalem – the holy city and center of the Jewish faith
- Ur – in southern Iraq; the city from which Abraham originally came
Dates/events to know
- c. 2000 BC – Abraham called by God
Words to know
- Monotheism – belief in one God
- Time and history
- Moral monotheism
- humanity as Image of God
* = highly recommended
Craigie, Peter C. Ugarit and the Old Testament: The Story of a Remarkable Discovery and Its Impact on Old Testament Studies. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983.
*Feiler, Bruce. Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.
Feiler, Bruce. Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005.
Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition. Translated by William Whiston. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.
Kirby, Peter. Early Jewish Writings. (2010) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/ (Accessed 28 February 2011).
*Pelikan, Jaroslav. Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Shanks, Hershel. Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader From the Biblical Archaeology Review. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Sivan, Gabriel. The Bible and Civilization. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973.
Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
VanderKam, James C. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.