Thu 12 Jan 2006
In the history of civilizations, few people have made as much of an impact, directly or indirectly, as the guy who stands to your right (who died in 323 BCE). Although living over three hundred years before the origins of Christianity, his impact is in many ways essential for understanding Christian origins and the New Testament. Alexander, the son of Philip, King of Macedon (a.k.a Alexander “the Great”), successfully conquered a larger area than previously accomplished in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, from Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Iran (Persia), as far as India itself.
What matters most for us is what Alexander and his successors brought with them: Hellenistic culture, including the Greek language, Greek modes of social and civic organization, Greek philosophies and religions. Although local languages and cultures continued in various areas, social and cultural interactions were now inevitable and the degree of assimilation to Hellenistic ways depended on the person, group, or situation. Moreover, this situation of considerable cultural commonalities across such a vast geographical space was unparalleled at the time.
Alexander’s legacies can be seen in the fact that the New Testament, and most of early Christian literature, was written in Hellenistic Greek (also known as koine, or common, Greek), and Greek language carries with it Hellenistic culture. As a sect within Judaism, the Jesus movement in Palestine entered into a Jewish world already in interaction with Hellenism, as you can read about in my earlier brief discussion of the Jewish Maccabees (of the second century BCE). And as this Jewish movement made its way into cities throughout the Greco-Roman world (especially in the Greek East), further interaction with Hellenistic (and Roman) culture was the result. A figure like Paul of Tarsus (a Greek city in Asia Minor) seems to have been well-trained in Hellenistic modes of rhetoric (in how to make a good argument or speech), for instance. The Book of Hebrews expresses its understanding of Jesus’ significance in terms drawn not only from Judaism but also from Platonic philosophy, to provide another preview. We will see how important Hellenistic, as well as Roman, culture was for early Christianity as we continue in this series.
Photo (by Phil): Statue of Alexander the Great from Magnesia on the Sipylos (by Menas, a sculptor from Pergamum), now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum (mid-third century BCE).