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A Historical Perspective on Spiritual Formation During the Ancient Greco-Roman Period
Dr Alex Tang
Michael Warren noted that whether we know it or not, our socio-political-economic environment forms and informs our spiritual formation whether we recognise it or not (Warren 1987). In this section, we will examine some spiritual formation influences from the social, political, cultural and religious arena.
First, the socio-political arena of the Greco-Roman world was in a time of great flux during the New Testament times. Even though Rome has proved herself to be the greatest military power at that time, she discovered that conquering a people is easier than keeping a people conquered.
There were frequent revolts and the Roman legions were hard pressed to put down the many rebellions. In their conquest, the Roman Empire had come into contact with the ancient civilizations of Persian and Egypt. These ancient civilizations offered an exotic culture which was readily adopted by the Romans. Retired legionnaires and nobility given foreign lands as rewards often found themselves assimilated by the local culture.
Rome herself was often torn apart by civil wars and political intrigues. This affects the stability of the empire. Vassal kings are often controlled by the Caesars and often found themselves involved in the political intrigues of Rome while struggling to control their own territories. King Herod the Great was a supporter of Mark Antony during the civil war after the assassination of Julius Caesar. With the defeat of Mark Antony in Actium, Herod somehow managed to change sides and became a favourite of Octavian who later became Caesar. As a result, Herod was given control of Judea. While not a popular ruler, Herod managed to keep peace in Judea until after his death in 4 B.C. His sons, Philip and Herod Antipas succeeded him. Taking the opportunity of Herod’s death, Judea rose up in revolt against their Roman oppressors. This revolt was brutally suppressed by Varus, the legate of Syria. Subsequent Roman governors were sent to control the province. They were even less successful. The resulted in several minor rebellions ending with the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. (Goldsworthy 2003, 332-356).
The Jews lived in a climate of political instability and Roman dominance. While they were allowed to worship their own religion, they were also forced to worship the Roman Caesars. This was against the tenets of their monotheistic religion and created considerable conflict. These were trying times with the zealots committing acts of terrorism against the occupying powers. The Christians had to endure the socio-political turmoil like other people of those times. Like the Jews, they too have to find ways to remain together as a community and to help their people to grow in their faith.
Second, pluralism in the Greco Roman world was widespread. While the Romans had a pantheon of gods, they did not force the local populace to worship their gods. The Jews and the Christians submitted to the Roman rule as long as they were not expected to commit idolatry by being forced to worship other gods. Almost all Greek and Roman rulers respected this except Antiochus IV and Emperor Caligula (Potoks 1978, 265-271).
In 175 B.C.E. Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid Empire which includes Syria. King Antiochus IV was very impressed with Rome and tried to build an Antiochene republic modelled after Rome. This would mean that everyone would worship the same gods. In doing so, he broke the Persian agreement which stated that Jews were exempt from religious laws. When the Jews protested, he launched a religious persecution against them. These lead to a series of rebellions led by the Hasmonean, a Jewish family.
Between April and December 167 B.C.E., King Antiochus IV decreed that the Jews must terminate their observances and loyalty to the Torah and adopt a pagan cult. These started a long and bloody period of warfare that only ended 25 years later in 142 B.C.E. when Demetrius II, king of Syria exempted Judea from paying tribute and granted her independence. This was exactly 444 years since the destruction of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians. The Jewish people regard this as the start of their second civilization. The first was the wars of Saul and David against the Philistines (Potoks 1978, 244-249).
Caligula became emperor in 37 C.E. During his reign, he became mentally deranged and demanded that he should be worshipped as a god and his horse made a consul. When an altar was built to sacrifice to him in Jamnia, near Jaffa, the Jews smashed the altar. Caligula was so incensed when he heard about it that he ordered a golden giant statue with his face to be built and placed in the Holy of Holies (Potoks 1978, 271).
All this meant that the Jews and the Christians were struggling to maintain their identity as a community during these trying times.
Third, Pax Romana had opened up provincial Judea to the rest of the Roman Empire by trade and travel. While most conquerors left religious Judea alone, however, it could not prevent the infiltration into Judea of two challenges to the Jewish and Christian faith. The first challenge is the increasing influence of Greek philosophy especially Stoicism on the more learned members of the Judea society. This was especially true of those who have sent their sons for a Greek classical education. The second challenge was the widespread acceptance of mystery cults (Banks 1994, 20-23). Mystery cults are often Gnostic in their teachings. This was another challenge to the stability of the Jewish and Christian communities.
Finally, the changing understanding of community itself. Where once community was either the household or the city state, there arose around this time, voluntaries communities made up of members with special interests. Banks described these special interests as “political, military, and sporting concerns; professional and commercial guilds, artisans and members of craft; philosophical schools and religious society” (Banks 1994, 6-12). Thus around this time, there were four types of communities especially in the cities: the household, voluntary associations (sporting clubs, etc), religious and schools teaching philosophy and rhetoric (Osmer 2005, 19) . These special interest communities became so popular that it decreased the influence of the household as the major educator of its members (Banks 1980). Religious Judea have to deal with or accommodate such special interest communities which has arose in its midst. Examples of these communities are the synagogues, the Pharisees and members of Qumrun (Banks 1994, 8-10). During and after the time of the exile, the synagogues had gradually become centre of worship and learning. This education model was also used by the Christian communities as they seek to develop a community for worship and learning, for interaction with Jews and together living a life glorifying to God (Nelson 1989, 184-185).
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