Outline

I. The symbolic world of early Christianity consists in four distinct cultural realms that are closely interwoven.

A. A symbolic world is made up of the social structures and the social meanings that express and support those structures.

B. At the most basic level, "Mediterranean culture" exhibits certain constant characteristics in every period.

1. Some of these characteristics are connected to topography, climate, and economy.

2. Some are constants of social interaction, such as the system of patronage and the accompanying emphasis on shame and honor.

3. Some are expressed by the dominant religious system of polytheism.

C. Since the time of Alexander the Great (d. 323 b.c.e.), the dominant cultural force in the Mediterranean was Hellenism.

1. From the middle of the second century b.c.e., Rome had steadily taken political control over the Mediterranean, but Greek culture continued in that framework; thus, "Greco-Roman culture."

2. Christianity took root and first appeared as a sect of Judaism, which existed both in Palestine and in communities throughout the Diaspora.

II. To understand the immediate context for the religious patterns of the first century c.e., it is important to perceive the gap between Hellenistic ideals and realities, a gap caused above all by the fact of empire.

A. Alexander the Great's ideal was to create a single, pan-Hellenic civilization, based on the principles of the classical Athens he admired.

1. The tools of Hellenization were language (koine, Greek), the institutions of the polis (city-state)—such as the gymnasium and military school—intermarriage, and religious syncretism.

2. The goal was to universalize the intense life of civic participation that was found in the greatest of Greek cities and to break down barriers between people. This idea is expressed by the word "cosmopolitan," meaning "the world is my city."

B. Despite the founding of Hellenistic cities and the spread of Greek language and cultural institutions, Alexander's success was mixed.

1. Politically, the Greek Empire divided itself and quickly became prey to the stronger will of Rome.

2. Culturally, the world of Asia was made Greek, but the resulting "Hellenism" was also deeply affected by the conquered cultures.

3. Above all, the mere fact of empire meant that the attempt to franchise local identity was doomed to failure.

C. For many in the first-century Roman Empire, conditions of life made the bright dream of cosmopolitanism a nightmare of alienation and anomie.

D. Among those conditions were the size of cities, the loss of local self-determination (everything is ultimately answerable to the empire), the presence of military forces, the severe stratification of society (including mass slavery), and the threat of coercion.

E. People at the highest and lowest levels of society were least affected by social change and its accompanying threat to the symbolic world, whereas those in the middle were most affected. These were tradespeople, travelers, and craftsmen. These were the sort of people who joined cults and became the first Christians.

III. The conditions of empire severely challenge traditional forms of religion and philosophy.

A. In the classical period, the polytheistic religious system functioned in a public fashion to support the civic life of the polis. Each city had its own patron gods or goddesses.

B. The period of empire sees the development of two religious symbols, "fate" and "chance," that express the sociological realities of alienation and anomie.

C. In response to this situation, philosophy narrows its focus and concentrates on the individual and the household rather than on the state (the empire was like a fact of nature) by emphasizing private and domestic virtue; it turns from theory to therapy. The philosophers tried to help people live in a world they could not change.

D. New patterns of religious activity likewise emerge in response to the need for identity and a sense of belonging, such as the proliferation of mystery cults.

E. Judaism is perceived by many Greeks and Romans—and by many of its adherents—as a particularly appealing form of philosophy and a particularly ancient form of mystery religion.

F. Christianity developed under these circumstances, not in isolation, but as a rival to other claimants to religious and philosophical significance.

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