19. Greece, Rome and Jerusalem. Western Culture and the Jewish Origins of Christianity

Christopher Barder

The purpose of this article is to show that the Christian Church, and the society to which it has generally conformed, have for the most part been dominated by the thought world and cultural forms of Greece and Rome rather than by Christianity’s true Jewish background; and that consequently Christianity has suffered theologically and in its practices, and thereby been severely hampered in acting as a salt and light corrective in society, as it itself has erred, In this departure from its true roots, the Church has fallen prey to error and its interaction with society has therefore been mutually damaging. The implications are profound and far reaching.

The cultural and philosophical hold over Western civilization possessed by ancient Greece and Rome has historical roots of profound significance for understanding the development of Christianity. “The sheer veneration of Rome is the clue to much in our civilization”.1 The development of the Western Church was fundamentally without discernment concerning pagan images and therefore there was an acceptance of their philosophical message which diluted Godliness. This would have been anathema to Jewish believers in Yeshua as Messiah who had a grasp of Jewish separation from the world and it should perhaps have been a source of profound discomfort to the spiritually, rather than carnally, minded in the West.

“The strength of the classical tradition derives from its relevance to both secular and ecclesiastical power and pretension … it was … a tradition that the papacy and the princes of the Church gladly accepted. Stories of Christian mistrust of things pagan are rare and can be more than balanced by the reuse of pagan statues, medals and gems, and buildings. Indeed, the popes adopted Roman imperial imagery with little change”.2 This kind of absorption went hand in hand with the Church’s close association with the power of Rome before Christianity became the official religion of the Empire under Constantine in the first quarter of the fourth century.

Yet it is clear that for at least two generations before then, Christianity had gone over to “the culture and ideals of the Roman world”.3 Things had gone so far that for Origen (c 185-254) Jesus has actually brought forth the best of Greek philosophy and ethics.4 “A Christian, therefore, could reject neither Greek culture nor the Roman empire without seeming to turn his back on part of the divinely ordained progress of the human race”.5 By this stage clearly, things had moved so far from the Biblical instructions not to be of the world, that the message of worshipping in Spirit and in truth which permeated the patterns to which the Tabernacle and Temple had adhered, and to which the early Christians were called, seems to have disappeared beyond sight. The process had actually begun long before this time. Its equivalents can be found suggested in Jude 1,3 and 4 and in 2 Thessalonians 2,3 and 7, for example. From this admixture of the pagan and Christian (with emperor Constantine playing a part in the definition of doctrine and creating Caesaropapism being among its most obvious examples, perhaps) the Babylonian mystery religion began its subversion of true Christianity and its hegemony over it.6 Genesis 10:9 refers to Nimrod (from the Hebrew Marad – to rebel) as a “mighty hunter before (“in defiance of,” Companion Bible) the Lord”. The Greco-Roman world was something quite unsafe to be of and, considering persecutions, dangerous even to be in. Clearly “hatred and contempt”7 were the lot of Jews and Christians who would not knuckle under/to the deities of the Roman empire by the end of the second century, as before. Yet the Jewishness of early Christianity would have buttressed it with a cultural and intellectual background with which to resist the enticements of the Greco-Roman world, had it not so very much disassociated itself from such very important roots.

Already the Jews had faced the pagan power of Greek political and cultural ambition when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE) a type of the Antichrist, had desecrated the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, intruding worship of Zeus, stopping the sacrifices and attempting to Hellenize Israel.

The Maccabean revolt had been in response to this and the feast of Hanukkah (mentioned in its Greek form in John 10:22) stemmed from one aspect of this. “Although the process of Hellenization had been going on all over the Near East ever since the conquests of Alexander, its progress has been slow among the Jews”.8 By turning its back on its Old Testament values and cultural roots, the Church emerged in a sense disinherited and at sea in world views which for the most part it failed to stand up to.

This point is all the more important considering that “the typical loyal Jew … felt that he had nothing to learn from the Greeks in the realms of religion and morality. The way that the upper-class Jewish people in Jerusalem flirted with Greek culture and aped Greek fashions infuriated him”,9 and considering that the whole concept of a Messiah is entirely Jewish. Therefore the Church, by deserting its true lineage made plain by Paul (Romans 11:18; 15:27), actually lost its capacity to stand against a different pagan world order and thought world.

Elsewhere (Colossians 2:8; Romans 12:2), Paul made it clear that there were real dangers in the surrounding pagan culture. The Greeks, he warned, sought after wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:22). There was clear enough scriptural example of the need to stand in defiance of, not assimilation of, Greek wisdom (Acts 17:1-32).

Yet without a Jewish background, the idea of being a called out, separated people, holy unto God and belonging to Him, was foreign indeed. Rather, the shift from Jerusalem as the central city to the Gentile world capital Rome, which occurred, was not simply geographical, but helped cause a profound attitudinal shift as well.

This spiritual change was, of course, not instant, but may be taken as part of the beginning of pride, arrogance towards the Jewish people, and supersessionism10 which led the Church directly into heresy and Marcionism.

These attitudes helped inform Justin Martyr, whose preconversion platonic knowledge almost certainly influenced his Christianity, and who thereby fuelled Alexandrian agnosticism in the third century. In fact, Justin Martyr in the second century and Origen in the third were triumphalist and emphasised their Christian superiority to the Jews, thereby helping to lead Christianity seriously astray.

This severance from the Jewish roots and acceptance of Platonism, caused disastrous changes in the understanding of the Church making “the physical world of flesh and matter” seem evil, so affecting the Church’s “understanding of such areas as salvation, spirituality, marriage and the family”11 and thus opening it to much false teaching and heresy, with which the “Church Fathers” are riddled. Not only then does much of the origin of anti-semitism stem from this severance, but also much of the origin of a good deal of false teaching and incorrect Biblical exegesis. So much, in fact, that it lies beyond the scope of this paper to do more than refer to them in passing. Nonetheless, the effects are very much with us still, both outside and within the protestant Churches. Jesus warned quite clearly (Matthew 20:25-28) that the Gentiles had a way of ruling different to that which should prevail among believers. And yet it was not very long before the spiritual offices in the churches were quite differently exercised; with the whole body ministering no longer. In fact the bishops not only came, in the course of time, if they were among the more important ones, to be “the social equal of senators”,12 but also evidently exercised autocratic powers at the head of the community admitting to it by baptism and excluding by excommunication – all this social functioning long before Constantine’s time.13

They were in no sense supposed to be sacerdotal but they had become so.14 Indeed they were supposed to be “counsellors and helpers, guides and feeders of the flock”. It is not in the least bit fanciful to suppose that the essential underpinning for avoiding the pagan authoritarian domination was adherence to New Testament teaching and understanding of the meaning of the Jewish Kohen to which they were not equivalent. Nor, indeed, should they have taken on the worldly and governmental administrative functions which they took on, standing for Roman civilization in the face of the barbarian invasion of the Roman empire.

Indeed the departure from acknowledging what belonged to the Jews, but taking it over for the Church was utilized for the theocratic rulers of the medieval West, who, as in the case of Charlamagne perhaps most famously, not only identified Christianity and the Roman empire together, but also had their wars justified by close analogy with ancient Israel, being identified by ecclesiastics with David and even Moses.

What is clear is that both the functions of early Christian overseers and the behaviour of, and theology surrounding, early medieval kings would have stood a far better chance of appropriate Biblical patterns had the Jewish formative back ground of the early years of the Church been able to sway instead of being repudiated, and then forgotten. Truly God’s people were destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4).

The great admiration for the Church Fathers and their views (and neo-platorism) continued in the medieval West until Aristotle became the foremost intellectual giant in the thirteenth century, prompting Thomas Aquinas’s monumental assimilation and synthesis. Thus the early distortions held sway for well over a millennium with the great gulf between layman and cleric helping to prevent access to the Bible.

On the eve of the Reformation, there was a tendency “to regard Christ as an exemplar, a classical hero, a way of living, rather than as the Saviour on the Cross”.15 It is no exaggeration to say that the Jewish roots would have provided some real protection against viewing the Messiah as a “classical hero”.

One of Aquinas’s most fundamental legacies, through his transmission of Aristotle, was that man’s reason was able to discern the Divine Order in the natural world, and derive from this a natural law which bore the hallmark of God. Therefore the fall had not fundamentally flawed man’s intellect Moral laws, like the physical ones, were therefore discoverable to man’s reason and were always the same. “By building on this false structure, natural theologians opened the door to situational ethics which, like natural laws, are not absolute at all”.16 From this also stemmed a theological response which demanded a distinction between “moral” and “ceremonial” law. Thus in affecting both the understanding of morality, and of law, the effect of Aquinas and his Aristotelianism has been fundamentally damaging to the understanding of Biblical truth.

Unfortunately, the counter reformatory Pope Paul IV and Luther’s later writing were both thoroughly anti-Jewish. The result was once again to further antisemitism and insofar as Luther became for Germans a national hero down the centuries antisemitism became closely associated too. It was Paul IV who made Jews wear yellow hats and live in ghettoes with one entrance only. Luther, for all the courage and brilliance of his confrontation with the papacy, handed to Christianity a most inaccurate view of the Old Testament, giving it a position divorced from the New by insisting on its “superseded legalism” to the impoverishment of subsequent theology.17 Thus it seems that for all his Greek and Latin knowledge, Luther of all people still failed like so many before him, to break out beyond the confines of the cultural background of humanism -the study of the classical languages, texts and writings – sufficiently. It did not show him the Scriptures in their beautiful God inspired unity at least in this one respect for he was not simply a humanist; “no humanist” according to one scholar who quotes Luther saying “Aristotle is going downhill and perhaps he will go all the way down to hell”.18 (Such at least had been Aristotle’s influence).

The spiritually desensitizing effects of the cultures, philosophies and beliefs of Greece and Rome have been immense. For the Church they have resulted, not only from worldliness and succumbing to temptation, but also from a failure to see that the root is essential, not optional, if the branches are to be nourished (Romans 11:1 7). Indeed, the proper recognition of the root would have perhaps saved the Church from some of the power of its Greek and Roman seducers. After all, the Jewish root had supplied the law and prophets (Romans 9:4-5). The failure to see the debt to be paid (Romans 15:27) meant that another indebtedness filled the vacuum; not loving the Jewish people and blessing them led to a long history of worshipping Greek and Roman culture. One of the more remarkable examples of this is that the great legacy to academic education, at least until the 1960’s in the United Kingdom, was Greek and Latin language study and the literature of Greece and Rome.

Thus the Renaissance and humanism had not placed Hebrew in a position of great importance and strangely perhaps, considering the centrality of the Bible to nineteenth century education in Britain, Latin and Greek became the foundations of higher education. The foundations of highbrow culture were not so much therefore Biblical or Judaeo-Christian, but actually Greco-Roman.

What this has cost the Church and indeed the whole of Western civilization is perhaps incalculable since it has cut off the thought world of Jesus and even linguistic insights into the “New Testament”. It has also perpetuated the values of Greco-Roman civilization which were fundamentally antisemitic and full of different, even conflicting, ethical norms.

Since language and literature are in large measure the entry means to another culture and its values, in these days, many are starting more fully to realize the importance of Hebrew. But it seems safe to assert that for centuries the cultures of Greece and Rome have been idols. This is clear from the itinerary of the Grand Tour, (with the Holy Land entirely out of bounds due to danger). But also in the nineteenth century, the Public Schools and the mainly clerical private tutors of the elite could have shown the wonderful world of the Jews and the Old Testament just as they did the classical – something their influence was quite sufficient for.19

Yet the fundamental sense of the Jew as a stranger in the midst – or worse -remained an ingrained attitude. This in the right hands helped create the Balfour Declaration and an acceptance of Zionist aspirations. In the wrong hands it became antisemitism. And either way the following examples20 show a tragic failure to see the true identification of the Christian with his Jewish lineage according to Romans 11:18.

The Earl of Derby in whose 1866 ministry Disraeli served, and Lord Salisbury (formerly Secretary of State for India and Disraeli’s Foreign Secretary 1878-1880) epitomised this attitude to Jews even if these had Christian beliefs. Salisbury described his leader as “an unprincipled Jew who had no right to be in the House of Commons”. And Derby said of Disraeli: “he believes thoroughly in prestige – as all foreigners do”. The Duke of Wellington and Salisbury both felt that Jews ought not to legislate for a Christian community!

This kind of education emphasis exemplifies and makes very obvious the way in which Greece and Rome penetrated even a fairly profoundly biblically aware educational world, and makes all too plain the exclusion, entirely against historical reality, of the Hebraic and Jewish context of Christian belief. Of course, for example, as recent history of Christchurch, Jerusalem, implies21, this was not absolutely and exhaustively the case. Needless to say God (fore)knew that Jerusalem would fall and Jesus made it clear not only that His Kingdom was not of this world, but that the Gospel would spread (Luke 24:47). The fact is, however, that the spiritual roots of Christianity should never have been strayed from. The parallel by way of illustration, perhaps, is the long Jewish yearning for “next year in Jerusalem”. The desire for Jesus’ return has been exegetically separated from the return of the Jewish people to their homeland with simply truly disastrous results for the Church’s theology.

In other words: the spread of Christianity from God’s “Holy Land” should not have meant a spiritual departure from its roots any more than the geographical separation should have meant a forsaking of the desire for Eretz Israel by the Jews. Yet whole sections of the Church show forth their Roman and Greek worldly kingdom origins, rather than their Jewish spiritual ones. There has been, through Caesaropapism, a usurpation of the spiritual by the worldly systems and in part thereby an acceptance of the nominal and socially belonging congregand, rather than the true believer. The Jews from at least the time of Constantine were outcast; the Christians had become acceptable. They therefore were conforming to Greek and Roman culture and were part of that political system. To identify with the Jews was to identify with the outcast and not respectable. Such was the calling which the Church missed. And it reaped not only a warped spirituality, but also curses.

The terrible truth is that the followers of the Jewish Messiah, in the main, embraced Greek philosophy and Roman law and government, but forsook the Jews. In so doing they allowed structure to replace God’s plans, the ways of men to supplant revelation, and brought formality and legalism instead of liberty in the Holy Spirit, whilst often accusing the Jews of legalism! From a triumphant position of assumed superiority the plans of God revealed by His prophets in the scriptures were no longer recognizable for their clear portrayal of His gracious covenant keeping with His ancient people. The resultant conformity to the political structures and thinking of the world by the Church has helped obscure not only the ways of God in history, but also “the Church ceased to understand History and in particular its own role in History”.22

Indeed “the same Church which once had been an outcast, now found itself next to the throne of Caesar”23 and from this stemmed not only position and respectability, but power and mentality not of a Church which in humility depended upon the God of history, but one which with a secular arm could have an army and politics to shape history not according to the direction of God, but at the behest of earthly rulers, according to their, not the Divine pattern. Now many in the Church cannot see the place of Jerusalem in God’s plan, nor the importance of the in gathering of the Jewish people to the recreated Jewish state, nor the crucial importance that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22) – that the Messiah is Jewish, and that there will be an accounting for actions towards the least of his brethren after the flesh.

Within the world, that very power of pride and independence from God, manifested in secular humanism, has meant not parental responsibility for education of all kinds, but school responsibility, state responsibility, and has been exhibited in a collapse in the family.

Thus the “Old Testament” injunctions about the responsibility for the upbringing of children lying with the parents in the home primarily has been lost, as well as the Divine context of all the ways of men. The swagger pride and arrogance of man, shown in cultural forms, and in the Church, have stemmed to no small extent from the cultures of Greece and Rome and the imbibing of their values. Carried into the Churches, the effects have been dire on theology, understanding and godliness.

It is to a God who is slow to anger and swift to bless, abounding in steadfast love, that we can still turn, and repent, and if that is the result of this article and of the themes it has exposed and suggested, then it will indeed have been fruit bearing. For the need it has sought to reveal demands nothing less than an abandonment of the idolization of the roots of contemporary humanism, the belief that “It is one of man’s attributes that with the guidance of Christian belief and the example of the ancients he can create an image of human beauty and produce the harmony to which man’s life can theoretically attain.”24

Rather it is with the abandonment of that Greco-Roman basis that the truth will better be revealed and understood. The pagan inheritance must be jettisoned if we would know the truth and be set free by it, and if the inheritance God made for the Christian world, that of the Jews, is to be made available to do its work in the Church and society and for the State of Israel, as God so directs. There must be a departure from the power of Greek and Roman roots and a return to Hebraic roots; a repentance and return to the roots of the Christian Church. Otherwise how shall it bear true witness to the world?


1 John Summerson, The C!assical Language of Architecture, Thames and Hudson, 1980, p89.

2 Michael Greenhalgh, The Classical Tradition in Art, Duckworth, 1978, p20.

3 Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, Thames and Hudson, 1971, p82.

4 Ibid, p83.

5 Ibid, p84.

6 Compare Ralph Edward Woodrow, Babylonian Mystery Religion, Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association Inc,1990.

7 Brown, op cit, p16.

8 Moshe Rosen, Y’Shua, Moody Press, 1982, p4.

9 Ibid, p5.

10 See Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Centre for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989, p8&9. 11 Phrases cited in this paragraph come from Ibid, p90.

12 A. H. M. Jones, The Decline of The Ancient World, Longmans, 1966, p270.

13 Ibid, p252.

14 For the non sacerdotal character, unlike the Old Testament priesthood, see Robert Baker Girdlestone “Girdlestone’s Synonyms of the Old Testament“, ed Donald R. White, Baker Book House, (no date), p270.

15 A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe, Thames and Hudson, 1966, p30.

16 For this quotation and much of this paragraph, see Danny Litvin, Pentecost is Jewish, Promise Publishing, 1987, footnote pages v-vii.

17 John Drane, Introducing the Old Testament Lion Publishing, 1987, p330-331.

18 Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, Penguin Books, 1968, p44 & p46.

19 F. M. L Thomson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, p81-87.

20 For what follows, see Jon Kimche, The Unromantics, The Great Powers and the Balfour Declaration, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968, p70-71.

21 See Kelvin Crombie, For the Love of Zion, Christian Witness and the Restoration of Israel Hodder and Stoughton, 1991.

22 Claude Duvernoy, The Zionism of God, Ahva Press (Printers), Jerusalem, 1985, p226. 23 Ibid, to which I owe much of this paragraph.

24 Sem Dresden, Humanism in the Renaissance, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968, p229.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 1, No 1, Autumn 1992, The Call to Return to Roots)



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