When people think of religion and the New Testament, they often think of wonder-working. You know what I mean, miracles. And while these supernatural acts are an important part of the narrative, it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees.

These unexplainable works help to explain the social realities that are important in the eyes of a community.Wonders point to the Kingdom of God at hand. Miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God coming into fruition.

Given our academic study of the New Testament, we can’t speak to questions about the veracity or reality of God. But we should note that divinity seems to play a big role in Hellenistic, Roman, and Second Temple Jewish culture. In Hellenism, the ancient God’s of Olympic pantheon (i.e. Zeus et al) lived high in the heavens (Gk. ouranos). Rome’s pantheon of Gods were similar in function and the myths that narrated them despite their different names (e.g. Zeus = Jupiter, Heracles=Hercules). They too lived in the heavens (Latin, caelum). And though the Jews were monotheists, their God also dwelled in the heavens (Hebrew, shamayim).

Common to all three traditions is that people went to established sites to commune with the divine through animal sacrifices. These sites are called temples. And if the priests and community carry out the rituals properly, the divine took pleasure in the tastes and smells of the barbecue. (Priests generally ate the material evidence of the sacrifice. The divine consumed the ideal or essential portion transmitted through the ritual).

Visualizing the divine was important for the communal imagination, but how people saw the divine differed in the three cultural settings. The Greeks and Romans created idols to physically represent the supernatural essence of the divine. Jewish custom prohibited idol-making, so their God’s “glory” (the fancy word for appearance) was generally represented by light. So lights in the temple on lamp stands (or even just your home lamp) was reminder of God’s presence (cf. Maccabees).

But what is the character of the divine in these cultural settings?

The Hellenists, building upon a fair bit of Ancient Greek history debated about whether the Gods were real or just metaphors for the “logos” or blueprint of the universe. (Gk logos, literally means word or study of, as in “biology” and “In the beginning was the Word”). But whatever was going on, the divine expressed the rationale behind how the universe worked. The sea, the harvest, fertility, the hunt, you name it–there was something behind it. Any unpredictability in those aspects of life were part of the Gods’ quirks. And those who are greatest among the sons of men may be seen as (often posthumously) as sons of God. Alexander was eulogized as such. And the supporting evidence was to be found in Hellenization.

Image of Alexander the Great on a horse in marble. IT's the book cover of Alan Fildes' and Joann Fletcher's Alexander the Great: Son of the Gods.
Famous for more than two millennia for the amazing deeds that he accomplished in his short life of thirty-two years, King Alexander III of Macedon is the most celebrated figure of classical antiquity. Alexander the Great: Son of the Gods presents, in a year-by-year chronicle, an intimate and fascinating portrait of the man who, in less than two decades, created the greatest empire the world had ever seen and acquired a semi-mythic status that persists today.

Among the topics covered are Alexander’s family life, including his stormy relationship with his father, King Philip, and the influence of his mother, Queen Olympias; his brilliant leadership, outwitting opponents and inspiring his devoted troops; and his daily life on the march and off duty, whether sharing the hardships of his men or indulging in the renowned bouts of feasting that may have contributed to his early death. Generously illustrated with ancient art from museums around the world, this is an engrossing, accessible biography of a legendary man.

The same could be said of the Romans for the reasons we’ve discussed here and in prior class sessions. But one innovative thing that happens here–at least, more explicitly than we see in Hellenism–is that the office of Rome’s king is bound to divinity. Caesar is the heir, prince (cf. Latin princeps), and ambassador of the heavens. He is the pontifex maximus, the supreme bridge that connects heaven and earth. He’s the chief priest of the kingdom. These qualities were backed up in political terms, such as those told in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, the sacrifices made by the people to Caesar, and by the mythologies that developed after their death (see DLS, pp. 41-43). The Pax Romana proved that Caesar, as far as the empire was concerned, was a god on earth.

2 Coins with caption: Portrait of Octavian as Caesar Divi filius opposite that of the Divius Iulius (Sestercius of Octavian ca. 40BCE)
Left: Octavian; Right: Julius Caesar. Both are minted as divine.

For the Jewish people, the Hellenistic and Roman articulations of the Kingdom of God didn’t hold water. It wasn’t just that they were theologically incorrect in their view. It was also that life as a colonial vassal had its ups and downs, and the downs were really low. And when things were at their worst, they looked beyond the Hellenistic saviors for salvation and Roman promises of peace and security. They looked to their own scriptures to recall that their God was their savior, their champion, and their ruler.

As we look more directly into Second Temple history, we’ll find that there are many different persons directing the way to God. Some are more at home in Hellenism and Romanization than others. Daniel Lynwood Smith will present these figures as “sign prophets” in Chapter 4. Please define the following terms:

  • Sins,
  • sacrifice,
  • sign prophets,
  • sect(s),
  • asceticism,
  • Qumran,
  • fasting,
  • miqveh