Read an Excerpt
Cultures clashed in Greco-Roman times, and the Eastern Mediterranean filled to bursting with a heady and volatile mix of peoples, powers, and ideas. Confusing for most, exhilarating for some, the energies unleashed by these uncertain times peaked during the first century C.E. and resulted in extravagant social experimentation and imaginative intellectual projections. The reason for the outpouring of intellectual energy, and for the struggle to find new ways to group, was that the cultural traditions flowing into the mixing bowl were no longer supported by the social institutions that had produced and sustained them. People were on their own to manage as best they could with only the memory of provincial values to guide them in a helterskelter cosmopolitan age. Most rose to the challenge, and the inventiveness of some proposals for dealing with multicultural forces and surviving the machinations of the blind goddess called Fate (tyche) was nothing short of genius. We need to understand both the malaise and the creativity of these times, for it was just at this juncture that Judaism and Christianity emerged. As we shall see, the attractiveness of early Christianity is best explained as one of the more creative and practical social experiments in response to the loss of cultural moorings that all peoples experienced during this time.
Three model societies were in everyone's mind during the Greco-Roman age (second century B.C.E. to second century C.E.): the ancient Near Eastern templestate, the Greek city-state (polis), and the Roman republic. Eventually, they all came tumbling down in the aftermath of Alexander the Great'scampaigns.We are accustomed to thinking of Alexander as the enlightened ruler who introduced the peoples of the ancient Near East to the glories of Greek culture and so created the Hellenistic age, where we locate the foundation for Western civilization. We do not usually consider the negative effects of his campaigns which brought to an end the last of the illustrious empires of the ancient Near East, especially those of the Persians and the Egyptians, and tarnished the classical Greek ideal of the polis by using its model for imperialistic purposes. These effects must be in mind as we proceed. After Alexander, the memories of both the temple-state and the polis were still alive. They were the models proper to civilization. But the societies organized on those models were gone forever. In their place were warring kingdoms, with the Romans waiting in the wings.
The temple-state was a model of civilization that had been honed to perfection by three thousand years of fine tuning. Historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith (1987) has helped us see that the model consisted of two systems of social stratification governed by the notions of power and purity. A king occupied the apex of a system of power that filtered down through a hierarchy of control in which all members of the society had their places. He had the authority to organize labor, tell people what to do, and get things done. The king was sovereign, and his power determined that he be regarded as the locus of what we now call the sacred with its capacity both to attract and terrify. Purity, on the other hand, was the notion that governed a classification of things and people concerned with the order, stability, and harmonious hum of society. Society was understood as an organic unit of human activity and social well-being. Priests presided over a system of temple sacrifice designed to set right things that had gone wrong or gotten out of place. At the apex of this system in which everyone and everything had a proper place, the high priest represented sanctity or holiness. Holiness was the pristine splendor that evoked awe. The two systems of power and purity were merged in such a way that everyone knew his or her place in relation to both authority (power) and propriety (purity). The two systems also worked as binary opposites. The king was highest in power, lowest in purity (by virtue of his function as warrior and "executioner"), while the high priest was highest in purity, lowest in power.
The importance of Smith's work is enormous, not only for explaining the social logic invested in the Jerusalem temple of Greco-Roman times, but also for understanding how precious and profound life could be in a society working on this model. The temple-state was not a church or "worshiping community" as traditionally imagined by Christians with only their Old Testaments to guide them. The temple-state organized labor, administered justice, and distributed goods by means of bureaucracies centered in the temple buildings and palace compound. The temple announced national pride, served as monument to the achievements of the past, put people in touch with the world of the gods, provided daily pageantry, dispensed prescriptions for the healing of all ills, and called for civic processions, feasts, and festivals on the grandest scales possible. As civic center, the temple also supported priests, artists, artisans, granary experts, couriers, accountants, scribes, teachers, and intellectuals. For the people, this social arrangement resulted in a tightly knit, patriarchal system of religion and politics that placed great value on stable families, public honor, social propriety, and personal loyalty to the king and the cult of the temple deity who ruled over the land. The book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible and the Wisdom of Ben Sira in the Apocrypha of the Christian Bible contain fine examples of the pride and piety possible in a temple-state. The temple-state had been the basic form of vigorous and complex civilization in the ancient Near East since the third of fourth millenniun B.C.E.