Many cultures and world views have impacted the Western world, but none were more influential than those of the Jewish people and the Greeks. In addition to providing the two primary languages of the Bible (Hebrew and Greek, although part of Daniel was written in Aramaic), they also provided the foundations on which our political, educational, scientific, philosophical, and judicial systems were established.
The story of the Jewish people begins with Abraham (renamed from “Abram”) who lived around 2000 BC. God called the monotheistic Abram out of the idolatrous and polytheistic region of Ur of the Chaldees, and led him and his household toward Canaan. The Bible shows us that the monotheistic view of God was lost soon after the fall of man, and it wasn’t until God made a great nation out of Abraham and his descendants that monotheism was popularized again. The Western world today is dominated by monotheism.
“The Laws of Moses as well as the laws of Rome contributed suggestions and impulse to the men and institutions which were to prepare the modern world; and if we could have but eyes to see… we should readily discover how very much besides religion we owe to the Jew.”
– U.S. President Woodrow Wilson
The Jews were given the Law of Moses of course, as well as the rest of the Old Testament of the Christian bible. They were also given the promise of a homeland and a redeemer. “…to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came …” (Rom. 9:4,5) Through the Law of Moses we took our concepts of
- Equality before the law
- Judges following the law, regardless of their personal opinions and feelings.
- The presumption of innocence
- Punishment fitting the crime
- Consideration of intent, and other factors when determining the severity of punishment
- Civil court awarding compensatory or punitive damages to the victim
- Punishment for cruelty to animals
We also have the first record of a time management concept in action as Moses delegated his judicial role to others so that he could devote himself to more important matters. (Ex. 18:1;3-26)
In addition to the benefits of Jewish thought on Western culture, there was also the influence of Jewish thought on the early Christian church. Judaizers burdened believers with the idea that they couldn’t be saved without keeping the Law of Moses and observing circumcision. Paul addressed the issue in the book of Galatians, and the matter was so critical that the apostles conducted a council in Jerusalem around 50 AD to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. To this day there are certain elements of the Law of Moses that are still causing controversy within the Christian church.
- Many Christians believe in going to church on Saturday to observe the Sabbath.
- Many churches teach tithing, which is an Old Testament concept that wasn’t taught or practiced in the early church.
- Many bible teachers teach dietary requirements based on the Torah.
- Some bible prophecy teachers try to make Old Testament festivals and time cycles applicable today.
For more on how Jewish thought influenced the West click here.
The conquests of Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BC spread Greek culture over non-Greek lands, in what became known as Hellenism. During the Hellenistic age, the Greeks sought to create a common culture throughout the empire based on that of Athens. Jewish life throughout the Middle East was influenced by the culture and language of Hellenism, and in Judea relations between Hellenized Jews and traditionalists became tense. The same Judaizers who burdened the early Gentile believers also opposed the Hellenized Jews, insisting that they return to the roots of their faith and culture much like fundamentalist Christians do today.
During the Hellenistic period the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament used within Judaism during the time of Christ) was produced, along with the apocrypha and pseudepigraphic books like the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch, the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, etc.
The Hellenistic period faded away as the Apostle Paul began to influence the Roman world with his gospel which included the belief that in God’s eyes there is neither Jew nor Greek. As Christianity grew in prominence the influence of Judaism also decreased.
Greek culture has also impacted the Western world in many ways, including:
- Literature – Homer’s poetry from ancient Greece is among the earliest recorded.
- Alphabet – Alpha and beta are the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – thus the name.
- Historical Documentation – The Greek historian Herodotus from the 5th century BC is considered the father of history.
- Theater – Originated in the city-state of Athens.
- Math – Although the Greeks didn’t invent mathematics, they certainly are credited with developing it and laying the foundation for modern math.
- Political Science – The concept of democracy began with the Greeks.
- Philosophy – It has been said that Western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for Western philosophy.
- Science – Closely related to philosophy, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Thales is called the father of science, and Aristotle is called the father of biology.
There are many references to Greeks in the New Testament, although today we would probably just use the word “Gentile”. The language and culture of the Greeks had so saturated the Mediterranean world that virtually all non-Jews were labeled “Greeks”.
Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed. (Acts 14:1)
And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8-10)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. (Rom. 10:12)
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor. 1:22-24)
Although Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire, the Greek Empire that preceded it established Koine Greek as a somewhat universal language. In studying Roman architecture you will find that the Romans drew heavily from the Greeks. The same could be said of their mythology (Zeus/Jupiter; Poseidon/Neptune; Artemis/Diana … etc.).
God chose the time and conditions that were perfect for Jesus to come into the world. Roman oppression caused the Jewish people to long for liberation. The Romans had provided the Roman Peace (Pax Romana), and built roads to prepare the spread of the gospel. The Greek language simplified communicating the gospel, and the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul helped to prepare people to receive the message of salvation.
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Gal. 4:4,5)
The Greeks and Christianity
Greek thought also influenced Christian theology, and not always for the better.
- Hermeneutics – Named after the Greek god Hermes, hermeneutics is the process of deriving the meaning of a text originated with the Greeks, and is now a major component of systematic theology among bible scholars.
- Logos – The Greek word logos (translated “the word” repeatedly in the first chapter of John) came from the Greek concept for reason or discourse, but came to mean the personification of truth within Judaism.
- Gnosticism – The widespread heresy of Gnosticism in the second century was largely attributed to Plato and Neoplatonism, which emerged in the third century AD.