[Text: mostly Acts 16-19]
Context matters, when we’re reading the New Testament.
In fact, if we ignore the history and geography and worldviews that are the larger settings of the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, we’re likely to miss some of the main threads of the story, and the main concerns of the writers.
If we’re reading the Gospels, for example, it’s important to be familiar with Old Testament norms and rules, as well as with the culture of Second Temple Judaism1 under Roman occupation.2 In Acts, as the story of the early church moves beyond the boundaries of Palestine and out into the wider Greco-Roman world, we need another kind of background knowledge. Surprisingly enough, you may have learned some of it in the sixth grade!
It’s funny to think, but there are actually some Greek gods and goddesses walking around in the NT. Well, maybe not the gods themselves; but their memory is alive, especially among the country people, and the idea of these ancient deities permeates the first-century Mediterranean world. The early Jewish-Christian missionaries, emerging from Jerusalem and Judea into “the ends of the earth,” would have encountered the influence of the Greek gods on architecture, economics, philosophy, and even language itself. So as readers who must look back on a time that was long ago and far away, we should expect to find evidence of Greek polytheism sprinkled through these Christian writings. Time to brush up on our Greek myths!
In this post I want to give you a little tour of the NT’s museum of Greek gods. Just where do they show up, and who are these divine characters when they’re at home?
As a little background first of all, let me note that while the world Peter and Paul traveled through was presently owned and controlled by the Romans, these military-minded empire-builders were mostly content to piggyback on the language, art, and legends of the Greeks they had conquered.3 Greek culture was so pervasive, even outside the land of Greece itself, that everyday Greek was the lingua franca of the known world.4 This is, in fact, the original language of our NT books. So that’s how come the polytheistic culture of the day finds its way into the Christian Bible.
Sometimes in the NT a person’s name will preserve the cultural memory of a myth. Apollos, the eloquent Alexandrian evangelist, was aptly named by his parents: Apollo, who alone among the gods retains his Greek name in the Romans’ divine lineup, presided over the realms of knowledge, lyrics, and oracles. In Athens, a man named Dionysius rose above his unfortunate handle (he was named for Dionysus, god of wine parties and madness) to follow Paul in faith. And one of the friends Paul greets by name at the end of Romans is Hermes, who must have endured in his life a lot of ribbing about winged sandals and talking too much.
Luke reports (with some delight, I think) that one time Paul himself was mistaken for this smooth-tongued messenger of the gods. This happened in the mountainous region of Asia Minor called Lystra, truly a back-country town where pagan religion was flavored more with superstition than with the sophisticated philosophy of a place like Athens. The people of Lystra spoke their own language, Lycaonian, and as you can see on the map below they were not geographically Greek, either. But Greek influence was evidently pervasive: when Paul the preacher and Barnabas his quieter companion worked an orthopedic miracle, the people immediately decided they were gods walking around in the flesh—Hermes and Zeus, to be exact. Luke makes sure we know that Paul was thought to be Hermes “because he was the chief speaker.”
The goddess Artemis5 gets a lot of attention in one chapter of Acts, as the gospel of Jesus begins to affect even the economics of a city. Demetrius, an Ephesian silversmith who specialized in idols of the goddess, recognizes the threat of this powerful new monotheistic religion in a region dominated by Artemis’s temple and the consequent tourist trade. He gathers his guild and makes a public scene to oppose Paul’s message that “gods made with hands are not gods,” ending up with a crowd in the city’s open-air theatre shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours. Though the motivation behind the demonstration was originally financial, Demetrius knew what buttons to push to rile up the passions of the local populace. Nobody was going to displace their beloved goddess of the hunt.
Ephesus is still not quite geographically Greek, though it is across the Aegean from Achaia, the island home of the original Greek city-states. Here we find Athens, named, of course, for the gray-eyed Athena,6 goddess of reason, arts, and literature. When Luke narrates Paul’s visit to this city he notes that “all the Athenians7 and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” aptly reflecting the interests of their city’s patron goddess.
Notice that Paul is brought by the curious crowd to the Areopagus, literally “the rock of Ares” – where the god of war was supposedly tried for the murder of Poseidon’s son – to discourse more fully on the “foreign gods” that he was preaching. If you have heard of apologetics-oriented churches or ministries that call themselves “Mars Hill,” they take their name from Paul’s apologetic moment on this rocky outcropping (though they give it a Roman twist).
One more story to round out this panoply of Greek deities. This one is hidden in the language of the NT, like an “Easter egg” in a computer game. When you read in Acts 16 about a slave girl with a “spirit of divination” (ESV) who persistently announced Paul’s divine credentials, what you don’t realize is that the unique word used to name her particular experience of possession is pythōna—which looks a lot like a word you know in English. There’s a story behind the use of this word to diagnose demonic divination: first, there’s the legend of Apollo’s struggle with the monstrous Python at Delphi; then later its association with the place of the Oracle connected the word with the idea of soothsaying.8 That the name of Jesus quieted that serpent’s tongue is significant on all kinds of levels.
By the time of Jesus and Paul, the gods and goddesses of the Greeks had retreated, as it were, into the imaginations of the country folk, where they still enjoyed a lively presence and devotion. To the philosophers and scholars of the cities, the deities had become mere handles for abstract concepts, or figures in famous epics; to the metalworkers and other craftsmen, they had become a source of income. And to a mob in an open-air theatre, idolatry had merged with political identity: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
It was this world that Paul and his fellows traveled, making their way down the Roman roads and through the Greek superstitions and philosophies that they found along their path to declare something still unknown to many of their listeners: “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man…”
The time was ripe for a changing of the gods.
Postscript: After posting this I realized I had forgotten to mention Castor and Pollux, better known to us as the constellation Gemini (the Twins). See what you can find out about their story, and then try to track down their cameo in the NT. Can you also recognize any significance in their intersection with the Christian story?
Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!
All quotations from the Bible are taken from the ESV.
1The “Second Temple Period” is the name scholars give to the stretch of time that lasted from the initial rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (finished around 516 B.C.) to its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D. This time period overlaps the end of the OT (think about the rebuilding narratives in Ezra and Nehemiah, for example) and all (or almost all?) of the NT. Then there are many centuries in between those bookending dates during which Herod the Great invested in some dramatic refurbishing, and various empires competed for control of the area. It’s worth some research to learn more, because this is the history that most immediately informs Jesus’ context in Roman-occupied Palestine.
2The Roman General Pompey conquered the region in 63 B.C. The Roman Empire per se started a little before Jesus’ birth, with Caesar Augustus declaring himself in 27 A.D.
3The Romans did coin their own deities at times, rather than just renaming those belonging to their more mythologically accomplished Greek neighbors. But Roman-origin deities, like their creators, are less about good storytelling and tend more toward the political and partisan (e.g., the Caesars, and concepts like Victory, Liberty, and even the city of Rome itself).
4Thanks to Alexander the Great, the hotshot Macedonian general whose personal tutor was Aristotle. He lived and conquered about 300 years before Rome became an Empire.
5Artemis is rendered Diana in the KJV and NKJV, which is a strange choice because it means there’s a double translation going on here—Diana is her Roman name, but the people spoke Greek in Ephesus. You can read about this story in Acts 19.
6Homer, anyone? You can read about Paul’s trip to Athens in Acts 17.
7Luke is using hyperbole. He was probably sensitive enough to notice that the only Athenians with time on their hands for conversation about ideas were wealthy men.
8The word is used at Acts 16:16. You can read the legend of Apollo and the Python here. My interest is purely in the historical context of this word and how this intersects Paul’s missionary activity; other Christians have apparently adduced from this idiomatic allusion diagnostic information about possession and the spirit world.