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Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
They Think they are Jews, but Are Not
One of the messier issues in early Christian history, including the book of Revelation, is the relationship between “church and synagogue.” Certainly by the second generation of Christian history, those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah began to affirm that they, rather than non-believing Jews, formed the real Israel of God. Stated briefly, many Christians believed that Jews who did not affirm that Jesus was the Messiah forfeited their rights, privileges, and citizenship as members of Israel.
This general Christian conviction seems to show up in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9. Some scholars who, like the early Luther, are critical of John’s theology charge the author of Revelation with religious bigotry or anti-Semitism for telling non-believing Jews that they were no longer entitled to be called Israelites. While God allows everyone the freedom to embrace or to reject the teachings of Scripture, it should at least be pointed out that long before the advent of Christ many Second Temple Jews had already begun the process of eliminating others who regarded themselves as Israelites.
I am referring, of course, to the Samaritans. Viewed historically, beginning from the call of Abraham, the group that came to be called Samaritans shared as much history with Judea’s Jews than they did not share. Every episode from Abraham through Solomon was common heritage to both the “Samaritans” and the “Jews.”
The fact that the “Jews” of Jesus’ day had disenfranchised their siblings became even more apparent with an important archaeological discovery in the 1970s. Most of what has been known about the Samaritans is what is told about them by their enemies (=Jews). As far as archaeological evidence is concerned, there were only a handful of artifacts that came from Samaritan hands.
Even though archaeological excavations and research had taken place on the Greek island of Delos for decades, it was in the 1970s that the French archaeologists discovered epigraphical evidence on Delos authored by so-called “Samaritans.” The startling fact was that the Samaritans on Delos did not call themselves “Samaritans.” Rather, they regarded themselves as “Israelites who worship at Mt. Gerizim” (or “Israelites who make first fruit offerings at Mt. Gerizim”). The Jews of the pre-Christian era had systematically attempted to amputate those who worshipped at Gerizim from the history that began at Abraham.
One can choose to disapprove of John’s language and theology in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9, but there is little room for depicting the Jews in Smyrna and Philadelphia as victims when long before Christianity they and their ancestors had used a similar rhetoric and process of marginalization against their siblings, those Israelites who worshipped at Gerizim.
Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
At least as early as the writings of John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, interpreters of Acts 19:1-7 have thought that the “disciples” mentioned in 19:1 were “Baptists” who remained loyal to their eponymous prophetic founder, John the Baptist. If Chrysostom and later interpreters have been correct, then naturally one wonders why this group was located so far removed from its Judean origin. Without this Lukan reference, one might have imagined that followers of John would have remained clustered in Judea, or at least in the Holy Land.
The deeper one looks into the historical resources of the Graeco-Roman world, the more the mobility of the ancients becomes apparent. The Samaritans, for example, provide another illustration of a branch of ancient Judaism that was not content to remain at home, but moved into the Diaspora. From the Cycladic island of Delos comes a Greek inscription containing a dedication given by the Samaritans. Once again, had this archaeological evidence not come to light, scholars would likely not have imagined that this Samaritan branch of Judaism would have had worshippers on Delos.
We do not know whether the Ephesian Baptists or the Delian Samaritans saw themselves as missionaries, but when we come to the early Buddhists, it is clear that they saw themselves involved in “proselytism,” disseminating both Buddhist teachings and lifestyle.
This archaeological record provides some of the earliest documentation of Buddhism and comes from a corpus of 3rd century BC inscriptions. The author is a regal convert to Buddhism. Ashoka the Great was one of India’s greatest rulers. After the King witnessed firsthand the savage killing of over 100,000 people in his conquest of the small, neighboring state of Kalinga, he became disgusted and devoted himself to Buddhism and pacifism.
Based upon his new devotion to Buddhism, Ashoka [Beloved-of-the-gods] sends “missionaries,” not only to Greek communities in the region of Afghanistan left from the days of Alexander the Great and Seleucid control, but also “missionaries” to the Mediterranean Basis. These ambassadors of Buddhism were sent about 4,000 miles to Greece, the Middle East, and Egypt.
When the modern student of the New Testament reads of the travels of the Magi in Matthew or imagines the journeys of Paul or other apostles, it is important to keep in mind the amazing amount and extent of travel in the ancient world and how itinerant most religions in the Graeco-Roman era were.