Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the NewTestament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
I hope once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
God Hates Bloodshed
When Jesus (John 3:19, 7:7) and his followers (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 5:16) labelled the surrounding cultures and civilization with the term “evil,” violence and bloodshed cannot have been far from their minds. Even more pernicious than the brute force wielded by the Roman military in its inexorable expansion and maintenance of its borders was the role of ubiquitous violence and bloodshed in the venues of games and entertainment in the Roman Empire. The Roman games were synonymous with bloodshed. As Shelby Brown observed (“Death as Decoration: Scenes from the Arena on Roman Domestic Mosaics,” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, 1992, p. 184), “The immediate purpose of a major portion of many games was for a stronger opponent to overcome a weaker and to stab, claw, gore, bite, or trample the loser to death for the enjoyment of spectators protected from the fray.”
To be sure there were occasions when even a pagan philosopher like Seneca would teach against the inhumanity of gladiator combat. In Seneca’s 7th letter, to his friend Lucilius, the philosopher describes the brutality of the games and concludes “Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games, I pray you. Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them. So stay away.” Another exception to the Graeco-Roman love affair with violence would be the pagan crowd’s protest against the excruciating abuses of the torture of Christians under the tyranny of Nero.
The commitment of the early followers of Christ to humility, peace, non-violence, and meekness stands in stark contrast to the glorification of brute force and bloodshed prevalent in the entertainment values of so many cultures, both ancient and modern.