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.