Greek Statue against a blue sky.

Photo credit | EVREN AYDIN on Unsplash

It can at times be jarring to hear the reasons behind someone’s decision to walk away from their faith.

When I was a freshman in college, nearly 15 years ago, I made the decision to switch from an engineering degree into theology. I decided to take a course on world religions while I was still attending a public university, before shifting to a private Christian college. I thought (wrongly, it turns out) that I would be more likely to receive an unbiased education on non-Christian faiths from a secular institution rather than a faith-based one. Instead, I ran into a professor who would forever change the direction of my educational goals (and not for a good reason).

And that’s why I decided to leave seminary and pursue eastern faiths” he stated at the end of one of our initial classes, which was largely focused on his personal history. He had grown up Catholic, and had begun the process of entering the priesthood when he ran across a question that troubled him so deeply, he eventually abandoned his faith. His question? Why was the New Testament written in Greek and not Hebrew?

He reasoned that, if the New Testament writers were intimately familiar with Judaism, then they surely should have been writing in the national language of Israel. He then reasoned that the writers of the New Testament must have been so divorced from Jewish culture that the teaching of the New Testament must not have been based on the writings and teaching of Jesus (and therefore, were irrelevant).

I’m imagining at this time that anybody reading this that has spent time in the study of theology or history just rolled their eyes. In fact, many people who have not spent much time at all studying history still have a basic enough grasp of it to begin to dispute this assertion. But consider it from our class’s point of view:

We were largely freshmen in college. We had no advanced training in theology or history. We had not yet learned about the ways in which college faculty can vary in quality and education; our schooling up until this point tended to emphasize the concept of the teacher being an unassailable authority over whatever subject they were teaching (ha!). It never occurred to most of us that he could simply be wrong about a basic historical concept (at least at first). There is an obvious, well-attested historical reason why the New Testament’s authors could simultaneously be intimately familiar with Judaism and still choose to write the majority of their writings in Greek instead of Hebrew.

It is called Hellenization.

In order to understand what Hellenization is, and how it affected the growth and life of the early church, you need to step way back in time (nearly 2400 years) to a (seemingly) backwater kingdom on the northern end of the Greek peninsula. This was the kingdom of Macedon.

Macedon was not initially considered a power worthy of fear, especially when compared to the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta at the heights of their power. It was considered backward, easily defeatable, indefensible, and generally weak all around. In the 370’s to 360’s BC, it suffered a number of military defeats, losing thousands of soldiers in battle to cities in the south, and regularly harassed by invaders and pillagers.

And then a king arose. He centralized the leadership of the sprawling kingdom. He was a surpassingly charismatic leader, able to convince his harried and bloodied people that it was worthwhile to join together in the defense of their state. He professionalized and innovated the Macedonian military, introducing several important concepts that carried over for centuries. His armies defeated Thebes, and then Athens, and eventually united all of Greece under one alliance, known as the League of Corinth. He was appointed the leader of the combined armies of Greece, and the league set its sights on attacking the vast empire of Persia. He never got to launch his campaign. As he was preparing for the invasion, this king was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. The task of leading the assault on the Persian Empire fell onto the shoulders of his twenty-year-old son.

History spoiler.

His son’s name was Alexander.

Over the next 10 years, Alexander the Great built one of the largest empires of its time. He conquered territories in the Levant, in Europe, in Egypt, and throughout Southwest Asia. His empire controlled territory on three continents, spanning all the way into India. This territory included modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

By Generic Mapping Tools [GFDL] via Wikimedia Commons

As his army moved throughout the region, it carried along with it Greek language and customs. His armies were by no means the first to carry their language to most of these conquered areas; Greek traders had done so for centuries beforehand. However, his reign gave the ruling classes of many conquered territories a reason to adopt the language of their new rulers. Simultaneously, the soldiers he left behind, and the traders and ambassadors who entered the new lands behind his armies carried their culture with them, and much of the ancient world became intimately familiar with the Greek language, literature, history, and culture.

This adoption of Greek culture, language and religion throughout the areas influenced by Alexander’s empire is what we mean when we use the term Hellenization.

Following Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire fractured as his generals fought for influence and control. These generals divided Alexander’s empire up into a number of smaller successor states. Strangely enough, this fracturing increased the rate of Hellenization in places like Judea, which fell in an area that was between the spheres of influence of two prominent successor states (the Ptolemaic Empire and the Seleucid Empire). My theory: as the two empires vied for influence in the area, they each tried to establish a controlling influence in the contested area, which led them to attempt to force the local population to adopt the manners and customs that the two empires had in common. Fun story; the history recounted in the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees are in part an account of Judean rebels refusing to accept Greek culture during this time, and instead fighting to restore and retain Jewish culture.

Throughout the next several centuries, the successor dynasties (and later the Roman Empire) continued exercising this Hellenizing influence throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and the Ancient Near East. Greek became the lingua franca (a language adopted by speakers of differing native tongues to allow for common communication-source), and Greek culture and religion was widely adopted and became increasingly influential.

This is the answer to the question posed by my professor above. A good case can be made for the fact that the average person living in Judea at the time of Christ was far more likely to speak Greek than Hebrew. The primary language in the area was Aramaic; Greek was the language of commerce and communication with the Roman authorities. As the gospels and other writings of the New Testament were written to an audience that spanned far beyond Judea, it makes sense that they were written in the language most likely to be used by the majority of their audience.

In the third century before Christ came, the son of one of Alexander’s successors commissioned a number of Jewish scholars to translate the first five books of what we now call the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek. Over the next several centuries, the rest of the Old Testament and Apocrypha were translated as well. This translation of scripture came to be known as the Septuagint. As the Jewish people dispersed throughout the known world, often times this text was what they carried with them.

You may be asking yourself “Why should I care?” Or maybe “What does all of this have to do with the early church?”

The answer begins simply: It is far easier to carry a message like the gospel to an audience who speaks the same language as you. Obvious, right? Shared language makes the communication of complex ideas easier.

Similarly, shared culture and shared knowledge of religious traditions help aid in communication. For example, when Paul uses the example of athletes preparing for the games (1 Cor 9:25) as a metaphor for how we as the people of God are to be disciplined, it helps that he could trust his hearers to understand the kind of games he is talking about.

Shared language and culture have a profound impact on the ability of two people to communicate effectively. To state it simply – culture and language don’t simply affect what people are thinking, but how we think. Consider this: in the Australian Aboriginal Language “Guugu Yimithirr,” the speakers don’t use relative terms like left, right, beside, behind, or “in front of” to explain where objects are in relation to each other. Instead, they use fixed terms: north, south, east and west. The cup of coffee I am drinking as I write this is not to my left; it is to the west of me.

Another example: In the U.S., and many European countries, we laud people with perfect pitch (the ability to sing, play, or recognize a musical note without a reference note) as prodigies, and find their gift extraordinary. This ability is far less impressive to native speakers of Mandarin or Vietnamese. These are tonal languages; the pitch with which a word is spoken can completely change its meaning. The word “ma” in Mandarin can mean mom, brother, horse, or scold depending on which intonation is used. Fun Wikipedia read for the day: check out this poem called “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den.” This poem is over 90 Chinese characters long. When read aloud in Mandarin, every syllable is the sound “shi” with different intonation. People who speak Mandarin fluently are far more likely to have perfect pitch because they listen for differences in pitch in literally every conversation they have.

Consider growing up in a culture where there are no relative terms for the position of objects, and every time you needed to explain where something was in relation to something else, you had to use north, south, east, or west. It would change the way you think about directions, wouldn’t it? If you used pitch every day to communicate, perfect pitch may not be such a big deal either.

The early church didn’t have to spend large amounts of time trying to translate different language and cultural ideas for each portion of their audience; instead, they simply used the language and culture they shared. The Septuagint left a remarkable mark on early Christianity by providing this shared language. Generally (though, not always) when an author of the New Testament work quotes the Old Testament, they often quote the Septuagint and did not directly translate the Hebrew Old Testament. Jesus Himself quotes the Septuagint in the same way, especially when quoting Isaiah.

The early church had no qualms about translating or producing their texts in the common language; Christianity was to be as inclusive as possible. The usage of the Septuagint by followers of Judaism throughout the Roman Empire provided the first missionaries with a shared text they could use to explain Christ to an audience that would be familiar with Jewish thought.

As the early church grew and expanded, it moved into areas that already spoke the same language, understood the same culture, and had already been introduced to Jewish concepts through the Septuagint. The rise of Greek culture and language paved the way for and enabled the explosive growth of the church in its early days, and continued to leave its mark on the church for centuries to come.