Monday, June 2, 2008

Following St. Paul's Footsteps (6)

Background to Religious Pluralism Facing Paul

The socio-political arena of the Greco-Roman world was in a time of great flux during the New Testament times. Even though Rome has proved herself to be the greatest military power at that time, she discovered that conquering a people was easier than keeping a people conquered. There were frequent revolts and the Roman legions were hard pressed to put down the many rebellions. In their conquest, the Roman Empire had come into contact with the ancient civilizations of Persian and Egypt. These ancient civilizations offered an exotic culture which was readily adopted by the Romans. Retired legionnaires and nobility given foreign lands as rewards often found themselves assimilated by the local culture. Those who settled in Philippi, Thessaloniki, Berea and Athens were mainly retired legionnaires.

Pax Romana had opened up provincial Judea to the rest of the Roman Empire by trade and travel. While most conquerors left religious Judea alone, however, there was nothing to prevent the infiltration into Judea of new ideas and formative practices. First, the increasing influence of Hellenistic-Roman philosophies on the more learned members of the Judea society. This was especially true of those who have sent their sons for a Greek classical education. Hellenistic-Roman philosophies as distinct from Greek philosophy from which it originates in that it is taught and lived as a religion as well as a moral code. Its spiritual formation practices were by learning a new viewpoint (protepsis), deciding on a moral set of action (paraenesis), and to act (diatribe). In its application it promoted individualism in that these philosophies “concentrated on the individual and his or her place in the cosmos.” This is obviously in conflict with the community based, theo-centric beliefs of Jews and Christians.

Second, the Roman authorities tolerated religious pluralism. The Roman pantheon has absorbed many of the Greek gods. It was not unusual for them to assimilate any local deities of the countries they have conquered. Added to this was the widespread acceptance of mystery cults. Mystery cults are those needing a secret initiation to join and in return, initiate may receive special knowledge, special relationship with certain deities, and be assured of special benefits to be member of such a cult. Latourette identifies some of these mystery religions. Of interest is Hermeticism which was claimed to be based on the writings of Herme Trismegistus. The teachings centred on the superiority of the spirit over matter from which it arises to immortality. It later developed to Gnosticism in Christianity.Some mystery cults are Gnostic in their teachings.

All these deities were appeased by various rituals. As historian Williams observes, “salvation has little to do with the exact content of what you believed as long as you did the prescribed acts. Form and action, not content, were most important.” The spiritual formation practices of these religious groups were in rituals or right practices. Its dichotomy with moral thinking may lead to living religious yet immoral life. As long as one performs the rituals correctly, other things do not matter. According to Williams, “everyone knows that the pax Romana was dependent on the pax deorum (peace of the gods)”

Finally, the understanding of community itself was changing during that period. This will have a profound effect on spiritual formation practices in Judea which were prominently Jewish. Where once a community was either the household or the city state, there arose around this time, voluntaries communities made up of members with special interests. Banks described these special interests as “political, military, and sporting concerns; professional and commercial guilds, artisans and members of craft; philosophical schools and religious society.” There came into existence four types of communities especially in the cities: (1) the household, (2) voluntary associations (sporting clubs, etc), (3) religious groups, and (4) schools teaching philosophy and rhetoric. The special interest communities had became so popular that it decreased the influence of the household as the major educator of its members.

Religious Judea too created special interest communities. Some examples of these communities are the synagogues, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Herodians, Samaritans, and members of Qumrun. During and after the time of the exile, the synagogues had gradually become centre of worship and learning. This model was also used by the Christian communities as they seek to develop a community for worship and learning, for interaction with Jews and together living a life glorifying to God.

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