GREECE

Only occasionally does the Bible mention Greece by that name, though it frequently mentions parts of Greece. The ancient land of Javan, for instance, was possibly part of Greece (Gen 10:4; Isa 66:19; Ezek 27:13). In local language, Greece was Hellas, and Greeks were Hellenes. Greece’s influence on the world of the New Testament came through events resulting from the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. Yet, though there was a Greek Empire, there was no ‘official’ Greek nation. The country known today as Greece consisted in those times of various separate states. The most important of these was the northern state of Macedonia, which was the centre of the Greek Empire (Acts 16:12; 2 Cor 8:1; see MACEDONIA). In New Testament times the region referred to as Greece was the southern part of the Greek peninsular known as Achaia (Acts 19:21; 20:1-2; see ACHAIA).

The Greek Empire

The rise of Greek power in the pre-Christian era was rapid and spectacular. Alexander the Great, having come to power in Macedonia in 336 BC, rapidly overran what remained of the Persian Empire, and within a few years ruled a region that stretched from Greece to India (Dan 8:5-7,20-21; 11:2-3). Wherever they went, the Greeks established their rich culture. The Greek language became the most widely spoken language throughout the Empire, Greek architecture spread through the building of magnificent cities, and Greek philosophy changed the thinking of people everywhere (1 Cor 1:20-22). The Greeks brought progress to those they governed, and provided a standard of education, entertainment, sport and social welfare that their subjects had not known previously. Those who accepted this Greek culture were regarded as civilized; all others were regarded as barbarians (Rom 1:14). Alexander, however, died while at the height of his power (323 BC), and within a short time his vast empire was divided among his generals (Dan 8:8,22; 11:4). By 301 BC the main divisions were a western sector based on Greece, and two eastern sectors based respectively on Syria to the north and Egypt to the south. At first Israel fell within the Egyptian sector and enjoyed a period of relative peace. During that time a group of seventy Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint (after the number of translators) and is usually referred to by the symbol LXX. In New Testament times both Jews and Christians used the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Old Testament (see SEPTUAGINT). Greek rulers in the Egyptian sector gave themselves the name Ptolemy. Some of the later Ptolemies became hostile to the Jews, but conditions worsened further when the Syrian sector conquered Egypt and brought Israel under its control (198 BC; Dan 11:14-16). Greek rulers in the Syrian sector were known as the Seleucids, after the name of the king who founded the dynasty. Most of the kings gave themselves the name Antiochus, after Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid kingdom that the founder of the dynasty built in 300 BC (Acts 11:20; 13:1; see ANTIOCH IN SYRIA).

Greek influence in Israel

After more than a century of Greek rule, Israel was feeling the heavy influence of Greek customs and ideas on the traditional Jewish way of life. Divisions began to appear among the Jewish people. Some Jews welcomed this Greek influence, even in their religion, because in this way they were able to win political favours from the Greek rulers and so gain important positions in the Jewish religious system. Other Jews firmly opposed all Greek influence, particularly Greek political influence in Jewish religious affairs. When fighting broke out in Jerusalem between rival Jewish factions, the Seleucid king (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) welcomed the opportunity to deal with the Jews. He invaded Jerusalem, slaughtered all Jews who resisted, made others slaves, burnt the Jewish Scriptures, forced Jews to eat forbidden food and compelled them to work on the Sabbath day. Worse still, he set up a Greek altar in the Jewish temple, then took animals that the Jews considered unclean and sacrificed them to the Greek gods. To the Jews this was ‘the awful horror’ (GNB), ‘the abomination that makes desolate’ (RSV) (Dan 11:31). But Antiochus failed to realize that the Jews would not stand idly by and allow him to destroy their religion.

Resistance to Greek domination

The Jews’ fight for religious freedom began through the zeal of an aged priest named Mattathias. He and his five sons (known as the Maccabees, after Judas Maccabeus, his son and the group’s leader) escaped from Jerusalem, prepared a small army, and after about three years overthrew the pro-Greek party of priests. They then cleansed and rededicated the temple, restoring it to their people for traditional Jewish worship (165 BC). From that time on the Jews celebrated the event in the annual Feast of Dedication (John 10:22). Such an astonishing victory encouraged the Maccabees (also known as the Hasmoneans, after their old family name) to keep fighting till they had won political freedom as well. But the religiously strict Jews, who opposed Greek political interference in the Jewish religion, likewise opposed the Maccabees’ drive for political power. Eventually these opposing viewpoints produced two parties that divided the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees wanted political power, but the Pharisees were content with religious freedom (see PHARISEES; SADDUCEES). In spite of this opposition, the Maccabees carried on the war and after twenty years won political independence (143 BC). However, the Jews were now clearly divided. On one side were the pro-political priests and leaders, who were rich, powerful and favoured by the Hasmonean rulers. On the other side were the anti-political traditionalists, who were poor, powerless and favoured by the common people. The Jews were free of Greek rule, but they were weakened by internal divisions and within eighty years they fell to Rome (63 BC).

New Testament times

Though the Romans had succeeded the Greeks as rulers of the region, Greek was still the most widely spoken language. It was the common language of the Roman Empire as it had been of the Greek Empire (John 19:20; Acts 21:37; Rev 9:11; see HELLENIST). Because one language was spoken everywhere, Christianity could spread more quickly (Acts 14:1; 19:10). Greek was also a rich language, able to express fine differences of thought and meaning. It was well suited to be the language of the New Testament, through which God revealed and preserved the teachings of the Christian gospel. The New Testament records that many people of Greek origin became believers in Jesus and were active in Christian service. As early as the time of Jesus, certain Greeks had become interested in the new teaching that Jesus brought (John 12:20). In the period covered by the book of Acts, Greeks in different places responded to the preaching of the apostles (Acts 14:1; 17:4,12,34; 18:4) and churches were established throughout Greece itself, both in Macedonia and in Achaia (Acts 16:12; 17:1-4,10-12; 18:1-4; see ATHENS; BEREA; CORINTH; PHILIPPI; THESSALONICA). Sometimes the name ‘Greek’ was used as another name for Gentiles in general (Mark 7:26; Acts 19:17; Rom 1:16; 10:12; Gal 3:28).

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