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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, January 04 2024

Christianity: burden or blessing to mankind?

Jesus Christ was born over 2,000 years ago, setting an example and preaching a way of life that clashed with many basic values at that time. What He taught was considered radical and, at times, heretical by the religious leaders of His day, and some of His teachings even surprised His disciples.

by Noel Hornor

Jesus' first disciples were all Jewish, but the culture at that time was heavily influenced by Greece and Rome. The Greek kingdoms, succeeding the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great, were absorbed into the Roman Empire, while retaining many elements of Hellenistic culture. The Greek language remained the means of international communication throughout most of the known world, and the New Testament was originally written in Greek.

The Greco-Roman culture of that time lacked many traits of propriety and decency we take for granted, and a similar attitude carried over into Roman culture. For instance, "There were 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire, everyone of whom was considered in law to be…but a thing, with no rights whatever" (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, 1976, Vol. 14, p. 208). In contrast, Jesus had no such bias. "His first disciples were fishermen and artisans… He talked with publicans and fallen women, the poor and the sick and children" (Dinesh D’Souza What’s So Great About Christianity? 2007, p. 56). This is illustrated in Mark 2:16, when the scribes and Pharisees noted with disdain that Jesus would eat with "tax collectors and sinners."

The Apostle Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). This Christian view on the equality of freemen and slaves was radical. "It was quite possible in the early days that the slave should be the [leader] of the congregation and the master a member of it. This was a new and revolutionary situation" (Barclay, p. 212). Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul addressed the dynamics between converted slaves and masters: "Servants, do what is ordered by…your natural masters, having respect and fear for them… as to Christ…In the knowledge that for every good thing anyone does, he will have his reward from the Lord, if he is a servant or if he is free. And, you masters, do the same…not making use of violent words: in the knowledge that their Master and yours is in heaven, and he has no respect for a man's position" (Ephesians 6:5-9, Bible in Basic English).

Christianity eventually spread throughout the Roman Empire, but in many respects it was not the Christianity Jesus taught. Nevertheless a number of Christ's teachings resulted in positive developments. When efforts were begun to abolish slavery in the Western world, convictions based on Christian principles were behind the movement. "In England, William Wilberforce spearheaded a campaign…driven entirely by his Christian convictions…and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in Britain. Pressed by religious groups at home, England then took the lead in repressing the slave trade abroad" (D'Souza, p. 71).

The cultures of the first century also treated women more like objects than human beings. "In Greek civilization the duty of the woman was 'to remain indoors and to be obedient to her husband.'...Under Roman law a woman had no rights…When she was under her father…patria potestas…gave the father the right even of life and death over her; and when she married she passed equally into the power of her husband.” (Barclay, p. 218).

In the first century, Judaism had drifted from many of the religious principles of the Old Testament, which protected the rights of women and, in Jesus' day, Judaism looked down on women. The testimony of Jewish women was generally considered worthless, and women were not considered worthy to receive spiritual instruction. "Let the words of the Law (Torah) be burned rather than committed to a woman….If a man teaches his daughter the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery" (Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed The World, 2004 p. 102).

Jesus changed attitudes toward women, as an incident recorded in John 4 illustrates. When Jesus and His disciples were journeying through Samaria, His disciples " marveled that He (Jesus) talked with a woman" (verse 27), because the general belief in Jewish society was that if a religious teacher spoke to a woman in public it demeaned him. Their surprise was increased by the fact He was speaking with a Samaritan woman (verse 9), as Samaritans were held in contempt by Jews.

Jesus set an example His disciples later followed, teaching women and accepting them as full-fledged members of the religious community. Jesus' ministry “... raised the status of women to new heights,…He went against the ancient…beliefs and practices that defined woman as socially, intellectually, and spiritually inferior" (Schmidt, pp. 102-103). The Apostle Peter instructed husbands that they and their wives were "heirs together of the grace of life" (1 Peter 3:7). In other words, "… the habit of treating women with deference, was invented by Christianity" (D'Souza, p. 70).

Treatment of the young could also be brutal and coldhearted in Greco-Roman society. "One way that Christianity underscored the sanctity of human life was …opposition to … infanticide…Those born deformed or physically frail were especially prone to being willfully killed, often by drowning…Infant girls were especially vulnerable. For instance, in ancient Greece it was rare for even a wealthy family to raise more than one daughter" (Schmidt, p. 49). In Roman culture, "a wealthy father might decide to dispose of an infant because of the desire not to divide the family property among too many offspring and thereby reduce the individual wealth of …the next generation" (Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, 1975, p. 165).

Equally cruel was the practice of abandoning infants. "If unwanted children in the Greco-Roman world were not directly killed, they were frequently abandoned…Christians, however, did more than just condemn child abandonment. They frequently took such human castaways into their homes and adopted them…" (Schmidt pp. 52-53).

Infanticide and child abandonment did not exist among Jews of the first century, however when it came to the treatment of children, the disciples still had something to learn: "Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven'" (Matthew 19:13-14). Jesus demonstrated children should be treated with love and consideration. The Apostle Paul also wrote, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). This instruction "introduced a fresh element into parental responsibility by insisting the feelings of the child must be taken into consideration. In a society where the father's authority (patria potestas) was absolute, this represented a revolutionary concept" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1978, Vol. 11, p. 81).

"Human compassion, especially with regard to the sick and dying, among the ancients was rare, notably among the Greco-Romans…For instance, Plato (427-347 B.C.) said that a poor man…. who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die" (Schmidt, p. 128). Jesus' approach was just the opposite:"And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick" (Matthew 14:14). Jesus instructed the 12 apostles to follow His example. "He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick" (Luke 9:2).

The approach of Christianity was also revolutionary in that it offered teaching to both men and women. All were expected to learn the principles of the Christian faith. As one English professor remarked, "In most of Europe, as in Africa, South America, and in many other parts of the world, the birth of literacy and literature essentially, not accidentally, coincides with arrival of Christian missionaries" (Lee Strobel, The Case For Faith, 2000, p. 220).

When it came to performing charitable acts for the poor and needy, the Roman view was that "there was nothing to be gained by expending time and energy…with people who could not contribute to Roman valor and to the strength of the state…Stoic philosophy also made it disrespectful to associate with the weak, the poor, and the downtrodden'' (Schmidt, p. 127). In comparison, the Christians gave without expecting anything in return, not only to believers, but also to nonbelievers: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). The Christians' example was so outstanding that a pagan Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, envied the Christians for their giving ways.

Today some 2 billion people in 260 countries profess Christianity. This vast array of religious groups with their varied and conflicting beliefs claim more adherents than any other religion in the world. The Western world, whether professing Christians or not, has benefited from the influence of Christianity on our society. "Believer and nonbeliever alike should respect Christianity as the movement that created our civilization" (D'Souza, p. 45). Although false teachings, counterfeit Christianity and hypocrisy have diluted the Christian way of life, those who live in countries most affected by the Christian ethic are more blessed with freedom, opportunity and human worth than others anywhere else on earth.