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Greco-Roman Jesus

The site of ancient Sepphoris in the foreground
The Site of Ancient Sepphoris in the Foreground

As a Jewish figure, Jesus conducted his ministry in Galilee and Judea. These areas were not isolated from the wider world. They were influenced by the trade, culture, and political structures of the larger Greco-Roman world, though scholars debate to what extent.

Two cities in Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberias, played a role in spreading Greco-Roman influence in Galilee. Herod Antipas, the Roman client-king of Galilee during Jesus’ time, established them. He honored his boss, the Roman emperor, by renaming Sepphoris as “Autocratoris,” a Greek form of the Latin imperial designation “Imperator.” Herod also named Tiberias after the emperor Tiberius.

Cities were centers of rule and control over surrounding territory. They exhibited and promoted features of Greco-Roman culture—architecture, teachers and philosophers, roads and bathhouses, temples and markets, and entertainment such as the Roman theater at Sepphoris. How well established or prevalent any of these features were in these cities in the first third of the century during Jesus’ time, however, is not clear.

Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, was about four miles from Sepphoris. Did Jesus travel to Sepphoris or Tiberias? Did he work in construction there? While the Gospels link Jesus with a number of villages in Galilee (Nazareth, Capernaum), they do not place him in these larger cities. This silence is difficult to interpret. Did Jesus boycott them to protest their influence?

How might Greco-Roman culture have influenced Jesus? Some have seen connections between Jesus’ actions, such as his working of miracles, and the broader culture, which included other miracle workers. There were certainly Jewish miracle workers, both in older biblical Jewish traditions (Elijah and Elisha) and in first-century Jewish traditions (Honi the circle drawer; Hanina ben Dosa). But there were also numerous miracle workers in the Greco-Roman world—healers and exorcists like Apollonius of Tyana. As with stories about Jesus, accounts show Apollonius raising people from the dead and demons crying out in his presence.

Another possible influence comes from wandering teachers or philosophers like Cynics. Cynic teachers emphasized independence from society and freedom from material concerns such as food, clothing, marriage, and homes. They spoke boldly and criticized social values such as the elites’ accumulation of wealth. They wandered from place to place, carrying few supplies.

Jesus similarly taught his followers not to be anxious about food, drink, or clothing (Matt 6:19-34). He called a wealthy man to sell his possessions, give his money to the poor, and follow Jesus in an itinerant way of life (Mark 10:21). Jesus attacked socio-political conventions. He parodied the grand entries rulers and military figures made into cities when he entered Jerusalem riding not a warhorse but a common donkey, advocating service, not domination (Matt 20:20-21:11). Did Jesus encounter wandering Cynics? Did they influence his teaching and practice? Or was he influenced more by Israel’s prophetic traditions?

Yet another possible influence concerns Jesus’ interaction with Roman imperial power and its exploitation of the Galilean countryside. Some see Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom or “empire” (as it could be translated) as a present-world political and social sphere that provided an alternative to Roman power. This challenge informs Jesus’ actions to renew village life, to set aside patriarchal and imperial structures, and to restore Israel’s covenant-shaped structures and practices such as forgiving debt, making loans without interest or expecting repayment, and sharing resources.

  • Warren Carter

    Warren Carter is Meinders Professor of New Testament  at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa OK. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).