Advanced Historical Theology - The Formal Context of Christianity - by C. Matthew McMahonHistorical Theology Articles
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From the beginning, Christianity has always been an expression of God’s presence in the world. Christianity encompasses the doctrine of God with the reality of the historical event of the incarnation. Christianity is incarnation, and therefore it exists in the concrete world.
It is important to briefly survey the context of formal Christianity. The Jews were people of the Law. They had been given the commandments of God as a guide to life and of the character the Lawgiver. They commented on the Law, the Holy Scriptures (the midrashim) in it precepts (midrash halakah) and in its narrative and inspirations (midrash haggada). Their desire was to know and follow the Lawgiver. During the time of the incarnation, these commentators were known as the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees were the Jewish conservatives of the day and accepted only the written Law (Torah). Their religion centered on the temple and its rites, rather than on the synagogue and its teachings. In contrast, the Pharisees purposed to make religion part of the daily life of the people. They held to the written Law, but also the oral law that was handed down through centuries of interpretation and tradition.
The Septuagint (Interpretatio secundum septuaginta seniores), or LXX for short meaning “70”, was a version of the Old Testament which had been translated from Hebrew into Greek and used among the Hellenized people of the day. It appears to have been made over the course of a century and there it seems there was no agreement among the translators as to the method used to make the translation. It did however, play a very important role in Jewish thought. The book of Hebrews had to be translated into Greek, and thus, the Jews making this translation had to be aware of the writings of the Graeco Empire of the day. This translation was of great importance because it would ultimately be the Bible of the day of the apostles and New Testament writers, along with the Hebrew scrolls.
At this time, the Essenes were also part of the cultural milieu and were probably the protectors of what are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The community of the elect played a major role in the eschatological expectations of the Essenes, and for this reason they emphasized the laws of ceremonial purity and tended to withdraw into a hermit-like community. They were also part of a wider circle of Jewish religion in which apocalypticism was predominant. Apocalypticism was a vantage point of looking at the world eschatologically, seeing the great forces of good and evil battling.
Overall, the Jewish religion centered on the Temple, the Law and eschatological hope. These Jews were looking for a Messiah that could offer solidity on all three fronts, and so, the Messiah to come would not be a suffering servant, but a king to do away with the oppression of the Roman Greco world.
The Roman World had a form of unity as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s conquests (334-323 B.C.) were at once the cause and result of great changes in Greek Thought. Hellenism was the outcome – the process of conquering a people by stripping them of their natural heritage and replacing it with the heritage of their conquerors. And among the writers of the day, Plato had the greatest affect and influence on Christian thought through the early church due to Hellenism and the connection between that and Greek thought. Although this was the greatest influence, other ideologies of the day (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neo-Platonism, and the like) also had affects on the beginnings of Christian thought (as is made evident through a brief perusal of the early church fathers who were profoundly affected by it in many ways). Mystery religions were also functioning during this time and they frequently included a ceremonial meal in which the faithful ingested the god and became participants in divinity. With so many philosophies present at the time, it was impossible that they did not meld or fold into one another, and religious syncretism was part of the normal expression of religion during this time. However, though many different philosophies existed during the time of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, Christianity was one of the most dominant, if not the most dominant, philosophical and theological force of the day when it emerged, converting thousands at a time to its intellectual, but personal religion. Christianity was not born into a vacuum, but in a religious upheaval. The incarnation, then, has a historical context in which it was to parley, and overcome.