Emerging Christianity: Cultural History of a New Religion in the Greco-Roman World

9 januari 2023

Daniel De Waele winner of Christian book 2022 award

This week, the Jury of the Prize for the Spiritual and Christian Book announced the winners. Daniël De Waele received the prize for Best Christian Book 2022 for his book Ontluikend christendom. The jury wrote:

“Daniël De Waele completely succeeded in the task he set himself, which was to provide an insight into ‘life, belief and thought in the first centuries.’ The procession of witnesses he evokes through their abandoned texts, including for the assessment of the Christ figure, is impressive. Yet at no point do you feel that De Waele is a toppled bookcase. He is also an excellent storyteller.

This is a very solid study of early Christianity and the context of the birth of the New Testament. Not an apologetic or triumphalist study of the remarkable success of this religion. But a sober and solidly documented study, a well-written book that succeeds in stripping Christianity of its pompousness. It punctures a naive prejudice about the first Christians. De Waele shows man in his weakness and strength in the beginnings of Christianity.”

This year, Daniel De Waele published the book Forgotten Wealth, a fascinating study of the writings that did not make it into the Bible. Twilight of the Gods, a history of our faith in God, will be published in February 2023.


A gap of twenty centuries separate us from the time of Jesus, his apostles and the writers of the New Testament. Not only a gap in time, but also in geography, society, way of life and religion. It is actually amazing that these texts from the first century of the era are still understandable to people of the twenty-first century; that they still speak to and inspire people despite that immense gap. But do we really understand what we read? Can you really understand the Bible without knowledge of its historical and social context? Listening to some critics (“an insane book”), there appear to be many misunderstandings that could easily be resolved by better knowledge of the times in which the Bible originated.
What has been called the world of the New Testament, however, was not exactly unified. Since Alexander the Great (but actually before that), the cultures of Europe and the Near East had mutually influenced each other, and when the Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus had created political unity in this vast area, a pluralistic society had emerged: multicultural, multireligious. When Christianity spread in this empire, it could not stand alone as a new Jewish sect, but was subject to a cascade of outside influences. This led to a double movement within the Church: one wanted to claim the Jewish heritage, but at the same time distinguish oneself from Judaism; one wanted to turn away from paganism, but at the same time reap the fruits of this culture and incorporate it into Christianity – Christianization.
To understand this hybrid religion, it is therefore necessary to delve into both Judaism of the time and paganism, especially the Greek philosophical currents of the period. Not an easy task, as there is a flood of sources and studies available on this subject, but the author of this book has dared to venture into this nevertheless. And with success. For one will not easily find a counterpart to this book, in which Judaism as well as paganism and early Christianity are so accurately portrayed. And that in a clear and accessible writing style. The author has been able to use his extensive didactic experience to explain even complicated issues in such a way that the average reader can understand them without further prior knowledge. Moreover, he knows how to keep the big picture in his treatment of a multitude of topics.
Those who have read this book will view the New Testament with different eyes than before. One will better understand why Christianity developed as it did, but at the same time realize that the choices made excluded other possibilities. The formula for success that is so characteristic of early Christianity is not only historically important – at a time of great change in the church, it would be a good idea to go “ad fontes,” back to the sources, so clearly and comprehensively described in Daniel De Waele’s book.

Ghent, February 11, 2021 Prof. Dr. Klaas A.D. Smelik


In 334 BCE, the Macedonian prince Alexander the Great set foot in Asia Minor, in Persian territory. From there, with a well-equipped army, he would conquer the entire Persian Empire in a mere ten years. This created an unprecedented empire in which East and West were united. Peoples in an immeasurably large area – from Libya to the Indus – got to know each other and influenced each other. Greek civilization and language conquered the East, Eastern religions conquered the West; we speak of “Hellenism. Hellenism refers to a period from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) to the death of Cleopatra (30 B.C.), although the Hellenistic influence continued after that. People’s outlook was broadened from their own polis (the city-state) or local community to a world empire; nationalism gave way to cosmopolitanism. But with the disappearance of the shelter of the familiar, of a human-sized community, people felt somewhat lost in a world that had grown too large. Insecurity, alienation, an indefinable fear were the result. With time, faith in the old familiar gods, which had always formed the basis for the political and social life of the polis, would also decline – after all, what did one notice of their much-needed help in this fickle existence? Driven by the need for salvation ̶ for personal salvation from all kinds of calamities in this life, and by the uncertainty of what came after death, one turned to the gods as personal saviors as found in the mystery cults. There one could experience the god or goddess of one’s choice, and that was quite a comfort. Personal devotion, ecstasy, enlightenment, made faith something that was almost tangible, and therefore reliable. Not that people left other means untried. People continued to offer sacrifices to the ancient gods in hopes of their favors: healing, protection, guidance in life. And people taunted them when they did not live up to expectations. Many sought refuge in protective amulets, in magic, and took into account all kinds of omens that the gods showed to people in their benevolence.

But philosophy could also bring salvation to despairing man. There were different schools of philosophy, but all promised ataraxia, the inner peace of mind that ancient man so desperately needed. Philosophers were now less concerned with logic or physics and more concerned with ethics: how best to arrange one’s life here on earth so as to experience as little fear as possible. The philosophers’ message was that man could train his thinking in such a way that he could reach the state of apatheia: the absence of passions, which ultimately only tire man . But although philosophical ideas had a fairly wide distribution, they were only somewhat understood by the elite, and rarely applied successfully.

The Jewish faith, which had always been a strange phenomenon in the pagan world – Jews had only one God ̶ grew from a local religion (that of Judea) to a world religion, especially in the Diaspora, in the scattered Jewish world outside Palestine. The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek: the Septuagint, and it would become the main factor in spreading the Jewish faith among gentiles. Proselytes, god worshippers (gentiles fully or partially converted to Judaism) and later Christians, could now learn about ancient holy books in their own language. The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, was explained in a philosophical way; through allegory, a figurative explanation, they extracted all kinds of profound wisdom from the sacred Scriptures. Miraculously, these wisdoms corresponded to Greek philosophical views prevalent at the time. This was not surprising, by the way; it was believed that Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato got their wisdom from Moses.

Certainly remarkable was that out of a small Jewish movement would grow the largest world religion: Christianity. Christians saw in Jesus the long-awaited Messiah. He also was a personal savior, like the gods of the mystery religions. Only Christians had unlikely concern for the outcasts of the earth, the poor, slaves, foundlings too. And following the example of Judaism, they organized practical help for the needy. Initially this religion appealed mainly to the less well-off, but soon it also attracted intellectuals who were somewhat disappointed in the many philosophical schools. Christians, these simple folk, seemed to practically work out what philosophers only chatted about endlessly, for example, in their Gospel-inspired ethics. Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews spread the message of Jesus in the Roman world. But with the growing success of Christianity, criticism also increased, especially from some pagan philosophers who helped pave the way for government persecution. After all, it was unheard of for Christians to refuse to honor the gods who, after all, had proven their benefits to the human race for centuries. Christianity was something newfangled and therefore suspect, it was also rather illogical and appealed to faith rather than reason, and what was perhaps worse: Christians, with their strong organization, formed a state within the state. This was undermining Roman society. The intellectuals among Christians took up the defense of their faith. Not that they impressed their pagan adversaries much by doing so, but by defending themselves with rational, philosophical arguments, they brought a philosophical component to the Christian faith and systematized their faith, which would come in handy in refuting a flood of heretical currents in their own ranks.

In the early 2e century AD, the Christian Aristides wrote his apology, a defense speech addressed to Emperor Hadrian. Whether then his august highness did not know that humanity was made up of three classes of people? “For it is clear to us, Sire, that there are three classes of men in this world: namely, those who worship the gods, which are in honor with you, and Jews and Christians.” Pagans believed in numerous gods, though some tended toward a form of monotheism in which one God ruled over lesser gods, Jews and Christians accepted only one God, with Christians, of course, also paying due homage to the Son of God. Those Christians, that was something new. In one of his sermons, Peter is reported to have said, “Everything Greek and Jewish is old; we are the Christians who worship Him as a third generation in a new way.”


The division into pagans, Jews and Christians I too will adhere to in this book. How did these three “genera” of men experience subhuman existence in the first centuries of our era, roughly from the 1e to 4e centuries? How did they live, what did they believe and how did they think? Of course, they were people like us, but how differently they viewed life than we do in these modern times. One might ask why should we be interested in this, in how people lived in those long-forgotten centuries? Well, first of all, because it is incredibly fascinating; modern man falls from one surprise to another, and is sometimes amazed to discover how different from us people looked at life then. A second reason is that the New Testament came into being at the same time. And knowledge of how people then lived, believed and thought contributes a great deal to clarifying that New Testament. We will additionally examine how Christians – and some pagans – in the first centuries read, understood or criticized the books of that New Testament.

Three themes are addressed in this book: how people lived then, what they believed and how they thought – or philosophized, and those themes are developed in six chapters:

– Daily life in the first centuries AD – on the lives of ordinary men and women
– Jewish religious life ̶ “Listen, Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one!”
– Religious groups in Palestine – on Pharisees, Sadducees and other groups in Jewish society
– Greeks, Romans and their gods ̶ on faith and superstition
– Philosophical schools – and their confrontation with early Christianity
– Christians, the third generation – the multiformity of a new religion

The first chapter deals with the practical life of man in ancient times. We begin with the family. We look at how children of Jews, pagans and Christians grew up, how girls and boys were raised, what education they received, whether they fell in love, how they married and not infrequently divorced again, and how, unfortunately, all too often they died too early. What was the place of women in family and society? How did they view contraception, abortion and even infanticide? How were slaves, who were often part of a family, treated? We will also explore how the dead were buried and what graves looked like. We look at how people – poor and rich – lived in Palestinian villages and in Roman cities. Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, so we will look at some aspects of it that we also find in the New Testament. We look at the organization of Roman society in general, consider how Roman citizenship was acquired and how the army was organized. How was travel at the time? Was it practical or dangerous? We look at the Roman money system and how tax collection was organized. Finally, we give attention to the associations, which nevertheless provided some social cohesion in the vast Roman Empire.

A second and third chapter deals with how Jews had shaped their religion. The chapter “Jewish Religious Life” covers such things as: the temple, synagogue, sanhedrin and Jewish festivals. It explains the importance of Jewish law and how it was applied; the different visions of the Messiah are discussed, as well as the different conceptions of survival after death. Christians would adopt many things from the Jews; but not everything. A subsequent chapter deals with the variety of religious groups within Judaism. Well known, of course, are the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, but there were more. Common to all these groups was belief in one God and acceptance of the Torah as the word of God. But in the interpretation or implementation of the Torah, they differed quite a bit.

Of course, there were some similarities between Jews and pagans: both groups knew a temple service (only Christians thought they themselves were temples of the Holy One), both celebrated their religious festivals and had a similar evolution in thinking about life after death. But one major difference was that Jews and Christians believed in one God, while pagans worshiped a variety of gods and goddesses. Part of this was that the one Jewish and Christian God was an ethical God: he had given commandments to man. But the gods of the pagans could lie and kill when it suited them, and some enjoyed their sexual escapades. In paganism, it was the philosophers who reflected on ethics, on right living. The chapter on the pagan religions “Greeks, Romans and Their Gods” deals with the temples that housed all kinds of statues of gods. We learn how pagans sacrificed, how they consulted oracles, practiced magic (curses included), how superstitious they were, and how they imagined life after death – if they believed in it at all. Attention is also given to various cults: the imperial cult, the arcane mystery cults, and the esoteric quests of the elite.

In a fifth chapter, we look at the various philosophical schools of the early centuries. For clarification, we will go back in time a few centuries to discover what the great philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had all asserted. But the main thing is how their philosophies were explained and interpreted in the first centuries of our era. Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, the Cynics, Stoics, epicureans, skeptics and Neopythagoreans are all covered. We will see that some movements also influenced Christianity, but there were also philosophers, such as Celsus and Porphyrius, who were very hostile to Christianity and fiercely critical of the Bible. Church fathers were forced to get into the pen to counter this.

The last chapter is about the early Christians and the enormous diversity within that Christianity. How did Christians read the New Testament? How did they live out their own new faith? This varied from group to group, and developed over time. A great deal can be said about this, too much for this book. We do not want to or cannot offer a concise “early church history” here, but limit ourselves to two main lines: Judaic Christianity with its influences on later Christian groups, and the influence of Greco-philosophical thinking of the time – which we discovered in the previous chapter – on the interpretation of the New Testament. There were Christian groups on the one hand that remained rather down to earth, but many other groups read their holy scriptures from their own Greek-philosophical (middle Platonic) thinking. In doing so, some groups went so far that only a thin thread remained between their beliefs and the message of the New Testament, for which they were zealously reviled by the more “orthodox” believers.

These six chapters provide a lot of material. Of course there is a lot more to be said about each subject, but it is impossible to cover every subject in one book. That is not the intention. What is offered here is a first introduction to the world of the first centuries of our era, in which pagans, Jews and Christians had to learn to live together. The reader who wants to learn more about certain matters will find sufficient literature in the bibliography at the back of each chapter to help him or her further.

The life, beliefs and thinking of people in the first centuries is undoubtedly fascinating. The purpose of this book is to explore that fascinating life, providing a broad context within which the New Testament emerged, grew and was interpreted.

Daniel De Waele

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