Greco-Roman Religions and the New Testament

Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.

A Guardian lares

First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical.  If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.

“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead and of graves…At the end of the year, during the Parentalia (13-21 February) the dead of the household were collectively honored as divi parentu…. Food, salt, and wine were carried to the graves, which were decorated with flowers and wreaths. It is noteworthy that the Romans never transformed the cult of the di parentes into a cult of divine ancestors of the clan.” (Gladigow, 811)

Despite this, religious practice in the Roman could be personal. For example, the custom of honoring a sacred image by touching one’s hand to one’s lips (adorandi gratia manum labris admovere) not only in a temple but even when passing by a temple (ANRW 2/16/1: 579-80). But even this devotion was not required, there was no “proper liturgical practice.” This practice developed as an expression of gratitude alongside the generally obligatory sacra privata and sacra publica.

Prayers were a part of Roman religious practice. Some may sit at the feet of an image in prayer, telling their troubles to the god or goddess:

Propertius 2.28.46 I bind myself with a sacred verse against this wish: I write: ‘By Jupiter, the Mighty, the girl is saved’: having taken such pains, she herself can sit at your feet, and, sitting there, tell you all her troubles. (Translated by A. S. Kline).

Family prayers were more likely made to household gods rather than powerful gods like Zeus. For example, families would offering prayers of thanks to Penates, the god of the storeroom, for providing daily meals. The spirits of family ancestors (lares) could be honored at meals as well.

  • Janus: God of doorways
  • Forculus: protector of doors
  • Limentinus: guardian of the threshold
  • Cardea: goddess of the hinges
  • Vesta: goddess of the hearth
  • Potina: goddess of children’s drinks
  • Sentia: goddess of children’s mental development
  • Orbona: the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless

Christianity entered a world already full of gods and goddesses and announces the one and only God who created all things has acted on behalf of all humans through Jesus his son. Although based on its Jewish roots, Christianity was a radical view and therefore generated suspicion and anger.


Bibliography: Burkhard Gladigow, “Roman Religion,” ABD 5:809.


33 thoughts on “Greco-Roman Religions and the New Testament

  1. Interesting article Phillip.
    You said QUOTE: “…..gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical………One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.”

    Likewise, for most Bible-believing Evangelicals today,
    the “voices in the New Testament” have various functions, and motivations to listen to them are purely practical………… One might become a fan of Paul, (based on his biography in the Book of Acts,) and a fan of “Pauline Theology”, but still feel obligated to listen to other “voices” in the New Testament…….

  2. Interesting stuff! Along the lines of not being exactly “competition”, here’s a related point: I don’t know a lot about just which “heresies” entered where and when, but I know that there were many, besides just the group of Gnostic sects, which DO seem more like genuine competition. E.g., I know that Justin Martyr and Tertullian were writing about numerous forms in the 2nd century.

    My main point would be that it was not just in the ancient Roman Empire that the human and cultural tendency to combine concepts into new religious forms has been prominent. Students of anthro and missiology will quickly cite many examples. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with Latin America being a prime example. There, what is often called “syncretism” has, for centuries, involved combining Catholic dogma and practices with local earlier beliefs. These are often “animist”. And sometimes these new forms become very robust and long-lasting… case in point being forms of Sangria in particularly Brazil. Sometimes these end up barely resembling orthodox Christianity, much to the chagrin of many missionaries and church leaders (who I think need to take a much broader look at the reasons and the effects, both “good” and “bad”… I would agree that they are not all good).

  3. “Christianity entered a world already full of gods and goddesses and announces the one and only God who created all things has acted on behalf of all humans through Jesus his son”. This was considered a radical view. I can only imagine what they must have thought about the Jewish hope for a coming Messiah, one who would restore the Jewish commonwealth. “But many Jewish hearts still burned with a sense of destiny, one that the Romans had frustrated” (Tomasino, p. 289) because “Both Judaism and Christianity shared a central notion that the Messiah would originate in heaven, and in both cases, a principal source of the idea was Daniel 7” (Tomasino, p. 297).

  4. In analyzing the Greco-Roman religion in its totality, the fact of the matter was the Roman religion was heavily influenced by the Romans infatuation with Hellenism (Tomasino, 265-266). So much so to the point that many of the Roman God’s and Goddesses were just adoptions from popular Greek God’s such as Jupiter was the Roman equivalent of Zeus (Long, Notes). Therefore; in, my opinion the authenticity of the Roman religion should be of debate due in large part to the fact that they just changed the names of many Greek God’s and Goddesses in to Roman equivalencies. While I understand that cultural norms may have played a big part in the designated religion that one may have practiced, what was interesting to me was the amount of household God’s that the Romans could have prayed to. It was interesting to me because I could not imagine bestowing myself to the door knob before I left my house. If anything the reason many Romans came to oppose Christianity and it’s ideals of monotheism, is because of the fact that they were putting all this effort into praying and keeping up with a plethora of Gods and then this somewhat new religion came about which focused and ordained worship of only the one true God. This would have made me upset as well trying to keep up with so many God’s!

  5. Here’s a great sermon by Tony Evans from Dallas Texas

    on Matthew 6:33
    The words of Jesus in middle of the Sermon on the Mount
    “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

    God insists on being first – it’s not a suggestion.
    Tony Evans makes no mention of which commandment is “first one” according to King Jesus- but that would be great way to apply this teaching.
    Which one is it?
    Deuteronomy 6:4-5, or Leviticus 19:18 ?

    • So is your point, Tony Evans disagrees with Jesus? I am not sure Pastor Evans would like that…You are making a difference where there is none.

      • I believe Pastor Evans AGREES with Jesus, as do I. God must be first, so Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is first.
        (and Leviticus 19:18 is second, according to Jesus
        – in contrast with Paul’s false teaching putting it as first in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8-10)

      • Phillip,
        I also agree with Tony Evans on another point he made in another sermon. He said that the proof of who you really “trust” or “have faith in” is who you turn to “first” – for help or advice.

        First, I turn to the voice of Jesus, recorded by His appointed Apostles – Matthew and John, with Mark as scribe for the others.

        (I don’t turn to Paul the self-appointed “apostle”, Paul’s feelings, Paul’s experience, Paul’s teachings, Paul’s theology, or Paul’s example.)

  6. “Their standoffish ways and resistance to the state cult made them targets of criticism” (Tomasino, 2621). I definitely did not realize how “different” Christianity was in the Greco-Roman context. It is unbelievable to read how many gods that one had to pray to for various reasons. It sounds very tedious and a little confusing. It is understandable that when a religion consisting of one God who could be prayed to regarding anything, might have been viewed as strange. The Jewish people were apparently standoffish to the secular beliefs in Greek culture which caused them to be angry towards the Jews.

    • I think that it is kind of funny how they felt the need to have a god for every little single thing, and that the Christian view of one God seemed crazy and radical. If anything I would have thought that it would have been a relief to them or made them a little bit interested that instead of having to remember every god and try to not offend one by forgetting about it; having one God would make everything else so much simpler and easier. I can still understand how one God would be strange to them after living and growing up being told that there are gods for all of these different thngs and now all of a sudden there is only one.

  7. Reading the comments here reminds me of the need for people to understand something else related, which I’m sure you’ve covered before, Phillip: Gentiles of the Roman Empire, especially in the first few decades after Jesus, were often attracted to at least look into “Christianity” (not yet fully apart from Judaism) precisely because it was linked with Judaism. They either knew or quickly learned, via Paul and others, that it was building upon the foundation of Judaism, and beyond just monotheism.

    And by many, including some Roman or local (different ethnicity) officials, Judaism was seen as a noble tradition and way of life with its well-developed system of laws, ethical standards, etc. Diaspora Jews were prominent in many metropolitan areas, particularly the large city of Alexandria, which we strangely hear almost nothing of in Acts or the rest of the NT (but for understandable reasons, in my view). And Paul seemingly found converts in high proportions (even a majority?) among either Jews or God-fearers (Gentiles following much of Judaism and in synagogues). So to the extent there WAS “competition”, Christian faith had some advantage early on through the respectability of widespread Jewish belief/practice throughout most of the Empire, including prominently in Rome itself (where Paul had NOT planted a church but knew people and sought influence.)

    • Good point, Howard. The God-fearers were the first open mission field for Paul, so to speak. I think the Antioch church was the first to reach the gentiles with the message of Jesus, Paul certainly found success among them. Perhaps Paul’s next success came from Gentiles interested in becoming a God fearer but had not yet made that commitment.

      I wonder: why did some God-fearing Gentiles remain in the synagogue even after hearing Paul’s gospel?

      I think you would agree the competition I was talking about above was to separate ancient religious practice from modern church-hopping…!

      • Phillip,
        Since this blog is “Reading Acts”, I think my comment here is on-topic.

        Regarding the Church in Antioch, isn’t it accurate to say that
        the Church was well-established before Pau’s “road to Damascus” experience, and existed for something like 10 or 15 years or more before Barnabas brought Paul there as a junior associate for one year? In other words, Paul was a low-level, temporary late-comer to the church ? And Barnabas, Paul “and many others” were teaching there together, according to Luke?

      • I like your “wondering” question. Of course, I can’t know their minds, especially since I know of no such people having left writings. (Correct me if you do know of any.) But presuming a fair number of such people existed, along with the many Jews who heard Paul and weren’t persuaded, I think it fits well with the contention (not popular among conservative scholars or some others, but among a serious sub-set) that Paul developed what he called “my gospel” largely apart from the “gospel” preached by particularly James and his close associates in Jerusalem leadership.

        He was a genius in getting this to “fly”, in my view… and VERY passionate (always wins “points”). But I’d imagine that some of the better educated and analytical types among the God-fearers would have noted how strained and sometimes inconsistent (or using sloppy logic and exegesis) were some of Paul’s arguments tying his universalizing and “cosmic Christ” concepts to ancient Judaism and Heb. Scripture. (This was not the same as current New Age “cosmic Christ”, for those not widely read.)

        To presume such thinking-but-open people merely “hardened their hearts” against Christ (as I’m sure would be the presumption of many “born again” believers) does them a disservice. Paul had a creative system that DID advance certain aspects of monotheistic faith and of aspects of the teachings of Jesus, so I’d say a positive contribution, but I don’t at all see that he demonstrated (for his audience or now) having truths as a kind of unquestionable, unique revelation from God. Many God-fearers probably knew that he lacked the kind of “Apostolic authority” that was not long after created (cf. Acts, early Fathers) and read back into his and the Jerusalem church’s early history.

      • “…since I know of no such people having left writings. (Correct me if you do know of any)”

        I am not sure, to be honest. There must be God fearing Gentiles inscriptions later than the NT period, but do they represent Gentiles who heard Paul and chose to remain in the synagogue, or did they never hear Paul (or his disciples) preach? I think this is unknowable, unfortunately.

  8. To us, the Romans seemed to have their cult, but to them, the Christians were a cult because we “drink Jesus’ blood” and “eat Jesus’ body.” We all have our beliefs and sometimes, we tend to believe that other people’s religion is part of a cult. For instance, we would say that a closed off community is a cult, but people in that community would say that Protestants or Catholics are a cult.

    • Cathy,
      One mark of a cult is having one “special person” with a “special title”, other than Jesus, who could never be WRONG.
      Roman Catholics have “The Virgin”
      Muslims have “The Prophet”
      and Evangelicals have “The Apostle to the Gentiles”
      Some people define a “blooper” as when someone accidently tells the truth….

      • Although this would not be true for Paul, which is you point, since Paul is part of the canon of scripture. I suppose by the definition you provide here, you are in the Jesus cult, which existed in Corinth.

        You seriously need to recognize how outside of mainstream Christianity you are. That would okay, you can be strange, but at least recognize it!

      • Phillip,
        You said QUOTE: “Paul is part of the canon of scripture….”
        You are playing Paul’s game, in Paul’s ballpark, using Paul’s rules- but that is the wrong game with the wrong rules.

        Your only BIBLICAL basis for believing:
        .1) Paul rightfully had the title “Apostle to the Gentiles”
        .2) Paul was appointed an apostle
        .3) Paul was recognized, accepted, and individually called “an apostle”
        ………, simply and only, Because PAUL SAID SO. (And you believe Paul’s word alone is valid, and it overrides Jesus and everyone else in the pages of the Bible.)

        I’ll save us some time and address the same old “justifications” that followers of Paul love to quote.

        No, Luke’s passing editorial comments about “the apostles Barnabas and Paul” in Acts 14 don’t justify Paul’s boastful claim – compare and contrast with Acts 1, 6, 9, 13 and 15. There were “prophets and teachers” in Antioch, NOT “apostles” [Acts 13:1] Anyway, Luke was not an apostle either, Luke never said that Paul was appointed an apostle, and Luke had no authority to make Paul an apostle.

        (No, being “sent” doesn’t make one an “apostle” according to Jesus – regardless of what you modern Greek dictionary definition may say. You dictionary is not the Word of God.) In the Council at Jerusalem, there is no hint at all that either Barnabas or Paul were ever recognized as “apostles.” [Acts 15]. You can open your Bible and see for yourself. I’m not wrong. These are facts about the text.

        Neither do Peter’s passing comments about “beloved brother Paul” one time in 2 Peter 3:15 support Paul’s false claim. On the contrary, Peter’s reference to apostles in 3:2, and then use of the Greek word agapetoi throughout chapter 3, cut Paul down to size, and show that Paul has no special status or title as an apostle. Paul was simply “beloved,” just like everyone else Peter was writing to. God loves everyone.
        (The NIV Bible translates the words differently, sort of “covering” for Paul to make it seem like Paul is the only “beloved” one, while the readers of Peter’s letter are simply “friends” – but that is faulty translation, as you can see from the below detail.)

        2 Peter 3:1 agapetoi beloved
        2 Peter 3:8 agapetoi beloved
        2 Peter 3:14 agapetoi beloved
        2 Peter 3:15 agapetos henon adelfos Paulos, beloved of us brother Paul
        2 Peter 3:17 agapetoi beloved

        Nor did Jesus ever say Paul was an “apostle”, in Acts 9 or anywhere else. Every true follower of Jesus is a “chosen instrument of God”, and so were King Saul and King Solomon. That doesn’t mean they were models of maturity and their lives were given as an example of godly behavior.

        The Orthodox Church (Eastern Orthodox) has put the Book of the 4 Gospels above all other parts of the “New Testament” for almost 2000 years now, and they also elevate Matthew and John to the top level among the 4 Gospels. I believe the same.

        In conclusion,
        Only 2 out of 70 members of the Sanhedrin believed in Jesus, so it seems they were “out of the mainstream” in their day – but that doesn’t mean they were wrong.

      • I am not playing “Paul’s game,” I am a Christian with basic commitments to the historic definition of canon. You are not commit ed to the historic definition of Christian canon, so you are free to engage in your wild flights of fancy about Paul.

        This sort of discussion is what got you banned from this blog before, I am starting to regret lifting that ban.

      • Agapetos henon adelfos Phillip,

        I don’t want to put words in your mouth, or create a “straw man.”
        Yet I think we certainly should be able to come to a common understanding of what exactly you mean by
        QUOTE “the historic definition of canon.”

        I understand you to believe that the following terms are basically synonymous, with no significant difference, practically and functionally speaking, so that the terms are essentially interchangeable:

        The Bible
        All Scripture
        Prophecy of Scripture
        Every word that comes from the mouth of God
        The Word of God / God’s Word
        The Words of God / God’s Words
        The voice of God
        The voice of the Father
        The voice of Jesus
        The voice of the Holy Spirit
        God speaking
        The Canon

        And you think of this body of writings as one unified book, nothing more and nothing less than every word in the 66 Books of the Bible, equally, with no distinction among different levels of value, authority, priority, importance, or accuracy, since “It’s all God’s Word.”

        Is that an accurate description of your view?

  9. It is interesting and strange to think of worshiping a god purely out of business practicality. To think that if you forgo your worship that you will not be able to sell as many goods or your ships will sink at sea. I imagine that this was one reason why people would get angry at Christians. If a large group of your god’s worshipers started worshiping Jesus instead, your god may get upset which could have negative repercussions on you as well. In fact, I feel like this could also happen with family gods as well.

    • Dburkey1
      Are you saying there are NOT huge numbers of people today who just want their “Best Life Now”, and are NOT “worshiping a god purely out of business practicality.” ?

  10. I can’t imagine worshipping a God for purely practical reasons, and its interesting to me how flexible the reality of Roman Gods, influenced by the Hellenistic gods, were at the time. It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around how people could truly believe and worship gods that are the culmination of several other Gods and altered to meet the needs of people. With changes and the creation of new gods, how could someone believe in that god? One of the appeals of the Christian God is that He has always existed and has never changed. He is not the result of a combination of other Gods and is not subject to human correction.

    Some of the gods you listed which the Romans worshipped I find somewhat funny! I had no idea that there were so many gods for so many purposes! I love learning about Greek/Roman gods and mythology, so I found this post very interesting. I can certainly see why the Romans would be offended by the Christian God with the stark contrast that He poses to the described beliefs!

  11. I think that when we look back on history, we tend to place our own circumstances in to work through our understanding of it, but sometimes our circumstances do not match up with what they may have been facing during that time. One being religion. As it was stated in the book, during this time, “The days of an independent Jewish state were essentially over” (249) During the time of the Roman rule, the Jews didn’t have much of a say of what they are allowed to believe publicly, unlike what we get to do in the present day. Yes, we have challenges, but we are for the most part able to do as we please with religion. Reading through this post is so interesting to me because it shows their circumstances and what it looked like for them transitioning into Christianity. They were in the midst of the start of a newly found way of life in Christianity unlike our situation where the “how to’s” were already figured out for the most part. There were hundreds of gods and traditions that were well-known by the culture around them. If you think about it, they were forming this new religion and it could have easily been swayed or challenged. It could have been so different if they let the influence of the Romans change that.

  12. I am surprised that Christianity created suspicion and anger rather than the things that the Romans worshipped. I do not understand why they would not have questioned their own belief more, unless it was hard to go from believing in multiple gods to believing in one God. It also sounds like there were not very strict rules for their religion. It seems like they believed that there was a deity for practically everything they could think of in the world and that they only worshipped some of them when they wanted something out of it. This does not seem to have the same kind of personal relationship that Christians have with God. Instead, it feels like they just worship when they want to or feel led to, but not because they necessarily want to, unless they might get something out of it, like food or health. Some of the things listed surprised me. Potina and Cardea in particular are two that I was surprised to hear about. It makes me wonder how many people actually worshipped them or if it was just a couple people. I also want to know how many accounts we have of people mentioning or worshipping them and some of the others so that we can see how serious they were to the people who followed that religion. This is something that is very enlightening and it taught me a lot about how the Roman culture was like. I think it is a good thing to learn about this when doing Biblical studies because the Roman people played a big role.

  13. I find it interesting that people choose to worship multiple gods and that they believe there are so many gods. This is heard from many different religions. They base who they worship off of what the family does or what trade they are involved in; not because they believe and think it’s what’s best for them but because that’s what they were taught to do so. I grew up saying a specific prayer whenever it was time to eat. Later when I was older to say my own genuine prayers that we should be thanking God and asking for wisdom and for his people Eph. 6:18-20. Yes, we worship God but we do not have multiple gods for multiple different things. How did they keep track of how many gods and who they worshiped when? Back then it was easy to just follow what your family was doing even if you were not sure about it because that is all you knew. Nowadays you can just hop on the internet and learn almost anything you want, which in return comes with your own questions. I find the Greco-Roman Religions and era in general very interesting just because there is a difference in how they did things.

  14. It is amazing how different religion was back then when compared to how it is today. Back then, “A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade” (Long, 3). The Romans would worship different gods as they saw fit to serve a means. Nowadays, people are free to worship God or their own “god” whenever they choose. There is no longer the motivation behind it of worshiping a god just to meet a practical means. Something else that is interesting is how the prayers of Roman families were directed toward household gods such as Limentinus, guardian of thresholds. This is a practice that believers no longer do. Just the thought of Christians today using this practice seems out of place since religious practices have shifted drastically.

    It is evident that there is more religious freedom in the world today than there was back then. People are free to worship whatever god that they choose without being obligated to worship a different god as well. Also, believers are able to pray without sitting before an image like the Romans did back then. However, I notice that some believers turn to worshiping their own image today which is also different than practices from before.

  15. These gods are so bizarrely specific. How could they possibly keep track of all of them? A goddess of hinges? Really? How necessary was she? How does one even pray to a hinge goddess? What does one do to appease the hinge goddess?
    The weird specificity of the gods reminds me strongly of the Roman Catholic patron saints. There are so many saints for such niche things. St. Balthasar, for example, is the patron saint of playing card manufacturers. St. Drogo is the patron saint of unattractive people and of coffeehouses. What is it about idolatry that makes the idols so particular?

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