Greece and the Biblical World—Daniel 8:21

Though Israel would not have direct involvement with the Greek world for many centuries after its settlement of Canaan, social, economic, and political currents in the Greek world would influence God’s people in more subtle ways through its trade and other contacts with the ancient Near East. Some of those factors would even aid the rise of Christianity.

According to the Bible, the origins of Greece go back to Noah’s grandson, Javan, son of Japheth (Gen. 10:2, 4). Scripture seems to refer to the Greek world as “the isles” or “coastlands” (Ps. 72:10; Ezek. 27:7, 15; Esther 10:1). Archaeology has discovered, in Theban tombs, Egyptian paintings that depict Aegeans, an indication of their extensive trade networks. The Egyptians similarly referred to the Greek world as “the islands in the middle of the Great Greens.” The book of Daniel presents the Greek Macedonian Empire as seizing power from the Persian Empire to be subsequently dethroned by Rome (Dan. 2:39-40; 7:6-7, 17; 8:3-9, 20-23).

The Greek world has a long history. The expanding development and influence of agriculture as it spread from Anatolia during previous millennia made the worship of mother-goddesses dominant until about 1950 BC. Farmers placed statuettes of “Neolithic Venuses” in the fields and near herds to promote fertility. But such fertility-focused religion also contained certain concepts that could be utilized for communicating the Christian message, for example, the idea that grain that must first be buried and “die” to produce more (John 12:24).

Around 1950 BC, masculine deities began to take precedence, but the many themes of the fertility religions continued. Archaeologists have found a sacrifice scene on a painted limestone sarcophagus in a tomb of Haghia Triada (Crete). Famines, wars, and natural disasters drove many people from the Greek mainland and islands south into Palestine and Egypt. The Philistines that Israel struggled with for so many centuries were one such group.

The idea of ​​autonomous cities (the polis) began developing in the Greek world. Public cults and the worship of heroes intensified. Sports competitions in honor of the gods go back to 776 BC. Oracles or places where people could consult the gods were on the rise, especially in Delphi. Theaters thrived, presenting performances of tragedy, comedy, and satirical drama, all imbued with religious elements. Literature was equally immersed with religion as Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) and Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days) composed their most influential texts. Art served religion by building temples for the gods and depicting religious themes through sculpture and paintings on pottery. Philosophy made its appearance with its first great thinkers, the Pre-Socratics.

The two victories of Greece against the Persian Empire preserved ​​democracy and allowed its further development. The city of Athens played a leading role in the defeat of the Persians. The disastrous wars against the Greeks may have been the background of some of the events in the book of Esther. The banquets depicted in it may have been the Persian king’s attempt to distract the nation from its failure to put down Greek revolts. In Greece itself, as a result of the fratricidal Peloponnesus War, the sophists’ philosophical thought began to undermine traditional beliefs in the gods by encouraging rationalism and philosophy.

A period of Macedonian domination over the whole of the Greek world led to more years of war against the Persians, among the heirs of Alexander’s empire, and eventual struggles against an expanding Rome. More and more, a sense of unease fostered social instability and religious questioning. The Greek religious cults increasingly failed to meet the needs of individual worshippers. Eastern religions, which emphasized eternal salvation and an individual relationship between the deity and the faithful, became attractive to Greeks. To better honor the god they had chosen, the faithful would join together in associations in which they could feel like brothers. Such brotherhoods would bring together men and women, adults and children, free people and slaves. They downplayed social differences, united as its members were in their worship of the particular deity they had chosen (cf. Gal. 3:28; Rom. 10:12, 3:9). Such concepts would prepare Greek culture for the Christian message.

The history of the Greek world intersects most directly with that of Israel for the first time during Alexander the Great’s conquest of Palestine. His generals split up his empire after his death and then fought each other for control of its territories. First, the Ptolemies and then the Seleucids ruled Palestine. These conflicts are prophesied in Daniel 11 and narrated in the books of the Maccabees. The Greek culture that Alexander had worked to spread, commonly known as Hellenism, shaped and threatened the identity of Palestinian Jews and would also impact early Christianity.

Some of Jesus’ apostles had Greek names such as Philip or Andrew (Matt. 10:2). Greeks who had come to Jerusalem asked to see Jesus. They went to Philip, who spoke to Andrew, and together they brought them to Jesus (John 12:20-23). During the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Greek-speaking Jews were among the first converts (Acts 2:11). As the early church wrestled with the problems created by its rapid growth, the apostles chose a group of seven men, all Hellenists with names of Greek origin, and appointed them to distribute food among the early believers (Acts 6:1-7). Greeks were familiar with associations experienced in conducting religious meetings and organizing mutual aid. During Paul’s first missionary travels, he established the first churches in the Greek cultural world (Acts 14:1, 17:4, 19:17) and encouraged Christian fellowship between Jews and Greeks through a collection for the poor in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-31; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15; Gal. 2:10).


Cline, The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean.

Amouretti and Ruzé, Le monde grec antique.