The Literature and History of the New Testament (1915) [Lesson 3]

[Articles in the Summed Up series are intended to be summaries of chapters of selected theological books. The author(s) will be quoted verbatim for the purposes of ensuring accurate representation]

The Greek Background of Christianity


A) About the author of the chapter:

John Gresham Machen “studied at Johns Hopkins University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the universities at Marburg and Göttingen. In 1906 he joined the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary …

He left Princeton in 1929, after the school was reorganized and adopted a more accepting attitude toward liberal Protestantism, and he helped found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.” [1]


B) Chapter Summary:

1) The Hellenistic Age

“The Greek world culture which prevailed after the conquest of Alexander was widely different from the Greek life of the classical period. The earlier period is called the “Hellenic” period, the later period is designated as “Hellenistic.”” [1]

“When Greek thought made itself master of the world, it became mingled with numberless foreign elements. The mixture appears most clearly, perhaps, in the sphere of religion. Polytheism was capable of indefinite expansion. New gods could easily be identified with the old, or else be received along with them without a conflict. The religion of the Greco-Roman world is therefore different from that of ancient Greece.” [2]

“The learning of the Hellenistic age was centered in Alexandria in Egypt, a city which had been founded by Alexander the Great.” [3]

“Greek culture had ceased to belong to Greece in the narrower sense. It had become a possession of the world. The great library of Alexandria was a sign of the times. The Hellenistic age was an age of widespread learning.” [4]

“When Rome became master of the eastern world, conditions were not fundamentally changed. Rome merely hastened a process that was already at work. Already the nations had been brought together by the spread of Greek culture; Roman law merely added the additional bond of political unity. The Roman legions were missionaries of an all-pervading Hellenism.” [5]

“The Greco-Roman world was astonishingly modern. It was modern in its cosmopolitanism. In our own time the nations have again been brought together. The external agencies for their welding are far more perfect to-day than they were under the empire. Even the Roman roads would be but a poor substitute for the railroad and the telegraph and the steamship. But on the other hand we lack the bond of a common language. In some ways the civilized world was even more of a unit in the first century than it is to-day.” [6]

2) The Greek Bible

“The Church originated in Palestine. The first missionaries were native Jews. Yet even they had been affected by the cosmopolitanism of the time. Even they could use Greek, in addition to their native language. And Paul, the greatest of the missionaries, though a Jew, was a citizen of a Greek city.” [7]

“The Old Testament was a Hebrew book, but before the Christian era it had been translated into Greek. From the beginning Christianity was provided with a Greek Bible.” [8]

“Everything was prepared for the gospel. God’s time had come. Roman rule had brought peace. Greek culture had produced unity of speech. There was a Greek world, there were Greek-speaking missionaries, and there was a Greek Bible. In the first century, the salvation that was of the Jews could become a salvation for the whole world.” [9]

3) The Papyri

“”Papyri” are pieces of papyrus. Papyrus was the common writing material of antiquity up to about A. D. 300, when vellum, or parchment, came into general use. Unfortunately papyrus, which was made from the pith of the papyrus plant, is not a very durable substance, so that ancient papyri have been preserved until modern times only under exceptionally favorable conditions. These conditions are found in Egypt, where the dry climate has kept the papyrus from disintegration.” [10]

“In Egypt, within the last thirty years, have been discovered large numbers of papyrus sheets with Greek writing.

Of these the “literary papyri” contain simply parts of books. They differ from other copies of the works in question only in that they are usually older than the vellum manuscripts.

The “non-literary papyri,” on the other hand, are unique. They are private documents of all sorts—receipts, petitions, wills, contracts, census returns, and most interesting of all, private letters. It was usually not intended that these documents should be preserved. They were simply thrown away upon rubbish heaps or used as wrappings of mummies. They have been preserved only by chance.

The non-literary papyri are important first of all in the study of language. They exhibit the language of everyday life, as distinguished from the language of literature.” [11]

“The language of the New Testament is more like the language of the non-literary papyri than it is like the language of contemporary literature. The papyri indicate, therefore, that the New Testament is composed in the natural living language of the time rather than according to the canons of an artificial rhetoric.” [12]

4) A Gospel in a Real World

“The people that are introduced to us so intimately in the papyri are probably very fair representatives of the people among whom the gospel was first proclaimed …

The people of the papyri are not the great men of the time; they are just plain folk.” [13]

“Many of the early Christians were slaves, many were humble tradesmen.” [14]

[1] p.15

[2] pp.15-16

[3] p.16

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] p.17

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] p.18

[11] Ibid.

[12] p.19

[13] pp.19-20

[14] p.20

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