People today often think of religion as a list of requirements with things to do and other things to avoid. If we surveyed the typical person on the street, they might say that religion is concerned with a person’s behavior. If we were to travel back two thousand years, the average person would give a very different response. Religion in the ancient world focused mainly upon responsibilities involving rituals and religious observances. It had very little to say about a person’s everyday behavior. Interestingly enough, neither definition accurately describes the Christian’s faith.
Christianity represented a bold new way of life built upon the same moral precepts as Judaism. Unlike religions of the time, the teachings of Christ and his inspired apostles prescribed an ethical code normally found only in the work of philosophers. Because of this fact, some scholars believe that Christianity only loosely fits the definition of religion when considered in its first-century context. Simply put, it was a new faith with a revolutionary perspective on the meaning of living.
The Value of Human Life. Compared to those who followed pagan religions of the time, Christianity offered an elevated view of human life. Indeed, Christianity was the world’s first system of belief (or philosophy) that advocated the inherent value of human life. Thus, for the ancients, slaves would be tortured when giving evidence in a trial under the assumption that they would only tell the truth under such conditions. Orphans, slaves, prisoners of war, and anyone with a congenital disability had no claims to human rights.
An especially noteworthy concern was infant exposure. Usually caring people seem to have felt little reluctance about ridding themselves of an unwanted newborn. Around 1 BC, a Roman soldier named Hilarion sent a letter to his pregnant wife. He expresses his tender affection for her, yet also tells her to keep the child if it happened to be a boy, but “cast it out” if it happened to be a girl. It is even more striking when we consider that the fate of these discarded children was often to be picked up by those who would sell them as slaves, many of whom would be put to use as prostitutes in brothels. A few Roman writers argued against infant exposure but made no attempt to stop it. Christian and Jewish writers universally condemned the practice.
Violent Sport. Combat sports are among the earliest in the history of human civilization. Evidence from ancient Sumer indicates the popularity of wrestling in both art and literature. This continued in Greece in various games in the Olympics, where competitors fought with a brutality that would shock most moderns. Boxing matches regularly resulted in serious injury. Pankration—a particularly violent combat sport with almost no rules—ended when one of the combatants either submitted or died.
In the Roman Empire, spectators enjoyed gladiatorial combat. These contests often used slaves captured and trained to fight. Crowds packed ancient arenas to watch gladiators battle one another. While not always lethal, gladiatorial combat featured the violent death of at least some participants. Participants—many of whom were prisoners of war—did not use Roman equipment, but wore armor that signified them as foreigners. This is unsurprising when considered in light of ancient attitudes against those from foreign cultures (contra Lev. 19:33-34; Ps. 146:9; Gal. 3:14, 28).
Human sexuality. One of the most striking concerns of Christianity was an emphasis on the holiness of human sexuality and the expectation of a consistent standard for men and women (1 Cor. 7:2-4). Ancient society held wives to a strict standard of sexual behavior but permitted men in general—including husbands—a great deal of latitude. One famous example of this double standard appears in the fourth century BC Greek orator Demosthenes, in which he says that men have concubines for pleasure, female slaves for daily needs (to express it rather crudely), and wives to produce “legitimate children” and manage the home.
The apostle Paul demands that husbands treat their wives, as well as those of other men, honorably (1 Thess. 4:3-8). He makes this an essential qualification for elders. If his reference to a “man of one woman” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6) is understood in light of the cultural background, then leaders in the church were forbidden to behave as their pagan neighbors, seeking sexual experiences with women other than their own wives (Gen. 1:27; Heb. 13:4). This insistence upon a single standard for sexual behavior both elevated the status of women and underscored the sanctity of the marriage relationship in a culture that gave little thought to men having extramarital sex with slaves and prostitutes. Of all the religions of the ancient world (excepting Judaism), Christianity empowered women with the right to expect fidelity from their husbands.
Christianity’s Universal Standards. Some Roman writers argued for a moral standard that resembled Christianity in many ways. We should expect this to be the case. Every person loves friends and family, admires discipline and charity, and hopes to see justice prevail when injustices occur. The important difference here, however, is that ancient writers did not argue for universal acceptance of the principles they advocated. This expectation seems to have applied to their students specifically. Christians expected everyone to be treated equally as every person, regardless of the culture in which they live, serves as an image-bearer of God.
The New Testament prescribes a life of distinction. The Christian life must be characterized by moral excellence and in a way that noticeable to others. Jesus made this clear when describing believers using the metaphors of salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). Christians should conduct themselves so that they not only reflect the glory of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31) but so that they attract others to live the same glorious life.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.