Are Christian Ethics Merely Reflections of the Primitive Beliefs of the Ancient Greco-Roman World?

It’s common to hear from people who believe that Conservative Christian attitudes towards ethical issues like abortion, euthanasia, fornication, homosexuality, and different religions are merely reflections of “ancient” backward cultural attitudes towards those subjects. In reality, nothing could actually be farther from the truth.

Greek and Roman society in the first century was actually what moderns would describe as quite “tolerant” regarding all those subjects. For instance, it was common for unwanted babies to be exposed or strangled, and the apothecaries of the time did a roaring trade in mixtures designed to induce miscarriages, for instance, thousands of infant skeletons (as in the picture above) were recently discovered in ancient Ashkelon (Israel) which were from first-century children born healthy and then quickly killed and their bodies dumped into the sewer.

Male and Female Prostitution was commonplace and every major Imperial city had its “temple prostitutes.” For a small donation to the temple, worshipers could have sex with the male or female of their choice, and far from being frowned upon this was considered an act of piety.

Pornography was also commonplace, and 19th-century archaeologists were shocked at how common pornographic frescoes and phallic imagery were in the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Homosexual behavior was also fairly common, and among the Greeks was still widely considered the highest form of love. In fact, being in love with your wife was considered slightly absurd, as the wife’s function was to raise the children and run the household. The Emperor Nero actually married a male slave whom he had castrated, nor was he the only Emperor known for his homosexual practices.

Elective divorce was also very common in first-century Rome and women frequently divorced their husbands and married others, taking their property with them. Augustus tried to stem the rampant divorce rate in Rome but utterly failed. In attempting to do so he was also being more than a little hypocritical given that both he and his wife were divorcees who also forced their own children to get divorces in order to make more politically advantageous matches.

Euthanasia was also common, elderly slaves were frequently exposed once they could no longer work and the ill, and politically disfavored were encouraged and often helped to commit suicide, the value of one human life being low indeed.

As for other religions, the Greeks and Romans were quite tolerant and did not care which god the citizens of the Empire primarily worshiped as long as they also confessed that “Caesar is Lord” and did not make exclusive claims regarding their religion. Put simply, religious pluralism was not only commonplace, but it was also expected.

It was actually the advent of Christianity in the Roman Empire that changed all this. The Christians, with their high view of all life as created in the image of God, began saving exposed infants and providing for sick and elderly slaves who had been forced out of their households. They started orphanages, attempted to put an end to the blood sports so common throughout the empire, and took a strong stand against fornication, prostitution, pornography, infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, and homosexuality. It was the influence of Christianity that fundamentally changed western attitudes about all of those things. The refusal of Christians to accept the validity of other religions or to accept the Lordship of anyone but Jesus put them at odds with the Roman state and resulted in almost 300 years of official persecution, but in the end, as the last pagan emperor, Julian the Emperor confessed at his death, “Thou hast conquered, Galilean!”

So what we are actually watching as Western society becomes “post-Christian” is a shift back to the older ancient pagan Greek and Roman values. It’s actually modern progressives whose ethics mimic the pagan beliefs of the ancient Greco-Roman world.


About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
This entry was posted in Abortion, Apologetics, Divorce, Ethics, History, Homosexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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