Some 2,000 years ago, in a backwater of the vast Roman Empire, Jesus Christ came into this world. He was born in obscurity; during His lifetime we know of no ancient historian outside of the Bible who recorded His birth.
Surely at that time no mere human prognosticator could have predicted that His life and the instruction He passed on to His followers would affect the world as much as it has. The ripple effect of His work was destined to change history more than that of any other individual ever.
Jesus set an example and preached a way of life that drastically clashed with many basic values of the world that then was. Many of the fundamentals of Jesus’ way were considered radical by the religious leaders of His day; some of Christ’s teachings surprised even His disciples.
A world in which slavery was common
Jesus’ first disciples were all Jewish, but the culture into which He came was heavily influenced by the Greek and Roman cultures. The Greek kingdoms that succeeded the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great were absorbed into the Roman Empire, and the Romans retained many elements of Hellenistic culture.
The Greek language, for example, remained the means of international communication throughout most of the known world for centuries to come. The New Testament was originally written in Greek.
The Greco-Roman culture of that time lacked many of the traits of propriety and decency we take for granted today. For example, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato held that most human beings are slavish by nature and suitable only for slavery.
Author Dinesh D’Souza describes the attitudes of Greek philosophers toward the common man: “Homer ignored them in his epics, concentrating entirely on life among the ruling class. Lesser men appeared, if at all, as servants. Aristotle too had a job for low men: slavery” (What’s So Great About Christianity, 2007, p. 56).
A similar attitude carried over into Roman culture. “There were 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire, everyone of whom was considered in law to be, not a person, but a thing, with no rights whatever” (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, 1976, Vol. 14, p. 208).
Jesus had no such bias against the downtrodden and the lowly. “His first disciples were fishermen and artisans. He moved in the everyday milieu of the humble folk. He talked with publicans and fallen women, the poor and the sick and children” (D’Souza, p. 56). This is illustrated in Mark 2:16 Mark 2:16And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said to his disciples, How is it that he eats and drinks with publicans and sinners?
American King James Version×, where the scribes and Pharisees noted with disdain that Jesus would eat with “tax collectors and sinners.”
Jesus’ disciples eventually accepted the fact that within their spiritual community (the Church) all members were equal before God. The apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 Galatians 3:28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
American King James Version×; compare Colossians 3:10-11 Colossians 3:10-11  And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:  Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
American King James Version×).
Christ’s teaching: All are equal before God
The Christian view on equality of freemen and slaves was radical to outsiders. It probably caused some awkward situations in Christian congregations. “It was quite possible in the early days that the slave should be the [leader] of the congregation and the master a member of it. This was a new and revolutionary situation” (Barclay, p. 212).
The appointment of any slave as leader of a congregation could have resulted in temptation on his part to behave rebelliously toward his master, and the master might have been tempted to retaliate. Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul addressed the dynamics between converted slaves and masters:
“Servants, do what is ordered by those who are your natural masters, having respect and fear for them, with all your heart, as to Christ . . . In the knowledge that for every good thing anyone does, he will have his reward from the Lord, if he is a servant or if he is free. And, you masters, do the same things to them, not making use of violent words: in the knowledge that their Master and yours is in heaven, and he has no respect for a man’s position” (Ephesians 6:5-9 Ephesians 6:5-9  Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as to Christ;
 Not with eye-service, as men pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
 With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
 Knowing that whatever good thing any man does, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
 And, you masters, do the same things to them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.
American King James Version×, Bible in Basic English).
But if all men were equal before God in the Church, why didn’t the early Christians try to have slavery abolished?
The fledgling Church knew they were not sent to force revolutionary change on others (Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” in John 18:36 John 18:36Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
American King James Version×), but to preach the good news of a new government to come at Christ’s return.
Slavery was deeply entrenched in the culture, and Christ’s little flock could not have changed it anyway. Recall that in the century before Christianity’s beginning, a man named Spartacus led a slave revolt. The result of this was a brutal crushing of the movement and the crucifying of 6,000 slaves. Reform here would have to wait.
But didn’t Christianity eventually take over the Roman Empire? Yes, but in many respects this was not the Christianity Jesus taught. Nevertheless a number of Christ’s true teachings were advanced through this religion because of its use of the Bible—resulting in positive developments in society. Indeed, when efforts were begun to abolish slavery in the Western world, what was behind the movement? Convictions based on Christianity.
“Christians were the first group in history to start an anti-slavery movement . . . In England, William Wilberforce spearheaded a campaign that began with almost no support and was driven entirely by his Christian convictions . . . Eventually Wilberforce triumphed, and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in Britain. Pressed by religious groups at home, England then took the lead in repressing the slave trade abroad” (D’Souza, p. 71). Of course, Wilberforce was helped in his efforts by the spread and acceptance of Christian teachings on how to treat others.
Many other elements in our modern culture, when compared with that of the Greco-Roman era, show vast improvements in the way the common man is treated. This transformation is paying enormous dividends.
“The Christian priority of extending respect to ordinary persons . . . can also be seen in the emergence in the West of new political institutions. These political institutions existed nowhere else in the world, and they did not exist in ancient Greece or Rome. Something changed within the West to give rise to them. That something is Christianity” (p. 60).
What about treatment of women?
The cultures of the first century treated women more like objects than as human beings. “In Greek civilization the duty of the woman was ‘to remain indoors and to be obedient to her husband.’ It was the sign of a good woman that she must see as little, hear as little and ask as little as possible. She had no kind of independent existence and no kind of mind of her own, and her husband could divorce her almost at caprice . . .”
“Under Roman law a woman had no rights. In law she remained for ever a child. When she was under her father she was under the patria potestas, the father’s power, which gave the father the right even of life and death over her; and when she married she passed equally into the power of her husband.
“She was entirely subject to her husband and completely at his mercy. Cato the Censor, the typical ancient Roman wrote: ‘If you were to catch your wife in an act of infidelity, you can kill her with impunity without a trial’ ” (Barclay, p. 218).
Standards of the Roman world discriminated against women in other ways too. “Compared with the modern woman in today’s Western society, the Roman woman had little or no property rights. Goods or money that she could legally inherit were legally limited. She was not even allowed to leave money to her children if they were under her husband’s patria potestas” (Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 2004, p. 101).
In the first century, Judaism had drifted considerably from the pure practice of the religious principles of the Old Testament, which protected the rights of women. Thus in Jesus’ day, Judaism looked down on women.
For example, the testimony of Jewish women was generally considered worthless, so they were generally not allowed to testify in court. This discrimination about speaking worked in reverse too. Women were not thought worthy to receive spiritual instruction. “Let the words of the Law (Torah) be burned rather than committed to a woman . . . If a man teaches his daughter the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery” (Schmidt, p. 102).
Jesus changed attitudes toward women
Jesus’ disciples were indoctrinated in the tradition of the day. This is illustrated by an incident recorded in John 4. Jesus and His disciples were journeying through Samaria, and His disciples had gone away to buy food (verse 8). When the disciples returned to Jesus, “they marveled that He talked with a woman” (verse 27).
The general belief in Jewish society was that for a religious teacher to speak to a woman in public would demean him. This is why the disciples were shocked. Their surprise was increased by the fact that He was speaking with a Samaritan woman (verse 9), as Samaritans were held in contempt by Jews.
But Jesus was setting an example that His disciples would later follow. They, too, would teach women and accept them as full-fledged members of the religious community. The disciples would also eventually preach the gospel to Samaritans, as Jesus commissioned them to do (Acts 1:8 Acts 1:8But you shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.
American King James Version×). So one of the purposes of Jesus’ ministry was to lift women and others from their despised status and accord them spiritual equality, dignity and respect.
“The extremely low status that the Greek, Roman, and Jewish woman had for centuries was radically affected by the appearance of Jesus Christ. His actions and teachings raised the status of women to new heights, often to the consternation and dismay of his friends and enemies. By word and deed, he went against the ancient, taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that defined woman as socially, intellectually, and spiritually inferior” (Schmidt, pp. 102-103).
That His followers learned from and took to heart Jesus’ example is illustrated by the words of the apostle Peter when he instructed husbands that they and their wives were “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7 1 Peter 3:7Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
American King James Version×).
The apostle Paul also held Christian women in high regard. This is manifest by what he wrote in his letter to the church in Rome: “Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:12 Romans 16:12Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labor in the Lord. Salute the beloved Persis, which labored much in the Lord.
American King James Version×, New International Version).
Women in the Church were accorded prestige that they simply had not had in the pre-Christian era. They were held in a position of dignity and respect that was equal to that of men. In other words, “courtesy, the habit of treating women with deference, was invented by Christianity” (D’Souza, p. 70).
Sadly, women in many third-world countries or those where other religions hold sway simply do not receive the same deference as their counterparts in countries that are influenced by the Christian ethic.
Treatment of children and infants
The most vulnerable human beings in a society are its infants and young children. Treatment of the young could be brutal and coldhearted in Greco-Roman society, but Christianity was different. History reveals that early Christianity cherished and nurtured them.
“One way that Christianity underscored the sanctity of human life was its consistent and active opposition to the widespread pagan practice of infanticide—killing newborn infants, usually soon after birth . . . Infants were killed for various reasons. Those born deformed or physically frail were especially prone to being willfully killed, often by drowning . . . Infant girls were especially vulnerable. For instance, in ancient Greece it was rare for even a wealthy family to raise more than one daughter” (Schmidt, p. 49).
In Roman culture, “a wealthy father might decide to dispose of an infant because of the desire not to divide the family property among too many offspring and thereby reduce the individual wealth of the members of the next generation” (Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, 1975, p. 165).
Equally cruel was the practice of abandoning infants. “If unwanted children in the Greco-Roman world were not directly killed, they were frequently abandoned—tossed away, so to speak. In the city of Rome, for instance, undesirable infants were abandoned at the base of the Columna Lactaria, so named because this was the place the state provided for wet nurses to feed some of the abandoned children” (Schmidt, p. 52).
How did Christians react to child abandonment? “As with infanticide, Christians opposed and condemned the culturally imbedded custom of child abandonment . . . Christians, however, did more than just condemn child abandonment. They frequently took such human castaways into their homes and adopted them . . . Christian writings are replete with examples of Christians adopting throw-away children” (p. 53).
Infanticide and child abandonment did not exist among Jews of the first century. Author Max Dimont shows us the contrast: “The graceful Greeks laughed at the ‘graceless’ Jews for recoiling in horror at the Greek custom of exposing an infant to death when the shape of its skull or nose did not please them” (Max Dimont, Jews, God and History, 1994, p. 108).
How did Jesus view children?
The Jewish understanding was that all human beings were made in the image of God, and therefore they believed in the sanctity of life. However, when it came to the treatment of children, the disciples still had something to learn. Jesus set an example for His disciples on how children should be received.
Notice this incident in Matthew 19:13-14 Matthew 19:13-14  Then were there brought to him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.
 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
American King James Version×: “Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’” Luke’s account of the same event includes the word infants (Luke 18:15 Luke 18:15And they brought to him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.
American King James Version×).
Both accounts note that those who brought infants and children to Jesus were “rebuked” by His disciples. Jesus, however, demonstrated that children were important and should be treated with love and consideration rather than being shunted aside as second-class human beings.
Later, the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 Ephesians 6:4And, you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
American King James Version×).
To the gentile converts in the congregation at Ephesus, Paul’s instruction was a radical departure from their culture. This instruction “introduced a fresh element into parental responsibility by insisting that the feelings of the child must be taken into consideration. In a society where the father’s authority (patria potestas) was absolute, this represented a revolutionary concept” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1978, Vol. 11, p. 81).
Paul also addressed the subject of the proper supervision of children in Colossians 3:21 Colossians 3:21 Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.
American King James Version×. He wrote, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” So we see that Christianity introduced basic changes as to how children were to be treated. Their feelings were to be taken into consideration. Children—like their parents—were the heritage of God, and parents were not to lord it over them.
Christians and the sick
The pagan world of the first century had little sympathy for those who were ill, and most people did not go out of the way to alleviate their suffering. In fact, it was just the opposite. “Human compassion, especially with regard to the sick and dying, among the ancients was rare, notably among the Greco-Romans . . . Such behavior was contrary to their cultural ethos and to the teaching of the pagan philosophers. For instance, Plato (427-347 B.C.) said that a poor man . . . who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die” (Schmidt, p. 128).
Jesus’ approach was just the opposite. Numerous incidents in the Gospels speak of how He reacted to those who were afflicted: “And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14 Matthew 14:14And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.
American King James Version×). Jesus instructed the 12 apostles to follow His example. “He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2 Luke 9:2And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.
American King James Version×).
Nothing like hospitals as we know them existed in the first-century world. Some researchers assert that there were institutions to provide some treatment to Roman soldiers. But common people—and especially the poor—simply had no such treatment available to them.
“Charity hospitals for the poor and indigent public did not exist until Christianity introduced them” (Schmidt, p. 155). As time went by, hospitals were established in greater numbers with the influence of Christianity serving as the driving force. “By [A.D.] 750 the growth of Christian hospitals, either as separate units or attached to monasteries, had spread from Continental Europe to England” (p. 157).
In modern times, particularly in the 20th century, large numbers of general hospitals were built in Western nations. The influence of the Christian culture on this trend is shown in the large numbers of hospitals that bear names of Christian believers, leaders or denominations.
Christianity and education
Jesus was a teacher; He was sometimes addressed by the term Rabbi, which means “teacher” (John 1:38 John 1:38Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, What seek you? They said to him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwell you?
American King James Version×). He intended for His followers to be teachers also. Among the last instructions He gave to His disciples was to “make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 Matthew 28:19-20  Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  Teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you: and, see, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. Amen.
American King James Version×).
Formalized teaching was not a new element in the first-century world. However, one approach that was revolutionary about Christianity was that it offered teaching to both men and women in the same setting. All were expected to learn the principles of the Christian faith. This is in marked contrast to the Greek and Roman approach of teaching only boys from the privileged ranks of society.
As time went by, the effects of Christianity continued to exert influence in the educational realm of society. Many of the early universities in America and England were established with the express purpose of training men for the clergy or educating young people in the ways of the Bible.
For example, “when Harvard College . . . was officially incorporated in 1650, its charter specified a commitment to educate ‘the English and Indian youth of this country in knowledge and godliness’ ” (Kenneth Davis, America’s Hidden History, 2008, p. 65).
Christianity has been the father of education. As one English professor remarked, “In most of Europe, as in Africa, South America, and in many other parts of the world, the birth of literacy and literature essentially, not accidentally, coincides with arrival of Christian missionaries” (Lee Strobel, The Case For Faith, 2000, p. 220).
The give way of life
When it came to performing charitable acts for the poor and needy, standards between the pagan and Christian worlds were at odds. The Roman view was that “there was nothing to be gained by expending time and energy . . . with people who could not contribute to Roman valor and to the strength of the state. The presence of Stoic philosophy also made it disrespectful to associate with the weak, the poor, and the downtrodden” (Schmidt, p. 127).
The fact that Stoicism was the dominant philosophy among the Romans in the first and second centuries meant that those on the lower rungs of society could generally hope for little help from Roman authorities.
In comparison to the pagans around them, the Christians were most generous; they gave without expecting anything in return. Furthermore, they gave not only to believers but to nonbelievers also. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10 Galatians 6:10As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially to them who are of the household of faith.
American King James Version×). The Christians’ example was so outstanding that a pagan Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, envied the Christians for their giving ways.
In our modern era, the Christian ethic continues to spark a generous giving spirit. Studies and surveys repeatedly attest that Bible believers give more abundantly to charitable causes than do atheists and unbelievers.
The overall effects of Christianity
Today some 2 billion people in 260 countries profess Christianity. This vast array of religious groups with their varied and conflicting beliefs claim more adherents than any other religion in the world. Of course, the degree of understanding, dedication and emulation of the Christian way of life varies among adherents, but most all who claim to be Christian have—to some degree—had their lives positively impacted by biblical teaching.
Even some atheists have noted that some of the more decent influences on our society, such as compassion, are ideas that spring from the legacy of Christ. The classical philosophers viewed compassion and humility as signs of weakness, but these Christian traits are essential for a humane society.
All inhabitants of the Western world—whether professing Christians or not—have benefited from the influence of Christianity on our society. We owe to Jesus and the religion He started the finer, more decent aspects of our society. “Believer and nonbeliever alike should respect Christianity as the movement that created our civilization” (D’Souza, p. 45).
Much that goes against Christ’s teachings has been perpetrated in the name of Christianity. False teachings, counterfeit Christianity, hypocrisy and weakness have diluted the power of the Christian way of life. Still, those who live in those countries that are most affected by the Christian ethic are more blessed with freedom, opportunity and human worth than those anywhere else on earth! GN