In his new book, Alexander to Constantine, Eric Meyers argues that Hellenism gave Judaism, and later Christianity, a cultural vehicle for expressing the faiths to worldwide audiences. Meyers, the Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of religion and director of Duke’s Center for Jewish Studies, elaborated on archaeology and biblical narratives in a recent Office Hours interview.
On what we can learn from early Christian archaeology
Archaeology produces information that helps us reconstruct first and foremost the world of the New Testament. Individual items in the Gospels and in the New Testament can illuminate the manner of inhumation, the way of Jesus’ burial and the rolling stone. The purposes in John 1 of the stone vessels at the wedding in Cana—we know that they are purity vessels. To the alert, caring, discerning eye, that means that those first Christians were still practicing purity laws within their tradition.
On Hellenism as one of the most creative forces in the history of civilization
Alexander the Great of Macedonia saw Western civilization, and even parts of the East, as coming together under one cultural roof. He came to Jerusalem, and the Jewish population there was so sick of the Persians that he came peacefully…. And it is this accommodation to both Greek civilization, and Roman civilization after that, that enabled, I believe, Judaism and early Christianity and their traditions to survive and prosper into the present day.
On the Second Temple of Jerusalem
The Temple of Jerusalem was one of the great wonders of the ancient world. It is a monument to Herod the Great, who was otherwise quite a nasty guy. He had nine wives and did a lot of very unmentionable sorts of things. But in his adoption of Greco-Roman culture, he had no peer.
On rethinking the destruction of Jerusalem
Jewish tradition sees in the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586 [B.C.E.] and in the second destruction of Jerusalem in 70 [C.E.] the main day of mourning in Jewish tradition. I do not subscribe to that…. Jews having to build their synagogues and learning to pray without animal sacrifice— establishing a whole new portable kind of religion that was not solely based in Jerusalem—was a creative response to tragedy.