The Realm of Religion in the Ancient World

“There is no such word as “religion” in the languages of the ancient Near East. Likewise, there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular, or even between natural and supernatural. The only suitable dichotomy is between spiritual and physical, though even that would be a less meaningful distinction to them than it is to us. In the end, there is a distinction between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, but events in the two were often intertwined or parallel. It would be difficult to discuss with ancients the concept of divine intervention, because in their worldview deity was too integrated into the cosmos to intervene in it. For the most part, deity is on the inside, not the outside. All experience was religious experience, all law was spiritual in nature, all duties were duties to the gods, all events had deity as their cause. Life was religion and religion could not be compartmentalized within life.” – John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought in the Old Testament, p. 71, Baker Publishing Group, 2006.

This observation about the ancient Near East I think also applies to the ancient Roman world of the New Testament. New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in his excellent book Destroyer of the Gods makes a similar point that religion was intertwined with all of life. If we are going to read the Bible faithfully and inhabit the worldview it has we need to readjust our categories of what reality is.

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