“A democracy, Mr. Cromwell, was a Greek drollery based on the foolish notion that there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people.” King Charles II of England, if he indeed said these words, believed what a good many educated people still hold to: that the Greek democracy was a brilliant, fleeting light in the panorama of history.
Classical scholars and professors of ancient history will tell you otherwise. When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world in 334 B.C., Greek democracy was already over 200 years old. He took the idea with him in his heart and planted it everywhere. In prophetic vision, the prophet Daniel saw Alexander as a male goat speeding across the earth so fast that his feet seemed not to touch the ground. In ten years he conquered everything in the Near East from Asia Minor all the way to the Indus River. The Orientals were so amazed at Alexander’s success that the upper classes wanted above all to become Greeks. Their wish and its fulfillment persisted for centuries. When you read the term “Greeks” in the New Testament, that is the usual meaning: Orientals who had adopted the Greek way of life.
The Jews became as Hellenized as any other nation in the Near East. Even after the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were a thoroughly Hellenized people. Jewish rabbis studied the Greek philosophy and Greek rhetoric to defeat Greek polytheism and establish Mosaic religion. The practice of rabbi-disciple was not original in Judaism, but came from the Greek practice of the philosopher and his pupil. Trade language was Greek, and major trade routes of the Near East passed directly through Galilee and Judea. Outside of Palestine, the Jews read the Old Testament Scriptures in Greek because most of them had quit speaking Aramaic. In Galilee, most funerary inscriptions were made in Greek. James, the brother of Jesus, grew up in Galilee and spent the last half of his life in Judea. He wrote in excellent Greek.
Greek culture included the Greek city, the polis, which was a democracy. The Greek kings after Alexander established 30 Greek cities in the area of Palestine.1 Each of those cities dominated its surrounding villages. In all of the villages (not just the cities) in the area of Philip the Tetrarch’s rule (Luke 3:1), the people elected magistrates by popular vote. In most places where Paul spread the Gospel, city, village, and regional governments practiced democracy, centered in the ekklesia.2
Of course, the Roman emperors manipulated the political system, by making the office of city magistrate only affordable to the wealthy. That was their means of control. But the emperors still had to respect the cities. The ideal of government in the minds of most people, if indeed not the reality, was the Greek city with its assembly. A notable exception to this rule of thumb was the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. At times it was responsible for the political direction of all the Jews in Palestine, at times its power was diminished to Jerusalem only. It was not democratic. Its members were chosen either by other Sanhedrin members or by various kings, like Herod the Great. It was an aristocratic rule.
Democracy, synagogue and church
I want to dispel two possible misunderstandings at this point. I am not declaring that everyone in Jesus’ day was a thoroughgoing democrat. Nor would I ever say that the church was or is a democracy. But democracy is one form of group decision-making, and this form was widespread and well understood at the time the church began.
What about the Jews themselves? A few of examples suffice to demonstrate their views of group decision-making: first, the Qumran community practiced majority rule for many of its decisions (1 QS 6; Josephus Wars, 2.145-46). Philo, one of the leading Jewish writers of Jesus’ day, argued that Israel was always far more democratic than Rome (Philo, De Specialibus Legibus 4:151-57). His argument is an exaggeration, but shows what Jewish thinkers in Egypt believed about democracy, since Philo was one of the chief representatives of the Jewish people there. Likewise, the synagogue usually functioned in a democratic way (I do not say as a democracy).
There is a commonly-held error that the church obtained its idea of elders from the elders of the synagogue, who were its spiritual rulers. But the synagogue was not primarily a spiritual institution. It was more of a city center. Nor did every synagogue have elders. Instead, as Lee Levine, a scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem points out, Jewish communities borrowed their titles for their leaders from the surrounding culture.3 The one officer that was in nearly every Jewish community with a synagogue was the “ruler of the synagogue” (archisynagogos: Mark 5:35, Luke 13:14, Acts 18:8). This man was responsible for the religious services in the synagogue but was not necessarily himself a teacher. He was elected to his post.
One finds, in fact, no mention of “elders of the synagogue” in the New Testament. The community, not a self-perpetuating elder board, ruled the synagogue: “It was the townspeople or their chosen representatives who had ultimate authority in synagogue matters,” and the synagogue officials “were only as strong as the power vested in them by the community.”4 Another Jewish scholar, Samuel Safrai says, “During the Second Temple period…authority, it was then held, belonged to the community and the assembly. Fundamentally, the ruling authority was the gatherings of the local citizens to deal with civic matters, and of all the Jews to deal with national matters.”5
Finally, Israel was called repeatedly to form an assembly in the Old Testament. Certainly there were elders in Israel, just as there were elders in nearly all cultures of the ancient Near East. But just like nearly every culture of that place and time, Israel also held assemblies (Lev. 24:10-13, Num. 35:24-25, Judg. 20:1-9, 2 Sam. 5:1-3, 1 Kings 11:12, Chron. 30:23). In some of those assemblies, the body unquestionably made the decision. Many times when reading books about the ancient Near East, one gets the idea that governments were autocratic and severe. Repeatedly kings avowed that they were chosen or especially commissioned by their god. But kings in the Near East also had to reckon with the assemblies of their people or with assemblies of cities in their realms. They had to compromise.6 Even kings chosen by the LORD were affirmed in their office by the assembly of Israel.
So what is the importance of all this history? It does not tell us what kind of government the early church practiced. That has to be answered by the Bible. But the secular activities of group decision-making in ancient times were part of the environment out of which the early church emerged. Group decision-making was not practiced everywhere, but it was very widespread in the Near East at the time Jesus was born. The idea of having an assembly that made decisions was neither anti-Jewish, nor humanistic, nor anti-Scriptural, nor worldly, nor ungodly to the minds of the Jews and Gentiles who received Jesus as the Messiah and were formed into local churches. No doubt, like Charles II of England, there were Christians who didn’t favor the idea of group decision-making. But to nearly everyone it would have seemed a very normal way for groups to get things done. In some ways the people of the ancient world believed that when gathered together “there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people.”
1 Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, translated by S. Applebaum (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 90-116.
2 A.H.M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 282-85.
3 Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) 452.
4 Levine, 169; 382.
5 Samuel Safrai, “Jewish Self-Government,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, ed. S. Safrai and M. Stern (Assen: Van Gorcum and Compant, 1974), 1:378.
6 Yves Schemeil, “Democracy before Democracy?” International Political Science Review, 21, no. 2 (2000), 104-113.