Alfred Edersheim on Ancient Society

Wayne Jackson
This editorial discusses the comments of the Jewish scholar, Alfred Edersheim, on the moral character of first-century Roman society.

Alfred Edersheim (1825-89) was born in Vienna, Austria to Hebrew parents and he was reared in the Jewish faith. He entered the University of Vienna when he was sixteen, but, as a result of his father’s ill health, young Alfred was presently forced to leave that institution.

Not long thereafter, he fell under the influence of a Presbyterian minister named John Duncan and eventually became convinced that Christianity was the true religion, identifying himself with Protestantism. He studied at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then later at the University of Berlin.

Edersheim made an extensive study of the doctrines and customs of Judaism just preceding and then following the time of Christ. The result of his investigation was an impressive two-volume set titled, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, first published in 1883.

Therein Edersheim affirmed that the Gospel writers present the “historical Jesus” as “the fulfillment of the Divine promise of old, the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of man . . . the Sent of God, Who revealed the Father, and was Himself the Way to Him, the Truth, and the Life.”

The erudite author affirmed that at the outset of his investigations he had taken no “predetermined dogmatic standpoint” relative to the conclusion he ultimately reached.

One must say that Edersheim’s scholarship towered above those modern infidels who, sailing under the flag of a “Jesus Seminar,” have crucified the Son of God afresh and exposed him to open shame.

Edersheim’s work is a gold mine of information relative to the religious and cultural conditions that prevailed during the time of our Lord’s earthly sojourn. Recently, while refreshing myself with this rich material, I ran across the author’s fascinating description of Roman society as such existed at the dawn of the Christian age. It was so starkly “modern,” I feel it is worth passing along to others.

It has been rightly said, that the idea of conscience, as we understand it, was unknown to heathenism. Absolute right did not exist. Might was right. The social relations exhibited, if possible, even deeper corruption. The sanctity of marriage had ceased. Female dissipation and the general dissoluteness led at last to an almost entire cessation of marriage. Abortion, and the exposure and murder of newly-born children, were common and tolerated; unnatural vices, which even the greatest philosophers practiced, if not advocated, attained proportions which defy description (1947, 259).

One would think that the renowned scholar was describing New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco. It is a sketch of modern America to the core—no absolute truth; right and wrong are self-defined and relative; live-together, fornicating liaisons as common as marriage; abortion rampant; “unnatural vices” (read that homosexuality) adorn the mantle of respectability and receive government sanction, etc.

Yes, those were the symptoms of that antique world. Jesus Christ, by his heavenly, elevating Gospel, sought to remedy that situation. The refreshing influence of Christianity in that stagnant environment is a glowing tribute to the elevating power of the Gospel.

By and large, however, the ancient society rejected the Savior’s message. And what was the result? As the saying goes, the “rest of the story” can be read in Edward Gibbon’s three volume work, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-81). By the mid-fifth century, the once-mighty empire was buried in oblivion—by the hand of its own debauchery.

As with Rome, so shall it be with America. Those who ignore the mistakes of history are destined to repeat them.

  • Edersheim, Alfred. 1947. Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.