Before Christianity developed a distinct identity throughout its long history, cultural and philosophical influences became interwoven into the fabric of Christian thought and theology. While Christian history covers over 2,000 years with cultures and philosophical systems playing dynamic roles, a comprehensive study of the topic rests on the foundation of the early centuries during which Christians worked toward self-definition. Jesus lived and died under Roman rule, with definite Jewish religious and cultural influences, and in a Hellenistic (Greek) society. Even as schisms occurred, so did early Christians plant the seeds of Christian theology.

Hellenist Culture

St. Paul preached and wrote across the Hellenistic world.
St. Paul preached and wrote across the Hellenistic world.

Characterized by Greek language and culture, Hellenism was one of the main cultures in which Jesus and the earliest Christians lived and taught. Hellenistic language and literary forms played vital roles in the development of Scripture. The Pauline letters, for instance, serve as examples of the biblical author's travels in Greece and Egypt, both centers of Hellenistic ideas. In addition to Greek philosophy's influence on the development of Christian theology, Hellenism heavily influenced another major religious authority -- Judaism.

Jewish Culture

Jewish faith was a central element in early Christian thought.
Jewish faith was a central element in early Christian thought.

With books of the Gospels addressed to Jewish audiences, most of the New Testament chronicles the struggles Jesus' followers confronted as they moved toward identifying their beliefs and establishing rituals in the decidedly Jewish culture and religious tradition into which Jesus and most of his disciples were born. Jewish leaders had long awaited the arrival of an earthly messiah. Christians believed the Messiah was God incarnate -- a belief completely at odds with Jewish belief that God remains transcendent to material experience. Still, Jews and Jesus' followers worshipped together until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.

Judaism, Greek Philosophy and Christian Thought

The first doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologiae.
The first doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologiae.

Jewish beliefs and Greek philosophy merged with a figure central to Judaism's influence on Christian thought. The philosopher Philo synthesized Jewish Scripture with Platonic philosophy, work that had implications to the development of a Christian canon in the Bible. Even more significantly, Greek philosophy appears with a religious emphasis in Christian thought with the writings of such eminent Christians as St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Augustine's works rest on a neo-Platonic foundation, while Aquinas reflects Aristotelian ideas, such as his writing about wisdom.

Early Christian Thought

In the earliest centuries of Christianity, teachers known now as the Church Fathers continued the works of the first followers of Jesus. Fathers, including St. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, represent the spread of Christian beliefs throughout the known world and the breadth of intellect and faith in the young religion's followers. During that long and tumultuous period, Christian thinkers developed such stabilizing ideas as Jesus' divinity and humanity, the sacraments and the Trinity. Each aspect of Christian theology rests, in varying degrees, on its Abrahamic roots and in Greek philosophy.