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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Fulness of the Time

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FULNESS OF THE TIME (τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου).—An expression used by St. Paul (Galatians 4:4) to mark the opportuneness of the coming of Christ into the world, and the ripeness of the age for the great religious revolution He was to effect. It emphasizes the unique significance of the period as the culmination of a long course of events, by which the way had been providentially prepared for Christ’s appearance, and His introduction of a purer type of religion. The evidences of such a providential preparation are indeed remarkable. Along different lines of historical development a situation had been created at the very centre of the world’s life, that was singularly favourable to the planting and spread of a loftier faith. The main factors usually recognized as contributing to this result were: (1) the peculiar condition which the Jewish people had reached; (2) the dissemination of the Greek language, culture, and commercial activity; and (3) the unifying influence of Rome.

1. The peculiar condition of the Jewish people.—Centuries of chequered discipline had fixed in the Jewish mind the belief in one true and perfectly righteous God, and subsequently to the return from the Exile there had been no relapse into idolatry. Latterly, indeed, through the influence of the scribes and Pharisees, legalism and formality had crept in, and the externalization of religion had been carried far; yet in many classes of society there was a wistful straining after inner purity and a more living fellowship with God; and in spite of the soulless bondage of ceremonial observances, there was an amount of deep and reverent piety that kept the nation’s heart sounder than might appear on the surface. At all events, nowhere else in the world did there exist so vivid a conception of the Divine holiness or so high a recognized standard of morality; nowhere else, therefore, were there so many devout minds ready to receive a new spiritual revelation, or so well fitted to furnish heralds and apostles for its propagation.

Then there was the revival of the Messianic hope, which, kept alive by the pressure of repeated misfortunes, had, under the tightening grip of Roman domination, sprung up with passionate intensity. The political situation was galling, and the Jewish people, pining to be free from the foreign yoke, consoled themselves with the thought of a glorious future. It was a time of high-strung unrest and expectancy; yet although the prospect of political emancipation was to a large extent entertained, there were multitudes of earnest souls yearning for a higher form of deliverance, the dawn of a reign of righteousness and peace, in the benefits of which not Israel only, but the whole world, should share.

Outside Palestine, again, the influence of Jewish religious ideas had been widely extended by means of the Dispersion. Conscious of being raised above the manifold forms of heathen superstition around them, the colonies of Jews settled in the trading cities of foreign lands felt themselves impelled to aspire after a certain elevation of life; while the loftier moral teaching they maintained in their synagogues attracted considerable numbers of proselytes from paganism. Thus the conception of the Divine unity and righteousness was being spread over a large section of the heathen world. So far, therefore, both at home and abroad the Jewish people had fulfilled their mission in the moral and religious preparation of the world for the entrance of Christianity.

2. The dissemination of the Greek language, culture, and commercial activity.—Ever since the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Greek tongue had attained supremacy among the civilized nations, and had become the current medium for the exchange of thought. Even the OT had to be rendered into Greek, in the translation known as the Septuagint. Moreover, Greek learning, literature, and speculation exercised a pervasive influence far and near. A significant indication of this is to be found in the rise among the Jews of the Dispersion of a school of thinkers who had imbibed the Greek culture, and who, quickened by the intellectual alertness of the Greek mind, were drawn to take part in the literary productivity of the age. The aim of this Graeco-Jewish school was to make the purer religious faith and knowledge of Israel accessible to the world. With its chief seat at Alexandria, its leading representatives, such as Aristobulus and Philo, endeavoured to show that the Mosaic law, correctly understood, contained all that the best Greek philosophers had taught. Thus was brought about a mutual action and reaction of Jewish and Greek ideas, and a soil was being made ready for a more elevated spiritual teaching, based on the unity of the Godhead and the eternal obligation of righteousness.

At the same time the commercial enterprise of the Greeks was rapidly overcoming national exclusiveness, and producing a freer intercourse between men of different races. They were the cosmopolitans of the period—inquisitive, openminded, eager to enter into all vivid interests; and in the great trading cities in Asia Minor and along the Mediterranean shore they fostered the spirit of toleration and helped to secure full scope for the advocacy of all forms of belief.

But while thus stimulating intellectual receptiveness everywhere, the most important contribution of the Greeks in the preparation for Christianity was the universal prevalence they gained for their rich and expressive language, inasmuch as by this they supplied a common vehicle of intercourse, calculated to be of immense advantage in the announcement and promulgation of the Christian Evangel.

3. The unifying influence of Rome. That the entire known world was then embraced within Rome’s imperial sway was a momentous factor in the situation which had been reached. As the barriers of language had been demolished through the influence of the Greeks, so through the influence of the Romans the barriers of nationality had been broken down. The whole world was but one country; and from the Euphrates to the Atlantic there was settled government, order, and the rule of law under one sovereign sceptre. In the lull of national strifes which had thus come—the pax Romana—merchant and traveller moved safely from land to land, and by the splendid system of roads for which the Roman Empire was famed, the lines of communication were opened in all directions. In this way Rome had performed its distinctive part by bringing about a political condition of the world hitherto unexampled in history.

Thus the three great races of antiquity had contributed their share towards the fulfilment of a manifestly providential design, and the period had now arrived when their several lines of historical development converged to a meeting-point, producing a combination of circumstances which rendered issues of vast moment possible. As it has been aptly put, ‘the City of God is built at the confluence of three civilizations’ (Conybeare and Howson’s St. Paul, i. 2).

It is worthy of note also that the little country of Palestine, where the Founder of Christianity was to appear, lay at the very centre of the then known world; and in view of the fact that through the provision of a common language and free means of movement and intercourse the avenues of access were opened to every land, it becomes clear that the most signal facilities were afforded for the dissemination of a faith that was destined to wield a world-wide power.

In addition to this, account has to be taken of the decay of the old pagan religions, and the simultaneous influx of Oriental ideas. There was a strange intermingling of races and also of religious beliefs, with the result that men’s minds were unsettled, and a spirit of inquiry was awakened among those who had grown dissatisfied with the popular heathen cults.

Manifestly the age was ripe for a new revelation that would meet the deepest needs of the human soul; and in the situation created by the course of Jewish, Greek, and Roman history, the way for it had at length been prepared. Then Jesus Christ appeared. The ‘fulness of the time’ had come for the advent of the promised Saviour with His Gospel of life and grace for the regeneration of mankind.

Literature.—Ewald, Hist. of Israel (English translation), vols. v. and vi.; Hausrath, The Times of Jesus (English translation 1888), i.; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. iii.; Pressensé, Religions before Christ (1862); Conybeare and Howson, St. Paul (1858), i. 4–14; Lux Mundi, 129–178; Edersheim, Life and Times, i. 3–108; Farrar, St. Paul, i. 115 ff.; Gwatkin, art. ‘Roman Empire’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; Wernle, Beginnings of Christianity (English translation 1903), i. 1–36.

G. M‘Hardy.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fulness of the Time'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/f/fulness-of-the-time.html. 1906-1918.

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