Greek and Roman religions had oracles, providing a much sought-after orientation to life (a function first of all discharged by philosophy). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were to have prophets and scriptures, the latter an innovation in the Greco-Roman world. Prophets receive a message from God for the people, remind them of their commitment to a personal God, insist that moral codes flowing from faith be adhered to, and act as social critics.
The situation of the Jews in the empire presented special features. A double lot befell them on account of their religion. On the one hand, they were allowed to live according to their laws and enjoyed various privileges. Though under Roman control, they were prospering in many near eastern and western areas and formed important colonies, especially in Alexandria and Rome where they had synagogues and schools. On the other hand, their uncompromising monotheism, certain features of their practices, and their reluctance to participate in public life met with total incomprehension. Nevertheless they possessed a clear identity, listened to their past prophets and present teachers who vigorously denied the existence of all deities but one, and held their scriptures and traditions in great reverence. Family bonds were sacred; Jews, it was generally thought, reproved abortion and exposed none of their children but (as Egyptians and Germans also did) they raised them all, an oddity in the Roman world where female and malformed infants were often abandoned.The early Christian communities initially shared the ambivalent lot of the Jews. Soon, however, they were harassed and denied exemption from public rituals. Like the Jews, and even more, they were considered “atheists” and became objects of malevolent gossip. All that was publicly known about them was that they followed the Galilean prophet Jesus, who had talked about a new kingdom before being ignominiously crucified. They revered their own writings in addition to the Hebrew scriptures, and held meetings mainly at night. After difficult beginnings in Palestine, the early Christians had turned to the Mediterranean world, had opted for the Greek language (emblem of civilization in that Hellenized culture), and were soon found in major centers of the empire (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus). They opened the doors to the Gentiles, mainly thanks to the influence of Paul, a former Pharisee with Roman citizenship. At the beginning they recruited considerably from the lower classes of society, but gradually members of higher strata also joined, all of them at their own risk since their illicit “name” (or membership in the group) made them virtual outlaws.