In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Piety/Godliness in Early Christianity and the Roman World

  • Introduction
  • Piety in Ancient Greek Culture
  • Piety in Ancient Roman Culture
  • Piety in Hellenistic Judaism
  • Piety in Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles
  • Piety in Studies on the Pastoral Epistles
  • Piety in Early Christianity

Biblical Studies Piety/Godliness in Early Christianity and the Roman World
Chris Hoklotubbe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0289


By the beginning of the 1st century CE, piety/godliness (Greek: εὐσέβεια; Latin: pietas) came to entail the dutiful fulfilment of one’s obligations to one’s household, homeland, and gods. It could also describe one’s respectful attitude toward and treatment of the dead, guests, hosts, and supplicants as well as describe keeping an oath. Numerous studies on the use of piety in the New Testament have been concerned about identifying the cultural backgrounds that influenced the biblical authors’ deployment of the term and whether such use retains its Greek and Roman meanings, derives from Hellenistic Judaism, or reflects a “Christianization” of the term to encapsulate the complete Christian life, including both proper belief and practice. Outside of the field of biblical studies, philologists in classics have studied the evolution and use of the term εὐσέβεια and its cognates in ancient Greek literature, where the term had significant purchase in philosophical literature. The Latin virtue of pietas gains significant prominence in political discourse near the dusk of the Roman Republic and at the dawn of the Roman Empire with the publication of Virgil’s Aeneid and Augustus’s restoration of priesthoods and temples. Although the term εὐσέβεια and its cognates occur in Acts and 2 Peter, the majority of attention to the significance of this term in early Christian literature has centered around its meaning and function in the canonical Letters to Timothy and Titus, also known as the Pastoral Epistles. In particular, scholars have been concerned about whether the use of the term in the Pastorals reflects the respective author’s accommodation to Greek society (and thus a further development away from the earliest/more authentic/Pauline articulations of the Christian faith) or rather reflects enculturation within Hellenistic Jewish thought. Neither the historical Jesus nor Paul in his undisputed letters describe the ideal Christian life in terms of piety—thus it remains a fascinating topic to consider the social and political implications of early Christians utilizing this terminology which held significant cultural capital and prestige in its Greek and Roman cultural contexts.

Piety in Ancient Greek Culture

Many philological studies on εὐσέβεια are contained in manuscripts that are difficult to obtain or in unpublished dissertations. The noun εὐσέβεια derives from the root σεβ-, with σέβειν meaning “to honor” and σέβας meaning “reverential awe.” Nägelsbach 1857 traces the use of εὐσέβεια across Greek literature from Homer to Alexander (d. 323 BCE), followed by Terstegen 1941, which carries this analysis to the 3rd century CE. Peels 2016 shows how the adjective εὐσεβής overlaps with ὅσιος (“pious, devout”) in describing the piety of persons and actions, though there remain some distinctions between the two terms. Bolkestein 1936 sees the terms as interchangeable, whereas Mikalson 2010 distinguishes εὐσεβής as usually describing pious attitudes and beliefs and ὅσιος usually denoting pious actions and the fulfillment of ritual obligations. Emlyn-Jones 1990 introduces readers to the place of piety in Plato’s Socrates and its significance for understanding the charges of impiety leveled against Socrates. Zaidman 2001 gives a broader overview of the meaning of piety in ancient Greek philosophical literature and Dihle 1968 surveys its purchase in Greek philosophical literature and its reception in later Jewish and Christian works.

  • Bolkestein, Johanna Christina. “Ὅσιος en Εὐσεβής.” PhD diss., Rijks-Universiteit te Utrectht, 1936.

    Bolkestein examines the use of ὅσιος and εὐσεβής terminology in ancient Greek literature, including epics, poetry, comedies, and philosophy, dating from their earliest occurrences to the 4th century BCE. She finds that the two terms are practically synonymous and primarily describe proper moral relations between humans and, secondarily, the religious observance due to divinity.

  • Dihle, Albrecht. Der Kanon der zwei Tugenden. Cologne, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1968.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-663-02158-2

    Examines how εὐσέβεια (piety) and φιλανθρωπία (philanthropy)—the canon of two virtues—is addressed in ancient Greek philosophy to encapsulate the entirety of ethics and is developed and carried forward in popular philosophical ethics and Jewish and Christian texts.

  • Emlyn-Jones, Chris. “Socrates, Plato, and Piety.” Mediterranean Studies 2 (1990): 21–28.

    Helpful overview of the theme of piety in Plato’s account of Socrates’ life and dialogues and how claims against Socrates’ impiety resulted in his death.

  • Mikalson, Jon D. Greek Popular Religion in Greek Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199577835.001.0001

    Mikalson argues that the synonymy between ὅσιος and εὐσέβεια has been overstated. Εὐσέβεια means “proper respect,” while ὅσιος concerns “religious correctness” and proper observance of religious laws and traditions. The former primarily concerns attitudes, the latter actions.

  • Nägelsbach, Karl Friedrich. “Die Εὐσέβεια.” In Die nachhomerische Theologie des griechischen Volksglauben bis auf Alexander. By Karl Friedrich Nägelsbach, 191–227. Nüremberg, Germany: Verlag von Conrad Geiger, 1857.

    Nägelsbach discusses what εὐσέβεια entailed for ancient Greeks with reference to ritual practices, including sacrifice and prayer in the contexts of the civic cult, military, and domestic life. Nägelsbach defines ancient Greek εὐσέβεια in terms of obedience to the gods and resignation to the fates.

  • Peels, Saskia. Hosios: A Semantic Study of Greek Piety. Mnemosyne Supplements 387. By Saskia Peels, 68–106. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004304277_004

    A diachronic analysis and comparison of the appearance of ὅσιος, εὐσέβεια, and their cognates in 5th-century BCE Greek literature. The two terms and their cognates share similar thematic distribution. Yet ὅσιος refers to religious actions, whereas εὐσεβής refers to a way of life or mental state—which ὅσιος and its antonyms do not. However, it is often impossible to distinguish whether attitudes or actions are being described in many texts.

  • Terstegen, Wilhelmus Johannus. “Εὐσεβής en Ὅσιος in het grieksch taalgebruik na de IVe eeuw.” PhD diss., Rijks-Universiteit te Utrecht, Utrecht: En Uitg.-Mij. Kemink en Zoon, 1941.

    Carries forward the analysis of Greek literature by Bolkestein 1936 onward from the 5th century BCE into the 3rd century CE, classifying the terms according to when they describe the person and actions of deities, humans, and the relation between the two.

  • Zaidman, Louise Bruit. Le commerce des dieux. Eusebeia. Essai sur la piété en Grèce ancienne. Paris: Découverte, 2001.

    Surveys the history of the meaning of εὐσέβεια in ancient Greek literature and philosophical writings, including Homer, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato. Also covers notions of impiety and superstition and practices of piety, including sacrifice, offerings, festivals, incubation (at the temple of Asklepios), and prayers.

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