Living in the First Century World #1

To understand the first century world and therefore to have a clearer background of the setting of the New Testament it is imperative to be informed about its context–the Roman imperial world. The New Testament is foremost the divine revelation of God, but it is also history and to better grasp the message of the revelation some knowledge of this history is crucial. The Roman Empire dominated the world of the New Testament and much of what is in it reflects and was influenced by Roman culture–with either the benefit or challenge it offered to the spread of the gospel. One author writes:

The Roman Empire provides the ever-present political, economic, societal, and religious framework and context for the New Testament’s claims, language, structures, personnel, and scenes. The New Testament texts guide first-century followers of Jesus in negotiating Rome’s power that crucified Jesus. (Warren Carter in The Roman Empire and the New Testament)

This empire was geographically vast spreading from Britain in the west through France, Spain and all across Europe to Turkey and Syria in the east and southward to North Africa. It is estimated that Rome ruled over 60-65 million people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. A part of this, of course, was the territory and people around the Mediterranean Sea, which included Israel.

As an empire (not a republic or a democracy) there was a very-defined hierarchy in which a small elite group ruled–making up perhaps 1-3 percent of the population. This elite provided the empire with its ruling class–from the emperor to the senators to the various provincial governors, magistrates and officials. Those within this elite held the wealth of the empire. There was no middle class and only limited opportunity for social and/or economic advancement. In addition there were very few safety nets or social programs for the poor or infirmed. In the Roman Empire–with few exceptions–the lot in life one was born into was where they remained until death–including Roman citizenship (although there were ways other than birthright to become a citizen.)

Economically Rome depended upon–to a large degree–the agricultural production of its numerous territories and a comprehensive system of taxation across the empire (the apostle Matthew was a part of this tax system).  Slavery was a large element in making the economic engine of the empire run. Unlike the American model, it was not racially driven with slaves initially provided from conquered people all across the empire, which then created the generational slave class that existed for most of the empire, supplemented by those forced to turn to slavery due to debt along with children rescued from exposure. 

In some ways Rome was benevolent toward those over which they ruled. Unlike most previous empires Rome did not insist on demanding the subservient nations to abandon their cultural traditions and religions. Whenever possible they allowed life to continue on as it had been–as long as these nations cooperated, paid taxes, respected to the emperor, and followed Roman rule. They would even enter into a type of partnership with these client states that would allow them a form of self-rule such as with the Herodian line of kings in Palestine and Judea. The empire prided itself in Pax Romana–peace throughout the empire and with the muscle of the Roman legions made sure that it was kept one way or the other (think the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as the “other”).

A Unique Period in History

Specifically up to this point in history, the Roman Empire–unlike any other–created a world more united and common than ever before. Two factors played a major role in this–a common language (Greek) and a vast road system that linked the empire with all roads leading to Rome (The Appian Way being the most famous that eventually connected Rome to the “boot heel” of Italy–362 miles). Add to that the use of shipping and travel over the sea-lanes and for the first time in history people and products could move freely, without fear and to more places than ever. For instance it has been estimated that the apostle Paul traveled roughly 10,000 miles in his lifetime–an unheard of amount before the Roman Empire made it possible. Obviously both of these were advantages used by Christians in the first century to spread the gospel across this empire.

The other advantage–previously referenced–was the practice of Rome allowing the continuation of local religion–as long as it did not create problems. The Jews are an example of this practice. Finding favor with Rome, the first Herod (the Great) was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate and Jews were exempt from having to participate in the imperial cult (money without the image of a Caesar, for instance, was allowed for temple transactions).

Christianity would benefit from its birth out of the Jewish community for a brief time due to Rome’s basic indifference over local religions. But to say there was a separation between religion and politics in Rome would be incorrect.  Rome claimed many gods within its empire including the emperor. One author states:

Most residents of the Roman Empire looked at religion differently from the way most religious Americans do today. While Americans for the most part prefer to keep religion separate from the state, the ancients saw the state as inseparable from religion. Throughout their history, Americans have seen religion as a very private act between the individual and his or her God. By contrast, most ancients saw religion more as an expression of identification with an ethnic or geographic community. However, we should not make the mistake of concluding that because their religion was more an external identification with a group than an individualized commitment, it was somehow less serious. The Romans on the whole took religion very seriously. (James S. Jeffers in The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era)

Within the pages of the New Testament many of these elements would collide as Christianity spread across the empire to eventually threaten the long established religious status quo. Christianity would also challenge other aspects of the empire including social, economic and gender issues. Christianity became the “third way” within the empire, which would eventually overtake all the other ways–as we will see in this study.

Next week–a more detailed look at family life, ethics, and the relationship between Israel and Rome.

Alan Pogue