The New Testament relates the development of the early church and presents an untold number of moral challenges without dwelling at length on the society and culture from which it grew.
Thus, all of us can profit greatly by reading the New Testament for its moral challenges alone, with little concern for its historical background. Yet this scripture cannot be fully understood without a basic knowledge of the century that produced it—a century different from, and yet in many ways similar to, our own. To know little of the historical setting of the New Testament is to know little or nothing of the special problems the people of the early church faced; and to be ignorant of these problems is to be, to some extent, ignorant of the solutions given by the apostles. Thus we study the ancient setting of the New Testament not simply because the New Testament is ancient, but because we can better transfer old instruction to today’s problems when we better understand the events that are relevant.
This article, therefore, is not written as historical recitation, but as an illustration of the New Testament setting—the mood and style of the times—that will help us to see the significance of the remarkable blending of events that enabled the first Christian preaching to spread so rapidly. For just as modern constitutional governments made possible the survival and spread of the restored gospel, so did ancient political, economic, and social realities combine to enable Christianity to affect the world within 35 years of its founding.
The reader of the Gospels knows that Rome ruled the Mediterranean world and that the emperor ruled Rome. But who was emperor? Prior to the crucifixion, the priests cried, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15.) A title rather than a person, Caesar refers to several different emperors in the New Testament.
Civil wars had plagued the Roman republic during the century before Christ. In a generation of strong men, Julius Caesar rose to sole power, was assassinated, and bequeathed his family name and the loyalty of his soldiers to his great-nephew, Octavian. With a blend of ruthlessness and caution, Octavian finally defeated all rivals and ushered in the era of the Roman Empire by transforming his military machine into a paternalistic dictatorship that respected civil rights. He also fostered the use of his family name, Caesar, as a title, which his successors bore like the modern adaptations “Kaiser” and “Tsar.” But Octavian also favored the personalized name “Augustus,” which had the more elevated meaning of “dignified” or “majestic.” In the development of imperial nomenclature, even “Augustus” was later applied to successors.
The Roman government established by Augustus loosely resembled modern federalism. Conquered areas were administered either through Roman governors or client kings, all subordinated to a central administration. Augustus controlled the executive powers, many of which he wrested forcibly from the more chaotic Roman senate. He regularized provincial government, made local governors accountable for maladministration, and brought peace to the older and more civilized sections of the empire. Luke suggests that it was Augustus’ taxation decree that caused Joseph and Mary to go to their ancestral Bethlehem, where Christ was born. (See Luke 2:1.)
Roman executive government throughout the Mediterranean meant the introduction of Roman courts upholding Roman law, providing a source of stability, security, and basic respect for civil rights. This was advertised by the first emperor as the Augustan peace (pax Augusta), followed by the pax Romana of successors. In the main, the first Christian century was a time of increased security for most citizens, including safer travel by land and absence of piracy at sea. These conditions directly affected the development of Christianity. For instance, the Roman presence held in check the Jewish enemies of Jesus for years and repeatedly protected Paul against mobs and plots.
Thus, secular history developed the right conditions at the right time for fostering the new religion of Christ. What one writer called “the New Deal in Old Rome” established a superior political and legal climate for the spread of a new revelation among competing religions. And this generally favorable situation continued throughout most of the first century A.D. with the successors of Augustus.
Emperors After Augustus
Jesus was a teenager when Tiberius succeeded Augustus in A.D. 14. Although Tiberius was introverted and incapable of confident communication with his peers, he ruled the empire well and with such concern for the masses that he rebuked governors proposing tax increases with the injunction to “shear the sheep” and not to “skin” them. (Seutonius, Tiberius 32.) Private inscriptions from many lands mirror the official slogans of Roman patriotism in this era.
Nor did Jesus quarrel with national loyalty, for when the question of paying taxes came to him, he held up the imperial denarius (the proper Latin and Greek term instead of the translated “penny”). The emperor’s image (probably that of Tiberius), was on the coin, and Jesus emphasized the duty to comply with the edicts both of the emperor and of God. (See Matt. 22:17–21.) Even though Christ was unlawfully crucified with the approval of an appointee of Tiberius, Christian leaders stressed civil obedience as a gospel duty, Paul stating that “higher powers” were assigned by God (Rom. 13:1) and Peter naming both the emperor and his governors as appointed by God to maintain order in society. (See 1 Pet. 2:13–14.) Thus Christianity was revolutionary, but on a moral, not a directly political, level.
Tiberius was succeeded in A.D. 37 by Caligula, an arbitrary egotist who violated the dignity of his office. Yet even under bad emperors, the extensive Roman bureaucracy was administered well. In A.D. 41, Claudius restored responsibility to the imperial office, reigning until A.D. 54. These were the years of the dramatic missions of Paul to Asia Minor and Greece. (See Acts 13–18.) The book of Acts indicates that Paul’s main enemies then were Jewish conservatives who stirred up mobs and assaulted the successful Christian missionaries. Such agitation brought Paul before city governments and even provincial governors such as Gallio in Corinth. Secular history verifies this climate, for Claudius wrote in one stern letter to Alexandria bitter complaints against Jewish disorders, and the historian Seutonius reported Jewish-instigated riots involving Christians: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” (Claudius 25.) This is evidently the same Jewish expulsion reported in Acts 18:1.
The era of open toleration of Christianity was seriously impaired in the administration of Nero, who ruled from A.D. 54 to 68. Early sources consistently claim that Peter and Paul were put to death in the final years of Nero’s reign.1 Personally immature and dangerous, he sought to stop a public rumor about himself by blaming the Christians for a severe fire in the center of Rome. A later senator, Tacitus, detested Nero, and preserved both the story and the upper-class snobbishness about the Christians that it implied. Peter and Paul were still alive when the following events of A.D. 64 took place:
“Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.” (Annals 15:44, translated by C. Moore.)
Nero’s incompetence caused the armies to revolt. At Nero’s death the commander of the east was Vespasian, who was then suppressing the Jewish revolt. After delegating the Jerusalem campaign to his son, Titus, Vespasian successfully marched on Rome. The decade of his administration was marked by revival of solid Roman values and common sense. After Titus reigned for a few years, the Empire passed into the hands of Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian, who again was arbitrary and often savage toward any supposed rival. Domitian ruled for 15 years (A.D. 81–96) and, according to Christian history, exiled the apostle John to Patmos, where Revelation was written at the close of Domitian’s reign. (See Rev. 1:9.) After Domitian died, John was free to resume his ministry, and he did so among the cities of Asia Minor around Ephesus.2
One striking theme of Revelation is the martyrdom of the faithful—the “souls of them that were slain” found reward and rest “until their fellowservants also and their brethren … should be killed as they were.” (Rev. 6:9, 11.) This precise atmosphere is noted about 15 years after the close of Domitian’s reign in the remarkable correspondence of the younger Pliny with the Emperor Trajan. Domitian’s cruelty brought about his own assassination, with a rejuvenation of constitutional rule, temporarily at first by Nerva and then by the prestigious general Trajan, who trusted senator Pliny and finally sent him as an imperial legate to regulate the northern Asia Minor provinces. There Pliny was troubled over the paradox of the Christians under his government. On the one hand he found that the faithful would not sacrifice to Roman gods, or to the emperor’s “image,” a new provincial practice of the first century. On the other hand, he inquired severely (including inferrogating two female Christians under torture) and found that nothing subversive went on in their meetings, where they bound themselves “by oath” never to commit “fraud, theft, or adultery.” Thus the governor’s conscience was troubled, and he asked instructions in a letter to Trajan.
Although Pliny’s harsh measures had already caused large numbers to abandon Christianity and had revived sagging temple sacrifices, he could see that those who were “really Christians” would die rather than sacrifice to pagan gods, and he sought to avoid large-scale executions. Trajan replied with a similarly troubled conscience, commending Pliny for the carefulness and forcefulness of his measures and admitting that he had no alternative but to put to death known Christians who did not recant. Trajan further advised Pliny that Christians “are not to be sought out.”3 Thus the final New Testament period and early apostasy are confirmed by secular history.
From the time of Julius Caesar to the Jewish revolt in A.D. 70, the various regions of Palestine were governed by the Herodian kings and by Roman procurators or governors. The Herodian kings are prominent in both the Gospels and in Acts, although their dynasty ended soon after the writing of these books. Luke 1:5 and Matthew 2:1 [Matt. 2:1] both indicate that Jesus’ birth took place in the days of Herod the Great, and Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the Bethlehem children (see Matt. 2:16) is typical of the despot who reigned with marked cruelty, even executing his own sons when he feared them.
Herod divided the kingdom among three sons at his death, an arrangement that had to be ratified by Rome because Palestine was a client kingdom that sent taxes and was controlled in foreign policy by Rome. Herod’s main successor was Archelaus, whose kingdom was comprised of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. He ruled so badly that Augustus deposed him in A.D. 4 (see Matt. 2:22), and Judea was directed thereafter by Roman officers, which explains why Jesus’ sentence was given in Jerusalem by the Roman Pilate, who governed from A.D. 26 to 36.
The Roman governor of Judea held a lesser technical position but was under the same pressures as other Roman provincial administrators. The commander of Judea was traditionally called a “procurator,” so with only general accuracy the New Testament names him “governor.” A new inscription pertaining to Pilate identifies his office as “praetor.” All such officers were answerable to the emperor for maintaining peace, as the Jewish leaders bluntly reminded Pilate before sentencing Jesus. All were likewise sworn to uphold Roman due process of law. Yet all were vulnerable to local demonstrations and protests. Pilate appears weak and spiteful in the New Testament, a picture consistent with the Jewish sources Josephus and Philo. After governing for ten years, Pilate was summarily removed when he overreacted by slaughtering Samaritan pilgrims in A.D. 36.
Another son of Herod ruled the area northeast of the Sea of Galilee. He was Philip, who is called “tetrarch” by Luke (see Luke 3:1) and who gave his name to Caesarea Philippi, near the place where Peter testified that Jesus was the Messiah. (See Matt. 16:16.) His government was apparently moderate, and Jesus found safety within his borders. Philip died without incident in A.D. 37.
A third son of Herod was called Antipas, who ruled Galilee through Jesus’ youth and ministry and who confronted him personally with mild ridicule at the trial. (See Luke 23:6–12.) Simply called “Herod” or “Herod the Tetrarch” in the New Testament, he is prominent for his contact with John the Baptist, who condemned him openly for divorcing the daughter of nearby King Aretas (the king that Paul escaped from at Damascus). Herod admired John the Baptist but was induced through his second wife and through political considerations to execute him, an ambivalence well justifying Jesus’ epithet of “that fox.” (Luke 13:32.) Herod Antipas closed his rule with a double setback. Aretas attacked him and humiliated his army in A.D. 36, a reprisal for Herod’s earlier divorce of his daughter. Three years later Herod Antipas was denounced by his nephew Agrippa before the Emperor Caligula. Antipas was then deposed and lived out his life in exile.
By A.D. 41, Philip was dead, Herod Antipas was deposed, and the entire region of Palestine, once divided three ways by Herod the Great, was consolidated under the power of Agrippa.
Agrippa, also “Herod the King,” was a grandson of Herod the Great. He had been raised among the intrigues of Rome, and, after being imprisoned by the Emperor Tiberius, he was favored by the Emperor Caligula with a title and some Galilean territory. Next, Galilee was given him from the deposed Antipas. The Emperor Claudius finally awarded Agrippa Judea and Samaria, the territory normally held by Roman administrators. Agrippa ruled over this consolidated territory for three years before his death in A.D. 44.
Agrippa appears in but one devastating sequence in the New Testament, where he executed James (the brother of John) and imprisoned Peter. His end is described in both Acts and Josephus with marked similarity. Acts says that “Herod” gave an oration before the people of Caesarea in royal costume, and was greeted with the popular shout, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.” (Acts 12:22.) Josephus relates that Agrippa entered the theater at Caesarea in a glinting silver garment and was immediately hailed “as a god.” (See Antiquities 19:343–45.) Both accounts say that he was immediately stricken and soon died.
The last Herod of the New Testament is Agrippa, the son of the above Herod Agrippa, who appears incidentally as a guest in the investigative hearing before Paul was sent to Rome. (See Acts 25–26.) His kingdom was restricted to parts of northern Palestine, since Rome again directly ruled Judea and Samaria after the death of Herod Agrippa in A.D. 44. His political influence was minimal after the outbreak of the Jewish War in A.D. 66.
Roman appointees, then, ruled central and southern Palestine from A.D. 4 until the Jewish revolt in A.D. 70, with the brief exception of A.D. 41–44 under the first Herod Agrippa. Paul also soon faced provincial governors in Cyprus and in Greece. The legal and political position of these leaders is similar, though the personality of each varies. On the island of Cyprus the Roman governor believed the gospel. (See Acts 13:7–12.) At Corinth, Gallio protected Paul from hostile Jews, though hardly a heroic action when the Greek mob was so openly anti-Semitic. In Judea, Pilate capitulated to Jewish leaders and their angry followers. Under similar circumstances, both Felix and Festus protected Paul but feared to release him because of Jewish political pressures.
Prior to Augustus the power of the governor in his province was virtually absolute, and in New Testament times he remained the chief military, executive, and judicial officer, with protection of citizens his special concern. Roman society was based on status, and civil rights followed this system. Slaves had the least protection, and citizens had the most. The latter were mainly either Italians or provincial families that were rewarded for usefulness to Rome. Since they generally served by political or economic influence, Roman citizens in any city were probably at least middle class, the implication of Paul telling the examining tribune that he was born a citizen. (See Acts 22:28.) On that occasion the mere claim of citizenship immediately stopped an intended interrogation under the whip. In the letter of Pliny to Trajan discussed earlier, that governor simply executed provincial Christians who did not forsake their religion, but others “possessed of the same folly” received better treatment: “Because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.” Paul could demand the same, which he did after facing either the danger of being murdered in another Jerusalem trial or further imprisonment after already being in custody for two years. He received fair treatment on several other occasions because of his Roman rights. Obviously the Lord called an apostle to the gentiles especially suited to survive the dangers of hot controversy.
Paul was able to communicate widely because he spoke at least two languages. In Palestine, Hebrew or the closely related Aramaic was used, and Paul addressed the crowd in the Jerusalem temple in their native language; he could also converse with the Roman officers in Greek. (See Acts 21:37–22:3.) Three centuries before, Alexander the Great had conquered the Near East, and thereafter Greek was the dominant cultural and business language of the Mediterranean east of Greece. Nor was this influence lacking in the western Mediterranean, where Greek colonization of all ages maintained the influence of that language, and where many Roman aristocrats considered Greek essential to their education. In addition to the verbal skill of speaking to natives in Palestine and interpreting the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, Paul habitually spoke Greek in Tarsus, the language that communicated with more people of his century than any other. Even the Jews of the dispersion spoke Greek, shown by the pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament into Greek, which is generally quoted in the New Testament. And Paul’s effectiveness in daily communication is proven by his colloquial mastery of Greek in his preserved letters in the New Testament. Although we have more evidence of Paul’s use of language than that of other apostles, many of them may also have been bilingual. Most of the apostles were Galileans, and Galilee, a meeting place of Hebrew and Greek culture, was a place where both languages were commonly spoken.
The historical period from Alexander to Augustus is called “Hellenistic,” and its culture grew to be homogeneous. Rome accentuated this process by the mobility of political and military assignments and trade throughout all parts of the empire. The Augustan peace meant that travel was better protected, and the seas were free for commerce. Rome’s basic grain supply was shipped from Egypt, which explains why the centurion taking Paul to Rome was twice able to commandeer passage in large Alexandrian ships going to Italy. (See Acts 27:6, Acts 28:11.) Security in an empire also demanded good roads, many of which still exist. So the efficiency of moving from land to land was never better before modern inventions.
The usefulness of commercial shipping for transportation is shown by Paul’s recorded missionary travels: subtracting some 3,000 miles for walking and riding, Paul went over 5,000 miles of his journeys by ship—and this is an incomplete statistic, for he had been shipwrecked three times before Acts picks up his narrative. The same passage that makes that point warns us not to oversimplify the ease of travel or the protection of Rome, for accidents and robbery were yet a great danger in traveling on church affairs, in addition to discomfort and open persecution. (See 2 Cor. 11:23–27.) Yet the comparative efficiency of travel aided all church business—for most of Paul’s letters and the majority of all New Testament letters utilized shipping for their delivery. Thus international commerce in a wide empire made possible a world church.
The church equalized society in a unique fashion. It leveled rich and poor by insisting that wealth was merely an accident and that wealth or appearance must not cause discrimination in worship. (See James 2:1–4.) The gospel created a feeling of brotherhood and emphasized that true achievement was righteousness before God, rather than status with men. Paul and Peter consistently treated the slave as a brother, while asking him to fill his legal obligations to his master. Yet Paul did more than hint at a better way in his short letter appealing for mercy to the master Philemon, insisting that as a missionary he loved the slave as much as the master, both of whom owed their conversion to Paul.
The apostles passed severe judgment on the drunkenness, brawling, and immorality that too plainly appear in Roman sources.4 Church leaders insisted that Christian society was purified through baptism and the Holy Ghost and could stay pure only through God’s inspiration and the members’ firm willpower to obey God.
The New Testament church is impressive in that such standards were generally upheld in a group where there were “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” (1 Cor. 1:26.) Yet the gospel appealed not to the biases of any class, but aimed at the moral reform of all classes. For instance, there was Erastus, who was “city treasurer” at wealthy Corinth (see Rom. 16:23), a trusted companion of Paul and Timothy. (See Acts 19:22.) Barnabas is his Jewish counterpart in consecrating his extensive property before the apostles in early Acts. The gospel asked true brotherhood and concern, whatever place in society its converts held. By insisting on morality for all, the early church elevated women; by insisting on true concern for a wife, the early church elevated marital relationships. Augustus had a vague goal of restoring family life. The early church had a specific program, with supervision of a concerned local priesthood to counsel and direct in the practical applications of Christian love.
The gospel was proclaimed “to the Jew first,” and then “to the Greek.” (See Rom. 1:16.) Just as modern Latter-day Saint missionaries quote prophecies of latter-day revelation to believers in the Bible, so ancient missionaries stressed prophecies of the Messiah to Jews committed to the Old Testament. What made this method strategically important was the wide dispersion of the Jews, for there is hardly a place in Paul’s travels where there was not a synagogue, whether in Asia Minor, Greece, or Italy. In fact, the first public proclamation of the gospel after the resurrection was heard by pilgrims from nearly a dozen locations in the Roman provinces and some non-Roman areas. This highlights the tremendous leverage of the Jewish synagogues—places to meet Jews and many Gentile seekers that associated with such synagogues, places where converts could be made almost immediately, in each new city. This result was possible only after several centuries of political and commercial displacement of the Jewish people. In the first Christian century, the time was ripe.
Much the same is true of general religion, of which only a little can be said.5 The old paganism was waning, though vigorous especially in rural areas. This is one explanation why Paul’s conversions around Ephesus brought such a violent reaction from the image-makers, since their profits were probably falling off to begin with. New religions and new philosophy were definite trends in the world of the apostles. Mystery religions offered a type of temple worship and personal assurance of immortality lacking in traditional paganism. Material success was the enemy of all religions, including traditional worship of the gods. Patriotism in the form of emperor worship was beginning to infiltrate religion. Astrology and magic retained their hold on the superstitious mind, as Acts indicates by naming the cash value of such books burned by converted Christians as worth 50,000 “pieces of silver,” some $10,000 worth of books that had become worthless. One long papyrus of this type is preserved at Paris, containing endless incantations to a hopeless mixture of pagan, Jewish, and invented divinities. Other spells have been preserved for success in love and athletics, all illustrations of what faith in Christ made irrelevant.
The educated had heavily turned to philosophy, largely to Stoicism or some to Epicureanism, both mentioned in Paul’s confrontation with the Athenian philosophers. (See Acts 17:18.) Both systems doubted the reality or significance of polytheistic gods, and substituted commitment to a finer ethical life for the old ways of divine sacrifice. The Roman Seneca in the second century represents the influential Stoics of Paul’s day in teaching that all should become free by escaping the “bondage to self”—that one escapes his fetters by realizing that “man needs but little, and that not for long.”6 There is much more to Stoicism and Epicureanism, but the spirit of both is found in the above adjustment to pessimism. Paul accurately contrasted gospel knowledge with the agnosticism or disbelief of his world by assuring his converts about the soul after death: “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” (1 Thes. 4:13.)
Fulfillment of prophecy, signs of power in the birth of Christ and his ministry, divine authority given to chosen apostles, God’s protection and inspiration upon them in their ministry, a proclamation from personal knowledge of God’s son and his matchless teachings, his death in agony, and his physical resurrection—these were the certainties of the faith of Christ that sent “fire on the earth.” (Luke 12:49.) In retrospect it is easy to see why crumbling systems hated this message of a new world. Measuring Christianity by what its competitors taught or had done for their adherents, one sees the appeal of the new religion. It found comparatively few restrictions in its spread, for the first century of Christianity was notable for peace, stability of government, protection of law, open trade, interprovincial communication, as well as a certain humanitarianism and tolerance. Such political and social conditions combined with the international language of Greek and the international dispersion of the Jews to make the Christian message intelligible across broad territories. Moreover, Jewish religion looked intensely for further fulfillment, and the growth of the newer “mystery” religions and philosophies shows a seeking psychology in the pagan world.
Many scholars of competence realize that Christianity entered a world strangely prepared for it. Within three decades of the crucifixion Paul could say in overview that the gospel had been “preached to every creature which is under heaven.” (Col. 1:23.) Such a result is astounding, even if it mainly relates to the Roman world. It could never have happened without God’s direction, both within and without the ancient church.