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Roman Empire

In the apostolic age the Roman Empire was the one great power of the world. It included everything between the Euphrates, the Danube, the Rhine, the Atlantic, and the Sahara desert. Palestine became a client state in 63 B.C., when Pompey took Jerusalem; and at the banishment of Archelaus (A.D. 6) Judea was placed under a Roman prefect. For a list of the Emperors during the period covered by the New Testament, with the dates of their accessions, see Caesar; see also Bible Chronology in the appendix.

The Empire included a great variety of peoples. Broadly speaking, the eastern half was Greek, the western Latin; but the Greek language was understood not only throughout the whole of the East, but in a great part of the West as well, and was the language of commerce everywhere. It was only in the Lycaonian mountains (Acts 14:11) that Paul’s Greek was not enough. The three largest cities of the Empire were Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in Syria. In each of these there were large Jewish colonies. The Roman government of the provinces was not on the whole oppressive, though taxation was always heavy. It was the policy of Rome to treat all national religions with respect. The cohort in the Tower of Antonia at Jerusalem was there only to guard the peace of the temple. The Emperor made regular offerings, and (Acts 21:29) no Gentile was allowed to set foot in the court of Israel. The Jews had express permission to put to death even a Roman citizen, if he was found inside the middle wall of partition. (See Temple of Herod.) The Jewish parts of Palestine were practically governed by the high priest and Sanhedrin, except that capital sentences needed the confirmation of the prefect or procurator (John 18:31). The Jews also had exceptional privileges, such as freedom from military service and from legal business on the Sabbath. The high priest could even send Saul to bring the Christians of Damascus to Jerusalem for punishment (Acts 9:2). Yet the Jews always hated Roman rule and were constantly in rebellion. Even a census could not be taken without a dangerous rising (Acts 5:37). Judea was certainly unfortunate in having as prefects and procurators such men as Pilate, Felix, Albinus, and Gessius Florus. Only Festus was a better sort of man. All through the apostolic age the storm was gathering that broke in 70 years (A.D. 66–135) of war between Rome and Israel.

During the first 36 years after the Ascension, Roman officials were a protection to the Christian Church. At Philippi (Acts 16:37–39) and at Jerusalem (22:25–29; 23:27) Paul pleaded with success his rights as a Roman citizen. At Corinth the proconsul Gallio dismissed the charge brought against him (18:12–17); while at Ephesus the town clerk protected him from the fury of the mob (19:35–41), and the captain of the guard did the same at Jerusalem (21:31–32). Christianity was at first regarded by the government as a form of Judaism, a religion recognized by the state. Persecution began in A.D. 64. The Emperor Nero was suspected of being responsible for the great fire that occurred that year in Rome, and to stifle the report he laid the blame upon the Christians. This persecution lasted till A.D. 68, and among others who suffered were Peter and Paul. There was no further persecution till the reign of Domitian, A.D. 95.