Roman banners were flying over every city from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. The clatter of horse's hooves, the rumble of war machines, the cadence of marching legions, had long since been a familiar sight to the inhabitants of Palestine. For years prior to the birth of Christ, Roman armies waged bloody wars bringing every nation in the then civilized world under the banner of Rome. By 4 B.C., when Jesus Christ was born, Judea had already been brought under subjections. The entire empire was prosperous and AT PEACE. Roman armies of occupation now busied themselves with games, tournaments, gambling and talking over valiant battles of the past. Some sixty years before, the huge war machines of Rome had moved through Palestine under the direction of the Roman general, Pompey.
The year 63 B.C. is of importance as the beginning of a new epoch in the history of nations lying between the Caucasus and the Mediterranean, more particularly Syria and Palestine. It was in 63 B.C. that Rome's great enemy, Mithradates (of the Parthian empire) ended his days, that Jerusalem for the first time was taken by a Roman army, and that seven centuries of Roman dominion over Syria and Judah began; and from then until his departure from the East to Rome at the beginning of 61 B.C. Pompey was busy with the organization of Asia Minor and Syria.1
The Empire Begins
Swiftly and efficiently, Pompey organized government procedures — not only in Palestine, but throughout the eastern part of what was to become the ROMAN EMPIRE. Following Pompey, Julius Caesar took charge. With vast armies he conquered what is now all of Spain, France, and Northwestern Europe. He drove the warring Germanic tribes far beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers and proceeded northward to the British Isles. By the time of Christ and the early New Testament Church the boundaries of the Roman empire extended from Britain and the Rhine on the north all the way to the Sahara desert on the south. The Atlantic ocean was the western boundary and the empire extended beyond the Euphrates on the east to the Parthian and Indian empires.2 Around 50 A.D. there was some thirty-five provinces3 in the empire making a vast conglomerate of racial and backgrounds and customs. It was within the confines of this sprawling empire the disciples of Jesus Christ were to take the message He gave them–the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Protected by Roman laws, aided by good roads and ideal travel conditions, benefited by peace throughout the empire, the disciples carried CHRIST'S WORD into every major city.
Preparation in Advance
It was not by mere accident the gospel had FREE COURSE in the empire. The stage had been set and planned by the ALMIGHTY GOD who directed and prepared the world for these events. It was God who, "hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined THE TIMES BEFORE APPOINTED, and the bounds of their habitation."4 It was God who had inspired His prophets of old to write of the coming Messiah — even prophesying the times and conditions which were to come. It was God who directed affairs in the world so circumstances were JUST RIGHT at the time His Son was to be born. In Palestine the Roman leaders had set up a local form of government.
Herod the Great and Agrippa might later be styled king; they were simply agents of Rome...All this was in line with Rome's sensible laissez faire policy for the administration of her provinces. With actual local governments she never sought to interfere. Her aim was to have strong and steady control, and she realized this would usually be best accomplished by native princes who knew and understood the peculiarities of their own peoples. Accordingly, Pompey's arrangement was a distinct blessing to the peoples of the East...The petty princes of Syria who had appeared as a consequence of the crumbling of the Seleucid empire and the ambitious sheiks like Aretas now gave way to a firm administration of the peace.5
Thus a world of multitudinous RACIAL and LINGUISTIC VARIETIES was brought under ONE central ruling body and law.
The reason why Pompey left so many kingdoms and principalities still standing in Asia Minor and Syria, instead of dividing the whole region between the Aegean and the Euphrates, the Euxine and Arabia Petraea, into provinces supervised and governed by proconsuls and proprietors, was that following the traditional policy of the Republic, he thought to make AS FEW CHANGES AS POSSIBLE, consistent with Roman interests, and to avoid the expenditures which would have been necessitated by a large increase in the number of provincial governors and of the Roman armies of occupation.6 [Emphasis will be author's throughout this work.]
The big question to ask at this point is WHY was Roman governmental policy established this way? Why was Rome to be any different from the dictatorial governments of Babylon or Greece? Was it more than mere chance that Christianity appeared in the world AT THIS TIME? The study of Roman times CONFIRMS BEYOND A SHADOW OF a doubt that time and chance alone were not responsible for conditions in the world between 4 B.C. and 100 A.D.
Prophesied Hundreds of Years Before
World ruling empires had begun some 600 years before Rome when Babylon rose to power under King Nebuchadnezzar.
From the days of Ninus, who lived about three hundred years after the flood, to those of Augustus Caesar, was a period of two thousand years; in which interval, various empires, kingdoms, and states, had gradually arisen and succeeded each other. The Assyrian or Babylonian empire may be said to have taken the lead. It not only had the precedence in point of time, but it was the cradle of Asiatic elegance and arts, and exhibited the first examples of that refinement and luxury which have distinguished every subsequent age in the annuals of the east.7
Between 604 and 585 B.C. the Babylonians invaded Judah, finally taking the inhabitants captive to the city of Babylon. Among the captives of Judah was Daniel, a prophet of GOD, who was to have a great bearing on the king of Babylon and through whom God would reveal to the world what would come in the hundreds of years ahead. In the second chapter of the prophecy written by Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a great image whose "head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay."8 Daniel had been called upon to give both the dream AND the interpretation of the dream. He told Nebuchadnezzar, "There is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and MAKETH KNOWN to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days."9 Daniel had proved the existence of an Almighty, all-powerful God who was working out a purpose on earth. He knew that God in heaven would reveal the answers, and He did! The interpretation of the dream was revealed to Daniel and written as HISTORY IN ADVANCE. "Thou, O king," Daniel explained, "art a king of kings: for the God of heaven HATH GIVEN thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath He given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. THOU ART THIS HEAD OF GOLD."10 The head of the image, then, represented Nebuchadnezzar and the BABYLONIAN EMPIRE. The interpretation of the dream was made plain and clear. Daniel continued, "And after you shall arise ANOTHER KINGDOM inferior to thee, and ANOTHER THIRD KINGDOM of brass which shall bear rule over all the earth."11 The two kingdoms which followed Babylon were Persia (from 539 to 331 B.C.) and Greece (from 331 to 60 or 70 years before the Christian era).
But that gigantic power gave place to the empire of the Medes and Persians, which itself, in process of time, yielded to the valor of the Greeks; while the empire of Greece, so renowned for splendor in arts and arms, had sunk under the dominion of Imperial Rome, who thus became mistress of all the civilized world.12
Daniel then revealed, "And the FOURTH KINGDOM shall be strong as iron; forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise."13 The fourth and final kingdom to arise was the great ROMAN EMPIRE which began about sixty years before the Christian era, as we have seen. Again, it was no accident that TIMES and CONDITION were JUST RIGHT for the birth of Jesus Christ and for the spread of the gospel to the world! God's hand was guiding entire governments AND NATIONS. The apostle Paul who singly was responsible for the spread of the gospel throughout the Gentile world wrote, "When THE FULNESS OF THE TIME WAS COME, God sent forth His Son..."14 The time was right, as had been prophesied, in 27 A.D. when Christ began His ministry and the time was fulfilled in 31 A.D. when He was crucified. Further, the time was right for the Church to begin fifty days after Christ's resurrection in 31 A.D. The time was right for Christianity to spread THROUGHOUT the empire, to the Gentiles as well as to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Without knowing it, the Romans PAVED THE WAY for the Church and the spread of Christianity!
Even More Fully Prepared
In addition to local governments and the laissez-faire policy of rule, many other freedoms were enjoyed in the empire, especially regarding local customs and RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.
The Romans, as has been said, never interfered with those religions of their allies and dependents which neither sanctioned practices nor stimulated policies detrimental to the well-being of the Commonwealth.15
Had this freedom not been allowed, Christianity would have been SQUELCHED before it began. Had the central law system not existed, Christianity would never have left Palestine! But Christ had given a commission to His Church to wait in Jerusalem until Pentecost and "ye shall receive power after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in Judea, AND in Samaria, AND UNTO THE UTTERMOST PART OF THE EARTH."16 By 31 A.D. the empire could not have been better prepared. The world was at peace. There were laws to benefit most of the subjects in the empire — there were even religious rights. In addition, millions of people could be reached within a few days traveling time. Even many church historians have never seen the completeness of preparation for the introduction of Christianity into the world. But quotations from innumerable sources reveal just how complete it was.
The Romans were the practical and political nation of antiquity. Their calling was to carry out the idea of the state and of civil law, and to unite the nations of the world into a colossal empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, and from the Libyan desert to the banks of the Rhine. This empire embraced the most fertile and civilized countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and about one hundred millions of human beings, perhaps one-third of the whole race at the time of the introduction of Christianity.17
Few other nations on earth had such bearing on world affairs. Within the confines of the Roman empire, the disciples of Jesus Christ could take the gospel to nearly every nation of importance. Within thirty short years they ACCOMPLISHED just that.
The Empire Solidified
Shortly before Christ was born, Rome was solidified into an EMPIRE from a loosely knit republic. It was in the year 12 B.C. that Augustus caused himself to be elected PONTIFEX MAXIMUS by the votes of the Roman people.18 At last Rome became an empire and there was one central authority to which everyone could look. UNTIL this time the world had been in constant turmoil. Never had there existed a period of time where so many nations were not engaged in war. Never had one nation advanced so far with its governmental influence and scope. It was a burgeoning, prosperous nation with a great deal of traffic. Frank C. Bourne of Princeton University sums up this time in Roman history:
The maintenance of internal peace, the economical conduct of the military establishment, the equitable distribution of the tax load, the government's concern for the well-being and employment of the population, and the free and easy movement of goods throughout the Mediterranean Basin made the early principate one of the most prosperous epics contrived under the economic system of the ancient world.19
The empire had developed far beyond the imaginations of even the Romans. Because the captured governments had subjected themselves to the central authority of Rome, and because Roman citizens enjoyed even greater benefits than noncitizens, first hundreds, then thousands sought to earn or purchase CITIZENSHIP. Of course, there were many who regarded their captors as crude and undesirable, but they had to remain content and subject to the power of the government or risk imprisonment or death. This brings us to the next important factor.
Roman Law and Government
Although Rome chose to rule with the laissez-faire policy already mentioned, it nevertheless became necessary to have a number of legal stipulations. A central empire-wide law had to be enforced if the empire was to retain a semblance of peace. The vastness of the empire required an efficient, but economical system of MAINTAINING law and order. We have already seen how local rulers and provincials were set in office wherever possible. For the most part this system proved most acceptable, but there were numerous occasions when people complained of mistreatment or revolted. In order to combat rebellions and uprisings against the government and to protect the rights of citizens, COURTS OF APPEAL were set up within the empire. This was to play no small part in the spread of Christianity.
Another important factor was the universal protection of the law. Although Rome respected local systems and usages, she made her legal principles predominate, and if the provincial governors were honest, secured a large measure of common justice to all...The Emperor became the court of last resort, to whom the Roman citizen, like Paul, in danger of life might appeal; and the watchfulness of the imperial administration aimed to protect the noncitizen as well.20
Thus the ministers, ordained and commissioned by Christ and His Church to preach the gospel to the world, had reasonable rights which allowed them the maximum of FREEDOM. For over thirty years the gospel had a basically free course, protected by a legislative system which did not consider Christianity a threat or problem until it had spread all throughout the empire. Still another important factor which was favorable to the growth of Christianity was the length of time most provincials and even the emperors remained in office. Augustus was emperor over forty years, Tiberius for twentythree, Claudius for thirteen and Nero for fourteen. During the entirety of Christ's life Rome changed rulers only once — that in 14 A.D. when Tiberius began to rule. The Church was established in the final years of Tiberius' reign and spread throughout the empire during the reigns of only three other Caesars. In connection with the long reigns of the ruling Caesar at Rome:
Tiberius was especially given to prolonging the tenure of governors in his provinces. Thus Poppaeus Sabinus was governor of Moesia for some twenty-four years in all. Valerius Gratus was procurator of Judaea for eleven years; Pontius Pilate for ten.21
It was Pontius Pilate who finally yielded to the pressures from the Jews and ordered Jesus Christ crucified. Thus on a national and local scale the principal rulers of the Roman empire served in public office for years, busied themselves with their duties, and maintained peace throughout the empire. The empire's generally lenient policy allowed a great deal of personal and national freedom for its conquered subjects. As long as no separate political unions, factions, or parties were formed, organizations were permitted to assemble freely.
The policy of the Romans was opposed to the existence of separate political unions in countries dependent on them. On the other hand, they seldom interfered with the religions of their subjects or allies if these religions neither disturbed the peace nor encouraged barbarities...since it was part of their political tradition to win the good-will of other nations by respecting their gods.22
The Romans looked on Christianity as merely another sect or branch of Judaism — there were numerous groups of Jewish religions, as we shall see in a later section. It was of no concern to the Romans what internal problems the Jews might have with their own kind, as long as the problems posed no threat to the welfare of the state. Thus the attitude of the officials throughout the empire was purely one of passing notice. They were much too concerned with their own lives and pleasures to worry about a new religion.
Chapter I - Footnotes
1. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 177 2. Strabo, Geography, xvii, 3, 24-25 3. McGiffert, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, p. 151 4. Acts 17:26 5. Enslin, Christian Beginnings, p. 37 6. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 183 7. Jones, The History of the Christian Church, p. 2 8. Daniel 2:32, 33. 9. Daniel 2:28 10. Daniel 2:37, 38 11. Daniel 2:39 12. Jones, The History of the Christian Church, p. 2 13. Daniel 2:40 14. Galatians 4:4 15. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 185 16. Acts 1:8 17. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, p. 79 18. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 194 19. Bourne, A History of the Romans, p. 363 20. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 196 21. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 196 22. Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 199