The Roman World
We begin our study of the New Testament (NT) with a discussion of the background of the NT and not in the NT. Why? Because studying NT background will make many parts of the NT make more sense. For example, single people go on dates to find out about each other. Usually this involves finding out about a person's history, family, etc. That information will cause each person to understand the other person better. In the same way, you will use the information in these three sections many times as you study the 27 NT books, so please be patient and read carefully! You will be rewarded because you will understand the NT more deeply.
- Roman History up to AD 100
- What did the Romans require of people they conquered?
- What exemption did the Romans make for the Jews?
- Pax Romana: What did the Romans give the conquered people in return?
- Critical thinking: Jesus lived at the perfect time: He could not have been born 75 years earlier.
- Roman persecution of Christians
1. Roman History up to AD 100
The city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. After the death of Alexander the Great (who was Greek) in 323 BC, Rome began to gain territory. For a video of the growth of the Roman Empire (see the year in the upper left hand corner; sorry for the advertisement), click here. During the First Century, Romans controlled the entire region around the Mediterranean Sea.
[Note: for this class, we only care about the parts in boldface.]
- 63 BC: Rome was such a dominate force that Israel surrendered.
- 44 BC: Julius Caesar assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, and others. Mark Antony (Caesar’s second-in-command) seizes power. He and Octavian (Caesar’s nephew) fight for power. This fight involved many battles over a 13-year period.
- 37 BC: Antony married Cleopatra in Egypt.
- 31 BC: Octavian’s forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s forces; they both commit suicide.
- 27 BC: Octavian was given name of Augustus and became Augustus Caesar. This is the beginning of Pax Romana (more on that below).
- AD 14: Augustus Caesar died
[All years after this are AD.]
- 14-54: 3 different emperors ruled
- 54-68: Nero is emperor
- 64: Fire in Rome and the first persecution of Christians (this is explained in 5 below)
- 68-81: 5 different emperors ruled
- 81-96: Domitian is emperor
- 95: Persecution of Christians (this is explained in 5 below)
- 96-98: Nerva is emperor
- 98-117: Trajan is emperor
2. What did the Romans require of people they conquered?
After conquering a kingdom, Romans stationed soldiers in that kingdom and allowed the people to stay in their homeland with basically the same religions, laws, and leaders. The only requirements:
- pay Roman taxes,
- obey Roman laws, and
- worship the Roman gods or even the Roman emperor himself.
This was a great improvement: Before the Romans, whenever one kingdom conquered another kingdom, the conquerers usually moved many of the people to their kingdom so they wouldn't rebel. But this was very expensive. Because the Romans practiced a much more cost-efficient system, they lasted longer. Since war is usually about making money (whether you try to gain money, land, oil, etc), the Romans decided to:
- conquer kingdoms,
- let the people remain in their home country, and
- assign soldiers to enforce Roman laws and to ensure taxes were collected.
But, the practice of forcing people to worship roman gods or the Roman emperor caused a problem for both Jews and Christians, who, of all the people in the Roman world, were monotheistic, meaning they believed in one God. Other people simply added roman gods or the emperor to their list of gods and didn't really care. Therefore, Jews and Christians paid taxes and obeyed Roman laws, but they refused to worship roman gods or the emperor.
3. What exception did the Romans make for the Jews?
Out of all the kingdoms Rome controlled, the Jews were the only people that the Romans did not force to worship Roman gods or the Roman emperor. Why? Because the Romans knew Jews would fight to the death before they would worship roman gods or the Emperor. Since the Romans were only interested in making money from each kingdom they controlled, they agreed to let the Jews only worship the one God as long as they obeyed Roman laws and paid taxes. That system worked for about 120 years, and we will discover in the next lesson on “The Jewish World” how that fell apart.
This exemption covered Christians for a short time, up to the mid-90's. For decades after the ascension of Jesus, Romans considered Christians as a Jewish group. Once the Romans realized that Christians were not Jews then they required Christians to worship roman gods and the emperor, but Christians refused. This happened in the A.D. 90's (and affected where Revelation was written).(This is explained in 5. below)
4. Pax Romana: Roman Peace
The period from 27 BC to AD 180 in the Mediterranean Sea area is known as Pax Romana, which is Latin for “Roman peace.” This was a period when, for the first time in history, the Mediterranean Sea area experienced peace due to the control by the Roman Empire. That will include the lifetime of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament.
Many people did not like being conquered by the Romans, but others didn't mind. Why? Because they could enjoy the benefits of Pax Romana.
- Roads The Romans primarily built roads to move their military quickly throughout the empire. The result was a wonderful road system that ordinary citizens used for travel and trade. For example: would you rather drive on a dirt road with potholes or a paved highway?
- Protection Romans and non-Romans traveled freely with no concern of war. In addition, since the Romans controlled the entire area, conquered nations did not need to have their own military to protect themselves.
- Laws Rome required all conquered people to obey Roman laws. Conquered kingdoms could establish some of their own laws, but they were subservient to Roman laws. Travelers did not have to learn different laws since everyone used the same basic laws.
- Money All conquered kingdoms used Roman coins (paper money didn't exist) and, so, exchanging money for a different currency in different conquered kingdoms was unnecessary since everyone used the same money.
- Language During this period, Greek was widely used throughout the Roman Empire. As Pax Romana progressed into the Second Century, Latin became more common, but, during the First Century Greek was the language used by the Roman government and most citizens. That is why the New Testament books were written in Greek. Also, Jews in Israel spoke Aramaic, and that included Jesus, but the authors of the NT decided to write in Greek.
As examples of the peace the Romans brought:
- A public orator, Aelius Aristides of Smyrna, wrote to Antoninus Pius in c. 150, “Wars have so far vanished as to be regarded as legendary events of the past. A man can travel from one country to another as though it were his native land . . . to be a Roman citizen, nay even one of your subjects is sufficient guarantee of personal safety.”
- Thirty years later, Ireneaus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote, “The world has peace thanks to the Romans. Even the Christians can walk without fear on the roads and travel [wherever] they please.”
Therefore, the NT came into existence at a time when the Romans established Pax Romana reigned throughout the Mediterrean Sea area.
5. Analysis: Jesus lived at a perfect time: He could not have been born 75 years earlier
If Jesus had been born 75 years earlier, the Apostles would have traveled during a time of civil war within the Roman Empire (see the year 44 BC in Roman history above). Therefore, since Pax Romana did not exist at that time, they could not have traveled freely, and Christianity probably would have remained a small religion in a small part of Israel instead of an empire-wide religion. Jesus was born at a perfect time when his future Apostles and followers could take advantage of Pax Romana.
6. Roman Persecutions of Christians in the First Century
The Romans persecuted Christians in two separate events in the First Century:
- AD 64: The Fire in Rome
- In AD 64, a fire in Rome lasted for six days and destroyed or damaged over half of Rome. The area where Christians lived was not burned, and so Nero blamed Christians for setting the fire. He ordered them killed in terrible ways, including being sewn in bags and fed to hungry dogs as well as being crucified and then lighting fires under the crosses while the Christians were still alive.
- While this was the first persecution of Christians by Romans, it did not happen because of the beliefs of Christians but because Christians happened to live in areas not damaged by the fire. Also, this was not an empire-wide persecution, but, instead, was limited to the area around Rome.
- Peter and Paul most likely died during this persecution. Peter was crucified upside-down (per his request), and Paul was beheaded (as a Roman citizen, he could not be crucified; Paul was both a Jew and a Roman citizen).
- Domitian became emperor in 81. His family did not originate from nobility, and so Domitian tried to strengthen the idea that the emperor (and his family) came from the gods. Since Christians did not worship him, in his last years he put to death some Christians and had the Apostle John placed on the island of Patmos. John wrote the book of Revelation while on Patmos, probably in the year 95.
- This persecution did happen because of the beliefs of Christians, and it was widespread.
- Domitian died in the year 96 and Nerva became emperor. Nerva would have released prisoners jailed on charges of being a Christian. After the Apostle John was released, he probably traveled to Ephesus, where he died several years later of natural causes (old age).
Note about the timelines: I will include a timeline at the bottom of every link. I will add the new information from that link to the previous timeline, so that you can watch the timelines grow. Also, I will add the new information each time in boldface so that it will stand out. (You will see this in the next link.) Plus, once we get to Revelation, you will have a detailed timeline of all major events in the First Century plus the years that the different books were written.
|63 B.C.||Romans conquer Israel.|
|27 B.C.||Pax Romana began and lasted until A.D. 180.|
|All dates after this are A.D. ["c." means "about"]|
|64||Fire in Rome and Christians persecuted by Emperor Nero; Peter crucified upside down and Paul beheaded.|
|95||Persecution by Emperor Domitian; Apostle John exiled on island of Patmos where he wrote Revelation.|
|96||Emperor Domitian died; Apostle John probably moved to Ephesus.|
|c.100||Apostle John died; he was the last Apostle to die.|
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