Ronald George Reagan
EH 412 Final Paper: Rome and Christianity
Kennett, MO Campus
Education Level: Junior (I could graduate this fall but I’m going on for my education degree)
Elementary/Middle School Degree
Personally, I am the type of person that finds ANY history interesting. If you would like to talk about the Romans, the Greeks or the Revolutionary War, I am all ears! When I was a kid, I discovered a high school history book in a cabinet in the bathroom left by the previous home owners of which one was a high school teacher. I was drawn to the section on Rome and can remember thinking how drab the picture of Caesar looked, so I colored him in with crayon! I know that Rome has left a marked influence on our culture even today. Hank Williams demoed a song entitled “Ten Little Numbers” in which he said “I is one and X is 10 so what’s the use to bother your head to count like Caesar when Caesar’s dead” [i] and that certainly describes how I felt about a particular math class earlier this year. Even the endnotes for this particular research paper are represented in Roman numerals! I was taught from an early age that the names of the days and months were of Roman origin. We have holidays that are of Roman origin as well. As someone who has a huge interest in all things political and in how laws are formed, I know that Rome has had a lasting legacy on our code of law and our style of government. My main interest in Rome, however, are the ties between Roman history and Christianity. While the Bible itself does not necessarily mention a whole lot about Rome proper, we do find references throughout the New Testament to Roman rulers, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Paul’s Roman citizenry and his appeal to Caesar. There are also some who say that the book of Revelation had cryptic references to Rome, though that is really out of the scope of this paper. From a prophetical standpoint, there was the overthrow of Israel in 70 A.D. that was prophesied by Christ. I simply find that you cannot separate Christianity from Rome. While Christianity and the world have changed culturally since those earliest days when Peter, James and John were penning Scripture and Paul was appealing to the throne to be heard, we can trace our modern Christianity back to those fledgling Apostles and their Gospel message that was being preached in the shadow of Rome.
The very start of Christianity coincides with Roman rule. Julian G. Anderson in his paraphrased A New Accurate Translation of the Greek New Testament into Simple Everyday American English states that “[a]bout the time John was born the Roman Emperor Augustus sent out an order that they must take a census of the whole Roman Empire. This was the first census, and it was taken while Quirinius was the Governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:1-2).[ii] Right from the “get-go” we see Roman involvement in the very roots of Christianity and New Testament Scripture. However, we can go back further before the birth of Christ and Christianity to see the Roman Empire paving the way for what was to come.
In our textbook, The Romans from Village to Empire, we go back in time to the reign of Caesar Augustus, first mentioned Biblically in Luke. We find that it was a peaceful time with the textbook telling us there was a “return of peace and stability…”[iii] We find that during this time “Pax Romana” was the flavor of the day, a term that literally means “Roman Peace” in Latin.[iv] One can only wonder how the Christian message would have fared if Rome would have been involved in conflict after conflict either in civil war or in war with other nations. It was this peace that helped set the stage for Christianity to flourish. This is in stark contrast to the Old Testament when the Jewish people were seemingly in constant battle with surrounding nations and being carried off into bondage by other nations. The world in which Christ was born was one of relative calm and safety in comparison to ancient times and I dare say even in contrast to our own time as well.
Another underlying factor that allowed Christianity to flourish was the Roman road system. “The quality and extent of roads in the Roman Empire is legendary. Thousands of miles of roads connected major cities as well as outlying areas of the Roman Empire, facilitating and encouraging travel throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond.” [v] The gospel of Christ simply could not have occurred, let alone spread in such a dramatic, explosive fashion if not for the quality of the Roman roads of the time. When one takes a look at the various peoples that had the Christian message brought to them, one has to realize the Apostles and those who followed behind in their footsteps simply would not have been able to travel to the myriad of places they did if there was not a dependable, quality road system in place. A casual perusal of New Testament Scripture shows letters being written to both residents in Israel (the book of Hebrews) all the way to Christians in Rome (the book of Romans).
The intertwining of Rome and Christianity continued past the birth of Christ. Early on in the New Testament, we are told of Herod the Great who felt threatened by the birth of Christ. “Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. At about that time some astrologers from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in far-off eastern lands, and have come to worship Him.’ King Herod was deeply disturbed by their question…”[vi] Julian G. Anderson describes the jealousy of Herod and his connection to Rome. “This Herod was called Herod the Great. He was appointed ‘king’ of…Israel by the Roman Government in 37 B.C. He was terribly jealous and suspicious of anyone who might take away his kingdom.”[vii] Just like other despots in history his anger knew no bounds. “Sending [Roman] soldiers to Bethlehem, he ordered them to kill every baby boy two years old and under, both in the town and the nearby farms, for the astrologers had told him the star first appeared to them two years before.”[viii] This, however, is just the start of Rome and Christianity meeting and mingling and it wouldn’t be the end of the Herodian line interacting with important figures in the Bible.
A few hours before his death, King Herod made a will giving portions of his kingdom to various family members, an arrangement that Caesar Augustus had approved upon Herod’s last visit to Rome.[ix] His son Antipas is the next Roman focus of the Bible and events that were to follow in the life of John the Baptist.
As is the case with most people, Herod the Tetrarch as the Bible refers to him, did not take to correction very well. When John the Baptist corrected him over a great moral failure, he wished to put him to death on one hand but was afraid to do so for fear of the people. He eventually was bound by an oath to do so, an oath made to his wife’s daughter after he promised to give her anything she wanted. “The king was sorry, but for the sake of his oath and his guests he ordered [John’s head] to be given her; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, his head was brought on a dish and given to the girl…”[x] John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ as evidenced by Mark 1:2-3[xi] and in a way, he foreshadowed the martyrdom of Christ even though the manners of death were completely different.
The Bible is relatively silent on the subject of Christ’s formative years other than a trip to the Temple as a preteen. With this in mind, we have no idea how little or how much Rome or Roman law and lifestyles influenced and impacted Him past indirect things such as the road system. The Roman/Christianity interaction picks back up in the 12th chapter of Mark. The religious leaders of the day, like Herod the Great had been, were afraid for their positions and were looking for a way to entrap and discredit Christ. These suspect leaders had hoped to not only entrap and discredit Him, they wanted to put the hammer down and get Christ in hot water with the Roman government. They asked him if it was legal to pay taxes to Caesar or not, to which Christ replied “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”[xii]
If one searches hard enough, there are probably more minute details that could be found showing Rome and Christianity interacting. For the sake of brevity, I will fast forward to the arrest and trial of Christ. At this point even though early in Christian history, the meeting of Rome and Christianity goes into full overdrive. Though initially tried under Jewish law, Christ was brought before Pilate, a Roman official serving in Israel, after being arrested by Roman soldiers. Under Jewish law, the religious leaders of the day could not have Christ executed, so they sent Him to be tried under Roman law under which He could be executed. When they saw that Pilate was not going to condemn Christ to death for what amounted to Jewish religious questions, they accused Him of saying it was illegal to pay taxes to the Roman government and that He had proclaimed Himself to be king. Finally in desperation Pilate gave in to the masses, masses who had been influenced by the religious leaders, and ordered Christ to be executed.[xiii] Even an age old familiar Bible story shows a connection to the Roman Empire!
How odd is it that something that was once a symbol of death and punishment for the lowest of the low is now a symbol of hope and joy to millions of people? People wear crosses on a daily basis; people have crosses tattooed on their body; we drive past churches with crosses every day, day after day; we hear countless sermons preached every Sunday talking about this once dreaded symbol of death. Though the cross was used in ancient times before the Romans, it is widely associated with Rome due to the fact that was what Christ was hung on and countless others before Him. According to Funk & Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia, “[t]he death of Christ by crucifixion caused Christians to regard the cross with reverence. Since apostolic times the cross has had a prominent place in Christian liturgy. The early Christians prayed with arms extended to represent Christ on the cross…”[xiv]
Where does this leave us? Most religious movements would have fizzled out if their leader died what was considered a disgraceful death. In our modern times we certainly do not hear of churches that heed to the doctrines of Jim Jones or David Koresh (I realize these are extreme examples and not indicative of Christ). Instead like a bomb exploding, the message of Christ spread all over after His death. Indeed, “Roman authorities and intellectuals did not know what to make of this new religion.”[xv] Indeed, Acts 17:6b tells us that Jewish leaders in Thessalonica stated “Paul and Silas have turned the rest of the world upside down, and now they are here disturbing our city…”[xvi]
“The following night, the Lord stood by him, and said, ‘Cheer up, Paul, for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must testify also at Rome.’"[xvii] The rubber is really starting to meet the road at this point. Paul, the first missionary, was arrested and brought to trial on trumped up charges. “He was tried before Festus Porcius, who, following an appeal to Caesar, sent him to Rome.”[xviii] Though the Bible goes into great detail about the time between then and his arrival in Rome, it is somewhat silent on what happened once in Rome. Only a part of a chapter and one whole chapter of 31 verses are devoted in the book of Acts to his arrival and stay in Rome. The book of Acts ends on this note, a note that clearly shows Rome and Christianity running parallel to each other, “[s]o Paul stayed there in his own rented home for two whole years, and he gave all those who came to see him a warm welcome.”[xix]
There are hints in both the Biblical narrative and other narratives that Paul was freed and traveled to other places, including Spain, but later returned to Rome and was martyred there.[xx] According to many Christian scholars, especially Roman Catholics who believe Peter to have been the first Pope, Paul was not the only Christian martyr in Rome. Peter never referred to Rome by name but he did speak of “Babylon” which was a Christian nickname for Rome.[xxi] Fred Zaspel gives multiple items of evidence to support the claim that Peter was in Rome and had been buried there.[xxii] While it is not known if Peter was actually crucified upside down as many legends state, it can be established beyond much of a shadow of a doubt that he did die in Rome as a martyr for his Christian faith.
When you get past the earliest apostles, the Bible itself is mainly silent on the activities involving Rome and the Christian faith. At that point we must start relying on other historical sources to fill in the gaps. We find in our textbook that Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of 64 A.D. and “[h]is brutality created some of Christianity’s first martyrs…and unintentionally [strengthened] the new religion.”[xxiii] Although not specifically mentioned in our textbook, history teaches us that Nero went so far as to use Christians as torches to light his garden at night.[xxiv] Christian martyrdom is nothing new, although we do not see much of it in the Western world. One only need to look at the Middle East and the rising of ISIS to see that history repeats itself.
Although every prior event that has been mentioned was and still is important, and although each fact fits in like puzzle pieces to make the whole of Christian and Roman interaction, perhaps the most important date for this aside from Christ’s crucifixion in circa 29-30 A.D. is the early 300’s A.D. when Constantine began to look favorably upon Christians. “In 313 he granted special exemptions from mandatory government service to [Christians]...and offered Christian churches a share in imperial revenue.”[xxv] His favor continued to the Christian church and he himself converted to Christianity, the first Roman emperor to do so.[xxvi]
How often do we think of Rome when we read our Bible or attend church on Sunday morning? While we may disagree on certain minor points of theology, the fact remains that without Rome, there would be no Christian denominations. It was the advancements of Rome in peace and road systems that allowed the gospel to spread like wildfire. From Christ and the earliest apostles to Christians in Nero’s time, Rome had Christian blood on its hands from martyrdom. Although Paul and Silas never lived to see it, their “turning the world upside down” eventually resulted in the first Christian emperor and Christianity flourishing as an official religion recognized and promoted by Rome. It is certainly an interesting case study to see the intertwining of Rome and Christianity.
[i] Rose, Fred. Ten Little Numbers. Hank Williams, Sr. Mercury, 1998. CD.
[ii] "Luke 2:1-2." A New Accurate Translation of the Greek New Testament into Simple, Everyday, American English. Trans. Julian G. Anderson. Naples, FL: J.G. Anderson, 1984. 163. Print.
[iii] Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, Richard J. A. Talbert, and Noel Lenski. "Augustus and the Transformation of the Roman World." The Romans: From Village to Empire. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 305. Print.
[iv] "Pax Romana | Roman History." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
[v] Donald, D. "In the Fullness of Time: Christianity in the Roman Empire." History of Western Civilization. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
[vi] "Matthew 2:1-3." Reach Out: The Living New Testament. Trans. Ken Taylor and Harold Myra. 23rd ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1969. 3. Print.
[vii] Anderson, Julian G. "Some Helpful Notes for the Reader." A New Accurate Translation of the Greek New Testament into Simple, Everyday, American English. Naples, FL: J.G. Anderson, 1984. 729. Print.
[viii] Matthew 2:16." Reach Out: The Living New Testament. Trans. Ken Taylor and Harold Myra. 23rd ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1969. 3. Print.
[ix] Morse, Joseph L., ed. "Herod the Great." Funk and Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia. 8th ed. Vol. 13. New York: Wilfred Funk, 1966. 4566. Print.
[x] "S. Matthew 15:9." The Bible: James Moffatt Translation. Trans. James Moffatt. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994. 20. Print.
[xi] Mark. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2009. Mark 1:2-3. Bible Gateway. Web. 02 May 2015.
[xii] "Mark 12:17." Holy Bible: NIV, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. N. pag. Print.
[xiii] Maclaren, John J. "Jesus Christ, The Arrest And Trial Of - International Standard Bible Encyclopedia." Bible Study Tools. Bible Study Tools, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.
[xiv] Morse, Joseph L., ed. "Cross." Funk and Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia. 8th ed. Vol. 7. New York: Wilfred Funk, 1966. 2507-2508. Print.
[xv] Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, Richard J. A. Talbert, and Noel Lenski. "The Early Principate." The Romans: From Village to Empire. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 342. Print.
[xvi] Acts 17:6." Reach Out: The Living New Testament. Trans. Ken Taylor and Harold Myra. 23rd ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1969. 323. Print.
[xvii] "Acts 23:11." World English Bible. Trans. Michael P. Johnson. S.l.: Book On Demand, 2012. N. pag. Print.
[xviii] Morse, Joseph L., ed. "Paul." Funk and Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia. 8th ed. Vol. 19. New York: Wilfred Funk, 1966. 6910. Print.
[xix] "Acts 28:30." A New Accurate Translation of the Greek New Testament into Simple, Everyday, American English. Trans. Julian G. Anderson. Naples, FL: J.G. Anderson, 1984. 423. Print.
[xx] McCallum, Dennis. "A Chronological Study of Paul's Ministry." A Chronological Study of Paul's Ministry. Xenos Christian Fellowship, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.
[xxi] "I Peter 5:13." Reach Out: The Living New Testament. Trans. Ken Taylor and Harold Myra. 23rd ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1969. 588. Print.
[xxii] Zaspel, Fred. "Biblical Studies." Biblical Studies. Fred Zaspel, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.
[xxiii] Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, Richard J. A. Talbert, and Noel Lenski. "The Early Principate." The Romans: From Village to Empire. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 343. Print.
[xxiv] "Biblical Studies." Biblical Studies. Ibis Communications, Inc., n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.
[xxv] Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, Richard J. A. Talbert, and Noel Lenski. "A Christian Empire." The Romans: From Village to Empire. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 461. Print.
[xxvi] "Conversion of Constantine - Christianity History Constantine." Conversion of Constantine - Christianity History Constantine. ReligionFacts, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.