Ancient History & Civilisation


Christianity and Roman Rule

Go to, you rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered and the rust of them shall… eat your flesh as it were fire.

Epistle of ‘James’, 5.I–3

And when they (the members of the Areopagus council) heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; and others said, ‘We will hear thee again of this matter.’

Acts 17.32, on Paul in Athens

These changing patterns of Roman rule are the context for the ancient world’s most influential legacy: Christianity. Its roots were Jewish, but it was shaped by the new historical environment. Jesus was born in Galilee when it was still ruled by a client king of the Romans, Herod Antipas. The tax-collectors or ‘publicans’ with whom he associated were Antipas’ tax-collectors, not Rome’s. However, even in Galilee Jesus could appeal to the text and image on a Roman coin and expect his hearers to recognize them as Caesar’s. In AD 6 Judaea south of Galilee had come under direct Roman rule for the first time.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ birth coincided with a supposed ‘decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed’. Its dating places this ‘decree’ in AD 6 and it allegedly brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where the birth of the Messiah had been prophesied in ancient texts. In fact, this supposed ‘decree’ could never have affected a man of Galilee, as it was a client kingdom which saw to its own taxes. The Gospel’s dating is also contradictory and there is no evidence that, outside Galilee, the global ‘decree’ ever existed. The story of the ‘first Christmas’ rests on a historical impossibility.1

Whatever the truth of the first Easter, the Crucifixion, at least, is a historical fact, arguably datable to the year 36.2 It was a Roman punishment and the Roman prefect was involved, Pontius Pilate, whom we also know from contemporary coins and non-Christian sources. We do not know exactly how it came about. All four Gospels differ on significant details, including the timing. Some of these details can be compared with Roman governors’ procedures in other provinces, but the problem remains as to which of the Gospels’ contradictory accounts, if any, is true. In the Gospel of John, a cohort of Roman troops and a Roman officer are said to have been involved in Jesus’ arrest. The High Priest of the Jews and his counsellors take Jesus, already bound, to Pilate and claim that ‘it is not lawful for us to put any man to death’.3 Under direct Roman rule, most communities in the provinces had indeed lost the right to impose a capital sentence. It had passed to the Roman governor and the sensitive city of Jerusalem was surely no exception. We can at least be pretty sure that, as a Roman governor, Pilate pronounced a formal sentence from his seat of judgement (as the Gospel of John says most clearly). Also, the Cross did carry an inscribed declaration of Jesus’ guilt in three separate languages. He was described as ‘king of the Jews’ in words which many by standers witnessed. It was a claim which no Roman governor could tolerate.

We hear of other such ‘rebels’ in Roman Judaea, people who even provoked the Romans to send troops against them. Evidently, Jesus was not thought to be so dangerous as these outright rebels, and yet he was more ‘rebellious’ than another ‘rustic’ named Jesus who later went through Jerusalem during a Jewish festival in the year 62, crying out as ‘a voice from the East, a voice from the West… a voice against Jerusalem and the Sanctuary, a voice against all the people’.4 Prominent Jews had this man flogged and then brought him before the Roman governor, but he still went on with his lament. The governor questioned him and then released him. Unlike Jesus of Nazareth, he was not believed to be claiming to be a king. For Romans, this difference was crucial.

Jesus’ preaching of this new ‘kingdom’ arose in a precise historical context. The beginning of direct Roman rule and taxation in AD 6 had caused the rise of the extremist Zealots with strong connections in Galilee, the people who denied that the Jewish people owed any allegiance except to God. Their terrorist movement had clear political claims, but Jesus’ group looked in a different direction. Jesus chose twelve Apostles, a number which was so significant that it was promptly maintained after his death. They were twelve in order to suggest the twelve ‘tribes’ of a new Israel, to be based on repentance and a non-violent kingdom of love and a change of heart. Its members would be saved and honoured during the imminent end of the world when they and Jesus, it seems, would share in a heavenly banquet. The message was not at all one of violent terrorism, although this was the contemporary ‘Galilaean alternative’ to Rome’s direct rule. When Jesus was asked what he thought of ‘the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices’ in Jerusalem he is said to have replied that the Galilaeans (surely terrorist suspects) were no more wicked than anyone else (their deaths, therefore, were a reward for sin) and that his questioners would all ‘likewise perish’ unless they repented.5 His new kingdom, he meant, was not to be brought about by violent protests. But the insane response of extremists to the new style of Roman rule does explain Jesus’ remarkable sense of urgency. His fellow Jews, he believed, were following a course which would soon lead to catastrophe, even to the destruction of Jerusalem. The verses in the Gospels in which Jesus ‘prophesies’ Jerusalem’s fall are often considered to be the product of hindsight. Some of the details may be, but the belief in such an outcome may well be Jesus’ own, even in the 30s ad. Hence his unusual hurry.

When Jesus died, only a hundred and twenty people, we are told, believed in his message. They were all of them Jews and they differed from their fellow Jews only because they believed that, in Jesus, their Messiah had come. The Jews’ religious leaders would never accept that the Messiah whom so many awaited was this public menace who had been killed on their instigation by the frightful Roman punishment of crucifixion. Nonetheless, his followers remained in Jerusalem, evidently expecting an imminent end of the world. Meanwhile, some of them began to spread their news to visitors from abroad, Jews from the overseas Diaspora who had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover at the Temple. It must have been particularly exciting for some of them to hear that during this great ‘trip of a lifetime’ they had coincided with the Messiah’s arrival. The city was appallingly crowded and the Temple was not, perhaps, the simple centre of honesty and religion for which they had been hoping. Some of them, including Greek-speakers, joined the new Messianic group. Some of its leaders then scattered outside Jerusalem, bringing their message to the nearby big cities, including Caesarea and Antioch. It was in Antioch that this Messianic group was first called ‘Christians’, ‘people of Christ’, the Messiah.6

Jesus had not spoken Greek or visited a big Gentile city and had never preached to Gentiles. When Greeks approached those of his disciples who could speak the Greek language, Jesus is said to have responded as if it was a sign of the coming ‘new age’. After his death we do not know how the new Christianity first reached Alexandria or Rome. What we do know are the missionary journeys of the Christian who did most to convert Gentiles, Paul.

Even more than that of Jesus, Paul’s career was lived in the context of Roman history. Paul’s father, a Jew in Tarsus, had the high privilege of Roman citizenship: one guess is that he had earned it by supplying tents to Pompey’s armies in the 60s BC. Paul, an educated Jew, began as a keen persecutor of the new Christians, but then turned to preach the Christian faith in the Gentile world. Here, he travelled across to Cyprus, the home of his helper and fellow Jew, Barnabas. Once there, he impressed the Roman governor on the island, who is one more instance of a trusting Roman, impressed by the wonders of the East. He then travelled to Pisidian Antioch, one of Augustus’ recent veteran-colonies in southern Asia Minor: it was the home of members of the governor of Cyprus’ family, perhaps of his married daughter. Paul’s first resort here was the local synagogue of the Jews, where he spoke his message in Greek. He then continued to visit points along the new network of Roman rule in the Greek East, using Roman roads and stopping in other Roman colonies like Philippi or Corinth. At Corinth, angryJews brought him before the Roman governor of Greece, Gallio, the brother of the famous philosopher Seneca. Paul’s teaching on the new Messiah was compounded by his insistence that Gentiles could join the new group as well as Jews, without their males needing to be circumcised or either sex needing to obey the Jewish law. To Gallio, the Jews’ complaints against him sounded like internal quarrels in the Jews’ religion. Admirably, he ‘cared for none of those things’ and refused to pronounce judgement.7

Before Paul, other Christians had already reached Rome where their teaching on the new Messiah (‘Christos’) provoked riots among the city’s existing Jews. The reigning emperor, Claudius, had previously confronted Jewish riots in Rome and Alexandria and, probably in 49, he ordered those responsible to be expelled from the city. Before long, Paul himself became the object of a riot too. On returning to Jerusalem, he was accused of introducing a Gentile into the forbidden sanctuary of the city’s Temple. He was rescued by Roman soldiers whose officer was surprised to find that Paul was a Roman citizen like himself. The citizenship protected Paul from beatings and violence without trial. His Roman captor remarked, revealingly, that he himself had paid a ‘great sum’ for this same privilege. Evidently he had acquired it under the Emperor Claudius. So far from ‘devaluing’ the citizenship, as Claudius’ critics complained, the emperor had kept up the price for it, if only through his corrupt freedmen.

As a Roman citizen, Paul was able to appeal to the Roman emperor’s judgement. The old right of a Roman citizen’s appeal to a tribune in office in Rome had become extended to a citizen’s right of appeal to the ‘tribunician’ emperor, even when the citizen lived abroad. Paul had been accused of treasonable teaching ‘contrary to Caesar’ and was sent off to Rome, presumably with a note to that effect. After another two years, his case was heard by the Emperor Nero or, more probably, the Prefect of the City. Paul was put to death, presumably on the suspicion of treacherous teaching about a new ‘kingdom’. At Jerusalem, Stephen the Christian had already been lynched by Jews for asserting that the Temple was dispensable and that Jesus, a condemned criminal, was the resurrected Messiah. At Rome, the apparent treason of the Christian ‘kingdom’ now claimed its most famous victim.

Time then passed, and in 64, perhaps two years after Paul’s conviction, the Emperor Nero needed scapegoats to divert the charge that he himself was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome. He or his advisers knew where to look, to yet more Christians, in the wake of the one whom they had recently executed. Christians were rounded up and executed as a public spectacle in the gardens of Nero’s monstrous Golden House. Some of them were dressed up in the skins of wild animals, a ‘fatal charade’ in which they would be attacked and ripped by fierce hunting dogs. Others were crucified or set on fire and burned to death. The precedent was not lost on Rome’s senators, the people who would go out in future to govern provinces. As Paul’s fate had shown, any Christians who were accused and brought before them should be put to death. There was now a Roman precedent and Gallio’s fine indifference was a thing of the past.

In his lifetime Jesus had received rich presents and attended a well-to-do wedding, but riches and luxury (he said) were obstacles to his new kingdom of the coming age. The poor, he taught, were blessed: treasure should not be laid up on earth: the models for man were the heedless ‘lilies of the field’: it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved. The opposition of Christian poor to the rich is clearly stated in the Epistle ascribed to James, but it was already being subtly rephrased or ignored elsewhere. Paul’s supporters and converts included some very rich members of the governing class in Gentile cities, none of whom adopted a ‘lily-like’ lifestyle. Unlike the Gospels, Paul’s surviving letters never discuss the ‘problem of riches’ or urge voluntary poverty. Among Christians, benefactions and gifts acquired a new merit, which was familiar to Jews but not to Gentiles: they were said to earn spiritual credit in heaven. Giving, therefore, became a road to salvation, while riches were considered irrelevant to true spiritual ‘freedom’. The total renunciation of property, Jesus’ point, remained a minority view.

The martyrdom of Christians did not arise from a real Christian threat to the Roman emperor or to Roman rule. As long as the world lasted, so would they: Paul even wrote that the Roman governors were necessary agents of God’s wrath. Christians, he urged, were to submit to the ‘powers that be’.8 For Christ’s kingdom was not of this world and Christian ‘citizenship’ lay in heaven. It was an attractive contemporary notion. The towns of the Greek and Roman world did not extend citizenship to all their free residents, quite apart from the numbers of ever-present slaves. Under Roman rule, distinctions of class and property had become even more entrenched in the political order and, as we have seen, were frankly upheld in the charters of Roman civic communities. Christian preaching bypassed these barriers as irrelevant and offered the ‘real thing’, for eternity. It was not even that Christians opposed slavery: Jesus was not remembered for any words on the subject and had anyway taught outside the slave-based structures of Greek and Roman cities. Paul’s advice was that slaves should serve even more: in this case too, social status was irrelevant to spiritual freedom and merit.9 This indifference to social class and slavery was one important reason why Christianity could attract members of high society right from the start; it was also a reason why bishops continued to own slaves. In Christ Jesus, Paul wrote, all were one, male and female, free and slave. But as in an army, ‘unity’ certainly did not entail social equality. The one worldly ‘freedom’ to be urged explicitly on Christians was freedom from marriage and remarriage. Jesus had spoken explicitly(and alarmingly) against divorce and had praised those who gave up sex altogether, ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’.10 Paul was aware that these ideals were not for everyone, but he continued to praise celibacy, sexless living and a refusal to remarry if bereaved or divorced. Exactly the opposite ideals were being encouraged, meanwhile, by Augustus’ marriage-laws which applied to all Roman citizens, including Paul himself.

While awaiting the world’s elusive end, Christianity thus belittled the pursuit of luxury and promised a higher freedom in heaven. It also promised a new justice. Many pagans were quite unsure that there would be an existence beyond the grave. The end of the world was not a subject which had ever really bothered them. The world, the ynow heard, was the temporary province of Satan whose unsuspected agents could be exorcized or overcome by Christian specialists. It was a new explanation of evil and, for those who converted, it was a most optimistic one. It could soon point to facts of history in support. In August 70, when Roman troops destroyed the Jews’ Temple in Jerusalem, God’s wrath had fallen on the wicked in Jerusalem, just as the Gospel sayings predicted. Christians in Jerusalem were said to have withdrawn to safety: they were obeying a prophecy, perhaps one by Jesus, like those ascribed to him in the Gospels. In 70, therefore, the wicked had been destroyed and visibly, the just had been saved. The event was an anticipation of the Last Judgement, whose justice would dwarf all other forms of justice which had evolved so far in the classical world.

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