Part Three: Jesus and the Early Christians in the Face of an Evil Empire.
The story of the New Testament is the story of an invading king reclaiming his citizens by revealing the ways of his Kingdom. This King is rejected by those in power—those that are most threatened by His rule. Early Christian communities celebrated his rule with one simple and life-threatening phrase: “Jesus is Lord.” This phrase infuriated the Jewish religious establishment because it required humility and repentance. It was equally anathema to the Roman government who allowed no rival to Caesar’s lordship. There is a reason religious Jewish leaders and Roman officials–who agreed on nothing else—collaborated on the murder of Jesus and thousands of his earliest followers. Jesus was a threat to their deepest value: the desire for power. He still is.
It’s a story of contrast. As we read the New Testament in historical context the contrast is everywhere. Most Christians understand at least some of this contrast. It’s clear that Jesus stands opposed to the pious nationalism of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus’ challenges to the crowds are clear and central to the Gospels. More subtle, however, is the contrast between Jesus and Rome. Most of us assume that because he did not lead an open rebellion Jesus and his followers were on friendly terms with the Romans. We see Jesus and early Christians and docile, law-abiding citizens. While they attempted to obey Caesar as much as they could, the heartbeat of every Christians was the maxim: “We must obey God rather than man.” The message that this poor Jewish carpenter is the King of the universe was a threat to every foundational value of the Roman Empire. Christians were subversive.
In a history class I once took, we were discussing the fall of the Roman Empire one day. The professor at my Christian college gave reasons for the decline of Roman Civilization and why the Western Empire fell in AD 476. It was caused by things like inflation, moral decay, uncontrolled immigration, heavy taxation, large percentages of people dependent on the government to eat, corruption, and greed. The professor was great, the class was memorable, the lesson effective. There was only one problem–he was wrong. Years later I taught the same class, at the same college, and tried to reproduce a similar lesson to the best of my abilities. I’m sure the class was not as memorable, the lesson not quite as effective and the professor less than great. Yet I shared one similarity to my predecessor. I was still wrong.
The error was in our optimistic assessment of Roman Civilization. We painted a picture of greatness. Rome sported a large military, amazing infrastructure, civic pride and responsibilities, conservative philosophies like stoicism, a healthy economy. We saw Rome as a society that started out “great,” but declined because it got away from its core virtues. Like most historians, even biblical scholars, we showed an infatuation with Rome. After all, the Romans are why so many of us like history in the first place. We love the architecture, the aqueducts, the legions, the roads, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, Cicero and Seneca. Rome was so much like us, just with rock hard abs. Because of its essential role in the creation of the civilization we know today, we consider Rome to be great. Its collapse we consider to be regrettable. It’s no surprise that after Rome’s collapse a period given the title “the Dark Ages” is born.
Perhaps Rome’s vices eventually helped to bring it down; however, when we look at Rome from the perspective of the protagonists of the New Testament, the Roman Empire was built on vice, not virtue. The people of the New Testament would have celebrated rather than grieved the collapse of the Empire. When we read the Bible, we often don’t consider that Rome was seen as a foreign, cruel, and oppressive regime to so many of the people we encounter in the New Testament. We must remember, the Romans aren’t the good guys in this story. When they were at their “greatest,” they executed Jesus, not to mention 11 of 12 apostles. The fall of the Roman Empire was not the collapse of a great civilization. Despite the Empire’s conversion to Christianity after Constantine, the fall of Rome was the death of an evil empire.
We call this period the time of the Pax Romana, the time where the political stability produced by Rome created a time of peace and prosperity for two hundred years. Middle School students and seminarians alike learn that the Pax Romana provided the infrastructure, commercial networks, common language, and peace for Christianity to thrive. This is only sort of true. The problem with this understanding is that it helps reinforce the perception that Rome was the partner of Christianity, not an enemy. In reality, we have good reasons to doubt the existence of a Pax Romana at all. It’s during this time that Rome witnessed the total demise of representative government, the consolidation of power into the hands of one man whose successors demanded to be worshiped as a god, the martyrdom of thousands of Christians including Jesus and almost all the apostles, the constant wars on the northern front with germanic “barbarians,” the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the slaughter and crucifixion of thousands of Jews. If we were to ask almost everyone we meet in the New Testament about life during the Pax Romana, they would look at their chains, their crosses, or the tombs of their dead loved ones and laugh at us.
While the Roman political, cultural, and economic system did make it possible to spread Christianity, Rome should never be seen as friendly to the Gospel. The good news that Jesus is Lord of all creation was terrible news for Caesar. At every point, Jesus and Rome were in conflict. This contrast is most clearly seen as when brought to a discussion of values. Christian values challenged every foundational assumption about life embraced in the Roman world. Despite the willingness of the apostles to contextualize and put aside Jewish cultural forms and accommodate Greco-Roman customs, early Christianity was essentially counter-cultural to the Greco-Roman population because of the bazaar values they espoused.
The first point of contrast is their divergent understandings of virtue. Romans were big on virtue. They talked about it often, wrote books, and told stories to their children to reinforce the idea of being a virtuous citizen. Even though Christians did not entirely reject all Roman ideas on virtue, they are mostly polar opposites. To Romans, virtue is manliness. The root word vir even means “man” in Latin. Virtue implies doing ones duty, standing up for your people, courage, and strength of character. What made Rome so great? The virtue of its citizens. They were manlier than their enemies, and they conquered. After all, the city was founded by brothers nursed by a she-wolf. It doesn’t get any more rugged and manly than that. In contrast, Jesus’s Kingdom is for the poor in spirit, for the meek who will inherit the earth, and for those who are like children. Only these will belong. His is a Kingdom of a crucified Messiah.
In both God’s Kingdom and Rome’s Empire, a man stood at the center providing a model for what the ideal person looked like. For the Romans it was Caesar. Every Emperor took Julius Caesar’s name as a title because of the massive political and cultural changes instigated by this power hungry man. By the time of the writing of the books of the New Testament, the Caesar is not just a ruler with absolute power, he is also a man worshiped as a god. Essentially, Romans worshiped power. They religiously celebrated the ambition of Julius Caesar and his successors. At the center of their political, economic, religious, and cultural life was a man greedy for power and demanding their worship. At the center of the Christian faith is a man who spent his days healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and washing his follower’s feet. His is a Kingdom of a servant king.
As historians evaluate the contributions of the Roman Empire, they typically highlight the economic advances made by this civilization. Namely, the Romans made unparalleled use of coinage and slaves. They created an infrastructure of roads and public works that was above all designed to facilitate trade. It worked! It created great wealth for the elite and economic opportunities for some. Living standards were great in the Roman Empire for a few, but a large percentage was enslaved. It is estimated that at the time of Christ, one third of the Roman population was a slave. While Roman slavery is not a comparable social and racial dynamic as antebellum American Slavery, Rome was a massive economic system built on forced labor. Lust for wealth was a paramount value of Roman civilization and its citizen’s were willing to go to great lengths for money. It’s in this context that Jesus insists that his followers “cannot serve both God and Money.” And in his letter to his disciple Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes that the “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” While Romans were taught to pursue wealth, Christians followed a man who had “no place to lay his head.” He came with good news for the poor, and said that it was nearly impossible for the rich to enter his Kingdom.
One of the things we miss about Greco-Roman style Paganism is how big a role sex played in their worship. Their gods were rapists and their temples were brothels. While some platonic-influenced philosophies tried to promote an ethic that saw the body and sexuality as evil, the average gentile in Jesus’s day was well acquainted with temple prostitution and the worship of sexually promiscuous gods. It produced a societal obsession. In a society where virtue is masculine strength and sex is religion, women were more victims than lovers. Female slaves were objects. Adult men regularly had intercourse with boys. Incest was commonplace. In contrast, many of the New Testament epistles encourage husbands and wives to love each other faithfully and sacrificially. Beginning with Jesus, Christians not only championed the Jewish ethics of promoting sex exclusively inside marriage, they spoke out strongly against lust and hasty divorce. This was a kingdom that the sexually immoral would not inherit.
The final Roman value challenged by Jesus and his followers was their chief value: themselves. Romans saw their city, their culture, and their empire as the center of the universe. They saw foreigners as uncivilized barbarians, effeminate Greeks, or, in the case of Jews, strange Middle Eastern people who do horrible things to their little boys. Christians exalted a foreigner as King of the Universe. They asserted that all nations would come and worship him rather than Caesar. Rome found this unthinkable, but the last 2000 years of history has proven the Christians right.
Following Jesus meant following the laws of society. Following Jesus precluded the possibility of a violent overthrow. While Christians were constantly reminded of the need to be good citizens, they were still a threat. Both sides knew that their values were in irreconcilable conflict. Christians showed their virtue by giving strength to the weak and food to the poor. They used their money for things greater than themselves. They refused to worship Caesar, and they were killed. They worshiped a meek, poor, foreign, crucified King. And He won.
Read Part 4 here.
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