16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity
The problems for Roman citizens
In both Thessalonica and Philippi, strong opposition arose to the
preaching of the Gospel because it was held that it was preaching
another King, Jesus, in opposition to Caesar, and that the obligations
of this new religion were at variance with the Imperial Cult (Acts
16:21; 17:7). In a sense, these allegations were true. Christianity
taught that the convert became a member of a new, spiritual Israel.
It was irrelevant whether he or she was a Jew, Roman or Gentile.
And the convert had to act inclusively rather than exclusively towards
other converts. It must have been hard for a Roman citizen to willingly
become as it were a ‘citizen’ of ‘spiritual Israel’, a ‘member’
of the despised and captive Jewish race. To not participate in the
cult of emperor worship was serious indeed; Roman citizenship could
be lost over this matter. Pliny wrote that Christians were therefore
“unable by temperament or unwilling by conviction to participate
in the common activities of a group or community”. They were seen
as any true living Christian is: a bit weird, unsociable, aloof
from worldly pleasure, and thereby a silent critic of those who
indulge. “The Christian would not attend gladiatorial shows or games
or plays. He would not read pagan literature. He would not enlist
as a soldier, for then he would come under orders that might conflict
with his standards and with his loyalty to Jesus Christ. He would
not be a painter or sculptor , for that would be to acquiesce to
idolatry. Nor would he be a schoolmaster, for then he would inevitably
have to tell the immoral stories of the pagan gods. The Christian
had better steer clear of business contracts, because they required
the taking of oaths, which the Christian abjured. They had better
keep out of administrative office because of the idolatry involved…and
so on” (1). The Romans considered anyone
outside the Roman world or who rejected Roman manners and laws as
being a barbarian; and yet the Gospel appealed to Roman citizens
to reject these very manners and laws. Thus Ramsay comments: “To
the Romans genus humanum meant not the human race in general
but the Roman world, men who lived according to Roman manners and
laws; the rest were enemies and barbarians. The Christians, then,
were enemies to civilised man, and to the customs and laws which
regulated civilised society…they introduced divisions into families
and set children against their parents” (2).
The Roman view of things seems to have been consciously questioned
by the language of the New Testament preachers; they set up God’s
Kingdom and the things of the Lord Jesus in conscious contradistinction
to those of the Roman kingdom and lords.
The Roman empire / system
Versus The Kingdom of the Lord Jesus
The denarius of Tiberius which Jesus used bore the words: Tiberius
CAESAR DIVI AUGusti Filius AUGUSTUS Pontifex Maximus. Caesar
was to be seen as the Son of God.The Lord Jesus was the only,
and begotten Son of God. The implication is that no other
‘son of God’ was begotten as Jesus was- He was the real
Son of God, the one and only (Jn. 1:14,18; 3:16,18). Caesar was
to be worshipped as God (see L.R. Taylor, The Divinity Of The
Roman Emperor). Julius Caesar was known as Divus Julius after
his death; indeed, many of the Caesars were held to have ‘resurrected’
to heaven and been granted Divine status. “To us [and this
is the emphasis] there is only one God, the Father, and one Lord,
Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:4-6) takes on a vital radicality in the
light of this. As does NT teaching about His resurrection and subsequent
The Roman proconsuls were to be called “Saviour”.
But for Christians, there was only one Saviour, the Lord
Jesus. The Caesars were frequently called "Saviour"- Josephus
thus addressed Vespasian. Hence the radical import of the way that
Jude 25 calls the Lord Jesus our only Saviour. ‘Caesar
is Lord’ was the cry of the Roman empire. Pliny wrote that he considered
refusal to make the customary gesture to the emperor’s statue to
be a criminal act punishable by death. But “To us there is but one
Lord, Jesus” the Christ, i.e. Jesus the Messiah of the despised,
weird Jewish race. The Roman concept of religio allowed
each subject nation to have their own gods, so long as the cult
of the emperor was also worshipped. But Rom. 3:29 states that the
God of Israel was the one God of the Gentiles too. This is in sharp
distinction to the way the Romans thought of the god of the Jews
as just another national deity .Caesar was king of many subject
kings, Lord of many conquered and inferior lords. In this we see
the radical challenge of 1 Tim. 6:15,16: that Jesus Christ is the
only potentate, the Lord of Lords, the King of all Kings.
The RV margin brings out the Greek even more radically: “them that
rule as lords”- those who think they are lords when compared to
the Lord Jesus they are nothing. Many of the terms used in relation
to Caesar worship are deliberately used in the New Testament and
redefined in an exclusive Christian context, setting the Christian
view of them up against any other use of them, and insisting upon
it as the only valid meaning of the term. Thus ‘evangelion’
was a well known concept. It meant the good news of victory, and
the corresponding duty to make thank and praise offerings for it.
The Imperial Cult used the word for announcing Caesar’s victories,
his birthdays, his accession to power, his granting of salvation
to his people…Mark’s Gospel especially uses the word evangelion
in a way which sets it up in contrast to the way it was used in
the Imperial Cult. It is the good news of the birth, victory, resurrection
and Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, and the evangelion calls
men and women to make self-sacrifice in response to it.
The wider family / household of the emperor bore a special name
related to the name of the emperor; thus at the time of Augustus,
they were called the Augustiani. They were his distant relatives
and personal servants who were known for their loyalty to him. It
was an honour to be part of this empire-wide extended household.
The name ‘Christian’ was coined in Antioch in parody of this. These
men were the honoured members of another empire-wide household of
relatives and servants, yet their emperor was the Christ. This title
for them would have been an open and defiant rebellion against the
cult of the emperor. Some Caesars such as Gaius, Nero and Domitian
felt that they would not only become Divine on their death, but
they were to be treated as Divine in their lives. They wished to
be considered as mediators between the gods and Roman citizens.
The NT passages which speak in such exalted terms of Christ’s present
exaltation were not just written to provide trinitarians with pseudo-ammunition
against us. They used that exalted language for a very real purpose-
to highlight how the Lord Jesus was the one who had become ‘Divine’
and been ‘highly exalted’ on His death, and how even in His life
He had been worthy of the honour due to God alone, on account of
the degree to which He manifested the Father. And to Jesus alone
had been given world-wide authority, not to Caesar [as they claimed].
And moreover, He had been given all power in Heaven as well as earth.
He alone was the only mediator between God and all men,
rather than Caesar. The Lord’s own words were radical enough, when
He taught that Caesar should be honoured but not worshipped.
Although Thomas’ exaltation “My Lord and my God!” may appear an
off-the-cuff gasping out of praise, can I suggest there was far
more to it than that. I suggest he was alluding to or quoting Ps.
35:23: " Stir up thyself, and awake to my judgment, my God
and my Lord" . The Lord Jesus had indeed arisen and stirred
up in resurrection, and Thomas realized that it was to his judgment.
When we look closer at the Psalm, it seems to reveal something of
the thoughts of the Lord Jesus. He had desired God to awake to his
need. And now Thomas shares those same thoughts, through his relationship
to Jesus. And this is a very Johannine theme; that the relationship
between Father and Son is to be shared by the believers, on account
of the way they relate to the risen Lord Jesus. Or perhaps Thomas
had Ps. 91:2 in mind: " I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge,
my fortress, my God; in him will I trust" . When Thomas
addressed Jesus as " My Lord and my God" , he was
likely alluding to the way the Emperors [Domitian especially, according
to Seutonius] demanded to be called " Dominus et Deus noster"
- Our Lord and our God. Thomas was saying something radical- he
was applying to the Lord Jesus the titles which those living in
the Roman empire were only to apply to Caesar. And our exaltation
of the Lord Jesus should be just as radical in practice. Further,
I note that Yahweh Elohim is usually translated in the Septuagint
'Kyrios, ho theos mou'- " Lord, my God" . Am I going too
far in thinking that Thomas saw in the risen Jesus the fulfillment
of the Yahweh Elohim name? He would thus have been fulfilling the
Lord's prophecy in Jn. 8:28: " When you lift up the Son of
man, then you will realize that I Am..." . Finally the disciples
were grasping that " All men may honour the Son just as they
honour the Father" (Jn. 5:23). Thomas’ expression of praise
was thus blasphemy to both Jews and Romans. A true perception of
the exaltation of the Lord Jesus leads us to a unique position which
cannot be accepted by any who are not truly of Him.
The names of the Roman emperors were to be greatly revered. The
cult of emperor worship grew very strongly in the 1st century. Yet
Rev. 13:2 describes the names of the leaders of the beast, which
on one level represented the Roman empire in the 1st century, as
“blasphemous names”. To assign divine titles to the emperor
was, to the Jewish and Christian mind, a blasphemy (Dt. 11:36; 2
Thess. 2:4). This would have made the Apocalypse an outlawed document
in the first century. Consider too the clear references to the evil
of the emperor worship cult later in Rev. 13: one of its
heads. . .is set up as the very opposite of the
true Christ. Like the Lamb, who was killed and then raised up (5:6),
the Beast seems to disappear and then return to life (17:8). This
passage may be a reference to some definite event, such as the murder
of Caesar and the healing of the empire under Augustus, the legend
of Nero redivivus, whereby Nero was believed to have returned
from the dead. The marvellous cure of the Beast excites admiration
and leads to the adoration of the dragon and the Beast (17:8). This
is an allusion to the rapid progress of the emperor cult and to
the ready acceptance of the immoral example of the emperors. The
beast of the earth in Rev. 13:11-18 seems to have some application
to the cult of emperor worship which became so popular throughout
the Roman empire: it speaks in the voice of the dragon (v. 11),
from whom it receives its power; and like the first Beast, it attempts
to mimic the Lamb (v. 12, 13). It seems to be a personification
of an Antichrist embodied in the pagan priesthood, which endeavoured
to draw all men to the cult of the emperor. In these thoughts we
see just how radical was the Apocalypse in its first century context.
“The image to the beast” (13:13) would refer to representations
of the divinized Roman emperors. “The wound of the sword” (13:13)
is possibly an allusion to the mortal wound Nero inflicted upon
himself in ad 68. Nero was perceived to live again in the persecutor
Domitian (Tertullian, Apol. 5). Note how it is “the beast”
who appears to have died or been wounded and then revives (17:8)-
and yet these are references to what happened to Nero. The symbolism
correctly perceives how the empire was incarnated in one man, the
The beast of 17:4 was “full of blasphemous names”. Not only the
heads of the Beast (13:1), but its whole body is covered with them,
indicating that the entire empire sanctioned the emperors’ arrogation
of divine titles; such titles could be found throughout the Roman
world, inscribed on public buildings and monuments. The golden
cup which the whore has (cp. 18:6; Jer 51:7) has contents which
would have been understood as idolatrous cults and the vices
of Rome-all in sharp contrast with its outward beauty and the splendour
of the woman. These prophecies were therefore in direct and open
criticism of the Roman empire which surrounded the early ecclesia.
Rome boasted that “I sit a queen” (18:7). The chief sin of Rome
as of all pagan empires consists in their assertion that their power
and their authority derive exclusively from themselves, that they
are their own masters, recognizing no superior law. Please note
that in seeing a first century fulfillment of Revelation I in no
way thereby necessarily exclude a continuous historic or latter
day fulfillment of it also.
The Roman empire was thus painted in the most awful colours; and
yet it must have seemed just the ordinary world to the early believers;
the place they grew up in, outside of which they generally had no
experience. And yet the message of Rev. is to “flee” from Babylon
/ Rome- " flight" consists in refusing to participate
in the sins of the Romans. Paul admits that we are unable to leave
the world (1 Cor 5:10), and therefore we are to see this as symbolic.
And surely there are similarities with our own position at the end
of another age- we need this apocalyptic language to make us realize
exactly how evil is the world around us and the need to
flee it. The description of Rome’s trading in chapter 18 would have
been especially powerful- it would have seemed that Rome was invincible,
economically and politically unshakeable, admired by the whole world.
And yet it was to be brought down by Divine judgment. Note too how
these passages are also applicable to Jerusalem- as if there in
the city that was so defiantly anti-Roman, the same abuses in essence
were going on, and would meet a like judgment.
I am of the view that the seals and vials of Revelation have such
strong connection with both the Olivet prophecy and the actual events
in the land in AD66-70 that it is impossible to discount the application
of Revelation to this period. This means that it would have been
written some time before AD70. A major theme is the need to resist
the Caesar worship and maintain their separation from the world
around them. Indeed, the whole of Revelation can be read, in its’
AD70 application, as an account of the struggle between Christ and
Caesar. Such strong imagery is used in order to emphasise that there
could be no third road. It was one or the other. Thus Rev. 4,5 presents
a picture of the throne of Heaven, but it is replete with reference
to the imperial ceremonial court. Consider the points of contact
- Greco-Roman kings were considered to be divine, and their courtrooms
were arranged in concentric circles centring upon the Caesar /
King- just as with the true throne room
- Their attendants were often arranged in groups of 7s and 12s-
after the supposed seven planetary spheres and the 12 signs of
the zodiac. Compare this with the 7s, 12s and 24s [2 x 12] in
Revelation (4:4,5,10; 5:6-10).
- These attendants sung hymns of praise to the Caesar (cp. 4:8-11;
- The Caesar dispersed justice to the empire / kingdom, symbolised
by a scroll (cp. 5:1-8).
- Language such as God, Son of God, Lord’s day, saviour of the
world was used in the imperial cult (3).
Suffice it to say that today just as much as in
the 1st century, there is a radical clash of cultures and belief
systems between us and this present world. The radical nature of
the conflict cannot be overstated.
One of the most well known concepts in the empire was the Pax
Romana- the idea that the Roman empire brought peace and blessing
to those within its rulership and Kingdom. Yet this is consciously
and explicitly alluded to in the NT passages which speak of the
universal peace and goodwill which can only and exclusively come
to mankind through the Gospel and reign of Jesus.
Some of the Roman leaders initially pushed the idea of Plato, that
all land should be state owned and be given up by individuals to
the state. Yet Acts 2:44; 4:32 use language which is directly taken
from Plato’s Republic: “All things common…no one called
anything his own”. The early church was seeking to set up an idealized
alternative to the Roman empire!
Roman citizenship was the most coveted thing in
the Roman empire. Phil. 3:20 claims that we all have the
coveted citizenship. Heb. 11:13-16 contains some radical demands
in a first century context- to see the true city, when Rome
was the city to be identified with; to be a non-citizen of
any earthly state… how hard would that have been for Roman citizens
to read, hear, and say ‘Amen’ to! And how hard it would be for Roman
citizens, or those who aspired to it, to realize that the highest
honour was to be part of “the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2:12),
that pokey, undeveloped, despised corner of the great Roman empire.
And the call of Christ to middle class 21st century citizens
is just as radical.
The way the sun was eclipsed at the Lord’s death
is recorded in terms which clearly contrast with the prevailing
view that at the demise of the emperors, the light of the sun was
eclipsed. Both Plutarch (Caesar, 69.4) and Josephus (Antiquities
14.12.3,409) speak of eclipses of the sun at the death of Julius
Caesar. The Lord Jesus in His death is thus being proclaimed as
the true Caesar. Likewise Cassius Dio History 51.17.5)
claims that at the fall of Alexandria to the Romans, “the disembodied
spirits of the dead were made visible”. Similar claims were made
for other Roman victories. And yet this is clearly put into context
by the record that around the Lord’s victory, the graves were opened
and the dead actually came forth.
Martin Hengel concludes that the early Gospel records
were so radical that they would’ve been part of an “underground
literature”. He suggests that the Roman law forbidding oral
or written prophecies about the fall of the Roman empire- on pain
of death- was enough to make the Olivet prophecy alone a highly
illegal document (4).
The stress of Christianity on individual conversion and
responsibility meant that as Jesus had predicted, families were
divided when one accepted Him. 1 Cor. 7 shows that there were times
when a wife accepted Christianity but her husband didn’t. Yet society
expected her to treat him as her head in all religious matters.
Plutarch taught that “it is becoming for a wife to worship and know
only the gods that her husband believes in, and to shut the front
door tightly upon all queer rituals and superstitions. For with
no god do stealthy and secret rites performed by a woman find any
favour”. These comments were very relevant to the many sisters who
must have discreetly broken bread alone or in small groups. One
can imagine all the social and domestic conflicts that Christianity
created. This is why the movement was so slandered. There were no
temple, no priests, this religion was seen as weird. Just as many
new converts today are mocked for the fact the believers in their
area have no church building, no priests etc. The early Christians
were slandered- their breaking of bread was misrepresented as cannibalism,
the eating of a dead body; the ‘love feast’ was claimed to be an
immoral gathering, and the Christian focus on loving each other
was given overtones of immorality by their detractors. Their separation
from the world likewise was wilfully misinterpreted as “hatred of
the human race”. The tragedy is that the gross misbehaviour of the
Corinthians and others gave the slander at least some basis.
(1) Michael Green, Evangelism
In The Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) p. 40 .
(2) W.M. Ramsay, The Church
In The Roman Empire (New York: Putnam's, 1893) p. 236.
(3) These and many other links can be found in
David Aune, “The influence of Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial on
the Apocalypse of John”, Papers Of The Chicago Society Of Biblical
Research 28 (1983): 1-26.
(4) Martin Hengel, Studies In The Gospel Of
Mark (London: SCM, 1985) p. 28.