Christianity, the Roman Empire & Israel’s Place in It
A vantage point for inquiring minds and those who’ve lived faith shy of geographical or historical context. Biblical maps are enlightening for tethering us to what was and what is and understanding how small our world has become, bringing Israel and the Middle East today into sharper focus.
The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire caused people to start questioning what they thought they knew. By 392 A.D. it was the official religion of the region. As it spread across the Mediterranaen, Christianity connected with larger themes in Roman history.
Reading Historical Dates
Without going into all of the science, emporer and political changes to calendars over time – and there were a lot of them – this keeps understanding date abbreviations simple. For more information see the “More Reading” resources below:
There is no Year 0.
There is no difference between “A.D.” & “CE.” They are the same.
There is no difference between “B.C.” & “BCE.” They are the same.
B.C. – means ‘Before Christ’ and starts with Year 1
A.D.– means ‘Anno Domini’ or ‘Year of our Lord.’ This is the year of Christ’s birth and also starts with Year 1. (Commonly referred to as ‘After Death,’ obviously not correct.)
CE – a more recent term meaning ‘Common Era,’ used in place of A.D.
BCE – a more recent term meaning ‘Before Common Era,’ used in place of B.C.
Jesus in Judae (Israel) & the Roman Empire
It’s widely accepted that Jesus Christ was born 4-6 B.C., two years before the death of the Roman Empire’s Herod the Great. Scientific calculations suggest Christ was born in the month of September or October.
Christianity began in Judea about 2,000 years ago with the birth and teachings of Jesus and the disciples who followed Him. Judea was a cultural hub of cities and farms. Click the map to view the area in what we now know as current day Israel.
When Jesus taught the “new covenant” (New Testament) in Judea, Rome was under its first emperor rule. Jesus is known by Christians as the Son of God and of Man, conceived by God by immaculate conception with the virgin Mary, who married Joseph.
The Jews hated Roman rule because it was a pagan reminder of their historical oppression and it violated their faith under the Torah* (Old Testament). The Romans worshiped a number of gods and superficial idols they‘d built to those gods. That was in direct conflict with the Jewish faith, which recognized the one and only God of the Bible.
*”Torah” refers to the Five [Biblical] Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But the word “torah” can also be used to refer to the entire Jewish bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah), or in its broadest sense, to the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.
The start of Christianity is recorded in accounts of the New Testament but its history began with Old Testament prophecy. There are over 300 predictions of the coming of a Jewish Messiah that are recorded in the Old Testament, spanning more than 1000 years.
Some Jews saw conforming to the Roman Empire as their only hope. Others became religious zealots developing warlike guerilla resistances against Rome. Still others withdrew into the Judean wilderness to study Jewish law and wait for the coming of their Messiah, or savior, as promised in the Old Testament.
Isa 7:14 [OT] Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Immanuel means “God with us”. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, had come to dwell with, or tabernacle on earth with, His people.
John 1:14 [NT] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.
Jesus was a Jew. He observed Jewish faith and was well studied in its law. Said to be a carpenter by trade (though that is questioned today), by His early thirties Jesus traveled between villages teaching in synagogues, healing people and performing miracles. His news traveled swiftly. From a young age He challenged religious leaders to repent from their self-righteous and hypocritical ways and to realize that the Kingdom of God is rooted in service and love.
Jesus taught during the Roman rule of Augustus, their first emperor from 27 B.C. through 14 A.D. He urged purification of the Jewish religion with a moral code of love, charity and humility. Christ’s teachings stirred the hearts of people and His healings grew in influence and ever-increasingly high demand as word of His message and acts spread.
These things and Jesus’ growing popularity because of them created an instability that Jewish authorities feared. The disciples were faithful men who followed Him and Jesus taught them about the “new covenant” that God was bringing to humanity, because men had fallen into so much sin they’d lost the personal relationship with God that they had in Old Testament days.
Jesus was crucified on a cross about 30 A.D., believed to be in Golgotha or “The place of a skull” just outside of Jerusalem. His followers believe he rose three days later, proving that He was the Son of God. The Christian faith, unlike any other religion, hinges on historical events. An example can be seen in the eye-witness accounts evidenced by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-6.
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.”
Manuscript studies point to this scripture being written within a few years after Christ’s death. Paul, born Greek, ends this passage with “most of whom are still living,” inviting people to confirm the facts for themselves. He wouldn’t have if he was trying to perpetrate a myth or fraud. It is the historical validity that gives Christians their belief and a genuine and eternal hope.
Roman Mythology & Christianity
Before the coming of Christ and Christianity the Roman Empire was “embroiled in myth,” having archeological traces of early settlements dating back to 750 B.C. The myths were based on both fiction and history in stories passed down through the ages.
Roman mythology was an emphatic state religion consisting of rituals and ceremonies. Their myths were more practical than the Greek’s but they adopted most of the Greek deities.
Every Roman god served a purpose and had an office to fill. There were “divisions of labor” between them, some presiding over births; some over bakers and some over the bakers’ ovens. Every vocation and household function had presiding gods and goddesses. This picture depicts a god tending to the wound of a solider with a Greek goddess looking on.
The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire caused people to start questioning what they thought they knew. By 392 A.D., Christianity was the official religion. As Chrsitianity spread it connected with larger themes in Roman history.
Christianity comforted social grievances in an empire marked by inequality and among the poor. Slaves, dispossessed farmers and impoverished city dwellers found hope in a religion that encouraged a goodness of morals and after-life rewards for living morally.
The Christian faith also answered cultural needs that Roman values, which stressed political goals and ethics about living in the world, did not. It brought political benefits to the Romans as their empire grew and consolidated, as well. The new faith was seen as universal, open to all, whether people followed the Jewish faith or not.
Belief in Jesus spread among Jewish communities in the Middle East, the Roman Empire and beyond. When His disciples realized that Jesus was not returning to earth to set up the Kingdom of God, they fanned out to spread the news, particularly around the eastern Mediterranean area.
The predominant language of the day was Greek. Paul’s Greco-Roman culture helped to explain Christian beliefs in Greece and in Italy as well as in the Middle East. Paul essentially created Christian theology as a set of intellectual principles; and some speculate that he emphasized women’s more subordinate role to men and the dangers of sexuality in the books of the New Testament.
By the 4th Century A.D. Christian writings were the only creative cultural expression of the Roman Empire. Theologians sought to explain issues brought up by the new religion; and to relate it to ethics and Greek philosophy. Just as the Roman Empire was in decline Christianity produced complex thought and elegant language, redirecting its culture and preserving its earlier literary and philosophical achievements.
Christianity goes well beyond Rome and had more to do with opening a new era of history of the Mediterranean region than in shaping the Roman Empire.
Today’s Conflicts between the Middle East and Israel & The West
In the Bible’s Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 17, God promised Abraham that he would become “the father of many nations.” Many today aren’t familiar with the divisions hinged on that promise.
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, could not bear children so she gave to her husband her Egyptian maiden, Hagar. Hagar birthed Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Many years later Sarah gave Abraham a son named Isaac (described in the scripture below).
When dissention in the houshold grew, Hagar returned with her son to her homeland of Egpyt. By then Abraham and Sarah had located to Cannan (Israel), where they remained. Today Sarah’s descendants are Christian and Hagar’s are Muslim. Indeed Abraham was “the father of many nations.”
Genesis 17 (OT, KJV excerpted): And when Abram was ninety years old and nine the LORD appeared and said, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect and I will make my covenant between me and thee and will multiply thee exceedingly and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee and I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house [and] which is not of thy seed. And God said unto Abraham, as for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
Then Abraham fell upon his face and laughed and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. And he left off talking with him.
Coming: What was Constantine the Great’s role in Christianity?
“From the time of Constantine onward, the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, in its forms and ceremonies, has been more clearly identified with the paganism of Ancient Rome, than with the religion of the New Testament. The customs of pagan religion were only baptized with Christian names.”-Paganism Surviving in Christianity By Abram Herbert Lewis “The Control of Christianity by the State Under Constantine and his Successors,” Chapter X; pg. 210