Pilate ‘washed his hands before the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood…”’ (Matthew 27:24) and from that day forward the Roman governor would set into motion a trail of blood from the pavement of the flogging post up to the hill of Golgotha and onward to the coliseum of Imperial Rome itself. Rome was a superpower that marshaled the mightiest army in the world, who’s gods were its Caesars. But this world empire would slowly become infiltrated by an unarmed sect of dedicated worshipers who’s allegiance to Jesus Christ would eventually bring Rome to its knees.1
The purpose here is to investigate how this minority religion entered the synagogues, the palaces, the homes, and the hearts of those first Roman converts. Lanciani comments, “We must not believe that the transformation of Rome from a pagan into a Christian city was a sudden and unexpected event, which would take the world by surprise…The revolution was an exceedingly mild one, the transformation almost imperceptible.”2
Rome was a breeding ground for a myriad of religious ideas and pagan cults, with Christianity adding yet another unique vision for personal and world destinies. Because the mythical gods of the Greco-Roman world seated their human hero’s on the Imperial throne,3 this formidable religious foundation held their subjugated populace under the authority of its Caesar’s. Midst this pagan world power, Christianity emerged, challenged and eventually dethroned this religio-political empire which had gained world domination through fearless demagogues. However, it was not conquered by conspiratorial means or political intrigue. But by a commitment, united by the propagation of a heavenly kingdom that was soon to come upon the horizon of that chaotic world. E.R. Dodds states, that in Rome, “There were too many cults, too many mysteries, too many philosophies of life to choose from… Christianity made a clean sweep. It lifted the burden of freedom from the shoulders of the individual: one choice, one irrevocable choice, and the road to salvation was clear…”4
As one observes the social stratum of first century Rome, the distinctions were clearly defined. There were the rich ruling class and the poor; among them whose captive slaves lived in squalor and poverty. At the outset of the Christian era the city of Rome had swelled in number to approximately 1,300,000 residents, with more than half being slaves and with the Jewish settlement reaching as high as 50,000 inhabitants.5 As the crown of power passed in dynastic succession, the people of Rome witnessed many changes in rule. Like the benefactions of an aristocracy, such as the one under Caesar Augustus; or the tyrannies, such as those periods under Caesar Nero, or the military monarchies like those under Flavian governance.
But it would be under the absentee reign of Tiberius Caesar, who lived his final years on the island of Capri, that the gospel message would first fall upon native Roman ears. The Lukan record bears this out in his historical testimony regarding the dynamic outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and the resulting conversions upon that first audience.
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem…and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” (Acts2:5,10,11).
The scriptures themselves inform us that Roman visitors, both Jews and gentile converts to Judaism, were gathered for the national feast of Pentecost. As the gospel sounded forth from Peter’s lips, the trumpet blast of salvation had awakened the sin dead hearts of some of those Roman Jews. Edmunson states that these Jews who resided in Rome were descendants of the first Jewish settlement which dates back to 63 B.C. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus had been advancing the Roman army in a campaign that made the city of Jerusalem his captive. After this victory, the Jews were brought back to Rome en masse and sold as slaves.6 Edmunson further comments that the Jews’ firm adherence to their Mosaic traditions released them to form their own communities on the far side of the Tiber river. The Jews eventually constructed synagogues to maintain their religious instruction and worship as evidenced by an inscription at Pompeii, containing the words ‘Synagogue Lebertinorum’. This ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’ consisted of former Jewish slaves having been liberated by their masters. It is highly possible that some from this synagogue were in attendance on that morning when the call to repentance was declared by Peter. Because Luke tells us that Peter’s sermon led to thousands of conversions, (see Acts 2:41) it is not hard to imagine that at least a small group of Roman Jews put their faith in Messiah Jesus and would take this exciting news back home to their family and friends in Rome. These new converts from Rome would be the first wave of the gospel harvest that would eventually spread into the Imperial house itself. In fact, by the time Paul writes his letter to the Philippians from Rome, ca A.D. 61,7 it is of great interest that the apostle mentions that Christianity had already influenced many among Caesar’s palace. His closing salutations are telling; “All the saints greet you, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.” (Philippians 4:22). This gives us ample evidence that the gospel had already reached well into the center of the empire. So we know that it must have been received among those in the Imperial circle well before Paul wrote this letter. But how did Christianity’s ‘good news’ find favor among the pagan elite and to whom? An observation can be made, whereupon, the Romans received a sort of prophecy by Virgil, a Roman poet, placing in their hearts and minds the advent of a divine boy destined to usher in Rome’s golden age. Writing in 37 B.C, we can read the prophecy from Virgil’s 4th Eclogue:
“Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign, with a new breed of men sent down from
heaven. Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom the iron shall cease, the golden race
arise…This glorious age, O Pollio [A Roman officer to Gaul], shall begin… Of our old
wickedness, once done away, shall free the earth from never ceasing fear. He shall
receive the life of gods, and see heroes[humans] with gods commingling, and himself be
seen of them, and with his father’s worth reign o’er a world at peace.”8
In addition to this anticipation for the dawning of a new age was the Roman religious view of man, gods and destiny. Sordi points this out, that religiously, the Roman people were familiar with the concept of sin, expiation, postponement and apocalypse, attended by their own divine caste of priests and haruspices as well as the influences of Greek and Pythagorean philosophy and veneration.9 John Mauck interestingly equates the legend of Romulus, Rome’s first king, to the ascension of Jesus. Stating that in Luke’s gospel, an educated Roman would have perceived the similarities between Romulus, which at his death, disappeared in a thick cloud during a thunderstorm and Jesus, being lifted from the earth in a cloud covering.10 It appears then that Christianity was not so far removed from the spiritual ideas and practices which were so familiar to Roman religious thought.
However, unlike the deteriorating morals of Roman society and its appeasement of the empire’s plethora of gods and men, Christianity was an appealing breath of fresh air. It was a religious practice with an all embracing priority for pure and virtuous spiritual and moral interaction, that translated into a strong commitment for a mutually communal lifestyle, where selfless assistance was the norm. In an idolatrous society that was loosing its moral and civic well being, the gospel light was blazing brightly across the cultural landscape. We see this expressed by Paul, who pens an epistle while under house arrest in Rome. He exhorts the church to “…be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world ” (Philippians 2:15).
Now as we look to external evidence, we can perhaps recognize those first signs of the gospel message reaching into the court of the king. Sordi, pulls from the record of Tacitus,11 the first century Roman historian, this account concerning a woman, Pomponia Graecina, wife of Plautius, Rome’s victor over Britain. She was accused of superstitio, the practice of a foreign superstition, and was brought before her husbands tribunal in 57 A.D. where he intervened to spare her from prosecution. It is said that her crime of superstitio was practicing the faith of the Christians.12 It also appears that the apostle Paul’s words and plight was known even to Seneca, Rome’s premier philosopher and mentor to Nero, and looked upon the evangelist with some favor.13 For the apostle had stood trial at Corinth before proconsul Gallio for judgment (see Acts 18:12). And Seneca, being Gallio’s brother, would have learned of Paul’s message by the time the apostle reached Rome for an appeal to Caesar Nero for yet another allegation.
Jerusalem itself would have been abuzz with the gospel, with Roman military officers being first hand witnesses to God’s miraculous interventions. We read in the scriptures of such encounters in the book of Acts, where Peter’s visit to the Roman commander, Cornelius, brings the gift of the Holy Spirit and the waters of baptism to his entire household (see Acts 10:22,47). Or in the earlier ministry of Jesus, where a Roman centurion witnessed the healing of his slave (see Matthew 8:13) and yet another professed Jesus as God’s Son at the crucifixion (see Matthew 27:54).
The invasion of Christianity into the Roman world knew no bounds among the social classes. It affected both slaves and kings. And Paul’s earnest desire to visit the center of the empire is disclosed in his letter to them which he wrote in 57A.D. (see Romans 15:23), showing that a well established church had been underway and their declaration of the gospel had reached the fringes of the known world. The apostle says of them,
“First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world.” (Romans 1:8).
But the fuse that ignited the expansion of the gospel beyond Jerusalem was undoubtedly the martyrdom of Stephen. We read,
“Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.” (Acts 8:1,2).
We can entertain the thought, without much strain, that Stephen could have been the foremost ambassador to the Gentiles. For he was an unflinching apologist, upon whom God seemed to lay the mantle of apostolic mission as evidenced by the many miracles and signs that he performed among the people. (see Acts 6:8). But alas, through the supreme counsel of Wisdom, saw fit to choose a herald of Roman blood, one Saul of Tarsus, who no doubt stood to hear many a teaching from Stephen. It may have been through the mastery of Stephen’s knowledge of the Old testament scriptures and his exegetical skill that Paul, upon his own conversion and study, would come to realize the theological basis for the inclusion of the Gentiles and the diminishing need for Judaistic rites and temple rituals. Thus pushing the gospel beyond the bounds of the strictly Jewish audiences of Jerusalem and making headway into the Gentile world, with its many cities being subject to their Roman provincial authorities and pagan superstitions.
Perhaps the first open door for the gospel in Rome was to Priscilla and Aquila, the faithful couple who was in contact with many influential leaders of the growing church. Legend holds that two houses marked the rise of the church in Rome: Prisca and Aquila and the home of Pudens, the friend of Timothy.14 But by whom did they receive the good tidings? Further research into this matter, may reveal that it was Peter the apostle who first took the Messianic declaration to Rome. And not by planned preparation did he journey there, but by a need to escape King Herod’s order to have him executed. The scriptures record,
“About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them.He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter too.” (Acts 12:1-3).
But Peter’s imprisonment was quickly followed by a miraculous escape, resulting in these parting words to his friends who saw him flee into the night. He said, “Tell James and the brothers these things,” as if to imply that he would not be able to, “ ‘and then he left and went to another place.’ ” (Acts 12:17). The prospect of this ‘other place’ being Rome. It is from this point on, that the book of Acts sees Peter no more until he is summoned to the council at Jerusalem.15 This suggestion is made plausible by an account from Eusebius’ ‘Ecclesiastical History’. We read, -‘under the reign of Claudius by the benign and gracious providence of God, Peter that great and powerful apostle, who by his courage took the lead of all the rest, was conducted to Rome.’16 Prompted by the threat on his life, the fugitive Peter’s arrival in Rome is dated by Edmunson, who deduces from the writings of Eusebius, St. Jerome and the biblical record, at 42 A.D.
Following the biblical trail seems to lead us to Priscilla and Aquila. It is this Christian couple that the scriptures feature as most prominent among the early Roman Christian community and the spread of the Messianic message. It is not difficult to piece together a probable scenario for their conversion. Supposing Peter found safe refuge in Rome, it is here where his gospel was composed by Mark at about 45 A.D.17 Aquila, a Jew from Pontus was a native born Roman. His wife, Priscilla, seems to have been an Italian born citizen. It is at this time that they would have subjected themselves to the head of the apostolic band and so received his message and teachings on Jesus and the evangelistic efforts to spread the good news. A few years later, as a result of Claudius’ edict in 51 A.D. the Jews were banished from Rome and the synagogue shut down, causing the couple to flee from Rome to Corinth where they met Paul and housed the Corinthian assembly. (see Acts 18:1,2 and 1 Corinthians 16:19).
The church was growing exponentially, but not without severe opposition. Once Christianity made a break from being seen as a Jewish sect it became an illegal religion in the eyes of Rome. Christian lifestyle was under suspicion with charges of cannibalism, incest, and a reluctance to show patriotism by refusing to participate in pagan Roman festivals.18 Jesus’ own words,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…” (Matthew 10:34-35)
not only sounded like a blood revolt but a clear agenda to bring disruption among the family, must have raised eyebrows in light of the Roman power structure where murder within the empire itself, often by sword, took place within high governmental positions. With Jewish sentiment fomenting against Christianity and Roman tolerance waning, The Neronic persecutions, saw this beast lighting the Roman nights with the flame lit bodies of Christians who were denounced as haters of humanity19 and thus executed as state criminals.
It is not difficult to envision that, “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7), as Peter writes from Rome, which he now calls ‘Babylon’20 (see 1 Peter 5:13) to the persecuted believers abroad. In a nearby prison, Paul is awaiting a hearing before Nero with a death sentence hanging over his head. We read his victory speech, which was addressed to Timothy,
“For I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time for me to depart is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith!” (2 Timothy 4:6,7).
And so these final words of Paul became the champion’s tribute for many a Christian who stayed the course of faith through trial and tribulation in the Roman first century.
It was by their humble courage and unyielding spirit that they handed the torch of the gospel to succeeding generations, in a heroic demonstration that the Kingdom of God had been truly among men. Worldly men, of power and renown, who’s Roman Caesars and religious ideals crumbled at the feet of the meek, who received the inheritance of the earth, through heaven’s power, by the scepter of Jesus Christ, who is the King above all Kings.
Copyright © Steve Covarrubias 11/2013