The World of the First Christians
Course: Church History I
Lecture: The World of the First Christians
Right. Good morning, everybody. Everybody happy and well? I saw Mike Garrett the other day. He told me he got lost, but he’s – well, that’s all right. I thought this only happened to faculty but I suppose he is faculty of a kind. He’s coming in, though, this morning about ten past nine or so to tell you about the library and things like that. And I do recommend that you use him because he’s excellent. I mean he really does know what’s going on and, you know, he keeps tabs on books and things. People ask me questions about things and I just go straight to him so, you know, you might as well short circuit the process and go straight to him anyhow because he really does know his stuff and keeps on top of it and I recommend him highly from that point of view. All right? And that’s when he’s not here to hear it so I’m quite serious about that. Let’s pray together, shall we, and we can begin.
Father, thank you for all the many things that you give us and bless us now, we pray, as we work and as we study together. Help us in our work this day to honor and to praise your holy and precious name, and in all that we do to grow to be more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for whose name’s sake we ask it. Amen.
Today I want to look at the background of the first Christians, the world into which the early church emerged. Some of this will be very familiar to some of you and I apologize if that is the case, but other things may be less familiar and it is important, I think, that we look at the situation in at least some detail so that we know where we stand and we get some picture of what the early Christians had to deal with.
If you look at the Old Testament to begin with, to start with the Old Testament, you find that the Old Testament lives in a world, it sort of deals with a world where the desert is perhaps the most important single physical feature. Abraham crosses the desert. Moses goes into the desert. Elijah goes into the desert. You know, the desert is always present in the lives of the people. Water is a precious commodity and you read from the Old Testament you see streams of living water and so on. This is something which is always portrayed as very refreshing, very good, and so on. You have this picture sort of growing out of this.
You find, too, that most of the people, most of the action, most of what happens takes place in what is now known as the fertile crescent which is the land which goes from Mesopotamia which is off of the map here sort of in the east around here – north is here – down through Palestine to Egypt. And just about every person and every event and everything that you can think of in the Old Testament happens within that geographical space. All right? Very seldom do you get anybody or anything outside of that, and when you do it’s usually someone or something rather exotic like the Queen of Sheba or somebody like that who came from down here, down at the bottom end of Arabia which was regarded as a faraway place, you know, and rather strange. Neither do you get people sailing very often. I mean, the most famous person, of course, to go on a cruise was Jonah, and the whole point of the book of Jonah is look what happens when you do that! You see, so I mean Jonah sort of sailed off here somewhere but didn’t get very far, and the moral of the story is don’t do that. You see what I mean.
Geographical features of that kind which, of course, were present in Palestine are barely mentioned in the Old Testament. The Sea of Galilee, for example, you know, maybe is mentioned once somewhere in the Old Testament but that’s about it. I mean, certainly nothing happens there. I mean, even the river Jordan although they cross it going into the land of Israel is not a major feature, you see what I’m saying, in the Old Testament. I mean, it’s there but it’s not dwelt on. It’s not something that you hear a great deal about. The Dead Sea, of course, might as well not exist as far as the Old Testament is concerned because you don’t get any mention of it, or very little, even though it actually was, of course, there and, you know perfectly accessible to anybody who wanted to go there. So there is this pattern, this picture that you get from the Old Testament if you stop to think about it.
Now if you look at the life of Jesus, you find that when Jesus was born, he was born into this Old Testament world and this is symbolized in the stories of his birth because in the stories of his birth remember the wise men came from the east which was from Babylon here. They came from the east. And Mary and Joseph when they had to get away from Herod, where did they go? They went down to Egypt and, of course, this is actually detailed by Matthew who says this was to fulfill a prophesy “out of Egypt have I called my son,” so, you know, they were conscious – I mean, Matthew and people like that were conscious that the life of Jesus kind of fitted into this Old Testament picture, to this Old Testament pattern. And Jesus himself, of course, spent his entire life and his entire ministry within the confines of what had been the biblical kingdom of David and Solomon. He never went anywhere else. In fact, his trip to Egypt as a baby was the furthest he ever went from home as far as we can tell. And I don’t suppose he remembered very much about that, so it really doesn’t count very much. So, you see, the world of Jesus, the world in which Jesus taught and functioned and so on, was very much an Old Testament one, you see, within the bounds of what could be understood from reading the Old Testament.
Now it’s very different, of course, when you move to the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul did not come from Palestine. The apostle Paul came from Tarsus which is a city up here. That’s where Tarsus is what is now southern Turkey. He was Jewish because the Jews had spread into that part of the world by that time. But more significantly, the mission of the apostle Paul, the story of the growth and spread of the Christian church, is very different from anything that you find in the Old Testament. The apostle Paul did not set off for Babylon or Nineveh or somewhere like that in order to preach the gospel. He got on a ship and went round to the Mediterranean. The apostle Paul was always sailing from somewhere to somewhere else, wintering in this harbor or preaching in that harbor, and so on. It is a different world, you see. It is a world of traders. It is a world of sailing. It is a world which takes him to the west rather than to the east which is what you would expect from the Old Testament. And interestingly enough, it is a journey and a life which somehow or other seems to avoid Egypt. Egypt is the great missing place in the New Testament. You know, when you think of its great history, of its tremendous background of its very large Jewish population in Alexandria. There’s hardly any mention of Egypt or of anybody going there or coming from there or anything else in the New Testament. The apostle Paul went north. He went west. He went towards Europe, not towards Africa or towards Asia.
Now, of course, we can record this as a matter of fact, explaining it, trying to say, well, why did he do this rather than, you know, heading in an opposite direction. This is, of course, much more difficult. I mean, why didn’t he go to Africa? Why didn’t he go to China or somewhere like this? I mean, he didn’t do this, you see. And all we can say and do is to speculate on the basis of the situation which existed in his lifetime of the conditions which obtained at that time to try to get some idea, some explanation of why this might have been the case, and we can’t say for sure, of course, that it was the case for this reason. But, you know, we have to try to make some explanation or at least account for the kind of developments which occurred.
Now the key thing to remember is that if we go back again to the Old Testament, in the Old Testament times especially towards the end, after the destruction of Israel and so on, the Middle East – the country of Palestine and Syria and Iraq and all those places – this area was dominated by a series of empires, and indeed we are told about this in the book of Daniel where it’s part of a prophesy and so on that there would be these different empires which would rise and fall.
The first of them was the empire of Assyria which is well documented in the Old Testament. Assyria is important for our purposes because Assyria which was based in what is now northern Iraq, this area up here, used as its official language the language which we nowadays call Aramaic, a language which is closely related to Hebrew but which in the time of the Assyrians was not readily understood by the Jews. We know this because when the Assyrians invaded Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, they shouted in Aramaic to the defenders of Jerusalem. They taunted them from the walls, and it’s recorded in Second Kings that the defenders did not understand what they were saying. So if the defenders of Jerusalem could not understand what the Assyrian soldiers were saying to them, this means that the Hebrew-speaking people in Jerusalem at that time could not figure out what, you know, was going on if somebody spoke Aramaic. You see, that was about 700 B.C. All right? So at that time this was the situation that obtained.
However, things changed because after the Assyrian empire was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Babylonians took over, they, as you know, destroyed Jerusalem and took a large part of the Jewish people into exile in Babylon, and it was probably during that time that these people came first of all to understand Aramaic which was a sort of common language of the Middle East, and eventually to use it as their own mother tongue. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, they continued to use Aramaic as their official language at least in the Middle Eastern areas which they had conquered. Persian as a language is not related to Hebrew or Aramaic. It is actually more closely related to English. It’s an Indo-European language and so it comes from quite a different background, but as far for the purposes of administration, they continued to use this Aramaic language and we get traces of this in the Old Testament in Ezra and later on in Daniel where sections of Ezra are in fact in Aramaic – and Daniel – because it had become the spoken language of that particular time. By the time of Jesus, Aramaic had become the spoken language of most if not all Jewish people, and the language that we know as Hebrew, biblical Hebrew, had effectively died out or it was spoken perhaps in the temple and, you know, certainly, it was used in religious services and so on. But Jesus would have been at least bilingual from youth using Aramaic in everyday life and Hebrew in worship, you see, retaining that. This was not such a problem as you might think because, as I say, Hebrew and Aramaic are quite closely related so if you knew one, you could learn the other or at least understand the other without too much difficulty. And indeed so similar were they that in the New Testament when the word Hebrew is used of the language, for example, you know, when the apostle Paul stands up in Jerusalem and addresses the Sanhedrin in the Hebrew language as it says. Almost certainly he meant Aramaic. This would be the language which was used but it was so close to biblical Hebrew that to an outsider the two things could be easily and readily confused.
What really changed the situation in the Middle East was the invasion of Alexander the Great. Alexander who came from Macedonia, here, and who got it into his head that he was going to overthrow the Persian Empire and by a combination of luck and circumstances he actually succeeded in doing that. I mean, it’s one of the most remarkable achievements, you know, in human history. But he marched his army across here and through what is now Turkey down the coast here into Egypt. He conquered Egypt and, of course, it was in Egypt that he left his most enduring monument because there at the mouth of the Nile, the western end of the Nile, he founded a city which he rather modestly named after himself, you know, Alexandria, which, of course, is still there. And this is very important development as we shall see.
Then he marched east into Mesopotamia and into Persia and in fact got as far as India, a remarkable achievement for a very young man. I mean, he set out on his journey when he was about 18 or something like that, and by the time he died when he was 33 or 34 – I forget how old he was, but something like that – he had conquered the entire Persian Empire. Unfortunately, of course, Alexander died still as a very young man. He died in Babylon and was buried there and left no real successor. He did have an infant son but somebody soon put him to death, of course, and that was the end of that, as far as that went. And instead, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his generals. The various generals took different parts of it. The most famous of these today was his General Ptolemy – beginning with a P – who took Egypt and Palestine initially.
Another one of his generals, a man called Seleucus, took over Syria and Mesopotamia and as much of Persia as he could. And then there were various other generals that we don’t need to worry about, but one took over the kingdom of Pergamum, one took over Macedonia, and so on. So the empire was divided up.
However, the Jewish people living in Palestine came under the rule of the Ptolemais in Egypt. This meant that from about 300 B.C. onwards large numbers of Jewish people immigrated to Alexandria which, of course, was now their capitol city. So strong was this immigration that by the time of Jesus probably 25 percent of the population of Alexandria was Jewish. All right? I mean, it’s a very large number. In fact, you could compare the Alexandria of Jesus’ day to, say, New York today in this respect. You know, very large Jewish presence and, of course, very prominent in the life of the city, and so on.
These Jewish people were different, however, as time went on. They were people who had left the homeland, and in leaving the homeland, they left behind the culture of the homeland to a very large degree. In particular, the language of the homeland. Because it was the Greek habit when they went around the world to establish cities, they colonized the entire Mediterranean, all over the Mediterranean there are these Greek colonies. The Black Sea area full of them. And, of course, the Middle East and Mesopotamia and Iran – what is now Iran and Central Asia and so on. In all these places there would be cities of people. That was the Greek habit, to establish a city and in that city the Greek language and Greek culture would predominate.
Now the Greeks were not racists in the modern sense. That is to say, they were not ethnically racist. They didn’t care what your bloodline was. They were culturally racist. That is to say that anybody who could speak Greek, anybody who was prepared to accept the norms of Greek culture, to live that way, you know, in other words, to play in the Olympic games and all this kind of thing – if you were prepared to do that, to live like a Greek, to assimilate to the Greek culture, that was fine. Nobody asked about your ethnic background or anything like this.
Now this was quite different, of course, to the Jews, the Jews who were ethnically racist. I mean, I know that’s an unkind thing to say but they were, of course, because in order to be Jewish you had to be descended from Abraham. And, you know, so you went around indicating your genealogy and so on, and this was the way they identified themselves. So today we would think of this as a form of racism because you couldn’t just become a Jew. You know, you were either born that way or – I mean, there were occasional exceptions but the exceptions were so occasional and so unusual that they became objects of discussion. You know, people like Ruth, for instance. I mean, how did Ruth get to be a Jew, you know. I mean, it wasn’t a simple matter, you see what I mean? It wasn’t something that was so obvious and so generally accepted that anybody could do it.
So the Greeks in this sense, although they were exclusivist, they were exclusivist in a different way. All right? To the way in which the Jews were. So that whereas a Greek could not really become a Jew – not that many wanted to – but, I mean, if they wanted to, if they tried, it would be extremely difficult for them to do that. For a Jew to assimilate into the Greek culture was much easier. All right? Because, of course, all they had to do was accept the language and the culture institutions of Greek society. And this is what a great many of them did. And indeed within a few generations there were Jewish colonies inside the Greek cities of the Eastern Mediterranean which remained distinct from the religious point of view because they kept their own religion, but in other respects in terms of language, education and general culture and so on, they mixed and mingled with the Greek people around them.
Now this was, of course, going to be of great significance because it was within this community, this community which is known today as the diaspora community because diasporas is the Greek word for dispersion, you know, for spreading around - the diaspora community. A need was soon felt for a translation of the scriptures, of the Jewish scriptures into Greek. Now precisely how this occurred is a matter of some debate. The legend says that 70 people or 72 scholars sat down and all came up with the same thing in the translation, which if you can believe that, you can believe anything. But nevertheless, that is the legend. The truth behind the legend is that probably a number of scholars, perhaps 70 or 72, worked on the translation. I mean, that’s perfectly plausible, and probably what they did was rather than all come up with the same thing, parceled out different portions of the text and translated it, you know, as they went along and certainly we know that some parts of the Old Testament were translated later than others. I mean, we can tell that, you know, there were differences of that kind.
Nevertheless, however it happened and whatever the details might be, by about the year 200 B.C. there was in existence a Greek version of the Bible, of the Hebrew Old Testament, which is known today as the Septuagint because septuaginta is the Latin word for “seventy.” In other words, the legend of the seventy continues, and this is why Septuagint is abbreviated as LXX, the Roman numeral 70. All right, if you see this abbreviation, this is what it is referring to.
The Septuagint is probably the most important biblical translation ever to have been produced most influential. It was read not only by Jews but also by Gentile Greeks. They had access to it, of course, once it came out in the Greek language, and many of them read it. Some of them were persuaded that it was correct. In other words, they were converted to the teachings of the Old Testament and they affiliated themselves to synagogues. These are the people that we meet in the New Testament under the name of God-fearers. The God-fearers. God-fearers are Gentiles who accept the basic theological beliefs of Israel who affiliate themselves to the synagogue but who do not become Jews in the full sense of the word for various reasons. Either because they don’t want to get circumcised or because, you know, they don’t want to have to obey all the food laws or, you know, there are various reasons why you might not actually want to become a Jew. But, you know, you would be attracted to the idea of the Jews and, of course, this would work on both sides. I mean, you have to remember that the Jews themselves were not exactly falling all over themselves in order to get Greeks into the synagogue. I mean, you know, they weren’t evangelistic in this respect and, if anything, they would discourage this sort of thing rather than encourage it. You see what I’m saying? So it kind of is on both sides.
But nevertheless, this kind of contact, this kind of meeting of minds occurred during this period from about 200 B.C. onwards, and so by the time of Jesus and the apostle Paul, you have a flourishing Greek-speaking Judaism and a number of Greek people or Greek-speaking people who were attracted to the teachings of Judaism but who were not themselves fully Jews. All right? So this is the situation that you find mostly outside Palestine.
Palestinian Judaism, the Judaism of Galilee and of Judea and so on, remained, of course, much more traditional, much more rooted in the Middle Eastern culture of the Old Testament and so on. I mean, it was a different kind of thing to that extent, but not so much that it was a different religion. I mean, it never got to that degree, but nevertheless there were notable differences of outlook and approach and so on.
Now the Greek language, of course, was spread by Alexander as the language of administration in the eastern part of the Mediterranean and this it remained for 1,000 years, a long time in our way of thinking, but not forever – not that long. And the reason that it didn’t stay forever – you know, it’s not still spoken in these places – is because of the nature of the colonization. You see, although the Greeks established cities and they planted their own sort of language and culture within those cities, these cities remained an elite group within the surrounding culture. In other words, they never really penetrated very deeply into the popular mind of the local people. And so although Greek was used by the ruling class, by the traders, by people who were well educated one way or another and it was the kind of common language in that sense, it was also confined to a certain elite, and when that elite disappeared, the language disappeared with it. In other words, actually when that elite was replaced as it was in the 7th century A.D. by the Arabs when the Muslims conquered this area and introduced Arabic. Arabic displaced Greek and Greek disappeared more or less without a trace, so its hold on the Middle East was not permanent.
Now what would it have been like to visit Palestine in the time of Jesus from this point of view? What kind of thing would you come across? Perhaps the most obvious parallel, I don’t know if any of you have ever been to India or to Africa because it’s there in the modern world that you are likely to meet this phenomenon most readily. You see, if you go to Africa or to India, you will find that the language of government and administration will be the language of the former colonial power – English in India; English, French, Portuguese maybe in Africa. All right? That would be the so-called official language and you look around and that’s what signs are written in and you probably find newspapers printed in and this sort of thing, you see.
However, if you stop and listen to people talk, they will not be speaking English or French or Portuguese or whatever. If you go somewhere like Nairobi, you see all the books, all the newspapers, all the signs are in English, but the people don’t speak it. At least, that’s not what you’ll hear if you stop and listen to them. What are they speaking? Well, they’re speaking either their local language, their tribal language, or they're speaking Swahili which is the sort of trade language equivalent to Aramaic in the world of Jesus, see, something like this.
Now the question would arise, let’s say we take Nairobi as a good example. If you go there as an English-speaking person, of course, you can travel around very easily because you can read everything and you can ask people questions and so on. The real issue becomes how many people are likely to understand what you’re saying, you know. And my advice to you is this: that while you may have trouble communicating with, say, porters or taxi drivers or people like this because they’re not particularly well educated, I would not say anything rude in English on the assumption that you will not be understood. Because it’s when you do something like that that you suddenly discover that actually everybody knows what you’re saying. You see, they’re just keeping it quiet. Don’t ever assume that they don’t understand what’s going on.
So there is this rather strange sort of phenomenon. You see, you as an outsider going there will never be terribly sure of how far you’re actually communicating with the locals. You see what I mean? How many of them really understand what you’re saying and what you don’t, but you can’t make any assumption. You can’t assume that they do and you can’t assume that they don’t. All right? Because the penetration of the language will be erratic, shall we say, uneven in different places. And Greek was like this probably in the Palestine in which Jesus grew up. I mean, several scholars sort of spend their time asking questions like did Jesus know Greek? Did the disciples know Greek? I mean, how far was it spread? How much did people actually know of this? And this is kind of an unanswerable question because the likelihood is that someone like Jesus although he may not ever have learned Greek or spoken it or anything like that, may well have understood some of it because he would have heard it or bumped into it here and there from time to time. And, of course, once the disciples started traveling around and certainly once they got outside of Palestine, a knowledge of Greek would have been essential just to get around. You know, that’s the language you had to use if you were booking into a hotel or booking passage on a ship or doing anything like that because all that kind of thing functioned in Greek.
So this is the sort of world in which you are dealing here. People who make widespread but uneven use of Greek as a second language, and this was the standard thing in the eastern part of the Mediterranean in the time of Jesus. However, by the time Jesus was born, the political situation had changed and in fact it changed really in the century before his birth. At some point, indeed considerably earlier than this, in about 200 B.C., the descendants of Selukis who ruled in Syria defeated the Ptolemy's of Egypt and drove them out of Palestine so that Palestine changed hands. It became part of the kingdom of Syria as opposed to the kingdom of Egypt. The same general structure – Greek rulers and so on – but the Greeks of Syria were less friendly to the Jews than the Greeks of Egypt had been and in fact tried to make them conform to Greek beliefs and Greek ideas in ways that they were not prepared to do, and this led to a revolt among the Jews of Palestine, a revolt which broke out in the year 168 B.C. and went on for about 25 years leading in the end to the independence of Judea. Judea became an independent country for about 100 years, and it was a rather interesting and odd sort of independent country because the rulers were the high priests. The family of the high priest were also the kings of Judea at this time. In other words, from about 150 B.C. onwards.
This period and this way of thinking came to an end when the Romans appeared on the scene. The Romans were creeping eastward for about 200 years. They didn’t actually start off deliberately trying to conquer an empire in the east. They got involved in political maneuverings among the different Greek states at different times and one thing led to another and they found themselves getting more and more deeply involved in it. And, of course, if you ask yourself, well, how can that possibly happen? You know, how does a country sort of suddenly find itself up to its neck in trouble in places that nobody had ever heard of until a few years ago. Well, all you have to do is open your daily paper and see that the United States is doing exactly the same thing, you know, that the United States finds itself up to its neck in some part of the world that you never thought they’d ever go to, and you kind of think, well, why are they there? And it’s hard to say, but there isn’t really much way of getting out. You know what I mean? It’s just one of those things.
And Rome kind of spread like this, you see, over quite a long period of time, but in the year 63 B.C. finally the Romans under their General Pompey (P-O-M-P-E-Y was his name, Pompey) conquered Syria. And in the conquest of Syria they absorbed Palestine and Judea as well. They kind of took Judea under their wing, under their protection. They did not initially depose the high priest from the kingship. They allowed this to continue for a while. But eventually that became inconvenient for various reasons, mainly because Judaism was a religion which could not be assimilated to Roman paganism, and so in effect what the Romans tried to do was separate church and state as we would call it today. They allowed the high priests to carry on being high priests but they said someone else has got to be the king, and so when a convenient moment appeared, they appointed a man called Herod as king and that occurred in 40 B.C.
Now Herod was a very great man in many ways. He was very energetic. He had a lot of vision. He went around doing a lot of building, and if you go to Palestine today, a lot of the things that you will see there, the ruins that you see, are ruins of buildings built by Herod, who, of course, has come down in history as Herod the Great. Herod died in the year 4 B.C., as we know, shortly after the birth of Jesus, and he was succeeded by his son who turned out to be not much good, and so the Romans got rid of him. And in our year 6 (A.D. 6), they absorbed Judea into the Roman Empire. They made it a province and appointed a governor. But other parts of Palestine they divided up and gave to members of Herod’s family to rule over as sort of subordinate client kings.
This is why when you come to the New Testament and you read the life of Jesus you find that in Jerusalem there is a Roman governor called Pontius Pilate, but in Galilee there’s a Herod ruling and then there are various other Herods who appear from time to time and, you know, Herod Agrippa and Herod Antipas and so on, and unless you sort of have a family tree, you get a bit lost here. And the reason you get a bit lost is because the Romans played games with the Herodian family. They used the family as their agents for controlling Palestine, but in order to prevent any one of them from getting too powerful, they would swap them around from time to time. You know, they would sort of say, all right, well, now you’ve had enough of that, so you go over here, and we’ll put your brother there. You know, they’d shift around from time to time so that no one of them would get too strong of base in any particular place. It was a case of divide and rule, which worked reasonably well for that time. But this is the picture of Palestine in New Testament times.
Now the Roman Empire was, of course, the great fact of life. Nobody could get away from this. Jesus couldn’t get away from it. You find this very much on the pages of the New Testament, and so we have to look at this a little bit more closely than we might otherwise do. Rome had started life in 753 B.C. supposedly and for the first 250 years or so was ruled by a series of kings. But then in the year 509 B.C. the kings were overthrown, the last of the kings was kicked out, and Rome became a republic, and it was governed by republican principles. And this meant in effect that no one person was allowed to hold power for any length of time, and there was a whole series of rules and regulations what we today would call checks and balances established in order to prevent the rule of a single man. And the Roman republic functioned reasonably well for about 400 years, which isn’t bad going when you think that the United States has functioned not so reasonably well for only just over 200 years. I say not so reasonably well because, you know, if you think in the 200 years of the United States’ existence, there has been a civil war which there wasn’t in Rome. You know, they didn’t have that, and so southern Rome didn’t sort of try to secede or anything like that. Well, you know, you have to give credit where credit is due and you recognize this particular aspect of it.
All right. However, the fundamental weakness of Rome is that Rome was a city state. And this is – of course, the name tells you this, but you have to think about this. Listen to me very carefully. It was the Roman Empire, not the Italian empire as we would think today. Rome was not a territorial state. It most certainly was not a federation of provinces or anything like that. It was a city which just expanded and took over sort of one outlying area after another. Now you need to understand this because the way the Roman Empire worked was that it was a series of treaties between the city of Rome and the various cities and territories which came under Roman influence first of all and then Roman rule. And so Rome would make an agreement with, say, Naples or somewhere else in Italy first of all and then later on with Athens and Sparta and so on, and later on with the great kingdoms of the east. And they would stipulate what sort of relationship would exist between Rome on the one hand and these outlying places on the other.
This, of course, produced immense variety, and unless you kept track of it, you wouldn’t necessarily know how any particular place was related to the center, to Rome. Now in this respect, you see, the Roman Empire was not at all like the United States, completely different. It was much more like, say, the British empire as it existed until the middle of the 20th century, because in the British empire was a similar thing, that each country which was ruled by Britain was ruled by Britain in a different way and there would be a particular sort of treaty or agreements and so on with different places. And in India, for example, all the local rulers, the maharajas and so on, were allowed to carry on much as they had done before and it was a kind of treaty relationship between Britain and the maharaja which decided how it was actually going to work. And so it was a very complex and in a way disorganized system. You can’t sort of generalize and say it was one way or the other way. And the Roman Empire was that kind of place, that kind of thing.
This is why, for example, Judea was governed in one way and Galilee was governed in another way. And, of course, if you are just drawing pictures on a map coloring in the map it doesn’t really make much difference, but if you’re trying to decide who should have the right or the responsibility of putting Jesus on trial, then these different treaty obligations and so on become a matter of concern because who is supposed to try Jesus? Is this Pilate’s responsibility? Is it Herod’s responsibility? What about Caiaphas? You see what I mean? And one of the big problems when Jesus is arrested and put on trial, as you know from reading the gospels, is trying to work out, well, who’s responsible for this? Whose prisoner is he? You see what I mean?
And the reason for this is because although it’s all basically under Roman rule at the top, at local level it works differently. So if somebody said, well, he’s a Galilean so that’s different, you see. Or he’s from Judea. Oh, that’s different. You can’t sort of decide in advance how this is going to function. This is again very important for reading the acts of the apostles because when the apostle Paul goes around all these various cities like Iconium and so on you have to remember that these cities are technically independent units in some kind of treaty relationship with Rome and that what actually goes on in the local city in that place, you see, will be different according to the nature of that relationship. And Luke actually records this as you go through the Acts of the Apostles, and you can see the names of the officials are different, the way that the government worked was different. When Paul goes to Corinth, he’s in a Roman colony so that’s a different thing again, and you just sort of go across the Mediterranean, each place although on the surface it looks all the same, when you get down to the sort of local government area, it’s a completely different thing. All right? So there was a lot of local peculiarity which had to be sort of worked into this. And you need to remember that because otherwise things which are hard to explain sort of get in the way. You start thinking, well, what’s going on here? You know, what’s happening?
All right. Well, because the Romans ruled in this sort of way, indirectly as much as possible, using local people wherever they could, their language, the Latin language, never really penetrated the eastern Mediterranean. And although it was used for official purposes, communication between somebody like Pontius Pilate, for example, and the emperor in Rome would have been in Latin. This, yes. No doubt Pontius Pilate was a Latin speaker but he would not have used Latin in everyday life. In his work he would have used Greek because that was the language which would have communicated to the local people. You see what I mean? He ordered Latin to be written on the cross of Jesus but notice it came last even though technically it was the official language. It wasn’t actually widely known in Palestine in the time of Jesus, and so you can more or less discount it as far as the eastern Mediterranean is concerned.
Now the western Mediterranean, however, was a completely different kettle of fish. Because the western Mediterranean – and if you want the difference between west and east is defined by the difference in these two maps. All right? The one on the right is the east. The one on the left is the west, basically, if you want to know what I’m talking about. In the western Mediterranean, Greek colonization had been much less profound. Alexander had never got there. There was no history of imperial rule by the Persians or the Egyptians or whoever you care to name before the Romans arrived. When the Romans went to Spain or Gaul which is now France, they went into territory which had never previously been organized and ruled by a central state. And so Roman occupation of, say, Spain was much more in the nature of a colonization than it would have been in the nature of a conquest. I mean, it was a conquest but it was a conquest which you could compare, say, to the English conquest of North America rather than the British conquest of India. You see what I mean? Because when Britain conquered India, there was already an India there, you know, an organized society and so on. But when Britain conquered North America or at least colonized North America, I mean, there were people here, yes, but they weren’t organized in the same way, and so it wasn’t a case of taking over an existing state or empire or anything like that. It was more a case of establishing government where government had not previously existed in any carefully defined way.
This is how the Romans colonized the western Mediterranean, and because of this, the western Mediterranean became Latin speaking in a way that the eastern Mediterranean never became either Latin or Greek speaking. All right? That colonists were sent out, people were sent out from Italy and settled in large numbers all over Spain and what is now France (Gaul) and later on Britain as well and so on. And, of course, the legacy of this is still with us today because Western Europe still to this day speaks Latin in its modern forms. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian are descendents of Latin. All right? And reminders to us of the nature of this colonization, that it was the establishment of a cultural identity which has survived to the present time. I mean, all right, it’s changed a lot of ways too, but there is a continuity whereas if you go to the eastern Mediterranean, if you go to Turkey or to the Middle East or North Africa, you won’t find this. All right? There is no similar cultural link, cultural continuity over the centuries.
So the Roman Empire as it existed in the time of the apostle Paul, let us say, had two very distinct parts to it. And it’s interesting that if you follow the career of the apostle Paul, he spends all his time really in the east, in Corinth, Philippi, Amphipolis(?), places like that. But it was clearly in his mind to move towards the west. He was planning to go to Rome to use Rome as a base to go to Spain. You see, he had that in his sights. He was going to head in that direction.
So he knew this was coming. He had this pictured, but you might say that for the apostle Paul a place like Spain remained on the horizon, you know, somewhere that you think you’re going sometime, like Hawaii. You know, we’ll go there someday. But not part of everyday life, you see what I mean? For the apostle Paul, Amphipolis(?) was home in a way that Spain never could be. All right? Spain was exotic. I mean, he might get there someday and that would be very nice, but clearly this was going to be a major adventure, whereas running around the Aegean, you know, from island hopping in Greece, this was sort of second nature to him. You see what I’m saying? It was a different feel, a different kind of thing that he was doing.
Now what kept the Roman Empire going? What was the Roman Empire? The Roman Empire like all empires was ultimately based on military force and so the army was the institution above all which preserved the unity of the empire. And the Roman army was a highly efficient military machine. In fact, so efficient that it could function even when the political center of the country fell apart. When political rivalries destroyed the Roman republic, because people started fighting each other and so on, the army held together in a remarkable way, and the result of this was that in the end it was not the politicians who won in the struggle for the republic but rather the army generals, and a person like Julius Caesar, for example, knew that in order to get ahead he had to become a successful army commander and not just a good politician. You see what I mean?
Now this is very interesting because, of course, you have to watch this, you see. What is going to happen in the United States? Is the United States going to develop in the same way? And it might. You see, we don’t know. You can’t predict the future, but already, you see, there’s a powerful element in this country which likes to see successful army generals in political office. You know, being a successful general is not a barrier to political office in the U.S. And this is actually dangerous in the longer term because you say to yourself, well, I mean, somebody like Eisenhower, for instance, was a perfectly upright decent human being. I mean, I have nothing against him as a person, but if you start allowing your army generals to take over the running of the political machine, when do you get to the point where this becomes almost expected? I mean, when somebody’s war record becomes part of their political platform, you know. I mean, what’s that got to do with it? You see what I mean?
It’s a dangerous development and I think it’s something we have to watch very carefully because, you know, it’s a thin line. You don’t know when you’re going to cross this line to the point where somebody starts to say, well, so-and-so cannot possibly be president because so-and-so has never been in the army. And when it gets to that point, you know, where you start saying to somebody, look, if you want to be president, you’d better go off and become an army general first. Then you know you’re kind of heading down the track the way that Rome went. All right?
Well, anyway, we don’t know how things will work out but this is something you have to watch. You have to be very careful about this because the Romans fell into this trap. And, of course, by the time of Jesus, the head of the Roman army had become the head of the Roman state and this was the beginning of what we think of as the empire because the word “imperator” was the name for commander in chief in Latin, and “imperator” is, of course, our word “emperor.” The emperor was basically commander in chief of the armed forces and therefore the most important person in the state.
Now the Roman Empire, however, the emperor was not a hereditary office. This is important to remember. The emperor was theoretically elected. But, of course, elected by whom? Officially, by the senate in Rome but in practice, of course, by the army because after all he was commander in chief, and are you going to let Senator So-And-So decide who should be commander in chief? Well, no. Because Senator So-And-So probably is voting for defense cuts or something and, you know, if you want – well, let’s face it. I mean, if you’re in the army, you want a commander in chief who actually has been in the army and knows what the army is about. So, you know, it’s logical that the army should want to control who the commander in chief should be. And, in fact, this was probably the salvation of the empire. The Roman Empire lasted as long as it did because the army as an organized power, as an organized thing basically ran it and ran it very well. I’m not saying that this was a bad thing or anything like that. It’s just that it wasn’t democracy, as those of you who have been in the army know. Concepts like, you know, what it means to volunteer when you’re in the army. I volunteer you, you, and you, and so on, and that’s the way it was.
However, the Roman state as it grew developed in ways which suited the army, and this again is something very important. The Romans built roads everywhere. Why? Because the army needed roads for communication purposes, to get around. You see, it was a military thing as much as anything else. The Roman army spread north in Europe to the Rhine/Danube frontier which is – here is the Rhine down here and the Danube this way. Why? Why did it go there? Why did it stop there? There’s an invisible line across Europe dividing the north from the south. The south is the wine and oil region. In the wine and oil region, people drink wine and cook in oil. This is why they are all thin apart from Pavarotti. And healthy and everything else, you see. North of this line is what I call the beer and butter belt where people drink beer and cook in butter or animal fat.
Now, of course, this is to do with climate as much as anything else. But sometimes climate and culture get out of whack as, for example, in Alabama because Alabama had the misfortune to be colonized by people from the beer and butter belt whereas as far as climate is concerned it really ought to be the wine and oil region. You see what I mean? In terms of the weather and the climate and the soil and everything else, this is the should-be wine and oil country because of where, you know, it’s close enough to the equator and so on, and warm enough to be like that. But because it’s the beer and butter belt and because people basically cook in butter and butterfat and stuff like this, this is why everybody’s so vastly overweight, you see. It’s out of line with what it should be like.
It’s very interesting to see this. You see how this works. Now an army travels on its stomach, and the Roman army went as far as the wine and the oil would take them. Now I know you’re laughing at me and think this is very funny, but look at the Bible. Because in the Bible, oil is used for purposes of anointing and healing. Wine is used for purposes of communion, Holy Communion, you see, liturgically. Why? Because these were things that people kept in the cupboard. And wine and oil did not become sacred substances until Christianity moved out of the wine and oil region but took wine and oil with them, you see, so that in northern Europe – in England and Germany and Scandinavia and so on – you couldn’t swap the wine out for beer. You know, communion was not with beer. You had to keep wine, but wine was no longer kept in the cupboard. You see what I mean? It was a sacred substance that had to be imported. And so what had been an everyday thing became something very special and you see how things develop and evolve in that way.