The World of the First Century A.D.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE. At the time when the New Testament was written, the entire civilized world, with the exception of the little known kingdoms of the Far East, was under the domination of Rome. The Roman Empire stretched from Britain, Belgium, and the Rhine River in the north, to Greece, Asia Minor, to the Middle East and to Egypt in the South, including all the lands of Europe and Africa around the Mediterranean Sea.
This area was patrolled and protected by the famous Roman legions, who served double duty as soldiers and police. The Roman Empire was crossed and re-crossed with well-built roads and bridges linking the most remote provinces with the capital city. Sea routes, kept free from the perils of pirates by the Roman navy, offered merchant ships easy access to busy ports.
From the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River and Red Sea, Rome cast its long shadow over the world. Yet, the light of Hellenism, the culture and spirit of the Greeks, was still luminous enough to obscure the ravages of poverty and the world’s despair.
Alexander the Great (c.a. 323 B.C.) brought a universalism in which the old gods could survive only if their individual functions were surrendered to a cosmic power variously called Zeus, Athena, Apollo and Serapis. The old gods of Molech, Baal and Marduk were superseded by the new concepts. Only the Jews continued to maintain their monotheistic view of Yahweh.
Hellenism had determined the climate of civilized art, invention, and thinking. In 168 B.C., Hellenism invaded the proud city of Jerusalem under the Syrian, Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
The rise of the Roman Empire to its greatest heights came about in a half century before the beginning of the Christian Era. That great growth and development of law, order, trade, communication, and the advance of civilization made possible the spread of Hellenism and then Christianity.
Three notable human forces were at work in the first century that contributed both to the development of the greatest system of world government the world was to know until modern times and for the ultimate triumph of Christianity over the pagan religions. First, the crushing of the smaller city-states by Alexander the Great led to people living less completely independent of everyone else. Second, this universalism made possible the rapid spread of ideas over vast areas, encouraged by travel free from border restrictions, and made possible a universal religion. Third, with the breakup of the smaller, security-giving communities of the city-states, most people experienced a sense of meaningless and insecurity. This in turn fostered an atmosphere of religious seeking.
PALESTINE. Judea fell to Rome (63 B.C.). Pompey stood in the Holy of Holies and was astounded to find it empty. Under Roman rule, Judaism flourished in the city of God. The chief priests of the Sadducees and teachers of the law of the Pharisees were free to promote their legalistic brand of Judaism. The Jewish religious leaders relished their newly acquired power and prestige. At the Temple, a status quo was desired. In the synagogues, the pious and righteous longed for the Messiah.
Rome appointed Herod the Great king of Judea. To win the favor the Jews, he undertook the massive task of refurbishing the Temple. With the death of Herod the Great (A.D. 4), a revolt was raised against his successor; three thousand Jews were killed at the Passover festival. When Pentecost was celebrated, many more were put to death, the Temple cloisters were burned to the ground by the Romans and the sanctuary treasures looted.
Patriots called Zealots turned into shifting, disappearing armies; Judas the Gaulonite, commanding such an army, seized Sepphoris the capital of Galilee. The Romans brought up twenty thousand men from Syria to support the Herodian claim and put down the rebellion. Hundreds of towns in Galilee were burned and two thousand were crucified. Everything about the cross became a curse to the Jews. Some Jews looked upon their distress as God’s judgment.