If you want to understand Jesus and the early days of Christianity, then it helps to know about the world Jesus called home. In particular, it’s important to understand the political backdrop and the relationship between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire. That understanding will make the Jewish people’s ultimate rejection of Jesus and the Romans’ persecution of early Christians much easier to comprehend. So, we’ll try to cram hundreds of years of history into a few short paragraphs.
Jesus was born in the region of Judea, in modern-day Israel. Judea was a heavily Jewish province of the Roman Empire. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Judea was nominally ruled by a Jewish King, Herod the Great. Even though Herod was a king, he was merely a puppet of the Roman Empire, and had to answer to the senior Roman official appointed to his area. So, the people of Judea were basically occupied by the Romans, and most Jewish people didn’t like it one bit. However, they weren’t in any position to do anything about it.
Don’t Mess With Rome…
Rome was founded, according to legend, in 753 B.C. by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. The settlement of Rome grew into a city, and ultimately came under the domination of the Etruscans, who came from the northern parts of the Italian peninsula. Etruscan kings ruled Rome from late in the 7th century until the Romans overthrew the last one around 509 B.C. In that year, the Romans founded the Roman Republic, which had a democratic form of government that included a Senate and elected rulers. Our own government in the United States was modeled, somewhat, on the Roman Republic.
Eventually, the republic decayed and democracy gave way to despotism, in which all real power rested with an emperor. This transition from nominal democracy to dictatorship took place during the middle of the first century B.C., with Julius Caesar playing a key role. The first real “emperor” was Augustus, who reigned from 27 B.C until 14 A.D. It was during this long reign that Jesus was born, likely in 3 or 4 B.C.
At this time, the Roman Empire was a juggernaut. It was the premier superpower that controlled lands from Spain in the west to Judea in the east, from Gaul (France) in the north to parts of North Africa and Egypt in the south. It nearly encircled the Mediterranean Sea, and it got that way by conquering one people after another. It would continue to expand its territory for more than a century, and would maintain all of it until the 5th century A.D. After that, it began to shrink, but the empire actually carried on in some form until 1453 A.D.!
At its peak during the first few centuries A.D., the empire maintained its presence across such a large area because its people were incredibly skilled administrators, and because its army was very, very good at killing and subjugating people. Over time, many of the conquered areas became thoroughly “Romanized,” while others were more resistant. Judea was one of the more resistant areas.
The Jewish People: Waiting for a Messiah
Once the Romans conquered an area and incorporated it into the empire, they would tax the people of that region. They would also subject them to the authority of Roman law.
The Romans were a polytheistic, or pagan, society, and they worshipped a wide range of gods. They tolerated religious freedom, as long as the people in their subjugated territories also accepted the Roman gods. Most pagan societies that the Romans conquered simply added the Roman gods to their pantheons, so this wasn’t a huge problem for them. When it came to the fiercely monotheistic Jews, however, simply accepting the Roman gods was far more problematic. Later, it was extremely problematic for Christians living under Roman domination, and they refused to do it.
It was into this world that Jesus was born: A Jewish world (in Judea, at least) that resented its loss of sovereignty to the Romans. It was a world that wanted to return to its past glory, to throw off the Roman yoke and to control its own destiny.
It was a world waiting for a Messiah, a strong leader who prophesies said would come and save the Jewish people. Given the circumstances, the Jewish people envisioned the Messiah as being a political leader who would save them from the Romans…not a spiritual one who would come to save them from sin and death.
Jesus: Not Quite What the Jewish People Expected
When Jesus began his ministry, some of his words and actions—such as his forgiving of sins, some of his miracles, and his apparent claims of divinity—were viewed as blasphemous by most Jewish people. In other posts, we’ll explore Jesus’ ministry in detail. However, for now it’s enough to know that many Jews, particularly those in positions of leadership, considered him to be a blasphemer, a sorcerer, a threat to their authority, or all three.
In addition, when word got around that some believed him to be the long-awaited Messiah, most Jews didn’t see it that way. After all, they were looking for a military and political leader to free them from their Roman overlords…and Jesus was preaching an altogether different message. He was the Savior, but for reasons altogether different than the prevailing Jewish mindset was prepared to accept.
Persecution and Growth
For the Romans, too, Christians became a problem. For them, Jesus had stirred up growing numbers of people who would not even pretend to accept the Roman gods. Even more worrying, those Christians adamantly refused to recognize the “divinity” of the Roman emperors.
In addition, Christians liked to gather for worship. Roman authorities viewed any organized group or assembly with suspicion, as they worried that such groups threatened the power of the state. Over the next couple of centuries, the factors mentioned above resulted in ongoing repression and persecution of Christians by the Romans.
That didn’t stop the faith from growing rapidly, though, and in the fourth century, under the emperor Constantine, Christianity became a legal religion within the Roman Empire. It later became the empire’s official state religion in around 390 A.D., due to decrees by the emperor, Theodosius I.
Image attribution: By Jani Niemenmaa (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons