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For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.3-63; R.H.Gundry, pp.28-31. [1] Further reading: F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, pp.1-38. [2]

We approach the New Testament (NT) world along a different line than Tenney, but with the same realisation, which is well stated by W.C.van Unnik:

"To understand the New Testament properly one needs to know something of what life was like in the Graeco-Roman world and to study in particular the one small corner of it known as Palestine. The whole earthly career of Jesus Christ is bound up with that country; and as the Jews within the Roman Empire were in many respects an exception to the general rulers they demand a special consideration". [3]


"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world" (Lk.2:1). The 'world' referred to in Luke's Gospel is the Roman world with Augustus Caesar as its ruler. This world was essentially the Mediterranean world, as the sea was the highway on which merchants, officials and soldiers travelled to hold that world together. Rome had its borders. Hadrian's wall is a reminder that Rome did not subdue every nation. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Octavian defeated Anthony and became master of the Empire. He took the title of Augustus and introduced the Pax Romana - two centuries of virtually unbroken peace.

Roman government

The maintenance of the Roman Empire reflects its able administration. H.F.Vos comments that it was Augustus who re-established the civilian nature of the state and says:

"He [Augustus] shared administration with the Senate both in Rome and in the Empire. The Empire was organised into senatorial and imperial provinces and client kingdoms. The first were provinces most thoroughly Romanised (such as Sicily) and therefore needed only a few local police to keep order. Imperial provinces, on the other hand, required Roman legions under direct orders from the Emperor to keep the peace. Client kings in places like Galatia and Judea ruled fairly autonomously under the blessing of Rome... In Judea, after the transitional rule of Herod the Great and his son Archelaus, Rome instituted the rule of procurators direct appointees of the crown. Best known was Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus Christ to death". [4]

Roman communications

As Rome conquered new territory she built roads, so that all roads literally led to Rome. Communications throughout the Empire were swift and sure. Travel was fairly easy there were no passports, visas or customs barriers. Highway robbers were ruthlessly dealt with. The Mediterranean was a busy highway with shipping organised with typical Roman efficiency. The sea trip from Rome to Gibraltar took seven days, the trip from Alexandria to Rome took 18 days. The Romans referred to the Great Sea as 'Mare Nostrum', 'Our Sea'.

Roman taxation

The census of Lk.2:1 was designed to number the populace and to collect a poll tax. The Romans collected all sorts of taxes from the Jews: a water-tax, a meat-tax, a salt-tax, a road-tax, a city-tax, a house-tax and a poll-tax or capital levy. Charges had to be paid at every customs barrier (see Mk.2:14). The tax collectors and their rentiers often lined their own pockets at the expense of the people (Lk.3:12,13). They were hated for this, and for their association with Rome and the Gentiles. Jews classed them with robbers and prostitutes. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector (see Lk.19:1-10).

Rome and slavery

The civilisations of Greece and Rome depended heavily on slavery. Often the marketplace or agora featured the sale of human merchandise. The epistle to Philemon is the story of a runaway slave. Slaves were often gained through war. The lot of slaves varied. Some had a miserable existence, others were trusted and used. Some, for example, were guardians to their master's children (see Gal.3:24). Exhortations to Christian masters and slaves are found in the epistles of Paul and Peter (e.g., Eph.6:5-9; Col.3:22-4:1; 1 Pet.2:17-18).

Roman citizenship

To be a Roman citizen gave a man special privileges and protection. It could be inherited or bought (Acts 22:25-28). It could be awarded by the Emperor for special service. Soldiers could gain citizenship for themselves and their families by life-service. Sometimes citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of a whole town. No matter where a citizen was in the Empire he was under the protection of the Emperor himself. If he was involved in a local law court he had the right to the highest appeal. In the Acts Paul appealed to Caesar's Court (Acts 25:912).


Roman religion originated in the home, and the Romans had two kinds of household gods: the lares represented the spirits of family ancestors; the penates were guardians of the home. Each god ruled over a certain part of the house such as the threshold, health, larder, etc. Household gods were concerned with events in the home such as birth, marriage and death. There was a god of plumbing! State gods were also worshipped such as Vesta, goddess of the state, and Janus, god of the gate to the Forum of Rome. Sometimes household gods received state status.

Roman syncretism

By its syncretism Rome assimilated the gods of the countries she conquered. Inscriptions on altars, tablets of dedication and records of thanks reveal numerous deities. One invocation reads: "Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno Regina, Minerva Sancta, the Sun Mithras, Hercules, Mars, Mercury, the genius of the place and all gods and goddesses"! Mithras, the Persian sun god, was adopted by the Roman legions.

Emperor worship

N.J.Bull indicates, "It was typical of the Romans that the only religion they developed themselves was worship of the Roman Emperor. It was a cult rather than a creed, a worship of one state personified in the Emperor. Men of all religions were expected to pay him divine honours. It was thus in practice a test of loyalty to Rome. It raised grave difficulties for both Jews and Christians with their strict monotheism". [5]

Roman culture had its roots in the worship of ancestors and rulers and came from the East. Julius Caesar encouraged reverence for the Emperor of Rome. Octavius took the title of Augustus (Eminence or Exalted One). Tiberias rejected it, and perhaps this is why Jesus could say, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Mt.22:21). Caligula and Nero took divine honours. It was Domitian (A.D. 81-96) who acclaimed himself as 'Dominus ac Deus Noster' - 'Our Lord and God'. Officials called asiarchs were appointed to promote annual festivals and public games in honour of the Emperor (Acts 19:31). The act of worship consisted simply in sprinkling a pinch of salt on the flame burning in front of the Emperor's statue. Jews and Christians could not give divine honours to a man, so their loyalty to Rome was always questioned. It was difficult to take public office as such involved taking part in ceremonies that recognised pagan gods.


The Roman peace, roads, coinage and banking, together with the common Greek language, aided the Christians missionaries to take the gospel to the four corners of the Empire. Paul's missionary journeys illustrate this.

The church's attitude to Rome

The Jews resented Rome and found it hard to accept totalitarian dictatorship. The church's attitude to Rome at first followed the teaching of the Lord Jesus: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's". The apostle Paul taught that Christians should submit to authority and pay their taxes (Rom.13:1-7). Peter's teaching follows that of Paul, saying that believers should honour Caesar (1 Pet.2:13-17). However, a change of attitude of the state to the church, and the church to the state can be sensed in a careful study of the NT. Some scholars believe that a change in the church's attitude towards Rome can be seen in the Apocalypse, when 'Babylon' is taken to be a coded name for Rome (e.g., Rev.18:1-24). A late dating of 1 Peter takes the Caesar (l Pet.2:17) to be Caesar Nero, who persecuted the Christians. The apostle John was exiled on Patmos by Domitian. [6]


1. Study textbooks: M.C.Tenney, New Testament Survey, Revised, Leicester, IVP, 1985. R.H.Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd edition, Carlisle, Paternoster, 1997. From here references will simply refer to M.C.Tenney and R.H.Gundry and with page numbers.

2. F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, 4th edition, London, Pickering & Inglis, 1980.

3. W.C.van Unnik, The New Testament, ET, London, Collins, 1964, p.27.

4. H.F.Vos, Beginnings in the New Testament, Chicago, Moody Press, 1973, p.22.

5. N.J.Bull, The Rise of the Church, London, Heinmann, 1967, p.5f.

6. Traditional belief takes the John of Rev.1:1 to be the son of Zebedee.

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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