All roads lead to Rome
In the first chapter we tried to give some insight to the person of Jesus as a true radical who was the great learner and moved beyond his cultural norms and also beyond a wooden interpretation of his holy scrolls. This approach hopefully portrayed how remarkable he was. Almost equally remarkable is the traction that the message concerning Jesus gained during the decades that followed the death of Jesus, particularly when we consider the message itself and the historical context.
Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, did not comply with expectations and was too far out of the box to be accommodated. He probably avoided being in the capital (Jerusalem) too often as he knew that would simply mean trouble for him. But in his final year, at the Jewish festival known as Passover, he took a deliberate journey to Jerusalem. Through a member of his inner core (Judas Iscariot) he was betrayed so that the Jewish religious authorities could put him on trial, and subsequently hand him over to the Romans. Finally it suited them (Israel and Rome) to have him crucified. Suited the Jews for they were brought up to believe that anyone hanging on a tree was cursed by God, and their trial had basically sentenced him as a blasphemer, who had brought the name of their God into disrepute. Likewise it was convenient for the Romans to have him crucified. Jesus’ popularity meant that it could overspill into an open rebellion against them, and as crucifixion was reserved for a certain class of person, including insurgenists it sent out a clear message to all. Step out of line and this could be your fate.
The message that Christians (Jews who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah) had some serious obstacles to overcome if it was going to be received. The obstacle within the Jewish context was understood to be a ‘scandal’ by early communicators. If Jesus was crucified, not only did he not drive the Romans out but they had silenced him, so his claim to be Messiah seemed to fall at the first hurdle. He could not even be seen as some kind of martyr as that could not be accredited to a blasphemer.
The Roman context was equally hard. The message, if we were to summarise it, was that a certain Jewish person had been crucified in an obscure eastern province of the Empire and as a result it was now clear that the Emperor of Rome was an illegitimate ruler, that a whole new era had begun and that salvation was no longer offered by the Emperor but could only be found in Jesus. (We will expand this summary later, but the above suffices to show that Paul considered that the message was ‘foolishness’ in the mind of the Romans.)
When we put the message (I will often refer to it as ‘the Gospel’ from now on) in the two contexts we have briefly outlined above it is remarkable that it made any inroads at all!
To illustrate the Jewish context we can look at the life of one who was to become the most influential writer and thinker in the era following that Passover time when Jesus went to Jerusalem. He was trained, and excelled in his training as a ‘Pharisee’. The Pharisees were very studious concerning the laws that God had given to Israel. They knew that if Israel was disobedient they would suffer consequences, and they happily used the term ‘the wrath of God’ to describe what would happen. The era in which Paul lived was already acutely difficult. Israel was not a free nation, they did not possess as much territory as they believed God had promised them, and there was the ever present presence of the Roman occupying forces reminding them that they were anything but free. It seemed to these Pharisees that the nation was already receiving the wrath of God. And now! Now there were Jews who were aligning themselves to a blasphemer, claiming that he (Jesus) was the promised Messiah. If God was angry before, the result of this ‘sin’ could only multiply the wrath of God.
Paul took on himself a task that meant he would do the right thing (in his language, the language of religion, he would be righteous). He would make all these renegade Jews who were making these claims about Jesus come back into line. So in the capital he went from house to house to track down who they were. He subsequently got permission from the religious hierarchy to travel north to the city of Damascus to continue his work of cleaning up the mess that this upstart religion (or maybe we would be better to describe it as a sect) had made.
Paul was no push over. Something remarkable happened to him en route to Damascus. If it was not a genuine encounter with heavenly realities it must have been something very strong that someone placed in his drink! Although, of course the second option is given jokingly, it is hard to come up with an alternative other than Paul himself believed ever so strongly that he had been short circuited in his (righteous) pursuit by Jesus himself. That certainly is the version he stood by and spoke of it in numerous religious and political settings, risking his own life in the process. The shift is so enormous that he was blind for three days when he finally arrived in Damascus. Surely there is a parallel there with the three days that the Bible says Jesus was in the grave. He lost physical sight, but I think he also lost total sight of what was going on and over the three days had to come to terms with what had taken place. If Jesus had been raised from the dead (after all no one ever produced a corpse and there were hundreds who testified that they had physically seen him) then something momentous had happened. As a good Pharisee he believed that all faithful Jews would be raised from the dead at the ‘end’, the time when God finally established true order and restored Israel to their rightful place. The shock was so great that he no longer considered his zeal for God was a sign of righteousness but a sign that he was the blasphemer! There are two letters to a person called Timothy that either Paul wrote, or someone close to him wrote. In the first letter we read:
Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man (1 Timothy 1: 13).
The irony cannot be missed. He previously saw himself as righteous and zealous, acting on behalf of God. After his Damascus road experience he understood that he had been so presumptuous in seeking to represent God that he had totally misrepresented him. There is a debate whether we can call Paul’s experience a conversion, as in a conversion from one religion to another, or a redefinition of what he perceived was his call. What does seem certain is that his former religious framework was turned totally upside down, and he had to redefine everything in the light of what he had experienced.
In the next chapter we will look a little more at the Gospel message, but the last few paragraphs should illustrate why it was considered to be a ‘stumbling block’, an ‘offence’ to the Jewish audience. Now what about the Roman world?
Like many people I was taught some Roman Empire history at school, and coming from the UK, the only association made with the word ‘Caesar’ was that of Julius Caesar and his conquests. Among Christians there are concerns that perhaps the Bible predicts that there will be a ‘one-world government’ ruled over by an ‘antiChrist’. Whether the Bible predicts that or not can be debated, but the reality is that the only time a great majority of the world was ruled over by someone who received the accolades of ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’ was during the era of the Roman Empire. This Empire was the setting where the philosopher, teacher, evangelist (and political visionary) that we encounter in the New Testament, Paul, took to bring his message.
For a moment step back with me to consider how challenging that was. Somewhere toward the core of that message was this. A Jew, named Jesus, was sent by God, was recently crucified in Rome but God has raised him from the dead, Caesar is not the Saviour and Lord but this person, Jesus, is. As a result everyone needs a change of mind-set, believe the story being recounted and therefore live by a different set of values, indeed in grasping the message understanding that there is already a new creation present.
A message that begged a response of, ‘You’re kidding me surely!’ A message spoken into a totalitarian context, and a message that claimed that, although literally thousands of Jews had been and would be crucified by the Romans, the death of this Jesus of Nazareth was totally different.
If we have grown up with the Bible we probably think of the contents as outlining a way of living, maybe summed up as ‘do unto others as you would wish them do to you’, or if our background is more aligned to the ‘born again’ variety of Chrstianity then maybe we have assumed it is a message about how sinful people are and how they need to repent and be forgiven. However, it would have been very interesting to know how someone like Paul was understood when he came to major civilisation centres throughout the Empire.
We get some insight of how the people of Thessalonica heard the proclamation from what is recorded in Acts 17. They somehow knew that these people (referring to Paul and his partner Silas) had been travelling throughout the Empire (the writer uses the Greek word oikoumene, which was a common term for the inhabited world of the Roman Empire) and in so doing they were causing trouble for,
They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus (Acts 17: 7).
At the centre was a counter-Caesar (Caesar being the title for the Emperor) message. This shows that the message was understood to be political in nature, or at the very least opponents did not dismiss it as simply an obscure religious message. I think that when we read the reaction it seems clear that there was a very strong anti-establishment political element and a strong spiritual element to the Gospel being proclaimed.
None of this should surprise us as the language used was, either deliberately or by default, the language that was common within the Empire. We have already mentioned ‘saviour’. Caesar was proclaimed as that for he had saved many people and cities from certain destruction. He was a deliverer and as such was declared to be ‘lord’ and ‘king of kings’. From our school days we probably recall the Latin phrase, the ‘Pax Romana’, with the great claim that Rome had brought peace. Even the term ‘son of god’ was a designated term given to each new emperor who came to the throne for they were the son of the previous emperor who had achieved divine status. Paul seemed committed to starting churches throughout the places where he visited, but the very word for church, ekklesia, was the name that was already in use to describe what we might term the governmental city council.
All of the above titles that were ascribed to Caesar were ones given to Jesus! The clash was inevitable, the debate raged as to which news was real and which was fake!
The differences also were enormous. Rome had brought peace, but the temple of peace in Rome said it all. It was built on Mars hill – the hill named after the god of war! Paul claimed that Jesus had brought peace, but through his own death not through taking the lives of others. Even some of what Paul wrote was very tongue-in-cheek. Nero, who was a very oppressive ruler, made the claim that he was so benevolent and had brought about such a harmonious society that he did not even need to use any force to keep things ticking along. Paul (cheekily) said to the followers of Jesus in Rome at the time when Nero was the emperor that they had better toe the line because rulers bring out the sword to insist on it. To imagine that Paul was endorsing Caesar’s rule through what he said is ludicrous, rather he is calling out the hypocrisy of Nero’s claim. A few years after writing that it is highly likely that it was under Nero’s reign that Paul himself was killed. A political clash indeed.
Without doubt the Gospel (and the Empire used that term (euangelion) to declare the ascension of a new emperor, yet another clash!) caused all kinds of problems for the status quo, and it was no surprise that Paul’s message was not too popular with many people, especially those whose position was tied up with the success of the Empire. But there was a crazy scenario that gives us another window of sight into some of the wider dynamics. A major city in the Mediterranean world was the city of Ephesus. It was a major centre for trade and religion and also became a centre for Paul to disseminate his understanding, so much so that it spread throughout a whole Roman province (the province of Asia). He rented a hall and gave lectures there over a two year period. If we already have a Christian background we probably now have to think outside the box. He did not rent it to encourage the singing of a few hymns and listen to a sermon being preached, but almost certainly there was a communication of his vision for the future of the world that he knew.
We read about a riot that ensued directly as a result of Paul’s message (Acts 19:23-41). The objections to what he had caused in the city were tied to religion, with the accusation that Paul was discrediting one of their main goddesses; likewise the challenge to the economics of the city were such that one of the main tradespeople in the city (the jewelry trade) were very vocal among the rioters, fearing that their trade would take a downturn. (A little sidenote: there is often a corrupt connection between money and religion, and sometimes money becomes the religion; whenever there is an uproar about such issues it seems to be an indication that cultural shifts are on their way.)
Paul is blamed for the problems in the city; another indication that his message was a whole lot more than about private faith and ethics! He, being something of a super-hero, suggested that he simply went into the arena, explained everything and sorted it out. We read that those who were with him, those who were aligned to his message and had made a commitment to Jesus, resisted him and ‘would not let him’ appear before the crowd (Acts 19:29). Although they probably had to fight to resist him their resistance is not a surprise, as they did not want him to lose his life. They valued him, for after all he had introduced them to faith and was, in their eyes, an indispensable mentor and teacher.
Let us now quote what is recorded, for when we push back behind the reference there is quite a backstory that pops out.
Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater (Acts 19:30, 31).
That four letter word ‘even’ tells a story! First, it indicates that they are almost certainly not ‘disciples’, they were not (in our language) ‘Christians’. Second, they are ‘officials of the province’, or what were known as ‘Asiarchs’. The Asiarchs were the Roman representatives who governed the province; they were part of the elite who prospered both economically and position-wise through the system, and were there to maintain the status quo. They are the last people in the region that one would have expected to have had any sympathies with Paul and his message, and if they had had sympathies with him the most likely response would have been that of silence. It was clearly perceived that Paul was more than rocking the boat, he was totally disrupting the social structures, and the big losers, if his message did gain a level of popularity, would have been the very ones we read of here who were ‘friends’. Perhaps a current example would be of a neo-liberal entrepreneur who was part of the proverbial ‘1%’ being friends with a ‘tax the wealthy’ socialist economist. Not likely bed-fellows!
In this wealthy and powerful city something must have taken place behind the scenes to get the attention of the elite. This also suggests that the daily discussions in the ‘hall of Tyrannus’ must have covered much more ground than simply topics concerning spiritual matters. The Gospel was an announcement of ‘good news’ for the world and had a whole vision for the transformation of society. That vision must have been so profound that the elite saw something in Paul’s ‘eyes’ and heart that indicated that the world would be so much poorer off if he was to die. The above window begs a huge question concerning the Christian community as we know it today. That question being how faithful to this ‘good news’ has it been?