Life Under the Roman Empire in the 1st Century

 

This essay on the first century is meant to provide a simple surface level overview of the context in which the New Testament was written. It’s not riveting, and it wasn’t meant to be. But I believe it is incredibly important to understand that Jesus and the early Christians lived and wrote in a very different world form our own, and our understanding of scriptures will change based upon our understanding of its context.


The Cultural Background of the New Testament:
Life Under the Roman Empire in the 1st Century


The Roman household was highly patriarchal and centered, not around blood relatives, but a cooperation of men and women brought together under the authority of one man called the “paterfamilias”. He was the father of the unit called a “
familia”. He held ultimate power in the house and could buy, sell or even kill his slaves. Everyone in the familia worked for the good of the paterfamilias and their own success in life was dependent upon his own.

Children were expected to display unconditional obedience at all times. Children were governed by the Roman family law patriapotesta or “power of the father,” which gave him absolute power to punish as he liked, to put them in chains, to sell them into slavery or kill them in their youth*. Children were to honor their fathers as one would honor a god. Fathers were strict as an expression of love, and mothers were to be more sensitive and nurturing**.

Marriages were arranged, and women were commonly married in their teens and were usually married to much older men. The woman was considered the property of her father and ownership passed from the father to the husband upon being wed, a custom that was rooted in the Roman Patria potesta. Marriages were usually economically motivated, and contracts were drawn up beforehand which dealt with financial issues such as inheritance***. 

For the Roman citizen, honor was held in high regard above all else, and it was defended at any cost, even his very life. The accumulation of honor meant the furthering of your career and stature among your peers. The Paterfamilias’ honor was held in high regard by the entire familia and they all worked to maintain the honor of their leader. Being challenged by a subordinate was a challenge to your very honor, and brought great shame. A man would feel a great responsibility to recover honor that was lost or shame that had come upon them.

Patriotism was also held in incredibly high regard amongst the Romans, especially for those in the service of the Empire like an official, a governor, or a soldier.  A Roman who was loyal to the Emperor was called “amicus” to them and was considered trustworthy. Friends of Rome, or “Amici Populi Romani,” were people or states who had loyalty to the Emperor. And any who were not regarded as friends of the Empire could not advance in status and would find their career in jeopardy. Even the rumor of disloyalty would be devastating.

Roman life centered around the cities and the Empire went to great lengths to encourage urban life. Large amounts of money were spent on public plays, feasts, and on arenas where the people could be entertained by violent gladiator matches, all in the pursuit of keeping the Roman citizens happy.

Citizens of Rome were entitled specific rights that slaves, resident aliens, and Jews were not. Citizens could vote and appeal to Caesar when they felt they were being mistreated. Moreover, they were exempt from certain types punishments that were considered humiliating and thus beneath that of a citizen of Rome (like crucifixion)*4. 

The Jews in the first century were under the occupation of Rome. They were monotheistic and worshiped their ancient God, Yahweh, rejecting the pantheon of gods of the Gentile world. Idolatry was a great offense to the Jews and they considered any sculpted images, whether of deities or natural beings, to be idols. The Gentiles were quite fond of art, especially sculptures, and decorated their cities with the statues and paintings of, not only created things, but also the divine beings whom they worshiped. The presence of Gentile craven images in Jewish cities was a source of great friction between them.

While there were Jews in the diaspora who had learned to live quite comfortably under the empire, most lived in Jewish communities that made concerted efforts to separate themselves from their barbarian counterparts. They did not take part in Roman life. They did not wear the same clothes, shave their beards, worship Roman gods, or enter into Roman houses. Doing so would make them “unclean,” meaning that they could not continue with their usual worship habits until they were ritually cleansed again, according to their Mosaic laws. 

The Jews believe that the Romans were making their cities unclean just by living there and different sects of Judaism had different solutions for this problem. The Zealots concluded that the answer was to wage war against their occupiers, and would regularly commit assassinations by hiding daggers in their clothing and attacking individual soldiers and officials who were in large crowds in public spaces, slipping away in the chaos that ensued. Others, like the Sadducees, believed that they could partner with the empire and negotiate a better life under the umbrella of their safety. In Jesus day, they controlled the priesthood and most of the political affairs. They were more open to Hellenistic influence than most of the other sects*5. The Pharisees were vocal in their dissent of any Gentile occupation and sometimes resorted to outbursts of violence. They managed the synagogue life *6 and were the leaders of middle and lower class peasant Jews.  The Essenes, while holding views similar to those of the Pharisees, separated themselves altogether by moving into the wilderness to practice their religion unabated. Almost all believed that one day they would be free of their oppressors and would have their own nation where Yahweh would finally rule, the questions was whether to wage war themselves or wait for God to accomplish it.

Outside of those four main sects of 1st century Judaism was several smaller sects that are lesser known but do offer some significant to NT context. Among them are the Herodians who were supporters of the pro-Roman Herod dynasty*7, and the Am-ha-Eretz, or, “the people of the land” who were mostly poor farmers who were against Roman rule and supported the Pharisees. 

In addition to these sects, there was a group called the Samaritans, an off-shoot of the Jews who remained around Schechem when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed.  They revised the Hebrew scriptures to argue their own place in Israel’s story and built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim that could be seen from Schechem. They were rejected by the Jewish leaders as discredited and there were significant hostilities between the two.

 

* Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 3rd ed. edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. p. 202

** Burge, Gary. The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context. Zondervan; unknown edition (February 2, 2009), n.d. p.91

*** Ibid. p.90

*4) Ibid. p.  87-88

*5) Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. 3.2.2007 edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007. p.131

*6) Ibid. p. 132

*7)  Ibid. p. 132

 

 

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There are no Logos on Tombstones

When I was twenty two I had enough interest in God not to get myself into trouble, but not enough to understand what life is about. In your early twenties the world is ahead of you, the great accomplishments of your life are yet to be accomplished, your story could go anywhere.

Half way through your thirties you start to wake up, if you are lucky. You start to realize that you might actually be, at this moment, what you will ever be. Some  respond with divorce, some with faith crisis, some with apathy, some with nostalgia and attempting to prolong adolescence even longer.

But there are some who awaken to something altogether different. Some who understand what The Teacher, the author of Ecclesiastes is saying, and those who grasp the story of Jesus and the gospel awaken to something incredibly important. It is something that you will notice when you walk through any cemetery on earth. There are no logo’s on tombstones. There are no corporate symbols, company names, or government seals. No slogans, no church names, no non-profit kudos. And there will not be one on yours. What you find on tombstones is the description of those whom you loved, and who loved you. “Beloved Father”, “Beloved Daughter”, “Loved by all who knew them”… and so on.

My tombstone will not have the Watermark Logo on it. It will have the inscription that my loved ones put there.  People are more important than organizations and brands. People are eternal, organizations expand and dissipate and disappear like the morning fog. tombstone

In your early twenties you want favor in the eyes of people, you want favor in the eyes of God, and you want happiness. The problem is that you have been told that what you build with your hands is how you find meaning, purpose and favor, but it’s not. It is what you build with your heart.

King Solomon wrote:

“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.”

At the heart of the gospel is a reminder that you are not the sum of your actions or deeds, yet most people’s lives do not reflect that. Love and faithfulness to God and others will give you everything that you are seeking from your accomplishments, but it will also bring you happiness and joy that can not be found anywhere else. We know, deep down, what matters, but we don’t live like we do.

Protect what matters. For those of you in your twenties, practice love and faithfulness. When you wake up in your thirties, forties, or fifties, you will have found what your heart was seeking, but you will have obtained it in a way that you never thought you could. And it will stay with you.

Lets Talk about Your Soul-Crushing Calendar.

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Every single Sunday morning I ask countless people the american greeting question: “Hey, how are things?”. And ninety nine point nine percent of the time I receive an answer similar to “Man, things are so busy!”. Everyone is so busy. When you look into the eyes of other people you can see the glazed over look of a life that is filled with wall to wall obstacles, appointments and meetings. So many hurdles to wade through from the moment the feet hit the floor until the head finally hits the pillow in exhaustion. Yet we talk about how busy we are with our chests pushed out, as if we were waiting for the medal of american respect to be pinned to our chests because, yes… we are so very busy.

A relative of mine works for a ministry where there are weekly meetings that he has secretly dubbed “busy time”. One by one each person at the table takes their turn spinning tales of busy-ness. Each one greater than the last until they all can smile and affirm together that, yes, they are the busiest people they know.

On the other hand I have far too many conversations after Sunday worship gatherings that are filled with statements like “I just don’t feel close to God” or “I don’t have time to read and study, to meditate and exercise and grow”.

We always seem to have time for everyone else’s needs, but never for our own. We have time to help everyone else build what they want to build, but never time to build ourselves into what we want and need to become.

I have a small phrase that I want to give you. I think it will be a gift to you. And I think this little phrase can change your life. Are you ready? Here we go:

Your calendar is not about what you need to get done, it is about the kind of person that you want to be.

Your calendar should represent the you of your dreams. When I hear the laments of people who are unhappy with who they are right now, the state of their spiritual lives, the mass of chaos that has become their soul, I don’t need to wonder what their calendar for the last 6 months looked like. I already know.

They have been pouring themselves out. For everyone. For friends and family and bosses and co-workers, and even for God. The color coded blocks that pepper their ical like shotgun blasts represent a thousand little pieces of their heart and soul that they are giving away to others. Sometimes out of love, sometimes out of obligation, and sometimes out of fear.

And the blank spaces in their calendar represent the times that, if nothing else comes up, just might be times when they can refill their souls that have been running on fumes for months, if not years. When did it become okay, and even a badge of honor, to wear exhaustion around necks? When did it become acceptable to give the reigns of your life over to the tyranny of the whims of other people?

I made a decision at some point over the last couple of years to stop the madness. And it all started with a question:

What kind of person do you want to be in six months?

And let me follow that up with another question:

Does your calendar represent a movement towards becoming that person?

If not, you need to delete it and start over.

You see, your life shouldn’t be found in the blank spaces. Your personal growth and health should be first and foremost laid out in the boldest colors. And they should be locked in and immoveable.

Open your calendar today and ask yourself a couple of questions:

Do you want a better prayer life? Yes? Then show me exactly where on your calendar you have designated time for prayer, for reading books on prayer, for praying with others.

Do you want to have a deeper understanding of theology and spirituality? Show me where on your calendar you have designated times for reading, for meeting with your pastor or elders, or for taking classes on those particular subjects.

Do you want to have a better marriage? A deeper and more active sex life? A more intimate relationship with your spouse? So when were you planning on pursuing them? If you are just waiting for things to happen, you are forgetting that you are already struggling to find time for yourself and your God… weren’t those things just supposed to “happen” as well?

How about rest? Is vacation an afterthought? Are you putting money away every week in order to go to the mountains or the ocean and fill yourself up? Or are you just hoping that you will stumble into some extra days off and then struggle to stressfully scrape up some cash to do so? You don’t really believe that you will come back filled up when you stressed over money the entire time, do you?

Six months from now you will be someone else. And it’s your choice who that person will be.

If you don’t tell your time how it will be spent, then other people will. I promise you. Do you know why? Because you have no reason to say no. Your calendar is wide open, and your achilles heal is exposed. But your defense mechanism is the simple phrase: “I’m sorry, my calendar is booked at that time”.

One thing that I have noticed is that no one ever questions the calendar. If you tell them “I will be playing candyland with my daughter”, they will become irritated at your lack of commitment to whatever it is that they deem important. BUT, if your reply is “The Calendar is booked”  then there is no questions. The calendar is gospel to them, because they are busy, and busyness is honorable. Candyland is not.

So may your calendar reflect your sanctification. Your movement towards a life that reflects Jesus. The desires of your heart to live a meaningful life. To learn, to love, to grow, and to build a life that is filled with grace and peace.

Your calendar is not a reflection of what you need to get done. It is a well lit path towards kind of person that you will become. So fill ‘er up.