What was Rome like during the time that Jesus lived and why does it matter? Learning about Rome and even Jewish culture during Jesus's time on earth gives us a good picture of life in the U.S.
In some ways, life here resembles Roman culture; in other ways, it's like how Jesus lived - what he said and how he acted.
Christianity is different from the pagan culture that Rome inherited because it reflects the importance that Jesus places on every person - sick, dying, poor, rich, alien, disenfranchised, etc. People who accept Western civilization reflect what Jesus did during his three years on earth. They reflect his compassion, his faith, his love.
In some ways people have a choice: they can adopt pagan culture like that of Rome, but not completely. People still have to behave in some measure like Christians; they have to place a higher value on life to some degree. They can't sacrifice their children or kill them or leave them to fend for themselves on the roadside. In Rome during Jesus day, this level of appreciation for life was a radical concept.
In contrast, it was more important that people in the Roman Empire to value emperors and worship them than for them to value human life. The practice of killing children or offering them to a pagan God continued from the time of David until 300 years after Jesus death, when it was outlawed by Constantine, the first Christian emperor. It was part of the culture that surrounded Judah and Israel. The prophet Jeremiah writes of God's righteous anger at Judah for building altars and sacrificing sons and daughter at high places, or places of pagan sacrifice, of Topheth and Baal to Molech.
One indication of what life was like in the Roman Empire is the movie with Russell Crowe - “Gladiator.” Crowe plays a centurion who is kind and loving to his family. Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, communicates well the picture of evil in Rome. He is not a nice ruler. He thinks of himself before he thinks of others. He murders his father to take the throne from Maximus (Russell Crowe). He is attracted to his sister, Lucilla, played by Connie Nielsen - to the point that he wants to incestuous relations with her. He also murders Maximus’ family - his wife and children.
(To correct the movie, Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180, dating from the death of Christ, or A.D. Commodus did not kill Marcus Aurelius. Commodus ruled with M.A., from 177 to 180, for three years).
Watching the movie as Americans, we know the difference between good and evil, and in the end, good is supposed to win. But in Rome at the time, there was no sense of good winning over evil. Commodus was the Roman example of good because he was a ruler.
That’s a hard concept to get across. It does not seem real that there was that much of a difference between the life of a Christian then and Rome. It’s hard for Americans to conceive of the amount of evil that was part of the Roman Empire.
To better explain this, in the movie, Marcus Aurelius seems like a nice ruler. But in reality, he was probably no better or worse than Commodus. Commodus killed his father in the movie because it was common for relatives to kill other relatives in Rome. Herod, the Roman ruler during Jesus' pregnancy, had all of the newborn babies killed to eliminate the birth of Jesus as a potential threat.
There was often no justification for killing people in Rome. It was part of the gladiator games - the brutal killing of people. It was entertainment. This conflicted with Christianity, with what Jesus taught. If life was important, if every life was to be valued, it should not be easily ended, certainly not for sport or entertainment.
This clashed with Roman culture, because a worship of the emperor and other shrines and objects was part of the dominant culture. The Romans worshiped their rulers. Christians could only worship Christ, the only man who claimed to be God. Why worship a man when they had a relationship with someone who claimed to be God?
Although people in the U.S. may venerate their presidents, prime ministers, and want them to be elected, it would be unusual for someone here to get a statue or bust of a current or former president and bow down and worship them. The worship of emperors in Rome was not a radical shift of culture as much as it was an inherited culture. People worshiped things and sacrificed their children for thousands of years before Christ.
Because Christians failed to offer sacrifices and respect imperial images, they were criticized and persecuted. Roman citizens were also supposed to worship Caesar, as well as other emperors. There were local deities to be honored and religious rites, pubic festivals to attend. There are many well-documented examples of this. Tertullian, an early Christian living in Carthage, wrote about how Christians faced “the accusation of treason most of all against the Roman religion.” He lived from 160 to 220 A.D.
Today, Christians conflict with atheists and people who celebrate the state or public life or culture. There are organizations that attempt to keep Christians out of public life, out of influencing government - federal, state and local government, as well as education and other areas of life. One of the unique things about life in the West is that to some degree, we can choose how much we want to act like Christ or Christians. People can't sacrifice their children to whatever pagan idol they worship. But in daily life, in pubic life, in most ways we have to adhere to a code of conduct that reflects Christ.
Knowing what Roman culture was like gives us a good picture of why our life resembles the life that Jesus modeled in so many ways. This can point people who might otherwise be attracted to a Godless, pagan culture, to Christ. The benefit of his coming was not just to improve society, to make it more compassionate, to care for the sick, dying, etc., it was so that people could enjoy a relationship with him. We can enjoy knowing the difference between a pagan culture that devalues life and a life that imitates and accepts Christ. We don’t have to just act like Christians, we can accept Jesus personally and enjoy the benefits of a relationship with him.
His (Paul's) message is the same then as it is now:
Romans 10:12, 13: 12For there is no difference between Jew and Greek: The same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on Him, 13for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (Jesus - author added) will be saved.”
© 2018 Larry Ingram
Based in St Louis,
Larry Ingram writes about the news media, movies and culture, as well as on topics like race, privilege, Christianity, religious expression and tolerance.
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