Observant readers of the Bible should wonder what happened between Malachi and Matthew. The Old Testament closes with the people of God having just returned to their Palestinian homeland. They are speaking and writing Hebrew in a world dominated by Persians. Paging ahead to the New Testament, we see the same people still in Palestine. But now Greek is the language they speak and write, not Hebrew, and the Romans, not the Persians, are in charge. Between the testaments, the center of civilization shifted from the Tigris-Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean. To understand this shift is to understand the world in which the first-century church was established.
The Greek language, and the thought-forms that came with it, was the direct inheritance of Alexander III of Macedonia. Alexander set out from Greece in 335 B.C. to conquer Asia from the Persians. His campaign took him around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, defeating the Persians at Issus, then besieging Tyre and Gaza down the coast. Josephus tells us that it was on this leg of his campaign, in 332 b.c., that Alexander came to Jerusalem. There he honored the high priest and acknowledged that priest’s God as the one who was granting him victory over the Persians. When Alexander was presented with Daniel’s prophecy that the Greeks would defeat the empire of the Persians, he believed himself to be the fulfillment, and conferred favors upon the Jews.
However, the abiding result of Alexander’s conquest was not so happy for the Jews. In just 11 years, he made the known world Greek, but he did not live to rule his empire. On his deathbed in 323 b.c., the 33-year-old Alexander divided his vast kingdom among his officers. For more than a century thereafter, Palestine was fought over in a tug-of-war between two of the dynasties that Alexander created: the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and Asia. Added to this strife in Palestine was the cultural and political pressure for Jews to adopt Greek ways, a process called “Hellenization.” Seleucid King Antiochus III (the Great) finally wrested Palestine from the Ptolemies in 198 b.c., and his son, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), pressed the campaign of Hellenization with vigor. Josephus explains that this younger Antiochus profaned the temple in Jerusalem in a most shocking way—he converted it into a shrine to Zeus and sacrificed swine to the Greek god in the Holy of Holies. Antiochus Epiphanes also forbade circumcision and other practices required by Jewish law, and ordered the burning of Jewish Scriptures. Thus began the ongoing religious hostility between the monotheistic Jews in Palestine and the Greeks. This hostility would continue into the Roman period, and would shape the first-century church, as we shall see.
Many Jews loosened their convictions and went along with Antiochus Epiphanes’ coercive program of Hellenization, but some refused. A patriotic band of God-fearing Jewish rebels rose up under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. Judas and his well-trained rebel troops retook Jerusalem and held off Seleucid opposition. He became the founder of a new independent ruling dynasty, the Hasmoneans (named after one of Judas’ ancestors). On Dec. 14, 164 b.c., Judas cleansed the temple of its Greek profanation, and the temple lamps were lit once again in the name of Yahweh. This event was commemorated thereafter in the Jewish Feast of Dedication (or “Hanukkah,” which means “lights”). Years later, Jesus Himself was in Jerusalem during this celebration (John 10:22). Hanukkah is an apt metaphor for the cultural setting of the first-century church, for the festival reminds us of the hostility between the religion of Abraham and Jesus on the one hand, and the established Greco-Roman faiths on the other.
Alexander the Great shifted the world’s attention westward, from Susa to Greece. It would soon shift even further west, to Rome. In Alexander’s day, Rome was distinguishing itself by successive victories and widening territory on the faraway Italian peninsula. Unlike other ancient victors, Rome treated its vanquished foes as allies rather than slaves. When a war with Carthage added Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia to their dominions (241–238 b.c.), the Romans formulated an efficient scheme for ruling distant subjects—they organized “provinces,” territories with special magistracies assigned to each.
It was in 63 b.c. that Judea came under Roman rule as part of the province of Syria. By then, Rome had defeated the Carthaginians in North Africa and Spain, and the Macedonians in Greece, thereby turning the Mediterranean into a Latin lake. From 67 to 62 b.c., Pompey the Great pressed Roman control into Syria and Asia. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that when Pompey arrived in Jerusalem, he entered the temple, an act that he thought was his prerogative by right of conquest. Presumably he wanted to proclaim the Jews’ little deity to have been beaten by the superior gods of Rome. Like the Greeks, the Romans were accommodating toward unfamiliar gods—so long as due honor was given to the gods of Rome. This often brought Jews and Christians into conflict with their overlords.
The Jews not only were strange, they were pesky. Rome ruled Judea through the Hasmonean, then Herodian dynasties, but a rebellious attitude simmered among the proud Jews. Recognizing its instability, Rome made Judea a full province in its own right in a.d. 6, and assigned its government to a succession of prefects. Pontius Pilate (a.d. 26–32) was the third of these, and he was at least as bumbling as any who held the position. The Herodians ruled a vast territory under Herod the Great (37–4 b.c.). Herod was succeeded by his sons, Philip the Tetrarch (4 b.c.–a.d. 34), who ruled the northern portion of his father’s territory, and Herod Antipas (4 b.c.–a.d. 39), who is often mentioned in the gospels and ruled in the south. When Philip the Tetrarch died, his territory was annexed to the province of Syria. But three years later, in a.d. 37, Emperor Caligula carved that same territory out of Syria and gave it to a nephew of Herod Antipas and Philip, Agrippa I (37–44). Emperor Claudius expanded Agrippa’s territory to be as vast as Herod the Great’s had been, and conferred on him the title “king.”
These were the early years of the Roman empire. Throughout the first century before Christ, the Roman world was ravaged by civil war. Strong military men held greater power as individuals than the Roman Senate held, for the legions they led were devoted more to their generals than to Rome. When Marius warred against Sulla, Roman troops actually marched upon the city of Rome. Later, Caesar led his legions from Gaul into Rome to fight the mighty Pompey. Finally, Mark Antony and his Egyptian ally-lover, Cleopatra, were defeated by Octavian. The dust had settled, and Octavian was the last man standing. Peace had finally returned to Rome, and in 27 b.c. the Senate conferred upon Octavian the title “Augustus.” The empire’s vast borders were secure. The roads were well-built and safe, and shipping lanes had been cleared of pirates. Justice was administered with impartiality and efficiency (by ancient standards). Rome was beautified, and Horace and Virgil heralded a new era of peace. In remote Judea, a Savior was born.
Many Jews despised Herodian and Roman rule, and waited for Yahweh to deliver them from their oppressors. Some were radicals—the zealots—who were willing to take up arms against Rome as the judges of old had done against their oppressors, and as Judas Maccabeus had done against the Seleucids. On the other side were tax collectors, who were viewed as traitors to Israel.
Remember that the beginnings of the church were Jewish. “ ‘Salvation is of the Jews,’ ” Jesus said (John 4:22). Jesus Himself was a Jew, His first followers were Jews, and the church was founded on the Gospel that was preached to our father Abraham (cf. Gal. 3:7–9, Eph. 2:11–13). When Christians began to be noticed in the first century, they were rightly identified by outsiders as a sect that had sprung up from within Judaism. Ironically, it was from the Jews themselves that the most strident hostility came upon the first-century Christians. At first, whatever stigma the pagan world had attached to Judaism was tagged to Christianity. Tacitus said that Christians were “hated for their abominations” and declared their outlook to be “a most mischievous superstition.” In Rome, the emperor Nero seized upon the popular disdain toward Christians by trying to shift to them the blame for the burning of Rome. He illumined his garden parties with torches of burning Christians.
Like their Hebrew fathers, the first-century Christians were despised. But they came into a world prepared by God for a widespread extension of the Gospel. The world was under one law—Rome’s. The world spoke one cosmopolitan language—Alexander’s Greek. Roads and shipping lanes were safe. The world into which Christ came, and in which His Gospel spread, was prepared beforehand by Him who raises and brings down the nations according to His good pleasure.