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The Pax Romana - Facilitating the Spread of the Gospel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

At the beginning of the first century, with the presence of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean area was uniquely prepared for the effective spread of the Gospel. It was the first time in history that this area had been at peace, a peace that the Romans boasted about, called the ‘Pax Romana’ Previous centuries had seen continuous wars between kingdoms and empires. At its peak, the Roman Empire covered almost all the territory around the Mediterranean Sea. Never before had this area been a political and military unity. This period of peace lasted for around three hundred years, during which time the church became established throughout the Roman Empire. There were wars around the periphery of the empire, particularly in Persia to the east and against the German tribes to the north, while the heart of the empire remained mostly at peace. A time of peace, when the energies of mankind are not taken up in war in destruction, normally encourages great cultural, intellectual, philosophical and religious development and exchange of ideas, which also favoured the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the church.

One consequence of the Pax Romana was greatly increased travel and commerce. The Romans built a network of paved roads, which made travel easier, enabling ordinary people to travel more than ever before. The seas also became much safer, once the pirates were curbed. Greater travel encouraged great communication of religious and philosophical ideas, including the spread of the Gospel.

Greek was spoken throughout the empire, which facilitated communication of religious ideas, particularly the Gospel. Initially, Greek was the main language of the church, which in later centuries was replaced by Latin in the Western church based in Rome. The Hebrew Scriptures had been translated into Greek (the Septuagint), so were available to be read throughout the Greek-speaking world. Greek remained the main language of the Eastern church based in Byzantium. Following the division of the Roman Empire in 364, the two parts of the church became increasingly separated on linguistic grounds, which was the root which eventually led to the Great Schism which happened many centuries later between the western Latin-speaking Catholic church and eastern Greek-speaking Orthodox churches.

Morally, the Roman Empire was rotten and corrupt, from the emperor downwards, so Christianity, with its high moral standards, attracted many people. The majority of the emperors had very low moral standards, with Augustus and Marcus Aurellius being exceptions. The Roman Empire did not have its own distinctive religious movement, but had taken on Hellenistic thought and religion. This was declining in popularity, leaving a spiritual vacuum. Many people were searching for something which would give them faith and hope. This explains the popularity of the new mystery cults, but especially the readiness for people to respond to the Gospel.

Many Gentiles would regularly attend the synagogues which were present in most major cities around the empire. In the Book of Acts, Luke refers to these people as ‘God-fearers’. They were attracted to the moral values and belief in the One True God of Judaism, but had not become proselytes. Many of these people were eager to respond to the Gospel during Paul’s missionary journeys.

However, the presence of the Roman Empire also had negative effects on the church. Before the fire of Rome in AD 64, Christianity was seen by the Roman authorities as a sect of Judaism. Because Judaism was a legal religion, the state protection granted to the Jews automatically extended to the Christians. In the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul frequently appealed for Roman protection against persecution by the Jewish authorities. A significant example of this was his appeal to the emperor (Acts 25:10).

Following the fire of Rome, Nero was blamed for starting the fire because it was known that he intended to rebuild the city as basically a monument to himself. To take the blame off himself, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire. This created a distinction between the Christians and the Jews in the eyes of the Roman authorities, and brought in the first of many periods of persecution of the church by Rome.

An increasing threat to the church, beginning towards the end of the first century, and growing in the following centuries was the worship of the emperor. Several emperors made this compulsory as a way to unite the empire. As Christians could not worship another god than Jesus, they were seen as disloyal citizens and therefore persecuted.