The Literature and History of the New Testament (1915) [Lesson 2]

[Articles in the Summed Up series are intended to be summaries of chapters of selected theological books. The author(s) will be quoted verbatim for the purposes of ensuring accurate representation]

The Roman Background of Christianity


A) About the author of the chapter:

John Gresham Machen “studied at Johns Hopkins University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the universities at Marburg and Göttingen. In 1906 he joined the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary …

He left Princeton in 1929, after the school was reorganized and adopted a more accepting attitude toward liberal Protestantism, and he helped found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.” [1]


B) Chapter Summary:

i) The Establishment of the Empire

“By the middle of the first century before Christ the power of the Roman republic extended around the Mediterranean Sea.”[1]

“… in 49 B. C., Julius Cæsar entered Rome at the head of an army, and Roman liberty was at an end. After the assassination of Cæsar in 44 B. C., there was a succession of civil wars, and then, by the victory of Actium in 31 B. C., Octavius, who later assumed the name of Augustus, became sole ruler. Augustus died in A. D. 14.

Subsequent emperors during the first century were: Tiberius (A. D. 14-37), Caligula (A. D. 37-41), Claudius (A. D. 41-54), Nero (A. D. 54-68), Galba, Otho and Vitellius (A. D. 69), Vespasian (A. D. 69-79), Titus (A. D. 79-81), Domitian (A. D. 81-96), Nerva (A. D. 96-98), Trajan (A. D. 98-117).”[2]

ii) Roman Administration under the Empire

“(1) THE PROVINCES.—The provinces of the empire are to be distinguished from the territories of subject kings or princes. The latter were quite subservient to Rome, but were given more independence of administration. A good example of such a subject king, theoretically an ally, but in reality a vassal, was Herod the Great, who ruled over all Palestine till 4 B. C.”[3]

“The provinces themselves were divided into two great classes—imperial provinces and senatorial provinces.

The imperial provinces were under the immediate control of the emperor. They were governed by “legates,” who had no regular term of office, but served at the emperor’s pleasure …

A good example of an imperial province is the great province of Syria, with capital at Antioch. Palestine was more or less under the supervision of the Syrian legate …

The senatorial provinces were governed by “proconsuls,” chosen by lot from among the members of the Senate. The proconsuls served for only one year. Even over these provinces and their governors the emperor retained the fullest supervisory authority. The senatorial provinces composed the central and more settled portions of the empire, where large standing armies would not be needed. Examples are Achaia, with capital at Corinth, and Cyprus with capital at Paphos.”[4]

“(2) LOCAL GOVERNMENT.—The Romans did not attempt to introduce perfect uniformity throughout the empire. The original Greek unit of political life was the city, and Greek cities were scattered over the east before the Roman conquest. With regard to local affairs, many of the cities retained a certain amount of independence …

In addition to the Greek cities, many of which were more or less “free” in local affairs, many “Roman colonies” had been established here and there throughout the empire …

A number of the cities of The Acts were colonies, and one, Philippi, is expressly declared to be such. Acts 16:12.”[5]

“(3) ROMAN CITIZENSHIP.—Before New Testament times Roman citizenship had been extended to all Italy. Italy, therefore, was not a province or group of provinces, but was regarded as a part of Rome. Outside of Italy Roman citizenship was a valuable special privilege. It raised a man above the mass of the provincial population …

Because Paul was a Roman citizen he was legally exempt from the most degrading forms of punishment, and had a right to appeal to the court of the emperor. Roman citizenship was sometimes acquired by money, but Paul inherited it from his father.”[6]

iii) The Roman Religion

“Under the empire, Rome was possessed of a state religion. The ancient gods of the republic were retained. There were great divinities like Jupiter and Mars, and there were numberless private divinities of individual households.”[7]

“… long before the Christian era, there had been a thoroughgoing identification of the gods of Greece with the gods of Rome. The Greek Zeus, for example, was identified with the Roman Jupiter; the Greek Ares with the Roman Mars.”[8]

“In the Roman world, religion was a national affair. Worship of the national gods was not only piety, but also patriotism …

Support of the gods of Rome, even where personal faith in them had been undermined, was considered to be the duty of every loyal citizen.

The political aspect of Roman religion appears most clearly in the worship of the Roman emperors.”[9]

“The Greek inhabitants of the empire really regarded Augustus as their saviour …

He saved them from the miseries of civil war, and from the rapacity of the degenerate republic; he gave them peace and happiness. And they responded by regarding him as a god.”[10]


[1] p.10

[2] Ibid.

[3] p.11

[4] Ibid.

[5] p.12

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] pp.12-13

[9] p.13

[10] Ibid.

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