The Apostles and the Empire

And then shall come implacable wrath
on Latin men. Three shall by piteous fate
bring Rome to ruin. And all shall perish,
with their own houses, when from heaven shall flow
a cascade of fire. Ah, wretched me!
When shall that day and when shall judgment come
from the immortal God, the mighty King?

So ran a prophecy set down by a first-century Jew, likely during the reign of Caesar Augustus, while Jesus was still a child. Rome loomed monstrous in the religious imagination of Jews in the Holy Land. The oracle above goes on to visualize flames consuming “temples and racetracks, markets and idols of wood, of gold, of silver and of stone” — all marks of a debased Gentile culture. Everything would go up with “a stench of brimstone.”

Such fantasies were hardly unique, although other authors, understandably, chose to express their anti-Roman sentiment in code. More cautious writers identified the occupying power in ways that insiders would understand — those who knew the history of the Chosen People. Rome was equated with Israel’s traditional enemies: “Edom,” “Babylon,” or “Sodom.” In later rabbinic literature, the most common title for Rome was simply “the wicked kingdom” or “the kingdom of evil.”

Israel had suffered conquest and subjugation under the might of many nations, most recently the Greek Seleucid dynasty. But the power of the ancient enemies seemed fleeting, in retrospect. Rome’s power appeared to be indestructible and permanent, unless God should choose to intervene with fire from heaven.

Rome was all the more offensive because it imagined itself to be transparently benign and rational. And yet its commanding general could stomp heedlessly into the forbidden inner sanctuary of the Temple. And yet its prefect could allow his troops to carry the insignia of a boar — a swine — into Jerusalem, a city where graven images were banned and pigs considered the most vile and unclean of creatures.

Israel had always considered itself a nation set apart. The Law of Moses, with its strict dietary regime and sexual mores, enforced a separation from other peoples. The separation protected Israel not only from idolatry, which was its constant weakness, but also from the immoral practices of foreigners: abortion, infanticide, fornication, adultery, sodomy, homosexuality, and drunkenness. Those who “mingled with the nations . . . learned to do as they did” (Ps. 106:35). Even the Temple priests, if exposed to Gentile ways, were prone to take up “all the abominations of the nations” (2 Chron. 36:14).

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When the people of Israel showed by their actions that they preferred the ways of the Gentiles, God “gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them” (Ps. 106:41). Thus, the Roman occupation was, for the Jews, a judgment, a humiliation that they had earned by their desire to be like other nations.

In some quarters, as we have seen, the anti-Roman reaction was strong — in the school of Shammai, the party of the Zeal­ots, and the apocalyptic visions of the Essenes. When, in A.D. 6, Caesar Augustus decreed a tax census, some Jews resisted to the point of rebellion. Their leader, Judas the Galilean, called the decree blasphemous, because only God could demand a census, and therefore Caesar was putting himself in the place of God.

Others simply prayed that another of Israel’s ancient en­emies — the Persians, for example — would triumph over the more-hated Romans.

* * *

The Romans, for their part, were offended by the Jews’ self-segregation. They derided the Jews’ prohibition of pork and shellfish as arbitrary and silly. The Roman historian Tacitus summed up what was probably a common sentiment among Gentiles: “Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor.” In the words of a modern historian:

“Jews were considered unsociable, even misanthropic, for the social distinctions created by their dietary laws.”

The difference drew the attention of Gentiles of the Greco-Roman world, and for at least a few it became a fascination. Some influential men and women looked into the Jewish writings and recognized their wisdom and moral beauty. They tried, to varying degrees, to undertake the disciplines — although few men were willing to submit to ritual circumcision in adulthood. The Roman philosopher Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, complained that Jewish customs had become chic among the nobles of his time. Many, it seems, were keeping a leisurely Sabbath, which Seneca ascribed to laziness, and even lighting Sabbath lamps according to Jewish custom.

Among the Gentiles, some Jewish sympathizers took the fur­ther step of attending synagogue services. Called God-fearers, they appear often in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, and it seems that they were among the groups more open to the Way of Jesus. Paul encountered them in the Greek cities of Iconium, Philippi, and Thessalonica. In Pisidian Antioch, it was the God-fearers alone who, hearing the gospel, “were glad and glorified the word of God” (Acts 13:48).

The books of the Old Testament, for all their horror of Gen­tile ways, foresaw such a day when all the nations would come to adore the God of Israel (see Psalm 86:9; Tob. 14:6–7). The Apostles delighted to see the prophecies’ fulfillment.

* * *

There is ample evidence in the New Testament of the Jews’ hor­ror of Gentiles in general and Romans in particular. Even Jesus said that an obstinate sinner should be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). The chief priests, for their part, worried that Jesus’ popularity would begin to look like another census rebellion — and would bring about a crack­down from the occupying powers: “If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:48).

Yet the Gospel also sounded a new and hopeful note for the Romans. Both Matthew and Luke relate the story of a Roman centurion who sought healing for his beloved servant. The el­ders of his town begged Jesus on the centurion’s behalf, perhaps assuming that the Master would not listen to a Gentile. “He is worthy to have you do this for him,” they said, “for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4–5). Eventually, the man pleaded his own case, moving Jesus to exclaim: “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10).

The story is significant, because it shows that a Gentile — even a Roman, and even a high-ranking military officer who served under the insignia of the swine — could have the kind of faith that God sought from Israel.

And this story is not unique. It was another centurion who, seeing Jesus crucified, was moved to confess the Master’s di­vinity: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

Even Pilate is treated more sympathetically in the Gospels than in any other documents from the same time. The historian Josephus portrayed him as an incompetent boor. The philosopher Philo saw him as deliberately and stupidly provocative. Yet, in St. John’s account of Jesus’ trial, Pilate appears to be looking for a way to release the accused. “I find no crime in him,” he said (John 18:38). Jesus himself downplayed Pilate’s personal guilt, placing the greater blame on the chief priests who had handed him over (John 19:11).

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke presents a Roman centurion who was also a God-fearer, a man who “gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). Cornelius received an extraordinary revelation from God regarding Peter, whom he sent soldiers to summon from Joppa. By the end of the incident, God had made clear to Peter that Israel’s dietary taboos were no longer to be observed, Peter had preached the gospel to Cornelius and his household, and the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45).

These supernatural developments, quite naturally, led to conflict. Jewish Christians of a traditionalist bent opposed what they saw as an abrogation of the ancient law (Acts 11:2– 18). They vehemently protested Peter’s sitting down to eat with Romans.

The controversy continued as Paul and Barnabas made more converts among the Gentiles. It was settled only when the Apostles met in council (Acts 15) and concluded that they “should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19).

Anti-Roman prejudice was common even in the primitive Church. But Paul’s attitude was consistently positive. He had no use for Gentile idolatry or immorality (see 1 Cor. 5:10). But he was proud of his own Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37–38; 22:25–29), and he did not hesitate to invoke Roman custom and law (Acts 25:16). When tried in court, he appealed to Caesar over the authorities in Judea (Acts 25:11).

Luke consistently portrays Roman officials as sympathetic to Paul and protective of him (Acts 25:24–25; 26:31). When Paul’s voyage is shipwrecked, a Roman centurion saves his life (Acts 27:43).

The trajectory of Luke’s narrative is Romeward. Paul was inexorably drawn there — in spite of many obstacles — “resolved in the Spirit.” He considered Macedonia, Achaia, and Jerusa­lem to be steps along the way: “After I have been there, I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21). The Lord himself made clear to Paul that the imperial capital should be his destination.

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome.” (Acts 23:11)

It was God’s will. “And so we came to Rome,” Luke wrote (Acts 28:14).

It was a day Paul had long awaited. “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom. 1:15).

Even though Roman intellectuals were hardly warm to Jews — and even though the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from the city a few years before (Acts 18:2) — Rome was where God wanted Paul to be. And so Paul wanted to be in Rome.

We know little about his work there, except that he succeeded to a remarkable degree. When he wrote to the Philip­pians, he said in passing: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). He was granted access, apparently, to the echelons of power.

Peter, too, made his way there (1 Pet. 5:13); and Christians would eventually cast the two Apostles as the new found­ers of the city. The original founders, Romulus and Remus, had established the city in strife, as one murdered the other. The new founders would consecrate the city with their blood, laying down their lives in the persecution of the emperor Nero in A.D. 64. They would be witnesses to the end — mar­tyrs. Their blood would be seed. The Church in Rome would hold a primacy in the universal Church from the first century onward.

All the great names of the early Church made pilgrimage there, to pay homage before the relics of Peter and Paul, and to visit, consult, and plead before the Apostles’ successors. Among the apostolic Fathers, Ignatius and Polycarp made the journey. Clement and Hermas lived in the city for a time, as did Justin, Hegesippus, and Hippolytus, Abercius, Irenaeus, and Origen.

“From heaven shall flow a cascade of fire.” In a sense, the prophecy quoted at the beginning of this chapter did come to fulfillment. Old Rome was indeed brought to an end by fire from heaven. And the fire did make a ruin of the city’s temples and idols. But it was not the conflagration the Sybil had imagined.

It was a Pentecostal fire. It was the apostolic Faith.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Mike Aquilina’s The Apostles and Their Timeswhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

Mike Aquilina

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Mike Aquilina is the award-winning author of more than forty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. His works have been translated into many languages. He has hosted nine television series and several documentary films and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

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  • bosco49

    Superb. Thank you so much for this valuable exposition. Good reference material for later use.

  • Chris C.

    Excellent article.

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