The relationship between Romans and Jews was uneasy at best, mutually antagonistic at worst. 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” (Mt. 18:17). The chief priests, for their part, worried that Jesus’ popularity would begin to look like a 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” (Mt. 8:10).
The story is significant, because it shows that a Gentile — even a Roman and even a high-ranking military officer — could have the kind of faith that God sought from Israel.
Nor is the story unique. Another centurion, seeing Jesus crucified, was moved to confess the Master’s divinity: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke presents a Roman centurion who was also a believer in the God of Israel, 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 (Acts 10:45).
These developments 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).
Rome, the great Gentile capital, in fact would become the great Christian capital on Earth. 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.
Peter, too, made his way there (1 Peter 5:13); and Christians would eventually cast the two Apostles as the new founders of the city.
Editor’s note: This article is the ninth part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c).Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.