A study of church history necessarily begins with a consideration of the historical setting in which the church began. The gospel was not spread, nor was the church established, in a sterile vacuum, isolated from the historical context. Consequently, both were greatly influenced by, and, in turn, influenced, the forces of their environment. Hence, one cannot fully appreciate the progress made by the gospel and the church without understanding something of the elements in the historical background which paved the way.
This is not to say, of course, that the church was a purely natural phenomenon. But it is to say that God works through history to bring about the fulfillment of His plans. Indeed, one cannot seriously study this part of church history without gaining a much deeper appreciation of God's providential preparations for His church. Just as God's people of the Old Testament had to await the completion of God's preparations (Gen. 15:16), so it was for God's people of the New Testament (Gal. 4:4).
The "apostolic age" refers to the first major period of church history when the apostles were living (c. 30-100 A.D.). The study of this period will enjoy the advantage of a historical record within the Scriptures. This first lesson is a study of what actually occurred prior to the time of Jesus and His apostles, but it is properly placed with this period since it was preparatory to their time.
II. Political and Cultural Background
At the time Christ was born (c. 6 BC) the infant Roman Empire was ruling Palestine, and indeed all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Octavian, the grandnephew and successor to Julius Caesar, became the first emperor in 27 BC and took upon himself the title "Augustus" (meaning, "revered one"), by which he is commonly known. It is arguable that Augustus was not only the first, but the greatest, of the Roman emperors. The benefits of his reign to the advancement of the cause of Christ are immeasurable. For several centuries preceding his reign the Romans had been gradually adding the lands of the Mediterranean basin to their dominion. Palestine was added when the great Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BC. Octavian's accession to the imperial throne brought many years of international and civil warfare to an end. His forty-year reign (27 BC - 14 AD) brought greater peace, unity, and progress to the Mediterranean world than it had ever known. This period of relative peace continued for centuries after the reign of Augustus and has become known as the pax Romana ("Roman peace"). Such peace was of immense value to preachers of the gospel (cp. I Tim. 2:1,2).
Since the Roman Empire placed the Mediterranean world under a single, unifying political system, it greatly facilitated the travels of gospel preachers. Crossing borders within the Roman Empire was no more difficult than passing from state to state within the United States today. Also, the Romans were magnificent and inveterate builders, especially of roads. Beginning with the Appian Way in 312 BC the Romans built a network of straight, paved, durable roads stretching into, and tying together, every corner of the Empire (and some of the roads are still used today!). Built to expedite troop movements and trade, they were also of great service to gospel preachers in their travels and communications.
Roman domination also brought one, coherent legal system to the Mediterranean world, and Roman law more than once worked to the advantage of Christians (Acts 16:35-39; 19:39; 22:24-29; 23:27; 25:9-12,16). Most people are aware of the severe persecutions which Rome eventually brought against Christians, but during the First Century A.D., when the church was getting its foothold in the world, Christians enjoyed almost complete freedom to practice and propagate their religion. For the most part, it was the policy of Rome to permit religious freedom and limited self-government among native peoples under its rule.
Another boon to the spread of the gospel which Rome did not begin but certainly aided was a universal language. The Greek language had been spread beyond its homeland by the conquests of Alexander the Great, "the apostle of Hellenism" (356-323 BC). It soon became the language of commerce , the courts, the educated people, and international communications. The Romans, who spoke Latin, were great admirers of Hellenistic culture and also acquired the use of Greek in international relations. Greek, as a common language, also greatly facilitated the spread of the gospel. The entire New Testament was written in Greek. (The Hebrew Old Testament had been translated into Greek in the Third Century BC. This translation, known as the Septuagint, thus made the Old Testament available to the Western world.)
III. Religious and Philosophical Background
A. Popular religious thinking. The common person who lived about the time of Christ was a religious person. He believed in many gods and spirits, both evil and good, who affected or controlled the course of his life. Every aspect and action of his life brought him into contact with a god or goddess whose goodwill he entreated, or whose wrath he averted or placated, by sacrifices, rituals, and other forms of religious homage. Pagan religion eventually became so complicated that castes of priests were formed to direct it. The needs of the individual were increasingly overlooked as religion was turned into a tool to promote the interests of the state. As a matter of fact, pagan religion had become so cold, ritualistic, and meaningless by the time of Christ that many Romans began to seek spiritual sustenance outside their traditional mythological religions.
B. Greek philosophies. Some turned to various Greek philosophies. In the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were prominent Greek philosophers whose teachings greatly influenced educated thought in the years to come. Epicurus (342-270 BC) taught that the highest goal in life was mental bliss or pleasure, which was interpreted to mean freedom from pain. Epicurus also believed that the world was formed by chance and had no order. Men were free to do as they pleased and had no existence after death. Though Epicurus himself sought to attain his goal by asceticism, Epicureanism eventually devolved into crass sensuality. Zeno, his contemporary, taught that there was an all pervading Reason that gave order to the world, and men could obtain the greatest happiness by living according to pure reason. Thus, Stoicism (derived from the term stoa, a porch from which Zeno taught) advocated the suppression of emotions. Both Epicureanism and Stoicism had their followers (Acts 17:18), but the common man had neither the time, nor patience, nor disposition to grapple with such ambiguous, abstract, and unprovable philosophies. Indeed, in the centuries before Christ the finest minds of Greece had set themselves to pondering the purpose and conduct of human life and had come up essentially empty-handed. Philosophy had clearly demonstrated the futility of human wisdom without a divine revelation (I Cor. 1:21).
C. Eastern religions. Because of the emotional bankruptcy of the traditional mythological religions in the West, certain Eastern cults held an increasing appeal to Romans. The cult of Cybele, the "Great Mother," a fertility goddess from Asia Minor, came to Rome by invitation in 205 BC. but failed to gain a wide following due to the self-mutilation and licentiousness involved in its rites. The worship of Isis and Serapis, imports from Egypt, was a milder fertility cult whose elaborate and mystical initiation rites appealed especially to Roman women. Of all the Eastern religions Mithraism was the most popular and noble. The god Mithras was taken from Persia and was regarded as the champion of good in its fight against evil. Mithraism practically became the unofficial religion of the Roman army for a while. In some of its rites and concepts it was quite similar to the gospel of Christ and was a major competitor to it.
IV. Jewish Background
It must not be forgotten that Judaism cradled the religion of Christ and made great, howbeit unintentional, contributions to its progress. The great issues of Judaism in the time of Christ were instigated by an external catalyst. Beginning with Alexander the Great, Greek rulers had brought Hellenism to the lives of Jews. Some accepted it and others did not. This divided Jews into two camps - the Hellenists and the Hebraists (Acts 6:1) - generally represented respectively, by the religious sects of the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees were aristocratic , worldly, and skeptical of afterlife and the existence of spirits. Pharisees were more conservative and more popular with the Jewish people but had amassed and defended a large body of oral traditions which burdened the average Jew (Matt. 15:1-9; 23:1-4).
Except for a period of independence (165-63 BC) following the Maccabean revolt, Jews had been under foreign domination for 500-700 years by the time of Christ. During those years they had also been scattered throughout the Roman world in what became known as the Diaspora; that is, the "scattering" (Jn. 7:35). On the positive side this dispersion of Jews eventually led to the development synagogue and a healthy exposure of the Gentiles to Jewish beliefs, all of which made for a warmer reception of the gospel. However, many years of foreign domination also led to a craving on the part of Palestine Jews for a political Messiah which left them ill-prepared for the kind of Messiah Jesus was to be.
V. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) God works through history to fulfill His purposes.
(2) (T or F) Greek philosophies generally only appealed to the educated and sophisticated.
(3) (T or F) Many years of foreign domination made the Jews more spiritually-minded.
(4) The "____________ ____" is the first major period of church history.
(5) ________________ and ___________ were two prominent Greek philosophies which confronted the gospel.
(6) _______________ divided the Jews into two camps: the _____________ and the __________________.
(7) What advantages did the Roman Empire provide to the gospel?
(8) Why did traditional pagan religions lose their appeal?
(9) What three Eastern cults made some headway in the western Roman Empire?
(10) What were the two major Jewish sects in the time of Christ, and how did they differ?
(11) In what ways did the Jewish Diaspora aid the gospel?