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E. I.Smith

How did the Roman Empire affect the narrative of the Four Gospels?

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The Roman Empire had a tremendous effect on the narrative of the Four Gospels. Examples of this statement consist of the “Massacre of the Innocents” ordered by Herod the Great, the political actions of Pontius Pilate, the universal census ordered by Caesar Augustus, and Jesus’ infraction against Caesar. The political, legal, and economic systems put into place by the Romans of the newly established Roman Empire indeed drove the narrative of the Four Gospels. The political guidance shown in the scriptures by the Roman Empire in relation to the Four Gospels, for all intent and purposes facilitated the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the life and times of the Messiah.

Edited by E. I.Smith

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It's wrong to see the Roman Empire in quite that way. For instance, the universal census you claim was ordered by Caesar Augustus has no evidence for it. The political actions of Pontius Pilate were clumsy and brutal - which eventually caused his demise - but otherwise no different to any provincial governor in that he was there to oversee the province - not to rule it as such, though like all governors he was in position to influence events and profit from them. The local government had gotten a little worried by Jesus because his ability to draw crowds was disruptive and potentially politically dangerous. They were unable to stop him sufficiently thus turned to the governor, Pilate, to ask if he could sort it it out. Pilate duly had Jesus arrested and under questioning found some cause to have him punished for. Threat removed.

In that respect the Four Gospels relate historical events but the narrative is hugely creative. The supposed miracles are quite similar to acts of Indian gods, known to the Roman world at the time, and it's incredibly hard to imagine that a man who could walk on water, cure any illness or disability, and feed thousands out of thin air was not going to receive an express ticket to Capri to demonstrate these powers to Tiberius himself.

What is true is that early Christianity was not a united movement. It consisted of local churches and hierarchies. When Constantine looked around for ways to cement his shattered empire back together he could see Christianity and its non-roman communal aspect of worship as something inherently social, as a military man might well do. Therefore he patronised Christianity and pushed them to unite and conform to a common theme, hence the description of Ammianus Marcellinus of "roads filled with galloping bishops" as they realised that land and wealth were theirs if they complied. The concept of enrichment, hardly alien to Roman mindset, was part of the Romanised christianity from the start, and one 4th century writer said "make me a Bishop of Rome today and I'll become a Christian tomorrow", referring to the wealth that cult leaders attracted. It is from this time that the Four Gospels were chosen as canon and other gospels rejected, though the charge of heresy and pressure to conform did not succeed in fully uniting the Church - and never would.

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The Roman Emperors, particularly the 4th century Emperors, and their prefects indeed saw the Christians, their communal nature, and capacity to convert the masses as a facilitator for both Roman control, and also wealth, because after all, running and empire is both costly and dangerous, particularly for the Emperors themselves, and for any of their political detractors. It is fair to assert that the narrative of the story of Jesus is in many respects derivative of Hindu traditions. Most narratives concerning deities are derivative of other cultures. In the Old Testament, we see many stories concerning the exploits of divinely-inspired figures that ascended to positions of political importance in the Empires they were subject to, namely the Babylonian and Persian Empires. (The prophet Daniel, Queen Esther, The priest Ezra, and the governor Nehemiah are good examples of this). In the New Testament, however, we see a new dynamic; a prophet and philosopher, Jesus of Nazareth, claiming to be both the son of God, and the King of the Jews, both of which are titles held by the Roman Emperor himself. This creates a struggle for the minds of the people of Iudea, and Palestina. Jesus never stood a chance to usurp any vast political power considering the nature of his divine mission on the earth in addition to the structure of law-and-order in the Empire. While mostly unproven, as well as subject to the interpretation of the reader, the narrative of the story of Jesus is heavily reliant on the political atmosphere created by the Roman Empire, from Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod the Great, and fleeing to Nazareth to escape Herod Archelaus, to Jesus himself uttering "render unto Caesar," a reference to the importance of paying taxes.

Edited by E. I.Smith

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Jesus is not unique. There had been a line of charismatic prophets attracting large crowds - all came to a sticky end from the authorities. What is unusual is the persistence of Christianity but I suppose I have to credit adoption by Rome for that, though in fairness, the cult was growing in numbers prior to the 4th century.

Now whether jesus had a divine mission is a matter of faith. Historically, he did apparently claim to be the Son of God, but this is a somewhat vague accolade under investigation because it was never clarified what he meant. Did he mean that he was actually the progeny of God? Did he mean was a son of God in a Romanesque adoptive style? Or was it analogous, claiming he was in a special relationship with God? It doesn't actually matter, because Pilate saw an opportunity to claim that Jesus was not giving the Roman Caesar due deference and indeed by denying Roman religion was being rather insulting to Rome.

I don't see any particular struggle in judaean hearts and minds. Some would have accepted Jesus at face value, swept away by the moment and the presence of Jesus in sermons. Others, probably most, would have been curious but not actually committed. A fair number would have been there to see what all the fuss was about and likely thought Jesus an amusing act or perhaps an outright liar. We have to note that there was no sudden suppression of the cult by Pilate even though he had a reputation, well deserved, for such brutality (He would eventually be arrested and exiled for a slaughter), nor were the followers of Jesus arrested at all. It was enough in Roman eyes to decapitate the movement, for without Jesus, regardless of the messages or sermons, would not have their charismatic leader. The disunited condition of the early churches was sufficient for the Roman/Judaean authorities to feel assured that no insurrection was possible.

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The elders, chief priest, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees of the land of Palestine no doubt sought to do away with Jesus. However they did not have the political authority or the stomach to crucify a man that at least 9,000 citizens of Palestine saw as a prophet. In John 1:1-5, we see the clearest picture of Jesus divinity in the entirety of the Bible. It states that Jesus, is the son of God in the following capacity: Jesus was and is the living manifestation of God's words. This indicates that Jesus was God's son by virtue of his proximity to God's will. Because after all, what is more derivative of a man's essence than his words? The Pharisees, in particular, sought to incriminate Jesus by proving him with hard questions. The elders, chief priest, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees knew that they had to make Jesus an enemy of Rome before they could do away with him. He posed a threat to their high standing in the Roman Empire by virtue of his ability to out-debate them, as well as his ability to inspire and convert the masses.

So the chief priests detained him and asked him plainly if he was of a divine nature and Jesus answered that he was. This confession was all they needed to rid themselves of Jesus because now he was an actionable threat to Roman authority as well. They then led him to Pontius Pilate and the trial for Jesus' life began.

After Jesus' re-ascension into Heaven after the resurrection, the Apostles decided to carry on the work of Christ throughout the Mediterranean (The book of The Acts of the Apostles). It is reported in various historical documents that ten of the twelve disciples met the same fate as Christ for the same reasons, namely, martyred for political/religious reasons.

The Roman Emperors that followed, up to and including Emperor Trajan, the last ruling Emperor of the narrative of the Bible, continued to dispose of the Christians who were seen as a rebellious and dissenting group.

Edited by E. I.Smith

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Personally I'm not convinced by the explanations of Jesus as something immortal, divine, or mission oriented. That's nothing to do with your scholarship I have to say but rather that Christianity has a very long history of explaining away awkward inconsistencies or statements by the very sort of contextual tweaking you relayed above. I saw the same thing in a tv series once, by way of analogy, where a solider goes to his padre and asks why he can be a paid solider for his country when the ten Commandments says he cannot kill. Ahh, said the Padre, but the rule is that you cannot murder. Killing is just fine as long as it's justifiable. Phew said the soldier, I was in a tight spot there. Okay, that's a bit of drama on television which we shouldn't take too seriously, but the message is there in a different context, an underlying concept that Christianity has a moral prerogative and as long as you can stretch the rules to fit, then the rules still apply and everything's good. That is for me one of the reasons I reject Christianity as a personal belief, but that's another subject.

Purges against Christians in the Principate were hardly consistent or frequent. it is true that Christian cults had attracted rumours of such things as cannibalism, vampirism, sacrifice of infants, all misinterpretations of rituals observed, but there was little actual accusation of rebellion, the most glaring being the accusation made by Nero, correctly or not, that Christians were responsible for the Great Fire of Rome in 64. It is true there were a great many disaffected Judaeans around. Groups dedicated to political violence, pretty much an ancient manifestation of terrorism if you like, existed, much like the hard line Islamic State is among modern Islamic communities, and behaved in similar ways. There is also the Book of Revelations, which although  the modern end-timer faithful insist is a modern prophecy which has failed to transpire since the first public proclamations of 1844, can be read as anti-Roman propaganda, and indeed some scholars have put forward the view it was written by Judaean exiles in protest of the Roman occupation.

it is true that the Judaean people had religious beliefs that did not sit well with Roman culture, either way, and Pilate's habit of decorating his home with images of Roman military and religious icons caused Tiberius to order him to cease the practice for the outrage among the province it caused. Tiberius did not order a persecution of the Jews, merely told Pilate to stop annoying them.

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The Israelites of the Old Testament were repeatedly punished by God for their transgressions. From fiery serpents being sent to afflict them, to a destroying angel sent to afflict them, to King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire destroying the City of Jerusalem. Many of these punishments were leveled against the Israelites for such actions as incest, vampirism, and worshipping graven images, including the Canaanite God, Moloch, of whom Israelite children were sacrificed as burnt offerings. The Hebrew writers of the Nevi'im gave the habitual disobedience of the Israelites as the reason that they were overrun by the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. In Matthew 24:1-2, Jesus prophesied that the Temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed. In A.D. 70, that prophecy came into fulfillment. Although not written exclusively by Jews, the Bible in its entirety can be described as an intensely nationalistic Jewish Holy Book. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and especially the Romans were not spoken of highly by its writers. Perceived Roman infractions against the Jews, such as the dissolution of the Hasmonean Dynasty, to the placing of a Golden Roman Eagle on the Temple of Jerusalem by Herod the Great, the Jewish writers of the Bible no doubt inserted their own political and personal grievances concerning these things, up to and including the depiction of the Roman Empire in the book of Revelation as the "Whore of Babylon" for her murdering of the early Christian evangelists, up to and including such spectacles as Nero's torches, which may or may not have actually occurred.

I am sure that early Roman official State documents spoke of the Christians in equally pejorative terms. Naturally, the polytheistic Romans saw the monotheistic Jewish Christians as little more than a public nuisance. The blaming of the Christians for the A.D. 64 Fire of Rome was purely politically motivated, although the Christian "resistance" movement to Roman oppression probably included acts that could be considered detrimental to the State. I suppose one could sum up early Roman and Christian writings of one another as nationalistic squabbling. However, one could easily conclude that because of the intense socio-political atmosphere of the time, it could be easily understood as natural human interaction.

Edited by E. I.Smith

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I have researched the origins of the four Gospels, as well as the history of First Century Rome, for many years.  I am convinced that the canonical Gospels do all date to the First Century, and therefore, do preserve a fairly accurate narrative of the events of Jesus' life.  I have two novels published and a third mostly completed that are set in this time period; I would invited everyone on the forum to check them out if this is a subject of interest - the titles are THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE and THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME.

It was great fun to take everything we know of men like Pontius Pilate, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero and attempt to breathe life into them, transforming them from historical figures to dynamic characters in a flowing narrative.  I especially welcome the comments of my fellow Romanophiles!!

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The apochryphal literature of the Holy Bible includes the telling of Bible stories that are not in the Bible's text, but fit into the Bible's overall narrative. You might enjoy reading the book of 1 Maccabees for insights into the time periods that you write about. The Maccabees in particular feature the Roman Republic as a critical component of its narrative.

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Whether a story/gospel fitted the 'overall narrative' was a  decision of the Romans in the fourth century and argued over ever since. As much as I've been reliably informed that the Bible contains valuable sociological info, the 'story' is extremely dubious in many degrees and certainly cannot be regarded as a reliable historical source - it was never intended to be, since it contained the censored material conducive to religious conformity as patronised by Constantine I in the first instance.

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It's not exactly the four gospels, but there's a CUP book https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/acts-of-the-apostles-and-the-rhetoric-of-roman-imperialism/D2B7967999AD41B56055E832C87224C6#fndtn-information where "Drew W. Billings demonstrates that Acts was written in conformity with broader representational trends and standards found on imperial monuments and in the epigraphic record of the early second century." 

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