History tell us that Rome ruled over Israel with an iron fist during the time of Jesus. Yet, when we read the New Testament, although Roman cruelty is professed, we also see the Roman softer side. For example, we have the faithful Roman Officer in Matthew 8:10 and the hesitation of Emperor Pilate in cosigning Jesus’ demise. Understandably, this duality of Rome seems questionable, it being both cruel and compassionate. Often when historical accounts clash there is a third answer lurking just below the surface. Come, let us use historical facts and the New Testament to determine Rome’s underlying motive.
Roman Authority: Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor that will always be known throughout history as giving Jesus’ death sentence. As sources from that period, we have two credible Jewish writers; Philo of Alexandria and Titus Flavius Josephus 1. Both report that Pilate kept the Jewish populace on the fringe of insurrections because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs. For starters, Philo describes that Pilate intentionally had graven images displayed in Jerusalem to antagonize the Jews. Josephus also records how Pilate spent Temple monies to build an aqueduct. In doing this, he anticipated a protest. Pilate, eager for a fight, had assassins placed in the protesting crowd that ended up killing antagonists after the first sign of Jewish dissension. As Philo so accurately says about Pilate, he possessed a “vindictiveness and furious temper”, and was “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”. Yet, when we read from the gospels; Matthew (Matthew 27), Mark (Mark 15), Luke (Luke 23) and John (John 18-19), we see this cruel decisive Roman Ruler portrayed as uncertain and passive. Here, Jesus’ executioner, who has never had a problem with killing a Jew and starting a rebellion before, now is painted as a bureaucratic victim to the Jewish will – “really?”. To further validate this point, Christianity gives the brunt of the blame to the Jew (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, Acts 7:52). Allegations against the Jews like this are confounding, especially since it was the Romans who not only killed Jesus, but also tortured him. Another interesting twist is how, at the end of the gospels, it is Romans that vindicate Jesus by stating “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54) and “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47). Talk about wagging the dog.
Yes, as Christians, we were taught that Pilate’s hesitation was because he was in awe, secretly knowing this was the Messiah. Ok, let us pretend that is correct. Here we have a Roman ruler looking for every excuse in the book to antagonise the Jews and their establishment. So, why wouldn’t he let this self proclaimed “King of the Jews” live? What better way to come up against the Jewish hierarchy? I mean really, Pilate was already employing every excuse to vex the Jewish people possible. Yet, we are to believe that this evil Pilate caves in and all of a sudden decides to become conflicted, loyal to the wishes of a people he loathes?
And what about the other Roman officials? If we can believe the historical writers of the day about Pontius Pilate, we can also assume that his officers would not have been friendly with the locals, to say the least. We could also assume that the Jewish people didn’t have a lot of love for their oppressors. Nonetheless, Jesus makes boastful claims about Roman Officers and officials such as “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel! (Matthew 8:10) and “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:9). Wow, so these pagans have been elevated over God chosen people (Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 7:6-8, 14:2), talk about an awesome PR campaign.
Taxes: Roman Taxes imposed on the average Israelite during the beginning of the first century common era (CE) would have only been about 1 % of a worker’s income 2. This certainly makes most of us Americans, who are paying over 30% in taxes 3, a little jealous. Notwithstanding, this 1% tax situation, wasn’t the real issue. It was the additional taxes, for example, there was a customs taxes, import and export taxes, toll bridges, crop taxes, sales tax, property taxes, and special taxes when there was a war, building project or campaign to finance. 18th century America went to war with England over less. Compounding the problem was the tax collectors, who being native Israelites, made their money by adding to the taxes they collected. This is why the New Testament has so much to say against the tax collector(Matthew 9:11, Luke 7:34, 15:1, 18:11). It is, however, interesting that the resentment is only aimed at these Israelites and not Rome.
On top of these exorbitant taxes was a moral issue, many Jews felt paying taxes to the Roman Empire was a sin. Yet, we have Jesus making the statement;
“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21).
This certainly pacified Christians of that day giving them a theology to be subservient and pay taxes to an occupational force. Yes, the Tanakh (Old Testament) does support being responsible to the laws of the land (Proverbs 21:1 Daniel 2:21, 4:17), but this was taxation “without” representation. As we have seen with the Torah, we do have a moral responsibility to come up against the establishment when things are unjust (Genesis 21:22–34, 31:1-18, Exodus 1:1:15-21) .
So, why the positive spin towards Rome? Simply said, it is very possible Rome had a lot to gain from Christianity and capitalized from it. Consulting the history books, shortly after the supposed New Testament was penned, Rome would crush Israel in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE). As brutal as this was to Israel, there would be two more consecutive Jewish Roman Wars (115-117 CE and 132-136 CE). Consequently, paralleling these Roman Wars against Jewish Israel was the Roman persecution of the Christians. There were centuries where Rome tried to eliminate both Judaism and Christianity. However, about three centuries after Christianity was formed, things would turn around. The Roman Emperor Constantine became one of Christianity’s greatest supporters, and in 313 CE Constantine enacted legislation to protect this new religion. Over 60 years after that, Christianity would bcome the religion of Rome 4. Conversely, at the same time, Constantine passed restrictions towards Judaism.
So, how did the gospels ended up favoring Rome, when it would take about 300 years for Rome to favor the gospels? Well, the Christian New Testament, as we know it, didn’t come into being until 393 CE 5 (about 3 decades after Christianity became the religion of Rome). Before the process of accepting these 27 books that would become the New Testament, there were over 100 books and over 50 gospels 6 that Christians followed. These 150 plus books presented a problem. Many of them contradicted each other and challenged the new Roman Christian theology. So, after this collection of Christian books was pared down, only 27 remained. Likewise, from the over 50 gospels only four were chosen. These four books, not surprisingly, endorsed Christianity’s new homeland – Rome.
As Karl Marx so eloquently states it, “Religion is the opium of the people”. Constantine lived this maxim, well before Mr. Marx coined it. One of the things that may have inspired Constantine, could have been the vigor of the Christian martyr. As we know, many early Christians easily exchanged their lives, so as to not swear allegiance to the Roman Emperor. This martyrdom, which might have seemed foolish, surely gave testimony of a convicted people. Rome might have tried to harness this passion. Another possibility is that Christianity may have been such a strong movement that Rome got caught up in the inertia. Either way, Rome appeared to have colored the early Christian writings to make them appear to support the Empire (Taxes and Authority), while ostracizing Judaism.
- Wylen, Stephen M., The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction, Paulist Press (1995), ISBN 0-8091-3610-4, Pp 190-192.
- Kasten, Patricia. “When Taxes Came Due in Jesus’ Time.” The Compass. N.p., 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.
- Feroldi, Brian. “How Much Does the Average American Pay in Taxes?” The Motley Fool. The Motley Fool, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.
- “Rome Becomes Christian, Western Empire Ends.” Timeline of Early Christianity–The Lost Gospel of Judas–National Geographic. National Geographic, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017
- McDonald & Sanders’ The Canon Debate, Appendix D-2, note 19, 1 Dec. 2001.
- Waite, Charles B. History of the Christian religion, to the year two hundred. Chicago: C.V. Waite & Co., 1884. Print.