A World-Changing Impact: The Roman Empire’s Impact on the Early Christian Church It would be simple enough to say that the Christian faith has much to do with Rome’s political status and the instatement of the Pax Romana, but there are so many other factors that had the great empire closely correlated with the Christian faith. For one, a succession of rulers with different types of ruling styles would force believers and converts to flee in fear of persecution, but one important and overlying factor was the spread of the Word of God and his works through his son, Jesus.
Throughout history, the Roman Empire has had a great impact on the Christian faith both positively and negatively, but the Message and the fervor of its followers has been able to stand the tests of man and time. The Pax Romana’s reign over the Roman Empire can be followed after the end of the Republic Civil Wars and the rise of Augustus in 27 BC. During this time, fighting relatively ceased with some skirmishes still occurring in Spain and in the Alps and Augustus instated himself as the lead power of Rome. Alternatively, the name speaks for itself: Pax Romana translates to “Roman peace”.
Some scholars believe that because of this emergence of peace, the Roman world was “set up” for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This openness to His ministry meant that more and more people would be accepting to hear it, but as history shows us, this religious tolerance would not last forever. Abigania 2 During Augustus’ rule, a rise to power that has some scholars arguing over whether or not his claim to the throne was out of necessity or greed, much – if not all – of Rome’s institutions underwent reformation.
Changes to society, politics, and the governing of land were not necessarily “changed” for improvement, but simply directed to one person: Augustus. One event that has a major impact on the Christian faith is the Census of Quirinius. In Luke 2:1-7, readers will find the story of Christ’s birth which happens under Augustus’ rule. Verses one through 3 read: 1 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. One cannot speak about the impact the Roman Empire had on Christianity unless he or she mentions the Census of Quirinius. In context, during this time, the countries of Syria and Iudaea were acquired by the emperor and in order to increase profit, he had the census – which had every person in the Empire go back to their homes of origin – instated. Joseph and Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, travel back to Bethlehem.
There, the life of Christ and his ministry would take off. Whether one would argue over Augustus’ impact on Christianity being positive or negative, his reforms would bring peace to Rome for at least two hundred years. After Augustus, another emperor would rise to power: Tiberius. Tiberius’ reign began 14 AD and continued on through until his death 37 AD. Jesus’ ministry began, according to Luke 1, fifteen years into Tiberius’ reign. Albeit the spread of the miracles performed by Jesus spread through Rome quite rapidly, some debate that Tiberius may not have even known of Jesus’ existence because in 26 AD, Tiberius had moved to his palace on the island of Capri. The impact Tiberius had on the early Christian church was not so direct, but through another governor during his reign. Pontius Pilate would be very important to Jesus’ ministry in that he is pivotal in the completion of Jesus’ purpose on earth by way of The Crucifixion. Brought before Pilate, Jesus would be sentenced to death because of Pilate’s fear of rumors of a rising “King of the Jews”. Pilate’s decision is mentioned in each book of the Canonical Gospels.
Some may argue that each book takes a different light on Pilate, but the facts remain that as in Matthew 27:24, Pilate “washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours! ’” Another emperor, the second after Tiberius, would be known for a huge move. Claudius is held responsible for the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 49 AD for “causing riots”. In Acts 18:2, Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth: 2 There he [Paul] became acquainted with a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently arrived from Italy with his wife, Priscilla.
They had left Italy when Claudius Caesar deported all Jews from Rome. At this time, the apostle Paul had already began his trip to spread the word of God with other cultures and because of Claudius’ decree; he helped spread the Gospel by expelling the Jews (including the ones who believed in the Jesus’ message) out of Rome. Abigania 4 In the early Christian church, no name stirred up fear like Nero. Nero was noted as the first Roman emperor to persecute the Christian church as a whole. His relentless torture and execution of the Christian people would have Rome in one of its bloodiest reigns yet.
On one such event, Nero is said to have blamed the early Christian church the reason why the city of Rome burned down. Nero’s rule would frighten the early Christian church into hiding in fear of a torturous death. During this time, Christians were known to flee underground. Meetings would be discreet having secret symbols and words. For example, in today’s society, the “Christian fish” was a symbol that represented Christ during Nero’s rule. Some speculate this has to do with the feeding of the 5,000 in the book of John, while others may say it has to do with the idea of Christ making believers “fishers of men”.
With Nero in power, it would not be for almost another 250 years until the early Christian church would see freedom from persecution. One of the final Roman emperors to have a great impact on the Christian church is Constantine. Constantine ruled from 330 AD to 337 AD, but a decision that would give the early Christian church freedom from persecution would come before he was seated at the Roman throne. To obtain this freedom, Constantine instated the Edict of Milan. The Edict of Milan called for religious tolerance in the Roman Empire.
With this new law instated, Christians could come out of hiding and practice their faith openly without the fear of death. On top of open practicing, any property belonging to the Christian church that was taken from them would be returned. Abigania 5 Constantine would be known as the first Christian Roman emperor however, much of his story about his acceptance of Christ is shrouded by legend. In fact, one account has it that one night while he was sleeping Constantine received a dream – a command – to place the sign of Christ (the cross) on the shields of his soldiers before heading to war.
By doing so, Constantine was victorious at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Most accounts of this story are vague, and scholars agree more often than not that this story, although fantastical and extremely noble of him, may be false and that this story may have been concocted to help his image with the Christian community. Another story about his acceptance of Christ as Savior has it that on his deathbed, he accepts Christ in hopes to atone for all his sins and gain entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Whatever the case may be, Constantine’s rule as emperor helped pave the way for Christians during his time. The Christian faith that is practiced today has much to do with the events that unfolded in the ancient days of Rome. The lives sacrificed, the time given to spread the Good News, but most importantly, the blood that was shed by Jesus Christ gives all who believe in Him the opportunity for everlasting life – and none of this would have been possible had it not been for God’s master plan.
The Roman Empire had much to do with the early Christian church and for the most part, in a way, helped shaped it to what it would become in years to follow. Today, religious freedom may not be a universal idea, the Message of God and the teachings of Jesus can be seen on every continent in almost every language. Although many atrocious events happened to the early Christian church under Roman rule, had it not been, the world might have turned out to be a whole different place.