Course:  Church History (1)

Course Title:  Church History and the Standard of the New Testament

Section One: Departure from the simplicity of the New Testament Church.  

Lesson Two:  The Historical Background to the New Testament



Introduction:  The Roman Empire during the time of the New Testament


Factors that attributed to the spread of the Gospel.


  • The Roman Empire 


  1. Peace - Pax Romana.  The reign of Augustus brought peace to the Empire.
  2. Roads – Travel.  The Romans built roads throughout the empire making it possible for ordinary people to travel across the empire.
  3. Roman Government – Judea and Samaria were ruled by a Roman procurator (AD 6).  Roman citizenship gave great prestige, and gave the holder rights of protection.   
  4. Language – Latin in the West, Greek in the East.  A common language made communication easier between nations.
  5. Roman Religion – The emperor was regarded as a god and people were obliged to offer sacrifice to the Emperor.  The Jewish religion was regarded as ’religio licita’ and therefore Jews were not obliged to sacrifice to the emperor.  Christianity was initially seen as a Jewish sect and no obligation was made for Christians to sacrifice to the emperor until Christianity and Judaism were regarded as separate religions.







Roman Emperors during the time of the New Testament


  • The Roman Emperors 


Julio-Claudian Emperors  (Birth of Jesus – Death of Paul in Rome)


  1. Augustus Caesar (27BC – 14AD)
  2. Tiberius Caesar (14 – 37)
  3. Caligula (37 – 41)
  4. Claudius (41 – 54)
  5. Nero (54 – 68)


 Flavian Emperors  (Siege of Jerusalem – Exile of John on Patmos)


  1. Vespasian (69 – 79)
  2. Titus (79 – 81) son of Vepasian
  3. Domitian (81 – 96) son of Vespasian, younger brother of Titus.




Main Points

1.  Augustus Caesar (63 BC – AD 14)

Augustus was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire (27 BC - AD 14)


Pontifex Maximus

Augustus took the title Pontifex Maximus in 12 BC

Pontifex Maximus was the head of the priesthood of Ancient Rome

The office was held for life.


People were commanded to offer sacrifice to the Emperor.


Jews were exempt (religio licita)

The title Pontifex Maximus was retained by the Bishop of Rome after the fall of the Roman Empire.



The birth of Jesus took place when Augustus was Emperor (c. 6-5 BC)

Luke 2:1   And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

Luke 2:2    (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)


Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c.51BC – AD21)

Greek Quirinius - Κυρήνιος - Kyrenios or Cyrenius

Governor of Syria (AD 6)


There is a problem here with the date.

The census when Quirinius was governor of Syria took place c.AD 6 after Archelaus was banished and Judea and Samaria came under the control of a Roman procurator.

Herod had been dead for 9 years before Quirinius became governor and the census of Luke 2:2 took place at least 2 years before the death of Herod..


Luke 2:2 appears to be translated incorrectly and should read ‘before Cyrenius was governor of Syria.

The Greek work ‘prote’ prwth means ‘first in order’ and can therefore mean before.


The census in Luke 2:2 must have been an earlier census that took place before the census carried out after Quirinius became governor of Syria.



Herod the Great died c.4 BC.


After the death of Herod (4 BC).

Herod’s Kingdom divided between his 3 sons (4 BC)

Archelaus ethnarch of Judea

Antipas and Philip ruled as tetrarchs (a fourth part of the kingdom)

Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee

Herod Philip tetrarch of the north- eastern province.  He reigned 37 years – died 20th year of Tiberius (AD 34)


Judea becomes a Roman Province (AD 6)

After complaints from Jews and Samaritans, Archelaus was banished by Rome to Vienna in AD 6 and Judea became a Roman province. 

Then Judea was governed by a procurator, Coponius, but came under the supervision of the legate of Syria, Quirinius.


A census was made in AD 6 providing details of population and resources for the purpose of taxing the Jews.


Formation of Zealots

Taxation by Rome led to formation of Zealots led by Judas of Galilee.  Judas was killed but he is mentioned in Acts 5:37.





2.  Emperor Tiberius (14-37)


Notes on Tiberius


There was a time of good government in Rome from AD 14 – 26. 

In AD 26 Tiberius went to Capri in a self imposed exile. 

Sejanus was left in control of Rome.

Sejanus was head of the praetorium guard and trusted by Tiberius.

Sejanus betrayed this trust and conspired against the imperial family.

Sejanus was killed in AD 31.


 The ministry of Jesus took place during the time of unrest in Rome (c.26 - 29)



3.   Caligula (12-41)


Caligula regarded himself as a god.  He had an incestuous affair with his sister who he murdered.


Caligula ordered his image to be placed in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. 

The order was never carried out and Caligula was murdered in AD 41.



4.   Claudius (10BC - 54AD)


Claudius was the friend of Herod Agrippa (10BC-44AD) - Acts 12


Suetonius (69-c.130)

Roman biographer


SUETONIUS  The Twelve Caesars, Claudius, par. 25.

‘He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.’


See Acts 18:2





5.   Nero (37-68)


Nero became emperor through the scheming of his mother, Agrippina.

Agrippina married Claudius who then adopted Nero as his son.


Nero later murdered his mother, Agrippina.



Death of James (c.AD 62)

Flavius Josephus (c.37-100)  -  Wrote the account of how James was stoned to death in Jerusalem (AD c.62)

Ananus assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]

Book 20 Chapter 9:1.



The Fire of Rome (64)

Tacitus (55-117)

The Annals of Rome (109) Book XV


‘Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.’



Nero’s Golden Palace and Gardens




Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.




6.  Vespasian and Titus


The War of the Jews (AD 66 – 70)


Vespasian left Judea during the Jewish revolt to be Emperor.

His son Titus was left to put down the rebellion.

Josephus gives a detailed account of the war of the Jews which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70




Titus held a procession in Rome commemorating his victory over the Jews

Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the procession showing the carrying of


spoils from Jerusalem – Golden Lampstand



Titus became Emperor after his father.



7.  Domitian (51-96)



Domitian was the son of Vespasian and the brother of Titus.




The Persecution of Apostle John under Domitian




Eusebius Chapter XVIII

‘It is said that in this persecution the apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos in consequence of his testimony to the divine word.

Irenaeus, in the fifth book of his work Against Heresies, where he discusses the number of the name of Antichrist which is given in the so-called Apocalypse of John, speaks as follows concerning him: “If it were necessary for his name to be proclaimed openly at the present time, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.”

To such a degree, indeed, did the teaching of our faith flourish at that time that even those writers who were far from our religion did not hesitate to mention in their histories the persecution and the martyrdoms which took place during it.

And they, indeed, accurately indicated the time. For they recorded that in the fifteenth year of Domitian Flavia Domitilla, daughter of a sister of Flavius Clement, who at that time was one of the consuls of Rome, was exiled with many others to the island of Pontia in consequence of testimony borne to Christ.’