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The Roman Empire: The Background of the New Testament

Adrian Curtis

The Roman Empire

The broad context for the setting of the New Testament is the Roman Empire which had been inaugurated by Augustus Caesar. Formerly known as Octavian(us), he had put an end to a period of civil war and brought a welcome era of peace to the Roman and Hellenistic worlds as a result of his victory over Mark Antony in a naval battle at Actium in 31 BCE. He was declared ‘Augustus’ in 27 BCE and lived until 14 CE. His successors Tiberius, Gaius (nicknamed Caligula), Claudius, and Nero ruled over an empire which incorporated the parts of Europe roughly bounded by the Atlantic (but including Britain), the Rhine, and the Danube, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean coast‐lands as far east as the upper Euphrates and the Arabian Desert, and Africa north of the Sahara. There were certain frontier wars and, at the end of that period, the revolt of the Jews (66–70) and, after the death of Nero, a time of civil strife in 69 (sometimes known as the ‘year of the four emperors’: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian). But to a large extent the empire was at peace, permitting unrestricted travel.

Provinces were governed by proconsuls or legates, responsible to the Roman Senate in peaceful areas (for example, Gallio in Achaia; Acts 18: 12 ) or personally to the emperor in military and frontier provinces (for example, Quirinius in Syria; Luke 2: 1–2 ). Client kingdoms, under native kings appointed and controlled by Rome, were established in certain difficult areas which were not considered ready for provincial status. One such was the kingdom of Herod the Great (see ‘The Kingdom of Herod and his Successors’ ). The eastern frontier was garrisoned against the nations beyond, in particular the Parthians who had destroyed a Roman army at Carrhae (the former Haran) in 53 BCE. However, throughout the New Testament period the Syrian frontier was quiet. The description of the day of Pentecost in Acts 2: 9–11 reflects an awareness of a time of relative peace and ease of travel. Jews from Parthia, Media, Elam, and Mesopotamia as well as those from Asia Minor, North Africa, and other parts of the Roman Empire are all said to have been present in Jerusalem at the same time.

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