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2.2 The World of the Apostles

Around 30 AD peace had come to be accepted in the Roman Empire, even in the occupied countries. There were, of course, some local rebellions from time to time but Rome was running the Empire firmly and, as far as could be seen, this situation was going to last. Augustus and his successor, Tiberius, made certain that nothing would change and that their authority was accepted by all. Any rebellion or local riot was crushed before it could grow. The Pax Romana brought prosperity, trade, education, cultural and language homogeneity, and safe travel. The only trouble spot was Judea where the local population was hostile. Herod and his successors ruled since the days of the first Caesar by delegation from Rome. They understood, after visiting Rome, even if their people did not, that Rome was there to stay, and that the Pax Romana was the best alternative available. The Judeans could not see farther that their borders and they hated the Romans as oppressors, idol-worshipper inferiors, and outside the Covenant with God. They always rebelled and assassinated the Roman soldiers whenever there was an opportunity. In the end only Rome could win, but the will for independence in the Jews was so high that rationality had no place. The Jews were ready to loose the safety and prosperity they had gained by being part of the big Empire as nothing Rome was doing was right to the Jews. On the other hand the Romans had to keep Judea quiet, or face rebellion everywhere else. The Romans tried to be fair but there was no way to satisfy the Jews and the outcome was tragic for Judea.

The Roman peace opened the known world to travel, and this facilitated dissemination of Christianity. In every Roman city Jews were to be found. All Israelites from the Judah, or any of the other twelve tribes, were now known as “Jews”. As we have seen Judah was the Royal tribe of David and Jew an abbreviation for Judah. The Exiled from Babylon came back to Jerusalem and it was the strongest tribe and the keeper of the Jerusalem Temple, the most important religious building for the Jews anywhere in the world. Intermarriage between members of the different tribes in the Diaspora helped to bring all the Jews together, and to identify themselves with Judah. Those who did not joint this spiritual and nationalistic movement were soon lost, not as a whole tribe, but individually, through intermarriage with Gentiles or attrition by getting away from the main stream. The dispersion of the tribes of Israel started in 725 BC when Assyria removed many people from the Northern tribes to their country. There were other waves of forced removal from Palestine with the result that Jews were living all over the world. The Apostles, went travelling, always went first to the Jews so this dispersion helped their mission. The language of each country was used locally but, through the Roman Empire, Greek and Latin were of common use. This helped Greek philosophy and culture to penetrate in the Empire and, later on, it would become the literary and linguistic vehicles for the Christian Gospel. Exchange of goods and customs were made easy due to the good and safe Roman roads and sea ways. The Christian faith was propagated this way. In the first century the Roman world, despite its initial cruelties and harsh conditions, became united into the largest empire ever known. The Mongol Empire of the Middle Age was bigger and more populated, but it did not last or leave any civilisation. It was an Empire of destruction who soon faded back where it came from in Asia. On the opposite Rome’s culture lasted until today. Rome drew its culture from other nations, starting with the Etruscans, but they soon became assimilated and they disappeared. Egypt and Greece also had a big influence on the Roman Empire.
Palestine is at the confluence of three continents and on this small piece of land the Jews came, went, and came back again. It was conquered by the Greek and the Romans but none really subdued the local people as rebellion never stopped completely. The Romans, however, were too strong and would have taken over from the Herods if these local kings could not resolve the situation. The Herods would have lost face and power and they tried to stop the rebellions with their own means. Jesus Christ was illegally charged, judged, and condemned to death for blasphemy, sedition, and treason after that the Roman Governor Pilate had found him innocent. Of course these accusations were false. Jesus was condemned because he threatened the Jewish political and ceremonial religion system as well as exposing the religious bureaucracy of the professional priests, Pharisees and Saducees. For these reasons all the main Jewish leaders wanted Jesus to die. His Apostles, after the resurrection, were very popular in Judea. The death of Jesus lay on the public conscience and the Apostles’ promise of salvation, for those who repented, was most welcomed. As a result thousand of Jews became Christian converts after the Resurrection. No big enough meeting place was available in Jerusalem to accommodate all of them and, although the Authorities tried to discourage the Apostles, nothing could stop them. Despite the martyrdom of some Apostles (Stephen and James, the brother of John) and the imprisonment of Peter, the Christian church continued to grow and soon it spilled out of Judea to Samaria, the whole of Palestine and Antioch in Syria, the cross road of East and West. From Antioch the Christians sent Barnabas and Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul), his friend, to Barnabas island home, Cyprus, where they converted first the Jews then the Gentiles. From there they went to the mainland of Asia Minor and it became obvious that the Gospel had been intended for all, Jews and Gentiles alike, and was well accepted by all. Christianity was not to be exclusively Jewish anymore to become a universal movement. Paul and Barnabas were not the first to open Christianity to the Gentiles. This had been done on Pentecost day when Jews and Gentiles together heard the message after the ascension of Jesus but, in Jerusalem, conversion of the Gentiles was very limited. The eleven surviving Apostles, after the death of James, remained in Jerusalem or at least in Palestine for some time but soon Jewish persecutions forced some of them to go in other countries as Jesus had asked them to do. As the Jewish Authorities were still unwilling to accept Jesus as the Christ, the Apostles first tried to convert the Jews and, if rejected, turned to the Gentiles in the same way that Paul and Barnabas had done. As the book of “Acts” records, persecution moved Christianity out of Jerusalem into the Roman world with a universal message for Jews and Gentiles alike. Rome was more hostile to Christianity that Jerusalem had been but many Jews and Gentiles accepted the new faith. During the life of the Apostles, Jesus’ message had reached Gaul, Britain, Alexandria, Carthage, Scythia, Armenia, Persia and India. This missionary work was quite adventurous however the Apostles did not realise that they were making history and they did not leave us many direct records. (31)

St. Luke, who wrote the book of the “Acts”, tells us how St. Paul really started to preach to the Gentiles and to convert them to Christianism, freeing the movement from it’s limited Jewish roots. After the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus Christ, the Gospel was presented to the Gentiles as God always intended. Pentecost was an international experience as Jews and Gentiles alike from different countries were present in Jerusalem on that occasion. God’s explicit approval of Gentile evangelisation exists, even if it is not always clear to everybody now. For instance Peter was told by God to baptise Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Initially St. Paul was a faithful Jew and, even after his conversion, he never broke the Mosaic law. In his preaching campaign he always tried first to convert the Jews and, only after being rejected, and sometime persecuted, did he go to the Gentiles. Some historians have noticed that the Apostles remained a long time in Jerusalem after the resurrection, perhaps 25 years. This could be interpreted as if they wanted to cling to Judaism and the Temple despite the fact that Jesus asked them to preach to all nations. During that time they converted and accepted some Gentiles, but they always came back to Jerusalem. Even during the time of persecution they avoided to leave their town as if they were afraid to break with Judaism. The book of the “Acts” was written in 66 AD and, by that time, most Apostles had left Jerusalem. That book covers a period of about thirty-five years and presents St. Paul’s challenge to the early Christians, as well as to the Apostles, in converting the Gentiles of all nations as Jesus asked. St. Luke addressed the book to the “Theophilus” but we know nothing of them. It could be that St. Paul, in a very devious way, wanted to remind the Apostles that God asked them to preach to the world and not only to the Jews of Jerusalem. He could not attack them openly as they were Jesus’ disciples long before he joined Christianity. St Paul had noted the reluctance of the Apostles to reach the Gentiles and, in his own way, he wanted to encourage and remind them of their duty. Later on the Apostles agreed on a world strategy of evangelisation and each of them went on his own way after “dividing” the world between themselves so that each had his own zone of influence. If this change of strategy is due to St. Paul is unknown, but his example must have been noted. By 64 AD Peter had gone to Asia Minor but it is not clear if all the Apostles had already left Jerusalem by that date, or if they had started to preach to the Gentiles. (31)