The Prefect was in a difficult spot. As an honest Roman official, he knew better than to get mixed up in the turbulent local politics. The local religious establishment wanted a rebel to be executed. They said the rebel claimed to be ruler of the Roman Empire, a pathetic but direct challenge to the authority of the Emperor. Tiberius was a fair man, of course, and did not wish to receive divine honors, but this imposter’s claim was too much for the overworked procurator to endure:
“Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks, repeating the charge made by the Sanhedrin.
The answer takes the prefect by surprise:
“Did you come up with that on your own or did other people give you the idea?”
“What do you think I am? A Jew? [Big laughs, as I imagine, from the Roman staff.]
This exchange is from the account set down in old age by John, the “beloved disciple” of the rebel leader. John is the one member of the inner circle known to have written down his recollections of the master, and he also records Jesus final answer to Pontius Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world.” If it did, he said, his followers would be up in arms to defend him.
In all the accounts, Pilate comes across as a reasonable and responsible representative of Roman authority. The trouble is that, like most bureaucrats, he feels himself vulnerable. In John, Pilate finds no basis of a charge against him, and in Luke the procurator is warned by his wife not to do anything against that just man.
From the Roman point of view, this Jesus whom they called the Christ or “the anointed one” had done nothing wrong, but since the Jews did not have the authority to put a criminal to death, it was up to the Roman administration. Pilate resisted the mob’s demands, until the Jewish leaders played their trump card: “If you let him go, this man who has challenged the emperor’s universal authority, you are no friend to Caesar.”
To Pilate, this was a serious threat. He must have been thinking: “Why not just say my career is over? Pilate would have known that Tiberius was basically a just and competent ruler, but also that he was suspicious almost to the point of paranoia. The trial is taking place about A.D.30, and only 11 years earlier Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus had died suspiciously in Syria, poisoned—so the widow claimed—by the governor on the orders of the emperor and/or his mother. (I do not believe the charge is just, but many must have believed it). When things got hot for the governor of Syria, he had to commit suicide to save his family. Pilate, in other words, has every reason to be afraid.
Tiberius, for all his personal faults, was, nonetheless, an excellent administrator, and, as a Roman aristocrat of the ancient Claudian gens, he despised the fawning adulation he received from servile senators. “How eager they are to be slaves,” he was heard one day as he left the Senate.
According to a later Christian tradition, when Tiberius heard of this strange Jewish renegade who alone did not want to kick the Romans out of Judaea, he proposed to the senate that Christ be included in the pantheon of Roman gods. The Senate, so the story goes, objected, declaring the new religion to be illicit, though Judaism was protected by law. Assuming, as most scholars (except Marta Sordi) do not, that the story is true, why should the senate make such a declaration? Was it to embarrass Tiberius? Were they bribed? Or were they simply offended by one more mystery cult invading Rome from the East?
Even if the story is true, we shall never know why the senators rejected Tiberius’ proposal, but Roman position, that Christianity was an illegal cult whose founder had been disloyal to the Empire, though it was never enforced by Tiberius or by the next two emperors, would eventually give Nero the authority he needed to ignite—literally—the first important persecution.
If John’s was the last legitimate gospel to be written, the first—according to tradition—was set down by Matthew, the so-called Hebrew Gospel, which might have been written in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews in those days, rather than in Hebrew. The gospel we have today is probably a translation of that “Hebrew Gospel” but with some materials used also by Luke. What is distinctive about the first gospel is the beginning: Biblos geneseos Iesou Christou. Abraam egenesen ton Isaak…. There are 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to Jesus. Thus Jesus is an historical fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom, with the difference that Jesus will rule not just the Israelites but the entire world—though in a spiritual sense.
Neither Matthew nor John were much interested in the details of the birth story, for which we have to turn to Luke. “There went out in those days a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed….” In modern English, the word “taxed” is misleading since the decree actually called for the empire’s inhabitants to be enrolled in census. This famous sentence from Luke’s Gospel reminds us of Eusebius’ observation that the story of the Christian Church begins in the reign of the man who created the Roman Empire. These two institutions—Church and Empire—will develop together, often as enemies, but eventually (at least in principle) as friends and allies.
The Roman imperial order was the political order of the West, the civilized world. Judged by its failures—the execution of Christ, the stoning of Stephen, the oppression of the provincials, and the imperfect justice it administered—one cannot blame some Christians (such as the author of the Apocalypse, writing after the persecution had begun) for condemning it as Babylon.
But Paul, writing before the Great Fire at Rome, advised his followers that the sword of justice was given to the ruler by God almighty. Paul was proud enough of his Roman citizenship to invoke it when his Jewish enemies demanded his execution. Indeed, it was only the Roman imperial authority that prevented the Sanhedrin from going house to house killing the heretical followers of the “false” messiah.
By the end of the 1st Century, Christianity had grown beyond a Jewish sect that claimed that the prophecies had been fulfilled. Looking back on their experiences, Christian leaders as different as Paul and John could see that the Incarnation had a universal significance. This was no “invention” of the disciples: The prophetic books of Jonah and Job, in diverse ways, portray the gentiles (and Job, the righteous forerunner of Jesus, is a gentile) as worthy of redemption.
The preface to John’s Gospel locates Him before time: “In the beginning was the word.” Matthew’s sequence of “Begats,” however, locates Christ in time and space, which is entirely appropriate since He was the God who became Man and entered history at a particular time and place. Christians would begin to see history less as the cycle of ages eternally recurring and more as a projection from the past into the present and beyond toward the future when His return would change the earth. Though Christ himself had told his disciples that they would not know the time or manner of his coming, they were mere human beings who wanted an apocalypse now, and if this meant rejecting the Empire, the social order, and all ancient civilization, some Christians (Judas, Tertullian) were prepared to do just that.
Wiser heads, acting with the guidance of the Holy Ghost, prevailed, and Christianity, right from the beginning, developed in a close relationship with both the Empire and with the civilization that the Empire defended. How Christianity evolved from a sect of disaffected Jews into a universal Church working with and against a quasi-universal Empire is the theme of these essays in historical understanding.
I make no claim to original thought or deep scholarship, and I am not writing as Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, and I do not propose to enter into sectarian polemics. I am no theologian nor do I wish to be. As a mere philologist, my method is always to begin with texts and to attempt to make plain sense of them. My only desire is to be a conduit of an ancient Christian understanding of the Church.
For readers interested in this series, which is derived from lectures I have given over the years both in Rome and in the New Rome known as Rockford, I may post many installments only on the blog page and not on the front page. This way my tedious meanderings through history will not be taking away space from our regular commentators on the passing scene.