The Expository Files

The Year One

"2,000 years ago, life under Roman rule was bleak and brutal, setting the stage for Christianity." Thus read the message on the cover of the January 8, 2001 issue of U.S. News & World Report. The cover article was entitled The Year One A.D. and had a photograph of a sculpted bust of Emperor Augustus. The article within is found on pages 38 through 45.

Of course, the people alive in 1 A.D. did not know it as that. They thought in terms of the founding of the Rome. To them, the calendar read that it was year 745 A.U.C. which was Latin for "founding of the city."

A sixth century monk, Dionysius Exiguus figured out centuries later the year of Jesus' birth and devised a calendar based on his reckoning. Unfortunately, he miscalculated. Jesus was probably already 5 to 7 years old.

It would be big time culture shock if you or I were suddenly dumped into the Roman Empire in "year one." One historian suggested we might find it easier to deal with aliens from the stars than deal with Romans on their own terms.

Augustus was 63 years old in year one. He was 5 foot 5 inches tall and had gallstones, dirty teeth and "a knack for climbing to the top and staying there." He was in the 27th year of his 41 year reign. He brought a good road system and order to the increasingly morally decadent empire. It is these three things; good roads, order (Pax Romana) and the moral decadence that made this era the right time for the coming of the Messiah. The gospel would speedily make its way throughout the Empire.

The people of the empire were overwhelmingly poor. About one tenth of one percent of the people belonged to the elite rich that we see so often in the movies. Below that you had the "upper middle class" which were barely better off than the extreme poor. The upper middle class slept on straw, went barefoot, and ate pork, vegetables and bread.

Bribery was rampant. Chariot races were popular. A day in the forum would typically begin with wild beast matches where packs of dogs would win over herds of deer; bears could defeat bulls and lions usually finished off tigers. In the afternoon, it would become human versus animals. At times, the humans would be given spears; at others, no training or weapons whatsoever. This was usually justified by saying that the human victims were condemned criminals anyway, but later in the century some of these criminals would be men and women who were simply the "wrong" religion... they were Christians. The crowd preferred smaller beasts to larger ones. They never wanted it to be over too quickly. The more gore. The better. That's entertainment!

Family life was disintegrating. Augustus had his own "family values" program, not for any kind of moral reasons but rather to keep Rome's population from shrinking. Married men who had three or more children were more likely to advance. Women who become mothers of three gained more say in property rights. The unmarried were penalized. In divorce, fathers always got the children. The age limit for getting married was ten years old. Affection was rarely an ingredient of engagements, but if things worked out it was thought that such could eventually develop. There are other things that they found quite natural which we would find repugnant. Feeding people to wild animals to the cheers of delight of the masses was not thought of as strange or questionable by most. To take a conquered city's residents; killing all the women and children and taking the males into slavery; was no cause of outrage, but "as natural as water running downhill." A father's tossing an unwanted infant onto a dung heap was completely inoffensive. Children were not considered humans until they walked and talked. (Of course, our modern decision that a baby is not human until he or she is born is just as arbitrary).

Questioning such behavior was not a art of a typical Roman's thought processes. But a new and strange way of looking at the world and others was being born. It would bring justice, honor and love to the forefront. It would speak of human dignity as a characteristic that belonged to everyone; rich or poor; slave or free; male or female. Compassion would no longer be thought of as a foolish weakness. As people heard of it for the first time, there would be different reactions. Some would scoff; but a light would go on for others as they came to realize that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).

By Jon W. Quinn
The Final Page
From Expository Files 8.5; May 2001