The Roman empire, though directly establishing no more than an outward political union, still promoted indirectly a mutual intellectual and moral approach of the hostile religious of the Jews and Gentiles, who were to be reconciled in one divine brotherhood by the supernatural power of the cross of Christ.
1. The Jews, since the Babylonish captivity, had been scattered over all the world. They were as ubiquitous in the Roman empire in the first century as they are now throughout, Christendom. According to Josephus and Strabo, there was no country where they did not make up a part of the population. Among the witnesses of the miracle of Pentecost were |Jews from every nation under heaven ... Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers of Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.| In spite of the antipathy of the Gentiles, they had, by talent and industry, risen to wealth, influence, and every privilege, and had built their synagogues in all the commercial cities of the Roman empire. Pompey brought a considerable number of Jewish captives from Jerusalem to the capital (b.c.63), and settled them on the right bank of the Tiber (Trastevere). By establishing this community he furnished, without knowing it, the chief material for the Roman church. Julius Caesar was the great protector of the Jews; and they showed their gratitude by collecting for many nights to lament his death on the forum where his murdered body was burnt on a funeral pile. He granted them the liberty of public worship, and thus gave them a legal status as a religious society. Augustus confirmed these privileges. Under his reign they were numbered already by thousands in the city. A reaction followed; Tiberius and Claudius expelled them from Rome; but they soon returned, and succeeded in securing the free exercise of their rites and customs. The frequent satirical allusions to them prove their influence as well as the aversion and contempt in which they were held by the Romans. Their petitions reached the ear of Nero through his wife Poppaea, who seems to have inclined to their faith; and Josephus, their most distinguished scholar, enjoyed the favor of three emperors -- Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. In the language of Seneca (as quoted by Augustin) |the conquered Jews gave laws to their Roman conquerors.|
By this dispersion of the Jews the seeds of the knowledge of the true God and the Messianic hope were sown in the field of the idolatrous world. The Old Testament Scriptures were translated into Greek two centuries before Christ, and were read and expounded in the public worship of God, which was open to all. Every synagogue was a mission-station of monotheism, and furnished the apostles an admirable place and a natural introduction for their preaching of Jesus Christ as the fulfiller of the law and the prophets.
Then, as the heathen religious had been hopelessly undermined by skeptical philosophy and popular infidelity, many earnest Gentiles especially multitudes of women, came over to Judaism either, wholly or in part. The thorough converts, called |proselytes of righteousness,| were commonly still more bigoted and fanatical than the native Jews. The half-converts, |proselytes of the gate| or |fearers of God,| who adopted only the monotheism, the principal moral laws, and the Messianic hopes of the Jews, without being circumcised, appear in the New Testament as the most susceptible hearers of the gospel, and formed the nucleus of many of the first Christian churches. Of this class were the centurion of Capernaum, Cornelius of Caesarea, Lydia of Philippi, Timothy, and many other prominent disciples.
2. On the other hand, the Graeco-Roman heathenism, through its language, philosophy, and literature, exerted no inconsiderable influence to soften the fanatical bigotry of the higher and more cultivated classes of the Jews. Generally the Jews of the dispersion, who spoke the Greek language -- the |Hellenists,| as they were called -- were much more liberal than the proper |Hebrews,| or Palestinian Jews, who kept their mother tongue. This is evident in the Gentile missionaries, Barnabas of Cyprus and Paul of Tarsus, and in the whole church of Antioch, in contrast with that at Jerusalem. The Hellenistic form of Christianity was the natural bridge to the Gentile.
The most remarkable example of a transitional, though very fantastic and Gnostic-like combination of Jewish and heathen elements meets us in the educated circles of the Egyptian metropolis, Alexandria, and in the system of Philo, who was born about b.c.20, and lived till after a.d.40, though he never came in contact with Christ or the apostles. This Jewish, divine sought to harmonize the religion of Moses with the philosophy of Plato by the help of an ingenious but arbitrary allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament; and from the books of Proverbs and of Wisdom he deduced a doctrine of the Logos so strikingly like that of John's Gospel, that many expositors think it necessary to impute to the apostle an acquaintance with the writings, or at least with the terminology of Philo. But Philo's speculation is to the apostle's |Word made flesh| as a shadow to the body, or a dream to the reality. He leaves no room for an incarnation, but the coincidence of his speculation with the great fact is very remarkable.
The Therapeutae or Worshippers, a mystic and ascetic sect in Egypt, akin to the Essenes in Judaea, carried this Platonic Judaism into practical life; but were, of course, equally unsuccessful in uniting the two religions in a vital and permanent way. Such a union could only be effected by a new religion revealed from heaven.
Quite independent of the philosophical Judaism of Alexandria were the Samaritans, a mixed race, which also combined, though in a different way, the elements of Jewish and Gentile religion. They date from the period of the exile. They held to the Pentateuch, to circumcision, and to carnal Messianic hopes; but they had a temple of their own on Mount Gerizim, and mortally hated the proper Jews. Among these Christianity, as would appear from the interview of Jesus with the woman of Samaria, and the preaching of Philip, found ready access, but, as among the Essenes and Therapeutae fell easily into a heretical form. Simon Magus, for example, and some other Samaritan arch-heretics, are represented by the early Christian writers as the principal originators of Gnosticism.
3. Thus was the way for Christianity prepared on every side, positively and negatively, directly and indirectly, in theory and in practice, by truth and by error, by false belief and by unbelief -- those hostile brothers, which yet cannot live apart -- by Jewish religion, by Grecian culture, and by Roman conquest; by the vainly attempted amalgamation of Jewish and heathen thought, by the exposed impotence of natural civilization, philosophy, art, and political power, by the decay of the old religions, by the universal distraction and hopeless misery of the age, and by the yearnings of all earnest and noble souls for the religion of salvation.
|In the fulness of the time,| when the fairest flowers of science and art had withered, and the world was on the verge of despair, the Virgin's Son was born to heal the infirmities of mankind. Christ entered a dying world as the author of a new and imperishable life.