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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: What Was the World like in the First Century A.D.?

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What Was the World like in the First Century A.D.?

The World into Which Jesus Came – Question 1

It is important that we have some understanding of the world into which God the Son, Jesus Christ, came. Indeed, there are a number of things that are necessary for us to know to better appreciate the events in the life of Christ.

First, we need to know something about what happened during the 400 years between the completion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament era.

Second, it is necessary to know the conditions in the world in which Jesus came. Understanding these things will help put the life and ministry of Christ in its proper historical context.

There is something else important we will learn from this. Indeed, we will find that the God of the Bible is truly controlling all things. The evidence is as follows.

What Happened between the Testaments

There was a period of 400 years of silence between the completion of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus Christ. It is important to understand what occurred during these years as background to the coming of God the Son into the world. We will briefly sum up these four hundred “silent years.”

1. The Persian Period (430-334 B.C.)

When the Old Testament ended it was the Persians who were ruling. This first time in the silent years was relatively uneventful in Israel’s history. However two important events did occur. The High Priest began to exert political influence and the synagogue was used for Bible instruction and worship.

2. The Greek Period (334-323 B.C.)

Alexander the Great and his Greek army conquered the Persians who were dominating the world at that time. History tells us that Alexander and his followers were friendly to the Jews. He spread both Greek culture (Hellenism) and established Greek as the international language. This would later set the stage for the proclamation of the gospel to all parts of the world.

3. The Ptolemaic Period (323-198 B.C.)

After the death of Alexander, his kingdom was divided into four parts. One of his generals, Ptolemy took Egypt and ruled from there. His kingdom included the Holy Land.

During this period the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew into Greek occurred. This translation is known as the Septuagint. The knowledge of the Old Testament then became accessible to the Greek-speaking people, the language which Alexander had spread to all parts of his empire.

4. The Seleucid Period (198-166 B.C.)

Syria eventually took over rule of the Holy Land. There was one particularly evil king, Antiochus IV, who gave himself the title Epiphanes “the coming one.” He was the Nero of Jewish history. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem and brought idols into the Holy of Holies. This led to a number of things in response.

First, there was rise of Jewish resistance and second the rise of the Hasideans and Hellenists. The Hasideans eventually became Pharisees, and the Hellenists became the Sadducees.

5. The Maccabean Period (166-135 B.C.)

The Jewish patriot, Judas Maccabaeus, led a revolt against Antiochus. After overcoming this enemy, he cleansed the defiled temple and established the Jewish state. The Maccabees revived a weak and lifeless people and allowed religious and civil freedom.

6. The Hasmonean Period (135-34 B.C)

The Hasmoneans were the descendants of the Maccabees. They ruled as kings during this period but they were not in rightful kingly line, the line of David.

This was also a time of the expansion of the Jewish state. It is also when the terms Pharisee and Sadducee were first used. It was during this period a rift grew between the Pharisees and Sadducees.

7. The Roman Period (34 B.C. To A.D. 70)

Judah was made a province of Syria. Herod the Great was appointed ruler. He was not Jewish but Idumean. Herod was brilliant, but cruel. Much building occurred during his long reign including the expansion of the Temple and the Temple Mount. Herod treated the Jews fairly by giving them much civil and religious freedom.

This briefly sums up the various periods from the end of the Old Testament era leading to the time of Christ as well as shortly beyond. This is the background of the world into which God the Son, Jesus Christ, came.

The First Century World

We also find that the world was prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. This exact time in which Jesus came into the world did not happen by mere chance. Indeed, the Bible says that Jesus was born in the “fullness of time.” Paul wrote the following to the Galatians:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. (Galatians 4:4 NRSV)

It was the fullness in God’s timing when Jesus came.

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. (Galatians 4:4 NLT)

Jesus came as the “right time.” This was “God’s time.”

We can make the following observations about the first century world in which God the Son entered.

1. There Was Political Unity

In the first century, Rome was ruling with absolute power. Indeed, they had united both the east and west. The Mediterranean Sea was known as the “Roman Sea.” God used this political unity which Rome established for His own purposes.

We find this in the enrollment ordered by Caesar that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. In fact, without that imperial order, there would have been no reason whatsoever for Joseph to bring his pregnant wife some eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to enroll his family.

However, the order of Caesar had to be obeyed. By obeying this order, Mary’s Son, Jesus was born in Bethlehem; the predicted birthplace of the Promised Messiah.

2. The People Had a Universal Language

The culture that Alexander the Great had spread—Hellenism—led to one universal language in the empire, Greek. Greek was spoken everywhere in the Roman Empire. Communication, therefore, was easy between one part of the empire and another part.

This situation was used to immediately spread the good news of Jesus Christ to all parts of the Empire. Again, we find that the Lord had set the stage for the spreading of the message of Christ by uniting the Roman Empire with the Greek language.

3. The Scripture Was in the Universal Language: The Septuagint Translation

In fact, the Scriptures were already in all parts of the Roman Empire. One of the things that made the spread of the gospel easy was the Septuagint translation. The Hebrew Scriptures had been translated from Greek into Hebrew. This allowed the understanding of God’s Word to be possible everywhere.

When the message of Jesus Christ was then proclaimed, it fulfilled the predictions of the Holy Scriptures which were already in the possession of these people. In other words, the people were aware of the historical background of Israel as well as their expectation of the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, they were ready to hear the message of Christ.

4. World Trade Was a Reality

There was a signpost in the marketplace in each city that gave the distance to Rome. Great highways, easy travel, and easy shipping characterized this time. This allowed the good news about Jesus to travel quickly from one end of the empire to another.

5. There Were Synagogues in Various Cities

There is also the fact that the synagogues were in major cities across the Roman Empire. The Hebrew Scriptures could be read and studied in various parts of the empire. Consequently, the people knew the promises of God which were yet to be fulfilled. In particular, there was the promise of a coming Messiah, or Christ.

6. There Was World Peace

The Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) occurred in 29 B.C. The war temple was closed after 200 years of constant fighting. This further paved the way for the spread of the gospel. Nothing stopped people from moving from province to province. Consequently, the message could be quickly spread and indeed it was quickly spread.

7. Moral Degeneration Was Rampant

The moral climate was one of gluttony, infanticide, and gladiators. It was a time of decadence. However, great revivals occur in times of moral decay. Indeed, there was spiritual emptiness on the part of the people.

8. There Was Religious Inadequacy among the People

This brings us to our last point. There was lots of religion in the Roman Empire but there was no reality. The Greeks were lovers of wisdom. They worshipped a number of gods with a vague hint as to a chief god. The time was right for God to send His Son into the world.

Conclusion: God Controls All Things

As we can observe from the above points, the timing of the coming into the world of God the Son, Jesus Christ, was certainly not accidental. Indeed, as we find throughout the Scripture, there is no such thing as coincidence or chance. The God of the Bible has a plan. Before His Son entered our world there were a number of things which had to be prepared for His arrival.

The Lord, therefore, made certain that everything was set for the coming of Christ and the spreading of His message to the known world. The fullness of time had indeed come.

Summary – Question 1
What Was the World like in the First Century A.D.?

To better appreciate the life and ministry of Jesus Christ it is important to have some understanding of the world in which He came.

For one thing, there were four hundred silent years between the time the Old Testament was completed and God broke into the world again in the New Testament period. While these were silent years from God, they certainly were not uneventful.

The world in which Jesus came was well prepared for the promised Messiah. Indeed, when Alexander the Great conquered the world in 330 B.C. he established Greek as the international language. Thus, wherever one traveled in the Roman Empire they could communicate to others in the Greek language. This, of course, allowed the gospel message to be spread rapidly.

Furthermore, the Old Testament Scriptures had been translated into this universal language. The Septuagint translation allowed the people of the Roman Empire to read the Scripture in Greek. The Old Testament story was thus everywhere told.

Moreover, there were synagogues in the various cities around the Roman Empire where these Scriptures were read. Thus, the people were anticipating the coming of the Promised Messiah.

In addition, the Roman world was at peace at the time of Christ. This made travel from one area to the next that much easier since there would not be the concern about entering an area of conflict.

Add to this the Roman road system was remarkably efficient. This was another feature that allowed the gospel to be quickly spread to all parts of the empire.

The morality had also degenerated. Indeed, all sorts of distractions and perversions were part of life in the Roman Empire.

This led to the people having a deep spiritual need. Something was needed to fill their emptiness.

Thus, the time was right for God to send His Son into our world. Consequently, we discover that God the Son entered the world at the precise time.

The Life of Christ (Introduction) ← Prior Section
What Were the Different Political Divisions of the Holy Land When Jesus Came into the World? Next Section →
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