God Must Have Preferred the Roman Empire [Questions That Haunt]

God Must Have Preferred the Roman Empire [Questions That Haunt] December 21, 2012

This week’s Question That Haunts comes from Judy:

I grew up in the church, though I don’t go any more. I’ve always wondered, of all times and all places, why Jesus? Why first century Palestine? I mean, if God was going to incarnate himself in just one human beings of all the billions of human beings who’ve lived, why a first century peasant carpenter. I remember Sunday school teachers giving us some answers for this when I was a kid, but I always found them unsatisfying. Do Christians believe there was something uniquely special about that time and place?

Thanks, Judy, for this question, just in time for Christmas.

It’s interesting that the comments from the original post immediately went to the question of incarnation. But that’s not really Judy’s question. (It is, however, the question of the latest #progGOD ChallengeWhy an Incarnation?) Judy’s question is theological, but it’s not a question about why there’s an incarnation, it’s a question of why God preferred that time and place for the all-important incarnation of himself. Here’s my take.

I went to Fuller Seminary to study with Bob Guelich, a great New Testament scholar and an even better man. Sadly, he died after my first year at Fuller, but not before I got to take New Testament 1 and 2 from him. In the opening to his NT 1 on the Gospels, Bob gave a lecture on Alexander the Great. Alexander was born in 356 BC, was tutored by Aristotle, and had amassed the world’s largest empire by age 30.

Extent of the empire of Alexander the Great

Alexander died in 323 at the age of 32, but not before he had united the world like never before — he didn’t take India because his troops refused to go further from him, and had he lived a bit longer, he surely would have conquered Arabia as well. My the time of his death, he’d not only built many cities, he’d also established roads to the furthest reaches of the empire that would become trade and military routes for generations to come.

The Roman Empire, into which Jesus of Nazareth was born, was literally built on the back of Alexander’s conquests. Without Alexander, Bob argued, there’d be no Roman Empire, and without the Roman Empire, there’d be no spread of the gospel.

The Roman Empire, of course, figures heavily in the story of Jesus and the early church. The very situation that gave rise to the Pharisees, Jesus’ main rhetorical rivals, was the Roman occupation of the Ancient Near East. At the climax of the Jesus narrative, he’s bounced between a Roman governor (Pilate) and a Jewish ruler (Herod). The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem want Jesus silenced, but they need the Romans to do the dirty work of execution. The story of Jesus is inextricable from the Roman Empire.

The same goes for Paul, who reveled in being both a “Jew among Jews,” and a Roman citizen. His missionary travels simply would not have been possible without the sea routes and overland roads built by Alexander and protected by Roman forces.

The Roman Empire in AD 117

But all these are historical musings. The real question isn’t how the gospel spread, but why that time? And thus, we get into a theological problem that we’ve been wrestling with a lot lately here on this blog: How do we understand God’s preferences?

When looked at from the perspective of Alexander and Rome, it makes pretty good sense to drop a Messiah into (what we now call) the first century. Any time before that and the message would have likely been unheard. And it’s virtually impossible to speculate on what would have happened if the Messiah had come later because Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as his personal religion changed the course of world history. There is a surfeit of historical importance to Jesus that cannot be overcome by hypothetical speculations.

But if you have a classical conception of God (which I do, in the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition), then you think that God can do whatever God wants. That is, God is not bound by human conventions like empires and trade routes. If God had wanted the Messiah to come another time, that would have worked, too. In fact, if God had wanted to offer salvation to humankind through a mechanism other than the crucifixion of a God-man, then God could have done that as well.

Thus, it is pure speculation to venture a guess as to why God did what God did at the time that God did it. God’s ways may be entirely arbitrary, but I think not. So in instances like this, I am often drawn to the aesthetics of the situation. Was there something so beautiful about that time and that place that it appealed to God? I think that may be the case. The Roman Empire, while not nearly as revolutionary in terms of art or literature as the Greek Empire that predated it, did curate beauty in a way previously unknown. The reason that we still study Rome, and visit it, is that the Empire collected and guarded much that was beautiful in the world. Ultimately, that was fused with Christian theology, generating much that we treasure about our tradition today. Alas, the power and violence of Rome eventually suffused across Christianity as well.

There is something compelling to me as a Christian and a theologian that God came in human form when he did — as a peasant Jew, amidst the Roman Empire.

I also think that God could have done that whenever God wanted, with similar effect. So, ultimately, it seems a rather arbitrary choice by God, and we are left only with our speculations on the matter.

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