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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  • Ric Shewell

    thumbs up.

  • Pither

    Sounds like survivor bias to me.

    • I agree. The question only has urgency if you ask it prospectively, with the assumption that God acted to achieve a particular end. Looked at retrospectively, it makes sense that a teacher who lived at that time and place would have an advantage in having his message heard and passed on, if the message was compelling and memorable.

  • There is much that we – little children – don’t understand. But it does seem that God is limited, not by His own creation, but by His own nature (perhaps, even by logic – He might not be able to create a bolder He can’t lift??).

  • I meant to respond when the question was originally raised, but life intervened. For me it all comes down to the scandal of particularity. It’s absurd that God should be incarnated ANYWHERE at ANY time, let alone that particular place and time (as Judas puts it in “Jesus Christ Superstar”: “Israel in 4 B. C. had no mass communication.”

    But as Christians, we subscribe to the absurd premise that God does choose to be incarnate in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular human being, with a particular name, a particular face, a particular gender, a particular body odor, etc.

    The “why” of the question assumes that there is an answer that makes more sense then the question itself — Why should God become incarnate at all? Once you overcome that question, the subsidiary question of when and where is simply part of the central faith tenet: This is how God chooses to enact the redemption of the world.

    • This

    • Why should God become incarnate at all?

      The comparison is probably ridiculous (I hope), but this kind of statement makes me throw up in a little in my mouth for how similar it sounds to a lot of the Calvinist rhetoric I used to try to defend.

      The only thing that ever helped me get past that was Newbigin’s (and later, Wright’s) idea that election (preferential treatment) was not primarily about “being chosen for the sake of being chosen” (i.e. no one deserves it – we all deserve hell, right? – so be damn happy that you happened to be) but about “being blessed TO BE a blessing.” Chosen for responsibility rather than privilege.

      Possibly totally unrelated. But, that was my gut reaction…

      • Well, I suppose I would identify myself as a Calvinist of a sort, certainly my own denominational heritage, theological training, and major influences all descend from that traditon — Congregational and Presbyterian, Andover Newton and Princeton, Barth, the Niebuhrs, Edwards, Moltmann. I’m more influenced by that than I am say Lutheran or Methodist strains in Christian theology. But if I’m a Calvinist, I don’t think I’m the sort that a lot of “Calvinist” Calvinists would be very comfortable with.

        But I’m unclear: What is it about that line in particular that you find offensive? I’m not seeing how it’s particularly connected to any of the more troublesome dimensions of Calvinist rhetoric.

        • I’m not sure that “offensive” is the right word. I’m not even sure I can articulate what my problem is with it. Maybe it’s some kind of PTSD mental block…

  • The ability to proselytize at that juncture of the Roman Civilization.

    The ability to use the Jewish diaspora as a base of operation.

    Good entry by Tony. Good blog post.

    I will be happy if Tony takes a turn to more traditional orthodoxy.

  • ChrisM

    To the particular question of time, it seems optimal that it occurred a sufficient amount of time after Alexander’s conquests because the Hellenization of the ancient world made Greek a widey known language. And since the NT was written in Greek, it had a wider distribution than had it been written in any other language prior to his military conquests. It amazes me that God allowed the carnage of a military conquest of such a grand scope to make conducive the environment for a much easier distribution of the Gospel.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    A good post, but I’m going to call back to my comment in the original posting of this question and reiterate the part of the narrative of Jesus was he was also fulfilling the Jewish messianic prophecies. In order to do so he MUST have been in Jerusalem, and since part of the Messiah’s task is to renew Judaism and return it to orthodoxy appearing at the height of priestly corruption makes a great deal of sense.

    I am NOT accusing Tony of antisemitism when I ask this: does emphasizing the Jewish theology supporting Jesus somehow distract or take away from the Christian understanding of him? Or perhaps do you see the Jewish messianic traditions as not particularly relevant to this question?

  • Mary

    thoughts not mentioned:
    The Roman empire was SO militaristic, could Jesus’ non-violent stance in the face of tyranny have been a factor in ‘when’?
    Does God ignore prayers of the faithful? There is evidence incarnation was sought after in prayer and spiritual preparation by segments of the population; illustrated by those (like John the Baptist) that ‘went into the wilderness’, who did not accept the corruption of the priests and the whole Jewish corruption by Roman ideals.
    Could there have been something special about the human vessel that would become Jesus, either through his lineage, mother, or some other factor?

  • Rohmeo

    I also wonder if he came at that point in history before the Polaroid, iPhones, & Facebook so faith, preaching, works would be a more authentic reason people would follow him. Can you imagine if we had a photograph of Jesus? I wonder if it would be easier to believe or it would become celebrity idol worship for coolness sake?

  • Lee P.

    This one is not so haunting or puzzling.

    Cuz Rome.

    Makes sense.

  • brettongarcia

    Did God choose Rome? Or did Rome make God? Christianity was all-too-convenient for Rome.

    Nietzsche of course famously said that Christianity was a “slave morality”: love your enemy, turn the other cheek; don’t ask for more money; and obey the “lord” or his local representatives. Paul added, respect Greeks and … Romans. And “obey your leaders” or governors. This religion would be extremely convenient for the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem: God is ordering Jews to love and obey their enemies, their occupiers.

    And what do you know? For 1,000 years or more, the center of this very religion was – you guessed it – Rome.

    By the way? Have you given to Caesar lately, what you owe him?

  • Rain

    “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?”

    We have to presume a great many things before we even get to that question. Not the least of which is that there is a God, and that our God is the right God, as opposed to the other wrong Gods. That’s two big leaps right there.

    But all we have to do is ignore that minor quibble, ostracizing all those who would wonder why do such a dumb thing, making them feel stupid and ignored when it is we who are the stupid ones who should be ignored, and then we can write a bunch of stupid blog posts. In other words, pretty much business as usual. Yes, the folly of man and the absurdities we live with.

  • brettongarcia

    Just to deal with a few commonsense questions: why wouldn’t someone who invented Jesus out of whole cloth, make him bigger? More miraculous? Because a Greco-Roman author wanted a figure to teach … humility to Jews. Humility – or from another perspective, Servitude.

    More exactly? The crying cultural need for c. 64 BC to c. 200 AD, in Jerusalem, was a myth, a narrative, that could reconcile Jews, to Greco-Roman occupation (and culture). A clever Greco-Roman/Hellenistic writer, could easily have wanted, and could easily have invented, a sort of c. 30 AD “Book of the Courtier”; or more exactly, a Book of Servitude. A book (written in Greek by the way) that 1) noted to Roman-occupied Jerusalem, that being Jewish, and not having an actual “kingdom” was not so bad; you still had the kingdom of the imagination or “spirit.” While 2) noting that being pacifistic, being a good “servant,” was good too. “Love your enemies”; “turn the other cheek”; and “give unto Caesar.” while learning to be a good “servant”; washing the feet of others.

    A Gospel would have been a good guide for a defeated Jewish aristocracy, reconciling itself (or being reconciled to), a new llfe of humble servitude, to Roman conquerors. Of the would-be Jewish Lord or God, now become a humble servant. With hopes of better days ahead. But in the meantime trying to find dignity in being a simple servant.

    Just the sort of thing a Hellenistic writer would write. Beginning it as a sort of “midrash”ic extension of some OT models, of the “suffering servant” and so forth. (Cf. Book of Daniel).

    This kind of instructional book would have been good for young Jewish kids learning obedience; and good for the Roman administration too.