But when the time had been fulfilled God sent his Son (Gal. 4: 4)
We stand in the year 323 B.C. As a flying "leopard"(Dan. 7: 6) Alexander has overrun the Persian empire, the "bear" (Dan. 7: 5) and "ram" (Dan. 8: 7) now become strengthless. In the spring of 334, with only 35,000 men, he had undertaken his victorious march; in the autumn of 331 the Persian empire lay in ruins. Alexander had already directed his gaze toward the west. But death suddenly snatched him away in the garden palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon (Dan.11:3,4). The " great horn" was " broken" (Dan. 8:8). His empire also fell to pieces (Dan.8:8,22).
Nevertheless Alexander is of abiding significance in world history and in the history of God's plan of salvation. For not content to have conquered both east and west in a political and military sense only, his plan consisted rather to weld them culturally and to unite them into a single nation.
He drilled 30,000 Persians according to Greco-Macedonian military rules. He introduced Greek as the language of world intercourse. Greek theatres, schools, and sports grounds were established over almost all the old Orient, and with them the Grecian spirit and mentality spread more and more in the east.
Conversely, Alexander transferred Persian customs into the Grecian world. At the royal court there were introduced oriental costumes and Persian ceremonial, especially veneration of the king. Alexander himself married the Bactrian princess Roxana, the "pearl of the Orient." Eighty of his generals, as well as ten thousand of his Macedonian soldiers, followed his example, in connexion with which they celebrated for five days a brilliant marriage feast, rich in wedding presents, held in the Persian Susa, the former residence of Queen Esther (Esther 1:2).
There arose thus a cultural union between East and West, the so-called Hellenism; and in this respect also Alexander's empire was like the leopard of Daniel's vision; for the magnificent variegated skin of the leopard now corresponded to the rich and mixed colouring of European and Oriental civilization.
Hellenism is thus the product of a deliberate policy. It is the civilization created by Alexander personally. Precisely in this stands his incomparable significance for all times. The general consciousness of the people has, half unwillingly, indicated this, in that on Alexander, as the foremost of all mortals, it has bestowed the surname "the Great."
Alexander's empire fell to pieces directly after his death, but Alexander's real life-work remained in existence. Later, especially from the second century B.C., the Romans entered on his inheritance. But the peculiar thing is that they never, as must have been expected, set the policy of Romanizing in the foreground of their civilizing activity, but everywhere continued the Hellenizing of the world. Thus the Roman empire became a relatively uniform reservoir of Hellenistic cultures. It extended itself from the rising to the setting of the sun, from the waters of the Nile to the banks of the Tyne near the frontier of Scotland, from the straits of Gibraltar to the highlands of Iran. And yet! Although the Romans were the military and political masters of the world, culturally they were conquered by the Greeks, so much their superiors mentally and philosophically.
Thus there arose the world that cradled early Christianity, the "fulness of the time." It is characterized by the following six basic features:
i. World centralization,
ii. World cultural unity,
iii. World trade and intercourse,
iv. World peace,
v. World demoralization,
vi. World mingling of religions.
The Roman knew nothing higher than the State. His ideal of manliness consisted in devotion to it. To be a servant of " Rome the eternal" was the summit of his ambition. Hence the disappearance of the man in the citizen.
This conception of the State was embodied in its head, the Caesar. He was the unifying summit of the whole, the "first citizen of the State." From the Caesar in Rome issued mandates to all quarters. One will ruled the whole Mediterranean world. Even the Son of the heavenly King became, in His incarnation, a Roman subject (Matt. 22:21).
Hence also the high significance of Emperor worship. It was the religious expression of the unity of the State which was seen in the empire, especially since Caligula (A.D. 37-41) and Domitian (81-96). Its chief meaning lay in the realm of politics. It was the religious recognition of the outer and inner unity of the world empire, the real State religion, and therefore the solitary religious compulsion in matters of belief by the otherwise so very tolerant Roman empire. The Emperor ranked as "God and sovereign Saviour of human life" (so already Julius Caesar), "God's son" (Augustus), "Lord and God" (Domitian), "High Priest," "Saviour of the World" (Augustus, Claudius, Nero), "King of Kings." His decrees were called "gospels" [good news], his letters "sacred writings." His arrival was termed a "parousia" (advent), his visit an "epiphany." Through all this a clash with early Christianity was unavoidable; it was the chief ground of the persecution of Christians; and at the same time the empire of the first century became a type of Antichrist's empire of the End time (the "beast", with the "names of blasphemy" on his heads adorned with diadems, Rev.13:1).
And yet even this imperial will was subject to the will of the Most High. From the centre of the Mediterranean world there issues a purely political order, affecting nations, the census decree of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1); but in the last analysis it is only a means in the hand of the Lord of all lords to bring about the fulfilment of an old prophetic word concerning a very small city in the land of Judah, the small city of Bethlehem Ephratah, the city of David (Mic. 5:2; Luke 2:1-7). Here verily the great and the small touch, and in the small the Greatest of all!
There have been empires more widely spread than the Roman, empires with greater population; but never before or since in history has there been an empire that has united in itself all the civilized peoples of its time as did the Roman. It was a mighty confluence of the civilizations, a grand equalizing and blending process, which came into being through the Hellenizing and Romanizing of the Orient and the Orientalizing of the Occident.
(1) The Three Chief Streams. Essentially the Hellenism of the Roman empire was a conjunction of three chief currents: the Greek, with its art, science, and philosophy; the Roman, with its military, political, and juristic life; and the Orient, with its religious and mystic cults. Yet there was still no living, organic universalism created; this was frustrated because antiquity, apart from the Stoic philosophy, lacked in general the conception of "humanity;" yet the general consciousness was very much widened towards world-consciousness, and the world was prepared for the universalism of Christ's message of salvation.
(2) Greek as the Language of the Early Christian Mission to the World. Of yet greater significance was the single language of international intercourse. For in spite of the continuance of national languages and local dialects (Acts 14:11; 21:40), yet Greek was so understood in the whole world that one simply called it "the common" speech (Gk. Koine). Thereby, for the first Christian evangelistic work, soon to commence, there dropped out one of the chief difficulties, namely, the learning of languages, and the victorious march of the gospel was able to advance with more than double the speed that would otherwise have been possible. This was true especially of the large cities, and among them of the coast cities in particular. Now Paul was an evangelist to great cities and principally to harbour towns. And so, in the providence of God, through this whole develonment in the period of the Emperors, the Greek used in all the world was prepared in advance to become the "language of the early Christian world mission."
(1) World Communications. In the market place of every city there stood a milestone giving the distance from Rome. In the market of 'Rome the eternal' there stood a golden milestone, erected by Augustus, which described the capital city as the heart of this giant, pulsating organism of peoples. Between Alexandria and Asia Minor there was a daily shipping connexion (Ramsey, Letters to the Seven Churches, 18,435). According to Pliny one travelled from Spain to Ostia, the port of Rome, in four days and in two days from Africa. The tomb inscription is known of a Phrygian merchant who not less than seventy-two times made the journey from Hierapolis, near Colosse in Asia Minor, to Rome, over 1250 miles.
Without this notable world traffic the swift advance of early Christianity would have been inconceivable. Sea traffic was specially important to them, for early Christian gospel work was in great measure a labour in harbour cities, and especially so with Paul. "In the main the world of the apostle is to be sought where the sea wind blows." One need only think of Paul's sojourns in the ports of Caesarea, Troas, Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, and Rome.
Yet the land connexions also were of the utmost importance. Even the most remote and isolated lands were opened up through roads and bridges. Already at that time a tolerably complete network of well-built highways, protected by walls and fortresses, spread itself over the whole empire. "All roads lead to Rome." On these imperial and main roads the messengers of the gospel later travelled, bringing to the world the joyful news ot the Redeemer who had appeared. Paul alone journeyed by land and water a total of more than 15,000 miles.
(2) The Jewish Dispersion. Naturally the Jews also took part in world trade. Many of this people, in the fourth century B.C. still almost wholly unknown in the West, settled outside of Palestine. Thus arose the Diaspora (Dispersion). Alexander the Great had moved 1O,OOO Jews to the city he built, Alexandria; king Ptolemy Lagos and his successors settled there a colony of more than 1OO,OOO Jews. In the time of the apostles about 50,000 Jews dwelt in Rome. They were most strongly represented in Babylon and eastern Syria. In Egypt they formed an eighth of the entire population; in Alexandria, the capital, almost the half. Of the five sections of the city two were wholly occupied by Jews, and, in addition, numerous Jews dwelt likewise in the other three. Nearly the whole of the corn trade there lay in their hands (Acts 2:9,IO).
(3) The Proselytes. Through the dispersed Jews Israel began to be known by the nations of the world. The Gentiles met its religion also. Many felt themselves attracted by the simple, lofty faith in the one God; indeed, the Jews themselves carried on direct mission work among them, including even the Pharisees, the "separated", the most zealous representatives of their nationalism (Matt. 23:15). Those who had been won were called "the added" (Gk.proselytes: Acts 2:11;8:26-40; 1O:1,2). A full proselyte was received into Judaism by circumcision and baptism by immersion.
Paul everywhere associated himself with the Jewish Diaspora (Acts 13:5,14;14:1;17:1,1O;18:4;19:8; et al.), Without the simple synagogue or the Jewish place of prayer (proseuche, Acts 16:13), the evangelistic activity of the apostle is scarcely conceivable. Thus since the time of Alexander the Great world intercourse had created the basis for one of the most important methods of the early Christian gospel work.
(4) Paul's Starting Point in World Evangelistic Journeys. But still more. Paul had indirectly to thank the Diaspora Jewry, created through world intercourse, even for his evangelistic centre in the eastern Mediterranean. It was through the service of converted Jews of the Diaspora, from Cyprus and Cyrene, that the Christian church in Antioch arose (Acts 11: 20), while the Palestinian Jews, from lack of living contact with and understanding of the Gentile world, carried the gospel to Jews and fill proselytes only (Acts 15:1-6). In the Antioch of Paul, a centre of luxury and sin in the ancient world, " the city of carousers," as a later Emperor once expressed it-in this very place were the disciples of Jesus first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26). The Antioch of Antiochus, the " little horn," the "Antichrist" of the third world-empire (Dan. 8:9-14;11:21-45)-here surprisingly enough was the starting point of the world mission of Christianity. What an irony of the Divine government of the world! (Psa. 2: 4). Truly, " the Light shineth tn the darkness" (John 1:5).
(2) The Bible of the World Mission. But this train of ideas attained its culmination in the Septuagint. The Jews who lived outside Palestine soon forgot the Hebrew-Aramaic language, because they lived in areas of Hellenistic speech. After some generations therefore the necessity for a Greek translation of the Jewish Bible for use in the synagogue services made itself felt. In the course of several decades such a translation became a reality.
It was called the " Septuagint " (in Latin = 70) because, according to the Jewish tradition, it had been produced, in the days of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (284-246 B.C.) by 72 (70) Palestinian scribes in 72 (70) days in 72 (70) cells. In reality, as the work of many translators, it came into existence gradually in Egypt (Alexandria) between 250 and 100 B.C. It appears that the last part to be translated was the book of Ecclesiastes (probably not till the first century B.C.).
This Septuagint (LXX) became now a powerful means in the hand of God to prepare and to further the work of the early Christian proclamation of the gospel. Through it the Gentile world was made acquainted with the revealed faith of Judaism. Paul and the other early Christian preachers continually used it on their journeys; indeed, the writers of the New Testament made almost all their quotations of the Old Testament from it. So this originally Jewish translation became the universal missionary Bible of early Christianity, on which account it was later, in the second century after Christ, no longer used by the Jews, out of opposition to Christianity, and even became an object of hatred.
This was an especial fruit of the rule of the Emperors. Since the Romans were the lords of the whole earth, the passions of the people became ever more allayed. There set in the much lauded "Roman Peace," Pax Romana. Although the period of Augustus was not entirely free from war, yet nevertheless at last the temple of Janus at Rome, the temple of the god of war after over zoo years of uninterrupted fighting (since 236), could at length be shut, in the year 29 B.C. Every narrative of gospel effort testifies to what war or peace among the nations means for evangelistic activity in the world. Thus here also was the way paved for the gospel.
But morally this whole civilized world carried within itself the germ of death. The streams of gold which, especially since the victory over Hannibal (202 B.C.), flowed into the world's capital led to such luxury that filth and vulgarity soon lifted their heads in the most insolent manner. Aristocracy and proletariat were the most depraved. According to the descriptions of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Juvenal, we cannot portray with adequate blackness the low moral state to which the aristocracy and highest State officials had sunk. Debauchery and gluttony, subornation and poisoning, vulgarity and immorality, unchastity and licentiousness were the order of the day, especially in the middle of the first century. The lowest classes had sunken equally low. In the large Hellenistic cities, especially of Italy, lack of work ruined the masses. " Panem et circenses"-" Bread and Games "- this was their demand to the rulers. By day they loitered idly around; in the evening they went to the amphitheatre, the disgusting pleasure resort of Roman brutality. So vast were the crowds that pressed to the wild beast hunts, the gladiatorial contests, and the mimic sea battles, that the Emperors Vespasian and Titus caused to be built in Rome the vast Flavian amphitheatre,1 which had 54,000 seats, and at the dedication of which, in spectacles lasting 120 days, not less than 12,000 beasts and 10,OOO gladiators lost their lives.
1The name now used, the Colosseum, arose first in the Middle Ages, no doubt in consequence of the colossal statue of Nero(Colossus Neronis) standing nearby.
It was otherwise with the middle class. Here the papyri witness that there were still much decorum and morality, private family life, and strong religious feeling. Faith in the gods of Greece and the Italian deities was indeed gone, on which account the mass of the people turned to the oriental deities from the remote East, which, in large numbers, were gaining ground at that time.
This is therefore the last chief distinguishing feature of the period of the Roman empire. Out of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, and Asia Minor there pressed forward oriental religious communities and formed secret associations, the so-called "Mysteries." Seldom was a time so religious as the "fulness of the time." From Egypt came the venerating of Isis and Osiris (Serapis); from Persia pressed in the cult of Mithras, especially in the army. At its side stood the cult of Cybele from Asia Minor, with the service of Attis. From the Orient had come also the venerating of the Emperor.
And now there came a migration of gods and idols from the Orient, a mixing and fusing of religions and cults, which, in its "Babylonian ' confusion of deities, stands quite unique in human history. State gods, Greek gods, gods from the Orient, with mixed religion and mysteries, blended ever more into a single many-coloured, mighty main river. Religiously the East conquered the West. Rome became a venerator of all deities, often horribly grotesque, senselessly confused, ill-formed sickly phantasies. The entire Mediterranean world resembled a gigantic cauldron of mixture. A Western-Eastern religious chaos, without parallel, had arisen. The ancient religions went spiritually bankrupt. But in this very feature they revealed the overruling of the Redeemer God preparing beforehand His salvation.
(1) Equations of Deities. Through world intercourse and the minglng of the peoples since Alexander the Great the peoples learned to know one another, and also to become acquainted with each others' faiths and worship. Naturally the question now arose: Who of them was right? The Persians said that Ahura-Muzda was the chief god; the Greeks, Zeus; the Romans, Jupiter; the Babylonians, Marduk; the Egyptians, Ammon of Thebes. But what if they were all equally right? What if all these were only different names given by the various nations for one and the same Deity; What if Ahura-Muzda = Zeus = Jupiter = Marduk = Ammon, and likewise with the other deities? And so it came now to numberless and very often extended international equations of deities; and with the commingling and fusing of the conceptions of the gods there set in gradually a conformity in their ceremonial.
With this there arose the first tendency to a harmony of the peoples in religious questions, and the pattern till now prevailing in each land-that one god stood at the head of all other gods- began to become a similarly constructed universal scheme. More and more men thought of a common chief deity at the summit of the whole, of whom all other gods were only forms of revelation and individual manifestations. And so over the whole Gentile world of the time of the Emperors there began to hover a more or less distinctly perceptible belief in one God It was indeed still nebulous and vague, theoretic and pantheistic: but it was belief in one God, which with all its indistinctness became nevertheless a presentiment of the one true "unknown" God of heaven and earth Whom shortly the messengers of the gospel were to proclaim to the world (Acts 17:23).
(2) Oriental Secret Religions. Yet more important than these equalizings of deities was the missionary activity of the Eastern religions which just now set in. That these religions came from the East was itself highly significant. For Christianity also came from the East. Thus for the people of the world at that time this origin had in it nothing strange. They were accustomed to see Oriental religious teachers coming to the West and to grant a hearing to their message.
Moreover, most of these Oriental religions had the common root idea of faith in a Nature god who died and came again to life, at which they had arrived by deifying the fading and reviving of the vegetable world or the rising and setting of the sun, moon, and stars. Thus in Asia Minor, in the spring (March 22-25) there was celebrated the festival of the re-animation of the Nature god Attis, on the chief day of which, the third, the high priest announced to the people that "Attis has returned! Rejoice at his parousia!" With the fading of spring, in the burning heat of summer, they celebrated in Syria the mourning for the death of Tammuz-Adonis (Ezek. 8:14,15). From November 13-16, when the Nile fell and the corn was sown, as it were to die, there took place in Egypt the mourning for the death of the Nile god Osiris. And December 25, the approximate date of the winter solstice, was in Persia the "birthday," that is the revival day of the sun god Mithras, of Baal in Syria, and the like. Similar divinities were Dionysos, Orpheus, and Hyacinthos in Greece; also Melkhart of Tyre and Sandan of Tarsus. 2
See Hislop's The Two Babylons, and Pember's The Church, The Churches, and the Mysteries, and Mystery Babylon the Great and the Mysteries and Catholicism.
Now although this belief was built upon a totally different foundation from Christianity, namely, on the deification of Nature and in particular upon the interpretation put upon its appearing and disappearing in heaven and on earth, but not, as with the gospel, upon the actual revelation of God and upon the historical facts of the literal death and resurrection of the Redeemer (I Cor.15:13-19), yet nevertheless all those Nature religions helped to prepare the Gentiles to understand the message concerning Jesus' death on the cross and His resurrection.
But the chief matter was that all of those religions were redemption religions, and on this account met the mood of mourning, and of yearning for something beyond, which pervaded the period of the Roman Emperors, as of every decayed and effete civilization. In the Mithras mysteries this flight from the world advanced to even suicidal acts of repentance.
(3) Yearning for Redemption. But that such a sense of need for redemption awoke just then had its cause in the effective revolutionizing of the whole practical outlook on life of the ancient world effected just then by world conquest, world intercourse, and world demoralization. It is here that we most deeply perceive that the Gentile world had been prepared for the message of the gospel, that "the fulness of the time" had come.
The ancient world was centred on this side of the universe. The visible world was the reality, the other side was only shadowy; and in this respect the bent of men's minds was not toward the inward but the outward. "Hence the taste for architecture and sculpture, the decorative, the drama, the spectacular of all kinds, processions and triumphal marches. Hence also the disappearance of the man as an individual, a free personality, and his being absorbed in the mere citizen."
But now everything was changed. The great transformation which was now developing lay in the turning from the outward to the inward, from this side to the other side. Above all it was the conquest of the Mediterranean world by Rome, the wasting by the conquerors of the treasures won, accompanied by unrighteousness, oppression of the provinces, materialism and immorality in the upper and lower classes, together with world commerce and world intercourse, which naturally could not but finally call forth a reaction against all this outward glitter and trifling, and a feeling of disappointment and emptiness in the hearts of at least all those who were not yet wholly dulled to the noble and true.
But if happiness is not to be found on this side, then the gaze, quite of itself, is directed with so much the greater 1onging, to the other side; and this becomes no longer that gloomy, joyless shadowy world of the past, but the reverse; the life on earth is shadows, and yonder is the real, true existence. Now one continually reads of the body as the " prison" of the soul, and death is praised as release, as the "birthday of eternity," as was said by Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, the tutor of Nero, the brother of Gallio (Acts 18:12).
And with this turning from the present to the hereafter, there is joined the turning from the outer to the inner. This side was indeed the visible and it had failed. Therefore the gaze at the other side was at the same time directed at the invisible, and with the invisible on the inward, and with the inward at one's own heart; and that which had been always present there in hiding-the inward discord of the soul of man, the conflict between good and evil, was now scrutinized more closely, and quite often became an object of sad self-observation. The consciousness of sin grew. Especially in the second and third centuries after Christ, after the orgies of the time of the first Emperors, there came as it were a sort of penitential attitude over the Mediterranean world.
But with the turning toward the invisible and inward there is conjoined a drawing, to the transcendental, mysterious, and mystical; and the feeling of disappointment with all former experience must give to this mystical the character of sadness and melancholy, and in certain circumstances both may ascend to dread of the world and flight from it, to penance and mortification, even to self-torment and voluntary mutilation. And all his only to win peace of soul!
Hence the turning away of tens of thousands of men to the gods of the East, for these promised to men the desired deliverance.
Repression of life, and death itself, were to be conquered n the existence of the individual, and these the Oriental religions appeared to bring; for the Eastern gods were not merely deification of death and disappearance as seen in Nature, but also of the victorious conquest of death and of the new life arising out of death! And man [so it was argued] is a member of this same Nature complex, disappearing and always rising again. Therefore his deliverance must consist in his association with universal law; but this meant-in the sense of the Gentile deification of Nature-in mystical union with the dying and reviving Nature god.
The old must " die "-hence the penances, mortifications, and self-tortures; and the new must "rise to life"-hence the holy repasts, the mystical degrees, the immersions, 3 the secret initiations.
3For example, the horrible baptism of blood in the "Taurobolium" of the Mysteries of Cybele in Asia Minor. The initiate stood in a pit which was covered over with boards. Above the boards a bull was slaughtered, the blood of which streamed downwards through the crevices of the boards on to the person standing beneath.
The conquest of death, re-birth, immortality, eternal happiness-these are the saving blessings which were the goal of the Oriental mystery religions. "In aeternum renatus"-"born again for ever"-thus run dedicatory inscriptions and gravestones of the devotees of the Persian god Mithras. "Be comforted, ye pious: for as the god has been saved, so will you also be saved out of all distresses," so says a formula of the religion of Attis in Asia Minor.
(4) The Expectation of the Peoples. But thereby in wide circles was spread the presentiment that shortly full deliverance would dawn, and in this connexion also the gaze was directed to the East. Thence should the help come. The presentiments often clothed themselves in a heathen garb. The circle of the seasons, so it was said, is completed. Out of the golden age comes the silvern, and the iron follows this. But now this also is running its course. Then will the circle begin again. Saturn will once more take over the rule and the Golden Age will return.
But at times the presentiments even took a Jewish colour, and one distinctly recognizes their origin in the prophecies of Israel. Both Suetonius and Tacitus make mention of a widespread rumour that the Orient would become powerful and that a mighty movement would go forth from the Jews. Writing about A.D. 120, both historians report that it stands in the ancient priestly books that descendants of Jewry would seize world authority. (See Tacitus Hist. V, 13, and Suetonius, Vesp. 4).
Extremely noteworthy is the ring of these presentiments in the fourth Shepherd song of the Roman poet Virgil, in the century before Christ. There the poet sings of a child who will bring back the Golden Age. The child descends from heaven. Then peace rules on the earth. The land dispenses its gifts without toil. The oxen no more fear the lion. The yoke is removed from the beast that ploughs, the vintager works no more in the sweat of his brow.
But this is nothing else than Isaiah's prophecy of the coming kingdom of peace (9:6;11:6,7); and among the peoples of the outside world there sounds, plainly perceptible, the echo of Messianic prophecy.
Until at last, coming from the East, from the rising of the sun, from the mouth of simple witnesses, becoming ever stronger and stronger, there rings the world-conquering proclamation:
THE ATONER FOR MANKIND,
THE SAVIOUR OF ALL SINNERS,
THE ONE CONSCIOUSLY EXPECTED BY ISRAEL,
THE ONE UNCONSCIOUSLY DESIRED BY THE
PEOPLES OF THE WORLD:
CHRIST HAS APPEARED!
Thus the whole pre-Christian history of salvation is a guiding of mankind to the Redeemer of the world. The people of Israel were prepared in advance by historical revelation; the peoples of the world by the happenings of politics and civilization.
The Old Testament is promise and expectation, the New is fulfilment and completion. The Old is the marshalling of the hosts to the battle of God, the New is the Triumph of the Crucified One. The Old is the twilight and dawn of morning, the New is the rising sun and the height of eternal day.
Previous Chapter/Table of Contents/First Chapter