If you had been born a Roman citizen in Rome around the time the New Testament was being written, there would be a few ceremonies to usher in your day. You would begin with a prayer and an offering of salt cake at the shrine to the gods of the house in the atrium (parlor room). You would take the time to be sure you got the right shoe on the right foot, because the last time you didn't, and got them switched, some catastrophe happened to you. And it would probably happen again if you carelessly switched your shoes again. Then before leaving the house early in the morning, a prayer to the god who permitted safe opening of the door would be in order. Hopefully, someone left in the house--wife or servant--would murmur a prayer to the god who presided over the closing of the door. Otherwise, misfortune might enter the house through the open door.
Before the Senate began each day, offerings were made to more gods, and the omens were read from the entrails. If everything looked satisfactory, business would begin. If not, everyone went home. If in the course of the day someone heard thunder, the Senate would close up and go home. Thunder was a warning from the gods of ill fortune looming close by. (Occasionally if the Senate became unruly in a heated debate, one of the leading senators would claim to have heard thunder in the distance and the debate would cease and everyone would go home. Hopefully, the next day everyone would be behaving more rationally.)
Natural catastrophes (floods, earthquakes, etc.) were the work of some god. Eclipses were especially ominous. Some god was extremely angry. In the Matthew account of the crucifixion, when darkness fell over the land and was accompanied by an earthquake, you can just see the Roman centurion shaking in his military boots as he says, "Truly, this man was the Son of God." The signs he had been taught to watch for all his life told him there was a greater power at work here.
Romans took religion seriously; and not serious just about the gods they adopted from the Greeks and renamed and built beautiful statues and temples to. It is a mistake to think the Romans relied totally on the Greek gods. They did honor them, but they were more for show and to impress each other with their individual culture since they prized the Greek culture so much. Most important to the Romans were those old faceless, sexless, numerous gods who had no physical form. They might be better described as SPIRITUAL FORCES which governed everything from rain to the function of a doorway, to the proper sitting of boundary stones or the element we call "luck." (Eventually, some of these gods did acquire names--the door opening god became Janus Patulcius and the door closing one became Janus Clusivius.)
Roman religion was so intimately tied to all the strata of government that one could not survive without the other. Even the most brilliant and iconoclastic among the Romans subscribed scrupulously to these religious matters, which is why even the most brilliant of Romans were extremely superstitious. Some god was in charge of everything. Hopefully, the goddess of Fortune would smile on you most often.
Of course there were some who laughed and scorned the idea of any gods influencing their lives. But most felt that this attitude of contemptuous irreverence was positively dangerous to the safety of the state, for Roman religion was at its heart a reciprocal agreement between gods and humans. Only if the Roman community, as a whole, conscientiously performed certain rituals upon specified occasions - would the gods grant the city their aid and favor. These rituals included prayers, vows, and ceremonial sacrifices (usually of animal flesh). Hence the importance of interpreting auguries and omens, which were the primary means by which the gods imparted their desires and decisions to the human world. Throughout the centuries of the Republic, Romans had always taken very seriously their duties to the deities, from the household gods of the common people to the national gods of Mars and Capitoline Jupiter. And most citizens believed that the success of the Roman state was the direct result of this devotion. It has been said, "To understand the success of the Romans, you must understand their piety."
Romans did prize the Greek culture. You weren't anyone unless you could read and write and speak Greek as well as Latin. You had to hire a good Greek teacher for your children. But the Romans did not openly embrace everything Greek. Many Greeks considered homosexuality the highest form of love. The Romans as a culture did not adopt this attitude. More akin to our thoughts on this, they considered it the lowest form of love, if they considered it at all. Homosexuality did exist in the Roman culture, but it was considered detrimental to a political and military career. Roman soldiers were known to kill a fellow soldier who had made improper advances toward them, sparing the soldier's family of an embarrassing trial. The Emperor Nero did try to elevate homosexuality to an acceptable level, but everyone knew he was crazy. (Nero was emperor in 54-68 A.D., while Paul is here in Jerusalem).
Morals varied from time to time and from house to house, as they do in our culture. The emperor Augustus (who was the emperor when Christ was born) and Tiberius were rather appalled at the laxity in morals and actually tried to legislate morality. Some of the legislation worked, some didn't. They felt the bonds of family life were disintegrating - divorce and adultery were on the rise. Many Roman citizens were devoting their lives exclusively to the unbridled and degrading pursuit of wealth and luxury - characterized by their possessions that possessed them and their banquet feasts, where some would "eat to vomit and vomit to eat" (~Seneca) - bluntly put.
The political arena was becoming more and more corrupt. That's why the Republic failed and was replaced by the Empire. But an empire passed on to the previous emperor's heir did not remove corruption. With some emperors the corruption and morals became even worse. But the gods didn't demand morals, just allegiance and sacrifices from the Roman citizens.
There were actually six different levels of Roman citizenship. At the bottom was the proletariat, or "head count," who were too poor to belong to one of the five economic classes and so were not allowed to vote. The only thing they were considered good for was producing babies. Eventually, the Senate had to recruit these proletariat men for the military and some of them began to work themselves out of this classless state. But only if you made money were you considered to have any class. The level of money you made determined, for the most part, which of the classes you belonged to. If you had an impeccable pedigree, but no money, you still had class, but you could not function within the rights of that class.
In most of the known world, if you were an upper class Roman citizen, the gods smiled down on you because you were one of the fortunate ones. Everyone wanted to be a Roman citizen. Up until Julius Caesar's time (44 B.C.), Roman citizenship was reserved only for those born to true Roman parents and ancestors with VERY few exceptions. It did not include the other Italians. Romans didn't consider themselves Italians; they were Romans. Those Italians were just inhabitants of another Roman province. It would take an outstanding deed for an outsider to earn this citizenship. The Senate would grant citizenship very selfishly and guardedly. (Which makes Paul's citizenship even more remarkable.) An historian has said, "Never before has citizenship been so jealously guarded or so highly prized."
Julius Caesar finally opened up Roman citizenship to all the civilized tribes on the Italian peninsula. It was a very sad day to many true Roman citizens who felt their prestige slipping by giving away this citizenship to so many outsiders. But Rome needed military men, and the tribes were tired and fed up with supplying men to fight and die for Rome without the benefits of Roman citizenship. A century later, the Emperor Claudius (or his wife) began selling the Roman citizenship at exorbitant prices to anyone who could afford it (but later for much less). It sounds like our tribune, Lysias Claudius, in our chapter today, bought his citizenship early when it first became available for a price. Perhaps he had heard that the price of citizenship was falling and was therefore curious of how Paul attained his.
Citizenship had its privileges. A Roman citizen possessed "dignitas" - a word that does not translate into English, but our word dignity is a part of the meaning of dignitas. It is even more than our word "clout." It was a man's personal share of public standing in the community, and involved his moral and ethical worth, his reputation, his entitlement to respect and proper treatment. Of all the assets a Roman nobleman possessed, "dignitas" was likely to be the one he was most touchy about. To defend it, he might be prepared to go to war or into exile, to commit suicide (as the Philippian jailer) or to execute his wife or his children if they dared to endanger his "dignitas."
Citizenship was valued not only for the right to vote, but for the protection it afforded. A Roman citizen could not be bound or imprisoned without a trial. He could not be scourged - the common means of wringing a confession from a prisoner as the Romans attempt to do here in our chapter today. If he felt he was not receiving justice under local rule, he could appeal to Rome. Heads would roll if someone abused the rights of a Roman citizen.
Money for Rome's own use usually came from the conquered lands. Local temples, government treasuries and wealthy individuals were robbed as spoils of war. These lands were not conquered just for their money. More than anything else, Rome just did not want to be invaded by some barbaric tribe. They were petrified of barbarians, who reportedly often ate human flesh before reading their entrails for omens. Barbarians were a constant threat to most lands at this period in history. At the beginning of Roman conquest, Rome first conquered the Italian peninsula to protect itself from those local tribes who kept warring on them. Then, to protect those northern tribes from invasion, more land and people had to be conquered - which brought in more wealth. Then Sicily had to be protected, so Northern Africa had to be subdued. On and on it escalated until Syria and the Jews were conquered - there were barbarians to the north of that area as well as the Persians to the east who had to be watched. It was the ideal location from which to watch the Egyptians.
Because of this conquered wealth, initially a Roman citizen paid very little taxes, if any. Money was brought in from the provinces, who in turn received protection from other invading forces, organization and a wonderful network of roads. But with all the civilized and semi-civilized lands conquered, eventually, by the empire time, money became tighter. Because civil wars or skirmishes within the already conquered lands brought in no new money, they cost the government dearly. Romans did begin to have to pay some tax, but it was never as great as the taxes the provinces had to pay. The people of Judea had to pay three major taxes:
The tax issue was always a sore spot with the Jews and most of the other provinces. They simply had no say in how that money was spent. Most of it went to and stayed in Rome. The Roman legions were in the provinces at Rome's expense, but that was generally not looked upon as a blessing.
If one could obtain Roman citizenship, life would be ever so much kinder to you. A Roman citizenship meant ties to the ruling elite, even in the provinces. The courts would protect you instead of assuming you were guilty, taxes would be much lighter and one would have the "clout and dignity" of being a Roman citizen. You would be important - have the right to be proud. Romans didn't walk around with their noses in the air just to find the closest pizzeria. You would be somebody with the backing of the "Senate and People of Rome." SPQR (The manhole covers in Rome today still display "SPQR." They are proud of their heritage.)
The Romans never understood the Jews. What did this measly race have to be proud of? The Jews were proud, too - Proud they weren't Romans. Romans understood the concept of a god without a form, because they had many of those. They would understand sacrificing to a god. But just ONE God? There were so many elements in the world, surely too much for one god to handle. And one omnipotent God who demanded morality was an EXTREMELY hard concept for them to grasp. Why would a god care how I thought and behaved as long as I performed a ritual to him? Why WERE these Jews so proud? They possessed a land only good for its strategic location. They had been enslaved by the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks and now Rome. What was there to be proud of? This God and His laws were so complicated that even their own leaders couldn't agree upon how to serve the God and govern their own people to please Him. Jewish religion was just too complex to bother with and held very little appeal to most Romans. The Jews in our lesson today had forgotten that they were supposed to be a light to the Gentiles - to bring others to God. They were once God's chosen people, but had made themselves "no people."
We, as Americans, understand pride in citizenship, don't we? We have a great and glorious heritage. Our country was founded upon biblical principles. Everyone is free to become the best that they can be or free to not become their best. We have a great country that produces great goods and ideas and athletes. We have the capability of controlling the skies over any country if necessary. We have the supremacy over outer space now. We would use our American citizenship to protect us if necessary, if we found ourselves a stranger and a sojourner in a foreign land, and it would work to our advantage in most countries today.
But there is a place where it would not work to our advantage. A place where no earthly citizenship has any clout or dignitas. In fact, with our American materialism and arrogance, our earthly citizenship could possibly work against us there. A place where there is no Jew nor Greek, Roman nor American. No slave or freeman with dignitas. We have been called out for a heavenly citizenship. Our citizenship was bought for us at a GREAT PRICE, greater price than this tribune's citizenship in our lesson today, through Christ dying on the cross. As Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians 2:19 - "You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God."
Jesus had told his followers that they were to be a light to the world. He wants His followers to lead others to God. Peter states it so beautifully in I Peter 2:9ff - "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, THAT YOU MAY DECLARE THE WONDERFUL DEEDS OF HIM WHO CALLED YOU OUT OF DARKNESS INTO HIS MARVELOUS LIGHT. Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles [that's nonbelievers to you and me] that they may see your good deeds and glorify God."
Paul took advantage of an unusual, unorthodox situation, on his way to jail, to let the light inside him shine. We should do the same - look for those unusual golden opportunities to share how others can obtain the glorious heavenly citizenship.
Our American citizenship is great, but not as great as our heavenly citizenship in God's kingdom. Let's fulfill our obligation of making that citizenship appeal to others by our good lives, so that others will also desire that citizenship in that perfect kingdom.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR