“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” — Romans 10:14-15 (NIV)
Jesus came to earth to bring salvation to the entire world and that includes everyone outside of the Jewish state. All Jews and gentiles. All believers and pagans. All men and women. EVERYONE. He came more than 2,000 years ago to set in motion the greatest evangelistic movement in the history of mankind. For the first time, anyone who wanted salvation and a relationship outside of the Jewish state had direct access to the single God of the universe.
It was a task that only God, himself, could pull off. Think about it. There was no mass media to carry the message. There were no cell phones to call or text fellow believers. There was no internet to e-mail daily devotions. No podcasts. No YouTube. No websites. There were no airplanes to carry the apostles across the Roman Empire. Travel by sea was dangerous (Paul was shipwrecked at least three times). Traveling on a boat was not advisable during the winter months because of treacherous weather so it was infrequent. Because of trade winds, west to east sea travel at any time took more than double the time of east to west travel. God can’t wait.
Travel in the New Testament world was primarily done by walking. Leave it to the Romans to play an important part of spreading the message, albeit mostly unknowingly. Among the many great Roman innovations was the elaborate road system that crisscrossed the Empire. The one positive of a military society was that the Romans had to quickly disperse troops all over the Empire so good roads were necessary. God used oppression to set people free. The roads connected Morocco in northwest Africa to Great Britain, via Egypt, the Middle East, Asia Minor and modern-day Western Europe. By land, some wealthy citizens had the “luxury” of traveling by a horse- or ox-drawn cart but most of the apostles would have evangelized on foot.
Jesus evangelized mostly in southern Galilee. He preached on hillsides, seashores, boats and in homes. Paul traveled through Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. He preached in cities, in shops, in Roman forums and theatres. Their styles varied but both benefited from Roman roads.
The Via Maris (The Way of the Sea) was a major road that would have played a prominent role in Jesus’s world. The road dates back to the Old Testament and it originated in Egypt and preceded along the Mediterranean Sea through Palestine and into Syria and beyond. Archaeologists have discovered the Via Maris milestone in Capernaum where Jesus was known to have taught. The Romans installed mileposts on all major Roman roads. Most of the time, the mileage numbers etched on the markers indicated how close the milestone was to the city of Rome. Roman soldiers could press inhabitants of the Empire into service at any time for one mile. Jesus likely referred to these mile markers during the sermon on the mount when he urged that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41 NIV). Today, we refer to this as “going the extra mile.”
The Lower Galilee region, where most of Jesus’s ministry took place, was a crossroads of trade routes. The Jews there spoke Greek because of the influence (Hellenization) of the Greek culture after Alexander the Great conquered the region prior to the Romans. One of the important cities of the region was Sepphoris. Even though it is never mentioned in the New Testament, the city’s vast culture likely influenced Jesus’s life because Nazareth was a nearby suburb of the city. It is believed that Jesus likely worked in the city as a young man. While life was hard for people in many regions of Israel and Judea, the residents of Sepphoris seemed to have prospered because of the trade roads accessible to them and they would have had access to various cultures.
While it seems strange that more of Jesus’s ministry did not center in the Holy City of Jerusalem, it should be noted that Galilee had some urban, not just rural, areas. It’s not surprising builders Herod the Great and Herod Antipas built cities in the region. Because of its importance on the trade routes, Galilee was dynamic and not backward as it may sometimes be portrayed. It made for a logical setting for much of Jesus’s ministry, even though major Galilean cities such as Sepphoris, Tiberius and Caesarea Maritima were not common settings for his teachings. It’s highly unlikely, though, that the Via Maris didn’t bring people from those cities to Jesus.
The transportation routes that connected the seven churches in western Asia Minor where Paul evangelized are still basically used today. While the roads are dictated primarily by topography, it’s still a tribute to the ingenuity of the Romans who constructed enduring roads.
The Via Egnatia (The Egnatian Way) played an important role in Paul’s missionary work. He traveled on it to Philippi. It was a major road of commerce from Apollonia on the west to Kypsela in the east. It transected modern-day northern Greece. It was spaced in a way that if a person walked approximately 30 miles per day major Greek cities could be reached in a day’s journey. The road is still visible today. It was paved and milestones have been found describing it as 520-535 Roman miles long. The road was first a military road and became a major road for commerce and migration between Europe and Asia. A milestone found in Thessalonica indicates it was the halfway point of the Via Egnatia, 260 miles from its endpoint in the east and west.
The city of Philippi was of no real importance until the Via Egnatia road was built. The Via Egnatia ran almost directly through the middle of the city. With that road, Philippi became a vital cosmopolitan Macedonian city on the important trade route. A church discovered under three other church structures dates back to the fourth century as early as the time of Constantine. It had mosaic floors and was dedicated to Paul. Obviously, Paul’s work there had a lasting effect.
Much of Paul’s ministry originated in the urban masses of Roman cities. The roads and streets in those cities weren’t dirt paths like we might envision as we read the Bible. In fact, the north-south colonnaded street in the city of Antioch, where Christianity first thrived, and divided it in half was evidence of the lavish Roman style. Once a wide muddy street, it was repaved with polished stone (marble). Imagine a marble street! Many of the urban city streets Paul walked were paved in ways similar to modern construction. They were excavated with a drainage system. A base layer was installed and paver stones were laid (sometimes cemented) on top.
Metropolitan cities like Rome, Corinth and Ephesus would have had these types of streets. Tarsus, where Paul was born, was an instrumental city because it was located on a Roman road from Rome to Syria. Archaeological excavations show the impressiveness of Tarsus, even today. One of its main streets was a 23-foot wide basalt stone-paved curbed road with limestone gutters. Being that wide, it was obviously built to transport masses of people.
Many urban Roman cities had street grids similar to modern-day cities. The main north-south artery of a city was called the “cardo maxiums.” We’d call the cardo “Main Street” in modern times. Compared to Palestinian cities, the cardo in some Roman cities might have been four times as wide. Damascus in Syria (about 150 miles or four to six days of travel thanks to “road to Damascus”) has a lot of impressive archaeological findings, including its 50-foot wide cardo maximus named the Street called Straight and a gate area that leads to it. Smyrna, mentioned in Revelation 2:8-11, contained paved streets with precisely laid stones but they had no underground drainage. One of those streets was 33 feet wide with a paved walkway.
The city of Derbe, located in southern Galatia, is mentioned multiple times in the book of Acts. Paul likely traveled through it on his second and third missionary journeys. Probably the most important thing to remember about the city is that it is where Paul met Timothy (Acts 16:1). It also appears to have been a city of refuge for Christian traveling through the area because Paul and Barnabas fled there to save themselves from a martyrs’ death in the nearby city of Iconium.
“Then a mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decided to attack and stone them. When the apostles learned of it, they fled to the region of Lycaonia—to the towns of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding area.” –Acts 14:5-6 (NLT)
Derbe has been identified as an important Roman city because it was located on an Imperial Road in Asia Minor. Because of its position on the road, it was a tax collecting station. That meant it had a substantial Roman presence coupled with the fact that it also seemed to have a substantial Christian presence makes it even more remarkable that God was working so swiftly in just the first century of Christianity. A fourth or fifth century inscription mentioning Derbe makes reference to a bishop of Derbe named Michael who was “The most God-loving”.
Roman roads and streets were an important tool for God to use in the establishment of his church. The Empire represented the most innovative time in history to date. Roads were invaluable in commerce and trade, but they were equally important for communication in the New Testament. Matthew 29:19 represents one of the first times that Jesus instructed to go to “all nations.” Without the Roman roads, the world would have been much bigger than it was!
How did you perceive roads and transportation in the New Testament world?
How do you now perceive ancient Roman roads and transportation?
Had you ever considered the obstacles early Christians faced while evangelizing?
Next blog: the populations of urban cities in the Roman world.