“For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” –1 Timothy 6:10
There has rarely been a time when the Middle East has not been in turmoil. From Abraham until now, people of different cultures and religions have continually fought against each other for various reasons. Joshua and David were conquerors of the Promised Land. The Israelites fought the Philistines and the Babylonians. Foreigners laid siege to Israelite lands. Finally, at the end of the Old Testament, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took the Israelites captive. We’ve all heard those Sunday school stories.
With the exception of the period of slavery in Egypt, most of the Old Testament is set in the region we know as Israel or Palestine. David’s and Solomon’s empires didn’t rule the world as modern-day Biblical readers might presume. They were more likely rulers of “mini-empires” or “mini kingdoms” which were not comparable in size to the Roman Empire. Rulers of Israel and Judea governed the strip of land between the Nile and Euphrates Rivers. Technically, they didn’t even rule the entire area. They had direct rule over the regions of Judea and Israel but in other regions they were just in co-habitation with other kingdoms. Philistia, in fact, remained free even though its enclave was within that region.
With the exception of those times when Israel and Judea had righteous rulers, such as David and Solomon, the region was rarely prosperous especially for the populous. In many periods, inhabitants were oppressed or constantly lived in fear of oppression. Because of the political turmoil that was often present, “few expensive works of art and architecture have been found there, nor are inscriptions common,” according to John McRay in his book Archaeology and the New Testament. The Roman Empire was the first one wrote about in the Bible that had direct rule over the Israelites with its rulers stationed in the region. Other empires, such as Babylonia, primarily ruled the Israelites by exiling them to their cities.
There was a significant cultural diversity in Palestine between the Babylonian exile at the end of the Old Testament and the Roman rule of the New Testament. That is largely attributed to a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments when God was relatively silent. We tend to not pay much attention to that gap since the Bible doesn’t account for it. During that time, the Persian Empire, which ruled when Malachi penned his final verse in 435 B.C., ruled at the beginning of the gap. It gave way to Alexander the Great’s Empire which was overthrown by the Romans. In 63 B.C., more than 50 years prior to the birth of Jesus, Pompey conquered Palestine and brought it under Roman rule. The most significant news of the gap was the rise of Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, the spiritual leaders when Jesus was born.
Alexander the Great and the Romans were the first western powers to rule in Palestine. The liberal Greco-Roman cultures were entirely different than traditional Judaism. However, as modern-day studiers of Roman history, we have come to understand they were not unlike us in today’s society.
The Romans believed citizens should benefit from public works like the services modern governments provide through tax money. Taxes are regularly documented in the New Testament. Buildings were well-maintained (even though many were poorly constructed) and streets and water systems were elaborate for the day. We’ve covered the elaborate road network. The Romans promoted commerce by making marketplaces accessible to all buyers and sellers. According to McRay, the Roman forum was the heart of every Greco-Roman city. It was a large open area for public functions and was used for both civic business and entertainment. Even the very poor Romans had access to one of the great Roman societal traditions: baths.
Bathing, whether as a ritual or for wellness or cleanliness, was prioritized by the Romans. So much a priority that baths became a taxable business but still inexpensive for the lower class. Often, the price was a Quandrans, the amount the poor widow put into the temple treasury in Mark 12:42. These copper coins were the smallest in circulation in Palestine. Some bath houses were some of the largest buildings in the city and attracted ancillary businesses such as museums, stores for shopping and libraries. They also provided an intellectual refuge for poets, politicians and philosophers. Bath houses became societal social gathering institutions. Some of them found in Rome and Pompeii were ultra-luxurious, ornate and extravagant. After all, the wealthy upper class and politicians didn’t bath in just any ole water.
Luxury in the home was magnified by the Romans as was documented in the “Roman Flyover” post. It’s important to note, though, that most Romans were poor as well but this luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the upper-class was quite different from the life of the ordinary Jewish person. A lot of those extravagant lifestyles were carried out in public and seen by all the lower classes of society. In some cases it was almost flaunted. Most Jews were peasants who worked daily in order just to survive in a region that lacked many resources to make life easier, especially water. Luxury was unheard of. For example, unlike the very public Roman bath houses, many Jewish mikvahs were private facilities for ritual bathing, unlike the primary purpose of the Roman baths. Jewish baths were sacred and often found in the home.
The Romans led the way in ancient innovation and the prime example of that was the aqueduct. They made them an everyday fact of life and by 100 A.D. they had constructed nine of them for Rome. They supplied more than 300 million gallons of water a day to the city. If everyone living in the city had equal access to water, that would have allowed each resident to have more than 300 gallons per day! With the water, they constructed fountains, bath houses, latrines and even had running water in some homes.
The theatres were also important entertainment complexes of the Greco-Roman world and they often times seated tens of thousands of people. Before Greek and Roman times, Israel had no substantial history of drama and, therefore, had no theatres. To the Jews, the Greco-Roman theatre was considered detestable. Plays in theatres were first comedies, dramas or tragedies but became increasingly violent. Ironically, the barbaric practices of Circuses in amphitheaters, often involving Christian persecution and as many as 2,500 Jewish prisoners in Nero’s reign, was what partially lead to the demise of the Roman Empire. The decay in the moral and social fabric of the Empire led to the fall of its western half first.
The Romans were considered one of the most over-indulging cultures in the history of the world.
Jesus taught about money and greed more than anything except for God’s kingdom. More than heaven. More than hell. Of his 39 parables, 11 of them concerned money. The numbers would likely go up if humility were considered. It’s obvious that Jesus considered the good stewardship of money utterly vital. Many of us still fail at being good stewards. In Matthew 6:19 Jesus said, “’Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.’”
The Romans lived a lot like we do today in America. That had an insatiable appetite for things they couldn’t pay for. They neglected little things that led to the long-term good. There was a great divide between the upper class and the slaves, the blue-collar workers of the day. Roman rulers built extravagant buildings that greatly strained the government’s treasury. In addition to their moral decay, the Romans went bankrupt. All that’s left today of the Glory of Rome is mostly found in archaeological ruins.
How extravagant did you think the Roman life was?
How peaceful did you picture the Old Testament Promised Land?
What is your view of a lavish lifestyle?