The First Two Emperors of Rome & Their Impact on the New Testament

by Jacob Allee

Introduction

Given that the Bible is a holy book, a book of faith, it is easy for many Christian believers to divorce the Scriptures from their historical context and the influences that impacted the writers and even the events in the Bible themselves. Whereas the Bible is preached as the inspired word of God, and so it is, it is also a human document that was produced by real people in a certain time and culture. In order to truly understand the Bible we must have an understanding of the world from which it came forth. ‘The historical context is important as a framework from which to interpret the Scriptures. Every book of Scripture was written in a historical context that should be understood in order to help interpret the book accurately.”[1]

One major facet of the context of the writing of the New Testament was the first century Roman Empire which ruled much of the known world at that time. From Rome to Ephesus in Asia Minor, and many other places covering a massive landscape, the New Testament was written by various authors from many locations but not one of those individuals or places was unaffected or untouched by the Roman Empire. From the time of Jesus’ birth until the death of the last apostle, John (the end of the apostolic era), there were twelve Roman Emperors. It is the purpose of this paper to explore the impact that the first two of these rulers had on the events and individuals in the New Testament so that we may thereby have a better grasp of cultural context of the New Testament world and how God has sovereignly worked in the midst of even unbelievers to bring about his will.

Caesar Augustus (B.C. 27 – A.D. 14)

Caesar “Augustus”, which means “reverend”, was a title granted to Octavian who was born just before sunrise[2] on September 23 in B.C. 63. He became “the grand-nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, by the Roman senate in 27 B.C., when it confirmed his powers to rule.”[3] Augustus lost his father at the young age of eight years old and when he was 12 it is reported that he gave the

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funeral oration in honor of the his grandmother, Julia, who had then passed as well. By the time he was 16 he was awarded military decoration and it was clear that this young man was destined to be powerful leader in Rome. “He first gained power with Antony and Lepidus at Julius Caesar’s death in 44 b.c. He gained sole control at the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c., where he defeated Antony and Cleopatra, who both committed suicide. This brought Egypt into the system of Roman provinces. He thus founded the Roman Empire and ruled with popular acclaim.”[4]

Augustus is one of the most well-known emperors to the Christian audience if for no other reason than he was the one in power when Jesus was born. In Luke 2:1-2 Luke places Jesus’ birth during Caesar Augustus’s reign, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.[5] His fame is also due the fact that he was the first sole ruler of the Roman Empire, that he was well liked by the people and that he lived a long life with an undisputed rule and died of natural causes.

Octavian’s victory over Antony at the Battle of Actium gave him undisputed supremacy in Rome. However, unlike his uncle Julius Caesar, Octavian wisely allowed the Roman people to grant him the power and privileges he craved. The Senate named Octavian Princeps Senatus (“first in the Senate”) and bestowed upon him the honorific title “Augustus” in 27 b.c. Gradually, Augustus obtained by senatorial confirmation the primary offices and powers of Rome. He commanded the legions through his imperium (executive power) and, in 23 b.c., was granted the greatest executive power (maius imperium proconsulare) giving Augustus ultimate authority over all provincial officials.[6]

The fact that Augustus was Emperor when Jesus was born corresponds to one way he had a major impact on the events found within the New Testament…

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RECOMMENDED APOLOGETICS RESOURCES FOR FURTHER READING:

Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence

The Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture

 

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