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EVANGELISM in the EARLY CHURCH
By Michael Green
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2003 Michael Green
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePathways for Evangelism
It was a small group of eleven men whom Jesus commissioned to carry on his work, and bring the gospel to the whole world. They were not distinguished; they were not well educated; they had no influential backers. In their own nation they were nobodies and, in any case, their own nation was a mere second-class province on the eastern extremity of the Roman map. If they had stopped to weigh up the probabilities of succeeding in their mission, even granted their conviction that Jesus was alive and that his Spirit went with them to equip them for their task, their hearts must surely have sunk, so heavily were the odds weighted against them. How could they possibly succeed? And yet they did.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the obstacles that lay in their way; some of them will be considered in the next chapter. But it is equally true to recognize that probably no period in the history of the world was better suited to receive the infant Church than the first century AD, when, under an Empire which was literally worldwide, the scope for the spread and understanding of the faith was enormous. The interplay of Greek, Roman and Jewish elements in this praeparatio evangelica is well known, but is worth looking at afresh if this study is to be put in its proper perspective. In the earliest account we have of the spread of Christianity, the Acts of the Apostles, the debt owed to Greece, Rome and Jewry is plain on almost every page. By the second century Christians were becoming more reflective and self-conscious about the background into which the Church was launched, and began to argue that it was a divine providence which had prepared the world for the advent of Christianity. Not all their arguments are of equal value, but that the first century did provide invaluable pathways for the spread of the gospel it is idle to deny.
First and foremost was the pax Romana. The spread of Christianity would have been inconceivable had Jesus been born half a century earlier. As it was, the new faith entered the world at a time of peace unparalleled in history. The whole known world was for the first time under the effective control of one power - Rome. To be sure, that situation had almost been reached over a century earlier when, after the victorious conclusion of the Third Punic War, Rome found herself the dominant power in the Mediterranean basin. She had introduced, by force of arms and good colonial administration, a political unity such as Alexander the Great had only dreamed of. Polybius wrote his History, covering the years 220-145 BC, in order to record for posterity how 'the Romans in less than fifty-three years succeeded in subjugating nearly the whole world to their sole government - an achievement unexampled in history'. But this position was short-lived. Mistress of the world, Rome was not mistress of herself. Within a few years of the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC a would-be Roman reformer, Tiberius Gracchus, was clubbed to death in a riot led by the ex-consul, P. Scipio Nasica. His death initiated an internal struggle, which led to a hundred years of civil wars. Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar, to mention only some of the more famous participants in this century of carnage, all took up arms against their fellow-countrymen and embroiled the whole world in their disastrous struggle for power. When Julius Caesar was struck down by the daggers of Brutus and Cassius in 44 BC, it must have seemed that one more nail was being driven into the coffin of the Roman imperium, despite the claim of the conspirators that they acted only in order to kill a tyrant and revive the Republic. The outcome was a further bloody struggle, between the Triumvirate consisting of Marcus Antonius, M. Aemilius Lepidus and the dead Caesar's grand-nephew, Caius Octavius, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius on the other, which was settled at the battle of Philippi. This in turn was followed by the eclipse of Lepidus, a titanic struggle between Antony and Octavius which culminated in the battle of Actium (31 BC) and, a year later, the death of Antony and his mistress, Cleopatra, coupled with the Roman annexation of Egypt.
Octavius's supremacy was now undisputed. The weary nations turned in gratitude to their deliverer from a century of war, and acclaimed him with the utmost sincerity as 'saviour of the world'. The poets, Virgil and Horace, proclaimed the beginning of a new era; 'redeunt Saturnia regna'. For the first time for two centuries the temple of Janus had its great doors closed as a sign of peace and in 17 BC Augustus (as a grateful Senate had entitled him a decade earlier, in return for his having, in appearance at any rate, restored Republican government) celebrated the Ludi Saeculares in which Horace sang the achievement of the 'son of Anchises and Venus' and the peace, plenty and happiness of his principate. Perhaps more impressive than this official piece of propaganda are inscriptions from all over the ancient world which show the gratitude of ordinary people for the Roman peace Augustus had inaugurated. For instance, one inscription, dating from about 6 BC in Rome, records the eulogy of a sorrowing husband for his dead wife. In it he not only talks of their forty-one happy years of marriage, their children and his wife's virtues, but he goes out of his way to pay tribute to the pax Augusta. 'It was since the pacification of the universe and the restoration of the Republic that, at length, happy and quiet times came our way.'
Augustus maintained this peace by means of the army. This was, broadly speaking, stationed around the boundaries of the Empire so that, with the frontiers firmly garrisoned, citizens could sleep in peace. Gaul had been conquered by Julius Caesar, Asia Minor by Pompey, and Augustus took pains to advance frontiers to the Rhine and Danube. These were picketed by legions and patrolled by naval detachments. In the East, he gained diplomatic successes against the Parthians (whom, for geographical and cultural reasons, it would have been impracticable to include within the Empire) and established the frontier on the Euphrates. All within that area was pacified and Romanized. There was no fear of civil strife arising again because, by an astute division of territory between himself and the Senate, Augustus ensured that he would keep control of all those provinces which needed a military presence. By the time of his death only a single legion was to be found in a senatorial province - that in Africa. Under such circumstances internal and external peace seemed assured. Tacitus makes no exaggeration when he reports 'sensible men' as saying: 'the Empire was hedged in by sea, ocean or long rivers throughout. Legions, fleets, provinces - all was fitly linked together.' Augustus had succeeded in creating a corporate unity of the whole of the civilized world.
The development of the road system went on apace: Augustus took a special interest in roads and made their upkeep, the cura viarum, an imperial responsibility, administered by a board of senior senators. The reason for this is obvious enough. It not only enabled speedy movement of troops to take place for police activity or military operations, but facilitated the swift transmission of news through the official post, the cursus publicus, which Augustus set up. A veritable network of roads radiated out from the Golden Milestone in Rome to all parts of the Empire, and they were kept in good repair. This road system had other great advantages, notably the encouragement of trade and the fostering of travel and social intercourse between different nationalities of the Empire, thus forging an increasingly homogeneous civilization in the Mediterranean world. The possibilities of spreading the gospel afforded by this swift and safe method of travel were fully exploited by the early Christians, and both the New Testament and the literature of the second century simply take for granted journeys of enormous length which would scarcely have been possible after the fall of the Empire until modern times. One oft-quoted inscription found at Hierapolis in Asia Minor on the tomb of a merchant records that he travelled to Rome no fewer than seventy-two times. He needed no passport anywhere in the Empire. Provided he did not bring merchandise with him, he would have to pay no customs duty, though he was liable to pay a small tax for using the road. It is clear from the pages of the Acts that Christians made the maximum use of the Roman road system, and that it formed an unconscious directive to their evangelism. What a merchant could do for financial advantage, a Christian could do in the cause of the gospel.
Greece, too, made signal contributions to the spread of Christianity. Perhaps the most important was the Greek language itself. This was now so widely disseminated through the Mediterranean basin that it acted as an almost universal common tongue. Captive Greece captured her conquerors, as Horace complained; and from the second century BC when she fell under Roman control, the Greek language rivalled Latin. The conquests of Alexander had already made Greek the common language of the East more than a century before, and now the West followed suit, though Spain remained Latin-speaking. As early as 242 BC Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave, was brought to Rome, freed, and became a master of Greek and Latin literature. From then on it was normal for Roman education to be conducted in Greek. Greek tutors, many of them distinguished captives or, like Polybius, political deportees, tended to be so self-satisfied about their superior culture and language that, like the English after them, they did not take the trouble to learn other languages well. They taught in Greek: and the Romans not only put up with it, they liked it. Such patriots as the Scipios and Cicero were expert in Greek: the earliest Roman historians like Fabius Pictor wrote in Greek. Quintilian, the celebrated educationalist of the first century AD, insisted that a boy should begin by learning Greek, and many of the official Roman inscriptions that century are in Greek. Fifty years earlier Cicero had observed that Greek was read by practically the whole world, while Latin was confined to its own territory. The satirists, Juvenal and Martial, scornfully pointed out that even the womenfolk did their lovemaking in the Greek tongue! It was, therefore, quite natural that Paul the Jew should address the Latins of Rome in Greek, or that Irenaeus, himself a native of Asia Minor, should write in Greek as he conducted his missionary and apologetic work in France in the second century. Interestingly enough, it was in Greek that the Roman captain, Claudius Lysias, asked the apostle Paul, whom he suspected of being an Egyptian brigand, 'Do you know Greek?' The advantages for the Christian mission of having a common language can hardly be overestimated. It did away with the necessity for missionary language schools. Missionaries using it would incur none of the odium that English-speaking missionaries might find in some of the underdeveloped countries; for Greek, the language of a captive people, could not be associated with imperialism. Moreover, it was a sensitive, adaptable language, ideally suited for the propagation of a theological message, because for centuries it had been used to express the reflections of some of the world's greatest thinkers, and thus had a ready-made philosophical and theological vocabulary. The lack of this specialist vocabulary in Latin led to difficulties some 250 years later, when Latin replaced Greek as the common language of the Western Empire.
The Greek language cannot be separated from Greek thought. Through it Greek literature was opened up and served as the model for Roman writers. Thus Virgil's Aeneid was inspired both in form and content by Homer's Odyssey and, in part, Iliad: Catullus and Horace copied the Lesbian poetry of the sixth century BC, and so forth. The poets were the theologians of the day; and the common people derived their conception of the gods and their activities from the Homeric sagas. Indirectly, therefore, this popularizing of theological mythology was a real preparation for the gospel. Thoughtful people reflected on the cruelties, adulteries, deceits, battles and lies attributed to the gods, and they were repelled. It was not the Christians who first mounted an attack on the crude anthropomorphic polytheism of the masses. It had been exposed by Greek philosophers long before. Nobody had been more forthright in exposing the unworthy actions of the traditional gods than Plato, and his attacks were popularized through the teaching of the sophists. These men were to be found in all the main cities of the ancient world; in the open air as freely as indoors they functioned, teaching whoever would pay them. Plato's Protagoras gives an idea of the attractiveness, the adroitness and the shallowness of these men and an impression of their influence. The Greek sophists had as great a power over the common people as the Reformation preachers. Their ridicule of the gods must in no small degree have prepared the way for the Christian message. At all events, the Apologists of the second century built upon the foundations they had laid, and often used the weapons of the Greek philosophers in order to denounce the Greek gods. A glance through the Apology of Aristides or the Address to the Greeks of Justin will show the Christians using this method of attack; a great deal of material came to their hand, for not only Plato but also the Stoics, Epicureans and Cynics had preceded Christianity in this attack. Rigorous Greek thought, honest Greek seeking after truth made people impatient of the worthless deities they had traditionally worshipped. It has been well said of the Greeks that it was not that they became so depraved that they abandoned their gods, but rather that the gods became so depraved that they were abandoned by the people.
Not only was there a movement away from polytheism in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century (though it is easy to overemphasize this: paganism was still a force to be reckoned with in the fourth century AD), but a tentative move towards monotheism can be discerned. The problem of the One and the Many had long fascinated Greek thinkers and they were not prepared to accept an account of the universe which did not give a satisfactory account both of its unity and its diversity. As early as Xenophanes in the sixth century BC thinking men were not only attacking the Homeric legends which made the gods act dishonourably and adopt human shape, but were groping their way towards a single supreme Deity, who governs the whole universe through thought.
Excerpted from EVANGELISM in the EARLY CHURCH by Michael Green Copyright © 2003 by Michael Green . Excerpted by permission.
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