The first key aspect is geography. Justo Gonzalez states that Palestine was “at the crossroads of the great trade routes that joined Egypt with Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor with Arabia.” The land of the Jews was seen as a strategic key for any concurring empire. Avenues of approach into any other empire required travel through Palestine. Trade traversed this area by land and sea. But while this plot of real estate was the subject of wars, hostilities, and invasions, its connection to the trade routes and well-paved roads afforded the early Church opportunities like never before. As armies of soldiers and trade merchants moved through the area, the Gospel hitched a ride.
Language, specifically a common language introduced by Alexander’s efforts to Hellenize the lands, and the loss of language by the Jews in Diaspora, is the second significant aspect of the setting of the early Church. Alexander sought to unite the lands he conquered through culture and language, and as a result, many people started speaking the similar language of Koine Greek. Somewhat like English today, this was the common second language among business people, that is, if it wasn’t their first language. In addition, the Jews living away from Jerusalem slowly lost their native Hebrew language and needed the Scriptures translated into a language they could read. While there was likely a diversity of native languages, the common language of the day—Greek—was the translation language of choice in the West. The Septuagint (also called the LXX, meaning “seventy”) became a common translation used by the dispersed people and was regularly quoted by the Apostles. Gonzalez calls it “a ready-made means of communicating their message to the Gentiles.” William Mounce takes it a step further stating, “God used the common language to communicate the Gospel.”
In an effort to maintain political unity the Roman Empire kept the unnecessary violence to a minimum, and this is the third significant aspect of the setting of early Church. “The political unity wrought by the Roman Empire,” writes Gonzalez, “allowed the early Christians to travel without having to fear bandits or local wars.” And the fourth aspect—closely associated with the political landscape—was the aspect of religion. The Romans incorporated the religion of the locals into their own religious system, something that allowed the early Church to function with little problem. The early Church was seen as simply a Jewish sect, and the Jewish religion was already accepted as an acceptable (all though somewhat rebellious) religion. However, this was not to last and eventually the Romans took issue with Christianity’s exclusive views and failure to worship the Roman emperor.
Many, including this author, argue that these aspects were brought together through God’s providence. The 400 silent years were not inactive years; instead, they were the foundation building that allowed a small group of common people to take the gospel of Jesus to the world. The location in respect to major cities and trade routes, the common language, the relative safety on the roads, the politics, and the synthetic religion of the Roman Empire came together in just such a way that the early Church could get a foothold that might have been impossible at any earlier time.
Mounce, William D. Greek for the Rest of Us: Using Greek Tools Without Mastering
Biblical Languages. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003.
*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.
** Photo is in the public domain, photographer is unknown.