First Century Background
to Paul's Ministry

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´╗┐The life of a great man like the Apostle Paul, in a great period of the world's history (the first century A.D.), is a subject to command the attention of every thoughtful mind. Alexander the Great on his Eastern expedition, spreading the civilization of Greece over the Asiatic and African shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Julius Caesar contending against the Gauls, Charlemagne compressing the separating atoms of the feudal world, Columbus sailing westward over the Atlantic to discover a new world which might receive the arts and religion of the old and so on. These are the colossal figures of history, which stamp with the impress of their personal greatness the centuries in which they lived.

The interest with which we look upon such men is natural and inevitable, even when we are deeply conscious that, in their character and their work, evil was mixed up in large proportions with the good. But this natural feeling rises into something higher, if we can be assured that the first century period which we will contemplate was specially prepared for the Apostle Paul. Such a period was that in which the civilized world was united under the first Roman emperors. Such a work was the first preaching of the Gospel. Such a man was Paul of Tarsus.

Before we enter upon the particulars of Apostle Paul's life and the history of his work, it is desirable to say something concerning the general features of the first century age which was prepared for him. We shall only notice here those circumstances in the state of the world, which seem to bear the traces of a providential pre-arrangement.

Casting this general view on the age of the first Roman emperors, the age of Paul, which was also the age of Jesus Christ and His Apostles, we find our attention arrested by three great varieties of national life. The Jew, the Greek, and the Roman appear to divide the first century world between them. The outward condition of Jerusalem itself, at this epoch, might be taken as a type of the civilized world. Herod the Great, who rebuilt the Temple (which was finished in the first century), had erected, for Greek and Roman entertainments, a theater within the same walls. He had also an amphitheater in the neighboring plain.

Herod's coins, and those of his grandson Agrippa, bore Greek inscriptions: that piece of money, which was brought to our Savior (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 20), was the silver Denarius, the "image" was that of the emperor, the "superscription" was in Latin. When the common currency consisted of such pieces as these, since coins with the images of men or with Heathen symbols would have been a profanation to the "Treasury," there might be found on the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, shekels and half-shekels with Samaritan letters, minted under the Maccabees.

Greek and Roman names were borne by multitudes of those Jews who came up to worship at the festivals. Greek and Latin words were current in the popular "Hebrew" of the day. While this Syro-Chaldaic dialect was spoken by the mass of the people with the tenacious affection of old custom, Greek had long been well known among the upper classes in the larger towns. Latin was used in the courts of law and in the official correspondence of magistrates.

On a critical occasion of Apostle Paul's life (Acts 21, 22) when he was standing on the stair between the Temple and the fortress, he first spoke to the commander of the garrison in Greek, and then turned round and addressed his countrymen in Hebrew. We are told by the historian Josephus, that on a parapet of stone in the Temple area, where a flight of fourteen steps led up from the outer to the inner court, pillars were placed at equal distances, with notices, some in Greek and some in Latin, that no alien should enter the sacred enclosure of the Hebrews.

The condition of the first century world, in general, wears a similar appearance to a Christian's eye. He sees the Greek and Roman elements brought into remarkable union with the older and more sacred element of Judaism. He sees in the Hebrew people a divinely-laid foundation for the superstructure of the Church, and in the dispersion of the Jews a soil made ready in fitting places for the seed of the Gospel. He sees the background of the spread of the language and commerce of the Greeks. He sees the high perfection of their poetry and philosophy, and how they aided the rapid communication of Christian ideas. And he sees in the union of so many incoherent provinces under the law and government of Rome, a strong framework which might keep together for a sufficient period those masses of social life which the Gospel that Paul preached was intended to pervade.

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