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In These Last Days | Joseph M. Callewaert | Chapter One of The World of Saint Paul | Ignatius Insight

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Before entering upon the life of Saint Paul, let us consider how in his era the world had become a field well-suited to receiving and propagating the good news, the euangelion, of Jesus Christ. "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the ages" (Heb 1:1-2; italics added). And this Son, the Christ, commanded his disciples: "[Go] .... And you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

The world of the first century of our era had been prepared providentially to receive this gospel as a result of several favorable circumstances, which we will review quickly.

The Diaspora of the Jews

By 721 B.C. Sargon II of Assyria had taken more than twenty-seven thousand inhabitants of Samaria away in captivity to Asshur. At the same time a large number of Israelites from the same region took refuge in Egypt (see Hos 9:6).

Nearly one and a half centuries later, in June to July 587, Jerusalem was captured, the Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and a new deportation ensued. This caused a new influx of refugees in the land of the Nile, bringing with it the prophet Jeremiah, against his will. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek became the lingua franca of almost the entire ancient East. The books of the Old Testament were translated into Greek, the Septuagint (LXX), for the benefit of the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria in Egypt. In 233 B.C., Antiochus IV Epiphanes colonized the entire coast of Asia Minor with émigrés, most of them Jewish, who were originally from Babylon and Palestine.

In 63 B.C. Pompey, the famous Roman general, brought some Jews as captives to Rome. Later these Romanized Jews provided Julius Caesar with funds to help him in his rise to power. In return, in 47 B.C. Caesar promulgated a decree worded as follows: "Hyrcanus and his sons will preserve all their rights to the title of high priest, whether it be granted to them by law or by a free gift. If, subsequently, a question arises concerning Jewish polity, I desire that it be settled by referring it to him." The decree continues: "All other measures notwithstanding, I allow these persons [the Jews] to gather and to organize their community following the customs of their fathers and according to their own laws." This favorable decree of Julius Caesar was approved after his death by the Senate of the Republic and later by Caesar Augustus also.

The historian and geographer Strabo reports that Jews inhabited all the cities of the ancient world and that it was not easy to find a place in the world where their influence was not felt. In his Oratio pro FIacco, Cicero speaks about thousands of Jews residing, around one century before Jesus Christ, in the province of Asia. This comprised the western part of present-day Turkey: Mysia, Lydia, Caria, and Phrygia. Herod Agrippa I wrote to the emperor Caligula, "Jerusalem is the capital not only of Judaea but also of many other countries." The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, perhaps exaggerating somewhat, declared that more than a million Jews lived in Egypt. At the time of Paul, Jews in Rome numbered several thousands, served by numerous synagogues.

Some of these Israelites were well-to-do and even very rich. There were more than seventy gilded seats in the leading synagogue of Alexandria. Many synagogues were among the most beautiful buildings in Antioch and Alexandria. Mithridates Eupator, king of Pontus (112-62 B.C.), seized the Jewish treasury on the island of Cos, the value of which had been estimated at more than eight hundred talents, a considerable sum at the time. Flaccus, in the province of Asia, appropriated large sums destined for the Temple of Jerusalem. The commerce in grain produced in Egypt and shipped to Rome was largely in the hands of the Jews.

The Roman poet Juvenal notes that some Roman men had themselves circumcised and practiced the Jewish religion, following the Law handed down by Moses. Dio Cassius mentions, as an item of great interest, the expansion of Israel's religion throughout the empire. A high-ranking Roman noblewoman, Fulvia, sent some very precious gifts of purple and gold to the Temple in Jerusalem. For her part Poppaea Sabina, the mistress and later the wife of Nero, converted to Judaism.

These examples did not prevent the cultivated classes in Rome from hating the Jews. Cicero described their religion as "barbarous superstition". Juvenal ridiculed their refusal to eat pork. Tacitus treated "that abominable race" as sluggards, because they did not work on the Sabbath day or during the sabbatical year. But the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus retorted: "For a long time now, there has been great zeal among the masses for our religion; there is scarcely a Greek or barbarian city or nation in which the custom of resting on the seventh day is not observed." This is confirmed by Seneca, who writes, "This custom of that despised race is so widespread that it has been adopted in practice in all countries: the conquered have imposed their law on the conquerors."

The ground, therefore, had been prepared well. The Law was the didaskalos (teacher) who led the people to the Messiah, the Christ announced by the prophets. It would be the task of the apostles and especially of Paul to proclaim him to the ends of the earth.

Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire

The conquests of Alexander the Great also prepared for the spread of Christianity. Alexander's ambition was to gather all the nations and to make of them one unified world. He succeeded so well that Greek became the common language, the koiné, all around the Mediterranean, as far as Marseilles and the Pillars of Hercules.

Plutarch, a resident of Rome, did not speak Latin; nevertheless he had no difficulty discussing philosophy or becoming involved in politics. The letters of Paul were written in Greek just like the rest of the New Testament. A certain number of satirical graffiti, scratched on the walls 'of Rome during the time of Nero, were composed in Greek. Saint Jerome, in the fourth century, tells us that all of the Middle East spoke Greek. The Christian missionaries could express themselves in this language wherever the Spirit led them without having to worry about learning the language of the region that they were visiting.

The strategically located cities of Corinth, Carthage, and Numantia were destroyed. Roman rule extended over all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean.

But Rome could no longer remain the rugged, poor city of olden times. The ancient virtues yielded to the desire for rapid conquests. The people, whose sobriety and tenacity conquered the world and compelled its admiration, passed too quickly from the poverty that gave it its strength to the most immoderate opulence. "After the conquest of Macedonia," says Titus Livius (Livy), " [the Romans] thought that they could enjoy the universal empire and its spoils in complete security."

The conquest of Hellas with its works of art contributed to the spread of the general taste for luxury. The subjugation of Asia, which brought to Rome all the ostentation of the Orient, revealed to her an opulence that until then she had not even imagined, and dealt the final blow to her morals.

On the other hand, as a result of her victories, Rome was now the meeting place for the most diverse peoples. Travelers flocked there to dissipate their fortunes, enjoying in exchange all sorts of pleasures. We must mention also the legionaries who, after several campaigns, returned to Rome enriched and corrupted, in any case enemies now of work and eager for pleasures. They swelled the throng of commoners from allover Italy, for nowhere but in Rome was wheat distributed free of charge.

When a nation has arrived at the pinnacle of her power, when she is the mistress of the world, certain ambitions know no limit, placing her institutions at risk. She is at the mercy of a rebel or a lucky soldier. If she does not then find a man who places the future of the fatherland ahead of partisanship, there will be anarchy and tyranny. What happened next is known by all: Antony and Cleopatra; the victory of Octavius at Actium; the destruction of the Republic; finally the accession to power of Octavius, who was proclaimed emperor under the name of Augustus. Rome had decided that it was time, for the sake of her future, to place her destiny in the steady hands of a man who finally put an end to political anarchy and brought peace to the Roman world, thus inaugurating an era of tranquility.

This succession to the throne was an important factor in the propagation of Christianity. During his reign (3 1 B.C. to A.D. 14), the empire included practically the whole civilized world. Rome, a noisy city of luxury and servitude, had truly become the capital of the world. Her influence dazzled the entire known world, and the Barbarians themselves had their eyes stubbornly fixed on her.

All roads led to Rome, and those well-paved highways, as well as the maritime trade routes, were rid of bandits or pirates. The Pax Romana, a relative peace, of course, reigned throughout the world.

Decadence of the Pagan Religion

The ingenious naïveté of the Mediterranean peoples had been pleased to populate the invisible realm with a multitude of gods and goddesses in human form who were distinguished from mere mortals only by their power and their eternity.

Among the Greeks, this religion was based on the poems of Homer and even of Hesiod, which were considered to be quasi-sacred. Already in the third century before Christ, however, Xenophon ridiculed the popular religion: "Homer and Hesiod imputed everything under heaven to the gods."

Greedy, sensual, and jealous thieves and vindictive scoundrels: these were gods of arbitrary pleasure with no morality whatsoever. The stories about them do not lift up the heart or calm the anxiety of mystery, nor do they inspire a desire for the good.

The ancients were content to offer a purely formalistic worship to the hidden powers that move the world provided that the ceremonies were conducted with the prescribed pomp and pageantry. Moreover this pagan religion was protected and supported by the state or the local authorities, who decided which gods should be venerated and to whom sacrifices could be offered.

The great gods of the official religion in Rome, dii consentes, were twelve in number: Jupiter, the king; Juno, his wife; Minerva, goddess of wisdom; Vulcan and Vesta, the god and goddess of fire; Ceres, goddess of the harvest; Neptune, god of the sea; Venus, goddess of love and beauty; Mars, god of war; Mercury, god of eloquence and commerce; Apollo, god of poetry and music; and Diana, goddess of festivals and hunting.

Uneasiness about Salvation

True religious piety had disappeared; nothing remained but an empty, idolatrous cult: a mixture of external, superstitious ritual and magic that did not satisfy the desire for an assurance of happiness, thanks to the protection of higher powers. Pessimism reigned. The poet Catullus, a contemporary of Virgil, lamented: "Once the ephemeral flame of our life is extinguished, we must sleep an eternal sleep." Everyone knew that everything ends badly, that nothing can be done to resist the stream that flows turbulently and ceaselessly until the end of time, but instead each one in turn departs in the night for an unknowable destination. Uneasiness, therefore, tormented souls, and men were seeking salvation. This aspiration was expressed most strikingly in the surname soter, "savior", which was given to so many ancient and newer divinities, to so many rulers also: the desire to be shielded from the threats of life and of death.

Against physical sufferings, people fervently invoked the god of healing, Aesculapius. For ages he had had his sanctuaries; the most famous were the shrines of Cos, in the Aegean Sea, and of Epidaurus in Argolis. Crowds more numerous than ever thronged to them. The reputation of its medico-religious institute, where many students received the formation that made physicians out of them, was one of the chief causes for the prosperity of the island of Cos.

Those who could reassure man about the dangers beyond the grave were helpful, merciful, and saving gods, too, and even more than that. Mors aurem vellens, "Death pulls us by the ear" (Virgil). They managed to do so by initiating the believer into their mysteries. This form of religious life then began a remarkable development in old or new Greek shrines. The major trend, moreover, was toward other mystery religions, because of the more dramatic and emotional character of their ceremonies—so emotional that accusations of charlatanism and debauchery began to circulate against them. Dionysius, who was already present in Eleusis, had his own mysteries, which spawned many imitations. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans failed to participate in other mystery religions associated with Oriental cults, such as the cults of Attis and Cybele in Asia Minor, or those of Osiris and Isis in Egypt.

We know little about the details of these ceremonies, about which the initiates had to keep silence. Certainly the rites and formulas varied from one deity to the next. Their object was to uproot from the believer's heart the disastrous fear of so many miseries that overwhelmed him. He attended the resurrection of a dead god and was thus instructed in the secrets of death and rebirth. Perhaps the mysteries of Eleusis stopped there, but the others led the mystes, the initiate, further. After various purifications, he became identified with the god and shared in his divine nature. He confronted notions that the ancient Greek or Roman cults scarcely touched on: the concept of sin and the idea of purity, not just the physical sort that was attained by bathing and fasting, but moral purity. With promises of an incalculable reward, all this provided the initiate with a certain enrichment of his interior life, which until then had been left to fend for itself, but in the long run—alas!—it could not satisfy him.

The beginning of the Christian era was a great age of spiritual and religious journeys, a quest for truth, a search for the true God. One of these "God-seekers", the greatest among them, was Paul of Tarsus. He became the instrument chosen by the Lord to preach the universal religion in a common language, throughout an empire unified under the aegis of Rome.

The World of Saint Paul
by Joseph M. Callewaert

The World of Saint Paul
-- Electronic Book Download

Joseph Callewaert's engaging work on St. Paul reads like a novel. With inviting, even dramatic, prose, it recounts the story of the great Apostle to the Nations. This is no dry tome or ponderous biography. Nor is its subject a "safe" historical figure, irrelevant to the issues of today: St. Paul remains controversial.

Some scholars claim he "invented" Christianity. They believe his message radically departed from what Jesus taught. The Christian faith, so the claim runs, is the creation of Paul's religious experience, not the doctrine of Jesus. Callewaert rejects this theory, as do many other scholars. His interpretation rests on the Bible and the abiding tradition of the ages, rather than tendentious theories or ideologically-motivated revisions.

Yet Callewaert's work is no anti-scholarly screed. The World of Saint Paul provides a popular, yet expert account of the Apostle and his age. For those who know little about St. Paul--which includes many Christians--it is a superb introduction.

"In my presentation of St. Paul, I have tried to absorb the spirit of his epoch as far as I could, and put less trust in the present-day judgments than in the abiding traditions of the ages. If I have perhaps evoked a little too much history and pursued rather too long a road in regions so rich with a past, I have always made sure to trace a path which brings us back to this intrepid and tenacious Jew who will steadily appear in stark relief." -- From the Preface

Joseph M. Callewaert, Knight Commander of the French Order of Merit, was born in Belgium and educated in France. Now a U.S. citizen, he lives in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where he enjoys life as an ardent historian of St. Paul the Apostle. He has written delightful travelogues about undiscovered France as well as Lights out for Freedom, a retelling of his youthful experiences of living in Belgium during 52 months of Nazi occupation.

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