When we read the Gospels found in the New Testament, if we dig deep enough into the archeological evidence, the historic cultural context, and pay close attention to what the authors have written we will discover how distinctly subversive they were to Roman power and the rest of the established religions of the day.
Roman and Palestinian Jewish entities were extremely powerful and, sometimes, worked together to accomplish mutual goals, but for the most part, the bond was adversarial.
It is no wonder why the Jewish establishment and Rome worked together to kill Jesus and his followers. Jesus exposed often the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and claimed to be something that was blasphemous to the Jews and Pilate of Rome was just looking to pacify angry leaders of the Jewish religion he was asigned to keep in order. If he could do it in a humiliating, condescending way – all the better from Pilot’s perspective. This Roman-Jewish relationship would continue to deteriorate violently over time.
In fact, most people do not realize that the Roman Colosseum was built from the spoils of war when the soon to be, Emperor Titus, crushed the Jews and demolished their temple in 70 AD. It was another way Rome could humiliate the people they conquered and because Rome and the world were widely religious it was a way of saying, “our gods are bigger and better than their gods.”
The Colosseum has the following inscription on it in Latin:
The Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus had this new amphitheater erected with the spoils of war. There is no doubt what war this was, the sack of Jerusalem.
Over 1 million Jews died from this defeat according to Josephus.
Ultimately, Jesus represented to Rome a small rebel faction among the Jews whom they ruled, and maintaining order and the appearance of it, was more important to Roman rulers.
The Jewish ruling authorities wanted to squelch this rising “Jesus” movement and send a public humiliating message to everyone considering following him. The horror of the Roman cross, or crucifixion, was their chosen plan of action and they were going to do it by influencing the crowd before Pilate, to demand the killing of Jesus. As the Romans sought to humiliate the Jews and did, the Jews certainly sought to do this to Jesus and the Romans exploited the opportunity to humiliate the Jews, while crucifying Jesus.
Up until that time, and even centuries later, the “cross,” symbolically and culturally, had more to do with the power of Rome than it did with Christianity. But the Roman crucifixion, capital punishment, would become central to Christianity and still is today.
Jesus would be crucified in an area of Jerusalem known as Gulgatha, which means “place of the skull,” because there are rocks there which look like they are arranged in the shape of a skull which all four (Matt., Mark, Luke, John) Gospels speak about.
(If you want to briefly learn more on how the Gospel writers wrote with subversive force in subtle ways against Rome as it relates to Jesus watch Ray Vander Laan’s video, here.)
So those who continued to speak about the death and resurrection of Jesus were those who were eye witnesses or began to believe the eye witness accounts being spread.
Many different accounts and versions spread because the Gospels themselves attest to this. One author, Luke, a physician, wrote his Gospel to a guy named Theophilus, possibly a Roman official of sorts, with these opening words:
Many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eye witnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you have been taught.
Roman authorities, the various religions in the area and the Jewish authorities all had a different view and public message about Jesus. The risk to believe whom over whom had mounting risks.
The various stories and agendas about Jesus spreading everywhere made it difficult to ascertain what was actually “true.” Luke hints at this when he wrote to Theophilus. Who could really be authoritative or trustworthy about these things?
Later, The Church collectively decided the 4 Gospels we have in the New Testament, though they differ slightly, met the standard, or “canon.” Luke’s account became one of those.
“Canon” comes from the Greek word which means “measuring stick,” or “rule.” These 4 selected simply mean: here are 4 different accounts by 4 different people by which all trustworthy, reliable accounts must rise to in n order to provide a faithful “witness” of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
11 of the 12 Apostles of Jesus were also later killed for what they spoke about Jesus, including the New Testament authors, and followers like Stephen, “the Martyr”- some by crucifixion.
The Apostle John was the only Apostle to die a natural death in his nineties. He had survived being boiled by oil for his ministry in spreading the gospel of Jesus, so then, Rome banished him to exile in the Isle of Patmos where he wrote the book called “Revelation.”
I find great encouragement and fear in his opening words of Revelation. He writes as one who sincerely knows “suffering,” being persecuted at the hands of humans to the extent he was for his ministry:
I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
I should point out here that speaking truth is often a dangerous thing for humans to do. The word we use in our English for “witness,” is actually “martus,” in Greek (μάρτυς), and this means “an eye or ear witness,” or, “spectator.”
“Martus” is the root for the Latin word, “martyr,” which is, the willingness of a human being to be put to death for adhering to a religious belief. The original did not necessarily mean being willing to go around killing people for your religious beliefs.
For the first several hundred years in Christianity, including in Palestine, Africa, Asia and the Roman Empire, it was so common that the “witnesses” of Jesus Christ were killed, persecuted to the point of death, for what they preached, taught and wrote concerning Jesus of Nazareth that “martus” (“witness”) became synonymous with “martyr” (the Latin of that Greek word.
While there are accounts of humans being killed in the Colosseum, it is still a topic of debate whether or not that included Christians.
What is not at all debatable is the humiliation of Roman crucifixion and Rome’s humiliation of the Jews by building the Colosseum and expressly inscribing on it that that is how they built and paid for it: through the spoils of conquering a people of a lesser god.
In Acts Chapter 8, Luke’s sequel to Theophilus, he details an encounter the Apostle Philip had with an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the queen, who was actually reading a portion of Isaiah, the Jewish prophet, when they met.
The passage of, Isaiah 53.8, Luke cites is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) known as the Septuagint, exactly, written 700 years prior to Christ’s crucifixion (See Benson Commentary on, Εν τη ταπεινωσει η κρισις…) It says:
The Ethiopian wanted to know from Philip what this text meant and Philip explained it all to him.
We once again live in a time when Christians are among a growing segment of people experiencing persecution in the world. There is a literal returning to the originating expression of “martus” of Christ in our times.
But maybe that was the idea the whole time. Jesus did say in Luke 9.23-24:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.
If you are from America or the West, you may not be familiar with this part of the Gospel. It’s widely omitted in this context. It does not resonate too well with the masses, or “positive thinking” fads or the “prosperity gospel” which we export all over the world. But, to be sure, this suffering at the hands of humans for serving Jesus is thoroughly Christian.
I could point to several other New Testament links, but I’ll point to one found in Hebrews 10.32-39. It underscores the words of Jesus and links suffering persecution with sincere faith of Christians.
Jesus has long departed the earth. Rome still has ruins with no one longing for the return of the Caesars and Jerusalem still does not know peace, only peace through superior fire power.
Those who know Jesus have peace with God and eternal life no matter what humiliation may still come.