A few weeks ago, in my “New religiongeschichtliche Schule” post, Hypatia made an observation that prompted this post. She observed that many people think that Jesus appeared at the time he did because God had devised a world in which the Gospel could spread rapidly and far and wide:
Christianity could not have arisen except out of the Jewish scriptures. Nor, I learned in my Bible class, could it have spread across the globe if it hadn’t arisen within the far-flung empire of Rome. That period was “ the fullness of time”.
I absolutely agree with this thinking, and want to make a few observations on point.
Many people observe on the Roman Empire’s advantages. Piracy and banditry were under control in the first three centuries AD. Roads were better than ever, and there was a pretty reliable system of mail delivery. Business was conducted in only two languages over a very large area (Greek and Latin). It is really hard to discount those advantages.
But I want to point out another phenomenon that frequently gets overlooked. The Diaspora.
The Diaspora is the name that is given to the way the Jews were spread all over the world. Many people think of the Diaspora as something that happened after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, but there is an older story to tell, one that precedes Jesus and prepares conditions for the spread of the Gospel. It involves the Babylonian Exile.
When the Babylonians carried the Jews into exile, something interesting happened. Since the Babylonians had recently conquered Assyria, they had a difficult time governing such a vast stretch of lands. They needed a new supply of government clerks.
Babylonian government clerks
Now this is Bubba’s theory, and I have not seen this anywhere else, so don’t cite this as the opinion of some expert, but I think that the Babylonians had really good reasons for impressing Jewish slave boys into government service. They were literate. The Jews were very different from other peoples; they wanted their boys to be able to read. They had a Law-based religion founded on the Torah, and so their religion and culture were interested in literacy.
I think this observation does not get made because so many historians have internalized bad information, and think that the Torah was not written until during the Babylonian Exile. I disbelieve that version of events. I think the Torah was completed during the time of Joshua, just as the rabbinical tradition says, and certainly no later than Samuel, so by 1000 to 900 BC at the latest.
It would have been much easier to teach boys who were literate in Hebrew to read and write in the Babylonian language, than to take boys who were illiterate and teach them reading and writing. The Babylonian boys from trustworthy families were not numerous enough, and they were diverted into more prestigious management positions. Other Babylonian boys came from towns that might be restive and think seditious thoughts against the new regime.
Another reason to want Jews is that the Jews did not have any natural allies in the Babylonian Empire. None of the conquered peoples could be considered friendly towards the Jews, so Jewish clerks would be unlikely to help hide conspiracies or seditions among the conquered peoples.
Whatever you may think of these ideas, an amazing thing happened. A few years into the captivity, Babylon was overthrown by Persia. The incoming Persians also needed to run a big sprawling empire, and found a fortuitous circumstance. The Babylonian government was full of Jewish clerks. Those Jews knew all about the government of the empire, and they had no loyalty to their Babylonian masters. The Persians retained this large bureaucracy of Jews and settled in. The Prophet Daniel, who had risen through the bureaucracy to become the chief of staff of the Babylonian King, was retained as the Persian Prime Minister of Babylon.
The Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. Ezra found it to be a shambles, along with all Judea and Galilee. Evidently the Babylonians had intended some ethnic cleansing, aiming to resettle some of their other conquered peoples into the lands vacated by the conquered Jews. But wars along the northern edge of their new empire, followed by war with Persia, kept the Babylonians too busy to carry out their schemes.
Judea had been underpopulated. Roofs had collapsed, orchards and vineyards grown up in wild thickets, and the area was too wild and overgrown to support a population of its former levels.
Jews wanted to return to Judea, but many ended up going elsewhere. And, the Jews seemed to thrive wherever they had been placed by Babylon and Persia. Synagogues grew up in all the district capitals of the Persian Empire.
When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, the Greeks gained control of the world from Greece to east of Persia. Alexander died and his generals divided the empire. That is how Greek-speaking Ptolemy became Pharaoh. A large community of Jews grew up in the new city of Alexandria. Greek-speaking Seleucus became the King of Syria.
Now Jewish thought is very different than Pagan thought. And skepticism of Pagan thinking had become widespread in Greek culture ever since Socrates and Plato.
Those scattered synagogues attracted Greeks who were interested in the Jewish religion. It had some really interesting distinctions. The Jews taught that there is one Creator God, and that He is good. This was appealing to many people, and very much unlike the tales of the Pagan gods, who were depicted as capricious and constantly playing pranks and deadly tricks on men and each other. The God of the Jews was good and encouraged righteous living.
The Pagans who followed the Jews were mostly unwilling or unable to convert to become Jews (which the Jews made extraordinarily difficult), but they would attend synagogues to learn about Jewish teachings.
The Jews called them “God-Fearers.” In some places, gentile support was vital to synagogue finances.
When Jesus came, every festival found Jerusalem crowded with Jews who came from all over the eastern portions of the Roman Empire. That is why there was no room to be found in Bethlehem at Hanukkah. And, after the Resurrection, that is why there were so many foreign Jews to hear Peter preach at Pentecost.
Those Jews went back to their homes. The Good News traveled fast. When followers of the Way of Jesus went home, they shared their testimonies.
Those gentiles who were hanging around the synagogues were really fertile ground for the Good News about Jesus. God-Fearers quickly became the key support for a number of little Christian congregations launched by Paul and Barnabas and Silas and the rest of the gang reported on by Luke in Acts.
Do you think that it was coincidence that Jesus came at a time when His message would spread like wildfire?
I think it was Providential.