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Roman Law in the Nt

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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The student of Christian origins cannot neglect the influence which the law of the Roman Empire had on the infant Church. The marvellous talent of the Roman authorities for organization, and especially their wise adaptability, which saved them from enforcing a rigid uniformity in legal details in all the countries which they conquered, were to a large degree instrumental, under Divine providence, in furthering Christianity throughout the Empire, Though the Emperors and their officials became, at a comparatively late date (see below, 4) persecutors, yet there can be no doubt that the Roman system of law and organization was a most powerful help to the apostles in preaching the gospel. In this article we may trace the various direct and indirect allusions to that system in the Christian literature of the apostolic period.

1. Administrators of the law.-The greater part of the Roman world was divided into provinces, which were either senatorial, i.e. under the rule of the Roman Senate, or imperatorial, i.e. under the direct rule of the Emperor. The older and settled provinces usually came under the former head, and those in which there was danger from external enemies usually under the latter; but there were not infrequent exchanges between Emperor and Senate, and a province might be at one date senatorial and at another imperatorial. It is therefore a good test of accuracy in a historical writer to examine whether he names the Roman governor rightly in any given incident (see below).

(a) Senatorial provinces.-Such a province was governed by a proconsul (ἀνθύπατος, Acts 13:7 f., Acts 13:12, Acts 19:38; cf. Acts 18:12, ἀνθυπατεύοντος). St. Luke rightly calls Sergius Paulus in Cyprus a proconsul (Acts 13:7), for shortly before St. Paul visited the island it became a senatorial province, though it ceased soon afterwards to be such. An inscription found in N. Cyprus by Cesnola has ‘in the proconsulship of Paulus’ (Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, p. 74, who quotes D. G. Hogarth, Devia Cypria, London, 1889, p. 114). St. Luke also rightly speaks of Gallio as proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12). This province had gone through many changes: having been at one time a separate province, at other times joined to Macedonia, it had from a.d. 15 been a joint imperatorial province, but in a.d. 44, before St. Paul came to Corinth, had again been disjoined from Macedonia and had become senatorial (Ramsay, Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) i. 23). The senatorial provinces mentioned in the NT are: Macedonia (senatorial after the time of Claudius); Achaia; Asia (the western part of Asia Minor); Bithynia-Pontus, a united province in NT times (part of ancient Pontus was joined to Galatia, part given to the Polemonian kingdom; see below, c); Cyprus (see above); Crete-Cyrene, a joint province. In Acts 19:38 the plural ἀνθύπατοι is used; the meaning is not that there were more than one proconsul at Ephesus at a time, or that the proconsul’s counsellors were called by this name (a conjecture for which there is no evidence), but that ‘there are such things as proconsuls.’

(b) Imperatorial provinces.-Such a province was ordinarily governed by a propraetor (in full, legatus Augusti pro praetore; in Greek, ἀντιστράτηγος or πρεσβευτής), Neither of these Greek names is found in the NT, but several imperatorial provinces are there named: Syria-Cilicia-Phenice, a joint province; [Note: Syria and Cilicia are joined in Galatians 1:21 : τὰ κλίματα τῆς Συρίας καὶ τῆς Κιλικίας, tr. in AV and RV ‘the regions of Syria and Cilicia.’ St. Paul’s habit of using the Roman names for provinces in here illustrated, for Acts 9:30 says that he was sent from Jerusalem ‘to Tarsus,’ i.e. to Cilicia. Ramsay (Gal., p. 277 ff.) would with à omit the second τῆς in Galatians 1:21; as Lightfoot says (Galatians 5, London, 1876, in loc.), ‘the words τὰ κλίματα seem to show that “Syria and Cilicia” are here mentioned under one general expression, and not as two distinct districts,’ though he seems to be in error in saying that they were at the time under a separate administration. For the meaning of κλίματα see Ramsay, loc. cit.] Galatia; Illyricum (Ἰλλυρικόν), [Note: The usual Greek name or thin province is Ἰλλυρίς or Ἰλλυρία, but St. Paul as a Roman citizen uses a Latin form in Romans 15:19, as does the historian Dio Cassius twice (Ramsay, Gal., p. 276 f.). This province is also called Dalmatia in 2 Timothy 4:10, this name (which had previously been given to South Illyricum only) taking the place or the other during St. Paul’s lifetime (Ramsay, ib.).] N.W. of Macedonia and W. of the provinces of Mcesia Superior and Thracia, which are not referred to in the NT, and do not contain any of the places there mentioned; Pamphylia; Lycia. (The last two were joined together in a.d. 74: Lycia is mentioned in Acts 27:5 as a separate province [cf. 1 Maccabees 15:23]; Patara [Acts 21:1] was within it.)

Some imperatorial provinces were governed by procurators, such as Judaea (when it was not a dependen kingdom) and Cappadocia, though Judaea was not perhaps strictly a ‘province’; the governor of Egypt was called a prefect. Both these names are used in other senses. A procurator (ἐπίτροπος or διοικητής, in the NT more loosely ἡγεμών, Matthew 27:2, Acts 23:24; Acts 24:1; Acts 26:30, etc., and so Josephs, Ant. XVIII. iii. 1, though this word is used generally of Roman governors [Note: In Luke 2:2 the verb ἡγεμονεύω is used of Quirinius’ office in Syria, in Luke 3:1 of Pilate’s procuratorship; in Luke 3:1ἡγεμονία is used of the ‘reign’ of Tiberius.] as contrasted with semi-independent ‘kings’ in Mark 13:9 and Matthew 10:16, Luke 21:12; cf. 1 Peter 2:14) was of a rank inferior to that of a propraetor. He was in most respects vested with full power, but was in some degree in a subordinate relation to a neighbouring governor; thus, Judaea was more or less under Syria, Cappadocia under Galatia.

(c) Subject kingdoms, etc.-In addition to the Roman provinces, there were in apostolic times a considerable number of semi-independent kingdoms, and also of petty princedoms or ‘tetrarchies’-this word having lost its original meaning of ‘rule over a fourth part.’ Of the former class we notice the dominions of Herod the Great and of his grandson Herod Agrippa I. (who died a.d. 44, Acts 12:23); these were kings of all Palestine. Another such kingdom was that of Polemo (Πολέμων) to the east of Pontus; this kingdom existed up to a.d. 63; one of the Polemos married Berenice or Bernice (Acts 25:13). A third such kingdom was Lycaonia Antiochi (between Galatia and Cilicia), which is indirectly alluded to in Acts 18:23, where St. Paul is said to have gone through τὴν Γαλατικὴν χώραν καὶ Φρυγίαν, i.e. he visited first that part of Lycaonia which was not part of the subject kingdom but was incorporated in the province Galatia, and then he went through Phrygia or ‘the Phrygian’ [region] (ct. [Note: contrast.] Acts 16:6, τὴν Φρυγίαν καὶ Γαλατικὴν χώραν, which by the grammatical construction must mean ‘the region which was both Phrygian and Galatic,’ i.e. that part of Phrygia which was incorporated in the province Galatia; cf. Ramsay, St. Paul, p. 210). Herod Agrippa II. was king (or tetrarch) of Chalcis in CCEle-Syria (the Lebanon), and afterwards of Northern Palestine; in Acts 25:13 he is called ‘Agrippa the king,’ and the word ‘king’ is emphasized in these chapters; he died a.d. 100. Herod Antipas was also popularly called ‘king’ (Mark 6:25, Matthew 14:9), but he was really tetrarch (Matthew 14:1) of Galilee (Luke 3:1, τετρααρχοῦντος) and Peraea (Jos. Ant. XVII. viii. 1). Archelaus succeeded his father Herod the Great in Judaea and Samaria as ‘ethnarch,’ without the title of king, though St. Matthew uses the verb βασιλεύειν of him (Acts 2:22). Herod Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias of Abilene (Luke 3:1). The existence of these kings and tetrarchs was due to the wise tolerance of the Romans, and it paved the way for direct Roman rule, and indirectly for the spread of Christianity.

Against the decisions of both governors and kings there lay an appeal to the Emperor. That of St. Paul is recorded in Acts 25:11 f. (cf. Acts 28:19), but it is disputed whether it was from the Sanhedrin to the Roman tribunal or from Festus to Caesar. The latter view seems best to suit the circumstances of the case. The appeal need not necessarily have boon granted; but as we see from Agrippa’s remark in Acts 26:32, once it was allowed, the prisoner could not be released.

(d) In Acts 19:31 the Asiarchs, officials in the province of Asia, are mentioned. But the Asiarch was not, strictly speaking, an administrator of the law. In the provinces there were organized associations of cities, having to a great extent a religious character, though having also some relation to the law. Such an association was called ‘commune’ (τὸ κοινόν). Each ‘commune’ was presided over by an officer named after the province; thus he was called Asiarch in Asia, Galatiarch in Galatia, etc. He was president of the games, and had an undefined influence in civil affairs. The plural ‘Asiarchs’ in Acts 19:31 perhaps implies that past holders of the office retained the title. For these offices see the Martyrdom of Polycarp, xii., and Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii., ‘Ignatius’2, London, 1889, iii. 404 ff.

2. Administration of the law.-The Romans did not enforce a rigid uniformity of law throughout the Empire. When they conquered a country and incorporated it as a Roman province, they found in many cases an excellent system of law in force, and they retained much of it. This was especially the case in Greek cities, and above all in Asia Minor, where the people were particularly tenacious of old customs. Just as the Romans did not force the Latin language on Greek countries, but recognized the Greek language and made use of it, reserving Latin for State occasions, so they used much of pre-existing Greek law and custom. Thus at Ephesus, a ‘free’ city, we find, in addition to the Roman proconsulship, a Greek constitution. There was a senate (βουλή), and also the popular assembly (δῆμος, Acts 19:30; also called ἐκκλησία, Acts 19:32; Acts 19:41) which met regularly three times a month and (when inquired) in extraordinary session; and this popular assembly had its clerk (γραμματεύς), a very important official, whose influence over it was great, as this chapter shows (Acts 19:35-41). Inscriptions of Roman date in Greek cities show the continuance of Greek institutions (for these statements see Rackham, Acts, p. 362 ff., and Ramsay, St. Paul, p. 131 ff., Gal., pp. 132 ff., 181 f.). At Athens, also a ‘free’ city, we find a Greek institution, the court of the Areopagus (Acts 17:19; Acts 17:22), the members of which were called ‘Areopagites’ (Acts 17:34). This, however, was not a court of law, and St. Paul was not on his trial before it on a criminal charge. It was rather a University court, ‘in the midst of’ which (Acts 17:22) the Apostle made his defence as a teacher. The scene has been token by F. C. Conybeare (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) i. 144) and others, with the Authorized Version text in Acts 17:22 (but not AVm [Note: Vm Authorized Version margin.] ), to have been on Mars’ Hill outside the city, whence the court derived its name, but Ramsay with more probability (St. Paul, p. 244 f.) places it in the city itself, in or near the Agora or market-place. ‘In the midst of Mars’ Hill’ as a topographical expression would hardly be possible.

In non-Greek countries which passed under Roman rule, Roman law and organization were more speedily adopted, as there was less of previous civilization to withstand them. But in Palestine, as in the Hellenized districts, local law survived to a considerable extent, even when Roman procurators had displaced native kings. Power was left to the Sanhedrin in Judaea , and, though that body had no jurisdiction in Galilee and Samaria, local synagogues outside Judaea were allowed by the civil authorities to exercise a good deal of authority over their members (C. Bigg, International Critical Commentary , ‘St. Peter and St. Jude,’ Edinburgh, 1901, p. 25). This Sanhedrin could not inflict capital punishment without leave of the procurator (John 18:31), but the latter often applied Jewish law, and this seems to be the meaning of Festus’ proposal to send St. Paul to Jerusalem, to be tried in his presence indeed, but by Jewish law (Acts 25:9). The sentence would be the procurator’s, and the appeal would be from him to the Emperor (see above, 1 (c)). The stoning of Stephen was no doubt an illegal murder (Acts 7:58), and other deaths of Christians would fall under the same head (Acts 5:33, Acts 22:4, Acts 26:10); but the Sanhedrin could arrest persons, and inflict imprisonment and flogging (Acts 5:18; Acts 5:40, Acts 22:4, Acts 26:10; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24 f., Matthew 5:22). In Acts 9:2, Acts 26:13 the synagogue at Damascus is requested by the Sanhedrin to exercise its powers (cf. Acts 22:19, Mark 13:9). In the semi-independent kingdoms Roman law found its way less speedily, and only as the local kings deemed it practicable to spread Western ideas. The position of Herod the Great in this respect is well drawn by Ramsay (Was Christ born at Bethlehem?, London, 1898, ch. ix.), who suggests that the king was allowed to carry out the enrolment which took place at the time of our Lord’s birth in such a way as to conciliate Jewish prejudices, by giving it a tribal character which it did not possess in the other parts of the Empire.

On the other hand, the Romans founded colonies in various parts of the Empire, chiefly for military reasons; their inhabitants were Roman citizens, and Roman law was observed in them more strictly; the city officials were named in Roman fashion duoviri, quaestores, CEdiles, praetores (the magistrates in Greek cities were called στρατηγοί or ἄρχοντες, and in Acts 16:20; Acts 16:22; Acts 16:35 f. St. Luke gives the former as the translation of ‘praetores’ at Philippi, a Roman colony), in colonies there was no Senate (βουλή), but there were decuriones (Ramsay, Gal., pp. 117, 182); the language used in the municipal deeds is shown by inscriptions to have been Latin (ib.). The colonics mentioned in the NT are; Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14), Lystra (Acts 14:6), Philippi (Acts 16:12, where alone of NT passages κολωνία is found), Corinth (Acts 18:1), Ptolemais (Acts 21:7). Iconium (Acts 13:51) did not become a colony till Hadrian’s time (Ramsay, Gal., pp. 123, 218). Here it may he remembered that Roman law gave special privileges to ‘citizens.’ Citizenship (πολιτεία, Acts 22:28) was not conferred on all the inhabitants of the Empire till a.d. 212. Even the inhabitants of ‘free’ cities were not Roman citizens, or ‘Romans,’ as citizens proudly and tersely called themselves (Acts 16:21, Acts 22:25 ff.); but citizenship might be acquired by purchase, in the corrupt times of the Emperor Claudius, though at a high price (Acts 22:28), or by birth, as in St. Paul’s case (ib.). The law protected citizens from flogging, and St. Paul asserts this right in Acts 16:37, Acts 22:25; it exempted Jews who were also Roman citizens from the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin and of the synagogues, though St. Paul did not always assert his exemption (2 Corinthians 11:24 f.), and it gave them an appeal from a death sentence by a provincial governor (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iv. 292). In Acts 16:37; Acts 22:25 the word ἀκατάκριτος (‘uncondemned’) does not imply that the Apostle could have been flogged after trial, which is not the case; the want of trial merely suggests the possible excuse of ignorance which the officials might have urged: St. Paul says that they ought to have investigated. Ramsay (St. Paul, p. 225) suggests that the Apostle spoke in Latin and used the phrase re incognita (‘without investigating our case’), and that St. Luke rendered it loosely by ἀκατάκριτος.

3. Illustrations in the NT drawn from Roman or Roman-Greek law.-The following illustrations have been gathered from Galatians by Ramsay, though his conclusions have not in all cases been universally accepted. In particular, his deductions from a Roman-Syrian law-book of the 5th cent, of our era have been objected to, because of its date. But the deductions agree well with the NT, and it is highly probable that the law-book, which is of the nature of a compilation, re-echoes in a large degree the old Seleucid law.

(a) Roman and Greek wills.-The Greek will once properly executed and recorded-the recording took place in the testator’s lifetime-was irrevocable, and so it is in Galatians 3:15, where St. Paul applies the custom to the Jewish covenant or testament, while at that time a Roman will was revocable by the testator, for it was a secret document and was not recorded (Lightfoot denies that a will is intended in Galatians 3:15, and translates ‘covenant’). In Hebrews 9:16 f. the will is of the Roman kind; it can take effect only after the death of the testator. The inference is that among those to whom Galatians is addressed the Romans left the older local (Greek) law on the subject untouched, and that the persons addressed therefore lived in a district that was highly Hellenized; while the persons addressed in Hebrews (Jewish Christians in Palestine, or possibly in Rome?) had received Roman, law in this respect (Ramsay, Gal., pp. 350ff., 364 ff.). See also Adoption, 2; Heir, 2.

(b) Law as to coming of age.-Here, again, Greek and Roman law differed. In Galatians 4:2 the father names the date at which the heir comes of age. In Roman law a child was under a ‘tutor’ till he was 14 years old, when he could make a will and dispose of his own property; then under a ‘curator,’ who managed the properly, till he was 25. The distinction was not known at Athena, but it is found in provincial Greek cities. In Galatians 4:2 the ‘tutor’ (ἐπίτροπος) and the ‘curator’ (οἰκονόμος) are both mentioned. But though in this respect Galatia followed Rome, it did not do so in the other respect, for the father is said to appoint (i.e. by will) the term during which these officers should have authority over his son (Ramsay, Gal., p. 391 ff.). See Heir, 2.

(c) Law as to the position of children.-In this matter the Greek and the Roman law agreed, but they differed from the Hebrew law. A son of the master of the house by a slave mother was, by Greek and Roman law alike, a slave; but, according to Hebrew law, the status of the father ennobled the child, who was free. Thus Dan and Asher were not slaves, though their mothers were. Hence the illustration of Galatians 4:21-31 about the two sons of Abraham, the son of Hagar being born ‘unto bondage,’ would appeal to the Galatians, who lived under Roman-Greek law, while it would not appeal in the same way to one who was brought up without reference to that law (Ramsay, Gal., p. 434).

4. Attitude of the law to the Christian Church.-The Roman law recognized Judaism, though it was not the State religion, as a religio licita; it was tolerated, and no one could be punished for being a Jew. But no religion which was not recognized by the State was lawful, and as Christianity had never been so recognized it was from that fact a religio illicita. It has, however, been disputed when the Roman law in this respect was first actively put into force. Many writers, especially in Germany, treat Trajan as the first real persecutor, maintaining that before his time Christianity was confused with Judaism, and that Nero and Domitian were merely capricious persecutors of individuals. A damaging indictment of this view is made by Lightfoot (op. cit. i. 1-17). There is no doubt that at the very first Christians were looked upon merely as Jews (e.g. Acts 16:20). At Corinth Gallio treats the question before him as one of Jewish law (Acts 18:15). St. Paul could hardly have held his favourable view of the State organization and of its power for furthering the gospel had it been otherwise. But it seems highly probable, if not certain, that at least from the time of Nero Christianity was looked upon as a distinct sect, and therefore as illegal. Tacitus (Ann. xv. 44) clearly treats it as having been a distinct religion in the time of Nero; he mentions its followers as ‘those whom the common people used to call Christians’-the use of the imperfect ‘appellabat’ shows that he is not, as has been alleged, projecting the ideas of his own time into that of the middle of the 1st cent. (he himself was born c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 55). Suetonius, who was a few years younger than Tacitus, calls Christianity ‘a novel and malignant superstition’ (Nero, 16). Even had there been confusion between the two religions in Nero’s time, by the time of Domitian, when Emperor-worship was enthusiastically pressed, and the Imperial policy thus became directly antagonistic to Christianity, there could be no possibility of confusing the two. The Jews themselves were active in making the distinction manifest to the authorities. In Acts 19:33 the Jews put forward Alexander for this very purpose. And it is inconceivable that they would allow a confusion so injurious to themselves to continue. It was not necessary that a distinct edict against Christianity should have been put out, and it is quite possible that no such edict was issued until Trajan’s time; the very fact that Christianity had never been recognized by the State made it unlawful. Nor is this argument weakened by the fact that there was not a continuous persecution of the Christians on the part of the Roman authorities in the 1st century. The law was there, though it was not always enforced. The same thing happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and there is no dispute that Christianity was then regarded as an unlawful religion. The Church benefited by more than one interregnum of peace.

Light is thrown on the attitude of the law to Christianity by 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 2:20; 1 Peter 4:14. Here St. Peter alludes to Christians being accused of crimes (1 Peter 2:12, a verse which recalls the infamous offences imputed to them in later days, the ‘Thyestean banquets’ and ‘CEdipodean intercourse’-i.e. cannibalism and incest; cf. the letter of the martyrs of Vienne and Lyons given in Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) v. 1, and Justin, Apol. i. 26, etc.), and also to their suffering when they do well (1 Peter 2:20), and ‘for the name (ἐν ὀνόματι) of Christ’ (1 Peter 4:14). Bigg (Com. on 1 Peter 2:12), who upholds an early date for the Epistle, maintains that this does not show that the State had as yet systematically declared against the Church; Ramsay (The Church in the Roman Empire, pp. 245 ff., 290 ff.) thinks that these passages show that the Epistle belongs to the latter part of the 1st century. In either ease Christianity is represented as an unlawful religion, and Christians suffer ‘for the name’ (i.e. for being Christians, without any moral crime being attributed to them). Thus at least before the time of Domitian all confusion with Judaism must have ceased. The same thing may be gathered from the Apocalypse, which (at any rate in its present form) is probably of the time of that Emperor.

It is agreed by all that the law in the time of Trajan regarded Christianity per se as unlawful. In his letter to Pliny the Emperor says that Christians are not to be sought out, but that if they are accused and convicted they are to be punished, though not if they apostatize (see the text in Lightfoot, ‘Ignatius’2, i. 53 f. But there is no trace whatever of a new policy having been instituted by Trajan.

The law condemned secret societies, and this was perhaps the chief cause of Trajan’s attitude to Christianity. He was energetic in suppressing clubs and gilds; whether religious or not, and whether in themselves innocent or not, he considered them dangerous as being liable to be used for political purposes (see the examples collected by Lightfoot, op. cit., p. 18 ff.). The meetings of the Christians for Eucharist and Agape would at once rouse his antagonism. Pliny, in his letter to Trajan (Ep. 96), therefore reports the assemblies of the Christians ‘on a fixed day before light,’ but emphasizes their innocent characters: at the first meeting (i.e. the Eucharist) they bound themselves by an oath (sacramento) not to do wrong; at the second (i.e. the Agape, held later in the day) they met to take food, ‘promiscunm tamen et innoxium’; but the latter assembly was discontinued after Pliny’s edict, because he had forbidden gild meetings (hetaerias) according to Trajan’s command, Pliny apparently considered that the Christians were no longer a gild, because they gave up their common meal; he probably did not understand the nature of the Eucharist (there seems to be some confusion about his use of the word sacramentum), or at any rate he did not consider that it came under this head.

Literature.-W. M. Ramsay, A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, London, 1899, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, do., 1895, The Church in the Roman Empire before a.d. 170, do., 1893; E. Hicks, Traces of Greek Philosophy and Roman Law in the NT, do., 1896; W. E. Ball, St. Paul and the Raman Law, Edinburgh, 1901; R. B, Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles2 (Westminster Commentaries), London, 1901. On the attitude of Roman law to the Church see H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John 2, do., 1907; C. Bigg, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (International Critical Commentary ), Edinburgh, 1901; J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii., ‘Ignatius’2, London, 1889, i.

A. J. Maclean.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Roman Law in the Nt'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​r/roman-law-in-the-nt.html. 1906-1918.
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