For all its importance as the center of empire throughout the New Testament period, the physical spaces of Rome intersect disproportionately rarely with the biblical story. It emerges as Paul’s destiny late in Acts as a result of his appealing his case to be heard in the highest courts of the empire (Acts 25:11–12), which seems to be the manner in which a word from the Lord to Paul finds fulfillment (19:21; 23:11), but upon Paul’s arrival at last in the capital city we see him only in his own rented dwelling meeting with local leaders of the Jewish community, all the while with his Roman guard on duty (28:16–31). Paul wrote what is arguably his most substantial letter to the Christians in Rome, but we learn surprisingly little about their own conditions there from Paul’s letter—no doubt because he himself had not yet been to the city itself nor interacted with more than a few dozen Christians who find themselves in Rome at the time of his writing (Rom 16:3–16). In 2 Timothy, we find notice than one Onesiphorus had successfully navigated the urban jungle of Rome to bring relief and support to Paul during one of his imprisonments there (1:16–18).
Rome was perhaps the most permanent home for Aquila (originally a native of Pontus in northern Turkey) and Priscilla, who lived there for an undisclosed period prior to the Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome because of some disturbances caused by one “Chrestus” (Suetonius, Claudius 25.4; Acts 18:2). While this is an attested slave name in the period, it is tempting to believe that Suetonius misunderstood the cause of these disturbances, which were really the result of inner-Jewish conflict over claims concerning “Christus.” It was this expulsion, dated to AD 49, that brought Priscilla and Aquila to Corinth and, thus, into Paul’s orbit. This important couple found their way back to Rome prior to Paul’s writing of his letter, in which he sends fond greetings to his erstwhile partners in mission (Rom 16:3–4).
The origins of the Christian communities in Rome are shrouded in mystery. According to Luke, Jewish and gentile Godfearing pilgrims from Rome were present at Pentecost to hear Peter’s inspired proclamation of the good news (Acts 2:10–11). Some of these may have been won to the new movement and eventually taken its confession and way of life back to Rome with them. The list of greetings that Paul sends along with his letter, on the other hand, is also a list of associates and relatives of Paul who may themselves have been instrumental in building up the Christian community there, if not planting some sizable portion of it themselves (Rom 16:3–16). The movement grew sufficiently large to be noticed by Nero and his informants and selected for scapegoating; its members apparently also lived in sufficiently high tension with their neighbors for this scapegoating to be greeted without resistance—and perhaps even with pleasure—by the general population of the city (Tacitus, Annales 15.44).
The reader of the New Testament is nevertheless aware of Rome and its impact upon the Mediterranean at every turn. The life of Jesus and the written corpus of the New Testament all take shape within the frame of Roman imperialism, as, for example, the presence of the imperial machinery of prefects, tribunes, centurions, and soldiers in Judea bear repeated witness (Matt 8:5–13; 27:1–2, 11–54, 62–66; Acts 10:1–2, 17–46; 21:30–39; 22:22–29; 23:10; 23:16–26:32). Rome is the ideological center of the world into which the church was born—a center against which many of the early church’s leaders defined the ideology of the new movement. In some instances, this opposition remains somewhat subtle, as in Luke’s depiction of “good news” that means “peace” for the world coming by means of the birth of a “savior” who is not Augustus (Luke 2:1–20), or in Luke’s reassertion of a geography that places Jerusalem at the center of the world and Rome at “the ends of the earth” (1:8) by virtue of being the location at which the story of the gospel’s progress ends. In other instances, this opposition is overt and unsparing, as in John’s caustic portrayal of Roman imperialism, its mechanisms, its effects, and its destiny in a just universe (Rev 17:1–19:10).
This post is excerpted from David A. deSilva, “The Social and Geographical World of Rome,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation, ed. Barry J. Beitzel (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019). Photo courtesy of David A. deSilva.