I planned many times to come to you, but have been prevented until now. I long to see you, so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. God is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times. I thank for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. I have seen some fruit as a result of my activity in other parts of the Gentile world, and I should also like to see some among you as well. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel to you who are at Rome, for I am not ashamed of the gospel. Not that I desire to settle down in Rome, for that would be building on someone else's foundation –the very thing I have avoided doing. From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. So after I have completed this I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. (Summary of Rom. 1:8-26, 15:14-29)
As we will see, Paul does make it to Rome, but not until three years had passed, and not as he planned. From Rome, we find that he did head west, but most believe that he did not make it to Spain.
Two obvious questions arise from this letter: First, there is already a significant community of believers in Rome. Where did they come from? And second, who is this other man who laid a foundation in Rome?
As he stated, Paul first set out for Jerusalem, his last visit, arriving in May of 57 along with delegates. (This is spite of being warned [Acts 21:10] by the prophet Agabus who told Paul that he would be bound (arrested) by the Jews in Jerusalem. This Agabus had credibility: you may recall that fifteen years earlier predicted the famine in Jerusalem [Acts 11:27-28]].) Together they bore gifts for the church in Jerusalem. James and the elders welcomed Paul, but there was an undercurrent of a problem. A subtle variant of the old Judiazer issue: while it had been decided by the council that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic Law, James was concerned that Paul was also teaching the Jews of the dispersion likewise, and that was not acceptable:
Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24Take these men, join in their purification rites… (Acts 21:20-24)
Paul, always willing to compromise on all but the gospel, went along with the request to prove that he was a law abiding Jew. As we find in his letter to the Corinthians:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Cor. 9:20).
The Church at Rome
This is no explicit account of the formation of the church at Rome. What we know must be pieced together. We are aided by the fact that, unlike Jerusalem, there has been no breach in continuity of Rome from apostolic days.
Recall that included in the crowd at the feast of Pentecost in A.D. 30 were pilgrims from Rome (Jews, not Gentiles). Since Romans are the only Europeans listed in the account (Acts 2:10) we feel justified in assuming that some of them believed Peter’s message and carried the gospel back to the Imperial City. Regardless, all roads lead to Rome, and Paul’s missionary journeys had created churches along major arteries which must have resulted in the message being carried to Rome.
The history of Jews in Rome is fascinating. There was a Jewish colony in Rome in the second century B.C. When Pompey (who had battled the rebellious slave Spartacus) captured Palestine for Rome in 62 B.C., he returned with many more Jews who were ultimately set free. Successive Roman emperors safeguarded the rights of the Jews, and at least a handful of synagogues flourished.
Rome, however, had the habit of purging itself of “oriental” incomers, including the Jews. In A.D. 49, Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, and expulsion that included Priscilla and Aquila. Whether it was a literal or an “effective” expulsion is the subject of debate. The historian Dio Cassius (155-?) writes:
As the Jews had again increased in numbers, but could hardly be banished from the city without a tumult because of their great numbers, he [Claudius] did not actually expel them but forbade them to meet in accordance with their ancestral customs.
Another writer, the biographer Suetonius (75-160) wrote that “Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because they were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus.”
Chrestus was a variant spelling of Christus. Here we may extrapolate that Suetonius, writing seventy years later, mistakenly assumed that this “Chrestus” was a leader of one of the Jewish factions in Rome. In a sense he was right: the rioting was likely between Jews and "Nazarenes". It is probable that Priscilla and Aquila were already Christians when they arrived in Corinth, a theory bolstered by the fact that their conversion is not mentioned in scripture.
Another amazing reference is found a few years after the expulsion, in A.D. 52, when a writer named Thallus describes the preternatural darkness that covered Palestine on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The darkness was attributed to a solar eclipse. That explanation is impossible, since the Passover season falls at a full moon, at which time a solar eclipse can not occur. Even if Thallus was only referring to Christian “stories” of the darkness, it still points out that details of Christ’s death were being retold in Rome by the middle of the first century.
In the same year Paul wrote to Rome, Pomponia Graecina, wife of the Roman conqueror of Britain, was charged (later acquitted) with having embraced a foreign superstition. This could not have been Judaism: for Judaism was a legally recognized religion. An embrace of Judaism would have been scandalous but not illegal. Accounts of her lifestyle, which included a withdrawal from Roman society and its idolatrous excesses, have caused many to speculate that the foreign superstition was Christianity.
More evidence of the maturity of the community of Rome comes from the end of Paul’s letter, where he sends greetings by name to various Roman believers. This includes a couple named Andronicus and Junias, “my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” He also mentions Rufus “chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too”. This Rufus may have been the son of Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). Paul also greets Priscilla and Aquila who had returned to Rome.
Paul’s Circuitous Route to Rome
Paul arrived in Rome around February of A.D. 60, in the custody of Roman "federal marshals." How did this come about? As stated, he under went a purification rite to demonstrate his “Jewishness” to the Nazarenes. However, it was the Jews who were the real problem, and his appearance led to a riot in which he was nearly lynched. Paul had been charged by the Jews in Jerusalem of violating the sanctity of the temple. In particular, he was the victim of a rumor claiming he escorted a Gentile into the inner court of the temple, a crime punishable by death. (Notices in Latin and Greek separated the inner and outer courts, announcing that Gentiles were forbidden to proceed any further, under pain of death.) So serious of a crime was the violation of this edict that Rome even authorized the execution of Roman Citizens for this offense.
"Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place." (Acts 21:28)
Fortunately the commotion caused by Paul was huge, so huge that his summary execution was prevented by a Roman garrison rushed in to secure order. A lengthy litigation followed. Eventually Paul, fearing that the procurator Felix might be inclined to seek favor of the Sanhedrin, exercised his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome. He would spend two years awaiting trial in Rome, enjoying the company of friends such as Luke, Aristarchus, and John-Mark, with whom Paul reconciled.
How Mark arrived in Rome leads us to the question of who laid a foundation in Rome. Since the time of the rift between Paul and Barnabas, Mark (the cause of the dispute) had become attached to the apostle Peter. At some point in the fifties, Peter appears to have launched his own missionary journey, with Mark serving as his chief of staff. It appears most likely that between 55 and 60 Peter reached Rome (ahead of Paul) . When Peter left, Mark stayed behind and recorded his gospel, essentially transcribing what Peter had told the Romans. When Luke visited Roma with Paul, he probably used Mark’s writings to help him draw up his own history of Christianity.
Paul’s case probably went before prosecutors at the end of A.D. 61, just before the expiration of the statute of limitations. It is likely that Paul was released and left Rome for a period, for Clement of Rome wrote to the church in Corinth (~A.D. 95) that “Paul reached the furthest bounds of the West”, which may or may not have meant Spain. Playing phone-tag, when Paul leaves Rome, Peter returns, where he pens 1 Peter, writing from "Babylon" as he puts it, and referring to Mark as his "son" (1 Pet. 5:13). In his epistle, Peter refers to a coming "fiery trial" during which Christians would suffer, not for law-breaking but merely for being Christians. The Christians are susceptible because they can no longer protect themselves as a “sect” of Judaism—they are seen by all as a separate religion one that, unlike Judaism, is an illegal religion. The blind eye being cast by the emperor (now Nero) can open wide at his pleasure.
Adding to the peril of the Christians was that, not only was unstable Nero the emperor, the empress Poppaea was a friend of the Jews which meant an enemy (of sorts) of Christians. This information comes to us via Josephus:
But when I was in the twenty-sixth year of my age, it happened that I took a voyage to Rome... At the time when Felix was procurator of Judea there were certain priests of my acquaintance… whom on a small and trifling occasion he had put into bonds, and sent to Rome to plead their cause before Caesar. … Accordingly I came to Rome, though it were through a great number of hazards by sea; for as our ship was drowned in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number, swam for our lives all the night; when, upon the first appearance of the day, and upon our sight of a ship of Cyrene, I and some others, eighty in all, by God's providence, prevented the rest, and were taken up into the other ship. And when I had thus escaped… I became acquainted with Aliturius, an actor of plays, and much beloved by Nero, but a Jew by birth; and through his interest became known to Poppea, Caesar's wife, and took care, as soon as possible, to entreat her to procure that the priests might be set at liberty. And when, besides this favor, I had obtained many presents from Poppea, I returned home again. (Josephus, Life, 3).
In A.D. 64, Rome was largely destroyed by fire. The fire was probably accidental, but rumors quickly spread. Nero himself as the culprit was the subject of much consideration. This is probably false, and in fact he actively worked to help those who had been devastated by the fire. Nevertheless, he had to deal with the rumors, which he did by redirecting them onto a scapegoat: the Christians. The historian Tacitus wrote:
To dispel the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was Emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following. First, then, those who confessed themselves Christians were arrested; next, on their disclosures, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as for hatred of the human race. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open the gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in a chariot. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man's cruelty, that they were being punished."
Note that Tacitus despised the Christians, but nevertheless acknowledged their innocence in the conflagration, their punishment not stemming from guilt as arsonists but rather for “hatred of the human race.” Among the brutalities: Nero used Christians as human torches to light his gardens. When Saint Peter’s was rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of bodies wrapped in linen and placed in stone coffins were discovered. Also uncovered were stone chests filled with ashes and burnt bones—presumably the remains of those burned by Nero.
As for a Christian account, we have Clement of Rome:
But, to pass from the examples of ancient days, let us come to those champions who lived very near to our time. Let us set before us the noble examples which belong to our generation. By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one nor two but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance. Unto these men of holy lives was gathered a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set a brave example among ourselves. By reason of jealousy women being persecuted, after that they had suffered cruel and unholy insults as Danaids and Dircae, safely reached the goal in the race of faith, and received a noble reward, feeble though they were in body. (1 Clement 5:2-6)
The "vast multitude" of martyrs referred to by Clement is identified with the "vast multitude" described by Tacitus. Furthermore, it is a natural inference to conclude that both Peter and Paul were martyred at the same time. (Clement’s refrain of jealousy is meant as jealousy toward, not by, the apostles and believers. The dangers of jealousy forms the substance of his letter to the Corinthian church.)
Roman Catholic insistence on the continuity of the Roman church back to Peter’s preaching at Pentecost in A.D. 30 has at times caused some (Eusibus and Jerome) to favor the notion that Peter arrived in Rome as early as A.D. 42 and launched a twenty-five year episcopate lasting to A.D. 67, but this is very difficult to support. At the beginning of that period, he was known to be in Jerusalem and Antioch, and in A.D 57 when Paul wrote his Roman epistle hid did not greet Peter (so one can infer he was not there) nor does it appear that Peter was present when Paul arrived in custody in A.D. 60. Some Catholic scholars acknowledge this, for example the French scholar Jacques Zeiller writing in 1927:
How long had St. Peter lived in Rome before his martyrdom? Here we must confess an almost complete ignorance. The so-called tradition of the twenty-five years of Peter’s episcopate rests on no historic data…of Peter’s life in Rome we know for certain only the last act: His martyrdom.
No, Peter spent those twenty-five years proclaiming the gospel throughout the provinces, only to arrive in Rome after Nero’s ascension to the throne in A.D. 54. Most consistent with the facts is that when Nero became emperor he rescinded the expulsion (five years earlier) of the Jews by his predecessor Claudius and that shortly thereafter Peter arrived (with Mark) and helped reconstitute the Roman church and laying the foundation upon which Paul was hesitant to infringe upon. The bottom line is that Nero was already the emperor when Peter arrived in Rome.
A Roman presbyter by the name of Gaius wrote (~A.D. 200) that the trophies of Peter and Paul, meaning either the locations of their martyrdom or their tombs, are found on Vatican Hill and the Ostian Road respectively. This is why the emperor Constantine erected the basilica of St. Peter on the slope of Vatican Hill.
Tradition teaches that Peter was crucified and Paul was beheaded. (The tradition that Peter was crucified upside down is probably apocryphal.) The manner of their deaths is consistent: Paul, as a Roman citizen, would have been afforded the less ignominious death.
The death of James, the brother of Jesus
In A.D. 61 the procurator Festus died. In the three months before his successor Albinus arrived in Palestine, the Jewish High Priest Ananus was able to cause trouble. From Josephus:
AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. … this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: (Josephus, Antiquities, XX, 9, 1).
Thus we see that by about the mid sixties of the first century, Peter, Paul, and James had been martyred. In a few years, civil war would break out. The Jews, encouraged by the party of the Zealots, were emboldened by the news of the death of Nero in A.D. 68, only to be crushed and nearly exterminated at the hands of Titus, the son of Vespasian, the successor of Nero. The temple, no longer important to a people who had access through their High Priest Jesus Christ to the heavenly realm, was destroyed in A.D. 70, as had been prophesized by Jesus:
1Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2"Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
34I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt. 24:1, 34).
From here the next stage of Christianity begins, a stage in which its ties to the temple have been severed.