The city of Rome occupies a central place in the history of Christianity. As the capital of the Roman Empire, Rome was the center of power and influence in the New Testament era. The apostle Paul wrote an important letter to the church in Rome, and eventually traveled there as a prisoner. According to tradition, both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome. For the early Christians, Rome embodied both opportunity and opposition – a place to spread the gospel, but also a bastion of paganism and persecution.
In this blog post, we will explore what the Bible says about Rome and how the early church developed there in the first few centuries AD. Looking at Rome through a biblical lens provides fascinating insights into the beginnings of Christianity and its complex relationship with the Roman Empire. As we’ll see, while Rome was at times antagonistic towards the faith, it also played a crucial role in the growth and establishment of the early church.
Rome in the New Testament
The city of Rome first appears in the last chapter of the book of Acts. The apostle Paul, having proclaimed the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece, declares his intention to go to Rome (Acts 19:21). Paul believed it was his duty to preach the gospel in Rome (Romans 1:14-15). However, he first had to go to Jerusalem, where he was arrested. As a Roman citizen, Paul exercised his right to appeal his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11). Under armed guard, Paul was transported to Rome to await trial.
The final chapters of Acts describe Paul’s harrowing sea voyage and shipwreck on the way to Rome (Acts 27-28). The book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, preaching freely about Jesus (Acts 28:16, 30-31). Paul’s words allude to the historical tension between the Roman imperial authorities and the fledgling Christian movement.
Paul’s letter to the Romans provides deeper theological insights about Christianity’s interaction with the empire. Written a few years before Paul’s arrival in Rome, this epistle was addressed to the growing church community there. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul instructs Christians to submit to governing authorities, since all authority ultimately derives from God. However, Paul limits such obedience, saying we must “owe no one anything except to love one another” (Romans 13:8). Love fulfills God’s law in a way raw obedience cannot (Romans 13:10).
Persecution of Christians under Nero
The Book of Romans shows that most Roman officials originally viewed Christianity as a sect within Judaism. They saw no need to persecute a small religious group. However, around AD 64 the Emperor Nero initiated the first systematic persecution of Christians in the city of Rome.
The historians Tacitus and Suetonius record that Nero falsely accused Christians of starting the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. Many Christians were brutally executed by crucifixion, burning at the stake, and being torn apart by wild beasts. The torture of Christians became public entertainment.
Paul and Peter likely perished during this wave of intense persecution under Nero. Church tradition holds they were both martyred in Rome – Paul beheaded with a sword and Peter crucified upside down. Their deaths give powerful testimony to the costs of early Christian faith in the capital of the empire.
Growth of the Church in Rome
Despite opposition, the church in Rome grew rapidly. By the early 2nd century, Rome had a well-organized Christian community led by elders or bishops. Other important centers of Christianity emerged in major cities like Antioch, Alexandria, and Carthage. But Rome’s preeminence in the empire ensured its bishop would become one of the most influential.
The 3rd century saw the rise of imperial persecution under emperors like Septimius Severus (ruled 193-211) and Diocletian (284-305). Despite fearsome oppression, the resilience of Christian communities ensured the church would outlast its persecutors. In AD 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, finally extending tolerance and legal status to Christianity.
In the 4th century AD, Christianity went from being marginalized to favored within the empire. Under imperial patronage magnificent churches were constructed in Rome above the tombs of Peter and Paul. Today St. Peter’s Basilica marks the traditional location of Peter’s death and burial. Through its association with these apostolic martyrs, Rome increased in importance as the seat of the papacy.
Rome as Metaphor in Revelation
The final book of the Bible uses “Babylon” as a coded metaphor for Rome (Revelation 14:8, 16:19, 17:5). Babylon represented pagan civilization opposed to God. The famous Whore of Babylon likely referred to the Roman Empire, seated upon her seven hills (Revelation 17:9).
By using symbolic imagery, Revelation could critique Rome’s decadence, violence, and corruption covertly. The book encouraged faithfulness during a time when open defiance could mean death. Revelation promised God’s ultimate triumph over earthly powers through Christ’s second coming.
Rome’s role in early Christianity was complex. It was an imperial persecutor of the faith, but also the place where the good news spread widely. As the empire declined, the church blossomed and thrived. Rome came to represent not worldly power but spiritual authority embodied in bishops like Leo the Great. The heritage of ancient Rome enriched the cultural and intellectual life of the church. Through both opposition and influence, Rome profoundly shaped the development of early Christianity in ways that still resonate down to the present day.
- Rome was the center of power in the New Testament world. Both Paul and Peter traveled there to preach the gospel.
- Paul’s letter to the Romans discusses how Christians should relate to governing authorities.
- Nero viciously persecuted Christians in Rome after falsely accusing them of arson. Paul and Peter were likely martyred under Nero.
- Despite persecution, the church in Rome grew rapidly in the early centuries AD.
- Roman emperors legalized Christianity in the 4th century. Rome became the seat of the papacy.
- The Book of Revelation uses “Babylon” as a symbolic critique of Rome and its pagan decadence.
- Rome profoundly influenced early Christianity through both persecution and patronage. The heritage of Rome continues to shape the church today.