Most biblical scholars know that the synoptic Gospels began to take their rough shape around 70 C.E. Many middle school children have heard stories of the Romans, in their bullying way, putting Christians in the arenas to be savaged by wild beasts. It would take a precocious child, or adult for that matter, to recognize that in 69 C.E., Rome went through four emperors. I found Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors quite informative, not having be a precocious child (or adult). The times I’ve taught New Testament courses I have found myself fascinated by the stern and stoic culture that the Romans constructed. Maybe it is because I see so much of our own society in it. Maybe it is because the New Testament is much easier to understand with a basic grasp of the early Roman Empire.
Early in his historical account, Morgan makes a salient point. I had to stop and consider the implications of it. Going over the sources for the reigns of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and early Vespasian, mainly Tacitus, Morgan reveals the truth of history: it is story. Romans measured the value of an historian not only by getting the facts right; literary artistry was, in many respects, even more important than dry facts. What might this mean for the Gospels? Anyone who has actually read the Gospels knows they hold some obvious contradictions, some subtle, some not. In a culture that understands the Bible as “history,” in the modern sense, many believers kick their brains into overtime to harmonize discrepancies so that we can have, as Sergeant Friday would say, “just the facts.” But the Gospels, like Roman historians, are telling a story. There is some license here. After all, none of the writers were likely eyewitnesses of the events they describe.
The events of 69 also help to explain the frustrations that the Romans would so unkindly take out on the early Christians. The calm, logical world of reason and the force of law had repeatedly broken down (as they will), perhaps most spectacularly just as the Gospels were being written. Threats and fears of a total societal collapse whipped the Romans into a froth of intolerance. Those who threatened to rock the ship of state could be cast to the sharks, to adapt the metaphor. New religions with new gods don’t mix in a state where the old gods appear to have fled. Indeed, I couldn’t help but get the feeling, as I was reading about ancient history, that I was reading about things not so very long ago. Fear brings out religious conservatism in just about any society. The juxtaposition of the Gospels’ composition with Rome’s period of great stress might just be one of those metaphors that we can still use to explain how a rational civilization loses its grip on what’s really real. And that’s true in any age.