This is the sixth in a series of seven articles in consecutive issues of Awake! that discuss the seven world powers of Bible history. The objective is to show that the Bible is trustworthy and inspired of God and that its message is one of hope for an end to the suffering caused by man’s cruel domination of his fellow man.
JESUS founded Christianity, and his followers spread it abroad during the days of the Roman Empire. You can still see Roman roads, aqueducts, and monuments in such lands as Britain and Egypt. Those Roman remains are real. They remind us that Jesus and his apostles were also real, as were the things they said and did. As a case in point, if you walk on the ancient Appian Way, you are walking the same path that the Christian apostle Paul may have traveled on his way to Rome.—Acts 28:15, 16.
The Bible record of Jesus and his disciples includes numerous references to historical events in the first century. Notice how carefully the Bible writer Luke flagged the year that saw two extremely important events: the commencement of the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, at which point he became the Christ, or Messiah. Luke wrote that those events occurred in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar [29 C.E.], when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was district ruler of Galilee.” (Luke 3:1-3, 21) Luke also mentioned four other important officials—Philip (Herod’s brother), Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. All seven names have been corroborated by secular historians. For now, though, let us consider Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod.
Tiberius Caesar is well-known, and his physical appearance has been depicted in artwork. The Roman Senate appointed him as emperor on September 15 of the year 14 C.E., when Jesus was about 15 years of age.
Pontius Pilate’s name appears with that of Tiberius in an account written by Roman historian Tacitus shortly after the Bible was completed. In regard to the term “Christian,” Tacitus wrote: “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
Herod Antipas is known as the man who built the city of Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee. He also made his residence there. Herod probably had John the Baptist beheaded in Tiberias.
Bible accounts also refer to notable events of Roman times. Concerning the time of Jesus’ birth, the Bible says: “Now in those days a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus for all the inhabited earth to be registered; (this first registration took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria;) and all people went traveling to be registered, each one to his own city.”—Luke 2:1-3.
Tacitus and Jewish historian Josephus both refer to Quirinius. Confirmation that such registrations occurred is found in a Roman governor’s edict preserved in the British Library. It reads: “Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their districts to return to their own homes.”
The Bible also mentions “a great famine . . . in the time of [Roman Emperor] Claudius.” (Acts 11:28) First-century historian Josephus corroborates this account. He wrote: “A famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died.”
Additionally, at Acts 18:2, the Bible states that “Claudius had ordered all the Jews to depart from Rome.” Supporting this is a biography of Claudius, written about 121 C.E. by Roman historian Suetonius. Claudius “banished from Rome all the Jews,” says Suetonius, adding that because of their hostility toward the Christians, the Jews “were continually making disturbances.”
The Bible says that at about the time of the aforementioned famine, Herod Agrippa, clothed “with royal raiment,” gave a speech to an adoring public, who responded: “A god’s voice, and not a man’s!” Thereafter, the Bible states, Agrippa “became eaten up with worms and expired.” (Acts 12:21-23) Josephus also recorded this event, adding a few details. He wrote that Agrippa gave his speech in “a garment made wholly of silver.” He also said that ‘a severe pain arose in Agrippa’s belly, and began in a most violent manner.’ He died five days later, said Josephus.
The Bible also contains remarkable prophecies that were written and fulfilled in Roman times. For example, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he wept and foretold how the Roman armies would destroy the city. “Days will come upon you when your enemies will build around you a fortification with pointed stakes,” Jesus said. “They will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, because you did not discern the time of your being inspected.”—Luke 19:41-44.
Jesus’ followers, however, would have opportunity to escape. How so? Jesus gave them specific instructions ahead of time. “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies,” he warned, “then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her [Jerusalem] withdraw.” (Luke 21:20, 21) Jesus’ followers may well have wondered, ‘How will we escape from a city under siege?’
Josephus recorded what happened. In 66 C.E., when a Roman governor seized from the temple treasury taxes that were in arrears, incensed Jewish rebels slaughtered Roman forces and, in effect, declared themselves independent. Later that year, Cestius Gallus, the Roman governor of Syria, marched south with 30,000 troops, arriving at Jerusalem during a religious festival. Gallus penetrated the suburbs and even began undermining the wall of the temple, where the rebels had taken refuge. Then, for no apparent reason, Gallus withdrew! Excited Jews attacked his retreating army.
Faithful Christians were not deceived by this turn of events. They realized that they had seen Jesus’ amazing prophecy come true: The city had been surrounded by encamped armies! And now, because these armies had retreated, faithful Christians took advantage of this window of opportunity to flee. Many went to Pella, a politically neutral Gentile city located in the mountains across the Jordan.
What happened to Jerusalem? The Roman armies returned, led by Vespasian and his son Titus—this time numbering 60,000 soldiers. They advanced on the city prior to the Passover of 70 C.E., trapping both residents and pilgrims who had flocked there for the celebration. Roman troops denuded the district of trees and built a wall of pointed stakes, just as Jesus had foretold. After about five months, the city fell.
Titus ordered that the temple be preserved; but a soldier torched it, and the place was torn down stone by stone—precisely as Jesus had predicted. According to Josephus, some 1,100,000 Jews and proselytes died, the majority from starvation and pestilence, and another 97,000 were taken prisoner. Many were sent to Rome as slaves. If you visit Rome today, you can tour the famous Colosseum, which was finished by Titus after the campaign in Judea. You can also see the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the conquest of Jerusalem. Yes, Bible prophecy is trustworthy in every detail. How important, then, that we take to heart what it says about the future!
A Hope You Can Trust
When Jesus stood before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, he spoke of a Kingdom, or government, that “is no part of this world.” (John 18:36) Indeed, Jesus taught his followers to pray for that royal government. “Our Father in the heavens,” he said, “let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:9, 10) Note that God’s Kingdom will cause God’s will—not that of proud and ambitious men—to be done on earth.
Jesus rules as King in that heavenly Kingdom. And in harmony with God’s original purpose, he will turn the earth into a global paradise.—Luke 23:43.
When will God’s Kingdom intervene in human affairs? The resurrected Jesus gave an indication of the answer when he spoke to his apostle John, who was then imprisoned on the island of Patmos during the rule of Roman Emperor Domitian, the brother of Titus. “There are seven kings,” Jesus disclosed. “Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet arrived, but when he does arrive he must remain a short while.”—Revelation 17:10.
When John recorded those words, five “kings,” or empires, had fallen: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece. The one that “is,” or existed at the time of the apostle John, was Rome. Hence, only one remained—the final world power of Bible history. What did it prove to be? How long will it rule? These questions will be considered in the next issue of Awake!