The state of the Roman Empire about the time of the birth of Christ abundantly proves that there is no necessary connexion between intellectual refinement and social regeneration. The cultivation of the arts and sciences in the reign of Augustus may have been beneficial to a few, by diverting them from the pursuit of vulgar pleasures, and opening up to them sources of more rational enjoyment; but it is a most humiliating fact that, during the brightest period in the history of Roman literature, vice in every form was fast gaining ground among almost all classes of the population. The Greeks, though occupying a higher position as to mental accomplishments, were still more dissolute than the Latins. Among them literature and sensuality appeared in revolting combination, for their courtesans were their only females who attended to the culture of the intellect. [7:1]
Nor is it strange that the Roman Empire at this period exhibited such a scene of moral pollution. There was nothing in either the philosophy or the religion of heathenism sufficient to counteract the influence of man's native depravity. In many instances the speculations of the pagan sages had a tendency, rather to weaken, than to sustain, the authority of conscience. After unsettling the foundations of the ancient superstition, the mind was left in doubt and bewilderment; for the votaries of what was called wisdom entertained widely different views even of its elementary principles. The Epicureans, who formed a large section of the intellectual aristocracy, denied the doctrine of Providence, and pronounced pleasure to be the ultimate end of man. The Academics encouraged a spirit of disputatious scepticism; and the Stoics, who taught that the practice of, what they rather vaguely designated, virtue, involves its own reward, discarded the idea of a future retribution. Plato had still a goodly number of disciples; and though his doctrines, containing not a few elements of sublimity and beauty, exercised a better influence, it must be admitted, after all, that they constituted a most unsatisfactory system of cold and barren mysticism. The ancient philosophers delivered many excellent moral precepts; but, as they wanted the light of revelation, their arguments in support of duty were essentially defective, and the lessons which they taught had often very little influence either on themselves or others. [8:1] Their own conduct seldom marked them out as greatly superior to those around them, so that neither their instructions nor their example contributed efficiently to elevate the character of their generation.
Though the philosophers fostered a spirit of inquiry, yet, as they made little progress in the discovery of truth, they were not qualified to act with the skill and energy of enlightened reformers; and, whatever may have been the amount of their convictions, they made no open and resolute attack on the popular mythology. A very superficial examination was, indeed, enough to shake the credit of the heathen worship. The reflecting subjects of the Roman Empire might have remarked the very awkward contrast between the multiplicity of their deities, and the unity of their political government. It was the common belief that every nation had its own divine guardians, and that the religious rites of one country might be fully acknowledged without impugning the claims of those of another; but still a thinking pagan might have been staggered by the consideration that a human being had apparently more extensive authority than some of his celestial overseers, and that the jurisdiction of the Roman emperor was established over a more ample territory than that which was assigned to many of the immortal gods.
But the multitude of its divinities was by no means the most offensive feature of heathenism. The gods of antiquity, more particularly those of Greece, were of an infamous character. Whilst they were represented by their votaries as excelling in beauty and activity, strength and intelligence, they were at the same time described as envious and gluttonous, base, lustful, and revengeful. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was deceitful and licentious; Juno, the queen of heaven, was cruel and tyrannical. What could be expected from those who honoured such deities? Some of the wiser heathens, such as Plato, [9:1] condemned their mythology as immoral, for the conduct of one or other of the gods might have been quoted in vindication of every species of transgression; and had the Gentiles but followed the example of their own heavenly hierarchy, they might have felt themselves warranted in pursuing a course either of the most diabolical oppression, or of the most abominable profligacy. [9:2]
At the time of the birth of our Lord even the Jews had sunk into a state of the grossest degeneracy. They were now divided into sects, two of which, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, are frequently mentioned in the New Testament. The Pharisees were the leading denomination, being by far the most numerous and powerful. By adding to the written law a mass of absurd or frivolous traditions, which, as they foolishly alleged, were handed down from Moses, they completely subverted the authority of the sacred record, and changed the religion of the patriarchs and prophets into a wearisome parade of superstitious observances. The Sadducees were comparatively few, but as a large proportion of them were persons of rank and wealth, they possessed a much greater amount of influence than their mere numbers would have enabled them to command. It has been said that they admitted the divine authority only of the Pentateuch, [10:1] and though it may be doubted whether they openly ventured to deny the claims of all the other books of the Old Testament, it is certain that they discarded the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, [10:2] and that they were disposed to self-indulgence and to scepticism. There was another still smaller Jewish sect, that of the Essenes, of which there is no direct mention in the New Testament. The members of this community resided chiefly in the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea, and as our Lord seldom visited that quarter of the country, it would appear that, during the course of His public ministry, He rarely or never came in contact with these religionists. Some of them were married, but the greater number lived in celibacy, and spent much of their time in contemplation. They are said to have had a common-stock purse, and their course of life closely resembled that of the monks of after-times.
Though the Jews, as a nation, were now sunk in sensuality or superstition, there were still some among them, such as Simeon and Anna, noticed in the Gospel of Luke, [10:3] who were taught of God, and who exhibited a spirit of vital piety. "The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul," and as the books of the Old Testament were committed to the keeping of the posterity of Abraham, there were "hidden ones" here and there who discovered the way to heaven by the perusal of these "lively oracles." We have reason to believe that the Jews were faithful conservators of the inspired volume, as Christ uniformly takes for granted the accuracy of their "Scriptures." [11:1] It is an important fact that they did not admit into their canon the writings now known under the designation of the Apocrypha. [11:2] Nearly three hundred years before the appearance of our Lord, the Old Testament had been translated into the Greek language, and thus, at this period, the educated portion of the population of the Roman Empire had all an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the religion of the chosen people. The Jews were now scattered over the earth, and as they erected synagogues in the cities where they settled, the Gentile world had ample means of information in reference to their faith and worship.
Whilst the dispersion of the Jews disseminated a knowledge of their religion, it likewise suggested the approaching dissolution of the Mosaic economy, as it was apparent that their present circumstances absolutely required another ritual. It could not be expected that individuals dwelling in distant countries could meet three times in the year at Jerusalem to celebrate the great festivals. The Israelites themselves had a presentiment of coming changes, and anxiously awaited the appearance of a Messiah. They were actuated by an extraordinary zeal for proselytism, [11:3] and though their scrupulous adherence to a stern code of ceremonies often exposed them to much obloquy, they succeeded, notwithstanding, in making many converts in most of the places where they resided. [12:1] A prominent article of their creed was adopted in a quarter where their theology otherwise found no favour, for the Unity of the Great First Cause was now distinctly acknowledged in the schools of the philosophers. [12:2]
From the preceding statements we may sec the peculiar significance of the announcement that God sent forth His Son into the world "when the fulness of the time was come." [12:3] Various predictions [12:4] pointed out this age as the period of the Messiah's Advent, and Gentiles, as well as Jews, seem by some means to have caught up the expectation that an extraordinary personage was now about to appear on the theatre of human existence. [12:5] Providence had obviously prepared the way for the labours of a religious reformer. The civil wars which had convulsed the state were now almost forgotten, and though the hostile movements of the Germans, and other barbarous tribes on the confines of the empire, occasionally created uneasiness or alarm, the public mind was generally unoccupied by any great topic of absorbing interest. In the populous cities the multitude languished for excitement, and sought to dissipate the time in the forum, the circus, or the amphitheatre. At such a crisis the heralds of the most gracious message that ever greeted the ears of men might hope for a patient hearing. Even the consolidation of so many nations under one government tended to "the furtherance of the gospel," for the gigantic roads, which radiated from Rome to the distant regions of the east and of the west, facilitated intercourse; and the messengers of the Prince of Peace could travel from country to country without suspicion and without passports. And well might the Son of God be called "The desire of all nations." [13:1] Though the wisest of the pagan sages could not have described the renovation which the human family required, and though, when the Redeemer actually appeared, He was despised and rejected of men, there was, withal, a wide spread conviction that a Saviour was required, and there was a longing for deliverance from the evils which oppressed society. The ancient superstitions were rapidly losing their hold on the affection and confidence of the people, and whilst the light of philosophy was sufficient to discover the absurdities of the prevailing polytheism, it failed to reveal any more excellent way of purity and comfort. The ordinances of Judaism, which were "waxing old" and "ready to vanish away," were types which were still unfulfilled; and though they pointed out the path to glory, they required an interpreter to expound their import. This Great Teacher now appeared. He was born in very humble circumstances, and yet He was the heir of an empire beyond comparison more illustrious than that of the Caesars. "There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed." [13:2]