How the unity of nations brought by Roman rule has enabled the spread of the Gospel
For a general introduction to Origen and Against Celsus, please see the commentary on Against Celsus I.3.
In this passage, Origen argues for “a link between imperium and evangelium,” by stating that God’s sanctioning of the Roman empire has been made apparent through the Logos (Jesus) becoming incarnate during the reign of the emperor Augustus (his argument here coming from Luke 2:1, where Jesus’s birth is situated in the context of a census of the Roman world ordered by Caesar Augustus), who proceeded to bring various kingdoms together under one rule, thereby encouraging the dissemination of the Gospel message (for the quotation, see Johannes van Oort, Jerusalem and Babylon, p. 155; the seminal work of Erik Peterson, Monotheismus, while now old, was also influential in asserting the link between the Gospel and the Pax Romana, arguing from the basis of the present text, and others discussed below; see p. 66 ff. especially on these sources). Origen begins by explaining that Celsus has levelled a criticism at Christianity that it does not have strong enough evidence that Jesus is God’s son, partly because he did not immediately make himself known upon the earth. In response, Origen draws upon Psalm 72:7 as evidence that Christ’s birth enabled the onset of a period of righteousness and peace upon the earth, which in his view answers Celsus’s apparent criticism. To Origen’s mind, the condition of society at the time of Christ’s advent, namely the era under Augustus which enjoyed unity and peace among the nations, is all the proof that the Christian needs of the obvious effect of Jesus’s birth. The Pax Romana, in effect, is understood here as the fulfilment of the words of Psalm 72:7: “In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more” (NRSV).
As Henry Chadwick points out, the connection of the Pax Romana (Roman peace) with the advent of Christ is one which is made by other early-Christian authors (Contra Celsum, p. 92, n. 2). For example, the third-century Commentary on Daniel IV.9 argues along very similar lines, and in very similar language to that used by Origen in the present passage: “The Lord was born in the forty-second year of Augustus Caesar, a starting point for the apogee of the Roman monarchy. This was also the time when, through his apostles, the Lord summoned all nations and all languages in order to make of them a nation of Christian faithful…” (from the English translation of Hervé Inglebert’s translation; see the commentary on this text for further details and discussion). Equally, Melito of Sardis, preserved in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History IV.26.7 claims that Christianity “sprung up among the nations under your (i.e. Roman) rule, during the great reign of your ancestor Augustus, it became to your empire especially a blessing of auspicious omen. For from that time the power of the Romans has grown in greatness and splendor.” These authors both make the claim that the advent of Christ, and the birth of Christianity more generally, have coincided with a period of Roman rule in which the empire reached its prime and was able to flourish. For these early-Christian writers, this was no mere coincidence, but rather proof that Christianity was very much entwined with Roman glory and success. This is also the case in Origen’s argument here. As Joseph Trigg states, in Origen’s mind, “God brought [the Roman empire] into existence to facilitate the spread of the gospel,” and it therefore ultimately has his approval (Origen, p. 236). In Melito’s text, there is a more direct connection between Christ’s birth, the reign of Augustus, and Roman prosperity. Origen extends this line of argument by claiming that the settling of the Roman administration and Roman peace were necessary conditions for the development of Christianity.
The relationship between Christianity and the Pax Romana is shown to be mutually beneficial. Origen recognises that both sides aided each other in enabling their respective flourishing. Firstly, if Augustus had not “fused together into one monarchy the many populations of the earth,” then it would have been much more difficult for the message of Jesus to spread. This is partly, Origen suggests, because nations would still be warring with each other, as they did before Augustus’s time (the example he uses is that of the Athenians and the Peloponnesians). The onset of a period of relative stability in Augustus’s time, then, was a significant help to the Gospel. Indeed, the passage ends with a rhetorical question considering that the “milder spirit” which prevailed in the empire at that time was necessary to complement the anti-militaristic teachings of the Gospel. The Pax Romana certainly worked in Christianity’s favour in principal then. However, earlier in the passage Origen explicitly states that “God [prepared] the nations for His teaching, that they might be under one prince, the king of the Romans.” This enabled the fulfilment of Jesus’s command to his disciples to go and teach all nations (see Matthew 28:19, the so-called ‘Great Commission’), making it easier owing to the increased unity of the various peoples. This shifts the credit for the union achieved by Rome back to God, implying that Rome’s success, specifically the emergence of one all-powerful ruler, the emperor, was all part of God’s plan to further his message effectively.
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