THE ROMAN WORLD
Most Markan literature seems to be written in an historical vacuum. So it is good
to remind ourselves of the real world in which the early Christians lived.
The irony used by these authors is understandable. So often it is the exegetes and theologians with their 'creative theology', love of German theories and philosophical rejection of the supernatural, not the historians, who question the historicity of the New Testament.
The Roman Empire had a good system of roads free from marauders. Augustus (27-44 BC) had cleared pirates from the Mediterranean. ((CTR 4)). So communications were reliable and fast. The shipwreck of Paul was exceptional. Normally it took ten days to sail from Rome to Palestine. Rome to Antioch and Alexandria was less. A voyage from Italy to Spain took 4-7 days ((MP 226)). In his book `Geography`, Strabo (64 BC - 19 AD) wrote that fish from the Sea of Galilee was prepared and salted in local factories to be exported to Rome ((CTJ 171-2)). Herod drank Italian wine in his palace at Masada. ((CTP 129)).
Letters were sent by post and valuable documents by hired messenger or trusted servants. The letter to the Colossians (4: 16), illustrates how Christians used the communication system. A newly written Gospel could be copied and in the hands of Christian leaders throughout the Empire within weeks. The presumption that news and ideas took years to travel from one community to another, has no basis in fact.
Yearly at Passover great numbers of Jews (probably 1-2 million), including those who had accepted Christ as the Messiah, travelled to Jerusalem. The city then became a centre for the exchange of news, and a hive of gossip.
The preaching of Jesus, his miracles, and the turbulence this caused amongst the Jews, together with steps taken to maintain the peace, would have been included in reports, and sent by Pontius Pilate to the emperor in Rome. In 150 AD Justin Martyr addressed: 'The Defence of Christianity' to Emperor Antonius Pius. He wrote:
He goes on to write of the life of Christ, his miracles and details of the crucifixion such as the casting of lots for his vesture. He then adds: 'And that he did these things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate'. ((JMA Apologia 1: 35)).
Later he lists the sort of miracles Christ performed. For confirmation he again writes:
If these reports of Cyrenius and Pilate had not been in the Roman achieves, Justin would have been risking his life to suggest this action to the emperor. 'The Acts of Pilate' have not survived down the centuries. A writing with the same title appeared in the fifth century, but has been found to be spurious. The references by Justin Martyr to these official reports do not directly assist our dating of the Gospels, but they do provide further insight into the well-organized Roman world in which the New Testament books were composed.
Markans have no evidence that the authors of the Gospels and Acts lived out of touch with one another in isolated communities. There is no reason to think that the Christians did not live like others of their time.
The Markan theory was born and incubated in the closed world of German academia
as it existed over 150 years ago. But since then there has been impressive progress in archaeological research
and the understanding of ancient languages. This broad advance has transformed the scene. Two archaeological sites
have particularly added to our knowledge.
In 1946 a large collection of Gnostic texts were found at Nag Hammadi, also in Egypt. This collection has confirmed the reliability of information provided by Irenaeus ((IDU opening page)). Archaeology is constantly clarifying and confirming early Christian writings. For example, it was not exactly clear what Papias was trying to say by the words:
While an historical novel must not be treated as a history book, the success of such a novel depends on the author bringing historical events alive. To do so, it is important to keep the historical background acceptable to the intended readership. 'The Acts of Peter' was published about 180 AD ((AP)). In this novel we find a contest between Peter and Simon the Magician who is mentioned in Acts 8: 9-24.
The novel also tells the story of Peter having to flee from Rome following a sermon on chastity and, when he meets Jesus, Peter is asked where he is going [Quo Vadis?]. Peter is ashamed so returns to Rome where he is crucified upside down. We know from other sources this form of execution was in use ((CTJ 210)). So the author was keeping his novel close to credible historical facts.
In chapter twenty of the same novel, we read of Peter entering the house of Marcellus and finding a Gospel passage is being read [videt evangelium legi]. The passage was describing the Transfiguration. Peter takes the scroll from the Reader, rolls it up and proceeds to show how the: 'Holy Scriptures of our Lord' should be preached [qualiter debeat Sancta Scriptura Domini nostri pronuntiari]. Saying: 'What we have written in His grace', he then begins his own sermon on the Transfiguration from memory ((CTP 170 - 172, AP 6:1)).
This story comes from an historical novel, not a history book. But it is interesting that the author took it for granted that his readers would accept that at leased one written Gospel was in wide circulation while Peter was alive. The reading could have been from Matthew, Luke or Mark. We may conjecture that the word: 'we', put into Peter's mouth, indicates the author's understanding that Peter contributed the story of the transfiguration to Matthew, who wrote first.