ROMAN LAW The broad category of Roman law stands behind an adequate understanding of the New Testament and its world. The might of the Roman Empire dominated the Ancient Near East, including Palestine and the Mediterranean world in which Christianity was born. Roman law developed over a period of one thousand years, from the publication of the XII Tables in 451-50 B.C. to Emperor Justinian's codification in A.D. 529-34. The points of major relevance of Roman law for interpreting the New Testament cluster around several categories, particularly Roman citizenship, the influence of Roman law upon family life and roles, and Roman criminal jurisprudence.
Roman Citizenship The Book of Acts depicts Paul as a Roman citizen from birth (Acts 22:28) whose citizenship proved advantageous during his missionary travels. Roman citizenship could be obtained by one of several means, the most preferred of which was by inheriting it at birth from parents who were citizens. The New Testament is silent as to how Paul's family had acquired citizenship. The state could grant citizenship for one of several types of service to the empire, either civil or military, particularly the latter. Citizenship could be obtained by purchase (Acts 22:28).
The evidence is unclear as to how citizens were able to document their citizenship. Presumably they carried the ancient equivalent of the modern-day passport, a certificate made either of metal or wood. False claims to citizenship were punishable by death. In Acts 22:27, Paul's merely claiming citizenship seems to have sufficed without having to produce official papers.
Citizenship bestowed certain rights. These included the right to vote for magistrates, the right to be elected as a magistrate, the right to contract a legal marriage, the right to hold property in the Roman community, and the right to appeal to the people, and in later times to the emperor, against the sentences passed by magistrates or other officials of rank.
Paul's citizenship surfaced in several details of his missionary activity in Acts. Acts 16:39 records the consternation of either the lictors or magistrates in Philippi upon discovering that Paul was a Roman citizen. They realized that they had punished him without trial. By law, citizens could not be bound or scourged (compare Acts 22:24-29). Most important of all is the right of “appeal to Caesar” and trial at Rome (Acts 25:10-12).
Roman Law and Family Life The New Testament “House Codes” (Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7) should be interpreted against the background of the status of the family and the power of the head of the household in Roman society. If Greek society looked to belonging in one's city as the chief unit of society, Roman society, both legally and culturally, looked to the family as the primary unit of society. In early Roman law, and to a significant though diminishing extent throughout the Roman period, the paterfamilias (head of the household) was the only fully legal person in the family. The “family” included what today would be termed the “extended” family, crossing generational lines and including the wife, all unmarried sons and daughters, married sons and their families, those persons adopted into the family, and slaves. All of these persons lived under the patria potestas, or “absolute power,” of the patriarchal head of the household. The patria potestas of the paterfamilias extended even to matters of life and death, limited only by the constraints of the habit of consulting a family council or by the restraints of certain laws. The father, for example, was the person who decided whether or not to allow a newborn infant to die. That such power flourished in the New Testament era is born out by the fact that one father had his son executed for his part in the Catiline Conspiracy of 62 B.C. In early Roman times fathers could sell their children just as they could any other property. This absolute power of the Roman father included not only the persons directly descended from him but also their personal property. Persons living under another's patria potestas in actuality owned nothing. Upon their marriage, daughters passed into the power of another family's patria potestas. Upon the death of the paterfamilias, as many new families were created as there had been sons living under his power (or grandsons, in the event their fathers had died).
Against such a background, Paul's command to be subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21) was a revolutionary word spoken to a society in which all were subject to the paterfamilias.
Roman Jurisprudence While Roman civil law relates to the New Testament only in incidental ways, Roman criminal law casts much light upon the trial of Jesus. The representative and executor of Roman law in the Gospels is, of course, Pontius Pilate, who served as the Roman procurator, or governor, of Judea during the years A.D. 26-36. Procurators, while lacking the full status and prestige of a Roman proconsul or imperial legate, were Roman “knights” of nonsenatorial rank and were invested with the same powers of higher officials. In modern-day terminology, Pilate was a “military governor” overseeing a province known as a seed-bed of rebellion.
As the chief Roman administrator in the province, Pilate held the imperium, the supreme, administrative life-or-death power over the subjects in a province. The imperium extended particularly over the peregrini, or non-Roman citizens such as Jesus living in an occupied state. While Roman citizens possessed the right of appeal to Caesar, provincial subjects had little to protect them against abuses of the life and death power wielded by proconsuls and lesser governors such as Pilate. Pilate would have held the total power of Roman administration, jurisdiction, defense, and maintenance of law and order in the province of Judea. In the eyes of his superiors, Pilate's first priority was public order, not the execution of justice. They would not have categorized his conduct of the trial of Jesus as irresponsible. If an innocent Galilean peasant was the focal point of a civil disturbance, the quelling of the disturbance, and not justice for the peregrinus involved, was the uppermost concern for Roman officials fearful of revolts in occupied provinces.
Roman governors normally looked to a number of detailed statutes to define major offenses or felonies against persons, society, and government. The entire system, known as the ordo iudiciorum publicoum, perhaps is best translated as “the list of national courts.” This ordo contained a list of crimes and punishments with the maximum and minimum penalties that could be exacted against Roman citizens. A Roman citizen who felt that the ordo was misapplied could appeal to Caesar. Common offenses, and rare ones such as arson, were dealt with by magistrates extra ordinem (“outside the list”). In any case involving a peregrinus, a Roman governor such as Pilate would have been free to proceed based upon his imperium and his own good judgment. He functioned as prosecuting attorney, judge, and jury. He would have been free to adopt the rules and guidelines of the ordo if appropriate, but he would also have been free to be as harsh and arbitrary as he preferred. A good first century procurator would, however, have tended more and more to judge a peregrinus by the ordo.
Roman trial proceedings were public, before the tribune (compare Matthew 27:19). Interested parties brought formal charges, which had to be specific (compare Matthew 27:12). In the Gospels, Jesus was charged before Pilate with a political crime. The Romans would never execute someone simply on religious grounds. Roman criminal trials included the cognitio, or the questioning of the accused. After A.D. 50 enlightened officials gave accused persons three opportunities to respond to charges made against them. Interestingly enough, Pilate does this very thing in the trial account as we find it in John (compare John 18:33,John 18:35,John 18:37), following the most enlightened possible juridical rules of the day. Failure to respond to the charges resulted in conviction by default. When Jesus remained silent and made no defense, under the Roman system, Pilate had no other option but to convict. Following the cognitio, the governor would then render his verdict in the form of a sentence to a particular punishment.
The trial of Jesus in the Gospels conforms in many of its particulars to the fine points of Roman criminal procedure. For example, it was not unknown to transfer jurisdiction to the accused's place of origin (compare Pilate's sending Jesus to Herod in Luke 23:6-7). Similarly, according to John 18:28, the trial of Jesus took place early in the day, an odd hour to modern minds, but precisely at the time when ancient Roman officials were the busiest, ordinarily arising early to work even before breakfast. To modern thought, it might also seem strange that Pilate consulted with his wife (Matthew 27:19) concerning Jesus. Far from some unseemly intrusion by her into official affairs of state, Roman women normally shared the responsibilities of husbands serving as career diplomats. They often were the husband's best advisor.
The Roman system of criminal justice distinguished between public and private penalties. The private penalty consisted of a sum of money paid to the person wronged as a substitute for private retaliation. Public penalties ranged from light beatings to the infliction of the death penalty, which could take various forms, with decapitation, gallows or crucifixion, burning, and drowning in a sack being the most common. Imprisonment as a penalty for a crime was unknown in Roman times. In the later empire, banishment to hard labor in mines or public works projects appeared as a penalty for wrongdoing.
The appearances of Paul before governmental officials and his trials in Acts also accord with what we know elsewhere of Roman trial procedure and custom. Perhaps most notable is the fact that in Acts 24:18-19 Jews make the original charges against Paul, but later disappear from the case. Before Felix (Acts 24:19), Paul objected that his accusers ought to be present. Roman law was strongly inclined against persons who made accusations and then abandoned them. Acts closes (Acts 28:30) by giving the tantalizing detail that Paul remained under “house arrest” in Rome for two years awaiting trial. This perplexing delay could be explained by a congested court list, the failure of his accusers to appear to lodge their charges, or the upheaval that characterized Nero's reign. Also noteworthy is the fact that Acts twice links Paul with Roman proconsuls (Sergius Paulus on Cyprus in Acts 13:6-12 and Annius Gallio at Corinth in Acts 18:12-17). See Trial of Jesus; Citizen, Citizenship; Marriage and Family; and Pilate, Pontius.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.