Review: Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at

All the events in the NT occurred against the historic background of the Roman Empire. Throughout the NT, we find and feel the presence, sometimes center stage, sometimes more peripheral, of Rome, its agents and its influence. At least four Roman Emperors are mentioned in the Gospels and Acts, three by name (Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius). One issues a decree that is unwittingly crucial in fulfilling a Hebrew prophecy made seven centuries earlier (Micah 5:2; see Luke 2:1). One orders Jews out of Rome (Claudius) and one is the Caesar to whom Paul appealed his criminal case (Nero), and about whom history records that he began the systematic persecution of Christians and who, tradition has it, executed both Paul and Peter.

Roman governors rule in Judea (Quirinius, Pilate, Felix, Festus), and elsewhere. Jesus, who had instructed His listeners to “render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” was condemned by to death by a Roman governor, beaten, then crucified by Roman soldiers, who also guarded His tomb in hopes of preventing His departure from the grave. Roman soldiers are found in Judea, and in Galilee, some being converts of John the Baptist, and others respectful and appreciative acquaintances of Jesus. A Roman centurion was among the early converts in Acts; Roman soldiers rescued Paul from the Jerusalem mob, and escorted him safely to Caesarea. Another spared his life after the shipwreck on Malta. Some of Caesar’s own palace guards became converts in Rome. Paul’s (and Silas’) Roman citizen plays an important part in the narrative in Acts. Something over 20 Latin words are borrowed into the Greek NT, nearly all being words associated with government and rule. Everywhere in the NT, there is Roman government, Roman law, Roman commerce, Roman coins, Roman culture and custom.

One way to test the historical veracity of the NT narrative is to compare its presentation of everything Roman with what we know of that period and culture from “secular” sources—Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, the Jewish historian Josephus, and of course archaeological discoveries. In 1960-1, A. N. Sherwin-White, an expert in Roman law and administration, put the NT to the test, to see if it in fact gave an accurate picture of first century Rome, the Empire and all the related matters. In a series of eight lectures, he examines the Roman form of government at various levels, the trial of Christ in the Synoptics, Paul before Felix and Festus, Paul’s interaction with government officials in his missionary journeys, Paul and Gallio and Paul in Rome, the Galilean Gospel narratives, issues surrounding Roman citizenship, and the historicity of the gospels. There is also an extended note on the vexed question of Quirinius (Luke 2:2). On the whole, and in detail, the NT, especially the Synoptic Gospel narratives and the book of Acts, gives repeatedly a precisely correct picture of persons, events, customs and circumstances as far as they can be tested against what is otherwise known about the first century Roman Empire.

Sherwin-White, as a Roman historian, demonstrates that the NT’s historicity is vindicated about as far as it can be vindicated along these lines. He does allow—I think unjustifiably—that the NT narratives have some distortions in them, and he is disposed to think that Luke is simply in error about the connection of Quirinius to the census of Luke 2 (I am persuaded that just as Luke has been repeatedly vindicated against the hyper-critical attacks of skeptical rationalists, so too discoveries will eventually fully and clearly vindicate him in this as yet unsettled matter—one of a very few, by the way).

It is notable, that “mere” experts in Roman history and antiquities accept the narratives of the NT, in the Gospels and Acts, as historically reliable documents regarding people, places, events, customs and practices, while it is anti-supernaturalist critics who despair of ever finding any kernel of truth regarding “the historic Jesus” It is their all-pervasive presuppositional rejection of the veracity of the NT narratives on theological and philosophical grounds, not evidence and facts, which pre-determines their “conclusions.” They start by assuming that the NT is not to be trusted, and, no surprise, that is what they conclude.

While not quite all that we would like, this little volume goes far is establishing that given a fair test by objective standards of historicity, the NT comes out very well indeed.

Selected quotes from Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A. N. Sherwin-White

  • “In the hearing before Pilate the synoptic narrative fits the Roman framework remarkably well, considering that it was written with an entirely different purpose in mind.” (p. 24)
  • “The synoptic writers thus get their technicalities right in this small matter—the severe beating accompanies the capital sentence, and the lighter whipping goes with the proposed act of coercitio.” (p. 28)
  • egarding the soldiers distributing Jesus’ clothes among themselves—“Given the relevant prophecy from the OT [i.e., Psalm 22:18], there is every reason to assume that this is one of the evolved myths dear to form-critics. But, as has been familiar since Mommsen, legal texts confirm that it was the accepted right of the executioner’s squad to share out the minor possessions of their victim.” (p. 46)
  • “Once again, the author of Acts is well informed.” (p. 52)
  • “The author of Acts is very well informed about the finer points of municipal institutions at Ephesus in the first and second centuries A. D. He even uses the correct technical term ennomos ekklesia to distinguish the regularly appointed meetings of the people from the present concourse.” (p. 87)
  • “Acts is particular and well informed about Thessalonica. The author knows the correct and fairly unusual title of the city magistrates: they were politarchai, as inscriptions reveal. This title was replaced in a later age by the more common First Ruler.” (p. 96)
  • “In Acts or in that part of Acts which is concerned with the adventures of Paul in Asia Minor and Greece, one is aware all the time of the Hellenistic and Roman setting. The historical framework is exact. In terms of time and place the details are precise and correct. One walks the streets and market-places, the theatres and assemblies of first-century Ephesus or Thessalonica, Corinth or Philippi, with the author of Acts. The great men of the cities, the magistrates, the mob, and the mob-leaders, are all there. The feel and tone of city life is the same as in the descriptions of Strabo and Dio Prusa. The difference lies only in the Jewish shading. The scene is observed through the eyes, not of a citizen, but of a resident foreigner, paroikos, to us a Pauline term, from the synagogue.” (p. 120)
  • “Roman citizens were supposed to have an adequate knowledge of their official language [Latin], which was the service tongue of the Roman army everywhere… . the emperor Claudius deprived a man of Roman citizenship because he could not speak Latin.” (p. 150; this strongly supports the idea that Paul was at least tetra-lingual, knowing Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. He could well have known another local language or two used in or around his native Tarsus. No surprise, then, that he could claim, “I thank God that I speak in languages more than any of you,” [I Corinthians 14:18] a statement that need not involve in Paul’s case the spiritual gift of languages.—Editor)
  • “One thing is clear: the historical atmosphere of the Lysias incident [Acts 22-24] is exactly right for the time of Claudius. For a writer of the second century [as the critics imagine the author of Acts to be] the commander of an auxiliary cohort could not be written down, as he is in Acts, as a man of no great social standing. The reference to the difficulty of acquiring Roman citizenship would be much less appropriate in a later age.” (p. 156)
  • “In references to the citizenship, Acts gets things right both at the general level, in it overall attitude, and in specific aspects such as were discussed in the last lecture—the type of names of the centurions, the prevalence of bribery in this context under Claudius.” (p. 173)
  • “So it is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain—so far as an amateur can understand the matter—that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious when one compares the case for the best-known contemporary of Christ, who like Christ is a well-documented figure—Tiberius Caesar. The story of his reign is know from four sources, the Annals of Tacitus [composed ca. 115-117 A.D.] and the biography of Suetonius, written some eighty or ninety years later, the brief contemporary record of Velleius Paterculus, and the third-century history of Cassius Dio.” (p. 187)
  • “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming… . [A]ny attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” (p. 189)
  • “The agnostic type of form criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case.” (p. 189)
  • “Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” (p. 190)

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio

Doug Kutilek is the editor of, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.

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josh p's picture

That sounds like an interesting book. Thank you for the review as well as the quotes from the book. I might have to pick it up.

alex o.'s picture

nice review.

I wish Doug could hire someone to redesign his website to make it a bit "friendlier." Maybe he could partner with someone who could help him get all his good research to those who would benefit from it. Website formatting is tedious and a skillset not easily acquired by those whose interests are in other areas of research such as Doug's. I wish Doug all the best and wisdom in sharing his work.

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