A considerable effort needs to be made to become immersed in the religious world of the first century. It involves dealing with a world very different from today, if only because the term “religion” did not always mean the same thing for people of that time as it does for people now. It was a world in which Christianity was a modest reality. The evangelical parable of the small seed that becomes a large tree is very suitable for describing the beginnings of Christianity. To continue the metaphor, it was a shrub from which many branches rapidly sprouted.
First, a world in which the religious dimension is present everywhere needs to be imagined. There were no clearly defined religions on one hand and autonomous states and political structures on the other. The Roman Empire, like all states of the time, had a strong religious component and worship of the emperor was widespread, especially in the East. The emperor had the power to “cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Rev 13:15).
Each nation could keep its religions, but at the same time needed to accept the spread of the Roman Empire’s religious propaganda. This religious dimension of social bonds posed a particular problem for Christians and was at the origin of Rome’s increasingly repressive attitude toward Christianity.