What exactly is the message of the "Good News"? What, in light of the time of Jesus within the Roman Empire, made this message so revolutionary, as conveyed by the early Christians? To what extent is an understanding of its meaning significant for understanding world history since the life and death of Jesus Christ?

The message of Jesus was so revolutionary because it involved a powerful impulse towards social leveling, with its claim that all human beings are equal before God. This was radical within the context of traditional polytheism, which tended to reflect the stratified and hierarchical nature of classical society. In a cultural context that tended to embrace elitism and exclusivity, ancient Christianity actively embraced the marginalized, a factor critical in shaping its early success.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Christianity, at its heart, contains some radical claims: it claims that God became man and sacrificed himself for humanity for the sake of its salvation. It contains a powerful impulse towards social leveling, by which all human beings, regardless of wealth or status, are rendered equal before the eyes of God. In all these respects, the "good news" of the Gospel can be called radical. It would have been all the more radical when seen in the context in which it emerged.

One thing you need to remember about the classical world is that it was, at its core, elitist and aristocratic, with power resting in very small, politically favored castes. In addition to these political and social dynamics, we must also factor in the religious dynamics of ancient polytheism, which tended to preserve much of this elitist vision. As John Scheid writes, Roman religion was inherently communitarian, built around ritual and tradition, with "duties imposed on individuals by their birth, adoption, enfranchisement or grant of Roman citizenship ... linked to the social status of an individual and not to any personal decision of a spiritual kind." (An Introduction to Roman Religion, 19). Centered around rituals of sacrifice, whether it be private (focused around the family, and under the authority of the paterfamilias), or whether it be public, under the authority of the officials or the priests, there would have always been this same sense of hierarchy at play (for more information, see Scheid, 79–80).

Of course, it should be noted that, by the time that Christianity first appeared within the Empire, traditionally polytheistic religion was already in decline, and was being challenged by a wide array of competing cults, not to mention by the various philosophical schools of Hellenic and Hellenistic Greece. However, both classical philosophy, as well as many of these mystery cults, still tended to maintain much of this same elitism and exclusivity. Ancient Christianity, by contrast, specifically targeted those who were traditionally marginalized by society (slaves, women, the poor, etc.), a factor which was critical in shaping its success.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team