In one of his delightfully instructive parables, Jesus set forth the following concept regarding his approaching reign:
“The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33).
It is agreed among Bible expositors that the “leaven” of this parable signifies the pervasive and benevolent influence of the kingdom of Christ, as this “leaven” would make its presence felt from the first century onward.
In his classic work on the parables, Trench noted that Christianity, “[w]orking from the centre to the circumference, by degrees. . . made itself felt, till at length the whole Roman world was, more or less, leavened by it” (p. 121).
In an important treatise on the parables, Taylor affirmed that the leaven represents “the good, wholesome, aggressive influence which Christ introduced into the world when he came to earth, and lived and died, and rose again, as the Savior of sinners” (p. 60).
The Roman World
There is, perhaps, no more graphic portrait of the vileness of the Mediterranean world than that which is painted by Paul in the opening chapter of his epistle to the Romans. It is dismal indeed. William Barclay observed:
“When we read Romans 1:26-32 it might seem that this passage is the work of some almost hysterical moralist who was exaggerating the contemporary situation and painting it in colours of rhetorical hyperbole. It describes a situation of degeneracy of morals almost without parallel in human history. But there is nothing that Paul said that the Greek and Roman writers of the age did not themselves say” (p. 23).
The Scottish scholar then proceeded to document his depiction with ample citations from ancient historians who commented upon this period of depraved history.
It was into this hostile environment that the religion of Jesus was inaugurated, gradually but surely changing for the better the moral climate of that world. If one is inclined to think that this appraisal is biased, perhaps we may appeal to the testimony of a writer who never could be accused of entertaining sympathy for Christianity.
A Modern Skeptic Testifies
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), an agnostic (occasionally professing atheism), has been characterized as the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He was a militant opponent of the religion of Jesus Christ, even producing a popular essay titled, “Why I am not a Christian.”
I mention this to demonstrate that whatever testimony is elicited from him certainly will not arise from a heart that is disposed toward the Teacher from Nazareth. Be that as it may, Russell, oddly enough, became an unwitting witness to the truth of the “leavening” activity of the Christian system in the Roman world.
First, the philosopher commented concerning the barbarous practice of infanticide (i.e., the destruction of newborn infants) — a practice common in the Roman world.
“Infanticide, which might seem contrary to human nature, was almost universal before the rise of Christianity, and is recommended by Plato to prevent over-population” (p. 92; emp. added).
Second, Russell gave a nodding tribute to the influence of Christianity relative to the status of women in the Roman world.
“In antiquity, when male supremacy was unquestioned and Christian ethics were still unknown, women were harmless but rather silly, and a man who took them seriously was somewhat despised” (p. 101; emp. added).
Third, there is this comment regarding Christian benevolence in general.
“Christianity, as soon as it conquered the state, put an end to gladiatorial shows, not because they were cruel, but because they were idolatrous. The result, however, was to diminish the widespread education in cruelty by which the populace of Roman towns were degraded. Christianity also did much to soften the lot of slaves. It established charity on a large scale, and inaugurated hospitals” (p. 137; emp. added).
While Russell was in error regarding his assertion that the gladiatorial games were abolished on the basis of idolatrous associations, rather than on moral grounds (see: Schaff, pp. 122-125), he nonetheless conceded the benevolent effect of the Christian system.
Our world may be thankful indeed for the lingering influence of Jesus’ life and teaching upon this Earth.