Luke 18:1-8 Roman Officials and gods


I’d like to understand if the people hearing Jesus talk in the parable of the persistent widow would have understood the judge to be a Roman official, and if the judge would have expected to be treated in some divine way.

I recall learning about this kind of societal structure in the 1st century Roman Empire when I was taking a scripture class a few years ago. But, when I do any kind of searches on the internet, I can’t find something that either confirms or denies this structure.

What I understood was that the head of the Roman government, the emperor, was thought to be a god. And, he would expect to be treated as such. Then, those reporting to him would also be a god, but a lesser god. And so it went on down the line.

Here’s the text of the parable of the persistent widow for context.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’” The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I ask this because I think it would draw a stronger contrast between the good nature of God and the bad nature of the judge. Jesus is saying here that if even this person who has serious problems can give something good to the helpless widow, then how much more so can God give something good to those who are helpless.


The people below the emperor were not regarded as lesser gods. Powerful people, yes, but not gods.

The status of the emperor is a bit more difficult. It’s also not clear whether the Romans themselves believed the emperor was actually a god. The emperor was certainly praised and worshipped as one, although I think most Romans regarded the emperor as someone who occupied a space between humans and gods, blurring the boundary between the two.

It’s also important to note that the Romans believed the gods favoured their empire as long as they made the right sacrifices and performed the necessary rituals. That was the deal between the gods and humans. Refusing to perform religious duties was an act of sedition that could jeopardize the empire.


I would also add that Romans were prone to consider very successful people as gods. They did it in the Republican times, it became a regular thing in the time of Empire.
It was also considered an instrument to hold the Empire together ideologically: the nations of the Empire worshiped different gods, but the emperors were supposed to be the shared gods. This is why monotheistic religions were treated with such suspicion.


My question was really about what people were saying and doing as opposed to believing. It’d hard to know what a person believes, but it’s easier to know the traditions and what people did.

Then, what were the customs surrounding the treatment of Roman officials? Any kind of link to this to a source that explains Roman officials in this society would be appreciated.


Well, if successful people were treated as gods, how were Roman officials treated, like judges?


The Romans had a sytem of patronage, called clientela. The patronus was often a wealthy patrician and the cliens a member of the lower classes, plebeians for example. Clients often went to their patron for advice, legal assistance, protection, food and other favours. In return, the patron could count on their help in elections and political conflicts. The clients escorted or greeted their patron on the street and the more clients you had, the higher your status. When plebeians got the right to get elected into the senate and hold important offices, some of them actually got elected and became patrons and succesfull statesmen. These plebeians were called “homo novi.”

The clients also served in the army. The generals of Roman armies were senators, appointed by their fellow senators to take care of Rome’s enemies. It’s plain to see what an enormous amount of power some senators had. When Sulla was appointed commander of the army that went to war with king Mithridates of Pontus, Gaius Marius convinced his followers to call an assembly that appointed him as general. This led to the first civil war.

This system of patronage continued in the Roman Empire. One of the major problems of the Empire was that “emperor” was not an official office. Augustus inherited his clients from Caesar (when he was stabbed to death in the senate) and used them to defeat Mark Anthony and rule supreme. The Roman army was kingmaker in the Empire and the Praetorian Guard regularly killed and crowned emperors. Moral of the story: always keep your clients happy.

You also asked about judges. In the Roman provinces, the Roman governor was the judge. He was also the commander of the army and had to take care of the treasury. There was no such thing as a public prosecutor in the Roman Empire. If someone robbed you, you had three options. 1) Do nothing. 2) gather your mates and sort the culprit out. 3) sue the thief in a court. The governor would use Roman law to decide the outcome. This is one the reasons why the Germanic tribes were so incredibly annoyed by governor Varus. Sometimes, they would make up ridiculous cases, just to make the governor look like a fool. And then they killed him the Teutoberg forest in 9 A.D…

Finally, the parable of the widow is about persistence. Jesus says that God may seem like a careless, unfair judge, but if you persist in praying and keep the faith, then you will find out that God is not as bad as you initially thought and that He does care and answers prayer.


Very nice. Thanks! This was all very helpful.

Finally, the parable of the widow is about persistence. Jesus says that God may seem like a careless, unfair judge, but if you persist in praying and keep the faith, then you will find out that God is not as bad as you initially thought and that He does care and answers prayer.

We come to different conclusions on this.

  1. The judge does not have qualities that compare with God except he has the power to provide something requested by the powerless.
  2. Jesus says he’s dishonest.
  3. Both Jesus and the judge state that he doesn’t fear God nor does he regard others. Who’s left? Just good ol’ number one. Hence, the judge is self-centered.
  4. The judge acts only because he’s worried about being struck by the widow, which is ridiculous. Especially if what you say about the whole judge system is right - the commander of the army is worried about being attacked by a helpless widow? The judge can’t think straight, because being a coward doesn’t seem to line up with the roles you mentioned above.

So, rather than say that God just takes His time to act upon requests - it doesn’t mean that. Otherwise, Jesus is saying that he’s a self-centered liar that can’t think straight.

Rather, Jesus is saying that prayer will be even more fruitful than what the widow experiences in this story, because if even this judge responds to her just request, then how much sooner with God do so? The answer is: a lot.

When a person spends time in prayer on a frequent basis, they learn what God is willing to grant and what he’s not willing to grant. It’s a lot like any relationship - it takes work to understand the other person. That is why the parable ends like it does - “Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?” This is about us choosing to relate to God - not us being patient with prayers that seem to go nowhere.

That’s how I see it, anyway.


Thank you very much for your response. I forgot to mention in my previous comment that you can see Roman law and the Roman legal system in action in Acts 25:1-12. The Jewish authorities presented charges against Paul (remember there is no public prosecutor) and Festus - the governor! - is the one who hears the case and will be the judge. Paul makes an appeal to the emperor, which was something only Roman citizens could do. And then he sets sail for Rome.


I think Jesus is talking in the context of Judaism; there were certain men appointed by Moses to help him deal with the Hebrews. This practice, I suspect, survived till Jesus’ times. These judges would rule certain areas as the final word in disputes amongst the Jews.

Jesus’ comparison is not placing the judge on the same level as God but actually to compel us to insist in our requests to God, our Father; if the unrighteous would listen just to stop the complainant from bothering him would our Heavenly Father, Who is Just, Merciful and Loving, not be moved to heed our needs?

Maran atha!



Very nice references there. Thanks!


I agree that the point of the story is not that God is like the judge and you have to pester him relentlessly until he fears being knocked around. The point is that even if a problematic person like the judge were to listen and grant the helpless widow’s request, then so much more so will God.

The question at the end of the parable is about praying to God - and having a relationship with Jesus. It isn’t giving us the secret to obtaining physical or spiritual goodies.

Thanks for your comment here!


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