I remember from my earliest days as a Christian pondering Romans 5:6. In the New International Version (which I used then) it reads “…at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Why was the early first century “just the right time”?
I’ve arrived at some hypotheses over the years and none of them exclude the others. In fact, the sum of them is probably greater than their individual merits. My speculation is tangential to Paul’s line of reasoning in Romans and I would submit that Paul could not have perceived of at least two of my hypotheses because he was too close, historically speaking, to be able to see them.
First, I conjectured that the Pax Romana played a role in God’s decision to launch the incarnation. For the first time in recorded history, a significant chunk of the known world, at least as known to Israel, was in a state of relative peace. They had a common trade language across the empire and the best infrastructure the world had seen up to that point. (Some of the roads and bridges are still in use today!) All of this set the groundwork for the missionary efforts of Paul and the other Apostles and allowed for the expansion of the early church.
Second, and closer to Paul’s reasoning, I realized that Israel as a “chosen people” had run their course—called, enslaved, freed, rose to power, disintegrated, dispersed, and exiled. Some of the remnant had returned and rebuilt the temple, but they were again a subject people under the Romans. Israel had served its purpose of laying the foundation for Messiah to be received and understood.
Third, and most recently, I believe that for the first time the world had discovered the necessary philosophical acumen to be able to ponder the incarnation of God. To be able to reflect upon the manifestation of the Trinity, the three-in-one-in-three of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This ability came almost exclusively from the Greeks and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.
Debates about and theories of a priori knowledge, universals, particulars, logic, and metaphysics paved the way for the Church Fathers to interpret and grapple with atonement, justification, heaven, and hell. Augustine, Scotus, Anselm, Aquinas, and scores of others would draw on and refine the tools bequeathed to them by Greek philosophy in their pursuit of topics both theological and philosophical.
I came to this last hypothesis while re-reading volume one of Frederick J. Copleston’s A History of Philosophy last summer. A Roman Catholic, Copleston understood the interplay of theology and philosophy. Indeed, his aim was to write a history of philosophy so seminary students could understand the richness of the tradition they were stepping into.
Copleston’s discussion of the Greek philosophers helped me to see that all they arrived at was new. No one, at least that we know of, had bothered with many of the questions they addressed, or not to the degree they addressed them. The introduction of deductive reasoning as a valid means of deducing knowledge is something we are still indebted to them for.
I’ve also begun to realize that those methods and some of their conclusions have been of great use to the church ever since learned men began to place their faith in Christ. Why was the first century just the right time? I think, at least in part, because it was after Plato and Aristotle.