🔼The name Illyricum in the Bible
The name Illyricum (or Illurikon in Greek) belonged to a Roman province that covered roughly the same area as would Yugoslavia in the 20th century: the stretch of coastal country between the eastern tip of modern Italy (Roman Italia) in its north down to the north-western border of modern Greece (Roman Macedonia) in its south.
The name Illyricum occurs only once in the Bible, but in a context that may strongly appeal to the imaginative mind: Romans 15:19, where Paul speaks of the power of signs and wonders and his preaching range from Jerusalem unto the "circle" (κυκλω, kuklo) of Illyricum.
What Paul meant by this isn't immediately clear. First, there are no records of him having traveled west of Macedonia on land. But second, the province of Illyricum had ceased to exist in 10 AD, as consequence of the most traumatic event for Rome in two centuries. Well get to the details below, but for now let's establish that to mention touring Illyricum in the first century AD was like mentioning the sweeping vista from the Twin Towers in ours.
It could be that Paul meant to say that he journeyed through Macedonia in a circle that bordered on (former) Illyricum, but that seems a touch elaborate and unnecessary insensitive to his Roman audience. Much more likely is that he meant to say something that would not have been appreciated by any potential snooping Roman official, and thus hid it in poetic code.
🔼The gospel code
Contrary to popular inflection, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not simply just another theology, and Paul's many admonitions to obey the rules of the state (Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1) had nothing to do with the state's desired perpetuation but rather with a most efficiently placing of agents of the state's ultimate demise. As Socrates had explained many centuries earlier: since every governmental system has facilities to deal with foreign threats, a system can only be overthrown from within its own apparatus, and by its own members. Or in other words: a ship's rudder has to be a part of the ship (James 3:4).
The most fundamental operating principles of the gospel and those of the Roman Empire were mutually exclusive, and when Constantine "converted" the Roman state to Christianity, he merely grafted Christian terminology upon the Roman machine. After Constantine, the emperor had new clothes but he had no new heart and certainly no new way of doing things.
- The Roman Empire was based on the idea that one man could be divine, and was to impose his rule upon the rest of humanity in order to save humanity from its own darkness and violence. The penalties were severe and everybody was scared witless. A Roman citizen was to fully obey and even worship the state and its emperor — and note that a mere 25% of Roman people were citizens; the rest were slaves. The state became a web of rules and hierarchies, committees and counsels, and it was virtually impossible for any citizen to find and dispute the source of the rules that ran this person's life (Ephesians 6:12).
- The gospel of Jesus Christ declares every person — that's 100% of humanity — an anointed king and high priest, with no earthly superiors (Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6). That means that every human being has a direct link to the Creator of heaven and earth, who in turn places the laws of nature (and thus of a perfect, natural human society) in every person's own heart (Romans 2:15, Hebrews 10:16). The most common command in the Bible is to have no fear (1 John 4:18). Every human being is both as free and as integrated into the biosphere as any of God's creatures (Romans 8:19-22), and wholly responsible for the purposes and effects of his or her own life.
🔼The Roman legacy
Even after two millennia, our world is still largely Roman, not only in the way our governments are organized but also in the way most people think about themselves and the rest of the world. Very few people could imagine their companies and clubs without commanders and leaders, and very few people realize that nations and national borders are figments of totalitarianism that benefit the ruling elite but not the guy in the street.
Most people believe it's us versus them, while in fact there is no them, only us. There is only one universe, one life soul, one earth and one humanity. Grass has no borders, clouds have no borders and humanity's borders are artificial, ludicrous and ultimately, since they are unnatural, blasphemous. There are no barbarians, no foreigners, no aliens, no others; the entire biosphere is an interdependent symbiotic whole. There is only one Creator, and He is not worshipped in any religion but on the bridges between religions. Religions otherise but love finds God.
Most people believe that humans are vile and aggressive beasts who will take to rape and looting when left unfettered, but research shows that the opposite is true. The large majority of people are kind and helpful when no rules tell them what to do, and turn into monstrous hell raisers in front of a traffic light (whether red or green).
Paul saw it all coming and waged a bitter war against the Roman machine the best way he could: by kindly obeying Roman rule and friendly explaining the way things work to ordinary peoples. The success of the gospel was not so much based on difficult theological concepts, but rather on its appealing quality of giving the common man a way to defeat the Roman beast. But Paul's way was obviously not the only one, and many people lacked the restraint it required.
🔼Three legions, ten legions
About a decade after he wrote his letter to the Roman church, the long-brewing discontent of the Jews with Rome deteriorated first in 66 AD into rebellion and rioting, then a military face-off and finally the notorious destruction of Jerusalem and genocide of the Jewish people in 70 AD. Half a century before Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, another uprising nearly sacked Rome. In 9 AD, a Germanic alliance fell upon a whopping three Roman legions and wiped them out in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
This defeat delivered a tremendous blow to the empire, both in a practical sense as to morale. Modern historians recognize the Battle of Teutoburg Forest as one of the most decisive battles in history: Rome never conquered Germania, and the shape and destiny of Europe, and ultimately the whole of western culture, remained forever marked by this.
At around the same time, Herod Archelaus, son and successor of Herod the Great in Judea, made such a mess of things that the Jews implored the Romans to intervene. When in 4 AD his father had died, a Messianic uprising had erupted and none other than general Varus was sent in to quench it. Three years later, this same Varus marched three legions into Germania.
In 6 AD Judea was annexed as province to the empire. At that same time, in 6 AD, an alliance of Illyrian tribes began to revolt against Rome (the Illyrian Revolt or Bellum Batonianum). Their conflict culminated into a bloody war that lasted until the exact same year in which the Germanians revolted: 9 AD, when Jesus was about twelve (Luke 2:41-52).
It took ten whole legions plus their auxiliary troops to finally defeat the Illyrians, and this combined with the happenings in Germania made the Roman gentry recoil in horror. Roman historians referred to the Illyrian Revolt as the most difficult conflict since the Punic Wars (when Hannibal stood at Rome's gates) and the Illyrians and their world were wholly pulverized and buried by the subsequent wrath of Rome.
The province of Illyricum was split into Pannonia in the north and Dalmatia in the south. This happened in 10 AD, so Paul couldn't have literally preached in Illyricum, just like today we can't go preach in Yugoslavia.
🔼More than twelve legions
So yes, perhaps while the clouds of the First Jewish Revolt were already packing on the Judean horizon, Paul took the liberty to brag to folks in Rome he had never met about excursions he hadn't actually engaged in. But on the other hand, perhaps it's more likely that Paul inserted a covert but strong instruction to his readers to keep fighting the Romans but not in such a way as to provoke Rome's anger and be bulldozed over.
Note that in his second letter to Timothy, which he wrote in Rome when the Jewish Revolt had just started or was about to, Paul submitted that several of his friends had left him. Among those he named was Titus, who had gone to Dalmatia or southern Illyricum (2 Timothy 4:10). The general who finally sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple of YHWH in 70 AD was also named Titus.
The profundity of the destruction of Jerusalem can not be overstated. At the time, Jews permeated the whole Roman empire, but their cultural and theological identity hinged on their capital city. When it was destroyed and tens of thousands of Jews were crucified and the survivors were forbidden further access to Jerusalem's ruins, the Jewish world literally came to an end and Jewish theology spiraled into a bottomless crisis.
And to put that into perspective: imagine that on 9/11 not just the World Trade Center was destroyed, but that the whole city of New York as well as Washington DC were leveled, their inhabitants publically hanged, the rest of all Americans deported to Afghanistan and the USA renamed and repeopled by the terrorists and their families.
🔼Neither God nor wine
The four gospels we have in the Bible stem from the unimaginably dark decade directly after the destruction of the Jewish world in 70 AD. The gospel writers and their audience were predominantly concerned with the question of how God and man as His image could possibly be served in a blasphemous and destructive Roman system by a religion that was slaughtered by that system and apparently abandoned by the God it aimed to serve (Matthew 27:46). Their gospels were not merely the biography of some rogue rabbi of four decades prior, but much rather the biography of the embodiment of the world-wide resistance against the Roman beast.
The Battle of Teutoburg Forest is considered one of the most decisive battles in history, but that's only because the Germanians won. The Illyrians lost their Roman war and were destroyed, and this had far greater consequences to the world. The year 9 AD may very well be considered the most decisive year in human history, because in that year the world finally succumbed to the yoke of Rome. Had the Illyrians won they would have marched on Rome, joined by the Germanians and whatever was left of the Celts and the Phoenicians. There would have been no Christianity and subsequently no need for Islam. The chances are excellent that people would have harnessed electricity very soon after, and humanity could have by-passed the last 1,500 years of horror.
It's beyond doubt that the members of the original audience of the gospel were painfully aware of the chances lost in 9 AD and it's quite frankly a rather tall order to demand that they considered the gospel to be merely about a humanitarian prodigy who lived 40 years earlier, and was executed, just like everybody else. Perhaps the historical Jesus of Nazareth indeed had a sword-wielding disciple named Simon Peter whose brother was Andrew. Yet whoever had survived the holocaust of 70 AD remembered with great clarity the Germanian revolt, led by Arminius, and the Illyrian revolt, instigated by a Bosnian man named Bato.
🔼Etymology of the name Illyricum
The name Illyricum comes from Ιλλυριοι (Illurioi), which was the name the Greeks had given to whoever lived directly to their north, and was originally derived from the name of a local tribe (probably the nearest one) that has since long disappeared from history. Hence it's no longer clear what the name may have originally meant, and all meaning doubtlessly came from folk etymologies and homophones.
One verb that jumps to mind is ειλω (eilo), which also often occurs as ιλλω (illo), and which means to shut or shut out (for instance from temples). This would make the Illurioi the Excluded Ones, obviously originally denoting those excluded from the hallowed Greek world, which in Paul's Judaic jargon would be on a par with the concept of the gentiles (those not partaking in the original revelations). This verb may also mean to hinder, to squeeze and to press (of grapes and olives), which brings to mind both the cornerstone mentioned in 1 Peter 2:8 as well as the name Gethsemane.
From the verb ειλω or ιλλω also come the nouns ειλεσις (eilesis) and ιλιγγος (iliggos) which reflect a decisive circular motion: eddies of smoke and vortexes in water and fire, but also a spinning of one's head and the agitation of one's mind or bowls. Besides the obvious connection with Paul's enigmatic "circle of Illyricum", also note the distinct similarities between this word and the group of words from which comes the name Galilee.
What the name Illyricum formally means is unclear and probably not so relevant anymore. On the literary palet of a poet like Paul, the name Illyricum is equivalent to The Land Of The Gentiles but also The Land Of Agitation or even The Land Of The Insurrection.
When Bato the Bosnian was finally captured, he was asked why he had revolted. He answered: "Because you sent wolves to guard your flocks and not shepherds" (Dio 56.16). When Jesus sent His twelve apostles, He said, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves" (Matthew 10:16).
For more on the connection between the gospel and the war on Rome that continues to this day, read our articles on Beth-horon (the place where Julius' notorious Legion Twelve was defeated at the start of the Jewish Revolt), Onesimus, Antichrist, Caesar, Hannibal, and Legion.