Religion in the Roman Empire
By: Robert D Brinsmead
I understand that in the first century CE, throughout the Roman Empire a religion was a publicly recognized entity that was recognized by Rome and accorded certain rights. For instance, due to Rome’s recognition of the Jewish religion (which embraced its right to exist), the people of this religion were exempted from military service because it was recognized that Sabbath observance and Kosher food would make it impossible for the observant Jew to serve in the army. Members of the Jewish religion were also no required to participate in Emperor-worship, but they paid a tax for this exemption instead. Toward the close of the first century CE the Jesus Jews, variously called Nazarenes (Nozrim or Min) were expelled from the Synagogue and thereby lost the exemption given to the Jewish religion. This exposed them to persecution and possibly the death sentence for refusal to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Previous to this, some Gentile converts accepted circumcision that would give them the exemptions and the protection of being counted a Jew. Thus, the banning of the Jesus people from the Synagogue (expulsion from the recognized and protected religion) was a very traumatic event for some Christians, and the bitterness surrounding this severance is reflected in some of the NT documents. It actually exposed some to the death sentence of the Roman authorities.
Then there was another NT word closely related to religion. It was called superstition. If you had a private religious faith that was not one of state-recognized religions, that was called a superstition. The main difference was that whereas one was a publicly established thing, the other was a private thing. That was not an age that had much time for individualism.