Friday, January 27, 2006


Who were the strange people who called themselves “Christians”? what was the “kingdom” to which they claimed allegiance? And why did they stubbornly refuse to offer the usual, patriotic sacrifices to Augustus Caesar and, in so doing, willingly go to their deaths? These were the questions that most ancient Romans found hard to answer on the rare occasions when they came into direct contact with the unconventional sect of Christians, yet these subversive practices – the steadfast refusal to bow to false gods or pay homage to earthly powers – lay at the very heart of the early Christian faith. Emperor after emperor ordered campaigns of persecution against them. Roman authors branded them as “notoriously depraved” adherents of a “deadly superstition” that represented a direct threat to the moral majority of imperial Rome. Christians were hunted down in the slums and back alleys of Rome and other provincial cities. They were rounded up, beaten up, and condemned to execution for atheism and treason – that is, failing to participate in the state controlled cults of the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and abandoning honoured family values of pagan society.
On the surface, at least, the Christians appeared to be quite harmless. “The sum and substance of their fault or error,” observed the Roman jurist Pliny the Younger at the beginning of the second century C.E., after interrogating a number of suspected Christians, “Was that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from fraud, theft and adultery and never make false promises or refuse to carry out a pledge when called upon to do so. When this ceremony was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again later to partake of food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”
This was only a part of the story. In close-knit communities and weekly assemblies, in which the Spirit moved people to burst into strange tongues and shouts of praise to Jesus the LORD and GOD the Father, early Christians rejected conventional career hopes, social ladders and civic honours. They fervently believed that the modern-day world of streets and market-places – the realm of tax collectors, loan agents, market inspectors, and imperial officials – could at any moment be rocked to its very foundations.
This was a Christianity without impressive churches, without authoritative clergy, without special outward trappings. Their hopes for a different kind of future for themselves and their children strengthened their faith in their impending redemption. Indeed, “Christianity” in its early decades was a network of a poor people and marginal communities in both cities and rural areas that a government, even a modern government, would have had a problem recognizing as a “religion” at all.
Early Christianity was in fact, a down to earth response to an oppressive ideology of earth power that had recently swept across continents, disrupted economies, and overturned ancient traditions. And this triumphant ideology of progress and development was expressed in many media: in the elegies of Latin poets, in the grandeur of Roman architecture, in Roman law-courts and statutes, in the technological triumphs of Roman engineering, and in the majestic, fatherly wave of every emperor’s hand. At the beginning of the second century C.E. – just at the time when Christianity was crystallising into a formalised, independent religion – a vast and growing publis was being taught to cooperate in the construction of a new global system of economics, culture, and civil administration, in which the figure of the emperor had begun to take on the qualities of a single, supreme god. That was why the early Christians were viewed as so subversive.
[1] Horsley R. and N. A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom, pg. 9-10

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