The Early Christians and the World
ABOUT two thousand years ago, a most wonderful event occurred in the Middle East. The only-begotten Son of God was sent from his heavenly dwelling place to live for a short while in the world of mankind. How did most of mankind respond? The apostle John replies: “He [Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into existence through him, but the world did not know him. He came to his own home [Israel], but his own people did not take him in.”—John 1:10, 11.
The world just did not accept Jesus, the Son of God. Why not? Jesus explained one reason when he said: “The world . . . hates me, because I bear witness concerning it that its works are wicked.” (John 7:7) Eventually, this same world—represented by some Jewish religious leaders, an Edomite king, and a Roman politician—had Jesus put to death. (Luke 22:66–23:25; Acts 3:14, 15; 4:24-28) What about Jesus’ followers? Would the world be more ready to accept them? No. Shortly before his death, Jesus warned them: “If you were part of the world, the world would be fond of what is its own. Now because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you.”—John 15:19.
In Apostolic Times
Jesus’ words proved true. Just a few weeks after his death, his apostles were arrested, threatened, and beaten. (Acts 4:1-3; 5:17, 18, 40) Shortly thereafter, zealous Stephen was dragged before the Jewish Sanhedrin and then was stoned to death. (Acts 6:8-12; 7:54, 57, 58) Later, the apostle James was executed by King Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:1, 2) During his missionary journeys, Paul was persecuted at the instigation of Jews of the Diaspora.—Acts 13:50; 14:2, 19.
How did the early Christians respond to such opposition? When, in the early days, the religious authorities forbade the apostles to preach in the name of Jesus, the apostles stated: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29) This continued to be their attitude whenever opposition arose. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul counseled Christians in Rome to “be in subjection to the superior [governmental] authorities.” He also counseled them: “If possible, as far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men.” (Romans 12:18; 13:1) Hence, the early Christians had to strike a difficult balance. They obeyed God as their primary Ruler. At the same time, they were subject to national authorities and tried to live peaceably with all men.
Christians in the Roman World
Back in the first-century world of the Roman Empire, Christians undoubtedly benefited from the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, maintained by the Roman legions. The stable rule of law and order, the good roads, and the relatively safe maritime travel created an environment that favored the expansion of Christianity. Early Christians evidently recognized their debt to society and heeded Jesus’ injunction to “pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar.” (Mark 12:17) Writing to Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.), Justin Martyr claimed that Christians, “more readily than all men,” paid their taxes. (First Apology, chapter 17) In 197 C.E., Tertullian told the Roman rulers that their tax collectors had “a debt of gratitude to Christians” for the conscientious way in which they paid their taxes. (Apology, chapter 42) This was one way that they followed Paul’s counsel that they should be subject to the superior authorities.
Moreover, as far as their Christian principles would allow, early Christians tried to live peaceably with their neighbors. But this was not easy. The world around them was largely immoral and was steeped in Greco-Roman idolatry, to which emperor worship had recently been added. Pagan Roman religion was essentially a State religion, so any refusal to practice it could be viewed as hostility to the State. Where did this leave Christians?
Oxford professor E. G. Hardy wrote: “Tertullian enumerates many things which were impossible for a conscientious Christian, as involving idolatry: e.g. oath usual at contracts; the illumination of doors at festivals, etc.; all Pagan religious ceremonies; the games and the circus; the profession of teaching secular [heathen classical] literature; military service; public offices.”—Christianity and the Roman Government.
Yes, it was difficult to live in the Roman world without betraying the Christian faith. French Catholic author A. Hamman writes: “It was impossible to take a step without encountering a divinity. The Christian’s position brought him daily problems; he lived on the edge of society . . . He faced recurring problems in the home, in the streets, at the market . . . In the street, whether a Roman citizen or not, a Christian should bare his head when passing a temple or a statue. How could he refrain from doing so without arousing suspicion, yet how could he comply without committing an act of allegiance? If he was in business and needed to borrow money, he had to swear to the money-lender in the name of the gods. . . . If he accepted public office, he was expected to offer a sacrifice. If enlisted, how could he avoid taking the oath and participating in the rites of military service?”—La vie quotidienne des premiers chrétiens (95-197) (Daily Life Among the Early Christians, 95-197 C.E.).
Good Citizens, Yet Maligned
About 60 or 61 C.E., when Paul was in Rome awaiting trial by Emperor Nero, leading Jews said concerning the early Christians: “Truly as regards this sect it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against.” (Acts 28:22) The historical record bears out that Christians were spoken against—but unjustly so. In his book The Rise of Christianity, E. W. Barnes relates: “In its early authoritative documents the Christian movement is represented as essentially moral and law-abiding. Its members desired to be good citizens and loyal subjects. They shunned the failings and vices of paganism. In private life they sought to be peaceful neighbours and trustworthy friends. They were taught to be sober, industrious and clean-living. Amid prevailing corruption and licentiousness they were, if loyal to their principles, honest and truthful. Their sexual standards were high: the marriage tie was respected and family life was pure. With such virtues they could not, one would have thought, have been troublesome citizens. Yet they were for long despised, maligned and hated.”
Just as the ancient world did not understand Jesus, it did not understand the Christians and therefore hated them. Since they refused to worship the emperor and pagan divinities, they were accused of atheism. If a catastrophe occurred, they were blamed for having angered the gods. Because they did not attend immoral plays or bloody gladiatorial shows, they were considered antisocial, even ‘haters of the human race.’ Their enemies claimed that homes were broken up by the Christian “sect” and that it was therefore a danger to social stability. Tertullian spoke of pagan husbands who preferred that their wives commit adultery than that they become Christians.
Christians were criticized because they were against abortion, widely practiced at the time. Yet, their enemies accused them of killing children. It was alleged that at their meetings they drank the blood of sacrificed children. At the same time, their enemies tried to force them to eat blood sausage, knowing that this was against their conscience. Thus these opposers gave the lie to their own accusation.—Tertullian, Apology, chapter 9.
Despised as a New Sect
Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote: “Still another set of charges held Christianity up to ridicule for its recent origin and contrasted it with the antiquity of its rivals [Judaism and the Greco-Roman pagan religions].” (A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Volume 1, page 131) In the early second century C.E., Roman historian Suetonius called Christianity “a new and mischievous superstition.” Tertullian attested that the very name Christian was hated and that Christians were a disliked sect. Speaking of the way officials of the Roman Empire viewed Christians in the second century, Robert M. Grant wrote: “The basic view was that Christianity was simply an unnecessary, possibly a harmful, religion.”—Early Christianity and Society.
Accused of Aggressive Proselytizing
In his book Les premiers siècles de l’Eglise (The Early Centuries of the Church), Sorbonne professor Jean Bernardi wrote: “[Christians] were to go out and speak everywhere and to everyone. On the highways and in the cities, on the public squares and in the homes. Welcome or unwelcome. To the poor, and to the rich encumbered by their possessions. To the small and to the governors of the Roman provinces . . . They had to take to the road, board ships, and go to the ends of the earth.”
Did they do this? Evidently they did. Professor Léon Homo relates that the early Christians had public opinion against them because of their “ardent proselytism.” Professor Latourette states that while the Jews lost their zeal for proselytizing, “Christians, on the other hand, were aggressively missionary and so aroused resentment.”
In the second century C.E., Roman philosopher Celsus criticized the Christians’ preaching methods. He stated that Christianity was for the uneducated and that it could ‘convince only the stupid, slaves, women, and little children.’ He accused Christians of indoctrinating “gullible people,” having them “believe without rational thought.” He claimed that they told their new disciples: “Do not ask questions; just believe.” Yet, according to Origen, Celsus himself admitted that “it was not the simple alone who were led by the doctrine of Jesus to adopt His religion.”
The early Christians were further criticized because they claimed to possess the truth of the one true God. They were not open to ecumenism, or interfaith. Latourette wrote: “Unlike most of the faiths of the time, they [the Christians] were hostile to other religions. . . . In contrast with the fairly broad tolerance which characterized other cults, they declared that they had final truth.”
In 202 C.E., Emperor Septimius Severus issued an edict forbidding the Christians to make converts. This, however, did not stop them from witnessing about their faith. Latourette describes the result: “In its refusal to compromise with the current paganism and with many of the social customs and moral practices of the times [early Christianity] developed a coherence and an organization which set it over against society. The very break required to join it gave to its adherents a conviction which constituted a source of strength against persecution and of zeal in winning converts.”
The historical record is, therefore, clear. In the main, the early Christians, while endeavoring to be good citizens and to live peaceably with all men, refused to become “part of the world.” (John 15:19) They were respectful of the authorities. But when Caesar forbade them to preach, they had no alternative but to keep on preaching. They tried to live peaceably with all men but refused to compromise on moral standards and pagan idolatry. For all of this, they were despised, maligned, hated, and persecuted, even as Christ had foretold they would be.—John 16:33.
Did their separateness from the world continue? Or with the passing of time, did those who claimed to practice Christianity change their attitude in this?
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“The Christian’s position brought him daily problems; he lived on the edge of society”
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“Christianity [was held up] to ridicule for its recent origin and contrasted . . . with the antiquity of its rivals”
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Because Christians refused to worship the Roman emperor and pagan divinities, they were accused of atheism
Museo della Civiltà Romana, Roma
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First-century Christians were known as zealous preachers of the Kingdom message
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Cover: Alinari/Art Resource, N.Y.