Early Christianity: Introductory Comments

Early Christianity is an area which holds many challenges for the historian.  First, there is the debate as to whether the Gospels are historical documents, followed closely by whether the Gospels are reliable historical documents.  Second, some attack the pagan sources as being forgeries or later interpolations by Christian authors.  Third, early Christianity is attacked as being a derivative of Stoicism.

In this monograph concerning early Christianity, I will not deal with the first two issues, although in some of my other monographs on this blog I have looked into the question to a slight degree of whether certain pagan documents might have been forged or altered by later Christian authors.

This review of early Christianity will look at Stoicism and its similarities to Christianity, as well as analyzing why Romans reacted to early Christians as they did.  Finally, this monograph will analyze some of the reasons why Christianity spread  even in the face of opposition from the Rome government.

Turning first to Stoicism, superficially there appears to be much in common between Christianity and this philosophy.  Stoicism taught that one should love one’s neighbor.  This love should grow out of the Stoics desire to become united with all things on earth.  As one becomes more united with things on earth, the Stoic has charity for the things of the earth and, therefore, love of neighbor should follow.  In Christianity, love of neighbor grows out of the law of love.  Because God loves us, we should love all facets and all creatures of his creation.

Likewise too, Stoicism teaches about Logos. In fact, Stoicism is the first system to introduce the concept of Logos.  To the Stoic, Logos meant the rational principle by which the universe exists-it was a pantheistic concept, by which  the universe was planned, or that gave order to the universe, as well as being the source of human reason and intelligence.  In the hands of some, such as Philo of Jerusalem, it became amorphous:  it was the ideal world of which our world was but a mere copy; it was wisdom personified.  In this later meaning, the word Logos became identified with the High Priest himself.

In Christianity, Logos was Jesus before he became a human.  In John’s Gospel, the author formulates this as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”

So although early Christianity may have used the word Logos, it meant something entirely different from the Stoics. Stoicism and Christianity do not provide the same answer to the questions of the universe: what are life and death and what is the nature of God?

Early Christianity spread due to the work of St. Paul.  In the late 40’s or early 50’s AD, St. Paul, after debate in Jerusalem set out to spread the word to gentiles, bringing what had been a Jewish Sect onto the world stage as a separate religion.  Although there are some indications that the were Christians in Rome in the 40’s AD, by July 19, 64 AD, Christians were so numerous in Rome that could readily blame the fire that devastated Rome upon the Christians.   They were a readily identifiable group that were known to most Romans.  How do we know this?

Tacitus wrote about the fire in his Annals:

“…Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.

Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.

By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus’ estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself.

Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.”

Tacitus continued his Annals by reporting how the conflagration was blamed upon the Christians by Nero:

“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called “Chrestians” by the populace.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in  Judea, first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

In our next section, we will continue our discussion of the Great Fire.

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