Thursday, August 19, 2010

Early Christianity

This is a little excerpt from a book from the Christian History project developed by our Albertan maverick Ted Byfield. It is from book 2:  A Pinch of Incense, AD 70-250.

Not until 250, under Decius, did the empire as a whole attack the Christians systematically.  The earlier sporadic persecutions were nonetheless terrifying.  Christians could live in undisturbed peace for years, then suddenly be confronted with sheer horror.  The threat of arrest was always there.  After all, though they might meet in secret, they lived for the most part in full view of their neighbors in the empire's most populous cities.  It was there, of course, that the first evangelists could find the biggest audiences.  By A.D. 80-90 there were already Gentile Christians living in Rome, and by the middle of the second century their numbers approached thirty thousand, enough to support an impressive professional staff of 150 presbyters or priests, plus deacons and full-time "visitors."  They could hardly be called an underground church.

As city folk, they were mostly artisans, tent-makers, cloth-dealers, laborers, slaves and servants, potters, plasterers, masons, and tavern keepers.  They also included people of wealth and station;  their early writings reveal a sophistication found only among the educated classes.  Their preaching in the marketplaces, their mixed-gender services, their care for the sick, all in the tightly packed living conditions of Rome, inevitably drew attention, much of it scornful.  Their children were taunted by other children.  Christians were ridiculed in graffiti like the one still there on the Palatine Hill, showing a man standing before a crucified donkey, over the words, "Alexamenos worships his god."

The rumors of their sexual excesses lay in sharp contrast to the facts.  Many took Paul's advice and became celibates, vowing they would never marry.  Divorce was disapproved among the Christians.  So was the remarriage of widows.  Some observers, like the second-century pagan physician Galen, wrote admiringly of them:  "They include not only men, but also women who refrain from cohabiting all their lives;  and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers."  Fidelity and chastity in marriage were still ideals in imperial Rome, respected if not observed, but Christians practiced them so conspicuously and universally they became hallmarks of their faith.

They similarly distinguished themselves by their support for the needy, the sick, for widows and orphans.  They consistently networked.  The wealthier employed the needy, preferred their brethren in business, and opened their houses as meeting places, adorning the walls with frescoes and the floors with mosaics showing communion loaves, chalices, praying figures, and such symbols of Christ as lambs and fish.  The Christians were their own mutual-aid society that transcended class.

They distanced themselves from their neighbors in other ways.  Most refused to attend the gladiatorial games, or use imperial coins that proclaimed the emperor a god, or teach school, let the syllabus require retelling the bawdy shenanigans of pagan deities.  They shunned the theater for the same reason, along with sculpture or painting, and they denounced rampant homosexuality with in the public baths.  A Christian had to be careful in businesses where contracts were sealed with oaths to deified emperors. pp. 9-70.

I pulled out this quote because several things struck me.   One the whole idea of the "mutual aid society" and the care of widows and orphans again.  Another the preaching in the "market place".  What would that have been?  Another blogger keeps asking "Where is Mars hill"?  Where do you engage the public, not the converted? Where is there even a market place, nowadays?  The other point is the church staff of "visitors."  I've been wondering for our church, can we not have some "visitors", as we seem to have had when reading Luther and the early presidents of the synod.

That's all for now.

No comments: