God's Plan In the Church:

Study Guide
by David Chadwell

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Lesson Two

Expected reactions to first century realities:

Christians in the last two centuries cannot identify with the realities of the first Christians. As a result, we determine scripture's meaning on the basis of our realities, not theirs. For example, then it was shameful to be a Christian; today it is not (at times unpopular, but rarely shameful). Then the name Christian was socially despised; today it is not (being unpopular is not the same thing). Then the cross was a disgusting symbol and crucifixion was repulsive; today both represent love and honor. The cost of being a Christian in that world and in our society do not compare.

An easy to read introduction to "Attitudes of Pagans Toward Christians" is found in Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, second edition, pages 556-564.

In A.D. 64 and shortly thereafter, Nero initiated a local persecution of Christians confined to the city of Rome. Christians were publicly blamed for an enormous fire in Rome to counter the suspicion placed on Nero. Earlier the non-Jewish world made no distinction between Jews and Christians. In this incident Christians are recognized and treated as a distinct group. Christians were convenient scapegoats because the public had a negative view of these people.

In Tacitus' statement concerning this incident (Annuals 15.44.2-8) we learn (1) the general public called these people Christians. (2) They had their origin in Christus who "suffered the extreme penalty" at the hands of Pontius Pilate. (3) It was a "deadly superstition" [not a "religion"], an "evil," that was momentarily checked, but broke out again and came to Rome "where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world" become popular. (4) There was a mass arrest of Christians who were convicted "not so much of the crime of arson, [but] as of hatred of the human race." (5) They were executed in painful, cruel, hideous ways.

About A.D. 112 Pliny, Roman governor of Bithynia wrote the emperor Trajan for guidance in trying and condemning Christians.

It is my custom, lord emperor, to refer to you all questions whereof I am in doubt. Who can better guide me when I am at a stand, or enlighten me if I am in ignorance? In investigations of Christians I have never taken part; hence I do not know what is the crime usually punished or investigated, or what allowances are made. So I have had no little uncertainty whether there is any distinction of age, or whether the very weakest offenders are treated exactly like the stronger; whether pardon is given to those who repent, or whether a man who has once been a Christian gains nothing by having ceased to be such; whether punishment attaches to the mere name apart from secret crimes [flagitia], or to the secret crimes connected with the name. Meantime this is the course I have taken with those who were accused before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians, and if they confessed, I asked them a second and third time with threats of punishment. If they kept to it, I ordered them for execution; for I held no question that whatever it was that they admitted, in any case obstinacy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished. There were others of the like insanity; but as these were Roman citizens, I noted them down to be sent to Rome.

Before long, as is often the case, the mere fact that the charge was taken notice of made it commoner, and several distinct cases arose. An unsigned paper was presented, which gave the names of many. As for those who said that they neither were nor ever had been Christians, I thought it right to let them go, since they recited a prayer to the gods at my dictation, made supplication with incense and wine to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought into court for the purpose together with the images of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ -- things which (so it is said) those who are really Christians cannot be made to do. Others who were named by the informer said they were Christians and then denied it, explaining that they had been, but had ceased to be such, some three years ago, some a good many years, and a few even twenty. All these too both worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They maintained, however, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their words, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary and harmless food; and even this (they said) they had given up doing after the issue of my edict, by which in accordance with your commands I had forbidden the existence of clubs. On this I considered it the more necessary to find out from two maid-servants who were called deaconesses, and that by torments, how far this was true; but I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition. I therefore adjourned the case and hastened to consult you. The matter seemed to me worth deliberation, especially on account of the number of those in danger; for many of all ages and every rank and also of both sexes are brought into present or future danger. The contagion of that superstition has penetrated not the cities only, but the villages and country; yet it seems possible to stop it and set it right. At any rate it is certain enough that the almost deserted temples begin to be resorted to, that long disused ceremonies of religion are restored, and that fodder for victims finds market, whereas buyers till now were very few. From this is may easily be supposed, what a multitude of men can be reclaimed, if there be a place for repentence. (Ep. 10.96).

The "secret crimes" of Christians were declared to be atheism (rejection of established religions and their gods), cannibalism, and incest. These charges came from common misunderstandings of "eating the body and drinking the blood," an emphasis on "love" and "love feasts," and calling each other "brother and sister" (Egyptian terminology for husband and wife).

The thought of a "crucified Lord" produced strong contempt in pagan thinking. The Alexamenos Graffito which depicts a man with the head of a donkey on a cross being worshipped.

Christians were ridiculed, slandered, regarded to be unprofitable members of society, weaklings, women, and slaves.

Celsus, a philosopher, attacks Christians in True Doctrine. He declared that anyone who does not follow reasons and a rational guide is certain to be deceived. Christians were among the gullible because they were uneducated and easily mislead. They rejected the educated, the wise, and the sensible and regarded them to be evil. They called the ignorant, the stupid, the uneducated, the childlike to come boldly to their God thus showing they could only convince the foolish, dishonorable, stupid, slaves, women, and small children. He asked, "Why on earth this preference for sinners?"

Does this give you an insight into the way the general public regarded at Christians?

David Chadwell

Christians Nurturing Christians Study Guide (lesson 2)
Wednesday evening Bible class, Summer Quarter 1999
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Copyright © 1999
Permission is granted to freely copy and distribute with text unchanged, including author's name.
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