Midweek Musing 11-15-23 The Early Church "Problem"
With my oldest daughter Brittany now teaching high school world history, I have come across some things I think I remember learning once upon a time. Or at least I was supposed to have learned them!
These memories have come flooding back as I have either listened to her talk about her upcoming lessons or have on occasion tried to help her make them.
I am constantly surprised about all the things I have forgotten in my lifetime.
One name she mentioned I knew I was supposed to remember and yet I couldn’t. Now I could have asked her to help me, but a little bit of my pride got in the way, so I decided to research it on my own instead.
The name was a Roman Statesman named Tacitus. I actually learned about him twice. Once in high school history and once in a class at Presbyterian College taught by Rev. Dr. George Ramsey (if I remember correctly) on the history of Christianity.
If you do not recall the name, Tacitus was a Roman orator and public official.
Oxford Bibliographies says the following about him. “Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born around 56 CE. By 75 CE he would have moved to Rome, and in the years that followed he enjoyed a successful political career under each of the Flavian emperors in turn. Probably in 81 he held the quaestorship; if a fragmentary inscription thought to be part of Tacitus's epitaph has been correctly identified, he was one of the two quaestors marked out by the emperor for special honor (the quaestores Augusti). He held the office of praetor in 88, and by then had also been made a priest on the Board of Fifteen for Sacrifices. He held a suffect consulship in 97 CE, during which year he also delivered the funeral oration of the distinguished consular L. Verginius Rufus. His next official duty of which we know was the governorship of the province of Asia in 112/3 CE. He died in 120 AD.”
However, beyond his political career Tacitus is considered the greatest historian and one of the greatest prose stylists who wrote in the Latin language.
Among his works are the Germania, describing the Germanic tribes, the Historiae (Histories), concerning the Roman Empire from AD 69 to 96, and the later Annals, dealing with the empire in the period from AD 14 to 68.
Because of the time in which he lived and the years in which he researched and wrote, Tacitus had an up-close look at the early Christian Church.
In his writings Tacitus referred to the early followers of Jesus Christ as “a class hated for their abominations called Christians by the populace ....” And he referred to Christianity as “a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”
He noted there were wild rumors about the strange and bizarre practices of the Christians in the Roman Empire. One anonymous Christian of the second century insisted Christians are like everyone else — almost. In a letter to a Roman official named Diognetes which Tacitus sources he notes that this Christian wrote: “They don’t have their own economies, or dialect, nor do they have bizarre lifestyles.”
The difference, he admitted, lay in the fact that there are a few customs, such as sharing spouses and disposing of unwanted children, that Christians don’t take part in.
These rumors led Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, to investigate Christianity around the year A.D. 112. But he seemed disheartened when he reported in a letter to the Emperor Trajan that he had tortured two deacons, who were women and slaves, but all he could find out was that the Christians met on the same day each week to worship Christ as a god, to sing hymns and to share a meal, a meal that did not include bizarre rituals and a revolting menu, but was perfectly ordinary. And he said they were bound by a solemn oath, not to wickedness, but to never commit theft, adultery or break their word, and to keep trust with each other.
So it seems the real “problem” of the early Christians was that they were different from their neighbors — in a good way.
Christians ignored the ethnic, social, economic, and political differences that separated people in Roman society. They served the poor and the widowed and the children. They all came together around the table of the Lord.
Friends, these acts were enough to cause both contempt and suspicion from the larger society.
I pray that we will be held in the same contempt and the same suspicion because of our love for all, our service to those in need and our hospitality that welcomes all to come and share with us at the Table.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have a great week.