Between the conversion of Constantine and the French Revolution, most Christians in Europe and North America assumed that they lived either in a Christian society or at least in a society that was not alien or hostile to their faith. By now, we know better or at least we have no excuse for not knowing that most modern governments and the culture and morality they promote are deeply inimical to what Christians are supposed to hold dear. Then how are Christians supposed to live in an anti-Christian world? There is, of course, the Pat Robertson/Norman Vincent Peale solution, which is some combination of lies and self-deception. Then there is the open rebellion preached by civil disobedient zealots. To find out how early Christians responded to their own world and the serious threat it presented, let us turn to two early works: First, “the Epistle to Diognetus” and, second, the apology of Aristides of Athens. I’ll take up the contents of these two works in as much detail as is desired. For the moment, let me just post a few observations I have made before both in lectures and in an earlier discussion.
Early Christians were caught between two hostile religious cultures, Juadaism and the various pagan cults and philosophies that were either promoted or tolerated by the Empire. As we have already seen, Ignatius had warned against one of the perennial temptations for Christians—to impose Jewish customs on the Church: “It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God.”
One of these early attempts to defend the faith in public is the letter of the “Mathetes” (Greek for Disciple) addressed to Diognetus, a pagan intellectual. The Disciple clearly distinguishes Christians both from idolatrous Greeks and from Jews, whose kosher laws he describes as superstitious and even blasphemous. “For, to accept some of those things which have been formed by God for the use of men as properly formed, and to reject others as useless and redundant—how can this be lawful? And to speak falsely of God, as if He forbade us to do what is good on the Sabbath-days—how is not this impious? And to glory in the circumcision of the flesh as a proof of election, and as if, on account of it, they were specially beloved by God—how is it not a subject of ridicule.”
Conflicts between Jewish and gentile Christians had obviously not disappeared after the Council of Jerusalem, especially in Asia Minor and Syria. Ignatius and the Disciple were concerned to make it clear that Christianity had gone beyond Judaism. One of their reasons was the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. Jews had become increasingly militant against the Roman Empire, and when they rose up in rebellion in the late 60’s, Vespasian was sent by Nero to put it down. When the war was finished by Vespasian’s son Titus, Vespasian (now the emperor) had the temple destroyed. Problems continued until another major rebellion, led by a false messiah, broke out in the reign of Hadrian. Hadrian’s generals not only crushed the rebellion but expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and much of Judaea. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and it would be several centuries before the Church in Jerusalem, no longer made up of Jewish Christians, would play a major role. During this difficult period, then, Christians wanted to show that they were not Jews, but good citizens of the Empire.
This concern may explain why the Disciple is so eager to portray the Christians as good citizens who do not make trouble:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. .. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted.”
By the Age of the Antonines, Christianity had attracted enough attention that pagan intellectuals were able to distinguish Christianity from Judaism. Many of the same charges continued to be made: Christians were immoral, unpatriotic, and cannibalistic. The philosopher Celsus, later refuted by Origen, ridiculed the beliefs of Christians as a mishmash of lies, false history, and traditions borrowed from Jews, Greeks, and other nations.
Christians, at this same time, were beginning to feel confident enough to address a series of “apologies,” that is, philosophical explanations in defense of their faith, to the emperors. The first to survive (discovered at the end of the 19th Century in an Armenian version) is from Aristides of Athens and addressed to Emperor Hadrian.
All these early defenders of the faith underlined the importance of the moral virtues. Christians are just like other citizens of the empire, paying taxes and serving in the army. Their only distinction is that they abide by their oaths and do not rob or cheat in business; they do not fornicate or commit adultery or waste time on drunken rioting. As the Disciple says, “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy the fetuses.” In other words, they did not abort or expose their children. Aristides of Athens also points out another vice not practiced by Christians: homosexuality.
But Christian morality is not just a series of “Thou shalt nots.” It is a positive moral code. Christians, says Aristides:
“honor father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them.. ; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly…and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others….And their oppressors they comfort and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest….”
Let us turn to the texts for a second look. Unfortunately, there is no agreement as to the author or date of the “Epistle to Diognetus.” In the end, the writer claims to have been taught by the apostles, and this has suggested Quadratus the apologist as the author, but other scholars believe the ending is written in a different style. If we say sometime in the Third Century, we shall probably be right. It is one of the earliest apologiae, that is, works intended to defend the Christian faith from its detractors. The work is worth reading if only for the charm of the prose style, which is written in better Greek and more artfully than most early Christian writings. There is no refinement of doctrine, but we do meet with a wise and humane Christian who does not so much hate the pagan world as find it wanting. He has a beautiful metaphor, comparing the world to the body and the Church to the soul. This is a brilliant way of restating the teaching that Christians are in the world but not of it, that they are salt of the earth.
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