During the days when Rome was still pagan (or not really pagan, just emperor-worshippers, Christianity was the cult of dissent that made promises of salvation to those who began to question their own allegiance to Rome. Partly because of its status as a cult of dissent, and their devotion to their faith even in the face of oppression, this early Christianity has its appeal to me, but it’s not all that it seems.
On the one hand, Christianity was very much against the social order of Rome. Christianity believed in spiritual equality for all, that everyone was equal under “God” and had the right to to try and get into heaven, which was against the Roman system which was based on a rigid social hierarchy which allowed excess for the few and cruelty and oppression for the many (with the exception of the role-reversing festival of Saturnalia). Their practice of charity was also a notable selling point, especially considering they would offer it to anyone willing to accept it (though I doubt they were very hospitable to pagans). This reflects Jesus’ willingness to approach the sick, the lepers, the beggars, and the possessed, who were barred from religious and spiritual life in traditional Jewish society, forbidden even to enter temples, due to being considered morally and spiritually impure (which to me sounds like how homosexuals were and sometimes are still treated, especially in the age of AIDS during the 1980s). They also refused to worship the emperor as a god, which I must admit I feel is a positive thing since I find worshipping another human as a God is quote lowly.
But on the other hand, we have the obvious problem with Christianity, which is also its defining trait: they worshipped Jehovah (YHWH) as the only god, and forbade the worship or veneration of any other deities. They were also quite sexually prudish, which is actually more in common with Roman attitudes than the modern church minister or Roman history flick might tell you (in fact I bet they had no problem with Rome’s idea of family values). And try to remember that Christianity was very much an end of the world cult. Like Jesus they preached that “God” (YHWH) was coming to destroy the world while ushering in a new kingdom, and that if you believed in him you would be saved but everyone else would be damned for all eternity. So of course they were hostile to pagans, for one of the same reasons they hated Rome in the first place.
I’ve often heard the idea that Christianity wasn’t oppressive before it gained political influence as the state religion of the Roman empire, but this is not true, as the oppression inflicted by Christianity was the next logical step in its path. Think about it: you have a religion that worships some moral restrictive sky father and forbids the worship of all other gods and are sexual prudes. What do you think they were gonna do now that they gained control? Oppress pagans, oppress women under the same pretexts as Rome if not worse, oppress sexuality, and in general everything synonymous with Christianity, except enforcing the social equality taught by their own messiah. They seem to have focused more on conversion and preserving religious conformity than helping the poor. Either way, what happened with Christianity was never a matter of political corruption at all. This was what the Christian faith wanted. And if anyone says otherwise today, they are merely trying to redeem the image of the faith.
Keep in mind that I am not saying that the Roman persecution of Christians was justified, no one should be oppressed and unable to follow their religious or spiritual path, but I am saying that the Christian faith got what they wanted out of their Roman venture in the end.
3 thoughts on “Christianity before it became an empire”
“The Gods have proclaimed Christ to have been most pious, but the Christians are a confused and vicious sect.” Porphyry of Tyre AD c. 234 – c. 305
I thought the Romans disliked Jesus for claiming divinity, where in Roman society during Jesus’ time the emperor was considered God.
Christianity’s hostile attitude towards other gods did contribute to Roman ire due to the fact that they couldn’t integrate it into Roman society.
Jesus was said to originally be a Jew, and was part of the Roman troubles with the Jews at the time leading to the Jewish revolt. There is no evidence to suggest Jesus was a historical figure, but a mythical archetype that accidentally became real. The Roman writers of the time of Jesus never mentioned him considering he was claimed to be such a disruptive figure.