- The Monograph
- Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: St. Paul's Letters and Jewish Christians
- Chapter 2: What and when was "Parting of the Ways"?
- Chapter 3: Jews, Christians, and Roman Legitimacy
- Chapter 4: Jesus the Jew
- Chapter 5: Recruiting Gentiles and Effect of the name "Christian"
- Chapter 6: Christian Anti-Jewish Rhetoric
- Chapter 7: Christian Reinterpretation of the Jewish Bible
- Chapter 8: Labeling Jews as "Christ Killers"
- Chapter 9: Jewish Rebellion and Roman Destruction
- Chapter 10: Myths Used to Justify Christian Anti-Jewishness
- Chapter 11: Why did Jews find Christianity unacceptable
- Chapter 12: Gospel History
- Chapter 13: Christian Jew Hatred and Antisemitism
- Chapter 14: St. Paul and "Parting of the Ways"
- Chapter 15: The Jewish Messiah and the Role of Jesus
- Chapter 16: Religious Differences Among Jews
- Chapter 17: Christian Rants against Jews and Judaizers
- Chapter 18: Christian Opposition to Biblical "Law" Denouncing Jews who Observe It
- Chapter 19: The "Holy", "Unholy", and "True Israelites"
- Chapter 20: Do Christians Need to Demean Jews? What if Jesus had not been a Jew?
- Chapter 21: Currying Favor with the Romans; Roman Oppression and Jesus' Crucifixion
- Chapter 22: Christian Missionary Success and Accommodation to Roman Society
- Chapter 23: Christian Anti-Jewishness Before and After Gaining Power
- Chapter 24: The Psychology of Antisemitism
- Chapter 25: Christian Literature and Perpetuation of Anti-Semitism
- Chapter 26: Can New Testament Antisemitism be Deleted?
Among appealing features Gentile Christianity offered Romans:
- Worship in an antique religion via Christianity’s claimed origin as far back as Creation in the Jewish Book of Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus Christ], and Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son” (St. John 1.1, 1.14).
- Because all humans are sinners facing divine judgment, only faith in Jesus Christ offers redemption from censure and punishment. “[A]ll of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what had been done in the body, whether good or evil” (St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 5.10). “The wages of sin is death, but [for faithful Christians] the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord” (Romans 6.23).
- An unexceptional identity compatible with indigenous Gentile life styles, in contrast to ethnically “alien” Jewish customs. “[W]e know that a person is justified not by works of the [Jewish] law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (St. Paul, Galatians 2.16).
- A marked change from Pagan gods whose behaviors were often unseemly coarse and salacious, each demanding its own set of beliefs, rules, and rituals. “I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons” (St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 10.20).
- Derived from Jewish sources: humanistic health and welfare benefits to needy members in a society that provided little, if any, such support. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (Letter of James 1.27).
- Full compliance with the Roman Empire’s governing structures and acceptance of Roman social and economic divisions: masters/slaves, rich/poor, empowered/powerless. Such deferential submission enabled Romans to fear nothing from Christianity. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (St. Paul, Romans 13,1).
At first, Gentile Christianity may have appeared almost invisible in the Roman Pantheon of multiple Gods and religions. “[N]on-Christian authors of the first two centuries rarely refer to [Christianity], and when they do, their accounts are relatively brief” (Carleton Paget, p. 253). “[F]or at least two centuries (until approximately 180 C.E.) and effectively well into the third, there is no extant material (apart from literary) evidence of Christianity as a distinct socio-religious phenomenon” (Vaage 2006a, p. 6). By the middle or end of the third century, however, Gentile Christianity appears to have become a notable force, offering a vision of Jesus Christ, as a shepherd, hero, crucified symbol of humanity, as well as a seated civil authority, and even a toga-clad philosopher, (Ludlow, p. 224).
Compared to the remote and invisible Jewish God Yahweh, Christianity’s Jesus Christ was a full-figured visible divinity on whom one imbued personable traits — a god whose persona was complexly human and humane (“a God who looks and feels like us”). Although accepting appeasing sacrifices, Pagan gods by comparison appeared one-dimensional, showing little interest in humans, offering their celebrants no heavenly comforts to alleviate earthly ordeals.
Contrary to all other divine figures, Jesus Christ exhibited the image of a blameless victim with whom one could identify, and whose divine power could suit almost any contemporary emotional need. The many personalities adduced to Jesus in the four Gospels made it easy to invest him with any desirable identity: from merciful judge and consoling confidant to loving advocate. Where else in the Pagan Pantheon can one envision a God-figure who exhorts his followers to moral and emotional heights?
“Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy. Forgive, that it may be forgiven to you. As you do, so shall it be done unto you. As you judge, so shall you be judged. As you are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you. With what measure you dole, with the same it shall be measured to you” (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, XIII, ANF vol. 9, p. 233). “Jesus, my Shepherd, Brother, Friend, My prophet, Priest, and King. My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, Accept the praise I bring” (Christian hymn: Hooker, p.49).
Facing parishioners at the apex of all churches, Jesus Christ epitomized an avatar embodying worldly and heavenly authority, whose image compelled reverence and worship. “Jesus Christ, the Son of God who prays for us, and prays in us, and is prayed to by us” (St. Augustine, On the Psalms LXXXVI.1, NPNF Series 1, vol. 8, p. 410). “Only through Jesus Christ can one’s sins be forgiven: God does not remit sins but to the baptized” (Ibid. On the Creed.16, NPNF Series 1, vol. 3, p. 375).
Stories devised to show Jesus’ miraculous power over nature championed a coming “Kingdom of God” to early Christian converts, and to those whom they converted. “In the Kingdom of God there will be no natural disasters: Jesus controls nature even now. In the kingdom there will be no more demons: Jesus casts out demons now. In the kingdom there will be no more disease or bodily ailments or physical impairments: Jesus heals the sick now. In the kingdom there will be no more death: Jesus raises the dead now” (Ehrman 2016, p. 224).
That this imminent “Kingdom of God,” found also in St. Paul and Synoptic Gospels (St. Mark, St. Matthew, and St. Luke), had not yet materialized by the early second century, became a challenge that needed response. St. John’s Gospel, written at that time, deemphasizes Jesus’ looming Kingdom by changing its goal from earthly anticipation to Jesus Christ’s claim for an other-worldly existence: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (3.3); “My kingdom is not from this world” (18.36).
“In light of the delay in the Parousia or expected end-time, the early church turned its attention less and less to the message of the coming Kingdom which Jesus had proclaimed and more and more to the person of the one who proclaimed it. … Salvation came increasingly to be seen therefore as a present experience realized in union with him and not as in the Jewish-Christian tradition, a participation in the bliss of the [earthly] age to come” (Telford, p. 87).
One Christian solution for delayed earthly salvation for the poor was “to shift the way from reversal of poverty to providing a way to live with it, by seeking joy and peace within oneself in the spiritual realm, or by sustained or regular spiritual experiences. This then marginalizes the importance of poverty or dismisses its relevance or makes it a virtue of necessity and even imposes it on others as a pathway to spirituality” Loader (p. 28).
Nevertheless, concern for the eagerly anticipated rule of justice, when all wrongs are righted and all behaviors judged, remained crucial for many Christian believers. Its earthly absence was resolved by transferring rewards and punishments to a life after death. Jesus’ original “Kingdom of God” was now envisaged as an unearthly world of the dead: a supernatural Christian Heaven and Hell in which every human faced a hypercritical future — “The Lord’s dread tribunal of judgment” (St. John Chrysostom, Against the Jews Oration 8, Harkin, p. 222).
Christianity’s solemn message to fearful humans was that sinners can only be redeemed from eternal damnation and unforgiving tortures after death by faith in Jesus Christ. “[T]he unjust and intemperate shall be punished in eternal fire, but that the virtuous and those who lived like Christ shall dwell with God in a state that is free from suffering — we mean, those who have become Christian” (St. Justin Martyr, Second Apology I, ANF vol. 1, p. 188). “We maintain that after life has passed away thou still remainest in existence, and lookest forward to a day of judgment, and according to thy deserts art assigned to misery or bliss, in either way of it forever” (Tertullian, ANF vol. 3, p. 177).
Ekelund and Tollison (p. 56): “the promise of a well-defined, promulgated afterlife in return for specified beliefs and behavior with mortal assurance of eternal salvation … was the fundamental product change that led to [Christianity’s] rapid adoption.” As Brox put it (p. 17), Christianity was “a religion of redemption,” and the need for redemption looms if one is to gain “a life everlasting.” Although heaven may not ameliorate misery on earth, it was probably more distressing to await sin’s penalties in hell. St. John Chrysostom (Mayer and Allen, p. 155): “Our [churches] … are truly frightening and filled with awe. For this place where God is present, possessing power over life and death, is a frightening place — where homilies are delivered on everlasting punishments, on rivers of fire, the poisonous worm, chains that can’t be broken, external darkness.”
In The Apocalypse of Peter, commonly preached in Gentile churches from about 150 C.E. onward, a Christian hell is described in detail. “The head is in the mud; hair is used to hang up women by it; eyes are burned; there is a burning flame in the mouth; people bite their tongues and are hanged up by them. Innards are eaten by worms; flames burn people waist–high; men are hanged up by their thighs — a euphemism for genitals. Legs are also involved when the rich ones dance on sharp pebbles. The whole body is roasted on flames, and often hanged upside down” (Czachesz, p. 11; also ANF vol. 9, pp. 145–147). According to some modern theologians (Walls), the prospect of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory is still real and should not be ignored by Christian believers. Stendahl (p. 211) relates a story of how a clergyman implemented hellish information: “We all have heard about the person who preached about gnashing our teeth in hell. And one parishioner said, ‘But what about those who have no teeth?’ And the preacher answered, ‘Teeth will be provided.’”
Somehow, “love” and “forgiveness,” oft-promoted Christian virtues, do not apply to those who are not Christian or improper Christian. Thus, even more fearsome than having sinned against one’s fellow man was to sin against Jesus Christ by rejecting Christianity. “They who believe in Christ shall be led into a good place, and those to whom that delight is given are caressed; but to you who are of a double mind, against you is punishment without the body. …Thou shalt be taken where it grieveth thee to be: there the spiritual punishment, which is eternal, is undergone; there are always wailings; nor dost thou absolutely die therein” (Commodianus, ca. 240, ANF vol. 4, pp. 207–208). “Believe Him who will give to all that believe the reward of eternal life. Believe Him who will call down on them that believe not, eternal punishments in the fires of Gehenna” (St. Cyprian, ca. 250, ANF vol. 5, p. 464). Without proper Christian faith, one suffers death “everlastingly” (Athanasian Creed, ca. 500 C.E.).
However effective it may be in subjecting humans to religious authority, insisting on Hell’s “everlasting” existence creates the contradiction of “reconciling belief in God with the fact that a major aspect of reality remains unredeemed and in rebellion against God” (Spiegel, p. 247). It is striking that the often-condemned “exclusive” Jewish religion is hardly as exclusive as Christianity’s claim to being the sole source for everlasting salvation.
Also instrumental in Christianity’s success was opportune timing of its entry into the Roman world of religious flux. “That Christians prayed to Christ as to a God is clear, and also undeniable is assimilation to the cultic language and imagery of the [Pagan] religious world around them” (Young 2006, p. 13). J. T. Sanders (2000, p. 120) points out: “The first decades of Christianity occurred during a time when it was not unusual for people to take up the worship of new [imported] international Gods” such as Isis, Mithras, Cybele, and others. “Oriental beliefs, not discredited as was so much traditional Greek faith, and semi-oriental mysticism met a spiritual need of the times, a demand for something clear and dogmatic which explained the universe, and for an assured hope of immortality. The East conquered the West because it had something to give. In the widest sense the tide was turning from rationalism to faith … even when there was not a definite turn to religious observances, there was an antiquarian interest in old cults” (Nock, p. 16). Becoming a Christian also endowed one with “combined belief in God’s perfect justice with the conviction that he loved the sinner even in the sin and desired his salvation” (Ibid. p. 103).
Conversion to Christianity came mainly from social networks: interpersonal ties between church members and their families, friends, dependents, and contacts in “households, workplaces, marketplaces, neighborhoods, and so on” (Crossley 2006, p. 158). “Christianity attracted converts because it appeared on the scene at the right time and did all the right things — in its encounter with people in a situation of distress or who were seekers, in its interaction with these people, and in its promotion of commitment among and successful encapsulation of new members” (J. T. Sanders 2000, p. 129). In contrast to Jews, whose special codes of civil law helped make them an autonomous community within the Roman Empire, early Christians relied exclusively on Roman law. “For this reason, Christianity was able to integrate more easily into the various elements of the Roman public sector, such as the market, the army, and the public administration, and to a certain degree, gradually assimilated into it” (Edrie and Mendels 2014, p. 217).
To Christian advantage, the Roman Empire provided a common culture of shared languages (Greek and Latin) as well as widespread transportation systems (roads, seaways) that bolstered religious and communal communication between urban centers, enabling missionary outreach to the extent it could be supported. Although no attempts were made to break down social and economic distinctions, Christian proselytization reached out to all social strata, from nobles to slaves and from the educated to the illiterate. Most importantly, Christianity claimed an antique origin by adopting the Jewish Scriptures as its own, which helped make it successfully competitive with prevailing religions.
Disparaging Jewish rules, practices, and life styles in attracting Gentiles, paralleled adopting religious attitudes and practices from Roman Pagan society. As shown in Note #11.a, Jesus Christ’s supposed virgin birth matched Pagan legends. The Goddess Isis, probably the most popular of Hellenistic Gods, often compared to the Virgin Mary, was believed to have borne the God Horus without sexual intercourse. Transforming Jesus into a divine savior who died and was resurrected, emulated other god-like Pagan deities in human form. The Christian multiple godhead, a Binary (God/Son) or Trinity (God/Son/Holy Ghost), had Pagan polytheistic overtones, and may also have been influenced by later Roman governance of two “divine” Emperors, separated into east and west. Recapped in Christian baptism was also the notion common to Greco-Roman “mystery” religions that one gains salvation by performing a secret ritual reenacting death and reentry into life.
Maccoby (1991, p. 71): “For the resurrection of a deity after a violent death, we must look again to the mystery religions. Dionysius, torn to pieces by the Titans, is brought to life again by Rhea. Adonis, killed by a boar, is raised on the third day. Attis, after dying of his wounds, comes back to life and dances. Osiris, after being dismembered by Set, is put together again and revived, after which he becomes a god. In Mithraism, the bull killed by Mithras was itself resurrected, but it provided life, through its body and blood, for the whole created universe.” St. Paul (Romans 6.3–4): “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (See also Note #11.d.)
Jesus’ resurrection may well have suited different prevailing beliefs. To his Jewish followers, it probably echoed the Pharisaic notion that the dead will reappear in the coming earthly Kingdom of God to be rewarded or punished. To Gentiles, it would also have appealed for its parallel to living, dying, and rejuvenated Pagan gods.
“Christianity, probably more than any other religion of the time, adapted itself to a variety of cultural and religious currents and appropriated numerous foreign elements until it was ready to succeed as a world religion — thoroughly syncretistic in every way” (Koester 1995, p. 159). “The language which men chose to describe the supreme God of both Pagans and Christians was sometimes undistinguishable” (Mitchell, p. 48). “That Christians prayed to a god is clear, and also undeniable is assimilation to the cultic language and imagery of the [Pagan] religious world around them” (Young 2006, p. 13).
St. John Chrysostom’s admonition against Christians participating in Jewish festivities (Note #6) also followed his admonition against Christians participating in civic festivities “which were always associated with pagan religious occasions or ceremonies … Here the acculturation of the inhabitants of the city evidently sets very clear limits of the Christianization of the whole metropolis: certainly at a very early stage Christianity moved into the cities, but there in antiquity it threatened at least partially to lose its identity” (Markschies, p. 124).
Gentile Christian attempts to conform to Roman society seems far from the radical social restructuring expected by Jesus of Galilee. To Jesus, righteousness and riches are opposites. In all three “Synoptic” Gospels (St. Mark 10.25, St. Matthew 19.24, St. Luke 18.25) Jesus proclaims “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God” (see also Note #15). Nevertheless, polarized class divisions remained in Gentile Christianity as indicated earlier: nobles, plebes; rich, poor; landowners, peasants; masters, slaves. For example, “By incorporating slavery into the theological and pastoral framework of Christian life, church teaching actually reinforced the institution of slavery” (Oriek, p. 286)
Among accommodations made to preserve class distinction was to allow wealthy parishioners divide what had earlier been the communal “Lord’s Supper” into two components: their own private nutritious meal, followed by a public celebration of the more meager Eucharist ritual (a sip of wine and a wafer) that included the poor (J. Becker, p. 195). Thus, although St. Paul admonishes against the vices of the rich and their injustices to the poor, he does not proscribe them (Ibid. pp. 190–192). In contrast to Jesus (Note #15) and the Jewish Prophets, St. Paul’s emphasis on “faith” rather than “deeds/works” stifled issues of inequality and its base of social/political/military exploitation. “Nowhere in Galatians do we find Paul presenting any clear resisting power against the hegemonic power of the Romans” (Charles, p. 184).
Redistribution of wealth, a prominent feature of early Jewish Christians as expressed in Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (ca. 50–100, Milavec, p. 13) was abandoned: “You will not turn away the one being in need; you will partner together, on the other hand, sharing all things with your brother/sister, and you will not say things are your own.” In contrast, Gentile Christianity’s lasting economic policy became “individual charity and household hospitality … The model that informs Acts [of the Apostles] is clear. There is no explanation of unequal distribution of goods, no critique of systematic causes of poverty, no denunciation of exploitation” (Friesen 2005, pp. 253–255). St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostle (2.42–45, 4.32–37) “portrays economic sharing as a quaint artifact of an idealized past” (Ibid. p. 25). “People measured their worth in [Roman] society by the people over whom they could exercise social power” (Reasoner, p. 48).
The Church made clear that Christian charity does not beget social change. To counter Jesus’ barrier to the rich in entering the Kingdom of God, St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160–215) assures the rich that their wealth must be preserved to provide charity for the poor (ANF vol. 2, pp. 591ff). Wealthy Christians are consoled “that the call by Jesus to give away all possessions was not to be followed literally, but in the spirit” (Oriek, p. 291). “Poverty? Give alms.”
In The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the middle second century and accepted for a while as part of the Christian Biblical canon, economic inequality is considered “simply a fact” (Friesen 2005. p. 255), and “wealth as a divine gift” that “must be properly used” (Ibid. p. 256). “Hermas suggests that the poor need wealthy people in order to meet their daily needs for material survival and that the rich need the poor so they have objects for charity that will eventually get the rich into heaven. It is a codependent model that is individualistic and ultimately antithetical to the goal of ending economic inequality. … For Hermas, wealth comes not from injustice but from God” (Ibid. p. 258). That this attitude has caused some modern Christians to complain: “In the majority of US Catholics, social charity belongs to the core of their Catholic identity, social justice to its periphery” (Hughson, p. 27).
St. Paul’s transformation of the “fleshly” Jesus into the “spiritual/mystic” Jesus Christ (Romans 1.3–4, 2 Corinthians 5.16–17), “shaped the contours of this new form of Christianity for the next nineteen hundred years, a Christianity wholly oriented to salvation in the heavenly world, in sharp contrast to the movement the Jewish Messiah had inspired with its emphasis on a kingdom of peace and justice on earth” (Tabor, p. 133). In the words of Thiessen and Merz (p. 277): “Jesus proclaimed an imminent Kingdom of God, but a Christianity came which was far removed from the Kingdom of God.” Jesus’ “Second Coming” was an unearthly experience of “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1.5, 3.1–4).
As reported by Kaufman (p. 7), one view of this radical change is that, “corruption of Christianity … began already with Paul, who turned Jesus’ simple gospel on its head. Jesus had preached the kingdom of God but Paul preached Jesus, accompanied by baptism, the Lord’s Supper [Eucharist], and the doctrine of Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection for the atonement of sins. And what Paul began, the Church continued.” St. Paul had made clear “the fact that the Christian community and civil authority can coexist as God-appointed social entities, authenticates that the kingdom of God does not usurp the Roman Empire” (Hanc, p. 316).
To many modern theologians, the purpose of achieving the Christian “Kingdom of God” is still not to eliminate inequality between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, exploiters and exploited. “The Kingdom is God’s and he alone determines who may enter … High as the priority for the poor is, there may be particular situations where even higher priorities prevail … Jesus’ call to and teaching on the poor are not reducible to some class-war dogma” (Dunn 2003, pp. 522, 524). In Gentile Christianity it was therefore not Jesus the Jew but the Church which came to define the relationship between man and God, and man and man. To paraphrase Ste. Croix (2006, p. 369): It was the exclusive concentration of Christian Fathers upon prescribing only ‘orthodox’ sanctioned relations to their flocks, and their complete indifference to oppressive institutions of the world in which they lived, that prevented Christianity from having much effect for good on the relations between man and man. Attaining one’s eventual reward in the Church’s “Kingdom in Heaven” provided very cold comfort to an exploited workforce, subjugated women, and wretched poor. Paraphrasing the poet William Blake: “the suffering oppressed deprived of bliss on earth gain their bliss in heaven,” is the Church’s message in an unjust society.
The transition of Gentile Christianity into a multi-ranked magisterial institution proceeded steadily during the first two centuries. “Very gradually bishops [“overseers” — “episcopos” — the “episcopacy”] became the core of a conservatively structured society with lasting effect” (Freeman, p. 270). Fairly independent Christian congregations, each designated as an “ecclesia” (assembly), were reorganized into a broad-based hierarchically-controlled authoritarian “Ecclesia.” St. Ignatius (ca. 100): “I exhort you to do all things with a divine harmony, while your Bishop presides in the place of God, and your Presbyters in the place of the assembly of the Apostles” (Letter to the Magnesians VI, ANF vol. 1, p. 61). “See that you all follow the Bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father.…He who honors the Bishop has been honored by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the Bishop, does serve the devil” (Ibid. Letter to the Smyrnaeans VIII, IX, pp. 89–90).
Within the episcopacy, this new hierarchical organization — “The Church” — was transformed into a novel entity never taught or envisaged by Jesus, either as a sacred holy body or theological fountainhead. “The religion of Jesus was to regulate a short-term period, which would end after the angelic trumpets marking the inauguration of the kingdom of God. It did not envisage the cross” (Vermes 2013, p. 21).
By the second century, Bishops had begun to control the most reprised communal Christian sacrament — the Eucharist — deciding who performs the sacrifice of bread and wine and who receives it. “It is not lawful without the Bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast [Eucharist]; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God” (St. Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans VIII, ANF vol. 1, p. 90). This gave Bishops “the right to administer or to excommunicate, to retain sins or remit them…the power of salvation or damnation” (Guy, p. 96).
Through Bishops and their conferences, “the Church” facilitated Christianity’s success by providing a more cohesive structure than its more disjointed Pagan competitors. According to Rousseau (p. 128), “The key to its success was not the quality of its doctrine — orthodoxy’s triumph and the marginalization of heretics — but its efforts to establish continuity.” In appearance to converts, Christianity posed as a single world-wide (“Catholic”) unchanging faith handed down from generation to generation in “apostolic succession” (Note #12).
With Christianity’s legalization under Emperor Constantine and its rise to power, the Church metamorphosed Jesus’ “Kingdom of God” into a “Holy Roman Empire of God,” placing Jesus “Second Coming” into a very distant future. In the words of Dungan (2007, p. 76): “Now that the Christian God in his providence had raised up a Christian emperor to be his champion on earth, and now that this ‘rod of God’s anger’ was busily laying waste to the church’s foes and simultaneously strengthening and enriching the Catholic church itself, it simply would not do to speak of Christ coming back to destroy the evil Roman empire along with all the other powers destined for wrath … and setting up a physical Kingdom of God on earth which would necessarily supplant the newly triumphant Catholic church!”
Not surprisingly, its increased authority led the Church itself to demand deference, admiration, and tribute. As indicated previously, this came to mean that faith in Jesus Christ was insufficient for salvation without submission to the Church personified by the Bishop. “Whoever is separated from the Church…is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother” (St. Cyprian, ca. 250, On the Unity of the Church, ANF vol. 5, p. 423). “[F]rom the perspective of the prophet from Nazareth, it would seem that much was lost, as power and prestige replaced forgiveness and justice” (Freyne, 2014, p. 355).
Religious membership numbers and distribution are hard to determine and highly conjectural. Out of a total population of about 60 million in the Roman Empire, estimates for Jews range from 4 to 8 million, and estimates for Christians go from as little as five to ten thousand in the first century to as high as six or seven million in the third century (Hopkins, p. 191). Better information is available of local Christian persecutions, most often of clergy. Yet in the more than 150-year interval, between the reigns of Emperors Domitian (81–96 C.E.) and Decius (249–251 C.E.), the Church was “at peace.” Christian soldiers were spread throughout the Roman Army, and there was even a reported third century Christian Emperor, Philip “the Arab” (244–249 C.E., Attridge, pp. 189,191). “[I]n addition the capacity of the Christian churches to own property was recognized, at least under some emperors” (Ste. Croix 2006, p. 107). Sporadic persecutions nevertheless still occurred until the major general persecution by Diocletian in the last two years of his rule, just prior to Emperor Constantine’s reign (305–337 C.E.) during which Christianity became legal (313 C.E.).
Lüdemann points out (2002a, p. 42): “…no note is taken of the fact that Christianity could spread undisturbed in the first three centuries over wide areas. According to the most recent estimates, of a total of seven million Christians up to the beginning of the fourth century, fewer than a thousand suffered martyrs’ deaths.” According to Moss (2013, p. 91), the number of martyrs can be reduced even further: “Once scholars had stripped away pious frauds, entertaining forgeries and well-intentioned legends, they were left with only a small handful of martyrdom stories from before [the year] 250 that they judged to be historically reliable.” Nevertheless, the small number of Christians suffering persecution should not disguise their profound influence. “Accounts of martyrdom served as powerful confirmation of the validity of Christian faith” (Goodman 2007a, p. 512), each echoing the common illusion that choosing to “die for a cause” confirms the “truth” of the cause (Note #14). “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians” (Tertullian, ca. 198). Although higher estimates of the Christian population have been offered (Stark), Finn (p. 296) points out that projection of Christian population size depends on variable factors such as city size and location, as well as “ominous” variables such as plagues, famines and wars; estimates that remain contentious.
We do know that through the third and fourth centuries, the authoritarian episcopal organization of Christianity led to preeminence of Rome’s Bishops over all other bishoprics. Rome’s Bishops’ prerogatives were based not only on claims of Rome’s civic importance, but on the supposition that Rome’s first Christian church was founded by St. Peter (a presumption for which there is no reliable evidence, Demacopoulos), and Rome was believed the burial place of both St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Irenaeus (ca. 180): “[W]ith this church, on account of her more powerful principality, it is necessary that every church should agree” (Goodman 2007a, p. 518).
Vaage (2006b) suggests that although distancing itself from Pagan religions, Church hierarchical organization allowed Christianity to emulate the imperial structure of the Roman Empire, and gave Christianity “a warrant for its right to exercise [future] imperial power” (p. 259). That is, Christianity “not only survived but soon proved to be ably suited to take over as imperial underwriter, once the Roman Empire ceased to function” (p. 257).
Justifying Christianity’s authoritative structure were prominent images of Jesus Christ, its’ highest eminence. In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2.10), Jesus Christ warrants not only earthly but cosmic veneration and genuflection: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s (45.22–23) missive from Israel’s God: “For I am Yahweh, and there is no other.… To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” In Tabor’s words (p. 135), “Christ as the newly exalted Lord of the cosmos is the functional equivalent of Yahweh.”
St. Matthew (25.31–32) sees Jesus as a judge “who will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Sinners then “go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life” (Ibid. 25.46). To justify all this, Jesus himself is made to proclaim “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Ibid. 28.18). The resurrected Jesus Christ “is the one ordained by God as the judge of the living and the dead” (Acts of the Apostles 10.42). To McKnight and Modica (p. 214), “The New Testament conviction that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, is not a direct assault on the Roman Empire or even a veiled attempt to usurp it. Rather, to claim that Jesus is Lord is to place oneself in the servitude of an Emperor of a radically different kingdom — one which has no equal, now and forever.”
Among the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Jesus is often portrayed as “Pantocrator” (“Ruler of All”), sitting on a gilded throne. “The depiction of Jesus as emperor in the Gospels made it easy for [Christian] rulers like Constantine to cast themselves in the image of Christ as the ruler of the universe” (Lössl, p. 212). In Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (XXIV), the Emperor addresses a company of Bishops with the statement: “You are Bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a Bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church” (NPNF Vol. 1, p. 546). In Mack’s terms (2001, p. 172), “Christianity was now the religion of the priesthood in charge of the purity of the people and their loyalty to the state …the stage was set for the earthly king and the heavenly king to join forces in the control of a theocratic society.”
Thus, when Christianity attained full recognition and state power in the fourth century, its hierarchy was assigned state functions. “Bishops assumed the responsibilities and privileges of imperial civil servants … bishops had to be greeted by kneeling down and kissing their hands and feet. An elaborate dress code was developed for bishops based on that of the imperial court. Bishops presided over the liturgy sitting on thrones” (Lössl, pp. 141–142).
“What had been the persecuted Church of the Martyrs underwent a period of rapid enculturation during which it shed its original antagonistic, otherworldly posture in favor of the values, concerns, and — if it is not putting the matter too strongly — the god of Mighty Rome. Catholic theology and church politics became thoroughly imbued with Roman imperial ideology.… In general, the Catholic church adopted the geographical divisions (dioceses) of Roman administration, and Catholic clergy took on the official titles of Roman government. They began to think and act like Roman officials, living in stately villas and conducting public worship services, not in the little house churches they were previously accustomed to, but in huge new temples or basilicas, packed with masses of half-converted parishioners. These new Christian temples were decorated by Roman craftsmen with glorious mosaics in the dome or apse at the front that depicted the Lord Jesus Christ in the posture and clothing of the Roman emperor — which made sense, since the Sunday morning service was now conducted as if everyone was in the presence of Christ the emperor” (Dungan 2007, pp. 95– 96). Opposition was not to be endured. In one of his edicts Constantine “forbade heretics, the ‘pests of society,’ from ever meeting again, ordered their houses of worship to be confiscated, and their books to be destroyed” (Ibid. p. 119).
When the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, Rome’s Bishop, Pope Leo I (440–461), assumed political control of the Empire’s remains, leading to “a Church office the holders of which were high above the people, just as the emperor had been beforehand” (Brox, p. 91). The Emperor’s title Pontifex Maximus (“High Priest”) became also a title for the Pope, as did Primus Inter Pares (“First Among Equals”). “And since the Bishop of Rome himself had acquired the same degree of dignity as the Emperor, like the Emperor he could claim the right to have his portrait hung in public buildings (i.e. in churches) to be greeted on his arrival at church by a choir of singers (whence the origins of the Introit in the eucharist today), to be waited on at the throne and the altar with covered hands and to have people genuflect to him and kiss his foot” (Klauser, p. 34). Dungan (2007, p. 204) carries forth the story of a prominent Pagan reportedly joking that if he could be made a Roman Bishop, “he would become Christian on the spot.”
The advantages of achieving Papal status caused considerable rivalry. A contemporary commentator in the year 366 reports “the [Papal] feud resulted in the death of 137 Christians in a single day;” and those who attain victory “will be so free from care that they are enriched from the offerings of matrons, ride seated in carriages, wearing clothing chosen with care, and serve banquets so lavish that their entertainments outdo the tables of kings” (Barnes, p. 25).
Among these changes, the newly exalted Christian model of Jesus Christ not only encompassed the attractive attributes and powers of the Roman gods but supplanted them. “Once Christ had taken the throne of Jupiter, the father of the gods had not so much as a stool on which to sit. … Similarly, once Christ took the mild caring look of Asclepius and appeared everywhere working the miracles that the healing god had claimed, the shrines of Asclepius were abandoned. Taking the youthful beauty of a Dionysus or an Apollo, Christ charmed their coteries into his own shrines and churches. As androgyne he transcended the dichotomy of the sexes, he was a God of nurture as well as a God of victory. Assuming a divine halo and Olympian gold raiment, Christ replaced the entire pantheon of antiquity.… Emblazoned in countless Church apses, he was the omega, the end of the journey, the processional goal of all Christian life and worship. Simultaneously Child and Old Man, he was the Lord of all eternity” (T. F. Matthews, pp. 179–180).
Again, it is important to note that this adoption of the Roman imperial model could hardly have come from the justice-seeking followers of Jesus the Jewish Messiah. “Had Christians really lived up to the ideals and example of their first teacher, they would have ‘perished like fools’ and the movement would have come to grief as quickly as it arose. Christ did not lay the groundwork or structure for a workable religion, for what he espoused was not the stuff of an organized global movement. That task fell to his more worldly followers, who saw well enough that any chance of success lay in making a deal with this world. Betrayal was bred of the need for survival, even if that betrayal meant wars, empire and persecution of dissidents like Christ” (Boer, p. 390). To Crossan (1991, p. 424) Christianity’s “betrayal” of Jesus appears inevitable, “else it might have died among the hills of lower Galilee.”
Gentile Christianity’s successful material and communal history is well known: from house meetings to Churches to Basilicas and monumental Cathedrals; from artless decorations to ornate mosaics and stone carvings; from itinerant preachers to hierarchies of Deacons, Presbyters, Priests, Bishops, and Popes; from simple prayers to complex liturgies; from plainly dressed charismatics to elaborately costumed clerics; from female participation in leadership to patriarchal dominance (Eisen); from an officially despised religion to the official religion of the dominant society. In sum, Christianity arose from the Gentile sprout of a Jewish sect and became materially glorified into an Imperial Church. Throughout all this, its basic themes followed St. Paul’s mythological innovations: that Jesus the Jew was Jesus the Divine Christ, Son of God, opposed to Jewish Law, rituals and practices, who sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of mankind; and Christians are the self-ordained mystic beneficiaries of such sacrifice.