Video Transcript: Unit 3 Lecture 1

The early church had a very difficult situation to deal with. That is, how can we survive as the followers of Jesus when we are not welcome in the Roman Empire? As we have seen already, the Christians found themselves in a very difficult spot when it came to the worship of the emperor. They were not going to show their veneration of the roman emperor by burning incense to him as if to God. 

Various emperors were determined to use the Christians as reasons for the problems the roman state was facing. So they would turn the populace against the Christians by accusing them of various and sundry despicable acts. Then all who were Christians would find themselves hunted down and accused before the authorities.

While Nero was a man in whom all the evil of humanity could be found, thirteen years after the death of Nero, a new emperor arose who would also determine to make the lives of Christians total misery.  His name was Domitian. Domitian was a ruler who began as a person who followed the dictates of his religion very carefully, but then found himself drawn to attitudes and cravings which made his what an historian from the time called, the enemy of all good men.

Domitian ruled from 81 to 96. While he was in charge of Rome, he demanded to be addressed as Master and God. We can see some of his interests when we read the book of revelation where a description of four horses and their riders corresponds to the sort of pageantry that Domitian enjoyed and put on for the Roman population. But he also found that he loved money. The more he had the more he wanted. He found that he delighted in slaughtering people and seeing the blood run deeply through the streets. 

These twin desires soon needed to be fed by some means. He decided that everyone who was convicted of a crime would forfeit all their goods to the state and they themselves would be butchered in the arena. This accomplished both the growth of his personal fortune and the provision of people to be killed to entertain the masses and the emperor together. It was the Christians who found themselves the focal point of his wrath. They refused to address him as master and God. They refused to burn incense to his royal genius. They were devoted to a different king they called Christ. All in all, they were the enemies of the state. So they had to be destroyed by all the vicious means possible.

One of the church fathers, Clement, writing in about AD 96, said that a vast multitude of the elect suffered at his hands.  With this as the cultural side of what they were experiencing, how did the church do? Was its membership limited by the slaughter? Obliviously no one joined the church because it would be good for business. Quite the contrary. It was a way to lose one's life and the family's livelihood at the same time.

We do not know many of the names of the vast multitude that were killed by Domitian. They may not have been so great in number, but we do see that the message of Jesus had penetrated to the very highest levels of Roman society in two names that have come down to us.  They are Flavius Clemens and his wife Domitilla. The Flavian family was the one from whom Domitian and the two previous emperors had spring. The Roman Coliseum which still stands today some two thousand years later is a monument to the glory of the Flavian family. Clemens was one of the top five people in the Roman Empire at the time his cousin, Domitian, accused him and his wife of being atheists and going after the customs of the Jews. Clemens lost his life because of the charge and Domitilla, the niece of the emperor was sent into exile. She later returned and at her death was buried in the catacombs which were serving at the time as the cemeteries of the Christians.

The catacombs are a very interesting aspect of the history of the early church. They, by means of the burial inscriptions, demonstrate the extent to which the Christian faith had infiltrated the society of Rome. It was over a period of about 200 years that the catacombs which we know today were dug and used as burial places for  the Christian dead. The vast extent of the burial caves is quite impressive. Nearly 600 miles of tunnels have been dug and into them bodies were placed. No one knows just how many were buried there in those 200 years, but the estimates are that two million people are buried there.

Today one can find scenes such as these

 skeletons in the catacombs of Rome

 skeletons in the Roman catacombs

    This is a statue found in the catacomb of St Callisto

 a statue of a person who has died

 Jesus is depicted as the Good Shepherd.  He is carrying one sheep on his shoulders - possibly a depiction of Jesus giving his life for the life of his lamb

a plaster painting of Jesus as shepherd

This is a scene found in the catacombs in which the bones of decayed bodies have been arranged artistically to form a visual picture of a building.

 a ghoulish picture made from skeletal remains in the catacombs of Rome

 This is a fresco found in the catacombs of Rome . A fresco s a painting done in wet plaster. As the plaster dries, it takes on the color that has been painted over it and preserves the work of art almost literally in stone.

fresco in the catacombs

What really mattered to all these people who dies and were buried in the tombs depicted here was not that they were people who would go to a building with a cross on it or that they were people who had nothing to lose in life. These were ordinary people, nobility, craftsmen, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and all of them were followers of the way.

After the death of St Paul, we do not have the names of any big time missionaries who traveled the world with the gospel. Rather, the church spread by some very ordinary ways among ordinary people, by ordinary methods. They told others about their faith. That is how it passed from person to person and from city to city. A noted church historian from our day writes this

Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the city centers of the Roman Empire. Most of the people lived close together in crowded tenements. There were few secrets in such a setting. The faith spread as neighbors saw the lives of the believers close-up, on a daily basis.

And what kind of lives did they lead? Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the believers: "We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause."

In another place Justin points out how those opposed to Christianity were sometimes won over as they saw the consistency in the lives of believers, noting their extraordinary forbearance when cheated and their honesty in business dealings.

So the church, the ecclesia, the congregation of Jesus, spread all over the Roman Empire. People just like you and me, talked about Jesus and lived the truth of his teachings. They loved God more than anything else - you could take their possessions, you could take their friends, you could throw them to wild beasts, but they still loved God with all of their heart, with all of their soul, with all of their mind and with all of their strength. Nothing could deter them from that.

AND they loved their neighbors as themselves. Such was the power of their lives and their reason for living in this way -Jesus has called us to this way of life. That the word of God spread. And even when the fires of persecution burned around them, they still kept on being the people of God. And their neighbors saw it, and they joined them because they heard the call of God to their souls as well.

Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2023, 8:39 AM