The Social Factor: Christianity In The Eyes Of Outsiders

Was the Christian movement well received and respected by its social peers? If not, how did it survive?

The social factor of the Christian movement….. It too often goes ignored in apologetic debates as defendants set their sights on pieces of data that are seemingly plainer to see in the New Testament texts. But what lies beneath them? Or, more appropriately, what has been overlooked? The social climate surrounding early Christianity has barely seen a written word about it from Christian apologists and hardened skeptics alike. Apologist J.P. Holding noticed this alarming shortcoming and produced one of the most well-researched and convincing theses on the rise of Christianity that modern academia has ever seen: The Impossible Faith. The thesis is simple and living in such plain sight in the New Testament that it is a wonder how we’ve missed it. The social climate surrounding the early Christianity would have made certain that the treasonous movement was snuffed out before it could ever get off the ground. That the movement survived and grew at a pace that overwhelmed the Jewish population is the single best piece of evidence that something real was behind it all.

Like any historical investigation, social context is key, so our investigation into the Resurrection of Jesus Christ would be woefully incomplete if we leave it be.

How was Christianity seen by those from the outside? We have briefly touched on the Jewish perception of Christianity in our look into the conversions of Saint Paul and Jesus’ brother James (see links 1 and 2 below). Larry Hurtado, who will be our main source for this section, notes,

…..the early Jewish-Christian claim that Jesus had been vindicated by God in resurrection-power and was now installed as the true Messiah would likely have seemed objectionable, even outrageous, to conscientious Jews such as Saul the Pharisee.

Hurtado, Larry W.. Destroyer of the gods (Kindle Locations 412-414). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.

The ideological opposition from Jewish authorities is documented throughout the book of Acts, from Jerusalem (4:1-22; 5:17-42; 7:54-60; 8:1-3) and various other cities 13:44-47; 14:1-7; 19–20). Paul could well be the perfect poster child for how a Jew or Gentile could ever convert to the young and defiantly new movement: there had to be something real behind it or else it would never happen.

The Christians were easy pickings for the Romans too. In the early second century (ca. 112 AD), in his account on the Roman emperor Nero, Tacitus recalls how Nero blamed the Christians for his wrongdoings and how they were subsequently seen by the populace at large.

In this account Tacitus himself refers to Christians as “hated for their abominations” and as promoting “a deadly/ dangerous superstition.” Tacitus claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various hideous forms of death. In addition to suffering “mockery of every sort,” they were torn apart by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set afire to serve as human torches for Nero’s nighttime spectacle.

Hurtado, Larry W.. Destroyer of the gods (Kindle Locations 438-441). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.

This willingness to demonize, persecute, and mock the Christians, in as far as causing it to begin to shape the Roman jurisprudential practice, can be seen in the writings of Tacitus’s companion, Pliny “the younger” (ca. 61– 112 AD).

Pliny readily admits that he found no evidence of any actual crime or confirmation of the various wild accusations about Christians that circulated in that time. Nevertheless, he confidently proceeded to execute those who maintained their Christian faith, simply for their refusing to recant it. This means that already in his day Roman jurisprudential practice, though not yet formal legislation, was being shaped somewhat in response to Christians. In particular, note Pliny’s reference to requiring those denounced as Christians to prove their innocence by reverencing the gods and the emperor’s image and by cursing Christ. These seem to be specific judicial innovations not to my knowledge attested previously in the handling of any other type of crimes or people brought before in Roman Justice.

Hurtado, Larry W.. Destroyer of the gods (Kindle Locations 515-521). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.

We note once again that this is not something we have to dig for outside of the New Testament to find. Interestingly, 1 Peter 4:12-19 describes the persecution and “fiery ordeal” as something “strange” and outside of the typical practices of criminal activity. Indeed, the Christians were hated moreso than any other group/movement at that time in ancient history. But why? What caused their movement to be reviled and mocked as so if, as many critics claim, it only became the Christianity we know of today after hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years of legendary development? This is not the picture we see in the writings of Lucian of Samosata.

The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver [Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So, if any charlatan and trickster able to profit from this comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing himself upon such simple folk.

Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus 13. Translation, slightly modified, from A.   M. Harmon (http:// www.earlychristianwritings.com/ text/ peregrinus.html).

The second-century pagan writer, Celsus, in his ful-scale critique of Christianity entitled, The True Word, composed in 175-180 A.D. also had a lot to say about the early Christian movement. Hurtado notes the sheer significance of a writer like Celsus delivering such a lofty critique.

Celsus characterized Christians as lower-class simpletons easily deluded, their faith more to be pitied than admired. But I suggest that there is more than meets the eye in Celsus’ refutation. For if Christianity was really confined to the dregs of Roman society, it would hardly have been seen by a cultural sophisticate such as Celsus as much of a threat. I think that he would hardly have thought it worth his time to prepare such an extended critique of it. So I suspect that, in fact, by Celsus’ time Christianity had begun to make converts in circles and levels of Roman society that mattered in his eyes. In other words, from his standpoint, Christianity was beginning to make converts from the wrong social classes. It was becoming a real and present danger!

Hurtado, Larry W.. Destroyer of the gods (Kindle Locations 634-639). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.

Therein lies the question The Impossible Faith thesis proposes. How did Christianity convince and convert a significant portion of Roman society, enough so that it quickly came to be perceived as a serious threat towards their own loyalties?

…..despite all the alleged stupidities of Christians, Celsus expressed a willingness to tolerate them, if only they would honor the gods and follow the polytheistic customs that everyone else, excepting, of course, Jews, affirmed. By their refusal to do so, Celsus contended, Christians questioned the validity of the gods upon which the social and political order rested and so were guilty of impiety and, at least implicitly, of promoting sedition. If masses of people followed the Christians in their madness, Celsus declared, this would provoke the wrath of the gods and the social and political order would fall into anarchy and chaos.

Hurtado, Larry W.. Destroyer of the gods (Kindle Locations 626-630). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.

This brief summary barely scrapes the surface of the opposition early Christianity had to face. However, the scathing critiques and accusations from major ancient writers could give us a deficient view of the social persecution the Christians suffered. They weren’t looked done upon by the leaders but revered and supported by everyone else. They were outclassed, shamed, and rejected in their own homes. We must then ask once more, what was so good about Christianity and why did it ever gain a following, let alone one large enough to cause a social upheaval?

Link 1 on the conversion of Paul.

Link 2 on the conversion of James.