SET AGAINST this history of conflict, repression and hostility, it is a remarkable fact that one movement which began in Jerusalem in the first century CE came by the fourth century to govern the world-view of those who held power in Rome. Among the most important reasons for the growth and spread of Christianity during these years, one must be that after 70, and even more after 135, Christians presented themselves to the gentile world as unconnected to the Jews, whose alienation from mainstream Roman society had been sealed by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The very earliest Christians, like Jesus himself, were all Jews, but by the early fourth century, when Constantine became the first Roman emperor to portray himself as a devotee of Christ, the links between Christianity and Judaism had been deliberately obscured by Christians themselves. Most Christians in the second and third centuries avoided calling themselves Jews, and, far from hoping for the rebuilding of the Temple, they revelled in its demise, which they portrayed as confirmation of the prophecies which Jesus had spoken in his lifetime. And this distancing of Christians from Jews was evidently accepted by the Roman state, for, although (as we shall see) Christians were at times persecuted by officials of the state, they were punished not for being Jews but for being “atheists”— that is, for not worshipping the other gods. Since, as we have seen, exemption from such worship was a continuing, and special, privilege of Jews on the grounds that Jews had never participated in other cults, it is clear that those officials who punished Christians did not see them as any sort of Jew.
Much of the extraordinary success of Christianity in the Roman empire, and hence the creation of Christian Europe and many aspects of our world today, must be attributed directly to Constantine's personal commitment in 312. In 300, Christians were only a small minority in the empire, and Constantine's conversion was a shock to them and to pagans alike. Nonetheless, there were certainly many more Christians in 300 than in 30 CE. It is worth asking why.
Jesus lived and died in Galilee and Judaea in the first half of the first century CE. That this fact is one of the few which can be asserted with any certainty about the founding figure of the Christian Church is the result not of a paucity of ancient stories about Jesus but of contradictions between the multifarious tales which abounded among his followers in the two centuries after his death, as they tried to extract religious meaning from his life and teachings. The story of a remarkable individual put to death in Jerusalem but retaining great power after resurrection was elaborated and altered by the pious over succeeding generations. Finding the historical truth is not easy.
The stories now found in the New Testament Gospels coexisted with many others. The Gospel of Mark tells how Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan and then attracted crowds as a preacher, healer and exorcist in Galilee and Judaea until he was handed over by the High Priestly leaders in Jerusalem to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for trial and crucifixion. According to this Gospel, that Jesus was more than an ordinary human was revealed during his lifetime only to a chosen few, when he appeared transfigured in glory to his disciples Peter, James and John, but became more widely apparent when it became known that he was resurrected after death. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree with Mark in many respects but expand the narrative, including (among other things) stories about Jesus' birth and childhood. By contrast, the Gospel of John, which concentrates more on Jesus' activity in Judaea, evidently derives from a separate tradition. Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against temptations, overcoming evil, whereas in John's account he emerges as barely affected by human weakness. But early Christians knew other versions too, not all easily compatible with the kind and loving image which dominated the later images of Jesus. A certain “Thomas the Israelite,” who narrated the “mighty childhood deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ” in (probably) the second century, portrays Jesus as a frighteningly powerful, if petulant, child prodigy: “When this boy Jesus was five years old … he went through the village, and a child ran and knocked his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, ‘You shall not go further on your way,’ and immediately he fell down and died.”1
That Jesus had been a teacher was widely acknowledged, but what he had actually said was much debated. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain many sayings attributed to Jesus which are not to be found in Mark, and it is generally supposed that Matthew and Luke obtained their material from an earlier source which has since disappeared. Most of the sayings thus recorded are parables and aphorisms, to which appeal could be (and was) made by early Christians in support of their practices. Not all the alleged sayings thus preserved can be easily reconciled into a coherent theology. So, for instance, it might surprise a reader familiar with the teachings of Jesus preserved in the canonical Gospels to learn from a Coptic papyrus of the mid-fourth century, which preserves a translation of an originally Greek document of the mid-second century and was discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945–6, that, according to “the secret words which the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down,” Jesus taught that “every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”2
As some of the followers of Jesus came rapidly to emphasize the other-worldliness of Jesus as Christ, and as Son of God, even Jesus' humanity was sometimes in doubt. In the mid-second century Justin Martyr was able to preach that Jesus was both fully human and had always been Lord and God: since Jesus was “ever-existent Reason, pre-existent with the Father, begotten before all creation,” he had been born “through” rather than “from” a virgin. But Justin himself referred often to the “mystery” of God, and not all Christians could combine such contradictory concepts with Justin's sophistication. It might be easier to think of Jesus as never having been a real man. One of Justin's contemporaries put into the mouth of Jesus the assertion that “I have suffered none of the things which they will say of me … You hear that I suffered, yet I suffered not … that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow.” Precisely such discrepancies about the nature of Jesus, and the significance of his life for contemporary Christians, led by the mid-second century to the selection by some Christians of just four Gospels as authoritative: the creation of what became the New Testament canon was required to exclude the unreliable and the dangerous, so that the faithful should not be led astray.3
For anyone now to build a narrative of Jesus' life out of evidence so patently composed for non-historical purposes seemed so difficult for much of the twentieth century that the search for the historical Jesus was by many scholars deemed hopeless. Such despair was premature. That Jesus lived in Judaea and was executed by Pontius Pilate was known both to the Jewish historian Josephus at the end of the first century and to the pagan Roman historian Tacitus in the early second century. The modern notion that the whole biography of Jesus to be found in the various Gospels was pure invention is deeply implausible—not least because a story of this type about the career of a Galilean peasant was neither characteristic of religious literature of the time nor obviously helpful in spreading to the wider world the central Christian message that Jesus was also Christ and Lord. But beyond the near-certainty that Jesus lived and died, the only hypotheses that can be asserted about Jesus' life with real confidence are those based on the parts of the Christian traditions about Jesus which Christians preserved despite the difficulties they faced in fitting them in to their own self-image and theology as the Church burgeoned.4
Such a minimalist procedure naturally provides only a skeleton of the historical truth, but the skeleton is moderately firm. Thus, for instance, it is highly likely that Jesus came from Galilee since such origins had to be explained away by those, like the author of Luke's Gospel, who wished to link him to the Davidic city of Bethlehem in Judaea. It can also be firmly stated that Jesus was in some way connected to the missionary preacher John the Baptist, since the relationship between the two men was a matter of embarrassed dispute among early Christians. It is similarly almost beyond doubt that Jesus was a Jew who (unlike many of his later followers) preached only to other Jews, with little contact with a gentile world until his death, and that this death, by means of the ignominious and horrible punishment of crucifixion, was carried out in Jerusalem by order of the Roman governor, a fact exceptionally problematic for those early Christians who tried to portray themselves as no threat to the Roman state.5
According to the Gospels, in the days immediately preceding his trial and crucifixion in Jerusalem, Jesus attracted great crowds of enthusiastic Jews, but almost all deserted him once he was in the custody of Pontius Pilate. After Jesus' death his followers remained a small group, initially scattered to Galilee and elsewhere but in due course forming a community in Jerusalem. What led these Jews to affirm their faith in Jesus must have been mostly memories of his ethical teachings while he was alive and theeschatological fervour which had accompanied his preaching of the kingdom of heaven. As Jews they will have been impressed also by claims that Jesus' life had been foretold by the prophets and by the notion that he was the Messiah, the anointed of God for whom, as we have seen (in Chapter 4), many Jews yearned, however uncertain they might be about his nature.
How many Jerusalem Jews were persuaded into the nascent Christian community by such arguments is harder to ascertain. The author of Acts, probably the same gentile Christian who composed the Gospel of Luke in the second half of the first century, describes the leader of the apostles, Peter, and the other disciples of Jesus gaining three thousand souls on one day soon after Jesus had been crucified, but it seems unlikely that the total number of Christians in the city was very large by the time revolt broke out in 66, since they seem to have played no role at all in the upheavals either before or during the war. To most Jews the message preached by Jesus' followers, Peter, James and the others, must have seemed as maverick as those of all the other idiosyncratic movements within Judaism. Hence the comparison, put into the mouth of the Pharisee Gamaliel in Acts, between the apostles and earlier Jewish leaders, such as Theudas and Judas the Galilean, who had threatened to bring disorder. In the account in Acts, Gamaliel argues from this comparison that the apostles should be left in peace: “Refrain from these men, and let them alone. For if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught. But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest you be found fighting against God.” But Gamaliel was not portrayed as sufficiently tempted by such arguments to become a Christian himself. About the Jewish Christians in Galilee after Jesus' death almost nothing is known.6
Adoption of Christian teachings was much more rapid, it seems, among the gentiles, outside the land of Israel, primarily, in the early years, through the efforts of Paul. Paul was, as we have seen, both a Jew and, according to Acts, a Roman citizen. Shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, he came into contact with some of the followers of the new movement and persecuted them in Jerusalem, but on the way to Damascus as an agent of the High Priest to arrest converts there, he was himself converted on the road by a vision of the risen Jesus and devoted the rest of his life to his work as “apostle of the gentiles.” Acts provides a detailed, if doubtless idealized, account of his missionary journeys with companions to the coastal cities of the Mediterranean world, such as Antioch, Ephesus and Corinth. Quite early on, before Paul's arrival there, the Christian message had also reached Rome. According to Acts, Paul tried first to bring his message to the Jews in each place, and it was only when that failed that he turned to the local gentiles, but in his own letters he makes no reference to such past failures, addressing himself only to the gentile Christian communities he founded. Paul evidently felt under compulsion to preach—“Woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel”—in part because he espoused an eschatological theory that gentiles must be “won” to Christ primarily on the grounds that only once this was done would God bring about the salvation of Israel, but the main impact of his heroic missionary efforts lay in the conversion to Christ of the gentiles themselves.7
This sense of mission set Christians apart from other religious groups, including Jews, in the early Roman empire. The notion that it is desirable for existing enthusiasts to encourage outsiders to worship the god to whom they are devoted was not obvious in the ancient world. Adherents of particular cults did not generally judge the power of their divinity by the number of congregants prepared to bring offerings or attend festivals. On the contrary, it was common for pagans to take pride in the local nature of their religious lives, establishing a special relationship between themselves and the god of a family or place, without wishing, let alone expecting, others to join in worshipping the same god. Christians in the first generation were different, espousing a proselytizing mission which was a shocking novelty in the ancient world. Only familiarity makes us fail to appreciate the extraordinary ambition of Paul, who seems to have invented the notion of a systematic conversion of the whole world, area by geographical area. Paul portrayed his own calling as divinely vouchsafed at a time when the end of the world was imminently expected by him and his companions.8
Paul wrote that “not all can be apostles,” and there is no evidence that, for a long time after the first generation of eschatological fervour, ordinary Christians felt impelled to follow his example in devoting themselves to the conversion of unbelievers. The pagan Celsus was even able to assert in c. 180, probably in Alexandria, that “if all men wished to be Christians, the Christians would no longer want them,” although the response, in the third century, by Origen to this accusation by Celsus reveals the extent to which, despite the diminution of intensive missionizing on the model of Paul, it remained important to Christians like him to assert their desire to convert as many unbelievers as they could: “That the statement [by Celsus] is a lie is clear from this, that Christians do not neglect, as far as in them lies, to take measures to disseminate their doctrine throughout the whole world. Some of them, accordingly, have made it their business to go round not only cities but even villages and farms to make others also pious towards God.” By the second century, Christian ideas were generally spread through contacts with relatives, or at work or in the marketplace, or by the travels of believers as merchants, or through literary texts: when a certain Speratus was martyred in Scillieum in North Africa in 180, he told his judge, the governor Saturninus, that what he carried in his satchel were “books and the letters of Paul, an upright man.” Few converts can have been brought over by a direct vision of Christ like that vouchsafed to Paul, on which he based his status as an apostle. More common was witness of miracles, particularly healing in the name of Jesus. The evidence from martyrdoms that some were prepared to die for their beliefs attracted curiosity and some conversions.9
It is evident that the argument from fulfilled prophecy was used to persuade gentiles as well as Jews, despite the need to tell gentiles, unaware of the contents of the Jewish Bible, the nature of the prophecies which had now come to pass. The Syrian Tatian, who became a Christian in Rome in the mid-second century, was converted by reading the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible; it is interesting that, by this date, what he read encouraged him to become a Christian rather than a Jew. In the letters of Paul, as “apostle to the gentiles” writing to communities of gentile Christians, what was most stressed was the crucifixion, resurrection and lordship of Christ. In many ways this is surprising, since there was so little consensus among early Christians about the precise relationship between Jesus as man and God. The development of the concept of the Trinity, which was adumbrated in the Gospels but only gradually evolved during the second and third centuries, proved so complex that it continued to arouse fierce controversy for centuries afterwards. It is remarkable that a religion so imprecise about the nature of the divinity to be worshipped attracted adherents at all—a prominent feature of other cults in the Roman world, such as devotion to Isis, was citation in detail of the specific virtues and nature of the god honoured.
Lack of clarity on this crucial issue encouraged the efflorescence in the early centuries of many idiosyncratic strands of Christianity, many of them imbued to some extent with the mystical dualism found, most influ-entially, in the teachings of the Gnostic Valentinus, a native of Egypt who came to Rome in c. 136 and preached a complicated myth about the origins of this hostile visible world in the fall of one of the “aeons,” Sophia or “Wisdom,” from the spiritual world; the imprisonment of a divine element within the visible world at the mercy of the Demiurge (identified with the God of the Old Testament); and the potential for redemption through another “aeon,” Christ, who united with the human Jesus to bring saving knowledge, gnosis, to those who are spiritual (that is, Valentinus' followers) and a lower form of salvation to other Christians. It is tempting to dismiss such doctrines as nothing to do with real Christianity, but it would be anachronistic to do so. Tertullian recorded that Valentinus had had hopes of being elected bishop of Rome because of his intelligence and eloquence. The Church in the second century embraced a huge amount of theological innovation so that almost the only characteristic shared by all who called themselves Christian was some belief about Christ. But at the same time Christians had a strong feeling of belonging to a single community of belief and practice, and the most striking innovation of all in terms of ancient religious history was the gradual defining of Christianity in the last years of the second century by the systematic exclusion of ideas not deemed acceptable to the mainstream. When Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 200), leader of the Christians in Lyons, composed his major work, Against the Heresies, denigrating and denouncing all the new ideas which he believed incompatible with the four canonized Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the authority of the bishops derived from the original apostles, he began a process of clarification which greatly strengthened the Church as an institution but pushed not just those like Valentinus, but also many other innovative thinkers, outside the Christian community.
It is not known whether such theological disputes about the nature of God and the universe were an attraction to potential converts. It is not impossible: in the history of conversion to other religions, it is not unusual for challenges of language and thought, and the heat of polemic, to be a positive lure to the outsider convinced that those who argue with such passion must have right on their side. But the lack of clarity in Christian thought on these topics contrasts strikingly to the one distinctive and coherent concept, found in all strands of Christianity, which is known to have been deeply attractive. In contrast to the uncertainty, agnosticism or denial of many Roman pagans and some Jews, all Christians asserted with total confidence their belief in a life after death and the restriction of that life to those saved through Christ. The philosophical Christian Justin Martyr in the mid-second century describes the faithful in his Second Apology as “those who have been persuaded that the 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 Christians.”10
The total number of Christians would have grown through such conversions only if the newcomers stayed within the fold. That some apostatized is certain: the younger Pliny mentions in his letter to Trajan in no that some reported to him as Christians denied the charge, “saying that they had indeed been Christians, but had stopped, some three years before, some more years before, a few even twenty years before.” In his satirical account of the death of the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus, who publicly immolated himself at the Olympic games in 165, Lucian describes Peregrinus' time as a leading Christian, maintained by Christian communities, until “because he committed some offence even against them—for he was seen, I fancy, eating some of their forbidden foods—they no longer accepted him.” Christian sources naturally reveal little about such defectors.11
Encouraging defection was the danger of suffering at the hands of others for being a Christian—we have already seen that such attacks could sometimes lead even to death. The motivation of persecutors differed and cannot always now be discovered: most evidence comes from the Christian side, and there was no reason for the martyrs to seek to understand the mentality of those who attacked them. Persecution of Christians by Jews was a phenomenon confined to the first generations, in the first century CE. Since, as we have seen, first-century Jews tolerated great theological variety, hostility to Christians was more often sparked by social and political issues than by Christian theological claims, which were more likely to provoke derision than violence from those Jews who chose not to accept them. So, for example, the diaspora Jews who hounded Paul out of their cities in Asia and Greece were concerned that he might threaten their precarious relationship with the gentile civic authorities by his self-presentation as a Jew when he preached to local gentiles that they should give up their pagan worship.
Persecution by pagans (whether urban mobs, civic leaders, or representatives of the Roman state) was not generally for what Christians did but for what they did not do—that is, for failure to worship the pagan gods. In contrast to the prohibition by the state on Jews worshipping their God in the Jerusalem Temple, gentile Christians were not punished for praying to Christ—they were free to meet together and worship as and when they desired—but for failing to support society by bringing sacrifices to the altars of the other gods as their (implicitly gentile) ancestors had done. When Pliny, as we have seen, put Christians on trial in Bithynia and Pontus by the Black Sea, all they had to do to escape punishment for the past was to make a sacrifice now to the gods.12
But encouraging solidarity with fellow Christians were many good social reasons for converts to stay loyal once they had joined a Christian community. Prime among these was the separation from family, friends and neighbours which might often accompany rejection of the pagan rituals which formed an integral part of ordinary social life. No Christian text from this period suggests it was easy to convert to Christianity—the modern notion that becoming Christian involved fewer “encumbrances” than becoming Jewish, because males did not have to be circumcised, ignores the far more drastic nature of this self-isolation from existing relationships. The life enjoined by Jesus on his apostles, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was not an easy one: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother … He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”13 But more positively, the new Christian, once he or she had severed ties with the past, could be guaranteed a secure home in a new, supportive community of brothers and sisters in Christ. Local churches do not seem often to have functioned like the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who, according to Acts, “had all things in common” like their Essene contemporaries and the Dead Sea sectarians, but they do generally seem to have taken care of widows, orphans and the destitute, and to have allowed equal religious prestige, though not equal authority, to those of low social standing, including slaves.14 It must also have helped the morale of converts that on baptism they became full members of their new Christian society without any perceived taint from their previous lives—there was no Christian equivalent to the status of proselyte among Jews as member of the community but of a distinct separate category. Furthermore, a convert to Christ could hope for religious perfection almost from the moment he or she became a Christian. The great heroes of early Christians were martyrs, and to be killed for the sake of Christ took neither status nor time nor education nor any special quality other than courage and the opportunity to declare “I am a Christian” when Christians were on trial. Hence an incident before the urban prefect Urbicus in Rome around 160 recorded by Justin Martyr:
Ptolemaeus confessed, since he loved the truth and was no cheat or liar at heart, that he was a Christian … Urbicus ordering him to be led to execution, a certain Lucius, who was himself also a Christian, seeing how unreasonable the sentence was, said to Urbicus: “What is the reason for punishing this man, who is convicted neither as an adulterer nor a fornicator nor a murderer nor a thief nor a robber nor of committing any crime whatever, but confesses to being called by the name Christian? Your judgement, Urbicus, is not worthy of the emperor Pius nor the philosopher, the emperor's son, nor the sacred Senate.” Without any other answer he said to Lucius: “You too seem to me to be such a one.” When Lucius said: “Absolutely,” he commanded that he too be led away.
Such opportunities for martyrdom did not arise for all—or, probably, except in the times of organized state persecution under Decius and Diocletian, for many—but special devotion of a different kind, to voluntary chastity, was easier to achieve and gave, in particular, an honoured role for some women, the forerunners of nuns. It was a major attraction of Christianity for those of low social standing that, although Christians were not concerned to overthrow existing social structures, any Christian, even a slave-girl, could achieve esteem among her fellow Christians by intense devotion to her faith, particularly if it ended in her death.15
Of course, both martyrdom and chastity will have tended to reduce rather than increase the number of Christians, but such demonstration of piety was for most Christians an ideal to encourage faith rather than a norm to live by, and other aspects of Christian ideology positively encouraged an increase in the Christian population disproportionately greater than their pagan neighbours. As the Epistle to Diognetus, a letter written by an unknown Christian to an otherwise unknown enquirer in the second or third century, explains, Christians “marry like the rest of the world and they breed children” but, like Jews, they abhorred infanticide and abortion: “They do not cast their offspring adrift.” Combined with the practice of charity to support the poor, such attitudes will have encouraged larger families to survive, so that, already by the reign of Hadrian, most Christians were probably born into the faith rather than converts, and by the time of Constantine's conversion many Christians could look back to ancestors who had been committed to the faith for generations.16
For the spread of Christian ideas across the Mediterranean world the long periods of peace, stability and prosperity in the Roman empire during the first three centuries were ideal. Merchants could travel freely. So too could correspondence and books, keeping Christians in touch with each other over huge distances. Greek and Latin could be used to communicate religious ideas. The concentration of Christians less on rituals or buildings than on a philosophical approach to life, specifically a moral commitment with a strong belief in an afterlife, made their faith much easier to transport than other cults, such as the worship of Mithras, which required the construction of sanctuaries to a specific design and the offering of sacrifices. Early Christians not only managed without animal sacrifices to their God; unlike Jews in the early centuries, they even came up with arguments against such sacrifices in principle, and the Eucharist, “thanksgiving,” involved only the consumption of bread and wine, with reference to the sacrifice of the Lamb relegated to the realm of metaphor. By the end of the third century Christians were only a small minority in most places where they were found, but they were exceptionally well organized and aware of their solidarity as a community, and they were to be found almost everywhere in the empire.
How much did any of these Christians believe that the life to which they committed themselves had anything to do with Jews and Judaism? At the beginning they were all Jews, and after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem in c. 30 some of his disciples continued to preach in his name to other Jews in the holy city, where, according to Acts, the nascent Christian community met “daily with one accord in the Temple.” The disputes which surface in the earliest Christian documents, the letters of Paul, about whether non-Jews who came to faith in Jesus should take on Jewish practices such as the circumcision of males, provide evidence that at least some Christians in the first generation assumed that they were preaching not a new religion but simply a new kind of Judaism. The puzzled response attributed in Acts to the apostle Peter when faced by a divine revelation sent to tell him to eat non-kosher food only makes sense if the author of Acts believed him to have been an observant Jew until he
saw heaven opened, and a certain object descending like a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth, wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” And the voice spoke unto him again the second time, “What God has cleansed, that you should not call common.”
Even Paul, who called himself the “apostle to the gentiles,” was happy to portray himself sometimes as a Jew: “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” The author of Acts portrays Paul as participating in the services in the Jerusalem Temple along with four nazirites who needed to make special offerings, precisely in order to demonstrate that he himself continued to behave as a Jew and that he expected other Jews to do the same. James the brother of Jesus was sufficiently prominent a figure in Jerusalem in c. 62 to attract attention, ire and finally condemnation from the High Priest Ananus son of Ananus, who accused him and others of having transgressed the law, and delivered them up to be stoned. Josephus, who records this event in the context of the dissension within Jerusalem in the years preceding the outbreak of revolt in 66, condemns Ananus as “rash in his temper and unusually daring,” noting with disapproval that he was “savage in judgement” because he was a Sadducee, and that “those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the laws” were offended at his conduct. Four years later Ananus was to become Josephus' ally and commander-in-chief in the war against Rome, and, as we saw in the Prologue, he merited a eulogy when he died in 68 at the hands of the Zealots, so the historian's evident disgust at the treatment of James is remarkable. A few years before the martyrdom of James in Jerusalem, probably in c. 58, Paul's letter to the Christians of Rome assumed that there were Jewish believers in the community there also, since he was keen to improve their relations with the gentile Christians of the city. Both in Jerusalem and in Rome, there was clearly disagreement among early Christians about how Jewish a gentile believer in Christ should become, but no one in the Christian community before 70 seems to have seen any problem in a Jew who had joined the assembly of the faithful continuing to think of himself or herself as Jewish as well as a follower of the new movement.17
Such tolerance was to become much more rare after the destruction of the Temple. Historians both of early Christianity and of Judaism in late antiquity agree that at some point in the first four centuries CE the ways of the two religions parted. There is much less agreement about the date when this parting occurred and the extent of continued debate, rivalry and mutual influence between Jews and Christians after the separation. All depends on perspective. Viewed from the standpoint of Jews and Christians in the twenty-first century, the historical trajectories which mattered in late antiquity are those which were to create two distinct religious systems in due course, but the beginnings of those trajectories may have been almost unnoticed by those who followed them. Some Jews might have thought that some fellow Jews who believed in Christian doctrines were still Jews, while others, less tolerant, did not. The early Christian traditions that Jewish Christians were persecuted by their fellow Jews and expelled from synagogues are not reflected in the rabbinic sources, which is not to say that they are not true: the rabbis in fact had very little to say about Christians of any kind, treating Christians born as Jews within the general category of heresy and those born as gentiles simply as idolaters. Conversely, when ancient Christians described fellow believers as Jews or Judaizers they might be referring either to the ethnic origins of such Christians or to their continued practice of Jewish customs such as the circumcision of males, or simply to more scrupulous attention to the Old Testament than other Christians believed appropriate.18
Distinctions obvious at the time to the writers and readers of the Christian texts of the first three centuries are often obscure to us now. The simple fact that Christians in the second and third centuries sometimes attacked other Christians as Jews and Judaizers need not necessarily imply that there continued to be Christians in these years who saw themselves also as Jews, since these opponents in polemical texts may sometimes be deliberately men of straw, or a cover term of hostility towards Christians whose theological differences from the mainstream in fact owed little or nothing to allegiance to Judaism. Justin Martyr in the mid-second century asserted, in contrast to some less pluralist Christians, that “if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses … yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful … not persuading them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as born from the same womb and as our brothers,” but such Jewish Christians were unusual by his time. Frequently in his own Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, from which this last quotation comes, Christianity is defined as the antithesis to Judaism.19
The process by which “the Jews” came to be portrayed as the archetypal enemies of Christians had its roots in ideas expressed already in c. 50, in the earliest extant Christian text, the first letter to the Thessalonians, in which Paul decries the wickedness of the Jews in violent terms: “[they] both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men.” But Paul, it will be recalled, could also be “as a Jew to Jews” when it seemed to him appropriate. The divide was much sharper after 70. In the Gospel of Matthew, composed probably in the last quarter of the first century, there is a careful distinction between “their” synagogue and the Church. In the first Christian account of a martyrdom presented within a separate literary work, the narrative of the death of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, in c. 155, the Jews play an important symbolical role. Polycarp's execution for atheism was at the hands of the Roman governor and at the instigation of the local pagans during a public pagan festival, but this did not prevent the author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (according to the text itself, composed within a year of the events, for the edification of Christians elsewhere) from referring rhetorically to the Jews as enthusiastic bystanders: when Polycarp was condemned to be burned, the crowds gathered firewood from the workshops and baths, “with the Jews assisting at this particularly enthusiastically, as is their custom.” Whatever the truth or otherwise of Jewish participation in the events surrounding Polycarp's awful death, it is clear from the martyrdom account itself that the Jews of Smyrna did not actually bring it about, but also that they were believed by the author and his readers to be so instinctively opposed to Christians that it was something they would have wished to do. In a poetic homily on Easter composed a few years after Polycarp's martyrdom, Melito, bishop of Sardis, blamed “lawless Israel” for the crucifixion of their God. “It is he that has been murdered. And where has he been murdered? In the middle of Jerusalem. By whom? By Israel … O lawless Israel, what is this unprecedented crime you committed, thrusting your Lord among unprecedented sufferings, your Sovereign, who formed you, who made you, who honoured you, who called you ‘Israel’? … For him whom the gentiles worshipped and uncircumcised men admired and foreigners glorified, over whom even Pilate washed his hands, you killed him at the great feast.”20
Melito attacked “Israel” as god-killers, but other Christians in his time portrayed the Church as “the True Israel.” In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr asserts that “the true, spiritual, Israel, and descendants of Judah, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham … are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.” “We,” the Christians who are the new Israel, are contrasted by Justin in the Dialogue with “you,” the Jews. The idea that gentile Christians are the “Israel of God” was floated as early as the early 50s by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, but the explicit claim to the name in contrast to Jews is first found here in this treatise by Justin, a literary account of what was probably a real dialogue some time in the mid-second century, which took place, according to the text, in Ephesus in Asia Minor. “Israel” was by this date a name of particular significance to Jews: as we have seen, it had been the preferred self-designation of the independent Jewish state both in 66—70 and in 132—5, when it was the name emblazoned on their coins and borne by Shimon bar Kosiba, “prince of Israel.”21
There were manifold reasons for this usurpation of Israel's identity by Christians. The prime issue was the role of Scripture in Christian thought and worship. Christians knew that the “Old Testament,” the collection of sacred texts which provided, in the guise of prophecies realized in the life of Jesus, the foundation of their faith, belonged first to the Jews. Texts of the holy writings were to be found in synagogues, where they were regularly read in public and discussed. Most available copies of the texts in the second century will have been the work of Jewish scribes. Most interpretation of the (vast majority of) scriptural passages for which Christians had as yet found no specifically Christological reference depended on the long traditions of Jewish exegesis. Christians even relied for the text itself on a Greek version of the biblical books, the Septuagint, which they well knew to have been the work of Jews. Both Jews and pagans thought of the Jewish scriptures as the authoritative charter for the ancestral customs of the Jews, which justified and explained their insistence on peculiar Jewish observances such as the Sabbath, circumcision and food laws. The sharing of these texts was one characteristic which united Jews and Christians and differentiated them from pagans, but—and herein lay the problem for all Christians who did not think of themselves also as Jews—because Paul and others had taught already in the first generation after Jesus had been crucified that for gentiles who came to Christ it showed a lack of faith also to keep the Jewish law, most gentile Christians wanted to reject precisely the practical injunctions in the scriptures which made the lives of Jews in the ancient world distinctive.
At least one Christian in the second century, a certain Marcion, asserted firmly that true Christians should follow the logic of Paul's rejection of the Jewish law for gentiles, and rid themselves of the Jewish scriptures altogether. Marcion preached that the Demiurge, the creator of the world and the God of the Jews, was wicked, despotic and cruel; that the whole Old Testament, the product of the law of the Demiurge, should be rejected; and that the Saviour God of the Christians was an entirely different divinity. The Christian Gospel, he claimed, was entirely a Gospel of love, and the God of love, revealed by Jesus, had come to overthrow the Demiurge worshipped by the Jews. Marcion, originally from the Black Sea region, spread his doctrines particularly among the Christians of Rome, where his ideas became very influential. In his own estimation his insights had been fully appreciated before his time only by Paul. Other Christian writers, he reckoned, had been too infected by Judaism. Marcion's theology as a solution to the problem of scriptures shared with Jews was extreme, but he did deal with a real problem which faced all Christians. Treatment of the Old Testament texts in extant Christian writings from the early second century varied greatly. It was not easy both to affirm the supreme value of these writings and to deny their current validity, particularly when confronted by contemporary Jews who claimed that they continued to treat the texts as manuals for living (although many Jews, too, naturally subjected the texts to idiosyncratic interpretation of their own, as has been seen).
The perceived threat, and probably the widespread attraction, of Marcion's wholesale rejection of the Jewish roots of Christianity was reflected in the need felt in the late second century by fellow Christians from all parts of the Roman world (Corinth, Lyons, Antioch, Carthage, Edessa, Alexandria and Rome) to mount attacks on his doctrine. But ultimately more significant for the development of Christians' relationship with Jews was the elaboration of responses to Marcionism. For most Christians it was unthinkable to reject the Old Testament, precisely because it contained the prophetic passages whose fulfilment in Christ they had preached from the first generation. Instead they read the Bible allegorically to refer to the Church, a procedure not dissimilar to the exegetical methods of the Dead Sea sectarians, Philo and the rabbis, in referring biblical narratives to contemporary Jewish society, and already used by Paul in his letter to the Galatians: “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by the free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the free woman was born through the promise. Which things are an allegory …”22
The usurpation of the name “Israel” by Christians like Justin Martyr in the mid-second century, alongside the consistent denigration of the name “Jew,” helped Christians to present themselves to the wider Roman world, for whom the name of the Jews evoked hostility and fear after the devastation caused by the rebels of 66—70, 115—17 and 132—5. Justin Martyr himself composed an “address and petition” on behalf of Christians “to the emperor Titus Aelius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to his son Verissimus the philosopher, [and to Lucius the philosopher, the natural son of Caesar, and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning], and to the sacred Senate, and to the whole people of the Romans.” The Apology, composed in Rome, was one of a number of pleas in defence of Christianity similarly directed to emperors in the mid- to late second century. Whether emperors ever read these texts is unknown; it is not impossible that, in practice, such apologeticism served mainly to succour the faithful. Nonetheless, these apologies all presented arguments in defence of Christianity which would have been comprehensible to Romans—and which aligned Christians firmly on the Roman side in the depiction of hostility between Romans and Jews.23 In practice, Christians had an opportunity at least once a year to distance themselves from Jews in the eyes of the Roman state, since Christians did not register to pay the special Jewish tax which had been imposed by Rome in 70 CE, unless they wished to define themselves as Jewish as well as Christian. As the Christian Tertullian implied, writing in Carthage around the end of the second century, by not paying such a levy Christians laid themselves open to prosecution for publicly boycotting pagan cults, in contrast to Jews, who enjoyedvedigalis libertas,“freedom that brings in revenue [to the state],” and thus could meet openly on the Sabbath to read the Bible. It seems clear that, despite any dangers to themselves in distinguishing themselves from Jews in the presentation of their religion to Romans, Christians in the second century were determined to make such distinctions as clearly as possible, thereby avoiding the hostility towards Jews which had become engrained in Rome after the great revolts under Trajan and Hadrian. For those Christians who also wished to emphasize the roots in antiquity of their creed, and therefore to present to Romans the national history in the Old Testament as in some way Christian before Christ, it was exceptionally effective to designate themselves by the name “Israel,” which, as we have seen, was not a name apparently ever used by pagan Romans to refer to Jews.24
The importance to Christians of presenting themselves in the most favourable light possible to Roman gentiles has not always been accorded the attention it deserves in the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. Persuading Romans to accept the new faith was an integral part of the Christian message already in the time of Paul, both for missionary purposes, to encourage gentile converts, and for apologetic reasons, to defend against hostility those already committed to Christ. It was not an easy task, particularly when the figurehead of the whole movement had been publicly crucified by the Roman state (albeit, so Christians asserted, on a false charge and only under pressure from the local Jewish authorities) and followers in later years had been cruelly put to death by the state: Peter, who was crucified in Rome head downwards according to Origen in the third century and Eusebius in the fourth, and Paul, who is said to have been beheaded, and others. Some Christians, like the author of the book of Revelation, composed probably at the very end of the first century CE, simply condemned Rome as evil, much as the rabbis did. Rome was portrayed as the wicked whore of Babylon, “the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” in whose impending downfall and the triumph of the Church the author revelled; but his attitude of open hostility to Rome is highly unusual in extant early Christian literature. Plenty of Christian writers expressed disgust at particular aspects of the Roman world, notably sexual libertarianism, bloodthirsty entertainments such as wild beast fights and gladiatorial games, and, above all, idolatry. Tatian, a Syrian Christian writing probably in Rome in the mid-second century, in his Oration to the Greeks attacked with vituperation acting, dancing, mime, theatre, philosophy and rhetoric as well as gladiatorial shows, with special disgust for sexual perversions: “Pederasty is held criminal by barbarians, but considered privileged by Romans, and they try to gather together herds of boys like herds of grazing horses.” But whereas the rabbis always inveighed against these practices as characteristic of a neighbouring society from which good Jews should keep their distance, many Christians seem to have thought about them as the sins of a society with which they identified and which they wished to reform from within. As Melito of Sardis asserts in his Apology addressed to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, “our philosophy [Christianity] first flourished among barbarians, but having come to flower among your peoples at the time of the great reign of Augustus your ancestor, it became particularly for your empire an auspicious benefit. Since then the might of the Romans has increased to be great and splendid.” Already in the first century, the author of the Gospel of Luke and of Acts portrayed to his fellow Christians both Jesus and Paul as at home in the Roman world and innocent of any actions contrary to Roman interests. Hence the repeated protestations of Pilate as recorded by Luke, that “I find no fault in this man … I have found no cause of death in him,” even though it was Pilate who eventually “gave sentence that it should be as they [the Jewish leaders] required.” Paul was acquitted of wrongdoing, according to the author of Acts, by a series of just Roman governors before finally being sent to Rome. The message was that the teachings of the Christians were politically harmless, as Paul urges to Festus in Jerusalem: “Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the Temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended anything at all.”25
The need for such protestations that Christians should be accepted in Roman society was prompted in part by the accusations of some pagans that Christians were not only outsiders but positively dangerous. The alleged secrecy of Christian communities gave rise to accusations of immoral behaviour, as the African Christian Minucius Felix recorded in the second or third century: “Why do they make great efforts to hide and conceal whatever it is that they worship, when honourable deeds always rejoice in being made public, while crimes are secret? Why do they have no altars, no temples, no recognized images? Why do they never talk openly, never congregate freely, unless what they worship and conceal is either criminal or shameful?” Since Christians sometimes attacked each other for similar behaviour, it is not wholly impossible that there was something real behind the polemic, and that the desire of mainstream Christians to distance themselves from those, particularly in Gnostic groups, they dubbed heretics was motivated in part by the need to be able to claim with a clear conscience to the outside world that genuine Christians would never commit such immoral acts. Jews had been subject to similar attacks, but it is striking that their mode of defence, at least as reflected in Josephus'Against Apion,had been different from that of Christians: Josephus counters the charge that Jews “refuse admission to persons with other preconceived ideas about God, and [decline] to associate with those who have chosen to adopt a different mode of life” by stating that this habit is common to all people, whereas the unknown author of the Epistle to Diognetus explicitly denies that Christians live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect or practise any eccentric way of life. Many Christians wished to be seen by Romans as part of the Roman world and dedicated to the flourishing of the society they shared with pagans. They were part of a counter-culture only in the limited sense that, if forced to choose, they put divine authority above that of the emperor—which created no problem so long as there was no conflict between the two: as Jesus was reported to have said, “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar's, to God, what is God's.” Christian apologists on the one hand denied with outrage the wicked behaviour alleged by their detractors, while claiming that their prayers for the state could be efficacious in a way that no pagan prayer could ever be. When the troops of Marcus Aurelius were saved by a sudden rainstorm from drought and defeat during his campaign on the Danube in 172, contemporary Christians attributed the miracle to the prayers of Christians among his soldiers. Some twenty or more years later, Tertullian claimed that this miracle was specifically mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, “most venerable of emperors,” in his letters. Doubtless the letters were Christian forgeries: Tertullian was still a boy at the time of the events. The story grew in the telling, and when it was narrated by Eusebius, over a century later, there were further details, including that “lightning drove the enemy to flight and destruction.” What matters is less the detail of the story than the underlying assumption, that Christians were, and should be, dedicated to the security and prosperity of the empire despite the occasional attempts by representatives of the state to subject them to persecution.26
Christian hopes for the conversion of the Roman empire were not diminished by such persecution. Tertullian addresses those in authority in the empire—described ironically as the “good governors,” who are “most just”—to persuade them not to follow the demands of the mob “panting for Christian blood.” The theme of Christian apologies was that persecutions arose through the actions of “evil men trying to stir up trouble against us,” and that the Roman state, if it followed its own tenets of justice, would suppress such wickedness. So Melito of Sardis, in his Apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius after “new decrees throughout Asia” threatened persecution, claims that “shameless informers and lovers of other people's property … pillage us openly … [although] we have done nothing wrong … If this is done as your command, let it be assumed that it is well done … but, if it be not from you that there comes this counsel and this new decree, which would be improper even against barbarian enemies, we beseech you all the more not to neglect us when we are subjected to this mass brigandage.” As reported by Eusebius, martyrdoms of Christians at Lyons in 177 were pressed upon the Roman governor by local pagans who saw the Christians in their city as dangerous outsiders. It was possible and reasonable for Christians to hope that the state, far from instigating persecution, would suppress it, even if sometimes they hoped in vain.27
In fact, most attacks on Christians were indeed locally inspired, and large-scale persecution of Christians by the Roman state was rare. In each case there was a specific reason for the state to take public action against Christians, although not necessarily as a result of anything in particular done by Christians themselves—in this respect the state behaved towards Christians much as it did towards the Jews of the city of Rome when they suffered periodic expulsions under the Julio-Claudian emperors. Thus the first great persecution of Christians broke out in Rome in 64 after a fire had devastated Rome. Despite the expenditure of vast sums for rebuilding and improving security in the future, and a series of religious ceremonies to appease the gods, Nero found himself still unpopular, with rumours that the fire had been started deliberately. According to Tacitus, writing half a century later, “to suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats—and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called) … Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals' skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited a display in the circus, mingling with the crowd—or standing in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer.” Interestingly, Tacitus' contemporary Suetonius gave as cause of this awful persecution not the alleged incendiarism of the Christians, which he ignored, but their trouble-making beliefs, which put them into the same category as perpetrators of other abuses suppressed by Nero: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men of a new and mischievous superstition. He [also] put an end to the jests of the chariot drivers [accused of cheating and robbing for their amusement] … The pantomime actors and their supporters were banished from the city.” It is not, of course, impossible that Nero's government combined different charges against the Christians. It was easier to blame Christians for the disaster if they were thought to be inherently troublesome, regardless of their guilt or innocence in this specific case.28
That after this persecution by Nero there was to be no central initiative by the emperors themselves against the Christians for nearly two hundred years may help to explain the optimism of the Christian apologists in aligning themselves with the state, although when the attack came, its impact was all the more horrific. In 249 the emperor Decius decreed that steps be taken to ensure that everyone in the empire (apart, presumably, from Jews) be shown to have sacrificed to the gods on behalf of the welfare of the state. His motivation was probably less hostility to Christians than a desire to unite the empire through a single cultic act at a time of military crisis precipitated by invasions across the Danube, but the impact on Christians of his policy was immediate. Discovery in Egypt of certificates to confirm that an individual had sacrificed as required reveal how thoroughly the policy was carried out, at least in that province. In the city of Rome, the bishop Fabian who led the Christian community was killed, while many other Christians gave in under the pressure. The resulting schism, between the lapsed and those who, through courage or good fortune, had been able to hold firm, was almost as serious a threat to the Church as the persecution itself. Decius died in 251, and his religious campaign ended, but his successor Valerian in 257 resurrected a policy of attacks on Christian clergy and property, forbidding Christians to meet. On the capture of Valerian by the Persians in 260, the new emperor Gallienus proclaimed an end to all religious persecution, and Christians were left in peace for more than forty years until Diocletian in 303 ordered the demolition of churches and the burning of Christian books. Like Decius, Diocletian was probably prompted by a desire to reinforce imperial unity: his reforms during his long rule from 284 to 306 constituted an attempt at a systematic reorganization of the empire on a par with the interventionist policies of Hadrian nearly two centuries earlier. It may be that an attack on Christians commended itself precisely because they were spread throughout the empire, and state action against them as “atheists,” and thus for the goodwill of the other gods, would be witnessed by Diocletian's subjects all over the Roman world. In any case, his edict certainly provoked widespread unrest, which in turn promoted further edicts and many martyrdoms, with peace restored only by the ascent to power of Constantine through military victory on 28 October 312, and an edict of toleration for all religions proclaimed the following year in Milan.29
Christians were thus subjected only to brief outbursts of organized, empire-wide persecution by the state, but these episodes inflicted deep trauma. Christians developed a tradition that they were constantly at risk from Rome throughout the three hundred years before Constantine. It was indeed the case throughout this period that when and if a Christian was accused by provincials it was a Roman magistrate who put him or her to death. Stories of the martyrdom of early Christians reveal remarkable courage in the face of torture and death, supported by a strong confidence in the eventual promise of salvation in a future life. Roman officials simply did not understand the depth of their faith and commitment. In the contemporary account of the death of Polycarp, aged eighty-six, in Smyrna, the proconsul of Asia is portrayed as trying hard to save the aged bishop, urging him to “have respect for [his] age,” but in the end it was the proconsul who ordered the execution, “sending his own herald to announce three times in the middle of the arena: ‘Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.’ ” Correspondence of the younger Pliny with Trajan earlier in the second century about how to treat those accused of being Christians reveals an assumption that simply being a Christian and refusing to worship the pagan gods could be sufficient to merit death. Pliny wrote that “for the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.” Trajan replied that Pliny had acted rightly, “for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out. If they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be.” If “these people must not be hunted out,” the safety of Christians depended not on the policy of the Roman state but on their relations to their pagan neighbours, whose hostility, if aroused, could be fatal.30
In practice, most Christians lived quite peacefully for the first three centuries of the Church, but accounts of martyrdoms served as powerful confirmation of the validity of Christian faith. From the second century onwards, martyrology became a distinctive Christian literary genre. It was uplifting to read about the devotion of those prepared to die horribly for their faith. Eusebius in the fourth century knew of “trophies” of the apostles Paul and Peter which commemorated their martyrdoms in Rome. The original monument to Peter seems to have been an unpretentious structure built around 170 and found below the apse of the church of St. Peter built in the fourth century by Constantine. A more substantial memorial to Peter and Paul was erected on the Appian Way south of Rome in the mid-third century and was a focus for private prayers scratched as graffiti on its walls. By this time celebrations at the burial sites of local martyrs in Christian cemeteries had become so important for Roman Christians that their commemoration was firmly fixed into the liturgical calendar. The memorable image coined by Tertullian in the late second century was an accurate historical analysis: “we increase in number whenever we are mown down … the blood of Christians is seed.”31
For a Roman governor like the younger Pliny in the early second century, the Christians whom he put on trial were defined by their worship of Christ, in whose honour “they chant verses alternately among themselves … as if to a god.” Nothing in his description of the “great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women,” from both towns and countryside, who had been “infected through contact with this wretched cult,” suggested that they had anything whatever to do with Jews. The same was true of Pliny's contemporary Tacitus, who did indeed note that the founder of this “deadly superstition” had been executed in Tiberius' reign by Pontius Pilate in Judaea, and that after Christ's death the “mischief” had continued in Judaea, but vaguely attributed the popularity of Christianity in Rome to the disgraceful predilections of the inhabitants of the city, “where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.” Evidently, by the time Trajan was emperor no pagan Roman would think of Christianity as a type of Judaism, not least because the insistence that Christians must make sacrifices to “our gods,” taken for granted by both Pliny and Trajan, had never been imposed by Roman officials on Jews: the sacrifice test imposed briefly on the Jews of Antioch in66had been applied by the Greek city authorities, not the Roman governor. The religious logic behind the punishment of Christians was precisely that they should return to their ancestral pagan rites, as Pliny claimed was happening in his province as a result of his actions: “There is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time. The sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it.” By contrast, Jews in Pliny's time will all, in principle, have been known to the Roman state, since they were all required to pay the annual Jewish poll tax, and none of them will have been required to sacrifice to pagan gods. Pliny's contemporary Suetonius specifically describes the Christians in the time of Nero as given to a new superstition.32
In fact, in marked contrast to the agonizing in extant Christian sources about the relationship between the new faith and Judaism, extant pagan Roman sources are consistent in referring to the members of the Church as “Christians,” a name which itself suggests a Roman perspective on the new movement. “The disciples were called ‘Christians’ first in Antioch”: so writes the author of Acts in his reconstruction of the early history of the Church, referring to the time spent in the city by Paul and Barnabas near the very beginning of their missionary journeys, in about 40. The comment presupposed both that the name was not an obvious one to use, and that it was more common when Acts was composed in the late first century than it was in the years to which the narrative referred. “Christian” was not a self-designation used by Paul in his extant letters—he preferred to refer to his fellow believers as “the saints” or “brethren” or by other periphrases—and in the other books in the New Testament the terms used are “disciples,” “believers” and other words which functioned more as descriptions than as proper names. In the only two other uses of the name “Christian” in the New Testament writings, it is put, either explicitly or implicitly, into the mouth of a non-believer: according to Acts, when Paul defends himself before Agrippa II and Berenice in Caesarea, Agrippa remarks, in admiration, “Paul, almost you persuade me to be a Christian”; in the first letter of Peter, composed almost certainly after 70, the author encourages his readers “if [any man suffer] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on his behalf.”33
It is likely, then, that Christianos was a term used for the followers of the new movement originally by outsiders, and, since the word is a Latinism, those outsiders were probably Roman. (Such a Latinism was not impossible for Greek speakers, but a Greek name to mean “the party of Christos” would usually be expected to end in -eios, not -ianos.) If Acts is right to date the first use of the word “Christian” to Antioch in c. 40, it will have been the Roman officials there who invented the term, rather than the local populace, or Jews, or Christians themselves. The implication of the name in Latin was that Christians were the party of Christ. Tacitus, in his account of the fire in Rome in 64, states explicitly that this was the name in common use for members of the Church already in Nero's time. For Pliny, and later pagan writers, the name was standard. It is all the more striking that by the early second century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, had adopted the term to refer to himself and his flock. In his letter to the community in Ephesus, he expresses his hope to “share the lot of the Ephesian Christians,” and to the Magnesians, he writes quite specifically that “it is fitting not only to be called Christians, but also to be [Christians].” He even uses an abstract word, Christianismos, derived from Christianos, to describe the new faith. Around the same date, the author of the Didache, a manual containing both ethical and ritual instructions for Christian communities, also termed an itinerant brother who “comes in the name of the Lord” as aChristianos, provided that he is genuine and behaving appropriately: “if he does not want to behave like this, he is a Christemporos [a “Christmon-ger”],” to be avoided. In martyr acts which purport to be transcripts of trials before Roman authorities in the second century, the martyrs accept the name willingly: “Rusticus said: ‘Finally, are you then a Christian?’ Justin said: ‘Yes, I am a Christian.’ ” When it came to witnessing to their faith at times of greatest stress and danger, what these martyrs urged to their Roman audience was the lordship and divinity of Christ. A certain Sanctus, martyred at Lyons in 177, withstood tortures “with such constancy that he would not even tell his own name, nor race, nor city of origin, nor whether he was slave or free, but to all the questions replied in Latin: ‘I am a Christian.’ ” What defined the religion of Christians was simply the God to whom they owed allegiance. According to both the pagan and the Christian accounts, neither Roman nor Christian at these times of trial ever made any mention of the link between Christianity and the Jews.34
Thus it was to the lordship of Christ rather than the God of the Jews that the Roman emperor Constantine in 312 declared his allegiance. Con-stantine's espousal of Christ as his protector seems to have stemmed from motivations similar to those of Roman leaders earlier in imperial history. As Venus had been the patron deity of Julius Caesar and Mars of Augustus, and as Aurelian, who ruled from autumn 270 to early 275, attempted to establish the worship of the Unconquered Sun at the centre of Roman state religion, with himself as the god's vicegerent, Constantine believed that he had come to power through the support of Christ, and that his rule would therefore be best maintained by devotion to Christian worship. What distinguished Constantine's devotion to his chosen divinity from that of his predecessors to theirs was the demanding nature of Christian worship, including especially the antipathy of Christians to the worship of other gods.
Constantine had much need of such divine support. His father, Con-stantius I, had been a soldier of Illyrian stock who was appointed as Caesar in 293 when the emperor Diocletian tried to institute a system of collegiate government for the empire, with two senior members (“Augusti”) and two junior (“Caesars”). By the time of his death in York on 25 July 306, Con-stantius was the senior Augustus. Constantius' troops proclaimed his son Constantine as a new Augustus, but this was not acceptable to the other members of the tetrarchy, and for the next six years Constantine tried to establish his right to power in the fashion standard in imperial politics, by dynastic marriages and by war. In 312 he invaded Italy to unseat Maxentius, son of the former Augustus Maximian, who (like Constantine) had struck out for himself. In a battle near Verona Maxentius' forces were defeated and his prefect killed. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Constantine marched on Rome and met the army under Maxentius' personal command just outside the city, at Saxa Rubra. What happened next was famously described soon after the event by the Christian apologist Lactantius:
Constantine was advised in his sleep to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields and then engage in battle. He did as he was commanded and by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round, he marked Christ on the shields. Armed with this sign, the army took up its weapons. The enemy came to meet them… the lines clashed … the fighting became fiercer, and the hand of God was over the battle-line. The army of Maxentius was seized with terror, and he himself fled in haste to the bridge, which had been broken down; and, pressed by the mass of fugitives, he was hurtled into the Tiber.35
By the end of his life, Constantine was to claim that in the battle itself he had seen a miraculous image of a cross above the sun, with the words, “Be victorious in this.”36 The event seems to have gained in significance with the passage of time, but there is no reason to doubt that Constantine's troops went into battle with Christian signs on their shields, nor that a great victory ensued. Maxentius was drowned near the modern Ponte Mil-vio. It was to take time for the full implications of Constantine's new religious allegiance to become clear, and he was not himself baptized until shortly before his death on 22 May 337, but from the beginning he tried to unite the Church to the secular state as closely as possible, and his success may be gauged from the fact that in the eastern Church he was in due course to be named the Thirteenth Apostle and venerated as a saint. His devotion to Christ was to be imitated by his sons and successors for generations and would lead directly to the Christian Europe of the Middle Ages. As so often in the Roman world, the personal decision of an emperor, himself primarily concerned to create and maintain his image as a military leader blessed with divine favour, had a momentous effect on the ideology of all of Roman society.
That Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman world by the late fourth century would have been impossible without this very personal commitment by Constantine and his successors, but it is important to recognize how “Roman” the mainstream Church had already become before Constantine became its patron, despite the concurrent Christian attitude to the state as the source of persecution. Even the administrative structure used by Christians mirrored the provinces and cities of the secular organization of the empire, with government by bishops based in the major urban communities and councils of bishops convened usually at the behest of the bishop of one of the largest communities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage or Rome: reference to bishops (in Greek,episkopoi, literally “overseers”) as leaders of the new Christian communities founded in the cities of Asia Minor in the first generation is already found in the New Testament. Although the distinction between those accorded this title and those called “presbyters” may not always have been clear in the first century, by the middle of the second century all the leading centres of Christianity were led by bishops, each of whom exercised quasi-monarchical authority over his flock. By the late third century the central role of Jerusalem in the Christian hierarchy had all but vanished along with the link to contemporary Jews. In the first century, before 70 it was to Jerusalem, according to Acts, that Paul went to gain permission for his mission to the gentiles at the first Church council, but by the early 250s the Christian presence in Jerusalem, now of course the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina, was slight: since 135 all Christians in the city were of gentile origin, and the link with the family of Jesus, and with James, “the Lord's brother,” had been broken. By contrast, by the mid-third century the community in Rome was large. Eusebius reported that under the bishop Cornelius there were, according to Cornelius himself, forty-six presbyters in the city, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two exorcists, readers and doorkeepers, and over one thousand five hundred widows and persons in distress, “a great multitude … a number who by God's providence were rich and increasing, with an immense and countless laity.” Cornelius, and Eusebius, evidently gave these figures (around the time of the Decian persecution) because they were large in the Christian context. They seem to imply a total Christian community in Rome at least in the tens of thousands (and confirmation that, except in times of organized state persecution, Christian congregations were generally left alone).37
But even much earlier, when the Christian community in Rome was still small in Christian terms, the very fact that it was at the heart of the empire had given it an importance beyond its size. It was here that the two great apostles Peter and Paul were buried. Clement, bishop of Rome in the late first century, had intervened when there was a conflict among the Christians in Corinth. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the late second century, referred his readers to “the greatest, most ancient and well-known church, founded and established by the most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, in Rome.” Irenaeus went further than praise, suggesting that “with this church, on account of her more powerful principality, it is necessary that every church should agree.” The stage was already set in the third century for Rome and its bishop to take over the leadership of the Church as a whole, particularly in the western empire, in the fourth century. The gradual emergence of the Roman papacy in its full form was ultimately dependent on the changed attitude of the state after Constantine's vision and his victory by the Ponte Milvio, but long before Constantine the origins of Christianity in a community of Jews in Jerusalem had ceased to be of much significance in the faith of most of those who lived and died for Christ.38
Thus, when the conversion of Constantine to Christianity brought values from first-century Jerusalem to fourth-century Rome, the history of Christian self-presentation over the preceding centuries prevented the emperor from recognizing his new religious allegiance as in any respect Jewish. On the contrary, the state pronouncements of the Christian emperor were even more profoundly hostile to Judaism than those of his pagan predecessors, as can be seen in the vituperative tone of a law promulgated by Constantine on 18 October in, probably, the year 329: “Emperor Constantine Augustus to Evagrius, praetorian prefect. We wish the Jews, their leaders and their patriarchs to be informed, that if anyone—once this law has been given—dare attack by stoning or by other kind of fury one escaping from their deadly sect and raising his eyes to God's cult, which as we have learned is being done now, he shall be delivered immediately to the flames and burned with all his accomplices.” Similar hostility to the Jews and Judaism was expressed by the emperor in other pronouncements, like the letter he sent to all the churches in the empire on 19 June 325 about the date of Easter: “Let there be nothing in common between you and the detestable mob of the Jews … What could those people calculate correctly, when after that murder of the Lord, after that parricide, they have taken leave of their senses, and are moved, not by any rational principle, but by uncontrolled impulse, wherever their internal frenzy may lead them?”
Constantine evidently saw such anti-Judaism as part of his expression of his new-found faith, to which he ostentatiously devoted himself. Huge sums were spent on building new churches, which were to house a distinctive form of worship without sacrifices. The emperor threw himself into trying to settle doctrinal disputes within the Christian community, in the explicit belief that Christian unity was essential for the well-being of the state. Privileges, wealth and access to the imperial court were showered upon the Christian clergy. Above all, a new rhetoric of Christian piety, high-flown and often vague, became standard in court parlance, even in the promulgation of law. Constantine portrayed his reign as an ideological revolution, a decisive break from the crude pagan past to a bright Christian future. Vituperation against Jews was part of this discourse, an element of Christian rhetoric that had developed over the period of self-definition in relation to Judaism in the first two centuries of the Church.39
How far had the Christianity adopted by Constantine strayed from its Jewish roots? Christians like him did not follow most of the customs which made Jews distinctive in the eyes of their fellow citizens, such as the Sabbath, circumcision and dietary laws. They talked less about physical purity as a metaphor for sanctity and more about sexual asceticism. They saw marriage as an unbreakable bond rather than a contract between man and wife. They revered the same Bible as the Jews but reinterpreted it in the light of a New Testament that did away with the plain meaning of the shared text. And (crucially) they saw no value in animal sacrifices, had no desire to worship God in any temple, and so had no interest in the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem.
On the other hand Christians like Constantine preserved the Jewish notion of history as a divinely ordained progression from creation to final judgement. Like Jews, they placed high value on sacred time (leading to intense debates about, as we have seen, the correct date to celebrate Easter each year). They believed, like Jews, that God had laid down how humans should live well, and they shared the Jewish notions of sin, guilt, confession, repentance and divine forgiveness for those who strayed. Members of Christian communities supported each other as Jews did in their synagogues, with similar opposition to infanticide and similar emphasis on charity and the duty to care for widows and orphans. Like Jews they were puritanical about indulgence in sex outside marriage and prudish about nudity. And, as we have seen, Christians, like Jews, adamantly refused to participate in the worship of gods other than their own.
The successful imposition of such alien ideals on traditional Roman society, even by the most forceful of emperors, was necessarily difficult. Theatrical performances, dance, gladiatorial games, wild beast shows, all continued in the fourth century, popular despite the disgust expressed by some Christians, much as they had flourished in the early empire despite the disapproval of some thoughtful pagans like the younger Pliny. But Christianity under Constantine did bring some changes to Rome. Thus, for instance, in recognition of the belief that man is made in the image of God, Constantine wrote on 3 March 316 to Eumelius, governor of Africa, that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines, in accordance with the nature of the crime in which he has been detected, let him not be branded on his face, since the penalty of condemnation can be branded by one mark on his hands and on his calves, so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.” While the history of the Jews was decried as the travails of a “detestable mob,” the history of Israel and of the Hebrews became also the history of Rome: in Eusebius' account, in his Ecclesiastical History, of the defeat and death of Maxentius at the Ponte Milvio, the model for Constantine's victory was taken not from ancient Rome but from Moses: “As … in the days of Moses himself and the ancient and godly race of the Hebrews, ‘Pharaoh's chariots and his host has he cast into the sea, his chosen horsemen, even captains, they were sunk in the Red Sea, the deep covered them'; in the same way also Maxentius and the armed soldiers and guards around him ‘went down into the depths like a stone’ … He himself, that most wicked of men, and then also the shield-bearers around him, as the divine oracles foretell, sank as lead in the mighty waters.”40
Constantine spoke the Jewish language of monolatry and of disgust at the veneration of idols even if he refrained from the use of force to ensure that the temples closed, explaining that “the customs of the temples and the agency of darkness” would have been removed altogether “were it not that the violent rebelliousness of injurious error is so obstinately fixed in the minds of some, to the detriment of the common weal.” In his panegyrical biography after Constantine's death, Eusebius praised the impact of the emperor on the distribution, through Church institutions, of charity to the very poor, “in one place bestowing estates, and elsewhere grain allowances to feed poor men, orphan children, and women in distress. Then with great concern he also provided huge quantities of clothing for the naked and unclad.” Attitudes to sex became markedly more puritanical, at least in public: in an imperial court dominated by Christian moralizing, not least on the lips of the emperor himself, it became impossible to imagine a writer seeking advancement by composing verse like Ovid's descriptions of the art of love or novels like Petronius' Satyricon or Apuleius' Golden Ass—sex was no longer amusing or entertaining in a society where, from 326, the emperor forbade any married man to have a concubine in his house, and nurses who encouraged girls to elope were to be horribly put to death: “the mouth and throat of those who offered nefarious incitements shall be closed by ingestion of molten lead.” Familiar to Jews would have been the weekly abstention of all townspeople from work, including legal business, enforced by Constantine in a law promulgated in 321 and evidently in operation as far away as Oxyrhynchus in Egypt in 325: a papyrus preserves a report, dated to 2 October 325, of legal proceedings over ownership of some buildings or building land, the day's business ending with the decision of the judge that “since some part of the coming sacred Lord's Day has supervened, the case will be deferred till after the Lord's Day.” Constantine permitted farm labour on his day of rest, so to that extent it differed from the Jewish Sabbath on which agricultural work was specifically prohibited, and the day selected was not Saturday but “the Lord's Day,” Sunday, but the Jewish rhythm of the seven-day week was now firmly established in Roman life.41
In a speech delivered in Jerusalem in 336 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine as emperor of Rome, the Christian Eusebius used rhetoric that would have struck a chord with the Jew Josephus two and a half centuries earlier. Josephus had praised the one-ness of Judaism: God is one, Jews have only one belief about God, “we have but one Temple for the one God, for ‘like is always dear to like.’ ” Eusebius' argument to praise the Christian monarch was similar:
Invested as he is with an image of the heavenly sovereignty, he directs his gaze above, and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that original, gaining strength in its imitation of the monarchy of God. And this conformity is granted by the universal King to man alone of the creatures on this earth: for he only is the author of royal power, who decrees that all should be subject to the rule of one … There is one King; and his word and royal law is one: a Law not expressed in words and syllables, not written or engraved on tablets, and therefore subject to the ravages of time; but the living and self-subsisting Word, who himself is God, and who administers his Father's kingdom on behalf of all who are under him and subject to his power.
One God, one Word, one ruler.42
Constantine's preparation of his final resting place when he died in 337 shows that he wished to be remembered by future generations as consorting, as Jesus had done, with the pious Galilean Jews who had accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem three hundred years before. “He erected twelve repositories like sacred monuments in honour and memory of the company of the Apostles, and put his own coffin in the middle with those of the Apostles ranged six on either side … in the belief that their memorial would become for him a beneficial aid to his soul.” Nothing, it might seem, could better illustrate the migration of the values of Jerusalem to the heart of Rome—except that neither Constantine nor his Christian subjects thought of the Holy Apostles as Jewish, and this Roman emperor erected his monumental tomb-shrine not in the ancient Rome where Augustus lay in his mausoleum, but in a new Rome, the city of Constantinople freshly built on the site of Byzantium.43