Featured image: the earliest rendition of the Crucifixion, a mocking graffito proclaiming of a fellow servant, “Alexamenos Worships His God,” c. 200
Early Christians could have claimed Jesus was a prophet like Jeremiah or Isaac. They could have called him a great teacher like Pythagoras or Plato. Late Antiquity had no shortage of holy men or deep thinkers. It would have been as easy then as now to present Jesus as a great man with great ideas. Yet Christians rejected those labels. They disagreed, and still disagree, on many points of doctrine, but they were unanimous on Christ’s divinity. The Gospel of John (compiled 50 or 60 years after the crucifixion) opens:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (1:1-5, 14).
Late Antiquity had no particular problem with the idea of God-men. Most nations claimed descent from demigods born of divine dalliances. But these incarnate gods had, in some dimly remembered past, slain monsters and founded kingdoms. A century or two earlier Jesus entertained gullible crowds with parlor tricks before being crucified for sedition. The Christian “god” wasn’t even a particularly impressive pretender to the Judean throne. They might argue amongst themselves over everything else, but the Jews were unanimous in proclaiming Christ was neither their king nor their savior.
The 1st century lacked many scientific and technical advances we take for granted. They still knew virgins do not as a general rule have babies. Then as now most found it easier to believe in lechery than miracles. While open to the idea that one’s spirit might survive death, they expected corpses to remain corpses. And yet Christians doubled down in the face of all evidence and mockery. Christ was born of the Virgin Mary during the reign of Herod the Great and rose from the dead after being crucified under Pontius Pilate. Their claims were as specific as they were absurd.
If Christ’s resurrection was difficult to swallow, his crucifixion was even more challenging. Between 66 and 136 the Empire was wracked by a series of Jewish-Roman Wars. In 70 Roman forces leveled Jerusalem and razed the Second Temple; in 115-117 nearly half a million Greeks and Romans perished when Jews rioted throughout the southeastern Empire; from 132-136 Judea burned with the Bar Kochba Revolt. Roman authorities were bound to look askance at any cult that venerated a Jewish rebel, never mind one that proclaimed him a god. But Christians made this messy execution the pivotal point of their divine drama: what Romans considered a shameful death was for them a point of pride.
Rome had always tolerated, even welcomed, foreign cults. Serapis, Isis and Mithras (among many others) had devotees and temples throughout the Empire. But Romans also placed a high premium on social cohesion. Participation in public festivals was expected. A community which refused to join in the feasting — and which condemned the ceremonies as “idolatry” — was sure to attract negative attention. Tacitus noted that after the great fire of 64 Nero slaughtered Christians “not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race.” In the earliest days most anti-Christian violence came not from the government but from outraged neighbors.
Even as anti-Christian feeling grew in the Empire, Roman officials tried diligently to reason with these fanatics. In response to a 112 letter about the growing Christian sect, the Emperor Trajan offered his thoughts on dealing with those accused of Christianity:
These people are not to be sought for; but if they be accused and convicted, they are to be punished; but with this caution, that he who denies himself to be a Christian, and makes it plain that he is not so by supplicating to our gods, although he had been so formerly, may be allowed pardon, upon his repentance. As for libels sent without an author, they ought to have no place in any accusation whatsoever, for that would be a thing of very ill example, and not agreeable to my reign.
Despite every effort to quell the mobs and integrate Christians into Roman society, these stubborn cultists refused to cooperate. They preferred burning in the arena to dropping a pinch of incense to the emperor’s health. They attended trials to proclaim their faith from the audience, then sang with joy as they were led off to their gory deaths. And for every superstitious fool killed a hundred more sprung up ready to suffer and die like their crucified bastard. To Roman authorities Christians were as infuriating as they were incomprehensible.
As the fourth century dawned, the Rome was coming out of fifty years of chaos and civil war. Christianity now had poor and wealthy adherents throughout the Empire. To stamp out this menace once and for all in 302 Diocletian launched what has come to be known as the Great Persecution. Christian soldiers were removed from the ranks; Christian freedmen returned to their former masters; Christian churches razed to the ground and Christian scriptures burned. Thousands of Christians were martyred after refusing to renounce their faith. But Diocletian’s efforts, though enthusiastic, ultimately proved unsuccessful. The faith persecuted in 302 was by 380 the Empire’s official religion.
A first-century Roman observer would anticipate the cults of Jupiter and Isis surviving for centuries to come as they had for so many before. He would expect those “Christian” fools to find a new diversion soon enough: the world has never wanted for soothsayers or dupes. Modern sophisticates consider Christianity a primitive superstition. Imperial Rome’s smart set was twenty centuries ahead of them. But that bizarre Levantine cult took an empire and laid the foundations for what we call “Western civilization.” If we are to find a way out of our current madness, it will come through understanding that great absurdity which has entwined European and Christian history since Constantine’s vision.