Why did Christianity become less popular
religion : The Jesus conspiracy
Christianus sum. I am a Christian. ”It must have been hot in the courtroom of the proconsul Publius Vigellius Saturninus, Roman governor in North Africa, when, on July 17th, 180, he received the confession of a man named Speratus. Speratus must have sweat on his forehead - not only from the heat, but also from fear. Because anyone who confessed to be a Christian in court was threatened with the death penalty.
The seven men and five women came from the city of Scilium in what is now Tunisia, and they all had professed themselves to be Christians. "Let go of the fooling around," the governor shouted angrily and offered the group 30 days to think about it.
The court records on the so-called martyrs of Scili are considered to be the oldest Christian document in Latin. The first attempts at translating the Bible into Latin were also made in North Africa at that time. “The rest of the Church in East and West, including Rome,” said the church historian Ernst Dassmann, “still thought and prayed in Greek,” then a universal language.
The Roman state had mostly shown itself to be tolerant of foreign cults and integrated their gods and followers into society as long as they did not disrupt the state's order. The cult of Mithras from Iran was popular in the second century. This god, depicted as a bull-killer, was temporarily equated with the sun god.
So why were Christians like Speratus and his fellow believers persecuted - and why was this young religion so attractive to people that they confessed to it in mortal danger?
At the beginning of the fourth century, between five percent and 20 percent of the population of the Roman Empire may have been believers - although it is almost impossible to give reliable figures. The majority of Christians lived in the cities of the Roman Empire and in the eastern half of the Empire, such as in Asia Minor and Syria. Significant communities existed in Alexandria, Syrian Antioch, and Rome. The early community of Jerusalem, on the other hand, no longer played a role after the new conquest of the city by the Romans 135.
Christians also tried to be good citizens. Speratus demonstrated his loyalty to the state when he emphasized that "with every purchase (...) also pay state taxes". Like many other Christians before him, he followed the instructions of Paul, whose letters he even carried with him during the negotiation. Paul, who once as Saul himself was the persecutor of the Christians in Judea, became the most important preacher and interpreter of the teaching of Jesus after his conversion before Damascus, where Jesus himself appeared to him. He probably died in Rome in the 1960s. In his letter to the church there, Paul had written that God himself had given the people of Rome the state order, so you had to obey it and pay your taxes punctually. The division of society into a few rich and many poor probably did not question Speratus and his fellow Christians. For this too Paul had demanded: Everyone should remain in the social status to which he had been called by God through his birth.
But the broad mass of the non-Christian population hardly noticed such expressions of loyalty. For the idea that a god should have suffered the punishment with the crucifixion, which was intended for slaves and high traitors, the ancients considered to be downright absurd; According to Paul, this is "a stumbling block to the Jews, and a foolishness to the Gentiles". Therefore there is practically no Christian representation of the crucified Jesus from all of antiquity. The earliest known testimony of this kind is a graffito from the Palatine Hill showing a crucified with an ass's head: Jesus was mocked by his opponents. Then, in the third century, Christian depictions appear that show Jesus as a shepherd; the suffering Christ on the cross, on the other hand, is a motif from the High Middle Ages.
The Christians, the "duckmouse and light-shy people", as they were called, made themselves suspicious of the seclusion in which they carried out their ritual acts. In ancient times, people were used to priests offering their sacrifices to the gods in front of the temples, in the open air. The Christians, on the other hand, used to retreat into their homes to celebrate the Eucharist (“Thanksgiving”), the sharing of bread and wine. This celebration took place on Sunday, the day of Jesus' resurrection, in the morning hours; possibly so that slaves and servants could also participate. These were most likely to have time in the morning; Sunday was only declared a public holiday by Emperor Constantine in 321.
Since there were as yet no specially built meeting rooms, Christians in the first two centuries - there were hardly more than a dozen or two per congregation at that time - mostly met in the private dining rooms of wealthy congregation members. In these rooms, adorned with wall paintings and floor mosaics, the faithful lay on the dining sofas while one of them read from the Gospels.
After the reading, a man rose to deliver the sermon who stood out from his fellow believers in age, dignity, and strength of faith, and who had been installed by the laying on of hands: the bishop. Like all Christians, he wore the typical clothing of the Romans, a tunic and the pallium as an overgarment. This was draped around the body like a toga, but was less awkward to wear and therefore enjoyed great popularity in the imperial era. The official costume of the clergy today has to a certain extent preserved a memory of the everyday clothing of antiquity.
In the second century, a congregation was usually headed by a bishop; he was and was now supported by the presbyters (the "elders", the word priest finds its origin here) and the deacons ("servants"). After his sermon, the faithful rose up in prayer and said it with outspread arms - the folding of the hands practiced today was still unknown. Eventually bread and wine - symbols of the body and blood of Christ - were distributed.
The pagan population knew almost nothing about Christian rites, but from what little they learned they drew their own conclusions. The Christians, who were constantly striving for charity, were suspected of sexual debauchery. Rumors of ritual murders made the rounds. Some, according to ancient scriptures, believed that Christians ate human flesh and slurped the blood of children.
The public hysteria finally led to the mass of the population trusting Christians to commit the worst crimes and blaming them for all the catastrophes of the state, as the church father Tertullian (he died after 220) eloquently explains: “When the Tiber floods the walls, when the Nile does not flood the fields, if the sky does not move, if the earth moves, if a famine, if an epidemic rages, one immediately shouts: 'Christians before lions!' So many in front of one? "
It is likely that Speratus and his friends had also been denounced by neighbors. They were not threatened with the death sentence because it was believed that they had actually committed acts that were attributed to Christians. Their confession to be a Christian was enough for a death sentence alone, because the Roman emperors and their governors wanted to appease the unrest in the population that had been triggered by the "unworldly existence" of Christians, as the ancient historian Werner Dahlheim writes.
The persecution of Christians had always been short-term and localized until the situation in the empire changed fundamentally in the third century. The Roman Empire tottered threateningly under the attacks by the Germanic barbarians and the neo-Persian Sassanid Empire. In 233, for example, the Alemanni broke through the Limes. Now it came to the first nationwide and systematic persecution of Christians.
The ancients believed that the good of the state depended on the goodwill of the gods. They were constantly anxious to secure this for themselves through sacrifices and prayers. But the Christians, who believed in the one God who jealously did not tolerate any other gods beside him, were unable to sacrifice to the Roman state gods. This attitude has been interpreted as high treason.
In the year 249, Emperor Decius therefore issued an edict: Every inhabitant of the empire had to sacrifice to the gods. The direct result of this instruction were massive riots against Christians and looting, "many were martyred by the pagans in the cities and villages," wrote Eusebios, church historian of the fourth century. Arrested Christians were forced to sacrifice. Others claimed never to have been a Christian; Anyone who had money to bribe the authorities organized a libellus, a certificate of sacrifice that testified that they had sacrificed an animal and tasted the meat in the presence of two witnesses. However, many Christians remained steadfast: Those who refused or could not produce a certificate of sacrifice were punished with death.
In 180, Speratus and his co-defendants also refused the offered reflection period and refused to renounce their belief. Why the group decided to convert to Christianity in the first place is not revealed in the Carthage court records. Many, if not all, of the followers of the new religion came from the disadvantaged who felt addressed by the doctrine of charity. This included slaves, servants and day laborers, but also the somewhat better-off small traders and craftsmen. Weavers, shoemakers and cloth walkers found themselves among the followers of Christianity early on.
Donata, one of the female defendants in court, was also an underprivileged woman in a society in which she owed unconditional obedience to either her father or her husband. This is probably why she was approached by a Christian neighbor or a traveling missionary, who first consciously turned to the “uneducated women”, the children and servants, as the Christian critic Kelsos angrily remarked around the year 180.
Often it was the fathers who tried, with incomprehension, anger and desperation, to prevent their wives, children and slaves from converting to a sect which most Roman citizens regarded as dangerous to the state. When the authors of the Gospels - they wrote their works between 70 and 100 - let Jesus say that he came not to bring peace but to bring discord, these words do not come from the historical Jesus. Rather, they reflect the experiences of early Christians who saw their conversion divide them from their family members.
The defendant Donata did not allow herself to be diverted from her path, and when she was finally baptized as an adult - like most people in the early days - she had reached her goal: her sins, which, like all of them, are animated by the message of Jesus were oppressed, were forgiven her.
In contrast to today's Catholic practice when making confessions, the forgiveness of sins could be repeated a maximum of once, and this only after previous penance, which provided for prayers, fasting, penitential clothing and temporary exclusion from the congregation. The only way out was martyrdom: whoever died for Jesus was in turn forgiven of all sins.
In the Christian community, Donata experienced the esteem she had previously withheld. Together with other disadvantaged people, she took part in the evening so-called love feasts (agape); there the believers ate and prayed. For a short time women were even able to act as deaconesses to assist the bishop in the baptism of women and to make house calls to female parishioners. However, this experiment was soon abandoned by the emerging, male-dominated church organization.
The practical side of charity, poor relief, was possibly even more attractive to the people. The community organized the livelihood of its members in need, including the widows and orphans. Wealthy members donated the money they needed, and this was the reason why the rich had a way to Christians and into the kingdom of heaven: They were needed as almsgivers.
After the governor Saturninus had not been able to convince the group around Speratus and Donata to turn away, he read the verdict: “You should be beheaded!” Either the condemned were all Roman citizens or Saturninus showed compassion; they were spared the painful death in the arena. There the delinquents were tied to wooden stakes and torn to pieces by wild animals to the cheering of the spectators.
Speratus thanked his God, and the court records note that his friend Nartzalus shouted, “We are still in heaven today!” The promise of an afterlife in paradise also made this religion attractive to people who lived in a world that always was more shaped by the longing for redemption. Because the social hardship was great, especially among the residents of the shabby tenements of Rome, which were constantly at risk of fire and collapse.
The old world of gods could not satisfy this longing for a long time, because after death people there only expected existence as sad shadows. Homer had the dead hero Achilles explain to Odysseus, who had descended into the underworld, that he would rather stay among the living as a poor day laborer than be the king of the rotten dead. Speratus, Donata and the others, however, were certain that as martyrs they would rule in heaven “with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for all eternity”.
It is possible that Christianity prevailed because it promised people something that no other religion, philosophy or social institution could offer in total: practiced charity, the forgiveness of sins and the afterlife in a better world. The belief in the crucified God could no longer be eradicated. An edict of tolerance by the Emperor Galerius ended the persecution forever in 311.
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