1. Accounts from Jewish and profane Authors
Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER I. A General View of the Organization and Worship of the Primitive Church
1. Accounts from Jewish and profane Authors
To one who would inquire into the early history of the primitive church, or critically examine its policy, the testimony of contemporary writers of another faith must be peculiarly important. But such writers, both Jewish and profane, of the first three centuries of the Christian era, unfortunately afford us very imperfect information on these points. The Jews, from whom we might expect the fullest information, offer us none of any value. The celebrated passage in Josephus which has been so often cited, even if genuine, only proves that he had knowledge of the author of the christian religion and some faint apprehensions of his divine character; but it gives us no knowledge of the religion which he taught. Nor does Philo, his contemporary, offer any essential aid to our inquiries.
Greek and Roman authors, especially the latter, take but little notice of the early Christians. They probably regarded the Christians as only an heretical body of Jews, or as a detestable and dangerous sect. Accordingly the passages in which Suetonius, Tacitus, Arrian, Antoninus, Dio Cassius, and other writers speak of Christians, throw little or no light on their manners and customs.
The most important notices of this kind, occur in the letters of Pliny the younger, who, according to the most approved chronology, was governor of Bithynia in the years 103, 104; and in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, an opponent of Christianity, who also lived in the second century. Pliny had been instructed, by the emperor Trajan, to keep a strict guard against all secret societies, and under this commission, proceeded to severe measures against the assemblies of Christians. In reporting his proceedings to the emperor, he takes occasion to explain the character of these Christians, and the nature of their assemblies. In this manner he unconsciously passes a high encomium upon these primitive Christians. The letter itself was written but about forty years after the death of St. Paul, and, together with Trajan's reply, constitutes the most important record extant of the times immediately succeeding the apostles. They are accordingly given entire, with a translation by Melmoth.
Solenne est mihi, Domine, omnia, de quibus dubito, ad Te referre. Quis enim potest melius vel cunctationem meam regere, vel ignorantiam instruere? Cognitionibus de Christianis interfui nunquam: ideo nescio, quid et quatenus aut puniri soleat aut quaeri. Nee mediocriter haesitavi, silne aliquod discrimen aetatum, an quamlibet teneri nihil a robustioribus differant; deturne poenitentiae venia, an ei, qui omnino Christianus fuit, desisse non prosit; nomen ipsum etiamsi flagitiis careat, an flagitia cohaerentia nomini puniantur. Interim in iis, qui ad me tanquam Chrisliani deferebantur, hunc sum secutus modum. Interrogavi ipsos, an essent Christiani. Confitentes iterum et tertio interrogavi, supplicium minatus: perseverantes duci jussi. Neque enim dubitabam, qualecunque esset quod faterentur, pervicaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri. Fuerunt alii similis amentiae: quos, quia cives Romani erant, annotavi in urbem remittendos. Mox ipso tractatu, ut fieri solet, diffundente se crimine, plures species inciderunt. Propositus est libellus sine autore, multorum nomina continens, qui negarent, se esse Christianos aut fuisse. Cum praeeunte me Deos appellarent, et imagini Tuae, quam propter hoc jusseram cum simulacris numinum afferri, thure ac vino supplicarent, praeterea maledicerent Christo, quorum nihil cogi posse dicuntur, qui sunt revera Christiani; ergo dimitlendos putavi. Alii ab indice nominati, esse se Christianos dixerunt, et mox negaverunt: fuisse quidem, sed desisse, quidam ante triennium, quidem ante plures annos, nonnemo etiam ante viginti quoque. Omnes et imaginem Tuam, Deorumque simulacra yenerati sunt, et Christo maledixerunt. Affirmabant autem, bancfuisse suramam vel culpae suae vel erroris, quod essent soliti state die ante lucem convenire, carmenque Christo quasi Deo dicere secum invicem; seque Sacramento non in scelus aliquod obstringere, sed ne f'urta, ne latrocinia, ne adulteria committerent, ne fidem fallerent, ne depositum appellali abnegarent; quibus peractis, inorem sibi discedendi fuisse rursusque coeundi ad capiendum cibum, promiscuum tamen et innoxium: quod ipsum facere desisse post edictum meum, quo secundum mandata tua haetarias esse velueram. Quo magis necessarium credidi, ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri et per tormenta quaerere. Sed nihil aliud inveni, quam superstitionem pravam et immodicam. Ideo dilata cognitione ad consulendum Te decurri. Visa est enim mihi res digna consultatione, maxime propter periclitantium numerum. Multi enim omnis aetatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus etiam, vocantur in periculum et vocabuntur: neque enim civitates tantum, sed vices etiam atque agros, superstilionis istus contagio pervagata est. Quae videtur sisti et corrigi posse. Certe satis constat, prope jam desolata tem.pla coepisse celebrari, et sacra solennia diu intermissa repeti, passimque venire victimas, quarum adhuc rarissimus emtor inveniebatur. Ex quo facile est opinari, quae turba hominum emendari possit, si sit poenitentiae locus.
Actum, quern debuisti, mi Secunde, in excutiendis causis eorum, qui Christiani ad te delati fuerant, secutus es. Neque enim in universum aliquid, quod quasi certam formam habeat, constitui potest. Conquaerendi non sunt: si deferantur et arguantur, puniendi sunt; ita tamen, ut qui negaverit se Christianum esse, idque re ipsa manifestum fecerit, i. e., supplicando Diis nostris, quamvis suspectus in praeteritum fuerit, veniam ex poenitentia impetret. Sine autore vero propositi libelli, nullo crimine locum habere debent: nam et pessimi exempli nee nostri seculi est. – Ep. Lib. X. p. 96, 97; al 97, 98. Edit. Gierig. Vol. II. 1802. p. 498.
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan.
"It is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to the ages of the guilty, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or, if a man has once been a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession, are punishable; in all these points I am greatly doubtful. In the mean while, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians, is this: – I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed, I repeated the question twice again, adding threats at the same time; when, if they still persevered, I ordered them to be immediately punished; for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, that a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction. There were others also brought before me, possessed whh the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome I directed them to be carried thither. But this crime spreading, (as is usually the case,) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred. An information was presented to me without any name prescribed, containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and frankincense before your statue, (which for this purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods,) and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into a compliance with any of these articles. I thought proper, therefore, to discharge them. Some of those who were accused by a witness in person, at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; while the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) forsaken that error. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, throwing out imprecations also at the same time against the name of Christ. They affirmed that the whole of their guilt or error was, that they met on a certain stated day before it was light and addressed themselves in a form of prayer to Christ, as to some god, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery; never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then re-assemble, to eat in common a harmless meal. From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, 1 judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to administer in their religious functions: but I could discover nothing more than an absurd and excessive superstition. I thought proper, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings in this affair, in order to consult with you. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these persecutions, this inquiry having already extended, and being still likely to extend, to perso
ns of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the country villages. Nevertheless it still seems possible to remedy this evil, and restrain its progress. The temples, at least, which were almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred solemnities after a long intermission are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine, what numbers might be reclaimed from this error if a pardon were granted to those who shall repent."
Teajan to Pliny.
"The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in the proceedings against those Christians which were brought before you, is extremely proper; as it is not possible to lay down any fixed plan, by which to act in all cases of this nature. But I would not have you officiously enter into any inquiries concerning them. If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with this restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Informations without the accuser's name subscribed ought not to be received in prosecutions of any sort; as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to the equity of my government."
From this record of antiquity, we learn several important particulars respecting the early Christians.
- That they were accustomed to meet on a certain stated day for religious worship – whether on the first or last day of the week, does not appear.
- Their meetings were held in the morning before day-light – doubtless that they might the better avoid the notice of their enemies.
- They appear not to have had, at this time, any stated place of worship.
- They worshipped Christ as God. The phrase, carmen Chrisio quasi Deo dicere secum invicem, may imply any short ascription of praise to Christ, a doxology, a prayer, a psalm, or hymn, in prose or verse, though the latter is most probable. Christ was the object of worship to whom they offered this doxology or prayer, rehearsing it alternately, or in responses.
It appears from this passage that these Christians were not only acquainted with the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, but manifested great boldness in asserting it.
- They celebrated the sacrament and their love-feasts in these assemblies. This is implied in their binding themselves by a solemn oath not to commit sin, and in their coming together to take bread, "ad capiendum cibum promiscuum tamen et innoxium." These religious rites appear also to have been accompanied with the reading and exposition of the Scriptures. It seems to be included in these solemnities, though it is not distinctly mentioned.
- This epistle bears honorable testimony to unflinching steadfastness of faith in these Christians, which Pliny styles an absurd and excessive superstition.
- This epistle affords a striking proof of the early and extensive propagation of Christianity, and of its tendency to overthrow idolatry. It also confirms the statements of the early apologists respecting the same points, while it establishes our confidence in their statements where we have not, as in this case, the testimony of contemporary writers.
Lucian of Samosata travelled in Syria, Asia Minor, Italy, and France, and had the best means of becoming acquainted with the Christians who had already become numerous in those countries. From his frequent and reproachful mention of the Christians of his day, we may collect the following particulars.
- He speaks of the followers of Christ by their appropriate name, Christians, though in speaking of them he usually employs some reproachful epithet.
- He speaks of the author of this religion as one who lived in Palestine and was crucified. He styles him a great man, and says that his followers reverence him as their lawgiver.
- He denominates their religious teachers, prophets, masters of the synagogue, and rulers.
- He, in common with many of the fathers, calls their rites of worship, new mysteries.
- He particularly mentions the fraternity of Christians, their denial of the gods of the Greeks, and their worshipping of Him crucified.
- He records their readiness to relieve and to support those who were sick or in prison.
- He mentions their manifold meals*, referring obviously to their agapae and sacramental suppers, possibly to abuses similar to those which are reproved by the apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 11:20–22.
- It is observable also that Lucian makes mention of the sacred books of the Christians; and also
- Of their community of goods, as is described Acts 4:32–37; and,
Finally, of certain prohibited articles, as by the church at Jerusalem they were required to abstain from things strangled and from blood; – all which evinces their piety and benevolence and diligence in the christian life.
Suetonius, Vit. Ner. c. 16; Vit. Claud, c. 25.
Tzschirner, Graeci et Romani Scriptores cur rerum christianarummeminerint. Lips. 1824. 4; G. A. Osiander, Ueber die Ausbreitung des Chrisienthums.
J. H. Boehrner, Dissertat. xii. juris eccles. antiqui ad Pliniuna Secundum et Tertullianum. Hal. 1729. 8.
De Morte Perigrini, opp. edit. Bipont. vol. viii. p. 272 seq.; Philopseudes, vol. vii. p. 266; Pseudomantis, vol. v. p. 63 seq.; Ch. G. Fr. Walcb, Explicatio rerum christianarum apud Lucianum; Eichstadt, Lucianus nura scriptis suis adjuvare religionem chr. voluerit. Jenae, 1820. 4.
It was one of the privileges of a Roman citizen, secured by the Sempronian law, that he could not be capitally convicted but by the suffrage of the people; which seems to have been still so far in force, as to make it necessary to send the persons here mentioned to Rome. – Melmoth.
(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)