Early Christianity II
December 13, 2008 1 Comment
The Roman Empire was home to more than 60 million people and dozens of religions in the first century CE. Rome was a city of a million+ people. To spread the word of Jesus, the missionaries now had to spread through that empire, and the first into Rome was the Galilean fisherman, Peter.
Pagans were asking question, “What was going to happen to me when I died? How do I get forgiveness from sin?” The Christian church was saying, “We can provide you with those answers.” If you believe in the resurrected Jesus you will win eternal life. That was the message that had huge appeal across the Roman Empire.
The Romans had built roads throughout the whole empire. They had gotten rid of most of the pirates that were on the seas. They had a common currency throughout the empire. Travel was possible and relatively safe, so it wasn’t unusual for someone like Paul to be able to travel to different places.
There were over a million Jews in Egypt and Alexandria; there were Jews in Damascus, Antioch, Athens, and Rome. For the early Christian followers of Jesus, some of these Jews would have provided missionaries a home, a base from which they could reach other Jews…as well as Gentiles.
Paul never stopped. He traveled on foot across the great land mass of Asia Minor and by sea, across the Aegean.
Religiously speaking, Paul was a genius. Paul set up Christian communities; he directed them from afar by writing letters, or epistles, to keep them on the message of Jesus. He preached everywhere, from small towns to the center of world culture, Athens. He convinced philosophers and common men alike that God had sent his son, Jesus, to die and save everyone from sin. Paul’s epistles to the various Christian communities are the earliest surviving Christian documents; they are older than the gospels.
Emperor Nero famously fiddled when a fire destroyed much of imperial Rome. When the city burned the Christians fall under suspicion. Nero realizes the Christians are the scapegoats, the natural scapegoats.
He had some of them burned as human torches in his gardens. He had others wrapped in animal skins and set wild dogs upon them. This was the first persecution of Christians by a Roman emperor. The reasons Christians were persecuted was not because it was illegal to be a Christian; they were persecuted because they were known to be troublemakers and would not give their allegiance to the Emperors.
Among Nero’s victims were the two most important leaders of the early Christian church. Peter had been living and preaching in Rome. Paul had been living under house arrest. Now, they were both condemned to death for their faith. Peter is not a citizen of the Roman Empire and so he is able to be crucified. He is crucified upside down, because he did not feel that he was worthy to die in the same manner that Jesus did. Paul, who had spread Christianity throughout the empire, was beheaded.
Two years earlier, James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned to death in Jerusalem. Now, Peter and Paul were gone. The very hearts and souls of early Christianity were now gone. If Jesus/God hadn’t saved these three, what was ahead for Christianity?
Christians weren’t the only ones facing martyrdom. In Judea, the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism was about to undergo the most horrific trial in its tortured history. Rebellion and war with Rome loomed. The terrible outcome would further open the growing rift between Jews and Christians for the next 2,000 years.
In the year 66 AD, the Jews of Israel had had enough of their Roman masters and they launched a revolt that would permanently divide them from their Christian brothers. This was a serious uprising in which Jews decided to throw out the Roman oppressors and establish a sovereign state of Israel. The Romans sent in legions from Assyria and fought their way south through Galilee to Jerusalem, the fortress of the Jewish rebels.
The Jews made the tactical mistake of all assembling in Jerusalem around that temple. Then they started to fight among themselves about what to do, and how to defend themselves. Then, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman general, Titus, surrounded Jerusalem and cut off the city’s food and water in an attempt to starve the people out. Then Titus and his troops breached the walls of Jerusalem. They attacked the temple and slaughtered more than half a million Jews with sword, fire and crucifixion.
The Temple Mount was a huge area. Much of it was plated with gold and with fine wood. Every Jew had an obligation to make three pilgrimages a year to the temple in Jerusalem, and people who lived in Judea took that obligation very seriously. The idea of pilgrimage was central to Jewish identity. The temple’s importance to the Jews made it the perfect target for the Romans to make clear exactly who was king of the Jews…Rome. The Romans burned the temple to the ground and Titus and his men seized the spoils of war.
As all conquerors do, they took the wealth for themselves. The gold and silver were melted down, and these precious metals were actually used in the facing of the Roman coliseum, Jesus had prophesied the end of the temple. “Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.” The destruction of the temple was symbolic and devastating to the Jews. For the Christians, the destruction of the temple was punishment on the Jews for their rejection of Jesus.
Some of the Jewish rebels managed to escape and made their way to a hilltop fortress called Masada. But that also ended in tragedy when the Romans built a ramp to penetrate the fortress. The Jewish insurgency within the walls made a suicide pact. They killed one another until the last ones committed suicide. When the Romans finally surmounted the fortress, all they found were dead bodies.
With their rebellion crushed, hundreds of thousands dead and their temple gone, the Jews were in real danger of disappearing altogether. There was no Temple, no leadership. This had been in place for nearly a 1,000 years. Now all was lost.
It wasn’t quite over though. A rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, had escaped besieged Jerusalem by being smuggled out in a coffin. He made an appeal to the newly appointed emperor, Vespasian, asking to set up a peaceful rabbinical academy in the town of Yavneh, promising that it would be purely religious and not military or political in nature. Surprisingly, Vespasian agreed and a year later, in 70 A.D., the rabbi’s academy opened and was Judaism’s last hope.
The rabbi brought scholars together in Yavneh and for the first time built what would become the basis for a new type of Judaism that would run parallel with the beginnings of Christianity. From the ruins of the temple, two separate, distinct faiths would emerge…
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