Perspectives On First Century Christianity


Part of a presentation to the United Methodist Men
Corkran Memorial United Methodist Church
10 March 1990
Ben H. Swett

A Roman

Christians? Yes, I know something about Christians. Pretty good people, most of them. Never gave me any problems. They make good neighbors. Willing to work. They stay out of trouble, pay their taxes and keep their kids in line. And they're always happy--even when somebody is trying to kill them. I don't understand that. I don't see how they can be so happy, but that's the way they are.

Yeah, I know Nero said they burned Rome, but Nero was out of his mind. He was just looking for somebody to blame, and he picked the Christians because they don't fight back. Anybody with a lick of sense knows they're harmless.

Well, think back: they worship the same god as the Jews, but they didn't fight in the Jewish rebellion. When Vespasian went to Judea, they stayed out of his way. And they ran before Titus leveled Jerusalem. They didn't fight at all. So, as I said, the main thing I know about Christians is the fact they are harmless. I don't see why Domitian is still trying to kill them. He says they're a threat to our religion--but who knows? Maybe they're right. Maybe their god is just Jupiter by another name.

No, I don't know much about their religion, except their leader was a rabbi named Jesus. He was crucified by Pontius Pilate almost sixty years ago. I don't know why. A lot of people said the Jews put him up to it, but I was just a boy then, and I never did keep track of all the squabbles among the Jews.

A Greek

I've studied the Christians to some extent and observed what they do. Their religion is apparently something like one of our mystery religions, with inner circles of initiation, even though it's an offshoot of Judaism. I don't know what they do in their inner circles, but they meet once a week for some kind of a private feast. They've been overheard singing and talking and laughing, but they don't cause a disturbance. Their meetings are more like a Jewish family gathering than a Greek or Roman Bacchanal.

Their public behavior is remarkable--and rather strange--in two ways.

First, they actually practice premarital chastity and marital fidelity--if you can believe such a thing--and they don't abandon their infants. Of course, chastity and fidelity mean they don't have so many unwanted children to get rid of, but even so, they keep every child born to them. I don't know why they're so strict about all this--and it doesn't seem natural--but it's typical of all the Christians I know, so it must be part of their religion.

The other thing is their funerals. People are naturally grief-stricken at funerals--even the Stoics let you know how they feel--but a Christian funeral is like a party. They don't weep and wail, and they don't hire professional mourners. When they're not being persecuted, they sing joyful songs and laugh and dance, and escort the coffin to the graveyard like the deceased was going out of town on a journey. Of course, many of our own philosophers have said that the soul of man is immortal--and from watching their faces at funerals, I think the Christians actually believe it.

A Jew

Christians say they worship our God, but it is not true. They talk about the law but they do not keep it. Many are not even circumcised. They quote the prophets but ignore the tradition. They do not keep themselves pure. They eat and drink with sinners, and they welcome gentiles into their fellowship.

They claim their leader was the Lord's Messiah, but he was not. He did not bring in the Messianic age, and he did not lead Israel to victory. In fact, neither he nor his followers did anything to prevent the utter destruction of the Temple, the city, and the entire nation. And yet his followers still claim to be the true Israel, the only faithful Jews among the scattered remnant of our people. It is simply not so.

Their leader was tried by the Sanhedrin, and found guilty of blasphemy, because he said he was equal to God. He was executed, but his followers say that he rose from the dead. Now they pray to him, as though he were God. This is idolatry, forbidden by the first commandment.

Worse, they say they listen to him as our prophets listened to God. If that is true, what they are actually doing is calling up a dead man and conversing with him. This is necromancy--an abomination to God punishable by death, according to the law.

No, whatever else may be said of them, Christians are not Jews. They are idolators and necromancers. It is even said they drink blood and eat human flesh at their feasts.

A Christian

Yes, we meet at night, with a guard at the door, instructed to let in only those she knows well. We gather in a room with no windows and only a few lamps. There is always a back door through which we can escape.

Some of us are Jews; some are Greeks or Romans. Some are citizens; many are slaves. But we are all Christians, disciples of Jesus the Christ.

We think he was born about 90 years ago--that's why we call this the 90th year of our Lord. We believe he was crucified in 33, but we're not sure. All we have are some partial accounts of his life and teachings, plus a few copies of copies of letters from Paul or one of the others. The Lord's first disciples are almost all gone now. There are rumors that John is alive, but he is not here and we don't know where he is. Peter and Paul and many others were killed in 64, when Rome burned and Nero blamed it on us.

The Jews rebelled against Rome in 67. When the Christians in Jerusalem saw the city surrounded by armies, they remembered what Jesus said about that, and fled across Jordan to Pella, in the desert. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70, and by the time the fortress at Masada fell in 73, they had crushed the entire Jewish nation. Now they are after us, too. The three generals who decimated the Jews each became Emperor, one after the other--Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. Now, we must hide because Domitian is trying to restore the Roman religion. He executes both Christians and Jews.

So ... why do we slip out at night, away from our masters and hiding from the Romans, to meet in caves and catacombs and darkened rooms? We come because we have found what Jesus meant when he said "The Kingdom of Heaven is within reach." We have found that kingdom. It is not of this earth, but it is within reach. It is filled with love and joy and peace and patience and gentleness and kindness and goodness and mercy. In that kingdom, there is no more death or disease or despair. It is real, and we are already part of it, here and now.

We meet to inquire of the Lord and receive his messages. Jesus is our teacher, but he is now in heaven, so at least one of us must be a prophet through whom he can communicate. That way, through our prophets, we have come to know Jesus personally, even though none of us here actually met him in the flesh.

We know that God is good because we know Jesus, and Jesus is good. He and the holy ghosts who work for him know what they are talking about, and they have our best interests at heart. They have proved that to us.

Yes, we know we could communicate with bad ghosts or confused ghosts, but we also know they would lie to us and lead us astray, so we don't listen to them. We only listen to Jesus and those who carry his messages. And we discuss, evaluate, test every message to make sure it comes from the Lord. How? We know them by their fruits, as Jesus said and continues to say.

We have no priesthood, no temple, and no hierarchy. We elect as our leaders those anointed by God. How do we know whom God has anointed? We ask Jesus and listen for his reply. And we know them by their fruits.

We take care of our own, and then reach out to our neighbors. We feed our own widows and orphans, but all who can must earn their own living. We also help other congregations, if they are in dire need, but we do not dilute our efforts. We have no synagogues or other church property. We survive by obeying the Roman law and doing whatever else is necessary to be known as harmless good citizens. That way, the Romans are more likely to let us alone.

Finally, we know what we believe and why we believe it, because our beliefs are based on experience. We avoid superstition and place no value in rituals. We have sought for and found the Kingdom of Heaven. We are all citizens of that kingdom, and that is more than enough for us, here and hereafter.