The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesusby John Dominic Crossan, Crossan
John Dominic Crossan, expert on the historical Jesus, explores the lost years of earliest Christianity, those immediately following the execution of Jesus. He establishes the contextual setting by an interdisciplinary combination of anthropological, historical, and archaeological approaches. He identifies the textual sources by a literary analysis of the earliest… See more details below
John Dominic Crossan, expert on the historical Jesus, explores the lost years of earliest Christianity, those immediately following the execution of Jesus. He establishes the contextual setting by an interdisciplinary combination of anthropological, historical, and archaeological approaches. He identifies the textual sources by a literary analysis of the earliest discernible layers within our present gospels, both inside and outside the New Testament. Context and text come together to challenge long-standing assumptions about the role of Paul and the meaning of resurrection, and to forge new understanding of the birth of the Christian church.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
Voices of the First Outsiders
Chronologically the first pagan to mention Christians was Pliny in 111, after him Tacitus in 115 and then Suetonius after 122. From among these three Pliny describes a situation in 111 a.d., and Tacitus deals with the fire of Rome in 64 a.d. But Suetonius in addition to Nero's persecution [in a.d. 64], refers to an incident [in a.d. 49] which is interpreted by some as having to do with Christianity prior to the fire of Rome.
Stephen Benko, "Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the
First Two Centuries a.d.," ANRW 2.23, p. 1056
Three pagan Roman authors, writing within a few years of one another at the start of the second century, agreed completely and emphatically on the nature of the Christian religion. Pliny was a correspondent of Tacitus and a friend of Suetonius, the former both imperial governors from the highest echelons of the aristocracy, the latter an imperial secretary from its middle reaches. They concurred that Christianity was a "superstition" and differed only on the most appropriate negative adjectives to accompany that pejorative term. These are their considered judgments:
"a depraved and excessive superstition" (superstitio prava, immodica)
"this contagious superstition" (superstitionis istius contagio)
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, Letters 10.96
"pernicious superstition" (exitiabilis superstitio)
Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Annals 15.44.3
"a new and mischievous [or: magical] superstition" (superstitio nova et malefica)
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Lives of the Caesars: Nero 16.2
For those first pagan outsiders, Christianity was, cumulatively, a depraved, excessive, contagious, pernicious,new, and mischievous superstition. Religion, to put it bluntly, was what aristocratic Romans did; superstition was what others did--especially those unseemly types from regions east of Italy.
A Depraved Superstition
Cicero is generally thought to be the most representative of the great writers of the late Republic, and his letters provide the most revealing information about his times. It is 150 years before the Empire has its letter-writer in Pliny. He has left a more faithful and less prejudiced picture of Rome as he knew
it than did any of his contemporaries, and in him we can see best how a Roman of his class lived and thought at the turn of the first century.
Betty Radice, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, p. 12
Among aristocratic Roman writers, we learn most about earliest Christianity from Pliny the Younger, so called to distinguish him from his uncle, Pliny the Elder, commander of the western Mediterranean fleet, who died during Vesuvius's eruption in 79 c.e. The emperor Trajan sent the younger Pliny as his emergency legate to Bithynia-Pontus on the Black Sea's southern coast, a disturbed province that had brought official charges against its two preceding governors. He arrived there in the late summer of 111 but was dead, business unfinished, within two years.
In the midst of his tour he encountered accusations against the Christians in a city of northern Pontus. These attacks were probably put forward by pagans whose temples and sacrifices were economically damaged by Christian monotheism. The reversal of that social situation is, at least, the good result Pliny reports from his actions (Radice 1969:2.404-405).
'Tis certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance. (Pliny, Letters 10.96)
I cite in great detail the report he sent back to Trajan about that situation, as well as the imperial reply to his queries. It is an extraordinary interchange. In reading it, recognize that this is the moment when pagan Rome chose the official program of reaction that would eventually lead to Christian victory.
Pliny's actions developed over two stages. First, those Christians who had been denounced to him were brought before his tribunal (Radice 1969:2.401-403).
I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment;
if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither. (Pliny, Letters 10.96)
Those first trials were probably of the more obvious leaders, more distinguished members, or more aggressive proponents of local Christianity. The impression is left that these all confessed and died as martyrs. And their ac-
cusers were apparently named and known individuals. But then something happened that moved the process to a second and more serious stage (Radice 1969:2.402-403).
These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the Gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the Gods, and who finally cursed Christ--none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing--these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, and a few as much as twenty-five years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the Gods, and cursed Christ. (Pliny, Letters 10.96)
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