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The Christians as the Romans Saw Them
by: Stephen C. Lomax
Because we are especially familiar with the historical record of the times left us by the Church fathers and apologists in the generations directly succeeding the apostles, we are apt to overlook any other. Pagan observations of the Christians living amongst them indeed are meager in comparison to the documentation we have from Christians themselves. Our knowledge, for example, of Celsus’ charges come not from a surviving document authored by him, but from the many quotes from Celsus contested by the early Church father, Origin, in his massive eight volume polemic, Contra Celsus (Contra Celsum). Thus the existing record tends to confirm the adage that history is written by the victors for, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD, Christianity became state-sanctioned under revised religious toleration statutes. Many pagan manuscripts explicitly critical of Christians and the Church were destroyed in due time.
The Roman citizen in the street at that time (commendable cultural traits are accentuated) was pious in ritual observances, zealously honored his ancestors, and his religion was largely of a “civil” type (religion bound to the State), featuring “Emperor worship.” He was orderly, industrious, a respecter of subordination, disciplined but enterprising, possessed an original genius for organization, temperamentally favored action over contemplation, and was open to foreign influences, all of which served things practical rather than abstract. Much of this seems distinctly American.
At the same time, the Romans were energetically extending themselves in every direction through road-building, their legions on the march or under sail. The Roman Empire is a hitherto unexampled demonstration of how a moderately gifted people -- for they never produced a Plato, Aristotle, or Thucydides -- could rise and rule for hundreds of years over virtually the entire known world.
These are the people, along with Jews living in Rome, in words the Holy Spirit communicated to him by inspiration (II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:21) to whom St. Paul wrote. Soon enough reproach and cruel pitiless persecution would be inflicted on the earliest Christians by the greater pagan society surrounding them. Though some Emperors were more temperate and equitable than others, it is nonetheless obvious from that which we will read that most pagan Romans found Christians a detestable and strange people. They also found many Christians to be intractably faithful to Christ even under threat of death....