We Are Old: An Argument for Christian Legitimacy

19 Aug

Early Christians used a variety of arguments as they looked for recognition by Roman authorities as a legitimate religion/philosophical school. One of these which I find interesting is that Christianity should be viewed as old, a progression of a belief system which predates, in some cases, pretty much everything else.

One of the very earliest Christian themes, evolving from the time when it was still another Jewish sect, was apocalyptic. The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabus, Ignatius and many others argued that The Last Days, if not having already begun, were very near. As things progress into the middle of the second century another theme begins to gain importance; arguments supporting Christianity not as a recently founded religion but as a belief system of great antiquity. A key to understanding why this is important is to consider Roman attitudes toward tradition and the status of Judaism in the Empire.

Judaism enjoyed a rather unique status, particularly prior to the rebellion of 66-73 and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-35. Jews were granted the freedom to practice their own religion and, largely, exempted from having to offer obeisance to Roman Gods or the Emperor. This freedom was not absolute throughout the Empire or over time, however it was largely in effect in Judea and Jerusalem. While I’m not going to get into this, it can be argued whether Judaism was actually monotheistic as some Jews did not deny the existence of the Roman Gods but stated that their obedience was given to Yahweh and they had been ordered to “have no other God before him.” Some Jews even made offerings to Roman Gods and the Emperor while maintaining that, though they did not wish the Roman Gods or Emperor ill, their reverence was reserved for their own God. This is an interesting topic in and of itself but isn’t something I’m going to explore here.

Chief among the reasons given for Jews possessing this status is that they had been following their God and practicing their rites well before they had entered the empire. The Romans placed a great deal of value on tradition and the antiquity of these types of practices. Because Judaism was ancient and because Jews had been following the same belief system and practices for so long, the Romans saw this as legitimate (to an extent, some still named it superstitio which implies an invalidity) and allowed them to continue. 1

Christianity, from the time when it began to split from Judaism, did not enjoy this status. It was illegal. By not offering prayers and sacrifices to Roman deities and Emperors, Christians were endangering the state. While persecution to the point of creating martyrs occurred relatively infrequently, it’s likely that Christians were discriminated against on a fairly constant basis. They were forced to conduct their religious observances in secret, in small groups in private houses. If you were openly Christian you were less likely to hold public office and often were excluded from various aspects of Roman life. 2

Ancient Christian authors set out to correct this. They used a variety of strategies to demonstrate the validity and antiquity of Christianity. One of the most dominant themes was that Christ and the concept of Christ was not new but could be found in the oldest Jewish writings. Christ had existed from the beginning and if you read the Old Testament correctly, there was plenty of evidence for this and plenty of evidence that the man who had walked about Judea, who had been tried, crucified and resurrected, was frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, specifically enough to know beyond all doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the person prophesied about. Christians, not Jews, were practicing an ancient religion which should be given legal status by Rome. They were the followers of the ancestral faith and should inherit the rights enjoyed by the Jews. Christians were simply following what had long been prophesied and had come to pass while Jews were stuck in the past, worshiping in a manner which did not recognize the truth of the scriptures.

A great deal of this comes across as anti-Jewish polemic. If I were a researcher in this area it would be interesting to argue whether this is from outright antagonism toward Judaism or more of a usurpation of the Judaic place in society as the legitimate inheritor of Moses and Abraham. I’m not going to footnote specifics as this theme is so dominant but among those writing along these lines are Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, Melito, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and I’m sure there are plenty more. If you want to see how far they were willing to go to rewrite the Old Testament to account for Christ, see Barnabas. When I was reading him I was pretty sure he and I weren’t talking about the same book. He and Clement are more, er, creative. Most of the others restrict themselves to an examination of the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah.

Isaiah_(Bible_Card)The Prophet Isaiah, Bible card from Wikimedia Commons. He gets most
of the credit among early Christians for predicting the coming of Christ.

As time went on, these arguments progressed. With Justin Martyr we first discover that not only are Christians following written texts of great antiquity but so, indirectly, are the Romans. Moses predates anything written by the Greeks and Justin directly attributes concepts in Greek philosophy to Moses. Many of Plato’s ideas come from Moses. 3 While Irenaeus ignores this argument Tatian uses it and Clement of Alexandria in the Stromata absolutely rolls with it. According to Clement the Greeks seem not to have had an original idea they can call their own. Everything they wrote about came from the Jews, or Egyptians, or Barbarians.

The early Christians used plenty of other arguments to try to gain legitimacy, many of which I touched on in my post on the Apologists. This argument for the antiquity of their religion; despite no longer sacrificing, eating the same foods, following the same ritual cleansing as Jews and; adding baptism, the Eucharist and other rituals to their religion is something I find very interesting. 4

1 This respect for the Jews observing their ancestral traditions is noted as late as 361-3 in a letter from the Emperor Julian (letter 20 in the Loeb edition) to High Priest Theodorus in which Julian states that Jews do not break the law in their worship.

2 Eusebius, Ecclesiatical History V.1.5. Eusebius provides the letter from the Church of Lyons about the persecution it suffered in 177. At the start of the persecution, before the trials and executions, “For the adversary assailed us with his whole strength, giving us already a prelude, how unbridled his future movements among us would be. And, indeed, he resorted to every means, to accustom his own servants against those of God, so that we should not only be excluded from houses, baths, and markets, but every thing belonging to us was prohibited from appearing in any place whatsoever.” I haven’t read an analysis of this but it wouldn’t surprise me if this type of activity, preventing Christians from fully participating in Roman life, was fairly common. Keep in mind that Christians were often cautioned from mingling with pagans any more than they had to and, at least in Lyons, they were likely a Greek-speaking minority (at the very least they practiced their religion in Greek) in a Latin city. So you had an isolated minority group which spoke a different language, did not worship the Roman Gods, and kept to themselves. Discrimination would not be surprising.

3 Justin Martyr, First Apology 59.

4 To be clear, the specific arguments used by the various authors become tedious (some of these are extremely long-winded and I haven’t even gotten to Tertullian) but I find the overall strategy intriguing.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Kleist, James A., trans & ed., Ancient Christian Writers Volume 6: The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabus, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus, Mahwah, NJ, USA: Paulist Press (1948). ISBN: 978-0-8091-0247-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VIII: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-090-4.

Wright, Wilmer Cave, trans., The Works of the Emperor Julian, Volume III, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1923). ISBN: 978-0-674-99173-6.


Posted by on August 19, 2013 in Religion


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3 responses to “We Are Old: An Argument for Christian Legitimacy

  1. Michael Stewart

    August 19, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Thanks for another interesting post. Julian’s writings have some interesting thoughts on opponents views on Jews and Christians in the fourth century.
    Julian, who tended to believe that each ethnos should have its own religion (Against the Galilaens 143 a), also attacked the “‘Galilaens” and the Jews as conquered and therefore unmanly peoples. (116 A) He suggests that only the Greeks and the Romans had been able to combine political and martial virtues. Moses is condemned as a far inferior intellectual and far less of a role model than men like Plato and Aristotle. He also questions why Christians, who he attacks as a sect of the Jews, would join a new-fangled religion of just over 300 years led by a man, Jesus, who in the emperor’s mind had accomplished, very little in his lifetime, and, indeed, was little better than a slave. He continues by mocking Christians supposed pacifism (218B)…a motif that would have been popular amongst most Romans of the time. Indeed, in contrast to much modern literature on Late Antiquity, for most Romans and Byzantines Romanitas was defined by militarism and Rome’s martial legacy. Thus, Julian’s question to his opponents to name one Jewish general who was the equal to Alexander or Caesar (218A). Of course the majority of Julian’s readers would have recognised the serious flaws in the emperors arguments, but they are interesting reading. I have argued elsewhere that Julian’s latter admirers Eunapius and Ammianus made much more of the apostate’s martial prowess and martial deeds than his religious position, which by the opening of the fifth century looked increasingly implausible.


  2. persnicketythecat

    August 28, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    I guess I’m not not surprised. Apparently, somehow something being “ancient” seems to make it more valid. Many new religious movements are viewed as weird cults, like the Romans viewed Christianity…


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