Christianity: the ‘hidden’ first 25 years

In this guest blog post, Peter May explores the ‘hidden’ first 25 years of the Christian faith, examining the impact of Jesus on the ancient world of his time.

An astonishing claim

Famously, Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ But when I first read that passage as a sceptical teenager, I found it very puzzling. Did Jesus actually say that? It is not recorded in the other three Gospels – Matthew, Mark or Luke – which are all thought to have been written before John. It is such a prophetic claim to make. However, I soon found that Jesus said something very similar in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. He told his followers, ‘You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before mankind, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’

His hearers would only be lights to the world to the extent that they were genuinely drawing on his light, modelling his behaviour and obeying his teaching. So Matthew’s account is entirely consistent with John’s, though expressed rather differently. In both passages, the character of Christ is seen as the light of the world, revealing God the Father, who sent him into the world. ‘If you knew me,’ said Jesus, ‘you would know my Father also.’ So Jesus claimed to reveal the character of God.

Now, I had great difficulty imagining anyone claiming to be the Light of the World. But if Jesus did not say it, then John, or whoever wrote his Gospel, must have invented it. And even if that was the case, it was still said by someone about Jesus in the first century and taken seriously at that time. More than that, we can look back over 2,000 years and see how it worked out. We might well ask if there is anyone else, in the entire history of the world, who could in any meaningful sense have claimed to be ‘the Light of the World’?

Try to imagine anyone today making such a claim in public. Would anyone believe them? Can you imagine any other figure of history claiming to be the Light of the World? Any political figure – Barack Obama? Any philosopher – Aristotle? Any religious figure – the Pope or Mohammed? It is one thing to say a person is an inspiration and an outstanding luminary in his field, but quite another to say that he personally is the light of the world – it seems impossible to imagine. It would surely be evidence of madness, and within a generation such madness would be entirely forgotten. Yet when John wrote his Gospel, it was widely accepted that Jesus said it of himself. It was deemed credible then, and remains credible today. But did anyone 2,000 years ago know how Christ would impact the world and that this claim would so dramatically stand the test of time?

To set the context of this claim, I need to talk for a while about history. Bear with me! Try to keep in mind that the current evidence strongly indicates that Christ was crucified in AD 33. Yet, from the secular record outside the New Testament, very little is known about Christ or his followers over the next 25 years. These are hidden years, and that troubled me. Virtually all we know about that first generation of Christians is recorded in the New Testament, which of course is not a book but a collection of 27 different historical Christian documents, diverse pieces of literature including biographies, histories and letters. But why this historical silence from the secular historians of the day?

They weren’t called Christians

One of the key reasons that the Jesus movement was initially hidden from view is that the first Christians were all Jews and were known as Jews. They met in the synagogues and gathered for festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. They believed their long-awaited Messiah had come, and for the first ten years, the Jewish disciples were almost entirely consumed in proclaiming the Jewish Messiah to the dispersed Jewish people. As such, Christ was a Jew and was seen to be of interest only to the Jews, who lived in their well-defined, segregated, difficult-to-understand Jewish cultural bubble.

It was about 10 years before there was a breakthrough into the pagan, Gentile world. That occurred around AD 43 in Antioch, which was the third largest city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. A major Mediterranean port, it was also situated at the end of the Silk Road from the east, facilitating in due course the spread of the Gospel to Asia. It was here that we are told by Luke that Christ’s followers were first identified as Christians. Why? Because these converts weren’t Jews; they hadn’t been Jews and weren’t going to become Jews. And remarkably, this breakthrough into the pagan Greek world was brought about by Jewish Christians, who had come from the Greek cultures of Cyrene in North Africa and Cyprus. (It is the little details in Luke that are so fascinating!)

So come with me now to Paul’s famous letter to the Christians in Rome. It is undisputed that this letter, called ‘Romans’, was written by Paul and that is has come down to us intact – we are very confident about the text of it, and it is thought to have been written around AD 57, within 25 years of Christ’s death. So let’s see what clues it gives us about those first 25 years of Christianity.

The Colosseum in Rome

Above: The Colosseum in Rome. Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash

The spreading flame

Paul’s letter begins with a formal introduction, but gets underway properly at verse 8. It seems as though he is bursting to speak: ‘First of all, I want to thank God that your faith is proclaimed in all the world.’ What does he mean? He doesn’t say ‘the faith,’ ‘our faith,’ or ‘my faith,’ but he says to the Romans that ‘your faith’ is proclaimed in all the world, within the first 25 years after Christ’s death! It has generally been believed that this statement was just conventional flattery, saying their reputation had gone before them and that everyone had heard about them. But it sounds to me that he is actually saying something much more interesting.

So now come with me to the last chapter of Romans. Paul finishes his letter with a long list of personal greetings. He has stated clearly that he has never been to Rome, yet he names almost 30 people in Rome whom he knows and is deeply indebted to. Two, he says, had risked their lives for him; one had been like a mother to him; two had been in prison with him and become Christians before he did; another was a dear friend who had worked hard.

Where did he meet these people? It wasn’t in Rome. And wherever they were, how is it that they are now all together in Rome?

This requires some detective work. We need to ask questions of the text (and after 50 years, I am still finding answers to my questions!). At the head of this long list of greetings, Paul names a Jew called Aquila and his wife Priscilla. They are mentioned six times in the New Testament, and we are told that they were tent makers. Luke says that Paul first met them in Corinth around AD 50. We are fairly clear about that date because we know from a stone inscription that Gallio was Proconsul in the region in AD 52, and after being there for 18 months Paul was hauled up before him.

The Emperor Claudius

Above: The Emperor Claudius. Photo: Egisto Sani under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The emperor’s edict

Luke records that Aquila and Priscilla had recently been expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius, who ordered all the Jews to leave Rome – a fascinating historical detail slipped into the script. Now, the Roman historian Suetonius confirms this and says that the Emperor’s edict was because of constant rioting among the Jews, instigated by someone called Chrestus. This is generally acknowledged to be either a misspelt or a Latinised reference to Christ. Another ancient writer tells us that this exodus of the Jews from Rome occurred in the 9th year of Claudius’s reign (that is, AD 49), which fits well with Luke.

In AD 53, Paul travelled with Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus and left them there, where they led a house church in their home. There they met a leading Jewish Christian who, interestingly, ‘was a native of Alexandria’ in Egypt, where there was a large Jewish community. He was called Apollos ‘and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus’. We are left to assume that he learned about Christ in Alexandria. They gave him some tutoring about baptism and sent him on to Corinth, where ‘he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.’

But in AD 54, the Emperor Claudius died, and his edict, expelling the Jews from Rome, would have died with him. This enabled the Jews to return home to Rome. So when Paul writes to the Roman Christians in AD 57, they have already returned home, including Priscilla and Aquila, who later would go back to Ephesus. Paul says he is longing to see them and hopes to visit them all on his way to Spain.

Thus the Jesus movement was so strong in Rome in AD 49, and caused so much disturbance among the Jews, that Claudius was forced to take drastic action. It is thought the Jews were about 10 percent of the population of Rome at that time. This would have been a major people movement, enabling the Christian Jews from Rome to spread their faith, as Paul put it, ‘all over the world.’ Priscilla and Aquila head the list, having played major roles in both Corinth and Ephesus (in modern day Greece and Turkey).

Christianity in Alexandria?

There is no clear reference to the progress of Christianity in Africa in the earliest years. It is important to note, however, that following the martyrdom of Stephen it was as easy for the persecuted disciples in Jerusalem to flee to Alexandria as to Antioch, and much easier for the Gospel to reach the Jews in Alexandria and Cyrene than in Rome.

There was, of course, two-way traffic, as large numbers of Jews dispersed around the Empire made regular pilgrimages back to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals. Vocal opposition from Alexandrian and Cyrenian Jews is first recorded by Luke in reaction to Stephen’s preaching, which led to his martyrdom. This, in turn, led to persecution, spreading the Gospel from Jerusalem and resulting in Paul’s conversion.

The Pax Romana – that is, the peace that existed between nations within the Empire, assisted by the Roman roads and the regular commercial traffic across the Mediterranean Sea (not least on the grain ships of Alexandria) – greatly facilitated the spread of Christianity.

In AD 42, the Emperor Claudius had written to the Alexandrians about reported rioting within their Jewish community, displaying ‘destructive and obstinate animosity against one another’. The causes are not stated, but Claudius told the Jews, ‘They must not bring in or invite Jews who sail in from Syria (i.e. Antioch) or Egypt… fomenting a general plague which infests the whole world.’ This language, as we shall see, is very similar to the charges made against Paul before Festus.

I have nearly done with the history lesson, but hang on! In AD 49, while the exodus was occurring from Rome, a thousand miles away and unrelated to the situation in Rome, Paul and Silas were dragged before the authorities in Philippi. The complaint was, ‘These men are Jews and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept and practice.’

Later that year, Paul was caught up in a riot in Thessalonica. Luke records that the mob shouted before the city officials of Thessalonica, ‘These men, who have caused trouble all over the world, have now come here. They are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus.’ So here is someone else saying that Christianity had spread all ‘over the world’, except that in this report, the trouble had been caused before AD 49.

Nine years later, around AD 58, at the end of the first 25 years, when Paul was hauled up before Governor Festus at Caesarea, the lawyer Tertullus is recorded as saying, ‘We have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect.’ So even then, Paul was still not identified as a Christian but as a member of a Jewish sect.

According to John, Jesus quoted the Jewish scriptures to say, ‘They hated me without reason,’ and predicted that his followers would be shut out of the synagogues. ‘In fact a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.’

So within the first 25 years of Christ’s crucifixion, the Jesus movement was spreading like wildfire across the ancient world, largely among the Jews. All four major cities of the Empire were affected, it seems – Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus. During the next 25 years, John recorded that Jesus claimed to be ‘the light of the world’. He wrote it at a time when Christ’s prophecy about the Jews was already being fulfilled.

The Emperor Claudius

Above: Roman sculpture in the Roman town of Myra, in what is now Turkey. Photo: Matt Create under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Exposed to the light

So we come back to our text. What does this phrase, ‘the light of the world,’ mean? I want now to briefly apply it to Christ’s teaching and character. The Roman Empire was a dark world: its cruelty was breathtaking. Instead of watching television or football, the major public entertainments for people were the Games. These games were often barbaric. Not only did gladiators fight to the death to amuse the people, but prisoners were fed to lions or publicly crucified in the arena. The emperor Nero apparently had a predilection for watching dwarfs fighting women to death – a refined taste, no doubt! He blamed Christians for the Fire of Rome and, soaking many of them in oil, he set fire to them in his gardens as a night-time spectacle.

The Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37) had been appallingly debauched. At his luxurious palace on Capri, his garden was called the Old Goat’s Garden, because there he sexually abused small boys, provided prostitutes for his guests and enjoyed watching them copulate. Even emperors commonly murdered with impunity, including their wives, mothers and, of course, rivals. There were no police or security forces, apart from the Imperial Guard in Rome to protect the emperor; the soldiers were mainly kept many miles away at the frontiers of the empire. So crime, violence, murder, tyranny and rioting were rife and unrestrained.

This was a male-dominated world, where in general women were uneducated and largely confined to domestic duties. Some 25 percent of the population were slaves, many of whom were sex slaves. Children commonly died in infancy and unwanted babies were exposed to the elements and left on rubbish dumps. Some 50 percent of children died before the age of 10, giving an average life expectation of around 25 years, though those who survived to adult life would live much longer.

The art which has survived describes the sexual mores of Roman society. The erect penis was seen as a good luck charm, found frequently in the homes and streets, carved in stone, celebrated in paintings, made into oil lamps for the table and even found on wind chimes with bells attached. Sex was high profile and, as in ancient Greece, paedophilia was common.

There were no hospitals or emergency services. As for religion, the Romans were deeply superstitious, worshipping a pantheon of invented gods. They even worshipped deceased emperors. Every home would have a shrine to the god of their choice. In Ephesus, for instance, they worshipped Diana the huntress and there was a major industry making silver goddesses for domestic shrines, causing another riot! In Pompeii, they had a major temple for the god Apollo and another for the Egyptian god Isis; other popular gods were Mythras from Persia and Bacchus, the god of wine. All these religions were tolerated and encouraged. These gods needed to be appeased by offering sacrifices to them, because you had to keep them on your side – you ignored them at your peril. Sexual immorality was a common feature of their religious feasts and festivals.

Even Judaism was tolerated. The one religion that was not tolerated in the Roman Empire was Christianity. As Professor Mary Beard has put it, ‘the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.’

Contrary to the decrees of Caesar, Jesus was proclaimed as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Name above every name, before whom every knee should bow. Where Jesus was proclaimed as the supreme Lord, riots followed.

So this was the culture that gradually and increasingly turned away from its home-made gods and superstitions, from sacrifices and sexual immorality, from violence and lawlessness to honesty, modesty, compassion and service – embracing King Jesus. Why? Because they saw him as the great light, which exposed their wickedness, while his death on the cross was seen as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, made ‘once and for all’ to bring them peace with God.

Roman slaves

Above: Roman slaves bound with collars, in a sculpture from Smyrna. Photo: Biker Jun under CC BY-SA 2.0

Consider the impact on slavery

Christ’s golden rule is that ‘in everything you do, you should treat other people as you would wish to be treated yourself.’ Now slavery could not be suddenly overthrown; it was a major structural part of the economy. Twenty-five percent of the population depended on it for housing, provision, security and employment. Christ’s golden rule, however, fundamentally undermined it. With it came the specific injunction that Christians should not be involved in the slave trade. Paul wrote ‘The law of God is for lawbreakers: for the sinful, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers and for whatever else is contrary to doctrine that conforms to the gospel.’

Elsewhere, he wrote, ‘For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… Have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret, but it is light that makes everything visible.’ Brave things to write from prison in Rome, while awaiting trial before the Emperor Nero, who had murdered his own mother and brother! It is hardly surprising they chopped Paul’s head off.

In the same letter, Paul wrote that those who owned slaves should treat them with respect and fear. ‘And do not threaten them,’ he wrote, ‘for he who is both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.’ And Christians were called to love their Christian slaves as brothers.

They were even to love their enemies. When Jesus was asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who put his life and his money on the line to care for a long-standing enemy, who would have hated him. So Christ called them and us to pursue truth and integrity, care and compassion, to help the vulnerable, to practise hospitality, to visit the prisoners, to honour little children and treat them as though they are representatives of God himself. ‘Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me.’ Small children are a sacred trust.

The early Christians visited the prisoners, supported the weak, were faithful to their marriage partners, rescued babies from the rubbish dumps, learned to turn the other cheek, and were peacemakers looking for reconciliation. They were called to wash one another’s feet. That is a slave’s job. The Christian answer to slavery was to become a slave to the best master the world has ever seen, to be a slave for Jesus, and, in his name, to humbly serve the world.

So the teaching of Christ shone like a very bright light revealing the iniquities of the ancient world. Yet the underlying issues have not changed. All those great evils are still common across the world today. So we too are called to let our light so shine before others, so that they would give honour to our Father in Heaven.

early Christian depiction of prayer

Above: An early Christian depiction of prayer. Photo: Nick in exsilio under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Prayers, plans and priorities

What was the prayer they prayed? It was very short:

‘Our Father in Heaven, may your name be honoured. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’ – that is the first half of the Lord’s Prayer, and these petitions should be the major petitions for all our prayers. We are to be utterly consumed by concern for God’s honour and his kingly rule in our lives.

What did they pray for themselves? Four basics: ‘Give us each day enough bread to live by, forgive us our sins by the same measure that we forgive others, keep us from temptation – don’t let us go near it, and deliver us from the grip of evil.’

End of message. That is what the Christians are called to live for. That is what Jesus taught them to pray for. Not ‘Give me loads of friends, surround me with comforts. Give me health and worldly success, make me famous and let me have enough money to travel the world and see everything there is to see.’ Jesus is calling us to be disciples to serve the world, not to join him on a holiday trip. He turned the world’s values upside down and, if we bow before him and acknowledge him as Lord, he will forgive us all our past sins and wickedness, provided we turn from them. He will turn our life plan upside down.

Don’t expect for a moment that his primary concern is to bring us comfort. God does not want to be our cushion. He wants us to take up our crosses and be his disciples, modelling his style of life and pursuing his kingdom values.

And don’t believe for a moment that there are such things as ‘European values’. If it wasn’t for Christ, we would still honour the values of the Roman Empire, with its cruelty, male dominance, sexual immorality, the culling of unwanted babies, slavery, corruption and everything else. The sex abusers of Hollywood would have been very comfortable in the Roman Empire – model citizens: bullies, arrogant, self-serving, sexist and promiscuous. It is only because of Christ that that world was changed, and it can happen again.

God wants the light of Christ to flood into the darkest corners of our souls, so that we in turn bring light to the world, not so that people thank us for it, but so that they give glory to our Father, who is in heaven, who makes himself known in Jesus. Yes, Jesus really is the light of the world.

Peter May is a retired medical doctor and the author of The Search for God and the Path to Persuasion. He founded the Bethinking website, which explores what Christians believe and why. This post was first published on Bethinking and is used with permission.

Headline photo: The Sea of Gailiee. Photo by Chris Gallimore on Unsplash