from jesus to christ - the first christians

Kingdoms in Conflict

Could Christians who believed in the Kingdom of God be loyal citizens of the Roman Empire? Many pagans thought 'no.'

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin.


By the second century when Christianity is becoming a recognizable force in the Roman Empire there are some lingering political questions still attached to it. We have to remember that it was known that Jesus was executed as a political criminal and the gospel traditions themselves preserved this tradition of Pilate questioning Jesus. "Are you a king? Are you King of the Jews?" Now whether or not Pilate ever really asked that question of Jesus directly it does appear to be the case ... that Jesus claimed to be a king. A kind of Messianic claimant, "King of the Jews" was attached to his cross. That tradition, that legacy while it was a very important part of Christian confession and tradition also opened up another door of problems with regard to the Roman Empire because if somehow Christ was their king, it called into question their loyalty to the king, that is, the emperor of the Roman state. We have a case of kings and kingdoms in conflict. The old apocalyptic imagery of coming kingdom of God, of a coming Messiah from heaven, could be read as a prominent denunciation of the Roman Empire and of its king, Caesar.

Did Christian literature contain...predictions that might have aroused suspicions of civic disloyalty?

The Christian tradition seems to be ambivalent toward the Roman state at certain times. We have this apocalyptic tradition that seems to have an implicit criticism of the state and indeed some lingering portions of the apocalyptic tradition within Christianity continued to be very antagonistic toward the Roman Empire and the imperial state structures. The Book of Revelation, or the apocalypse as it's known within the New Testament documents, is a very strong denunciation of the state. Here the emperor and the imperial court are portrayed as a dragon who goes out to devour the Virgin Mother of a heavenly child. There's no way of reading this other than an absolute polemic against the beastly nature of the empire over against the spiritual nature of the Christian church, and in this tradition it is also clear what God has in mind for the future.... In the Book of Revelation the future plan of God has a very clear and definite ending. Rome will be thrown down. The church will survive in triumph. This is the legacy of apocalypse that we still see in certain brands of Christianity.

On the other side we find Christians saying just the opposite, that the emperor and governors and the state as a whole are ordained by God and one should be respectful of the state and its municipal offices. Certain Christians seem to go way out of their way to avoid persecution, and not only avoid persecution but avoid being viewed as disloyal to the state. Paul himself seems to say this in Romans 13 .... By the second and third century, Christians will still be claiming we're loyal to the state. "We're not bad citizens. We're not doing anything wrong. Look at what we do. Look at what we teach. Look at how... what we practice. Look are our ethics and you'll see we're just as good citizen[s] as you."

So what we see at this time is that the Christians really are [in] kind of an ambivalent state within the Roman Empire. They haven't really found their place yet, and occasionally Christians are blamed for catastrophes that obviously were none of their doing at all. ...[T]here's a wonderful quote from the Christian writer, Tertullian. He's a kind of satirical fellow all the way and he says, "Does the Nile River not rise high enough? Are there plagues and floods and famines? All at once the cry goes up from all the neighbors. Christians to the lion! Christians to the lion!" and then he turns with his sharp satirical eye and says, "What, all those Christians to one lion?"


How did Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr try to reconcile this conflict or apparent conflict between loyalty to Christ and loyalty to Caesar? Did he talk about the nature of the kingdom?

The tension felt by Christians over this issue of loyalty to the state -- Is the state a part of God's plan? Can Christians participate in public affairs and public social life? -- seems to be a growing concern as we move through the second and early part of the third century. This especially becomes the subject matter for a growing Christian literary activity. The group of writers that we tend to call the apologists. Now the apologists are known by that name because they wrote apologies. The Greek word "apologia" comes from the term for a defense speech in court. We have Plato's apology of Socrates which is Socrates' defense before the Athenian council. Before he's eventually executed.

So when Christians start to write apologies, what they're doing is a kind of legal defense before the public arena of debate of what it means to be a Christian. Is it legal? Is it not? Are they good? Are they bad? And so these Christian apologists really start to talk about Christianity from that perspective. It's a kind of defense, and there's always a kind of dilemma knowing how to read some of these documents. Some of them are actually addressed to the emperor himself, and if not the emperor, governors and other important officials but it's very unlikely that an emperor would actually have read one of these Christian documents. So who are they really writing for in these apologies? The answer is they're probably writing for Christians. These are written to Christians who are living in the society. In other words, for the very people who would have been encountering those pagan neighbors just across the street or just next-door, and the apologetic literature is a way of arming these Christians with the answers and the arguments that would allow them both to be a part of society and also to respond to the kinds of claims and charges made against Christians by their pagan neighbors. So what the apologetic tradition is showing us is Christians beginning to encounter at a very vibrant intellectual level the arguments and the social life of their pagan Roman world just nextdoor.


One of the most famous of the Christian apologists of the second century is a fellow known as Justin Martyr and indeed he eventually would die as a martyr. That's how he got his name. Justin himself was actually born in Palestine in the city Flavia Neapolis. Now that's the new Roman name for the old city of Samaria that we hear so much about in biblical tradition. Justin's family apparently is a pagan family living in that area. Justin himself seems to have been a very bright young man and so embarked upon a schooling in the philosophical traditions, and in fact we hear of him moving from philosophical school to philosophical school as he makes his way from his homeland in Palestine. First to Greece and then eventually all the way to the city of Rome, and he dabbles in one philosophical school and then another looking for what he considers to be the true philosophy of life. In the course of this intellectual journey Justin himself also encounters Christianity, and becomes a convert to Christianity and also one of its most important vocal supporters as he develops a philosophical defense of Christianity. So Justin's apology for Christianity is also a philosophical argument for the legitimacy of Christianity within the larger purview of Roman intellectual and religious life....

By the year 150 Justin Martyr is living in Rome and actually has his own philosophical school in the city of Rome. In fact, the tradition of the events surrounding his death, what is called "The Martyrdom of Justin and His Friends" actually tells us that Justin ran the school upstairs in a rooming house where he lived... we actually know now that Justin was running a kind of Christian catechetical school on the model of a Greek philosophical school tradition, [teaching] Christian philosophy. Justin is very important not only because he mounts such an important intellectual defense of the Christian tradition. He's also important because he actually defines Christianity in philosophical terms for what we must imagine is a growing intellectual elite within the Christian tradition in the middle of the second century....


One of the problems faced by this growing intellectual integration of Christianity into the Roman world is how far do you go before you lose your identity as Christians? Justin Martyr the apologist is faced with this problem as well. There are so many similarities between what Christians do and the way some of these other mystery cults behave. It actually is a difficult problem for him to suggest what's unique about Christianity. Justin himself has a very interesting answer to this problem. He says in fact that Christianity is not the new religion in this process, they're the old truth. They're a part of the oldest form of religious life in the world and the mystery cults as they tend to be called, are the ones who are the imitators of Christianity. In fact he even says it's a kind of satanic conspiracy to make them look too much like Christianity so the poor ignorant pagans will be duped into following false religion instead of true Christianity. But the key point is there are similarities and the similarities are notable.


The similarities of Jesus and other figures, though, continues to be an issue for pagans and Christians alike. Indeed from the perspective of Justin Martyr as an apologist trying to defend the legitimacy of Christianity, it's very important that he can hold up a model of other people, other well known, famous people the past in Greek and Roman tradition who similarly died for their beliefs. Who were models of the righteous sufferer, the martyr for their beliefs, such as Socrates himself. And so when Justin talks about Jesus he's really a new philosopher figure. Someone who brings a set of insightful beliefs and teachings into this world and who is obliged to die as a result of living by those principles. Jesus is a new Socrates.

Apologists like Justin probably had an important impact on the spread of Christianity if for no other reason [than] because they gave it a kind of intellectual respectability in the ... Greek and Roman...intellectual tradition. They make it philosophically acceptable, and as a result of that I think we must imagine that by the later half of the second century and certainly into the early third century, Christianity is really attracting more and more people from the upper ranks of society.

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published april 1998

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