To mark Easter, SBS Television in Australia showed the three-part series, Jesus: Rise to Power, put together by an English classical scholar, Dr Michael Scott.
The series was produced for the National Geographic Channel, and deals with a very important historical question: how was it that the small religious movement founded by Jesus of Nazareth, who was executed by the Roman occupying force in Judaea, was able to conquer the greatest empire which had ever existed, over the course of three centuries.
Throughout the course of history, much has been written on this subject, and this series is testimony to the fact that the explanation is, in human terms at least, almost unbelievable, if it were not true.
The series looks at three aspects of the rise of Christianity: the first episode, Messiahs, examines the emergence of Christianity in the vast empire ruled from Rome, and the way in which the empire’s technology and organisation assisted the spread of the new religious movement.
The second episode, Martyrs, looks at the role of martyrs as role models for the early Christians; and controversially claims that the Romans were reluctant persecutors.
The third, Christians, sees the rise of Christianity as basically a political movement. According to Dr Scott, the Church eventually defeated and replaced the traditional Roman society – which was tolerant and diverse – with Christianity which was narrow and intolerant.
While Dr Scott raises interesting questions about the rise of Christianity, it is not possible to understand its dynamism without understanding that although its fundamental beliefs were sharply opposed to the dominant pantheism of ancient Roman society, it appealed in a very deep way to the minds and hearts of ordinary people and gradually won their allegiance.
An important issue which Dr Scott does not understand is that the early Christians were largely indifferent to the politics of the Roman Empire.
A reading of both the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which mainly describes St Paul’s missionary journeys, very clearly shows that the religious alternatives to Christianity at the time were Judaism, from which Christianity had emerged, and the dominant Greek culture.
St Paul expressed this very directly in his first letter to the people of Corinth. He wrote:
“God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Dr Scott suggests that the books of the New Testament emerged some time between the end of the 1st century AD and the 4th century. This is a familiar argument of those who want to view Christianity as a purely human institution whose beliefs gradually evolved over centuries.
While it is true that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) did not identify themselves as the authors, Dr Scott’s view is radically contradicted by the internal evidence of the New Testament writings.
Even a cursory examination of the Gospel of Matthew shows that it was written by and for Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, so it must have been written in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, before there were a significant number of non-Jewish converts, a process which was well under way by 50AD.
Mark’s Gospel covers the very short period from John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness near the River Jordan, and ends with Jesus rising from the dead, a period of about three years.
From the early 2nd century AD, in the oldest commentaries on the New Testament which have survived, the authors say it was written by St Mark, who was the secretary of St Peter. So Mark’s Gospel is actually what was preached by Peter who, we know, had previously been a disciple of John the Baptist.
It is believed to have been written in Rome, where St Peter is believed to have been executed around 65AD.
Like Matthew’s Gospel, the exact date when Mark’s Gospel was written is difficult to determine. But the fact that it ends with Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, rather than any later date, for example, after Pentecost or after the death of Peter, strongly suggests that it was written in the post-resurrection period, rather than later.
Some critics have argued that the two different predictions by Jesus of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, recounted in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, “proves” that the Gospels were written after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
Jesus’ foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was no more improbable than Jesus’ repeated foretelling of his own death, and even the manner of his death – a reality which the apostles did not understand at the time and did not accept.
Contrary to Dr Scott’s repeated suggestion that the Christian writings emerged some time between the end of the 1st century AD and the 4th century, the internal evidence as well as the earliest surviving commentaries show that they were written not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as the noted British biblical historian, Professor Richard Bauckham, pointed out in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
In the second program, Dr Scott argues that although the Christians were subject to occasional persecution during the Roman era, the Christian church completely exaggerated the extent of persecution.
He also claims that their persecution was not related to Christianity, but rather, their refusal to abide by the laws which required citizens to give homage to the Roman gods and the Emperor.
Interestingly, he completely ignores the savage persecution by the Emperor Nero in about 64AD, about 30 years after Jesus’ execution, after the great fire of Rome.
A detailed account of this has come down to us from the Roman historian Tacitus who was hostile to Christianity, and was a young boy in Rome at the time of the fire.
His account deserves to be better known, because he documented the loathing which the educated classes in Rome had of the early Christians.
After recounting Nero’s avaricious desire to seize control of parts of Rome for a new palace, the Domus Aurea (Gold House), Tacitus records that after the fire was contained, Nero offered sympathy to the victims and sacrifices to the gods.
He added, “But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.”
Tacitus continued, “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.
“Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their home and become popular.
“Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of setting fire to the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.
“Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
Tacitus gave further details of the persecution of the defenceless Christians: “Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a carriage.
“Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
From this time, to practise Christianity, and specifically, to refuse to worship the Emperor as a god, was a capital offence in the Roman Empire.
The claim by Dr Scott that the Romans were “so reluctant to put them to death”, is totally wrong. The persecution of Christians varied in intensity, ranging from the mild persecution endured under emperors like Trajan, who in 112AD directed that Christians were not to be hunted down, but if a person was denounced as a Christian and refused to recant by offering sacrifice to the gods, he would be executed.
This is similar to the position faced by a Falun Gong practitioner in China today.
At the other extreme, Emperor Septimius Severus added to Trajan’s edict an order that conversion to Christianity was a capital offence, leading to the execution of some of the most famous martyrs of the period, including Sts Perpetua and Felicity, who were killed in North Africa.
After a relatively quiet period early in the third century AD, a new emperor, Decius, inaugurated a new range of persecution, by declaring that every Christian had to offer sacrifice to the gods. This was extended by the Emperor Valerian (253-260AD), who took from Christians the right to hold assemblies, and later, issued an edict that bishops, priests and deacons were to be executed immediately.
These laws were repealed by one of his sons, who succeeded him.
The last and most ferocious persecution was conducted by the Emperor Diocletian (283-305AD), during which thousands of Christians were killed throughout the empire.
In the third program, Dr Scott examines the way in which the church triumphed over the pagans, following the Emperor Constantine’s accession in 312AD, suggesting that the church was not just the religion of the empire but its dominant political force as well.
This is a facile and unconvincing explanation for the rise of Christianity.
When Constantine became Emperor in the West in 312, he was still not baptised, and remained so until just before his death. He had indeed fought to end the persecution of Christians, and in the year after he became emperor, he drafted the Edict of Milan which provided toleration for Christians as well as all other faiths, and the repeal of the laws under which Christians had been persecuted.
His successors continued the policy of toleration until the Emperor Julian (known as Julian the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine) re-established the pagan religion, and reorganised it into an official church.
However, after Julian died in battle in Persia, his successor did not share his views, and some years later, a new Christian emperor, Theodosius I, established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
The effect was not to empower Christianity, however, but to reduce it to the role of a department of the state.
Over this whole period, the affairs of state were entirely in the hands of lay men, not clerics.
The role of the clergy only became dominant in Europe well after the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476AD under the weight of the barbarian invasions. With the collapse of the civil power, the Church remained the only institution capable of holding society together.
Jesus: Rise to Power includes many interesting insights into the rise of Christianity from obscure origins at the periphery to a central place in Western civilisation.
But Dr Scott’s attempts to force-fit Christianity into a political mould, or interpret Christianity in terms of secular power structures, fails completely.