Roman reaction to Christians
The only Roman reaction to Christians that is popular today is the persecution that killed thousands of them. No doubt those deaths truly happened. But Christians forget to add that all sorts of people were executed by the Roman empire. The Roman empire showed no mercy for the slightest indication of sedition.
There is another reaction, though, that is almost unique to the Christian case: mockery. Several Roman commentators seemed to be less than impressed by the new faith. Celsus, in particular, pokes fun at Christian beliefs and rites as if it was merely a modern variation on pagan beliefs and rites. His attitude can be compared to the attitude of conservative adults towards the hippies in the 1960s.
The great historian Tacitus mentions the Christians as a degenerate bunch, and talks of their “degrade and shameful practices”. Hardly the description one would use for spiritual people.
Several early Christian writers such as Justin and Tertullian felt that they had to defend Christianity from such accusations. Early Christian literature is full of references to pagan legends and myths as work of the Devil for the simple reason that Christians adopted the very same legends and myths and the only explanation would be that the Devil was playing a prank on them by pretending that those legends and myths had existed before Jesus.
Christianity as it is today is really what Paul wanted it to be, but Paul was not one of the twelve and candidly admits that he never met Jesus in person. Paul, a Roman citizen and proud of it, favored equal treatment for Jews and non-Jews, but there is no evidence that this was also the view of the other Christians.
It is interesting that Paul only wrote two facts about Jesus’ life: that he was crucified, and that he had several brothers, including one named James whom he also refers to, implicitly, as the leader of the Christians. Either he didn’t know much about Jesus, or whatever he knew was “espunged” from the New Testament as embarassing to the Roman dogma. It is interesting that the Roman dogma (Christianity as we know it today) is based on Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ message, even if Paul was the least acquainted with Jesus of all the early leaders. But he was the only one who was a Roman citizen, and who preached Christianity for all, not just for the Jews.
The New Testament includes Paul’s letters as an appendix, but they may be the reason the New Testament is the way it is: first Paul coded Christian religion as a Greek and Roman-friendly dogma, then some gospels (written in Greece in Greek) were chosen as the official ones because they reflected that dogma. Paul’s letters date from about the year 50, while the earliest gospel is from 60-70. Paul’s letters came first and it sounds like the gospels were chosen and edited to justify what Paul wrote (as if to say “you see? that’s precisely what Jesus had said”).
Paul’s letters may be the real foundations of modern Christianity, whereas original Christianity perished in the Roman persecutions of the “disposyni/desposini” (Jesus’ heirs in Palestine) following Constantine’ conversion.
Paul represented a different kind of Christianity than the one preached in Palestine. He was very young when he was admitted in the Agora of Athens. He must have had good credentials, otherwise educated people would not even have listened to him. Paul was a Roman citizen, and younger than the apostles (he was not one of the twelve). There are speculations that he may have been a member of the Herodian family. He represented the view that Christianity was not only for Jews, but for everybody.
James the Just
James the Just was the leader of the early Christians in Palestine. His importance was recognized by early Christians and by Paul himself, who treats him like a leader and seems more interested in James’ leadership than in Jesus’ teachings.
James was one of Jesus’ brothers and appears to have been a revolutionary, more interested in rebelling against the Romans than in the kingdom of heaven. His ideology was probably very different from Paul’s: where Paul admitted non-Jews into Christianity, it is likely that James was a “purist” who did not tolerate the contamination.
Paul preached that everybody could be a member of the sect. James probably preached that only Jews could be members. Paul was in favor of opening Jerusalem to Roman citizens. James was against foreigners. James was the product of a resistance that had lasted centuries, first fighting against the Greeks and then the Romans.
Paul was probably not a traitor but a pragmatic: he wanted to win and realized that compromise was essential. James was an idealist: he wanted to the right, no matter what. Martyrdom is not inherent in Paul’s preaching, it is in James’ ideology.
He is but one of many blood relatives of Jesus who left their mark on early Christians in the Middle East. When Rome converted, they were wiped off. Some were killed, some were forced to disband. The “disposyni/desposini” (blood relatives of Jesus) disappeared from Christian genealogy.
His life ended in the years immediately preceding the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 and his stoning may have been related to the upheaval that caused that war, which in turn may have been related to his fundamentalist ideology, which in turn may have been a source of conflict with Paul.
Documents of that era spend more time talking of James than of anyone else. In the New Testament he is hardly mentioned, as if someone carefully removed any reference to the man who was the most influential Christian of the era.
An inscription in stone, found in 2002 near Jerusalem and written in Aramaic, with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”, is the oldest known reference to Jesus: it is dated 63 AD.
John the Baptist
Christian literature is reluctant to deal with John the Baptist, although he was the one who “initiated” Jesus and he was the first one to be killed (beheaded by Herod’s son Herod Antipas). The Jewish historian Josephus did not know Jesus but he did know very well John the Baptist. Josephus reports how John the Baptist created a large movement that came to threaten Herod Antipas. In the gospels Jesus seems to be one of the Baptist’s disciples that somehow started his own movement (the gospels mention that he made his first recruits among John’s disciples). John’s movement disappears with his death, but John was still revered over the centuries (as attested by countless legends and paintings about his beheading).
(The Mandaeans, a religious sect centered on the Iran/Iraq border, claim that the Baptist was their greatest leader (although they deny he was the founder of their religion) and that Jesus, who started his career as one of John’s disciples, was a false prophet who stole John’s teachings and corrupted them, then misled the people who followed him with corrupt teachings. Andrew Rush )