At a very young age, I attended a Catholic elementary school and attended bible school every Sunday. By growing up under a Catholic influence, I was constantly surrounded by adults explaining the Catholic faith and origins of our traditions, leaving me with little doubt about the legitimacy of the Catholic Church. However, my friends had a hard time understanding our traditions like mass and the meaning of Communion. Their inquisitive approach to the Catholic faith is a similar attitude the Romans had about Christianity. They had valid reasons for feeling apprehensive towards the newly-founded religion; its followers were preaching a monotheistic religion in a polytheistic-favored nation along with teaching drinking flesh and blood and calling each other “sister” and “brother”. The Catholic and Christian practices sound extreme without Biblical context and explains the reasoning for the Romans’ wary attitude towards Christians.
Practices like monotheism, “drinking blood and eating flesh” or calling each other “sister” and “brother” naturally sound off without any context, which explains why the Romans were uneasy about Christianity. They had every right to be fearful towards the new religion. Even important government officials like Pliny and Emperor Trajan found the new religion to be so heinous that they agreed to punish Christians. Pliny’s fear towards the religion is apparent in one of his letters to Trajan, saying:
I have never participated in trails of Christianity. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent… For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97)
Pliny exemplifies the more extreme level of fear towards the new religion by seeking to punish the new religion’s followers rather than trying to understand its practices and basing his judgement on research. However, their inclination to avoid Christianity was instinctual and should not be faulted; it was entirely different than the polytheistic religious practices originally taught throughout the empire. Their fear made sense, however, they lacked any understanding about the religions teaching. The cornerstone for the religion’s success came down to the government’s support and the church’s structure, which allowed for fears to be put at rest.
Understanding replaced fear when the religion ultimately persisted due to its fundamental structure and the Roman Empire’s support. Christianity’s organizational structure was not situated around class, which appealed to the poor due to the opportunity to become priests and have status within the church. Additionally, communication between churches in different regions allowed for the teachings to be standardized across the empire. These policies among the church gave it a social structure and credibly, which allowed for new followers to feel like the new religion was legitimate. The Empire’s support came in the form of The Edict of Milan, which halted persecutions towards Christians and made it illegal to shame supports of the new religion. These two factors of structure within the church and Roman laws gave the religion a chance to fight against the original apprehension and ultimately allowed for the religion to spread across the empire.
It is understandable why the Romans felt uneasy about Christianity. Their gods were being replaced by a single God and the religion seemed to be praising incest and drinking blood and eating flesh. However, the government gave the religion an opportunity to spread by establishing laws that alleviated the discrimination. The church also had a legitimate structure established and stayed true to its original teachings. The religion persisted the way it did throughout the empire since people were no longer allowed to openly decimate the religion’s followers. The original fear makes sense; after understanding how the practices look without context, I would most likely share the same mindset as the Romans who were apprehensive. However, I was given the opportunity to learn about the established background of my faith through school the same was the Romans were given the opportunity to learn about the new faith after The Edict of Milan was passed. Understanding and consistently of the message of Christianity allowed for the fear to subside and a new era of faith to enter into the Roman Empire.
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