21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians

Rome, Italy. Trajan Markets, built in 2nd century AD by Apollodorus of Damascus in the time of Emperor Trajan

The following descriptions of Jews contrasted with Christians in the Roman Empire inspire my thoughts today:

“Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.… Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.

“…. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.”

“Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.’ At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.

“Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’ They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. ‘Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.’”[1]

This is the fascinating description of Christians from an anonymous letter writer in the Second Century to Diognetus, a Roman official, which the writer of the book from which the excerpt is taken compares to the Roman view of the Jews in the same time period. The comparison inspires a number of thoughts that are worth exploring.

First of all, the conduct described of the Jews in the Roman (and Greek) societies at the time might have described the Jews in ancient Babylon almost a millennium before or the Jews in Russia, Germany or Latvia almost two millennia hence. Such is the sustained character of the Jewish culture. It has survived intact under many different circumstances over thousands of years.

The Jews, indeed, are God’s chosen people, chosen from among all the peoples of the earth. The Jewish culture was forged in the fire of Abrahamic faith, Mosaic law, Davidic kingship and prophetic chastising. God’s miraculous presence in the Exodus story, the covenant of the law and firebrand of the Prophets hardened the Jewish people into a resolve that has delivered the Jewish culture largely intact into the 21st Century despite hostile neighbors all around, hundreds of years of slavery, multiple exiles and captivity and thousands of years of diaspora.

The way of life that set them culturally apart, the rite of circumcision that kept foreigners from converting en mass, the kosher laws, dress codes, and commitment to marry only in the faith kept foreign influences out and preserved the unique character and identity of the Jewish people. All of these things ensured that they would survive to carry out God’s purposes in the world.

Indeed, what other group of people from the Bronze Age lost their homeland and gained it back thousands of years later?  What other group could have done that?

God conditioned them uniquely to gel together, wherever they went, to remain cohesive, and to survive with their cultural identity and character as God’s chosen people intact. Into this fertile soil God inserted Himself into history for the benefit of all mankind.

We read in the Gospels and epistles that describe the birth of what we now call Christianity that all of the Law and the Prophets was a foreshadowing of the coming of the Messiah and the unfolding and eventual fulfillment of God’s ultimate plans for the world, the blessing that God promised Abraham and his progeny and, through them, the whole world. Jesus fulfilled the Law and and the Prophets and launched the ultimate plan that will result in the reconciliation of all people, those who are near, and those who are far away, into one people of God.

The parallels and the progression is unmistakable and can be seen in the comparative descriptions of the Jews and Christians by an anonymous writer in the Second Century. The Christians “live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” Does this not sound like Abraham, who, though he lived in the land God promised, dwelt only in tents? Why? Because he was looking (waiting) for a city with foundations, the architect and maker of which is God.

When Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that a time was coming when people would worship God in spirit and truth, he was describing His followers. Not on this mountain or that mountain, not in this land or that land, not with these rituals or those rituals, the followers of Christ worship God in spirit and truth.

The followers of Christ are separate, a city set on a hill, a light that is distinct from the surroundings. Yet they are salt. They assimilate enough to have an effect, yet they are distinctly different from the culture and society in which they live. They may look and largely act like everyone else, but they march to the beat of a different Drummer.

Christians represent the progression of God’s dealings with mankind in the world. From the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night by which God demonstrated His presence accompanying His people as they were led out of Egypt; to the Ark of the Covenant in which the presence of God was demonstrated to live among God’s people, to the Holy of Holies, in the recesses of the Temple built as a permanent structure demonstrating God’s presence and among His people: to Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, God made flesh and dwelling among His people; to the Holy Spirit, God who takes residence within us.

Christians are in the world not of the world. They do not forget that they are yet aliens and strangers, waiting for the same city with foundations that Abraham saw. They do not bow to the cultural gods. They are not completely at home in this world because they know they have been called to another. They have the Holy Spirit, the seal of God’s promise and guarantee of their inheritance,  that allows them to worship now in spirit and in truth.

I find it intriguing that an anonymous outsider saw in the Jews and the Christians of the Second Century exactly the characteristics that we would expect to see in a people shaped by Scripture. The fact that the Jewish people survived largely intact into the 20th Century to be able to repopulate the land promised to Abraham over three thousand years earlier is astounding, but we shouldn’t forget that Abraham was still waiting for something else.

We believe that “something else” was ushered in by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And those who follow Jesus, those who have been born again, born not of this world, but of the Spirit, are the people who have inherited the blessing promised to Abraham and his kin. Yet not that we have obtained it; we have only received the guaranty, the seal of the Holy Spirit, as the creation presently groans as it eagerly awaits our ultimate adoption as children of God and redemption of ourselves and of all of creation.


[1] An excerpt from CHRISTIANITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE THIRD WAY, Gerald Sittser, posted October 4, 2019, quoting an anonymous Second Century letter to a Diognetus, a Roman official, describing Christians in the Roman Empire.

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