Tag Archives: Power

Matthew 20: 17-28 Greatness in the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 20: 17-28

Parallels Mark 10: 32-45; Luke 18: 31-34, 22: 24-27

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Central to the organization of the last three chapters of Matthew’s gospel has been a response to ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not a Messiah (king) like the kings of the nations but instead is one who comes to serve instead of serving. The world imagined by the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the worldview of the nations of the earth, and in this world reoriented has drastic implications for these disciples of Jesus as they consider the shape of their own lives. Even as we stand at the threshold of closing Jesus’ ministry of teaching and prepare to enter the narration of the final week in Jerusalem the disciples and those around them continue to require a conversion of their imaginations (to use Richard B. Hays’ terminology) to embody this new society as an alternative to the ways of the nations.

The section begins with the final foretelling of Jesus’ coming betrayal, condemnation, humiliation, and crucifixion. Two previous times[1] (three if you count the words spoken to Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration) Jesus has foretold the events that will occur in Jerusalem and been met with resistance, distress and now misunderstanding. As people who are able to read and hear this narrative repeatedly and who understand the narrative in light of the resurrection it is easy to become judgmental of the disciple’s inability to understand a crucified and resurrected messiah, but the disciples, like all the other characters of Matthew’s gospel, attempt to make sense of Jesus’ identity, actions, and words from within the worldview they inherited from their society. Perhaps one of the reasons that Matthew’s gospel is more charitable to the disciples than Mark’s is a pastoral understanding (in the sense of the responsibility for the forming of a community) of the need for patience as the kingdom’s worldview slowly begins to transform the engrained ways of the nations.

In Matthew’s gospel it is the mother of James and John who makes the request rather than the two disciples themselves. This, perhaps for Matthew, provides a little space between the disciples in the narrative who have just heard for the fourth time (since James and John were at the Transfiguration) about the upcoming death of Jesus. The mother comes and prostrates herself before Jesus which may be simply ‘bowing down or paying honor’ but within Matthew’s continued usage of the Greek proskuneo it is also used at times in an ambiguous way where ‘worship’ is implied and there is a revelation of Jesus being ‘God with us.’[2] Regardless the mother of James and John shows some openness to who Jesus is, but she and her sons continue to construct that identity in terms of the rulers of the nations. She comes to ask ‘a certain thing/something’ of Jesus (translations often translate this as a favor but this ritualistic request has a greater weight than asking for a favor) and Jesus responds to her request with “What is your will/desire?” (the Greek theleo is often translated as wish, but wishing in English is more ephemeral than this term for willing something to be) Her request for positions of high honor in the coming kingdom of Jesus for her sons shows both insight into a portion of Jesus’ identity and a misunderstanding of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. A ritual request for a declaration is a powerful and binding thing, and so if Jesus makes this statement he, as a king, is bound to it.[3] Jesus could deal with her, her sons, and later the disciples in a harsh way, but Jesus instead uses the moment as one more opportunity to talk about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus addresses the request by trying to help James and John understand the request that is made. In the context of having foretold his own death in Jerusalem we are introduced to the idea of ‘drinking the cup’ that Jesus is about to drink. This will be resonant image in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the passion narrative that will begin in the coming chapter. In the Hebrew Scriptures drinking the cup (particularly the cup of the LORD) often used in the prophets as the language of suffering[4] but as Warren Carter notes it can also denote the LORD’s provision or deliverance.[5] (Carter 2005, 402) It may seem paradoxical that suffering and salvation are joined together in an image, but this is after all a kingdom where those who ‘want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (16:25 emphasis on life is intentional, see below) In the coming passion narrative the cup will feature in both the last supper (26:27-29) and a Gethsemane. (26:39-46) Ultimately Jesus, after asking if they are powerful enough to drink the cup he is to drink, partially grants their request in an odd way. James and John will share both the suffering and the life that is to come, but their ability to fill the spots to the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom are not his to grant. Matthew’s linkage of this scene with the crucifixion is also echoed by the placement of the bandits who are crucified with him, “one on his right and one on his left.”

The response of the remaining ten disciples to James and John is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘indignant’ which are typically used to translate the Greek aganakteo, but I am going to risk using a more precise word ‘resentful.’ While indignant may be a word that expresses anger or annoyance at unfair treatment, I think it is a word that is outside most of our emotional vocabulary. I do think we need to work on teaching the skill of “labeling our emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.” (Brackett 2019, 19) and anger is a large emotion which covers many of what Marc Brackett describes as low pleasantness high energy emotions. Resentful is a word in English that most people understand that captures the anger or annoyance at unfair treatment that the older indignant represents. I also think that it is an understandable emotion in terms of the requested honor and partially favorable response that James and John have received. All of the disciples are still viewing Jesus’ message from within the worldview they inherited from their parents and the society around them, and even now Jesus continues to patiently reorient them to the very different values of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus directly engages the worldview of the nations and their perceptions of greatness and contrasts them to the values of the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the values of the nations where the rulers lord it over their followers and the great ones exercise authority over (this doesn’t have the negative implication in modern English that tyrants does: the Greek is a conjunction of the prefix kata (according to) and ekousia (authority)) the great in the kingdom of heaven are servants and the first is a slave. Throughout this section the disciples have been told they need to be humble like a child placed in their midst (18:4) instead of a rich young man (19:16-30 a person who has every advantage in that society) who would need to give away his possessions to embrace the kingdom. Jesus embodies these values for his disciples and his serving instead of being served will be the model for them to emulate.

Early in my ministry I once caused a minor controversy in a class I was teaching when I stated that Mark (and Matthew) by extension did not have any atonement theology where Christ died for our sins to redeem us. Ultimately Matthew and Mark do not have any type of atonement theology like Anselm of Canterbury talks about in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man one of the classic texts of medieval classic atonement theology) but here in 20:28 we do have the only introduction of the idea of ransom in Matthew (and its parallel in Mark). In the Hebrew scriptures the idea of ransom is often used in the context of freeing the people of Israel from their captivity under other nations (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:22) and while this may be connected with the sins of the people which led to their exile, this is not an individualistic salvation from one’s sins. Throughout Matthew, from the beginning when the angel of the Lord tells Joseph, “he will save his people from his sins” (1:21) I have written about this in terms of Jesus bringing about the end of the exile of the chosen people. Although Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage are an interesting place to begin discussion:

Rather, he has ransomed us from the very temptations he resisted in the desert, to make possible our participation in the only politics that can save us. He has brought to an end our slavery to the politics based on fear of death, making it possible for us to be servants to one another and the world. (Hauerwas 2006, 179-180)

The temptation to define power in the ways of the nations of the world is to fall into the devilish temptation that Jesus avoided. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the death and destruction of his enemies, but for those he has patiently worked upon to transform their values and worldview it is the beginning of a new way of understanding power. The great in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of the world, the first are slaves. Or in Martin Luther’s famous paradox from the Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (Luther 1989, 596)

What the Son of Man uses in ransom in his psuche which is normally translated elsewhere as ‘soul’ but as I discussed in 10:39 and 16: 25-26  in Hebrew thought the soul is not detachable from one’s life but is the very essence of it. There is no body/soul duality that would become engrained in later Christian vocabulary. To give up one’s psuche is to give up everything of oneself. Just as the disciples earlier could state they gave up everything in following Jesus while thinking of their possessions and relationships, now Jesus demonstrates a world where one’s entire being is placed completely in the service of God. As Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12: 1

[1] Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23 (17:12)

[2] See the fuller discussion in Matthew 14:22-33

[3] At least in terms of the rulers of the nations: think for example of how the words of King Ahasuerus throughout the book of Esther bound him or how King Darius in Daniel 7 is bound by his own ordinance. These stories would be a part of the worldview of both the mother and the sons in this story.

[4] Isaiah 51: 17; Jeremiah 25:15-38; Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23: 32-34; Habakkuk 2: 15-16; see also Psalm 75:8

[5] See particularly Psalm 16:5 and Psalm 116:3

Exodus 8 The Insignificant Brings Low the Mighty

The god Khnum accompanied by Heqet, molds Ihy in a relief from the Mammisi (birth temple) at Dendra Temple complex

Exodus 8: 1-15: The Second Sign

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 2 If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. 3 The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. 4 The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.'” 5 And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.'” 6 So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. 7 But the magicians did the same by their secret arts, and brought frogs up on the land of Egypt.

 8 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron, and said, “Pray to the LORD to take away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.” 9 Moses said to Pharaoh, “Kindly tell me when I am to pray for you and for your officials and for your people, that the frogs may be removed from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” 10 And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “As you say! So that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God, 11 the frogs shall leave you and your houses and your officials and your people; they shall be left only in the Nile.” 12 Then Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh; and Moses cried out to the LORD concerning the frogs that he had brought upon Pharaoh. 13 And the LORD did as Moses requested: the frogs died in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. 14 And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank. 15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.

The first sign which appeared in the previous chapter struck at the bleeding heart of Egypt and here in the second sign or warning, the plague of frogs takes the fertility of the land and now that fertility overwhelms the ability of the Pharaoh, his wise men and the magicians to control. These seems a strange sign and an odd display of power and yet the next three signs use things that on their own are weak and insignificant to bring the mightiest power of that time to the point of begging for Moses and Aaron to intercede for them. Frogs called up from the waters of Egypt will lead even Pharaoh to for a time acknowledge the LORD’s power in the land.

The Egyptian goddess Heqet, a goddess of fertility and childbirth

Frogs seems an odd choice and yet there is perhaps something to be seen in this choice. Frogs and the death of the first born in chapter eleven are the only signs where the language of plague is used (even though we are used to calling them the ten plagues).  Perhaps the connection goes back to fertility. In Ancient Egypt, the goddess Heqet, which is depicted as having a frogs head is one of the goddesses of fertility and seems to be the most ancient of these (since most of the other fertility images seem to be imported from other regions at later times). The association between Heqet, birth and fertility probably goes back to the frogs that would be common with the flooding of the Nile during the germination of the grain. Even midwives were known as servant of Heqet. The prolific presence of frogs at the controlled cultivation of the croplands probably sent a strong signal of fertility and life. Yet, here frogs instead of remaining in the places near the waters of Egypt move beyond their boundaries and cover the land and interfere with the life in the household, in the field and throughout the empire.

That which normally is received as a sign of blessing becomes a plague and fertility threatens to overwhelm that life which is already present. The magicians are able to replicate this sign, to demonstrate that they too can call up additional frogs-or perhaps that their powers to can be a plague. Regardless of their ability to add to the plague of frogs they cannot stem the amphibious infestation. Here Pharaoh for the first time acknowledge the impact of the LORD’s action in Egypt and ask Moses and Aaron to pray (or plead) to the LORD on behalf of Pharaoh. Moses’ prayers do lead to the elimination of the frogs and where once fertility threatened the households of Egypt now they are left with stinking piles of dead frogs.

Exodus 8: 16-19: The Third Sign

16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt.'” 17 And they did so; Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and gnats came on humans and animals alike; all the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could not. There were gnats on both humans and animals. 19 And the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.

The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to be able to control and manipulate the land and the water to bring forth a regularly fertile land. Their control of the elements of creation has often led people to believe that they are now masters of their own destiny and, as in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, how they will make a name for themselves. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) loves to use irony and satire and like the Tower of Babel, which God has to come down and see (since even in their desire to reach up to the heavens is apparently isn’t visible from there) and confuses their language and thwarts their desire to make a name for themselves. Here it is in some type of small biting insect (can be translated as gnats, or lice or some other type of biting insect). Yet, here in the smallest of insects the magicians secret arts fail them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is worth quoting at length here:

The Egyptians worshipped a multiplicity of gods, most of whom represented forces of nature. By their “secret arts” the magicians believed that they could control these forces. Magic is the equivalent in an era of myth to technology in an age of science. A civilization that believes it can manipulate the gods, believes likewise that is can exercise coercion over human beings. In such a culture the concept of freedom is unknown. (Sacks, 2010, p. 54)

The irony was that the Egyptian civilization which could harness the power of the Nile river and could build monuments to its leaders which stand even millennia later was shown powerless by a biting swarm of bugs. The magicians and wise men can realize their limits and acknowledge this is ‘the finger of God!’ Yet, in Pharaoh we have a leader whose heart (or will) is set, who knows the truth (even when all the facts contradict that perceived truth).

Chapter eight of Exodus is full of signs that are not lethal but inconvenient. The ecological disaster at this point while perhaps distasteful is not endangering the life or welfare of the people. Pharaoh’s entrenched resistance (whatever its source) allows the conflict between the LORD of Israel and the gods of Egypt to continue. Now for the first time the secret arts of the magicians has failed to replicate the finger of God. In the structure of the signs the third sign closes the first set but there is some wisdom to the way the chapter division occurs in our bibles. The frogs, gnats and flies all are ways in which the smallest and most inconsequential things manage to bring the might of Egypt to its knees.

Exodus 8: 20-31: The Fourth Sign

 20 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. 21 For if you will not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, and your people, and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies; so also the land where they live. 22 But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people live, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I the LORD am in this land. 23 Thus I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign shall appear tomorrow.'” 24 The LORD did so, and great swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh and into his officials’ houses; in all of Egypt the land was ruined because of the flies.

 25 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” 26 But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so; for the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive to the Egyptians. If we offer in the sight of the Egyptians sacrifices that are offensive to them, will they not stone us? 27 We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he commands us.” 28 So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. Pray for me.” 29 Then Moses said, “As soon as I leave you, I will pray to the LORD that the swarms of flies may depart tomorrow from Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”

 30 So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 31 And the LORD did as Moses asked: he removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; not one remained. 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and would not let the people go.

The structure of the signs would indicate this is a new set. As mentioned previously the first sign of each set occurs in the morning as Pharaoh is outside, the second occurs after Moses speaks to Pharaoh inside and the third comes without a warning. With each set of signs the intensity of the damage increases as the pressure increases on the Egyptians to let the people of Israel go. Another distinction between the first three signs and the remaining signs is that now there is a distinction between the people of Israel and the Egyptians. The remaining signs will now not afflict the land where the Hebrews dwell, almost as if an invisible barrier is erected to keep out the flies and later afflictions.

After the frogs, had come upon the land the Pharaoh asks for Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession on behalf of him and his people offering to let the people go and worship but once there is a respite Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he forbids the people leaving to go and sacrifice. In a similar way, Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron and offers to let the Israelites worship and sacrifice within the land but now cultural differences get in the way. We don’t know exactly what these cultural differences are that the Egyptians would have stoned the people of Israel for. Perhaps it had to do with the animals the Jewish people would sacrifice (mainly sheep and goats which the Egyptians found distasteful, for example in Genesis Joseph warns his brothers not to say they were shepherds for the Egyptians found shepherds abhorrent (see Genesis 46: 34)). Regardless cultural and religious differences would ultimately make cohabitation impossible for the Jewish people in Egypt. As a religious and cultural minority, they felt unsafe within the broader Egyptian culture.

The ancient world was a pluralistic one where multiple religions did encounter one another and sometimes those cultures would live together peacefully. The people of Israel found a home in Egypt for several generations and were welcomed, yet the Exodus relates a time where they were a persecuted and oppressed group. Their present is now that of slaves and their future will be one of being refugees in search of a new home. The economic system of Egypt was built upon forced labor. Change frequently occurs only when the situation becomes so odious it can no longer be maintained. The people of Israel will be reluctant to leave Egypt behind and will long for it when things become challenging in the journey to the promised land. The people and leaders of Egypt are reluctant to let the people go because it means changing the way in which their society functions. In some respects, it is not surprising that Pharaoh continues here to harden his heart and defend the status quo and that only the continued pressure of these strange acts of God makes him even consider the possibility of temporarily granting the people a time to worship. Frogs, swarms of small biting bugs and flies continue to make life in Egypt unpleasant and continue to show

Sounds and Syllables

Creation by Selfish Eden (deviantart.com)

Creation by Selfish Eden (deviantart.com)

What power lies within the syllables and sounds?
Do they merely describe a reality fully formed?
A mimetic act of the glorification of creation
Reflecting upon a completed picture imperfectly
A flawed simulacrum of what sense can comprehend
Or is there something more in the words?
Do they reflect or recreate?
In these syllables and sounds is there the power of creation?
Do the songs and poetry open up new worlds of possibilities?
Can a statement or the stroke of a pen start a reality?
Can the sounds dance along the chaotic creative waters
Or commands give shape to the formless clay
Or is it something less contained in the words?
Do they reinvent or refract?
And perhaps the answer isn’t in the words at all
For maybe it is the potential of the creation already latent
And words may describe the reality that is already present
Or serve as a key that opens up some preexisting door
Echoing the preordained syllables that resonate among the stars
Copying the creative wisdom that predates the cosmos
And perhaps they are only words and yet, they are words
Resurrecting, retelling, recasting and realizing

Words and Will

Creation by Selfish Eden (deviantart.com)

Creation by Selfish Eden (deviantart.com)

There are no magic words, no secret sounds that bend the world
And yet words have power in the hearers mind
They can create and destroy, build up or tear down
Yet the speaker can only have an imagined result
The secret lies in the will of the audience

The hearer grants the power to the spoken and written word
Accepts the compliment, absorbs the dagger or simply chooses to ignore
Words may fall on ears that hear or on deaf ears, yet they are the same words
In one setting they may invoke desire or love, in another rejection
Some may invite into an adventure into another world, yet they can only invite
Even when they shame, cajole, and ridicule they may strike their mark
Or they may fall as useless barbs to the floor before the will that deems them unworthy

Yet without the words, the good and the bad the will remains at rest
Caught within its own world, not knowing the possibilities and dangers that rest beyond
The will grants one person’s words powers and deems another’s powerless
And yet with the magic of words and will are worlds inhabited
Love and hatred, fear and hope, science and magic all reside
In words and will

Neil White, 2013

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The Place of Authority 2-2: Rome’s Christian Problem

Anti-Christian Graffito from the Paedagogium, part of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, Rome

On the 18th and 19th of July of 64 CE the city of Rome burned, and of the fourteen districts only four remained relatively untouched. Emperor Nero presented the Christians as scapegoats for the city’s destruction, and one of the reasons that may have made them a particularly good scapegoat was that the early Christians in Rome may have lived in the regions of the city that were not burned (Peter Lampe draws that conclusion in From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries,47) Tradition has it that both the apostles Peter and Paul will be martyred under emperor Nero. From 64 CE on the Christians are noticed in varying levels throughout the Roman Empire and they presented  a unique challenge to the authority of the Roman Empire.

All empires to varying extents impose their will on their population and upon their challengers by the promises of reward for good behavior and the consequences of negative behavior. For example, a person may know the consequences of speeding, but if they deem the consequences light enough they may choose to exceed the speed limit anyways. There are more consequential examples: the mere accusation of being a traitor may have devastating consequences in most societies. Empires are built upon a network of favor, wealth and power being exchanged and in most times and places the pain of challenging that network (which may result in the loss of power, arrest, torture and even death) is far too high a cost to seriously entertain. In Rome the gladiatorial arenas, crucifixions, and various other forms of public execution and torture work to maintain conformity and fear of the Romans and their designated local authorities. The Roman Empire was neither more evil nor harsher than empires that came before, but in these early Christians they found a unique challenge.

Most of the early Christians were not powerful individuals, they were a relatively small minority within the societies they found themselves scattered within and they were not organized into large churches. There was some organization as bishops and leaders began to emerge, but they did not set out to challenge the Romans Empire. Often referred to as ‘atheists’ because they would not participate in the adoration of emperors or gods (which also had the consequence of denying many of these early Christians access to meat and feasts that accompanied these celebrations-in a society where meat was a rare treat this is a big sacrifice) and this led to significant challenges for the minority of Christians who were of a higher standing in society. Most Romans found what little they understood of Christianity as puzzling-they worshipped a crucified person (a huge scandal), they refused to enjoy the benefits of the empire, they were sometimes accused of cannibalism (not surprising when you think about what the Eucharist must have sounded like to outsider ears) and yet no amount of persecution seemed to make these Christians go away, rather they seemed to multiply even quicker.

The severity and extent of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire varies through time and region. Most of the persecution is regional and there never seems to be an organized campaign to completely seek out every Christian, but the experience of persecution by many Christians was very real. At points where the persecution was the most visible, “Christians were part of a good day out; part of the entertainment; part of the show” ( Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire, 78) and it is precisely at this point where they posed the greatest challenge to the empire. The gladiatorial games were not a gathering of the dregs of society, the elite and the good solid citizenry were there and the best seats were occupied by the leaders and elite of the society (the closest comparison we would have are the luxury boxes at many sporting events). Yet at the point where the Roman society demonstrated itself and its superiority on display Christians challenged the heart of the violence and order that stood at the center of the games. Take for example the writing of the second century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch:

Let there come upon me fire and the cross, and packs of wild beasts, lacerations, dismemberment, and dislocation of bones, the severing of limbs, the crushing of the whole body…Allow me to be an imitator the Passion of my God…Do not speak of Jesus Christ and still long for the world!

As a movement that refused to acknowledge the superiority of the emperor but rather worshipped a person who had been crucified on a Roman cross, who acknowledged Jesus as their Lord rather than Caesar, and who were not afraid of death this causes a lot of problems for the authority of the empire. How do you threaten a person who doesn’t fear torture and death (or at least does not view these things as more important than their allegiance to their God) and when a person views a shameful death (in the societies eyes) as the greatest honor how do you deal with that? In fact the more you persecuted these Christians publicly, the more their numbers seemed to grow.

In 312 the Roman Emperor Constantine would become the first to allow Christianity and this would dramatically altar both Rome’s and Christianity’s stories, but before that point Christianity would face its own challenges as it tried to figure out what was and was not Christianity. It had interacted with many new cultures, new languages and Christianity was not a centralized movement. There were leaders of the church in Rome, or Antioch, or Alexandria for example and many churches had collections of gospels, letters, and teachings in combination with the Hebrew Scriptures they inherited from Judaism but there was no central authority to say what was in and what was not. It is to this challenge we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com