35. The Conservative Reaction, and the Liberal Victory - Peter and Paul at Antioch
The Jerusalem compromise, like every other compromise, was liable to a double construction, and had in it the seed of future troubles. It was an armistice rather than a final settlement. Principles must and will work themselves out, and the one or the other must triumph.
A liberal construction of the spirit of the decree seemed to demand full communion of the Jewish Christians with their uncircumcised Gentile brethren, even at the Lord’s table, in the weekly or daily agapae, on the basis of the common saving faith in Christ, their common Lord and Saviour. But a strict construction of the letter stopped with the recognition of the general Christian character of the Gentile converts, and guarded against ecclesiastical amalgamation on the ground of the continued obligation of the Jewish converts to obey the ceremonial law, including the observance of circumcision, of the Sabbath and new moons, and the various regulations about clean and unclean meats, which virtually forbid social intercourse with unclean Gentiles.
The conservative view was orthodox, and must not be confounded with the Judaizing heresy which demanded circumcision from the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and made it a term of church membership and a condition of salvation. This doctrine had been condemned once for all by the Jerusalem agreement, and was held hereafter only by the malignant pharisaical faction of the Judaizers.
The church of Jerusalem, being composed entirely of Jewish converts, would naturally take the conservative view; while the church of Antioch, where the Gentile element prevailed, would as naturally prefer the liberal interpretation, which had the certain prospect of ultimate success. James, who perhaps never went outside of Palestine, far from denying the Christian character of the Gentile converts, would yet keep them at a respectful distance; while Peter, with his impulsive, generous nature, and in keeping with his more general vocation, carried out in practice the conviction he had so boldly professed in Jerusalem, and on a visit to Antioch, shortly after the Jerusalem Council (a.d. 51), openly and habitually communed at table with the Gentile brethren. He had already once before eaten in the house of the uncircumcised Cornelius at Caesarea, seeing that “God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to him.”
But when some delegates of James arrived from Jerusalem and remonstrated with him for his conduct, he timidly withdrew from fellowship with the uncircumcised followers of Christ, and thus virtually disowned them. He unwittingly again denied his Lord from the fear of man, but this time in the persons of his Gentile disciples. The inconsistency is characteristic of his impulsive temper, which made him timid or bold according to the nature of the momentary impression. It is not stated whether these delegates simply carried out the instructions of James or went beyond them. The former is more probable from what we know of him, and explains more easily the conduct of Peter, who would scarcely have been influenced by casual and unofficial visitors. They were perhaps officers in the congregation of Jerusalem; at all events men of weight, not Pharisees exactly, yet extremely conservative and cautious, and afraid of miscellaneous company, which might endanger the purity and orthodoxy of the venerable mother church of Christendom. They did, of course, not demand the circumcision of the Gentile Christians, for this would have been in direct opposition to the synodical decree, but they no doubt reminded Peter of the understanding of the Jerusalem compact concerning the duty of Jewish Christians, which he above all others should scrupulously keep. They represented to him that his conduct was at least very hasty and premature, and calculated to hinder the conversion of the Jewish nation, which was still the object of their dearest hopes and most fervent prayers. The pressure must have been very strong, for even Barnabas, who had stood side by side with Paul at Jerusalem in the defence of the rights of the Gentile Christians, was intimidated and carried away by the example of the chief of the apostles.
The subsequent separation of Paul from Barnabas and Mark, which the author of Acts frankly relates, was no doubt partly connected with this manifestation of human weakness.
The sin of Peter roused the fiery temper of Paul, and called upon him a sharper rebuke than he had received from his Master. A mere look of pity from Jesus was enough to call forth bitter tears of repentance. Paul was not Jesus. He may have been too severe in the manner of his remonstrance, but he knew Peter better than we, and was right in the matter of dispute, and after all more moderate than some of the greatest and best men have been in personal controversy. Forsaken by the prince of the apostles and by his own faithful ally in the Gentile mission, he felt that nothing but unflinching courage could save the sinking ship of freedom. A vital principle was at stake, and the Christian standing of the Gentile converts must be maintained at all hazards, now or never, if the world was to be saved and Christianity was not to shrink into a narrow corner as a Jewish sect. Whatever might do in Jerusalem, where there was scarcely a heathen convert, this open affront to brethren in Christ could not be tolerated for a moment at Antioch in the church which was of his own planting and full of Hellenists and Gentiles. A public scandal must be publicly corrected. And so Paul confronted Peter and charged him with downright hypocrisy in the face of the whole congregation. He exposed his misconduct by his terse reasoning, to which Peter could make no reply. “If thou,” he said to him in substance, “who art a Jew by nationality and training, art eating with the Gentiles in disregard of the ceremonial prohibition, why art thou now, by the moral force of thy example as the chief of the Twelve, constraining the Gentile converts to Judaize or to conform to the ceremonial restraints of the elementary religion? We who are Jews by birth and not gross sinners like the heathen, know that justification comes not from works of the law, but from faith in Christ. It may be objected that by seeking gratuitous justification instead of legal justification, we make Christ a promoter of sin. Away with this monstrous and blasphemous conclusion! On the contrary, there is sin in returning to the law for justification after we have abandoned it for faith in Christ. I myself stand convicted of transgression if I build up again (as thou doest now) the very law which I pulled down (as thou didst before), and thus condemn my former conduct. For the law itself taught me to exchange it for Christ, to whom it points as its end. Through the Mosaic law as a tutor leading me beyond itself to freedom in Christ, I died to the Mosaic law in order that I might live a new life of obedience and gratitude to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer my old self that lives, but it is Christ that lives in me; and the new life of Christ which I now live in this body after my conversion, I live in the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if the observance of the law of Moses or any other human work could justify and save, there was no good cause of Christ’s death his atoning sacrifice on the cross was needless and fruitless.”
From such a conclusion Peter’s soul shrank back in horror. He never dreamed of denying the necessity and efficacy of the death of Christ for the remission of sins. He and Barnabas stood between two fires on that trying occasion. As Jews they seemed to be bound by the restrictions of the Jerusalem compromise on which the messengers of James insisted; but by trying to please the Jews they offended the Gentiles, and by going back to Jewish exclusiveness they did violence to their better convictions, and felt condemned by their own conscience. They no doubt returned to their more liberal practice.
The alienation of the apostles was merely temporary. They were too noble and too holy to entertain resentment. Paul makes honorable mention afterwards of Peter and Barnabas, and also of Mark, who was a connecting link between the three. (Comp. 1Co_9:5, 1Co_9:6; 1Co_15:5; Col_4:10; Phm_1:24; 2Ti_4:11) Peter in his Epistles endorses the teaching of the “beloved brother Paul,” and commends the wisdom of his Epistles, in one of which his own conduct is so severely rebuked, but significantly adds that there are some “things in them hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unsteadfast wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (1Pe_5:12; 2Pe_3:15, 2Pe_3:16)
The scene of Antioch belongs to these things which have been often misunderstood and perverted by prejudice and ignorance in the interest both of heresy and orthodoxy. The memory of it was perpetuated by the tradition which divided the church at Antioch into two parishes with two bishops, Evodius and Ignatius, the one instituted by Peter, the other by Paul. Celsus, Porphyry, and modern enemies of Christianity have used it as an argument against the moral character and inspiration of the apostles. The conduct of Paul left a feeling of intense bitterness and resentment in the Jewish party which manifested itself even a hundred years later in a violent attack of the pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions upon Paul, under the disguise of Simon Magus. The conduct of both apostles was so unaccountable to Catholic taste that some of the fathers substituted an unknown Cephas for Peter; while others resolved the scene into a hypocritical farce gotten up by the apostles themselves for dramatic effect upon the ignorant congregation.
The truth of history requires us to sacrifice the orthodox fiction of moral perfection in the apostolic church. But we gain more than we lose. The apostles themselves never claimed, but expressly disowned such perfection. (Comp. 2Co_4:7; Phi_3:12; Jam_3:2; 1Jo_1:8; 1Jo_2:2) They carried the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels, and thus brought it nearer to us. The infirmities of holy men are frankly revealed in the Bible for our encouragement as well as for our humiliation. The bold attack of Paul teaches the right and duty of protest even against the highest ecclesiastical authority, when Christian truth and principle are endangered; the quiet submission of Peter commends him to our esteem for his humility and meekness in proportion to his high standing as the chief among the pillar-apostles; the conduct of both explodes the Romish fiction of papal supremacy and infallibility; and the whole scene typically foreshadows the grand historical conflict between Petrine Catholicism and Pauline Protestantism, which, we trust, will end at last in a grand Johannean reconciliation.
Peter and Paul, as far as we know, never met afterwards till they both shed their blood for the testimony of Jesus in the capital of the world.
The fearless remonstrance of Paul had probably a moderating effect upon James and his elders, but did not alter their practice in Jerusalem. (Act_21:17-20) Still less did it silence the extreme Judaizing faction; on the contrary, it enraged them. They were defeated, but not convinced, and fought again with greater bitterness than ever. They organized a countermission, and followed Paul into almost every field of his labor, especially to Corinth and Galatia. They were a thorn, if not the thorn, in his flesh. He has them in view in all his Epistles except those to the Thessalonians and to Philemon. We cannot understand his Epistles in their proper historical sense without this fact. The false apostles were perhaps those very Pharisees who caused the original trouble, at all events men of like spirit. They boasted of their personal acquaintance with the Lord in the days of his flesh, and with the primitive apostles; hence Paul calls these “false apostles” sarcastically “super-eminent” or “over-extra-apostles.” They attacked his apostolate as irregular and spurious, and his gospel as radical and revolutionary. They boldly told his Gentile converts that they must submit to circumcision and keep the ceremonial law; in other words, that they must be Jews as well as Christians in order to insure salvation, or at all events to occupy a position of pre-eminence over and above mere proselytes of the gate in the outer court. They appealed, without foundation, to James and Peter and to Christ himself, and abused their name and authority for their narrow sectarian purposes, just as the Bible itself is made responsible for all sorts of heresies and vagaries. They seduced many of the impulsive and changeable Galatians, who had all the characteristics of the Keltic race. They split the congregation in Corinth into several parties and caused the apostle the deepest anxiety. In Colossae, and the churches of Phrygia and Asia, legalism assumed the milder form of Essenic mysticism and asceticism. In the Roman church the legalists were weak brethren rather than false brethren, and no personal enemies of Paul, who treats them much more mildly than the Galatian errorists.
This bigoted and most persistent Judaizing reaction was overruled for good. It drew out from the master mind of Paul the most complete and most profound vindication and exposition of the doctrines of sin and grace. Without the intrigues and machinations of these legalists and ritualists we should not have the invaluable Epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. Where error abounded, truth has still more abounded.
At last the victory was won. The terrible persecution under Nero, and the still more terrible destruction of Jerusalem, buried the circumcision controversy in the Christian church. The ceremonial law, which before Christ was “alive but not life-giving,” and which from Christ to the destruction of Jerusalem was “dying but not deadly,” became after that destruction “dead and deadly.” The Judaizing heresy was indeed continued outside of the Catholic church by the sect of the Ebionites during the second century; and in the church itself the spirit of formalism and bigotry assumed new shapes by substituting Christian rites and ceremonies for the typical shadows of the Mosaic dispensation. But whenever and wherever this tendency manifests itself we have the best antidote in the Epistles of Paul.
36. Christianity in Rome
I. On the General, Social, and Moral Condition of Rome under the Emperors
Ludwig Friedl'e4nder: Sittengeschichte Roms. Leipzig, 1862, 5th ed. revised and enlarged, 1881, 3 vols.
Rod. Lanciani: Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries. Boston, 1889 (with 100 illustrations).
II. On the Jews in Rome and the Allusions of Roman Writers to Them
Renan: Les Ap'f4tres, 287-293; Merivale: History of the Romans, VI., 203 sqq.; Friedl'e4nder: l.c. III., 505 sqq.; Hausrath: Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte, III., 383-392 (2d ed.); Sch'fcrer: Lehrbuch der Neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte, pp. 624 sq., and Die Gemeindeverfassung der Juden in Rom in der Kaiserzeit, Leipz., 1879; Huidekoper: Judaism at Rome, 1876. Also John Gill: Notices of the Jews and their Country by the Classic Writers of Antiquity. 2d ed. London, 1872. On Jewish Roman inscriptions see Garrucci (several articles in Italian since 1862), von Engestr'f6m (in a Swedish work, Upsala, 1876), and Sch'fcrer (1879).
III. On the Christian Congregation in Rome
The Histories of the Apostolic Age (see Histories of the Apostolic Age); the Introductions to the Commentaries on Romans (mentioned 'a729), and a number of critical essays on the origin and composition of the Church of Rome and the aim of the Epistle to the Romans, by Baur (Ueber Zweck und Veranlassung des R'f6merbriefs, 1836; reproduced in his Paul, I., 346 sqq., Engl. transl.), Beyschlag (Das geschichtliche Problem des R'f6merbriefs in the “Studien und Kritiken” for 1867), Hilgenfeld (Einleitung in das N. T., 1875, pp. 302 sqq.), C. Weizs'e4cker (Ueber die 'e4lteste r'f6mische Christengemeinde, 1876, and his Apost. Zeitalter, 1886, pp. 415-467).
W. Mangold: Der R'f6merbrief und seine gesch. Voraussetzungen, Marburg, 1884. Defends the Jewish origin and character of the Roman church (against Weizs'e4cker).
Rud. Seyerlen: Entstehung und erste Schicksale der Christengemeinde in Rom. T'fcbingen, 1874.
Adolf Harnack: Christianity and Christians at the Court of the Roman Emperors before the Time of Constantine. In the “Princeton Review,” N. York, 1878, pp. 239-280.
J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow (R. C.): Roma Sotterranea, new ed., London, 1879, vol. I., pp. 78-91. Based upon Caval. de Rossi’s large Italian work under the same title (Roma, 1864-1877, in three vols. fol.). Both important for the remains of early Roman Christianity in the Catacombs.
Formby: Ancient Rome and its Connect. with the Chr. Rel. Lond., 1880.
Keim: Rom. u. das Christenthum. Berlin, 1881.
From “Roma Sotteranea,” by Northcote and Brownlow.
Rodolfo Lanciani: Pagan and Christian Rome. New York, 1893 (pp. x, 374). A very important work which shows from recent explorations that Christianity entered more deeply into Roman Society in the first century than is usually supposed.
The City of Rome
Map, The City of Rome
From “Roma Sotteranea,” by Northcote and Brownlow.
The city of Rome was to the Roman empire what Paris is to France, what London to Great Britain: the ruling head and the beating heart. It had even a more cosmopolitan character than these modern cities. It was the world in miniature, “orbis in urbe.” Rome had conquered nearly all the nationalities of the then civilized world, and drew its population from the East and from the West, from the North and from the South. All languages, religious, and customs of the conquered provinces found a home there. Half the inhabitants spoke Greek, and the natives complained of the preponderance of this foreign tongue, which, since Alexander’s conquest, had become the language of the Orient and of the civilized world. The palace of the emperor was the chief center of Oriental and Greek life. Large numbers of the foreigners were freedmen, who generally took the family name of their masters. Many of them became very wealthy, even millionnaires. The rich freedman was in that age the type of the vulgar, impudent, bragging upstart. According to Tacitus, “all things vile and shameful” were sure to flow from all quarters of the empire into Rome as a common sewer. But the same is true of the best elements: the richest products of nature, the rarest treasures of art, were collected there; the enterprising and ambitious youths, the men of genius, learning, and every useful craft found in Rome the widest field and the richest reward for their talents.
With Augustus began the period of expensive building. In his long reign of peace and prosperity he changed the city of bricks into a city of marble. It extended in narrow and irregular streets on both banks of the Tiber, covered the now desolate and feverish Campagna to the base of the Albanian hills, and stretched its arms by land and by sea to the ends of the earth. It was then (as in its ruins it is even now) the most instructive and interesting city in the world. Poets, orators, and historians were lavish in the praises of the urbs aeterna, qua nihil posis visere majus.”
The estimates of the population of imperial Rome are guesswork, and vary from one to four millions. But in all probability it amounted under Augustus to more than a million, and increased rapidly under the following emperors till it received a check by the fearful epidemic of 79, which for many days demanded ten thousand victims a day. Afterwards the city grew again and reached the height of its splendor under Hadrian and the Antonines.
The Jews in Rome
The number of Jews in Rome during the apostolic age is estimated at twenty or thirty thousand souls. They all spoke Hellenistic Greek with a strong Hebrew accent. They had, as far as we know, seven synagogues and three cemeteries, with Greek and a few Latin inscriptions, sometimes with Greek words in Latin letters, or Latin words with Greek letters. They inhabited the fourteenth region, beyond the Tiber (Trastevere), at the base of the Janiculum, probably also the island of the Tiber, and part of the left bank towards the Circus Maximus and the Palatine hill, in the neighborhood of the present Ghetto or Jewry. They were mostly descendants of slaves and captives of Pompey, Cassius, and Antony. They dealt then, as now, in old clothing and broken ware, or rose from poverty to wealth and prominence as bankers, physicians, astrologers, and fortunetellers. Not a few found their way to the court. Alityrus, a Jewish actor, enjoyed the highest favor of Nero. Thallus, a Samaritan and freedman of Tiberius, was able to lend a million denarii to the Jewish king, Herod Agrippa. The relations between the Herods and the Julian and Claudian emperors were very intimate.
The strange manners and institutions of the Jews, as circumcision, Sabbath observance, abstinence from pork and meat sacrificed to the gods whom they abhorred as evil spirits, excited the mingled amazement, contempt, and ridicule of the Roman historians and satirists. Whatever was sacred to the heathen was profane to the Jews. They were regarded as enemies of the human race. But this, after all, was a superficial judgment. The Jews had also their friends. Their indomitable industry and persistency, their sobriety, earnestness, fidelity and benevolence, their strict obedience to law, their disregard of death in war, their unshaken trust in God, their hope of a glorious future of humanity, the simplicity and purity of their worship, the sublimity and majesty of the idea of one omnipotent, holy, and merciful God, made a deep impression upon thoughtful and serious persons, and especially upon females (who escaped the odium of circumcision). Hence the large number of proselytes in Rome and elsewhere. Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, as well as Josephus, testify that many Romans abstained from all business on the Sabbath, fasted and prayed, burned lamps, studied the Mosaic law, and sent tribute to the temple of Jerusalem. Even the Empress Poppaea was inclined to Judaism after her own fashion, and showed great favor to Josephus, who calls her “devout” or “God-fearing” (though she was a cruel and shameless woman). Seneca, who detested the Jews (calling them sceleratissima gens), was constrained to say that this conquered race gave laws to their conquerors.
The Jews were twice expelled from Rome under Tiberius and Claudius, but soon returned to their transtiberine quarter, and continued to enjoy the privileges of a religio licita, which were granted to them by heathen emperors, but were afterwards denied them by Christian popes.
When Paul arrived in Rome he invited the rulers of the synagogues to a conference, that he might show them his good will and give them the first offer of the gospel, but they replied to his explanations with shrewd reservation, and affected to know nothing of Christianity, except that it was a sect everywhere spoken against. Their best policy was evidently to ignore it as much as possible. Yet a large number came to hear the apostle on an appointed day, and some believed, while the majority, as usual, rejected his testimony. (Act_28:17-29)
Christianity in Rome
From this peculiar people came the first converts to a religion which proved more than a match for the power of Rome. The Jews were only an army of defense, the Christians an army of conquest, though under the despised banner of the cross.
The precise origin of the church of Rome is involved in impenetrable mystery. We are informed of the beginnings of the church of Jerusalem and most of the churches of Paul, but we do not know who first preached the gospel at Rome. Christianity with its missionary enthusiasm for the conversion of the world must have found a home in the capital of the world at a very early day, before the apostles left Palestine. The congregation at Antioch grew up from emigrant and fugitive disciples of Jerusalem before it was consolidated and fully organized by Barnabas and Paul.
It is not impossible, though by no means demonstrable, that the first tidings of the gospel were brought to Rome soon after the birthday of the church by witnesses of the pentecostal miracle in Jerusalem, among whom were “sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes.” In this case Peter, the preacher of the pentecostal sermon, may be said to have had an indirect agency in the founding of the church of Rome, which claims him as the rock on which it is built, although the tradition of his early visit (42) and twenty or twenty-five years’ residence there is a long exploded fable. Paul greets among the brethren in Rome some kinsmen who had been converted before him, i.e., before 37. Several names in the list of Roman brethren to whom he sends greetings are found in the Jewish cemetery on the Appian Way among the freedmen of the Empress Livia. Christians from Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece must have come to the capital for various reasons, either as visitors or settlers.
The Edict of Claudius
The first historic trace of Christianity in Rome we have in a notice of the heathen historian Suetonius, confirmed by Luke, that Claudius, about a.d. 52, banished the Jews from Rome because of their insurrectionary disposition and commotion under the instigation of “Chrestus” (misspelt for “Christus”).
This commotion in all probability refers to Messianic controversies between Jews and Christians who were not yet clearly distinguished at that time. The preaching, of Christ, the true King of Israel, would naturally produce a great commotion among the Jews, as it did at Antioch, in Pisidia, in Lystra, Thessalonica, and Beraea; and the ignorant heathen magistrates would as naturally infer that Christ was a political pretender and aspirant to an earthly throne. The Jews who rejected the true Messiah looked all the more eagerly for an imaginary Messiah that would break the yoke of Rome and restore the theocracy of David in Jerusalem. Their carnal millennarianism affected even some Christians, and Paul found it necessary to warn them against rebellion and revolution. Among those expelled by the edict of Claudius were Aquila and Priscilla, the hospitable friends of Paul, who were probably converted before they met him in Corinth.
The Jews, however, soon returned, and the Jewish Christians also, but both under a cloud of suspicion. To this fact Tacitus may refer when he says that the Christian superstition which had been suppressed for a time (by the edict of Claudius) broke out again (under Nero, who ascended the throne in 54).
In the early part of Nero’s reign (54-68) the Roman congregation was already well known throughout Christendom, had several meeting places and a considerable number of teachers. (Rom_1:8; Rom_16:5, Rom_16:14, Rom_16:15, Rom_16:19) It was in view of this fact, and in prophetic anticipation of its future importance, that Paul addressed to it from Corinth his most important doctrinal Epistle (a.d. 58), which was to prepare the way for his long desired personal visit. On his journey to Rome three years later he found Christians at Puteoli (the modern Puzzuolo at the bay of Naples), who desired him to tarry with them seven days. Some thirty or forty miles from the city, at Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae (The Three Taverns), he was met by Roman brethren anxious to see the writer of that marvellous letter, and derived much comfort from this token of affectionate regard.
Paul in Rome
His arrival in Rome, early in the year 61, which two years later was probably followed by that of Peter, naturally gave a great impulse to the growth of the congregation. He brought with him, as he had promised, “the fulness of the blessing of Christ.” His very bonds were overruled for the progress of the gospel, which he was left free to preach under military guard in his own dwelling. (Phi_1:12-15; Act_28:30) He had with him during the whole or a part of the first Roman captivity his faithful pupils and companions: Luke, “the beloved physician” and historian; Timothy, the dearest of his spiritual sons; John Mark, who had deserted him on his first missionary tour, but joined him at Rome and mediated between him and Peter; one Jesus, who is called Justus, a Jewish Christian, who remained faithful to him; Aristarchus, his fellow-prisoner from Thessalonica; Tychicus from Ephesus; Epaphras and Onesimus from Colossae; Epaphroditus from Philippi; Demas, Pudens, Linus, Eubulus, and others who are honorably mentioned in the Epistles of the captivity. (Col_4:7-14; Eph_6:21; Phm_1:24; Phi_2:25-30; Phi_4:18; comp. also 2Ti_4:10-12) They formed a noble band of evangelists and aided the aged apostle in his labors at Rome and abroad. On the other hand his enemies of the Judaizing party were stimulated to counter-activity, and preached Christ from envy and jealousy; but in noble self-denial Paul rose above petty sectarianism, and sincerely rejoiced from his lofty standpoint if only Christ was proclaimed and his kingdom promoted. While he fearlessly vindicated Christian freedom against Christian legalism in the Epistle to the Galatians, he preferred even a poor contracted Christianity to the heathenism which abounded in Rome.
The number which were converted through these various agencies, though disappearing in the heathen masses of the metropolis, and no doubt much smaller than the twenty thousand Jews, must have been considerable, for Tacitus speaks of a “vast multitude” of Christians that perished in the Neronian persecution in 64; and Clement, referring to the same persecution, likewise mentions a “vast multitude of the elect,” who were contemporary with Paul and Peter, and who, “through many indignities and tortures, became a most noble example among ourselves” (that is, the Roman Christians).
Composition and Consolidation of the Roman Church
The composition of the church of Rome has been a matter of much learned controversy and speculation. It no doubt was, like most congregations outside of Palestine, of a mixed character, with a preponderance of the Gentile over the Jewish element, but it is impossible to estimate the numerical strength and the precise relation which the two elements sustained to each other.
We have no reason to suppose that it was at once fully organized and consolidated into one community. The Christians were scattered all over the immense city, and held their devotional meetings in different localities. The Jewish and the Gentile converts may have formed distinct communities, or rather two sections of one Christian community.
Paul and Peter, if they met together in Rome (after 63), would naturally, in accordance with the Jerusalem compact, divide the field of supervision between them as far as practicable, and at the same time promote union and harmony. This may be the truth which underlies the early and general tradition that they were the joint founders of the Roman church. No doubt their presence and martyrdom cemented the Jewish and Gentile sections. But the final consolidation into one organic corporation was probably not effected till after the destruction of Jerusalem.
This consolidation was chiefly the work of Clement, who appears as the first presiding presbyter of the one Roman church. He was admirably qualified to act as mediator between the disciples of Peter and Paul, being himself influenced by both, though more by Paul. His Epistle to the Corinthians combines the distinctive features of the Epistles of Paul, Peter, and James, and has been called “a typical document, reflecting the comprehensive principles and large sympathies which had been impressed upon the united church of Rome.”
In the second century we 'a7no more traces of a twofold community. But outside of the orthodox church, the heretical schools, both Jewish and Gentile, found likewise au early home in this rendezvous of the world. The fable of Simon Magus in Rome reflects this fact. Valentinus, Marcion, Praxeas, Theodotus, Sabellius, and other arch-heretics taught there. In heathen Rome, Christian heresies and sects enjoyed a toleration which was afterwards denied them by Christian Rome, until, in 1870, it became the capital of united Italy, against the protest of the pope.
The language of the Roman church at that time was the Greek, and continued to be down to the third century. In that language Paul wrote to Rome and from Rome; the names of the converts mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of the Romans, and of the early bishops, are mostly Greek; all the early literature of the Roman church was Greek; even the so-called Apostles’ Creed, in the form held by the church of Rome, was originally Greek. The first Latin version of the Bible was not made for Rome, but for the provinces, especially for North Africa. The Greeks and Greek speaking Orientals were at that time the most intelligent, enterprising, and energetic people among the middle classes in Rome. “The successful tradesmen, the skilled artisans, the confidential servants and retainers of noble houses - almost all the activity and enterprise of the common people, whether for good or for evil, were Greek.”
The great majority of the Christians in Rome, even down to the close of the second century, belonged to the lower ranks of society. They were artisans, freedmen, slaves. The proud Roman aristocracy of wealth, power, and knowledge despised the gospel as a vulgar superstition. The contemporary writers ignored it, or mentioned it only incidentally and with evident contempt. The Christian spirit and the old Roman spirit were sharply and irreconcilably antagonistic, and sooner or later had to meet in deadly conflict.
But, as in Athens and Corinth, so there were in Rome also a few honorable exceptions.
Paul mentions his success in the praetorian guard and in the imperial household.
It is possible, though not probable, that Paul became passingly acquainted with the Stoic philosopher, Annaeus Seneca, the teacher of Nero and friend of Burrus; for he certainly knew his brother, Annaeus Gallio, proconsul at Corinth, then at Rome, and had probably official relations with Burrus, as prefect of the praetorian guard, to which he was committed as prisoner; but the story of the conversion of Seneca, as well as his correspondence with Paul, are no doubt pious fictions, and, if true, would be no credit to Christianity, since Seneca, like Lord Bacon, denied his high moral principles by his avarice and meanness.
Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, who was arraigned for “foreign superstition” about the year 57 or 58 (though pronounced innocent by her husband), and led a life of continual sorrow till her death in 83, was probably the first Christian lady of the Roman nobility, the predecessor of the ascetic Paula and Eustochium, the companions of Jerome. Claudia and Pudens, from whom Paul sends greetings (2Ti_4:21), have, by an ingenious conjecture, been identified with the couple of that name, who are respectfully mentioned by Martial in his epigrams; but this is doubtful. A generation later two cousins of the Emperor Domitian (81-96), T. Flavius Clemens, consul (in 95), and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were accused of “atheism,” that is, of Christianity, and condemned, the husband to death, the wife to exile (a.d. 96). Recent excavations in the catacomb of Domitilla, near that of Callistus, establish the fact that an entire branch of the Flavian family had embraced the Christian faith. Such a change was wrought within fifty or sixty years after Christianity had entered Rome.