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Chapter 2 : Early Christianity in An Empirical Cult

Chapter 2
Early Christianity in an Empirical Cult

Before going into the historical roots of the current holiday customs I want to lay down some foundational information regarding the history of the Christian movement that I hope will shed some light on how syncretism has been a ploy of Satan’s from the beginning.  A brief overview about the culture that Christianity evolved from may help to understand how the church inherited the present customs and traditions.

First of all, we must realize that the gentiles that were converted to Christianity had family customs and traditions of their own before they became followers of Christ.  They also lived in the midst of cultures that were pagan.  In order to convert to Christianity, the new gentile converts had to leave behind the deities of their childhood and traditions.  In a lot of ways they were no different than the Israelites as they inherited the land.  They began to call on the gods of the nations that they entered by adopting the culture around them and absorbing it into the worship of the one true God.  Scripture records that this was not acceptable and God would not accept their impure worship.

At the beginning of the Christian movement, after Yeshua’s death and resurrection, the newly converted Christians met together with the Jews who had also recognized Yeshua as their Messiah.  Remember, Yeshua was a Jew, the disciples and Paul were all Jews, and all of these taught from the Old Testament.  Acts 2:46 records that the followers of Yeshua “…continued daily with one accord in the temple…” In John 19:2 Yeshua told his followers that soon they would be put out of the synagogues, and that whoever killed them would think that they were doing God a service.  The historical record documents that what Yeshua prophesied did indeed occur.  The Christians were put out of the synagogues.        

At the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD it is estimated that over one million Jews perished during this destruction.  “Casualties were so heavy because the population in the city was swollen with refugees who had sought safety there, and with pilgrims who had come to worship in the Temple, who were caught by the Roman encirclement” (Schonfield 186-7).   Very few people survived who had been alive to hear Yeshua for themselves.

Satan’s plan to perpetuate the adversarial role between the Jews and the Christians is evident from this time when gentile Christians and the Jews began to further distance themselves from each other. The Christians believed that the destruction of the Temple was a sign of God’s disfavor with the Jews for crucifying Yeshua.  At the same time that the Christians were distancing themselves from the Jews, the Jews also were very critical towards the Jews that had converted to Christianity.  Jewish benedictions from the end of the 1st century reflect this hostility with many of their prayers requesting God’s judgment on these apostates (Bradshaw & Hoffman 33-34).  During the reign of Maximus and Bishop Ambrose, approximately 397 AD, the Christians burned the Jewish synagogue in Rome (Chuvin 50).

For forty years after the Temple’s destruction, Christianity went underground and once it emerged again it was very different.  Before this the Christians had not been a separate religion from the Jewish faith.  They had been very zealous to observe the Law of Moses.   Now it was predominately a gentile religion that had retained the Jewish scriptures but changed by the mingling of gentile ideas and thought (Schonfield 186-196).   

From this period until the fourth century, the whole Roman Empire observed the Imperial Cult.  During the rule of Emperor Domitian all the citizens were commanded to refer to the emperor as “our Lord our God” when addressing him in speaking or writing.  Because of their refusal to pay homage to the emperor, Christians were persecuted and many were martyred.  It was not until this time that serious persecution of Christians began.  Prior to this period, during the time of Nero, the persecution was simply based on police power with the Christians being disturbers of the peace. Nero blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians as disturbers of the peace in order to divert suspicion of arson away from himself.  Domitian empowered persecution against the Christians and the Jews.  He levied a heavy tax against the Jews and made it criminal to be Christian.  The penalty was death, exile for some, or confiscation of property for others.

The most savage of the persecutions were during the rule of Decius (249-51 AD) and Diocletian (303-13 AD).   In 250 AD, Decius decreed an edict demanding “…that everyone sacrifice to the gods and the genius (guardian deity) of the emperor on a fixed day or suffer confiscation, exile, torture, or death.” (Manschreck 29).  Gallus (251-53 AD) continued this persecution and also blamed the Christians for the outbreaks of famine and pestilence.  In 253, Valerian forbid Christians to assemble.  Then during the next 40 years Christians built places of worship, enjoyed peace, and prospered (Chuvin 14-19).

In 303 AD, after consulting with an oracle of Apollo, Diocletian outlawed Christianity and ordered the Christian clergy to sacrifice to the gods or be imprisoned.  This decree was extended to the entire population in 304 A.D.  During this period the Jews were exempted from the decree and some Christians sought refuge in the synagogue but many more went into apostasy.

By 312 AD the apostate Christians had become integrated into the Roman culture and took part in its pageantry and entertainment.  During this period public life was dominated by official paganism, funded by governmental taxation (Chuvin 14-19). Despite the persecution, Christianity did continue to grow.  Many of the Christians saw martyrdom as an opportunity to share in the sufferings of Christ.

The emperors were also believed to be divine and it was expected that all of the citizens would pay homage to them and their images.

The pagan culture and religion of this time was polytheistic and tolerant of all gods of various cults.  In fact, the Greeks and Romans learned of each other’s god’s and adopted them.  Some were considered great gods, like Zeus, and some were superhuman or little gods.  But any might be called god. The emperors were also believed to be divine and it was expected that all of the citizens would pay homage to them and their images.  However, Christianity as a monotheistic religion, viewed any other god other than the one true God, as daemon, or demonic. The Jewish and Christian belief was intolerant to the pantheon, all-god culture, believing you either served God or daemon.  

The difficulty newly converted gentiles had in separating from their previous customs can be seen in I Corinthians 10:18-22.  Here we see Paul, who also regards the gods of the pagans as demons, teaching the Christians that they cannot partake of the Lord’s Table and the table of demons.  He asked, “Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?”  Apparently, there were some in the Corinthian church who were taking part in the pagan rituals and still wanting to partake of the Lord’s Table.

When the Christians refused to bow down to the emperors, or their images, it was viewed as treason. Persecution of the Christians was carried out as an effort to prevent a revolt, preserve peace, and secure allegiance from the masses.  In the book titled, Constantine and the Bishops, the author H. A. Drake explains that the persecution raised the questions:  “What defines a Roman citizen? What was the minimum act of obedience necessary to demonstrate commitment?  Starting in the third century, an attempt was made to define citizenship by means of ritual sacrifice to the official gods of the Roman state…Underlying all these events was the problem of how to incorporate Christians into a state that equated security with divine support” (193).

In 312 AD, Constantine I came into power as Emperor of the Roman Empire.  He has been credited with ending the persecution of the Christians.  But more significantly, he succeeded politically by cunningly uniting the empire that was divided over religion.  He created “…a stable consensus of Christians and pagans in favor of a religiously neutral public space…” (Drake 3).  This was a critical turning point in Christianity with regard to syncretism and the blending and absorption of pagan beliefs into the Christian faith.  Ironically, in the book titled, A Chronicle on the Last Pagans, by Pierre Chuvin, Christianity is credited with preserving the pagan customs and culture through Christianity’s absorption of the pagan culture at this period in time when the persecution reversed against the pagan culture (115).

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