THE EARLY CHRISTIANS
The Romans and the early Christians are often viewed as two different groups of people. This is of course a mistake, when Christianity hit it big time it was in Rome, with the Roman people. This means Roman and Christian tradition became very much one and the same.
Relics and the End of the Catacombs
In the beginning of the Christian era, people wasn’t really sure what to do with their dead. The problem was the return of the Messiah. It was common that people lost their faith after someone had died, if you were one of the chosen, such a gruesome fate shouldn’t be able to befall you. But, obviously, it did. The Christian authorities had to deal with it, and one of them was Paul, who wrote an epistle to the congregation in Thessalonike:
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [i.e. dead]. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1. Thess. 4:15-18)
When the Christians had realised that they could die before the return of the Messiah they had to develop rituals to take care of their dead ones in a suitable way. A very important aspect of this new religion was that they could not cremate their dead, which was common among the pagan Romans. The reason for this was that the Christians were supposed to rise from their graves when the Messiah came, and that is very hard to do if you are a heap of ashes.