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The Early Christians

The character of the early Christians would probably be most surprising to modern lay Christians. The bulk of the early converts were from the lower classes in the cities. As the great historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) summarized in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788):

the new sect of the Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace, of peasants and mechanists, of boys and women, of beggars and slaves, the last of whom might sometimes introduce the missionaries into the rich and noble families to whom they belonged. These obscure teachers ... are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into these minds whom their age, their sex, or their best education had the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious errors. [1]

We will have the occasion, a little later, to pick up on Gibbon's last sentence above. But for now it is enough to note that by and large the early Christians were mainly illiterate, uncultured and incapable of critical thinking. Hence Christianity competed for these people, not with the Roman thinkers, but with the mystery religions. Both Christianity and the mystery religions have irrational elements which were of much appeal to such a group of people. The skeptic J.M. Robertson (1856-1933) summarizes their character such:

Taken individually ... an average Christians of the second century was likely to be unlettered townsman of the "lower middle" or poorer classes; either bitterly averse to "idols", theaters, the circus, and the public baths, or persuaded that he ought to be; utterly credulous as to demons and miracles; incapable of criticism as to sacred books; readily emotional towards the crucified God and the sacred mystery in which were given the "body and blood"; devoid alike of aesthetic and of philosophic faculty; much given to his ritual; capable of fanatical hatred. [2]

It is mainly due to their uneducated roots, that Christianity with its strong anti-intellectual character provided such a welcome system of belief. We actually have contemporary reports on the anti-intellectual behavior of these early Christians. It was written by the skeptical philosopher Celsus in his book The True Doctrine (c178):

Christians usually flee headlong from cultured people, who are not prepared to be deceived, but they trap illiterate folk ... Their injunctions are like this, "Let no one be educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly." ... Some of them do not even want to give or receive a reason for what they believe, and use such expressions as "Do not ask questions; just believe." and "Thy faith will save thee." And they say, "The wisdom of the world is an evil, and foolishness is a good thing." [3]

Celsus did add that there were some Christians who are moderate, intelligent and reasonable; but, without a doubt, these Christians constitute an insignificant minority. [4]

It is therefore not surprising that the greatest thinkers of that age: philosophers such as Seneca (c5BC-AD65), Epictetus (c1st cent) and Marcus Aurelius (c121-180); statesmen such as Pliny the Elder (AD23-79), his adopted son Pliny the Younger (c62-114) ; historians such as Plutarch (c46-120) and Tacitus (c55-c117) and prominent physicians such as Galen (c2nd cent); who through their work and contemplation had "purified their mind from the prejudices of popular superstition", either rejected outright or did not consider the nascent religion of Christianity. To quote Gibbon:

Those among them who condescended to mention the Christians consider them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts, who exacted an implicit submission to their mysterious doctrines, without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning. [5]

It is interesting to note that in late the twentieth century, accompanying the relative decline of Christianity, is a resurgence of the fundamentalist form of the religion. The anti-intellectualism we see so prevalent in the early Christians is a prominent feature of these modern fundamentalists. In this way, therefore, these modern day Christians are going back to the spirit of their ecclesiastical ancestors.

There is a further similarity to modern Christians have to these early ones, in particular their habit of preaching to children and ill educated adults. The second century skeptic, Celsus, preserved for posterity his witness of that abhorrent method of preaching by the early Christians:

In private homes we see woolworkers, cobblers, handy workers and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some outstanding statements as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their father and school teachers, but must obey them; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know, nor are able to do anything good, but are taken up with empty chatter. But they alone, they say, know the right way to live, and if the children would believe them, they would become happy and make their home happy as well. And if just as they are speaking they see one of the schoolteachers coming, or some intelligent person, or even the father himself, the more cautious of them flee in all directions; but the more reckless urge the children on to rebel. They whisper to them that in the presence of their father and their schoolmasters they do not feel able to explain anything to the children, since they do not want to have anything to do with the silly and abstruse teachers who are totally corrupted and far gone in wickedness and who inflict punishment on the children. But, if they like, they should leave father and their schoolmasters, and go along with the women who are their playfellows to the wooldresser's shop, or the cobbler's, or the washerwoman's shop, that they may learn perfection. And by saying this they persuade them. [6]

The true picture of the early Christians that emerges from this is not an attractive one. They were, with few exceptions, uneducated, ignorant, superstitious, with no respect for rational thinking and preys on the young and the credulous. Much of the subsequent harmful effects of the religion stems from the fact that it was initially developed by such people as these.

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1.Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p187
2.Robertson, History of Christianity: p61
3.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p24
4.Gibbon, Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: p189
5.Ibid: p189
6.Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: p175-176

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