Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ad Romam I

When I was a child I still remember being enthralled by watching historical movies; particularly the ones about ancient Rome and Early Christianity.
My eyes voraciously feasted on such classic epics as Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Demetrius and the Gladiators, etc..
Charlton Heston and Peter Ustinov became my cultural heroes.The euphonious orchestra of the soundtrack of Ben Hur still rings in my ears, evoking those nostalgic childhood moments. Watching these movies was like my gateway to the world of antiquity - the world of Jesus and his apostles, which I yearned to experience in any way I could. 

Ben Hur
As a child I'd also read avidly on gladiators, the chariot races, the praetorian prefects, emperors and battles. I could only faintly conjecture the experiences of our spiritual forebears as they were confronted by the city in central Italy, by the river Tiber, that had once ruled the world.

I wonder how a fisherman from Capernaum even make his way there? And what could it have been like for him?
I've always felt that there was much vibrancy, titillation, and enrapturing experience of being a Christian at that time - after all, the teachings of Jesus were still a novel and a living experience that resonated with fresh potency within the hearts of early believers in the great cities-centres like Rome. I've always imagined a scenario of the working-class plebeians enjoying their nocturnal convivial worship together, celebrating the communion, jovially hymning to Christ "as to a god," and being thrown to the beasts (Latin ad bestias) in the Colosseum. That was also the impression I'd gotten when I read the writings of the early Christians, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Tertullian of Carthage. The Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas game me a panoramic view to the whole grizzly reality of Christian persecution under the emperors.
I was also fascinated by a classic novel, written by a nineteen-century anonymous writer, The Martyr of the Catacombs, and being entranced by stories of Christians hiding out in the subterranean catacombs for the fear of the Roman government, like a band of rebels. Of course, nothing could have been farthest from the truth as derived from the real pages of history!
That was, at least, my then fanciful romanticizing of sacred history which lamentably is all due to the nefarious Hollywood indoctrination factor. All these mellifluous myths have certainly caught my fancy back then.
On the other hand, I still think the popular legends resound with the realities of being a first-century Christian; and them having to cope with social ostracism, at best, or death by wild beasts in the arena, at worst. There was much savagery and hate back in those days - but the pristine purity and love of the early Christians had eventually - through several centuries - won the day.
Of course, that is not to become voluntarily blind to how utterly corrupt the Roman church had subsequently become; how bishops of Rome would lord it over them and establish a religio-political hybrid system during and after the time of the emperor Constantine.
Consider the words of Tertullian in the 3rd century, writing from Africa:
"So, again, Babylon, in our own John, is a figure of the city of Rome. For she is equally great and proud of her sway" (ANF, 3.162, c. A.D. 200). This echoes Peter's apocalyptic use of Babylon as a codename for Rome: "she who is in Babylon" (1st Peter 5:13), and of John in the Book of Revelation.

Iesous Xristoc Theou Huios Soter (Jesus Christ, God's Son, the Savior)
The "ichthus" anagram
Firstly, how ever did the church get started in Rome? It may surprise many people but Roman Christians have been around before the apostles Paul and Peter. So, it's a bit puzzling as to how they got there in the first place - and that so early!
Much of the history of pre-pauline Christianity in Rome is "shrouded in haze". The book of Acts only mentions that there were Christians whom Paul had encountered on his way to face his trial at Rome (28:15), and that before then, Paul was received by the brethren living in Puteoli, - the harbour that served as a gateway to the East (28:13).

So, Puteoli would be our first identifiable locus of primitive Christian presence in Italy. The book of Acts records how Paul and his crew, with their Alexandrian ship "whose figurehead was the Twin Brothers" - Castor and Pollux - sailed from Sicily, circled around and finally docking to "Puteoli, where we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them seven days" (28:11-14). It was not only at the port city that Christians had already been established before the arrival of Paul but even at Rome: "when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns" (28:15).

Ruins of the "Three Taverns"
The Appii Forum, or The Marketplace of Appius was a small town just outside of Rome. It was situated along the famous Via Appia - The Appian Road: it was the famous highway that stretched from Rome to the north to Capua to the south. Rome was renowned for paving highway systems that led to the city - it had certainly facilitated long-distance travel: both safety-wise and convenience, derived from a smoothly paved pathway.

North of the town was the "Three Taverns" or as it was called in Latin Tres Tabernae, which was a place where the well-known mansio was situated. The mansio was an inn for weary travelers and merchants to rest who were on their way to Rome. Ruins of the inn where Paul stayed are extant to this day at "Treponti" (as it's called in Italian).

So we could see Biblically and archeologically that Christians have established their presence in Italy from very early period. I think the book of Acts furnishes us with very important clues. In chapter 2, for instance, on the day of Pentecost there were many visitors and proselytes from Rome who had experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church in A.D. 33. After they had witnessed the "great wonder of God" and after having listened to Peter's sermon and getting baptized, the early disciples must have taken the gospel back to Italy as they were sailing back.
So, the church at Puteoli and the brethren at the Three Taverns were the first-fruits of Christians in Europe and Christians that had been converted directly by the apostles themselves.

I will surely speak on early Roman Christians at another time in a long series of blog posts. This subject is simply too long and rich to be covered in just one post.

No comments:

Post a Comment