Kreider begins chapter 2, entitled “The Intriguing Attraction of Early Christianity,” with the observation that both Justin and Cyprian were not only converts, but also martyrs. Simply put, their decision to follow Jesus cost them their lives. They were executed for participating in a movement that was “marginal” and “on the fringes of polite and respectable society.” They, along with the rest of the Christians, were literally considered “insane” by most of the people surrounding them.
Yet people persisted in converting to Christianity in ever-increasing numbers.
If, as many scholars suggest, by the time of Constantine (in the early 300s) around 10% of the population had become Christians, then the church grew by an average of 40% per decade during the first three hundred years after the time of Jesus. Despite scorn from the populace and often persecution at the hands of the powerful, the Christian movement grew. As Kreider aptly states, “Something was deeply attractive about it.”
Attractive perhaps, but not exclusively so. Listen to the words of an early critic, the pagan Caecilius from Carthage:
[The Christians are] a gang . . . of discredited and proscribed desperadoes who band themselves against the gods. Fellows who gather together illiterates from the dregs of the populace and credulous women with the instability natural to their sex, and so organize a rabble of profane conspirators, leagued together by meetings at night and ritual fasts and unnatural repasts . . . a secret tribe that shuns the light, silent in the open, but talkative in hid corners. . . . Root and branch it must be exterminated and accursed. They recognize one another by secret signs and marks; they fall in love almost before they are acquainted; everywhere they introduced a kind of religion of lust, a promiscuous “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” by which ordinary fornication, under the cover of a hallowed name, is converted to incest. (Minucius Felix, Octavius 8.4; 9.1-2)
Okay, so he pretty much hates them. He hates them because they conspire against the public religion (they “band themselves together against the gods”) which of course secured the public welfare. Their rituals violated conventional values and were easy to caricature. And in addition to this, they were rumor-worthy. Although offensive, they were intriguing, at least worth discrediting. Their sense of belonging was ridiculous; it made no sense based on the normal values of their society.
From a slightly different angle, the early Christian Tertullian wrote a letter advising Christian widows not to re-marry, especially not to non-Christians. Why? Because what husband would want a wife who leave at night to meet with other Christians, to take the Lord’s Supper, to wash their feet, to visit one another in prison? Who would want a wife who takes from her cupboard and provides for those without food, who opens her home to strange travelers who share her faith?
It is these kinds of activities – meeting in secret at night, forming kinship bonds with people they hardly knew, taking care of one another’s needs – that leads Kreider to label the early Christians’ behavior as question-posing. We’ll look more into this on our next post.