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Was Early Christianity Secretive?

November 28, 2012

Last night here in the UK the BBC showed the first of a multi-part series hosted by WaldemarJanuszczak (a UK art critic/journalist), this first programme on early Christianity and some of its art and symbols.  I knew we were off to a bad start when Januszczak started with the “ROTAS-SATOR” square found in Pompei, announcing confidently that it was a covert Christian device intended to signal to other Christians.  In fact, this curious word-square does not show up in identifiably Christian usage till sometime 4th-6th centuries or later.  And when it shows up in Christian usage it’s not as a covert identification, but a kind of magical device (e.g., for healing, etc.).

But the larger complaint I had about the programme was his repeated references to early Christianity as a secretive or covert movement that resorted to supposedly cryptic symbols to avoid detection.  In fact, everything we know about pre-Constantinian Christianity indicates a movement seeking to make itself as known as possible.  I mean, when you have Christian figures such as Justin Martyr writing formal/extended defences of Christianity addressed to the Emperor (Justin’s Apology), how secretive are you trying to be??

And Christians used symbols such as the Chi-Rho, not as cryptic/hidden references to their faith, but as indicative of their bold appropriation of symbols.  The Chi-Rho (along with the Tau-Rho) was in fact a pre-Christian device that typically served as an abbreviation for “chiliarch” or “useful”.  Christians, however, quickly saw also that it used the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ”, and attached their own meaning to it.  They did the same with a number of other symbols, words, and other visual iconography.  They seem to have felt that the world declared the gospel, and lay unnoticed by the pagans, but they would disclose it.

So, let’s drop the old chestnut about secretive early Christians/Christianity, hiding away to avoid detection and persecution.  In fact, they seem to have been fairly up front, bold, and even provocative at times. 

Too bad that the BBC once again went with an amateur for an important historical topic, and too bad that the host didn’t do better historical research.

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19 Comments
  1. I quite enjoyed WaldemarJanuszczak’s energy and personality, but agree with you, Larry, on the disappointing inability to check sources. I think one gets this much more in an authorial-presence documentaries like this, with a writer / presenter attempting the grand sweep. When documentaries are not just in the hands of the one key guy, they are often more likely to employ consultants. And Waldemar really could have done with a consultant on some of this material.

    I was shocked to see the repeat of the legend about the drawing of the fish in the sand. As far as I am aware, this derives from Quo Vadis and not from any ancient texts!

  2. W. Goodman permalink

    LARRY Perhaps relating to this: what do you make of perennial rumors of a sort of inner secret or “mystery,” within Chistianity itself?

    There are many mentions of mysteries and secrets in the New Testament. Paul and others at times 1) mentioned the “mystery” of the Second Coming/mass resurrection, for example. among many possible mysteries. Though other times he and/or others claimed to have revealed most (or at times all?) secrets. Other times though, 2) it seems that the “mystery of the lawless one” and so forth seem to hold, even until the End.

    So are there any inner secrets in Chrisitanity? Some readers also hold that 3) the Bible itself is a sort of “Roman a clef,” or a “coded” text. With at least several layers in it: 4) like the “literal” vs. the “spiritual/allegorical” meaning of the text, and so forth. Many might hold, related to this, that 5) theologians and others, know many things about the Bible,that they don’t make clear to ordinary folks.

    Are there deliberate secrets in Christianity? Say 6) a secret Vatican library and so forth (as provided for by Canon Law in fact).

    If some of these things are “secret” of course, we shouldn’t expect those who know, to tell. Though perhaps there are many today, who are prepared to face some of 7) the different aspects of say, “veil”ed knowledge.

    Are there deliberate inner secrets in Christianity?

    Many things in any case it seems, won’t be made fully clear until Judgement Day and so forth.

    • Dear Mr. Goodman: Your comments illustrate the importance of reading Greek. The term often translated “mystery” or “secret” in the NT, mysterion, seems to reflect the apocalyptic notion of heavenly secrets concerning where history is being taken (by God). So, Paul announces God’s “mysterion” in the Gospel, which is something prepared from the creation and now announced openly (!): That Jesus is the fulfilment of divine promises, and that gentiles are now admitted to God’s family, etc. Paul speaks of fellow Jews who reject Jesus as having a “veil” over their eyes preventing them from seeing the glory of God in Jesus (2 Cor 3–4), but insists that his preaching of God’s “mysterion” was open and forthright (e.g., 1 Cor 2:1-5). In the NT usage a “mysterion” is something apocalyptic that will be revealed in its time. So, e.g., the “mysterion of the lawless one (or lawlessness)” 2 Thess 2:7, is something that will be revealed in its time (2:8), when the eschatological evil manifests itself fully.
      As for the silly rumors of secret Vatican libraries, etc., I don’t deal in modern rumor, but in the historical nature of earliest Christianity. My point is that ancient Christians were not typically operating in some secret, Masonic-lodge type, manner.

  3. John Moles permalink

    Mixed feelings about this, because it seems to me insufficiently to register the ambivalences/ambiguities of ‘Christianity’. If/since ‘Christ’ was executed as a poltical rebel against Rome, ‘Christians’ were inevitably and necessarily politically suspect, as followers of a rebel leader justly executed. On the other hand, from their point of view, they had to spread the word/Word. Hence, inevitably, public disorder (alike because of ‘Christian’-Jewish tensions, Christian-pagan tensions, and Jewish-pagan tensions). On the other hand, they had to claim adherence to public order/laws (with a small ‘l’), i.e. Roman imperial laws. Hence all the equivocations in ‘Acts’, or indeed in the letters of Paul.

    • Yes, John. Complex (as is most human behavior and history). But my posting was against the simplistic generalization of early Christians as operating covertly and using “codes” and such. Also, let’s not confuse efforts to present a positive face to society & authorities (as, e.g., in Acts, and more so in the Apologists), and claims about “codes” and “secretive” covert stuff.

    • ‘If/since ‘Christ’ was executed as a poltical rebel against Rome, ‘Christians’ were inevitably and necessarily politically suspect, as followers of a rebel leader justly executed’

      Hence Paul’s writing in Romans 13 that ‘Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’

      The last thing he wanted was to see fellow Christians killed for being rebels, the way Jesus was.

      • Steven: Well, yes, Paul wasn’t eager to have Christians killed. But that wasn’t likely or frequent. Much more common was harassment from neighbors, associates, family members, for acting in ways deemed anti-social: Specifically, for not taking part in group worship activities devoted to the gods. Sometimes, as reflected in some accounts in Acts, local officials were pressured into acting against Christians by local people, because christians were seen as anti-social and potential threats to the social solidarity of a city.
        I don’t see the relevance of your comment to the point I was making in my blog posting.

  4. There do seem to have been some early Christian codes, though. I enjoyed Peter Parsons’ account in his book “City of the Sharp-nosed Fish” of Christians in Oxyrhynchos adding “99″ at the end of their letters instead of the word “amen” (the Greek letters for the word add up to 99 when considered as numbers). That was in the persecution under Diocletian, when a measure of secrecy was probably a very good idea. From what you’re saying in your post, that sort of thing was an exception to the rule of openness… is that right?

    • Dear Simon,
      Two points briefly: First, we should beware the tendency to take symbols used by early Christians as “secret coded” things. It’s likely that many early Christians delighted in the use of symbols and numerical devices (e.g., the “99″) simply for the enjoyment of it, not necessarily to keep secrets from anyone.
      Second, sure, in times of fierce threats of arrest and death (which were, by the way, exceptional in the first three centuries), Christians likely kept their heads down. But also some in fact almost sought martyrdom.

  5. I was told (by a Catholic friend) that initially baptisms were conducted behind closed doors, and that only people who had already been baptised could attend. This was based on the practices of other initiatory mystery religions, where only initiates could attend initiations. But quite quickly, the early Christians realised that it was the inner experience of the baptism that counted, so they did not need to restrict the ceremony to the baptised.

    I had never heard that SATOR / ROTAS was a Christian thing; I always thought it was an occult thing.

    Regarding using the fish as a secret symbol – I heard that thing about tracing it in the dust as a sign – so it’s not true?

    • Your Catholic friend is misinformed about early Christian baptism. And there’s no ancient reference to Christians using the fish-symbol as some secret thing.

  6. Jeff Cate permalink

    Larry,
    Good post as always. I’m curious… do you think maybe in some places or at certain times early Christians were less public and more secretive? In other words, is it overstepping to say categorically early Christians were never secretive for safety reasons?… maybe better to say that normally they weren’t? I’m not trying to nit-pick your point, just curious if you think we should disallow any consideration of Christians ever being secretive in the first three centuries. Thanks in advance,
    –Jeff

    • There were, likely, occasions and circumstances in which Christians laid low. But I’m criticizing the notion that across the first three centuries Christianity made a broad practice of covertness, coded signs, etc.

  7. He also needs to read Bryan Ward-Perkin’s “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization” by OUP, for a trenchant critique of the modern attempt to rehabilitate the barbarians as being enlightened, civilized people.

  8. Just discovered your blog!!! As a result of your critique of the BBC programme have gone back to July 2010 to start to work through your blog. Thanks millions.

  9. Well put, AKMA!

  10. Oh, dear. Next you’re going to tell us that Christians didn’t surreptitiously use the toes of their sandals to make “ichthoi” in the ground as a secret sign of Christian faith. You’re taking all the James Bond fun out of early Christianity, LWH! What–oh, what!–will be left?

    • Ah, but the truth is actually more interesting than the tripe that is so often circulated!

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