Was Early Christianity Secretive?
In an interview with a TV producer a week or so ago, the question came up whether early Christianity (Roman-era) was secretive and operated in a covert manner, seeking to avoid hostile attention. The origins of this notion I don’t really know (information welcome), but it seems now “out there” (along with a number of other supposed “truths”) in at least some parts of the general populace. But it seems to have little basis. A few illustrations will suffice.
For example, when you have spokesmen for a religious movement framing formal defences of it (“apologia“) and addressing these to the Emperor (e.g., Justin Martyr) and to the wider public (e.g., Epistle to Diognetus), I’d say that’s hardly trying to remain under cover! That’s not simply putting your head “above the parapet,” that’s standing up on top of the parapet and waving your arms! And these texts are all the more significant in being produced during a time when tensions with governmental authorities were heating up. Even when you move on down into the third century CE, when there were occasional pogroms against Christians, this same very public stance obtains.
Even in our earliest extant Christian texts (Paul’s letters), there is evidence of the open, “in your face” presentation of beliefs, and indication that outsiders could well be present in early church gatherings (e.g., Paul’s references to “outsiders” and “unbelievers” present in 1 Cor 14:23-25). The depictions of early preaching given in Acts further support the view that Christians went public quite readily. (Even if Acts presents dramatized, even somewhat fictional scenes, they were obviously intended to be recognized by early Christian readers as authentic depictions of what Christians were supposed to do and did.)
But (I was asked), what about the fish symbol, or the anchor? Weren’t these hidden means of signifying Christian faith, e.g., the latter a covert reference to Jesus’ cross (the cross-bar of the anchor forming a disguised cross)? Well, in a word, no. Instead, it appears that these and other items reflect the early Christian tendency to appropriate various symbols, images, and expressions from the Roman-era environment, then assigning to them new Christian meanings. Behind this was the early Christian attitude that their beliefs were prefigured in the creation, in culture, in the prior intellectual history. So, they boldly made these sorts of things their own.
The fish-acrostic illustrates this: The ordinary Greek word for “fish” (ΙΧΘΥϹ) seized upon and read as a kind of short-hand statement of Christian faith: Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ (“Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour”). As for the anchor, it appears that in this and other phenomena, Christians saw their cross-symbol anticipated, reflected, and affirmed. Early Christians such as Justin also pointed to the shape of the masts of ships, and the T-shape of the human brow and nose, as other reflections of the cross-symbol. This wasn’t being covert; it was instead a bold (perhaps even audacious) affirmation. (Oh, and by the way, another notion “out there” in some scholarly circles is that we don’t have any cross-symbolism or visual references to Jesus’ crucifixion before the 4th/5th century CE. Wrong! That notion simply rests on an incomplete data-set and a certain ideological premise.)
Sure, we have sometimes the language of “secrets” (Greek: mysterion), e.g., “secret(s) of the kingdom of God/heaven” (Mark 4:11; Matt 13:11), a saying that seems simply to refer to the unrecognized meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds. Or there is Paul’s reference to proclaiming (openly!) the “mysterion of God” (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1), which seems to designate what Paul regarded as God’s previously unknown redemptive purpose and message, now openly declared in Paul’s preaching. (This language of “secrets” seems to draw mainly upon ancient Jewish notions of heavenly secrets to do with God’s eschatological purposes, as has been shown by R. E. Brown and others.)
And, yes, in the so-called “gnostic” Christian texts, we also have references to “secret sayings” (e.g., Gospel of Thomas), and at least some of these texts exude an esoteric tone. But the secrecy had to do with a supposedly deeper (or higher) understanding of truths presented in a covert (or even a riddling) manner that “ordinary” Christians didn’t get. I know of no evidence that there were “gnostic” conventicles that met covertly to avoid Roman attention.
But what about the catacombs? Well, Christians didn’t meet in catacombs for secret purposes, to hide from Roman authorities, but instead to have Christian meals with the Christian dead, especially martyrs. Catacomb burial wasn’t at all distinctive to Christians, but was practiced more widely in Rome and some other places.
So, without prolonging the point needlessly, there is scant reason to think of early Christianity as “secretive” and “covert”. When Roman authorities wanted to arraign Christians, it seems to have been easy enough to do so. And this largely because Christians made no secret of who they were, and where you could find them.