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Was Early Christianity Secretive?

July 30, 2014

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.


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  1. Dear professor Hurtado,
    I am somewhat surprised at your take of the “secrecy” in the early Christianity. As it is a subject of great personal interest permit me a couple of observations. I believe the earliest Christianity to have been cultic, ie. closed to the outside world and open only to adepts who were deemed intellectually capable and morally worthy of receiving the wisdom of Jesus Christ. (The Thomasians evidently had their own closed society). Where the deutero-Paulines and Acts have Paul proselytize more or less without inhibition, in large settings and in the upper echelons of society, the corpus takes a restrictive view of who is fit to receive the mystery of ages given to Paul to interpret and disseminate. The letters are addressed to those who are mature (1 Cor 2:6), called to be saints (1 Cor 1:2, Rom 1:7), the elect (Rom 8:33, Rom 11:5,7) and to those who possess the Spirit and are thus equipped to receive spiritual truths: “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, and he is not able to grasp them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14). It seems clear that Mark’s community believed this very strongly and hence Jesus audience restricted by faith and gnosis in 4:11-12. I am led to believe that Mark purposely misled outsiders about his gospel which had inner cultic meaning to be hidden from everyone who were ‘hoi exo’. This excluded even the Petrines, who in Mark’s time – it is clear – had not yet accepted the cross. It is only with Matthew who simplified and radically restructured Mark’s gospel to accommodate the Jewish traditions of Jesus that the narrative opens to the Christian laity and ceases to be a reading intelligible only to a closed club of Pauline Christ spiritualists.

    • Jiri: You have the right to “believe” what you will. I will only say that pretty much every one of your “beliefs” stated here (1) represents a rather obvious misunderstanding of the texts in question, and (2) has virtually no support from the professional scholars trained in the field, the period, the practice, the language, etc.
      As I’ve indicated in earlier comments, for example, Paul’s references to “mystery” etc. are all in highly charged rhetorical passages where he is going up against some who prize secrecy and “higher” truths, his point being that the cross of Jesus is the “high” truth, not something else. As for Mark, likewise, you simply read into the text more than is there. If you’d like to test your own impressions, then you should study the works of scholars, e.g., in commentaries, monographs, journal articles, of which there are many on these texts. Your misperceptions can’t be fixed in a blog comment. It’s up to you whether you seriously are interested, and are willing to do the work and not be led by your own initial dispositions.
      My posting stands: Early Christianity (at least in the familiar forms reflected in NT writings, etc.) was not a secret society, not a covert or esoteric form of religion.

  2. Wow, great post! Now I need to rethink several things I presupposed.

  3. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry —

    In early 2nd Century, was Pliny the Younger being lazy, culturally incurious — or simply imperiously sadistic — when he tortured two female slaves, who were also deaconesses, to confirm reports by former Christians (and now loyal citizens) about the content of their meetings, which, Pliny was told, involved “singing a hymn to Christ as to a god,” taking morally commendable oaths, and then departing (to do what?) before returning as a group to partake in a meal with “ordinary and innocent food”?

    Or did Christians actually retreat into secrecy during Pliny’s reign as governor of Pontus/Bithynia — perhaps for the sake of self-preservation but possibly out of common practice? Pliny had decreed an end to “political associations”, which seems to mean any gathering not specifically ordained by Rome. Christians would have been foolhardy to flout his edict and secrecy would have been a logical strategy at least during Pliny the Younger’s governorship.

    It seems that in Pliny’s mind he needed to take more aggressive measures — torture — to “find out what the truth was”, which to me suggests that the totality of Christian practice was not openly accessible or commonly known — or that Pliny was indeed lazy, clueless, sadistic.

    • Steve: Your rhetorical comments about Pliny’s tactics in the interrogation of Christians are simplistic. If you really want a good discussion of his letter and his situation, see, e.g., Stephen Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the First Two centuries A.D.,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2.23/2, pp. 1068-76; or the detailed commentary on Pliny’s letters by A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966). Pliny tortured the two women to ensure that what those he interrogated were telling him the truth.
      In any case, there’s a difference between temporarily laying low to avoid a given pogrom (such as you suggest may have been the tactic of Bithyinian believers) and a policy of acting as a secret society. It’s the latter that my post particularly challenged, but I’m not convinced that the former actually obtained all that often. People certainly knew that Christians were around and who they were. Otherwise, how would they have been denounced to Pliny?? And from the early second century CE onward Christian writers were articulating and defending Christians to the governing authorities and the general public. We have nothing like these texts from the real “mystery cults” of the time.

  4. On the Binchester ring: Something I read said 3rd century.

    • A 3rd century date would be most interesting. A silver ring with intaglio (probably custom-made) = someone with funds to spare on such an item. And it’s a military site. So that = someone of rank likely. Such a person identifying himself (wearing a ring) as a Christian and in Roman Britain. Most interesting.

  5. Cardinal Newman discussed a principle of “economy” in his Apologia:

    This is not so much a matter of secrecy but of prudence in exposing certain aspects of doctrine to the common view. How this idea is received today I have no clue.

    • Rick: My posting was about early Christianity, not 19th century Catholicism. Newman is interesting for the latter, not the former.
      Again, my posting was about whether early Christians conducted themselves as a secret society: They didn’t.

      • Newman was indeed a 19th century Catholic, but he was writing about the practice of the first centuries of Christianity:

        “I say in that Volume first, that our Lord has given us the principle in His own words,—”Cast not your pearls before swine;” and that He exemplified it in His teaching by parables; that St. Paul expressly distinguishes between the milk which is necessary to one set of men, and the strong meat which is allowed to others, and that, in two Epistles. I say, that the Apostles in the Acts observe the same rule in their speeches, for it is a fact, that they do not preach the high doctrines of Christianity, but only “Jesus and the Resurrection” or “repentance and faith.” I also say, that this is the very reason that the Fathers assign for the silence of various writers in the first centuries on the subject of our Lord’s divinity. I also speak of the catechetical system practised in the early Church, and the disciplina arcani as regards the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, to which Bingham bears witness; also of the defence of this rule by Basil, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Theodoret.”

        Newman was, of course, no professional historian. And this is no assertion that the early Christians conducted themselves as a secret society. But your original question was, “whether early Christianity (Roman-era) was secretive and operated in a covert manner, seeking to avoid hostile attention,” and whence such an idea might have come. Newman is still widely read, and widely influential, and his notion of the reticence of the early Church to fully explicate the Faith may be one of the sources you are asking about. Whether he is correct about the practice and the motivations of the early Christians is of course a different question.

      • Interesting suggestion, Rick.

    • It sounds like Newman is talking about esoteric doctrine, which Hurtado explicitly says is not what his article is addressing.

  6. Larry, 1 Cor 14:23-25 was originally about praying and speaking in the Spirit, prophet like. An “unbeliever” was someone who disobeyed the Spirit.

    • Geoff: Ah, no, wrong (again!). Where do you get your ideas from? Really. And where do you get the confidence to assert them, as if you had some competence in the field? I really must be direct, Geoff, as you come over so full of assurance over views that are (as in this case) so readily baseless when one actually studies the text and context. It’s obvious that “idiotes” and “apistos” in context refers to outsiders.

  7. Allan Popa permalink

    It seems RIchard Bauckham’s suggestion about the sources for NT stories seems to lend towards the idea that many early Christians wanted to remain anonymous in some respect. There are hints in the NT that some early believers were secret, not wanting to face persecution. That seems reasonable. Furthermore, one could certainly agree that there were some vocal Christians (Justin Martyr obviously). However, it would make sense to say that if some were secretive not all needed to be.

    • Allen: You’re missing my point. There may well have been situations when individual Christians sought to avoid arrest, or refused to give over other Christians. But the point of my posting was that there is no basis for the popular notion that as a rule Christians kept themselves and their meetings secret, used coded secret symbols (such as the anchor, fish, etc.). From both Christian and non-Christian evidence of the Roman period, this is clearly false.

    • I haven’t read the rest of these comments but I noticed Allan’s reference to me. My argument was very specific about Christians in Jerusalem who had played a big part in the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest and execution – Lazarus, the woman who anointed Jesus etc (I borrowed the argument from Gerd Theissen). I didn’t mean to suggest that they kept their Christian faith secret. It was just that the Jerusalem tradition of the passion did not name them because their roles in the story might incriminate them.
      A quite distinct point only tangentially relevant. Larry, in view of your interest in early Christian symbols, do you know about the Binchester silver ring?

      • Richard: I didn’t know of the Binchester finds. No date is given, but I’d assume it’s 4th century CE or so?

  8. Griffin permalink

    Jesus we are told, at times spoke privately, and at times in closed rooms, to his disciples. Were there things that Jesus and other Christian leaders conveyed to some, that were not for general consumption? Was there a second layer of meaning embedded in our biblical texts? Did Christianity work like a sort of typical Mystery Religion, or like many religions; in which the ordinary person was not fully “initiated” into “the inner sanctum,” the inner mysteries or messages?

    Dr. Hurtado seems to make the argument that Christianity was not precisely the same as a typical “Mystery Religion.” However, he seems to acknowledge that there might be different layers of text, different layers of understanding what is written. Layers accessible to the “mature.”

    However, for many of us, the admission that there might be a deeper layer or voice in Christianity, for the “mature,” might be enough in itself. Here I myself would not insist that this is the very same thing as the Mystery Religions. Or even the insider or initiate teachings, found by Anthropology in many typical religious societies. However? It seems clear that there are several levels of message/understanding offered.

    It seems there are levels to the text; perhaps intended to be obscure to “child”ren, or unreliable or unworthy readers. It is commonly known for example, that in addition to the 1) literal level of the text, there was also an 2) “allegorical” or “parable” level. A level that was perhaps, not always fully explained to the public? Then too, 3) we are told at times that Jesus told his followers not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

    This might not be precisely a Mystery Religion. But what we have in this sort of material, seems significant in itself. It might appear at the very least, even according to Larry himself, that there were to be sure, layers in the text, initiate levels within Christianity. Levels that were not directly or easily accessible to everyone. Nor would everyone be explicitly told about these other levels, perhaps.

    So a question to Larry: early Christianity might not be precisely and exactly a Hellenistic “Mystery Religion,” very properly or exactly speaking. But on the other hand, doesn’t it bear some important, similar features?

    • Griffin: You’re mis-reading what I wrote. There are esoteric Christian texts, usually referred to as “gnostic” texts, such as Gospel of Thomas, that seem deliberately riddling, their meaning intended for those in on the secrets of those who wrote them. But the NT writings, and others of the so-called “great church” tradition reflect a very different kind of attitude, one in which emphasis is placed on an open and bold declaration of the beliefs of those who wrote them.
      The various levels/approaches to reading texts, e.g., allegorical, tropological, etc., were devised much later, and don’t at all reflect any esoteric emphasis. They were intended instead to milk texts for as much meaning as possible. E.g., it allowed Christians to read OT texts in light of the Gospel message.

      Was early Christianity like the “mystery cults”? No. First, “mystery cults/religions” is a false collective, with various types of groups lumped artificially under that label.
      Second, the “mysteries” of these cults were essentially their secret rituals, not primarily doctrines or beliefs, and certainly not texts (texts don’t function nearly as centrally in “pagan” religion of Roman times). To be an initiate in the earliest period (e.g., Paul’s churches) involved confessing Jesus as “kyrios” and being baptized. Big whoop. No elaborate initiate-process. And even later, the process involved essentially learning and affirming doctrines that were openly proclaimed.
      So, no. Early Christianity wasn’t really a “mystery cult”, and the distinctions seem much larger than any putative similarities.
      For resources: e.g., Günter Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries: The Problem of the Pauline Doctrine of Baptism in Romans 6:1-11, in the Light of Its Religio-Historical “Parallels” (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1967); A. J. M. Wedderburn, “Paul and the Hellenistic Mystery Cults: On Posing the Right Questions,” in La Soteriologia del Culti Orientali nell’Impeiro Romano, ed. U. Bianchi and M. J. Vermasseren (Leiden: Brill, 1982), 817-33; Devon H. Wiens, “Mystery Concepts in Primitive Christianity and in Its Environment,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.23/2, pp. 1248-84.

  9. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Great article, I have been guilty of this false assumption myself. It seems to me that part of the reason this idea of a ‘secretive’ Christianity is so wide spread is because it seems more exciting to the modern mind than faithful open proclamation. We do love a story! Thanks for pointing out the facts which in my opinion tell an even more fascinating story.


  10. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Who are saying early Christians were secretive? I know that in Monty Python’s Life of Brian his friends met in secret in his house and hid from Roman soldiers. In Matt 10:16-23 are instructions for early Christians to be wary of attracting the attention of the authorities and to flee from trouble.

    • Ah, Donald, the Matthew passage gives no hint of covert or secretive meetings, etc. Read more carefully. And also ready my post: I say there that the post was prompted by a TV researcher who seemed to think that early Christianity was secretive. You’ll get that idea a lot if you talk to the public.

  11. Ron permalink

    “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.”

    That’s a very interesting statement, Dr. Hurtado. One that on the surface seems similar to claims Roman Catholics are fond of making. I’d really like to read deeper on any scholarly studies which back such a claim. Anything that you could direct me to would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

    • Ron: It’s not a Roman Catholic claim that early Christians met in/at tombs of their dead and held meals there; it’s archaeological and textual findings. See, e.g., Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine (1985), pp. 82-83 (and thereafter details of sites).

      • Ron permalink

        Much thanks for the book recommendation! On a side note I wasn’t suggesting that the early Christians sharing meals in tombs was a Roman Catholic claim, but rather how that might correlate to their claim that first century Christians prayed to the dead.

      • Early Christians didn’t “pray to the dead,” and I don’t know that responsible Roman Catholic scholarship claims otherwise. They did, however, have meals at the graves of martyrs, and by medieval time appealed to dead saints to intercede for them. This is on the view that, just as you might ask a living person to pray for you, it’s just as OK to ask a dead fellow Christian to pray/intercede. Whatever you think of the view, it’s not really praying TO the dead. But, true, in a lot of “popular” RC practice, people refer to praying to St. X or St. Y.

  12. fellowsrichard permalink

    Your last sentence doesn’t sound quite right, or quite complete.

    It would have been shameful for someone to give away sensitive information that could endanger his friends. Surely, then, the early Christians did employ secrecy to protect each other from arrest. We see this in the Martyrdom of Justin, where Justin and his co-accussed dodge the Rusticus’s questions to avoid giving the names of any other Christians whom Rusticus could arrest. John 7:8-10; Mark 11:2-6; and Mark 14:13-15; also come to mind. Paul and his friends must have kept their new travel plans secret when they changed routes to evade the plot (Acts 20:3). And I doubt that Peter told many people his destination when he escaped to “another place” (Acts 12:17), for Luke did not know or did not want to say. And what about the protective silences employed by the NT writers? And didn’t Nero and Pliny have to use torture to get lists of names of Christians?

    So, while the Christians did not have a culture of secrecy, would you agree that they used secrecy in the same way that any persecuted minority will do?

    • Richard: There’s a big difference between, e.g., refusing to give over fellow believers to torture and (what I wrote about) meeting as a secret society. They openly addressed their society and its leaders, and as I say it was easy enough to find them when the govt wanted to carry out a pogrom.

  13. Tim Hallman permalink

    Thank you for the helpful article. I do remember hearing in Christian circles as a teen/young adult that Christians hid out in the catacombs to escape Roman authorities, since they were a vast system of tunnels. I have also heard that the fish symbol was a secret sign between two Christians: ie if a person sat on a bench and they wanted to know if the other person was a Christian, they would draw a symbol of the fish – if it was recognized, the two would connect as brothers in Christ; if the sign went unrecognized, the one would know the other was an unbeliever. I had heard that this usage of the fish symbol was prevalent during the time of Nero and other seasons of persecution by the emperors. I have no historical verification for this, other then it was common tales shared in my Christian education.

    • Tim: It’s all popular imagination, fueled somewhat by a couple of bible-movies.

  14. Peter Shoobridge permalink

    The erroneous belief in early Christian secrecy says a lot about contemporary minds. There seems to be a prevailing belief/myth that external persecution necessarily mandates covert behavior, without appreciating that martyrdom was not viewed as something to be feared by early Christians (eg. the letter to Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans).

    Christians appear to have taken with utmost seriousness Jesus’ words: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Professor Hurtado will likely have a strong opinion as to how widely that saying might have circulated among early Christian communities, but the sentiment was no doubt persuasive, if only from the personal example of the apostles and their immediate followers.

    The exclusion of catechumens from the core of the liturgy, no doubt originating prior to the fixed Byzantine rite, seems to have been motivated by a high view of the holiness of the eucharist (holy things are for the holy), rather than by an attempt to keep the eucharistic rite a secret.

  15. Steven Carr permalink

    Paul tells the Corinthians that there were teachings held back from them. They were only ready for the ‘milk’

    Paul in Phil 4:12 uses the word ‘mueo’ – a technical word used in the initiation rites of pagan mystery religions,

    Even Clement of Alexandria praises secrecy, writing in Stromata 5 ‘Rightly then, Plato, in the Epistles, treating of God, says: “We must speak in enigmas that should the tablet come by any mischance on its leaves either by sea or land, he who reads may remain ignorant.”

    There was more to Christianity than was written down in the Epistles. There were secrets known only to the ‘teleioi’

    • Yes, Steven, we have the language of “secrets” in Paul, et alia, but, e.g., in the Corinthians passage you cite it’s used to scold the church for not being ready for his teaching, which, of course, he delivered publicly! In Clement we have a guy reacting against and appropriating for his own purposes the language of “mystery” and even “gnostic” terminology. And, sure, by the 2nd century there were clearer distinctions between initiates and outsiders as to the level of teaching. But that’s still not a secret society, meeting covertly and trying to avoid attention from the public or authorities. Stay on the topic, please.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        We have little information about church activities from 65 to 95 AD. And that means there is no evidence (as far as I know) that Christians met secretly (as opposed to privately). Why would they meet secretly?

        Surely by Paul there were clear distinctions between people who were fed milk and people who were ready for other teachings. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul explains that he taught ‘the foundations’ and that others , Apollos in particular, built on that.

        And in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul explains that not all have been taught the knowledge needed to eat in a temple of an idol, while others, lacking that knowledge, may be confused by seeing you do that.

        Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 2:1 that he did not teach the Corinthians the mysteries, and he says in 1 Corinthians 2:6 that he only speaks God’s wisdom, hidden and secret, among the mature (teleios)

        Hebrews 5:12-6:3 is clear that there were different levels of teaching.

        So Christians had secrets, which they kept from certain believers, let alone outsiders, but I know of nowhere where they were a secret society in the first century AD.

      • Steven, Here’s a tip to reading texts: Read the context, and try, try really hard, to enter into the larger discourse and tone of a text. E.g., in 1 Cor 2–3 it’s clear that Paul is writing ironically and with rhetorical intent. So, from chapter 1 onward it’s clear that the immaturity of the Corinthians lies in their divisiveness and other misbehaviour, “mature” being used in a profoundly different way from its use in Roman-era “mystery cults”. You’ve missed that by proof-texting and taking individual sentences out of context. The deep “mysteries” that Paul proclaims are simply the significance of his one message, about Jesus and his crucifixion (1 Cor 1:18-31; 2:1-5). The depth of significance of this message, to be sure, says Paul, requires someone “mature” enough to go beyond its offensiveness, going beyond the “wisdom” of the world/philosophers and perceiving God’s striking purpose in Jesus’ execution.
        I won’t prolong this with showing how you’ve missed the other texts as well (e.g., Heb 5:12–6:3 is again about the behavioural immaturity of the readers). But, to underscore the point, read texts contextually. You’ll learn a lot.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        I hope Professor Hurtado will forgive me if I am not offended by his lecture.

      • No intention to offend, Steve. Simply to inform and instruct. You declare your assumptions so boldly, I thought a bold corrective would be appropriate.

  16. Larry, Thank you for this post. A few questions:

    1) Is there a difference between secretive and private. Such that private practices get misinterpreted by outsiders, requiring a defense (not because they are secret, but because they are done in private).
    2) I’ve often heard it said that the rather extensive early catechesis was tied to fear of bringing in an outsider too quickly (fear of being outed to Roman officials). This view is tied to the withholding of the eucharist, the catechumen removal from this portion of the liturgy, and the withholding of the gospel lessons from those who are not baptized. Is there scant evidence in this regard too?
    3) I have often heard the same about the cross and crucifix. Can you provide a reference in the scholarly literature on the early significance of the cross as a Christian symbol pre-4th c.?


    Brian Lugioyo

    • Brian, (1) Sure, practices get misinterpreted. But the question is whether early Christians met secretly and used covert symbols to disguise themselves. Any such idea is dubious. (2) Yes, by the 2nd century or thereafter, the catechizing process was much more formal, but that’s not relevant to the question I posted on. (3) As for cross-symbolism, it’s referred to in numerous publications, e.g., Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, rev. ed. (1969; reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Erik Peterson, “Das Kreuz und das Gebet nach Osten,” in Frühkirche, Judentum und Gnosis: Studien und Untersuchungen (Rome: Herder, 1959); Franz J. Dölger, “Beiträge Zur Geschichte Des Kreuzzeichens,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 1 (1958): 5-19; Erika Dinkler-von Schubert, “CTAYPOC: Vom ‘Wort vom Kreuz’ (1 Kor. 1,18) zum Kreuz-Symbol,” in Byzantine East, Latin West: Art-Historical Studies in Honor of Kurt Weitzmann, ed. Doula Mouriki et alia (Princeton: Department of Art & Archaeology, 1995), 29-39; G. Q. Reijners, The Terminology of the Holy Cross in Early Christian Literature, as Based Upon Old Testament Typology, Graecitas Christianorum Primaeva, no. 2 (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van De Vegt, 1965); Erich Dinkler, Signum Crucis: Aufsätze zum Neuen Testament und zur Christlichen Archäologie (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1967); Jean-Marc Prieur, La Croix Dans La Littèrature Chrètienne Des Premiers Siecles (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), for a start.

  17. James Ernest permalink

    This (the concealment or not of Christian identity) seems to be a separate question–but maybe related?–from the “disciplina arcani” or esotericism in general (the concealment of some Christian doctrines and practices from non-Christian eyes, or claims that core teaching [possibly deviant teachings] are derived from nonpublic tradition. Some of the textual evidence for the disciplina arcani is signaled in the old Catholic Encyclopedia article online at

    • I think we have to distinguish between the holding of “esoteric” teachings and the supposedly covert or secretive Christianity of popular imagination. There is evidence that sometime in the early centuries only those taught Christian faith were permitted to be baptized and to partake of eucharist. But there’s no evidence I know of that early Christians tried to cloak their Christian allegiance, met secretly to avoid notice, etc.

  18. Reblogged this on Vaisamar and commented:
    It seems to me that the questions addressed to professor Larry Hurtado were asked by someone who may not hold, but who reflects ideas of Early Christianity (misin)formed by the influential novel Quo Vadis or by the homonymous Hollywood blockbusters.
    It is in such literary or cinematic productions what we encounter the following commonplaces: (1) early Christians were a secretive group which met clandestinely; (2) as an underground movement, they used the fish symbol to recognize one another; (3) consequently, the best places of worship used by a closeted movement were the catacombs.
    Most certainly, Henryk Sienkiewicz (Nobel prize winner in 1905) is not the ultimate source of such misconstructions, but he surely is one of their best know disseminators.
    I have a vague impression that I have read similar ideas in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique. However, do take this (and the Dictionary) with a pinch of salt. I would have to have a fresh look at it.

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