loren Eric Swanson: The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

Harnack, Adolf. The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. Vol. 1. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998.

“I was hungry, and ye fed me; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came to me. In as much as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.”
These words of Jesus have shone so brilliantly for many generations in his church, and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may further describe the Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity. From this standpoint, in fact, the proclamation of the Saviour and of healing would seem to be merely subordinate, inasmuch as the words “I was sick, and ye visited me” form but one link in the larger chain.
Among the extant words and parables of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous, and with them we must rank many a story of his life. Yet, apart altogether from the number of such sayings, it is plain that whenever he had in view the relations of mankind, the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities. “One is your Master, and ye are all brethren”; “Whoso would be first among you shall be servant of all; for the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It is in this sense that we are to understand the commandment to love one’s neighbor. How unqualified it is, becomes evident from the saying, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father in heaven, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” “Blessed are the merciful”—that is the keynote of all that Jesus proclaimed, and as this merciful spirit is to extend from great things to trifles, from the inward to the outward, the saying which does not pass over even a cup of cold water (Matt. x. 42) lies side by side with that other comprehensive saying, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Brotherliness is love on a footing of equality; ministering love means to give and to forgive, and no limit is to be recognized. Besides, ministering love is the practical expression of love to God. (P. 181-182)

The new language on the lips of Christians was the language of love. But it was more than a language, it was a thing of power and action. The Christians really considered themselves brothers and sisters, and their actions corresponded to this belief. P. 183

From the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (96 AD)
“Day and night you agonized for all the brotherhood, that by means of compassion and care the number of God’s elect might be saved. You were sincere, guileless, and void of malice among yourselves. Every sedition and every schism was an abomination to you. You lamented the transgressions of your neighbours and judged their shortcomings to be your own. You never rued an act of kindness, but were ready for every good work. (p. 189

Then Justin concludes the description of Christian worship in his Apology (c.lxvii.) thus: “Those who are well-to-do and willing, give as they choose, each as he himself purposes; the collection is then deposited with the president, who succours orphans, widows, those who are in want owing to sickness or any other cause, those who are in prison, and strangers who are on a journey.” (p. 189)

Finally Tertullian (Apolog.,xxxix.) observes: “Even if there does exist a sort of common fund, it is not made up of fees, as though we contracted for our worship. Each of us puts in a small amount one day a month, or whenever he pleases; but only if he pleases and if he is able, for there is no compulsion in the matter, everyone contributing of his own free will. These monies are, as it were, the deposits of piety. They are expended upon no banquets or drinking-bouts or useless eating-houses, but on feeding and burying poor people, on behalf of boys and girls who have neither parents nor money, in support of old folk unable not to go about, as well as for people who are shipwrecked, or who may be in the mines or exiled in islands or in prison—so long as their distress is for the sake of God’s fellowship, and they themselves entitled to maintenance by their confession.” 189

One recommendation very frequently made, was to stint oneself by means of fasting in order to give alms. In this way, even the poor could afford something. See Hermas Sim . v.; Aristides, Apol . xv. (“And if anyone among them is poor or needy, and they have no food to share, they fast for two or three days, that they may meet the poor man’s need of sustenance”); Apost. Constit. v. 1, etc. p. 192

In 250 A.D. The Roman church had to support about 100 clergy and 1500 poor persons. P. 195

Wherever the early Christian records mention poor persons who require support, widows and orphans are invariably in the foreground. This corresponds, on the one hand, with the special distress of their position in the ancient world and on the other hand with the ethical injunctions which had passed over into Christianity from Judaism. As it was, widows and orphans formed the poor. The church had them always with her. “the Roman church,” wrote bishop Cornelius, “supports 15000 widows and poor persons” (Eus., H.E., vi.43). p 197

Mention has already been made of the cure of sick people; but where a cure was impossible the church was bound to support the patient by consolation (for they were remembered in the prayers of the church from the very first; cp. 1 Clem. Lix.r), visitation, and charitable gifts (usually in kind). Next to the sick came those in trouble and people sick in soul as a rule, then the helpless and disabled, finally the poor in general. P. 199

It is said of deacons in the Apostolic Constitutions: They are to be doers of good works, exercising a general supervision day and night, neither scorning the poor nor respecting the person of the rich; they must ascertain who are in distress and not exclude them from a share in the church funds, compelling also the well-to-do to put money aside for good works.” P. 199

The excellence of the church’s charitable system, the deep impression made by it, and the numbers that it won over to the faith, find their best voucher in the action of Julian the apostate, who attempted an exact reproduction of it in that artificial creation of his, the pagan State-church, in order to deprive the Christians of this very weapon. The imitation, of course, had no success. P. 200

To what extent did Christians also support non-Christians? This is a question on which we have no data adequate for an answer. The church’s fund was certainly reserved for the use of the brethren, but the charity of private individuals cannot have confined itself to fellow-believers. In a great calamity, as we know from reliable evidence, Christians did extend their aid to pagans, exciting the admiration of the latter, and their helping hand would not be wanting in other ways as well; see Paul, Gal. vi.10 and Tertull.,Apol., xlii (Our compassion gives away more money in the streets than yours does in the temples”). P. 201

The Christians in Egypt went to the most remote mines, even to Cicilia, to encourage and edify their brethren who were condemned to hard labour in these places. In the mines at Phaeno a regular church was organized. Cp. Also Apost. Constit.,v.1: “If any Christian is condemned for Christ’s sake….to the mines by the ungodly, do not overlook him, but from the proceeds of your toil and sweat send him something to support himself and to reward the soldiers.” P. 204

Clem. Rom., lv.2: (“We know that many of our own number have given themselves up to be captives, in order to ransom others; many have sold themselves to slavery, and with the price of their own bodies they have fed others:) p. 205

Apolst. Constit.,iv.9 (“All monies accruing from honest labour do ye appoint and apportion to the redeeming of the saints, ransoming thereby slaves and captive, prisoners, people who are sore abused or condemned by tyrants,” etc,) (p. 205)

Lactantius, Instit., v. 16 (“Our sole reason for giving one another the name of brother is because we believe we are equals. For since all human objects are measured by us after the spirit and not after the body, although there is a diversity of condition among human bodies, yet slaves are not slaves to us; we deem and term them brothers after the spirit and fellow-servants in religion”). P. 208

Arist., Apol ., xv.: “Slaves, male and female, are instructed so that they become Christians, on account of the love felt for them by their masters; and when this takes place, they call them brethren without any distinction whatsoever.” P. 208

Converted slaves, male or female, were regarded in the full sense of the term as brothers and sisters from the standpoint of religion. Compared to this, their position in the world was reckoned a matter of indifference. They shared the rights of church members to the fullest extent. Slaves could even become clergymen, and in fact bishops. (p. 208)

When the plague raged in Alexandria (about 259 A.D.), bishop Dionysius wrote (Euseb., H.E., vii. 22): “The most of our brethren did not spare themselves, so great was their brotherly affection. They held fast to each other, visited the sick without fear, ministered to them assiduously, and served them for the sake of Christ. Right gladly did they perish with them. . . . Indeed many did die, after caring for the sick and giving health to others, transplanting the death of others, as it were, into themselves. In this way the noblest of our brethren died, including some presbyters and deacons and people of the highest reputation. . . . . Quite the reverse was it with the heathen. They abandoned those who began to sicken, fled from their dearest friends, threw out the sick when half dead into the streets, and let the dead lie unburied.” (p 212)

(Vita, ix. f.): (“The people being assembled together, he first of all urges on them the benefits of mercy. By means of examples drawn from the sacred lessons, he teaches them. . . . Then he proceeds to add that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like to that of God, should love his enemies as well. . . . What should a Christian people do, a people whose very name was derived from faith? The contributions are always distributed then according to the degree of the men and of their respective ranks. Many who, on the score of poverty, could not make any show of wealth, showed far more than wealth, as they made up by personal labor an offering dearer than all the riches in the world. Thus the good done was done to all men, and not merely to the household of faith, so richly did the good works overflow”). P. 214

We hear exactly the same story of practical sympathy and self-denying love displayed by Christians even to outsiders, in the great plague which occurred during the reign of Maximinus Daza (Eus., H.E., ix. 8): “Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their fellow feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city, and gave bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the Christians’ God, and, convinced by the very facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.” It may be inferred with certainty, as Eusebius himself avows, that cases of this kind made a deep impression upon those who were not Christians, and that they gave a powerful impetus to the propaganda. P. 214-215


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