The ancients didn’t take too fondly to the new religion, but what often goes without being said is that the new religion was rejected, in part, on account of its very novelty.
Change is very much a virtue for us today. Although we understand that the process of change can hurt we all know that it is predominantly a good thing if done for the right reasons. In the same breath, innovation is something we are in continual pursuit of. New ways to do this or achieve that in order to make our lives easier. In our minds, we’re always moving forward, progressing further and further towards what we believe to be the perfect utopia.
What may come as a surprise (or not, if you’ve been following this blog long enough!) is that the ancients most certainly did not think the same way. To the ancients, change and innovation was something to be shunned or, at the very most, approached with extreme caution. Historian Robert Wilken notes,
“The primary test of truth in religious matters was custom and tradition, the practises of the ancients.” (1)
The credibility of a religion was found in its roots. Was its customs well established? What background or lineage did it have? Or if it was some sort of new religion, to what broader religious tradition did it belong to or borrow from? As Plich and Malina note,
“Because cultural and religious traditions provide the ground of social values and the standards against which anything new is measured, change and novelty are usually met with hostility: change is fraught with fear of the unknown, bringing pollution and chaos in its wake; novelty doubts the value of tradition by manifesting disloyalty towards it.
“Change or novelty in traditional religion or religious doctrine and practice (was met) with especially violent rejection.” (2)
What does this rejection of the new mean for Christianity? Christianity was a distinctly new religion. It has its roots in Judaism, certainly, but it wouldn’t have existed without Jesus Christ and that’s the key. To the Romans, Christianity was founded by a recent leader who had no pre-established tradition to His name (or so they thought). Moverover, the Christians not only had a new religion in the name of this man, but insisted that theirs was the only true one. In Wilken’s words they were “arrogant innovators” (3).
Here’s the thing that’s absolutely astounding with this apologetic. Tradition and lineage were the deciding factors regarding the credibility of a certain religious doctrine. “This is what we have always done!” would have been an immensely forceful and powerful argument. Accepted by everyone, everywhere, always. But then the Christians come along and argue its antithesis. “It isn’t about you, it isn’t about here, and it isn’t about now,” turning a tradition controlled by the hands of man and yanking that control right out of them. “This isn’t about you, it’s about Jesus. This isn’t about your works, it’s about His.” This message would have been harshly rejected and stomped out in and ancient world-and indeed some tried extraordinarily hard to-yet it overcame each and every obstacle in its path. Every negative and contrary social stigma against it. It overcame each and every one. So in whose hands does Christianity and its followers belong?
(1). Wilken, Robert. The Christians As The Romans Saw Them (Yale University Press (15 April 2003) p. 62.
(2). Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
(3). Wilken, Robert. The Christians As The Romans Saw Them (Yale University Press (15 April 2003) p. 63.