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from issue no. 10 - 2011

The loyalty of the Christians and the tolerance of Rome

The ancient sources on the relationship between early Christianity and Rome, discussed in the studies of historian Ilaria Ramelli, contradict the common opinion that Roman power was an ideological enemy of the Christians

by Lorenzo Bianchi

Ilaria Ramelli, <I>I cristiani e l’impero romano. In memoria di Marta Sordi</I> [Christians and the Roman empire. In memory of Marta Sordi], Marietti, <I>1820</I>, Genoa - Milan 2011, 96pp., € 12.00

Ilaria Ramelli, I cristiani e l’impero romano. In memoria di Marta Sordi [Christians and the Roman empire. In memory of Marta Sordi], Marietti, 1820, Genoa - Milan 2011, 96pp., € 12.00


The small and very recent book by Ilaria Ramelli, a philologist and historian, a scholar of early Christianity, consists, as she indicates in the preface, of a selection of short informative articles that appeared in Avvenire in 2009 and 2010. However, it is not at all, as one might believe, a simple reprint of essays brought together by a theme, nor a mere compilation, but a dense and careful summary which describes in a nutshell, though omitting nothing necessary or fundamental, of the results of the work on early Christianity. She has conducted with rigorous scholarly methodology (in particular as regards the philological analysis of texts and the evaluation of historical sources), over the last twenty years.

So, though addressed primarily to non-specialist readers, the volume is of great utility also for the scholar, for it presents itself – and this is the particular achievement of the author and the merit of the work – as an extensive index raisoné, that sorts and organizes a vast production (every necessary bibliographic indication is always shown at the appropriate place), and from which emerges the theme of her research, coherent and unified even if ‘scattered’ throughout a number of scholarly journals.

Given the structure of the work, it is not possible in a review to mention every topic dealt with, if not without making a lengthy list: something I do not want to do, limiting myself to the topic that appears most original and significant.

So first of all it should be said that the volume is divided into four distinct sections.

In the first, which deals with the figure of Jesus in the non-Christian sources of the first century, there are two texts, the authenticity of which is shown, that come from a period prior to the well-known passages of Tacitus: the letter of Mara Bar Serapion, a pagan stoic, written around 73, and a passage from the Jewish Antiquities (XVII, 63-64) by the historian Flavius Josephus, a Pharisee who wrote soon after the fall of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70), ‘it is precisely the extraneity to Christianity of the two sources’, writes the author (p. 10), ‘that make Mara and Josephus precious and not ‘suspect’ witnesses to the historical figure of Jesus, and even if they do not believe in his bodily resurrection, they document the faith the Christians had ‘because he appeared to them alive again after three days’ (Jewish Antiquities XVII, 64).

Later, in the third section, the presence of a number of references to Christianity in 1-2nd century pagan novels and satires is highlighted: the Satyricon of Petronius, the Tale of Callirhoe by Chariton, the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, works in which there are allusions, obvious at times, to the facts narrated in the Gospels. And the fourth section deals with the historical traces of the first spread of Christianity from the Middle East to India: in particular the story of King Abgar of Edessa (whose relationship with the Emperor Tiberius appears to be well-founded), the evangelization of Edessa by Addai (the Syriac name of Thaddeus, one of the seventy disciples of Jesus sent out by the Apostle Thomas), that of Mesopotamia by Mari (a disciple of Thaddeus, converted by him), the mention of the mandylion (the achiropita image of Jesus that is compared to the Holy Shroud), the mission of Pantaenus to India (made by the Stoic philosopher, a convert to Christianity and a teacher of Origen and Clement of Alexandria, between 180 and 190).

But I would like to dwell more extensively on the second section which deals with early Christianity in Rome.

In it the author shows that Christianity was known immediately in Rome as evidenced by the senatusconsultum of 35, reported by Tertullian, whereby the Senate rejected the proposal of the Emperor Tiberius to give legitimate status to Christian belief. Considered dubious by many, it is confirmed as historical by Ilaria Ramelli with new arguments in addition to those already given by Marta Sordi and Carsten Thiede, and in particular on the basis of a fragment of the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry (233-305), who certainly cannot be suspected, as is Tertullian, of apologetic intentions. In rejecting the resurrection of Jesus, Porphyry says that if he had truly risen, he would not have appeared to obscure people (as the apostles were), but ‘to many contemporary men worthy of trust, and especially to the Senate and people of Rome, whereon they, amazed at his wonders, would not have been able, with a unanimous senatusconsultum, to emit a death sentence, with the accusation of impiety, on those who were obedient to him’.

The Coliseum [© LaPresse]

The Coliseum [© LaPresse]

The anti-Christian law of Rome was the work of the Senate, but Tiberius did not go ahead with the accusations and, up to 62, Christians were not condemned as such by any Roman authority. The attitude of tolerance of the imperial court toward Christians is also evidenced by the correspondence between St Paul and Seneca, which has come down to us by a different route than that of the Pauline corpus. Summarily dismissed as apocryphal in the common opinion of modern criticism, it is here reassessed on the basis of new and abundant and particularly compelling philological and lexical considerations, as probably authentic, at least as regards most of the letters (or rather short notes) that have survived, bearing the dates of the years 58 and 59. Those were the years in which (if we accept the high chronology) Paul had just arrived in Rome to undergo the emperor’s judgment, and, while awaiting trial, enjoyed benevolent military custody and was free to preach, spreading Christianity even in the Praetorium (‘in all the Praetorium and everywhere it is known I am in chains for Christ’, Phil 1, 13) and in the imperial court (‘All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household’, Phil 4, 22 ).

The relationship of tolerance and indeed benevolence of Roman imperial power towards the early Christians – at least until Nero turned authoritarian in 62 and the unleashing of persecution after fire broke out in Rome on 19 July 64 (a persecution that as Tacitus tells us, Annals XV, 44, and Clement of Rome, I Corinthians V, 3-7 – VI, 1, was fueled by envy and denunciation of Christians) – described by Ilaria Ramelli in the second section, sends us back necessarily to the title of the book. In fact, the author takes word for word the view of a fundamental work of her teacher, Marta Sordi, who for more than two decades held the chair in Ancient History at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan (I cristiani e l’impero romano, published in 1984, that followed, summarized and updated the previous volume Il cristianesimo e Roma, published in 1965). Ilaria Ramelli follows her teacher not only in the method of rigorous screening, and careful analysis of the historical sources, but also in her basic idea: that the opposition, which the persecution undoubtedly shows, between those who administered Roman power and the Christians, was not the outcome, at least in its deepest level, of a political clash or class struggle, as a still widespread prejudice claims, but had different causes, causes related mostly to the religious sphere. The historical documents show that the attitude of the early Christians toward the imperial power was from the outset always characterized by lealty and respect for its authority. It is therefore historically incorrect to see in the Roman Empire a particularly malign embodiment of power and the enemy of the Church. Indeed on the contrary – I may add – it was the Roman Empire, as suggested by the interpretation that St John Chrysostom (Homily IV, On the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, PG 62, 485) gave to the words of St Paul, that seems to stand as an obstacle to the real enemy of the Church, the Antichrist: ‘And now you know what is restraining [the Antichrist], that he may be revealed in his time. The mystery of lawlessness is already at work. But the one who restrains is to do so only for the present, until he is removed from the scene.’ (2Thess 2, 6-7). What, or who, holds back the mystery of iniquity, according to St John Chrysostom, is the imperial power of Rome.

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