Bread, wine and a crown of thorns © Romolo Tavani (shutterstock)
"Take, drink and eat – this is my flesh and blood"."This mission of the Christians was a scandal in the Hellenistic and Roman world. About a fatal misunderstanding and its consequences.
How could one understand what was supposedly going on behind closed doors? "Take, drink and eat – this is my flesh and blood."
This command of Jesus to his followers for the cultic consumption of human flesh and blood, formulated in the Last Supper before his crucifixion, was highly disturbing, even scandalous for ancient society. Anyway, these Christians were strange, solitary, different. The rumor mill in the Roman Empire was boiling.
Rule based on belief in the gods
With the subjugation of many countries the Romans came again and again in contact with foreign religions and foreign deities. These gods were not only left to the subjugated, but were often even newly incorporated into the Roman religion. The patron gods of the war opponents were thus drawn over, as it were.
The Roman state never took action against a religion as such. But he acted when he saw the public order threatened. The Romans saw the success of their politics and rule as rooted in their belief in the gods. A dutiful cult practice guaranteed the care of the gods and thus the welfare of the empire.
In order to strengthen the internal unity of the state and to give the Roman empire new cohesion, the emperors therefore endeavored to revive and consolidate the old belief in the gods after the end of the republic. Moreover, at the time of Jesus, they gradually introduced an additional emperor cult: The current emperor as well as the deceased emperors were to be worshipped as gods – this, too, as a guarantee for the existence of the empire.
While the followers of polytheistic religions in the Hellenistic or Germanic-pagan religious environment of the time had no problem worshipping the Roman emperor as well as their own gods, Jews and Christians, with their strict monotheism, rejected polytheism and the emperor's cult. This was a political problem for the Roman state.
By refusing idolatry and imperial worship, and by avoiding other areas of society such as circus and theatrical games or public festivals, Christians isolated themselves. Moreover, such behavior, perceived as antisocial, raised doubts about their loyalty. Did they not even refer to a political rebel as founder: the "King of the Jews"??
The fact that their community life took place largely in private furthered the suspicions of the pagan majority of the population. Prejudice and accusations against this strange minority increased. Christians were accused of godlessness, hostility to the world and culture, and even contempt for humanity.
Their rites were misunderstood by the population and gave rise to wild speculations: Allegedly, Christians celebrated orgies between the sexes, ate human flesh and drank blood. [s. Documentation: Minucius Felix, Octavius]. With their role as outsiders, they were repeatedly made scapegoats for epidemics, floods, drought and other disasters (Tertullian, Apologeticum 40,2).
Merchants, craftsmen and livestock traders, who made their living from sacrificial and cult objects of the pagan temple cult, saw their livelihoods threatened by the spread of Christianity – and fought back against the Christians with charges and complaints. Thus, there were individual trials of Christians before the governors, who had to ensure peace and order in the provinces.
Between betrayal and confession
Since the beginning of the 2. In the early sixteenth century, a letter from Emperor Trajan in response to a request from Pliny, the governor, provided some guidance for criminal proceedings against Christians. But it was not legally binding, nor was it consistently practiced. The question of Christianity was thus by no means settled in principle or definitively.
As long as Roman criminal law did not in fact ban Christianity, the legal basis for convicting Christians was their refusal to sacrifice to the gods – in the eyes of Roman society, as seen, high treason. Accordingly, the penalty for conviction was usually death by decapitation, burning, crucifixion, or animal slaughter in the arena.
Accused of being enemies of public order, Christians thus had to choose between betrayal or confession of their faith – with confession usually resulting in death.
Despite all the difficulties and persecution by the state, which was mostly local or temporary, the further spread of Christianity could not be stopped. The impressive confession of Christians in the face of death may even have encouraged this spread.