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Who is the Nazarene? You see? With all those hours in church and
Sunday school you must have heard him referred to dozens of times. But
where is the Nazarene when you need him? With “Gladiator” at the top of
box-office returns after its first week in Germany, Spain, Britain,
Ireland, Australia, Italy, Mexico, and even South Africa, this movie is
having a world sweep. But, again, just who is the Nazarene? A friend of
Jesus Christ? Because that’s what you might think if you’ve been a
little careless in studying the early years of Christianity in the Roman
Empire.

A Nazarene, in fact, was an early Jewish convert to Christianity.
Under the new faith the promise of divine favor, instead of being
partially restricted to descendants of Abraham, was universally proposed
to the freeman and to the slave, to the Greek and the barbarian, to the
Jew and to the Gentile. All mankind was permitted, and even solicited,
to accept the glorious distinction of Christianity. And it became the
most sacred duty of the new convert to diffuse among his friends and
relatives the inestimable blessing he had received — in addition to
warning him that a refusal would be severely punished as a criminal
disobedience to the will of an usually benevolent but all-powerful
deity.

The history of the Jews in Rome suggests the deep impression that the
Jewish religion made on the minds of the Romans. The first 15 bishops of
Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews, and the congregations over which
they presided unified, they thought, the law of Moses and the doctrine
of Christ. But when numerous and opulent societies were established in
the great cities of the Roman Empire, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, and
Rome itself, the reverence which Jerusalem had inspired in all the
Christian colonies gradually diminished.

The Gnostics, the great skeptics of the early Christianity, felt that
their fellow Romans — of whatever religious faith — were extremely
ignorant of antiquity. They sternly attacked the polygamy of the
patriarchs, the female dabbling of David, not to mention Solomon’s
harem. They now viewed critically their own conquest of Canaan and their
massacres of unsuspecting locals, which behavior they were hard put to
reconcile with their pious notions of humanity and justice.

The Gnostics treated the Old Testament accounts of the creation and
the fall of man with profound derision, and would not listen patiently
to explanations of God’s need to rest after six days hard work creating
the world, nor to tales involving Adam’s rib, the Garden of Eden, the
trees of life and of knowledge, the talkative serpent, and the forbidden
fruit. The Gnostics firmly believed that anyone who swallowed these
stories whole was a kind of idiot, and took refuge themselves behind the
veil of allegory. Of Gnostic true believers, many had worked into their
systems ideas derived from Oriental religions or philosophy. If
Gnosticism were still thriving today it would by now almost certainly
contain elements of Zen.

But it is still a puzzle how an alien religion — the religion a
people on whom Rome had waged war and soundly defeated — had succeeded
in sweeping off its feet Rome itself — the world’s greatest empire. The
reasons offered by secular scholars over the years have been: 1) an
intolerant zeal, derived from the fervor of an ancestor religion,
Judaism; 2) belief in the soul’s eternal life; 3) miraculous powers
ascribed to God and to the early church; 4) the austere morals of early
Christians; 5) the unity and discipline of the Christian state, which at
the beginning formed an independent and growing political body at the
heart of the Roman Empire. It was hard to resist a burgeoning new state
whose soldiers were convinced they would live forever.

As for the “unbelieving world” the most dreadful calamities were
predicted. The epithet of “Babylon” began to be applied to both the city
and the empire of Rome. A regular series was predicted of the moral and
physical evils that could afflict a flourishing nation: invasions of the
fiercest barbarians from the unknown regions of the north, plague,
famine, comets and eclipses, earthquakes and floods. And all these were
only preliminary to the Great Catastrophe, when the country of Scipio
and Caesar would be consumed by a flame from heaven, and the city of the
seven hills, with her palaces, temples, and triumphal arches, was buried
in a lake of fire and brimstone.

It might afford some comfort to Roman vanity that the lifespan of the
Roman Empire was predicted to be that of the world itself, which had
once perished by water and seemed now, according to Roman thinkers,
destined to experience an even speedier destruction by fire. The calmest
skeptic could scarcely refuse to acknowledge that the destruction of the
present world by fire was by itself “extremely probable,” and the
believing Christians expected it as a certain and approaching event. “If
you are fond of spectacles,” wrote Tertullian, “expect the greatest of
all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe.” From the
time of the Apostles, the Christian church had had an uninterrupted
succession of miraculous powers: the gift of tongues, of vision, of
prophecy, the power of expelling demons, of healing the sick, and of
raising the dead.

In Rome it was soon discovered that great numbers of persons of every
Roman caste and social order were deserting the religion of their
ancestors. The proconsul of Africa warned Romans that unless the country
changed its ways it would decimate Carthage, and wipe out many people of
Rome’s most powerful classes. Forty years later the proconsul received a
census according to which an astonishing number of senators, members of
the nobility, and “ladies of quality” espoused Christianity. In the
reign of Diocletian, the Roman palace, the empire’s military, and even
the law courts, contained a multitude of Christians who seemed to have
reconciled the needs of the present with those of the after-life. With
Christianity, moreover, an age of miracles appeared to arrive in Rome.
The blind saw. The lame walked. The sick were healed. The dead were
raised. The laws of nature were frequently suspended, all to the benefit
of the church.

Under Tiberius the whole earth — or at least the most celebrated
province of the Roman Empire — became unnaturally dark for three full
hours. This occurred during the lifetimes of Seneca and the elder Pliny.
But both philosophers have strangely omitted mention of the event in
their histories. Yet it was the greatest eclipse since the Creation,
some thinking it of greater significance than the murder of Julius
Caesar.

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