The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | An interview with Carl J. Sommers, author of We Look For the Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | Carl E. Olson
Carl J. Sommer's newly published book, We Look For a Kingdom, is a fascinating study of the faith, life, and world of the early Christians living in the era between the Apostles and the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 100-313). Using documentary evidence and archaeological records, Sommer reconstructs the lives of the early Christians in order to "introduce the treasures of early Christianity to a large number of modern readers". IgnatiusInsight.com editor Carl E. Olson recently interviewed Sommer about the book, the lessons to be learned from the first Christians, and how American culture compares to ancient Roman culture.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is your educational background and what sort of studies prepared you to write this book?
Carl J. Sommer: Years ago, I spent a couple of years in a Catholic Seminary, Conception Abbey (Benedictine) in northwest Missouri. After two years, I decided not to become a priest, but, after years in the business world, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in theology, with plans to go on for my doctorate. I got the Masters, from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, but did not pursue the doctorate, because my wife and I started a family, and I needed to go to work. I have spent time as a parish DRE, and currently do Baptism preparation and RCIA for a parish here in St. Louis. In writing this book, I actually had to unlearn much that I "learned" at Aquinas. The faculty at Aquinas thought, and taught, that the early Church was egalitarian, with women in sacramental ministries, etc. In my research I found that, with the exception of some odd heretical sects (the kind that believed in twelve, or thirty, or a thousand gods), the early Christians were not egalitarian, and though they had substantial roles for women, they did not allow them to fulfill the priestly ministry.
I learned a great deal about the early Christians on my own, trying to answer parishioners' questions, and in my own personal apologetics. After a while, I had files developed on the Mass, the Saints, infant baptism, and so forth, and I thought it would be easy to put it all together into book form. But when I actually began writing I found that I had to do much more research to nail things down. I wanted airtight cases, or at least cases that any reasonable person would find hard to refute. On most of the topics covered in We Look for a Kingdom, I think I have shown that the early Christians were a lot like Catholics of every generation.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Did you write We Look For a Kingdom with various common questions or misunderstandings in mind? Is it to some degree both a popular history and a work of apologetics?
Sommer: Yes, I had a large number of common misconceptions I wished to refute. Some I mentioned above. Others would be the idea that apostolic succession was a later invention, and the notion that the Liturgy must have had a lengthy period of evolution before it reached its present form. I have argued, and provided evidence, that both the idea of apostolic succession and the basic shape of the Liturgy were present in the Church from the very beginning. In that sense, yes, apologetics and history meet in We Look for a Kingdom.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Judging by the critical success of the HBO series, "Rome," ancient Rome apparently maintains a certain mystique within the popular imagination. Why do you think that might be? What sort of false notions or misunderstandings about ancient Rome do you encounter on a regular basis?
Sommer: I think two things are at work. First of all, we are fascinated by the glamour of power and excess that we associate with the Romans. Secondly, I think we do, in a very real sense, see our own culture mirrored in that of ancient Rome. The image in the mirror is distorted and misshapen in many ways, but you can detect the outlines, if you look closely. I will have more to say on this subject later in the interview.
The single biggest misunderstanding about the Roman Empire is that people assume that it was a totalitarian regime along the lines of twentieth century dictatorships, that the Romans sought to control every aspectof the thoughts and behaviors of their subjects, as, say, Hitler and Stalin did. Certainly, some of the emperors (Domitian and Decius come to mind) would have liked to have had control of every aspect of their subjects' lives, but the technologies necessary for such control simply didn't exist. Other emperors, including Hadrian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and even Augustus himself, were genuinely interested in justice and good government. Generally speaking, local communities were allowed to order their own affairs without interference, so long as they paid their taxes, maintained order,and refrained from armed revolt. It is true that taxes were high, and unjustly collected,but they were actually lower than those collected by previous empires.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In what ways did the existence of the Roman Empire help the early Christians? Hinder?
Sommer: The Romans aided the spread of Christianity unintentionally, in some very general ways. First of all, the Romans made travel throughout the Mediterranean world relatively safe and easy. They cleared the seas of pirates, suppressed banditry in the countryside, and built an excellent system of roads. This made the general spread of ideas possible, and since Christ's message, the Gospel, is the best idea the world has ever encountered, Christianity spread as well. Secondly, the Romans kept the Mediterranean world at peace throughout most of this period. Granted, it was a rough peace, enforced by the sword sometimes quite brutally, but the absence of open military conflict made it possible for Christianity to spread. Thirdly, in a strange way, the persecutions helped spread Christianity, since people who were not familiar with the Christian message were exposed to the Gospel and got to see the fortitude of the martyrs. The Romans--particularly Roman soldiers--were very impressed with physical bravery, and they were exposed to many examples of Christian fortitude as a result of the persecutions.
On the other hand, the Romans deliberately did some quite specificthings to hinder the spread of Christianity. The persecutions undoubtedly deterred many people from becoming Christians, and not everyone behaved with fortitude under the threat of persecution. We hear about large numbers of lapsi, people who abandoned the faith under the threat of torture, during the persecution of Decius in 251. Many of these lapsi were later readmitted into the Church, but some were lost forever. Beyond the persecutions, the fact that Christianity was illegal presented the Church with other obstacles. The Christians could not have public worship spaces as other religions could, but had to worship in private houses. This meant that passers by could not just walk in to see what was going on. Also, the process of admission into the Church was complicated by the necessity of protecting the bishops, who were the primary targets of the persecutions, from government infiltrators.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You mention that the fall of Rome has fascinated historians for centuries, but you also say that "the more interesting question, and one closer to the heart of this book, has to do with why the Roman Empire came into existence." How do the answers to that question help us understand the early Christians better?
Sommer: Early Christianity is sometimes described as a fortuitous melding of Jewish and Greek culture, but there is a third element in the mix. Roman culture itself has played an immense role in the development of western Christianity. The genius of early Christianitywas that it was able to take the positive elements of Greek and Roman culture and incorporate them into the life of the Church. It was just those positive elements, filial piety, devotion to duty, and love of justice, that brought about the rise of Rome in the first place. Some of the early Christians themselves thought that the rise of the Roman Empire had been brought about as a result of God's design.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In examining how the early Christians lived, what do you think would surprise modern-day Catholics the most? What aspects of early Christian worship and liturgy might be most strange or foreign to 21st-century Catholics?
Sommer: In my experience, modern Catholics are most surprised by how much the structure, beliefs, and worship of the early Christians resembles our own. This is particularly true in the case of the Liturgy. We have been led to believe, primarily by a flawed interpretation of New Testament evidence, that the worship of the early Church was charismatic and unstructured. But when people see Justin Martyr's description of the Liturgy as it was practiced in 150, they realize that very early on the Christians were worshipping almost exactly the way we do today. Of course, there was a certain amount of development between the New Testament period and 150, but the basic structure of the Liturgy appeared quite soon, and did not change very much.
There are two aspects of early Christian worship that would appear strange to us today: the agape meals and the refrigerium. The agape meals were typically eaten on Sunday evenings, and combined elements of a potluck dinner, where everyone would bring something for the table, and a prayer service. The agape meals had their own prescribed prayers, and typically a bishop or presbyter was the presider. The refrigerium was even stranger, for the early Christians appear to have had the practice of eating meals at the gravesites of prominent Christians. We don't know much about this practice, but archaeologists have found, scattered throughout the empire, martyria, or gravesites of martyrs (there is a beautiful example of this in Hierapolis, the martyrium of Phillip). Some of these martyria are complete with recognizable dining areas. We certainly don't have either one of these practices today, though I think that in some ways the Church could benefit from a revival in the practice of agape.
IgnatiusInsight.com: There has been a decent amount of scholarly debate over how much or intensely the early Christians were persecuted. How bad, in fact, was the Roman treatment of Christians, and what would have been the general attitude of the average Roman toward the Christian religion?
Sommer: Both sides of the debate over persecution have valid points. In the three hundred year period of the early Church, there are approximately a thousand known martyrs. Periods of persecution tended to be intense, savage, and local. Notable examples in my book would be the persecutions in Rome from 64-67, the persecution in Lyons in 178, the persecution in North Africa around 205, and the final great persecution that began in 303 and was not really ended until Constantine won his great victory at Milvian Bridge. On the other hand, there were long periods of time (including two thirty-year periods in the third century), when the Church was relatively free from persecution. But those who favor the notion that the persecutions were overblown have to realize that until Contantine the threat of martyrdom was constantly present. Some of the most famous martyrs of the early Church--Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Justin Martyr--were martyred under emperors who were disposed to show some lenience to the Christians. Other factors have to be considered as well. There were also some spontaneous persecutions that were brought about by local circumstances. For instance, Tarsicius of Rome was murdered by a mob while he was trying to take the Eucharist to the sick. We will never know exactly how many Christians died in these spontaneous persecutions.
The average Roman tended to see the Christians as dangerously impious. The Romans thought that the Christians' failure to honor the gods of Rome was likely to lead to famines, floods, earthquakes, military disasters, diseases, and a host of other ills. Consequently, every time one of these events occurred (and they occurred often), the Christians were blamed.
IgnatiusInsight.com: A common charge from various secularists is that the early Christians not only failed to eliminate slavery, they seemed to have supported it. How would you respond to that accusation?
Sommer: The charge only has substance if one thinks it reasonable to hold people of vastly different cultural and historical circumstances accountable to the moral standards of the current era. Consider: after two thousand years of Christianity, the Enlightenment (the best impulses of which were Christian in origin), and sundry other moral crusades, we are now thoroughly convinced that slavery is a great moral evil. But the early Christians lived in a world that had always known slavery. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that no one thought to call for the end of slavery. It is certainly true that neither Jesus, nor any of the apostles, nor any of the Church Fathers called for the end of slavery. It is not clear that any of these, with the exception of Jesus, could even imagine a world without slavery.
But what they did do about slavery clearly led to the ultimate abolition of slavery in the Western world. They taught that masters had to treat their slaves like brothers. In a world where masters could have their slaves crucified, where if a master were murdered all his slaves would be executed, and where female slaves had no recourse against the sexual advances of their masters, this was radical enough. If taken seriously, the internal logic of Christian teaching insured that eventually slavery would die out, because you can't beat your brother for trivial offenses, or work him to death in a copper mine, and you can't rape your sister, if you truly believe thatshe is your sister.
We do know of instances where the early Christians used community funds to purchase the freedom of slaves, but there were no widespread efforts to end slavery as an institution. Nevertheless, slavery gradually diminished in the Christian West, to be replaced by a system marginally better for the poor. Furthermore, under the influence of Christianity, the lot of the poorest citizens of Western Europe has steadily improved ever since. The critics of the slowness of the Christian response to social problems like slavery fail to realize that, with the exception of Christians, very few people even cared about the fate of slaves, or the poor, or the sick. As I wrote in We Look for a Kingdom, "Christianity began in an empire in which a third of the people were enslaved, yet it brought into being a world in which almost everyone knows slavery is wrong."
IgnatiusInsight.com: Historical epochs are difficult to compare, but there is often comparisons made between the situation in the modern Western world and the ancient Roman world, particularly in terms of morality (or immorality), fragmenting culture, and political turmoil. In your estimation, how worthy of comparison is that? What lessons might we learn from the decline and fall of Rome?
Sommer: There are definite similarities and clear differences between ancient Roman and modern American culture. There are eerie parallels between the types of entertainment some Americans are drifting towards and those favored by the Romans. Also, our societal sexual mores are quite similar to that of the Romans,even to the widespread resort to divorce, contraception, abortion, and occasionally even infanticide. The frightening difference, though, is that while the Romans got better in these regards, we seem to be getting worse.
On the other hand, our political and economic systems are vastly superior to anything the Romans produced. The Romans were never capable of creating a system that would ensure the orderly transfer of power from one administration to the next, nor were they able to provide political freedom to their citizens, despite the fact that their own heritagewas republican. Our economic system of regulated capitalism is also vastly superior to anything the Romans produced. The Romans veered from unregulated capitalism in the early empire (the phrase 'caveat emptor' accurately reflects the Roman attitude toward commerce) to over-regulation in the late empire, including wage and price freezes that were designed to prevent inflation, but only succeeded in destroying entrepreneurship.
Frequently one hears the comparison between Roman imperial policies and the foreign policy of the United States. No comparison could be more fatuous, when one compares actual events. When the Romans finally defeated Carthage, they leveled the city, sowed the soil with salt so nothing could grow there, and sold thousands into slavery. Similarly, when the Jews revolted against Roman rule in A.D. 66, the Romans sent four legions to besiege Jerusalem, and when they finally conquered the city, they leveled it (with the exception of the western wall of the Temple), slaughtered all the defendants, andcondemned thousands of women and children to slavery. To say that modern America has used its power differently would be an understatement. We have been, and continue to be, the most benevolent, well-intentioned superpower the world has ever known. If we behaved as the Romans routinely did to nations that defied them, we would have left smoking piles of rubble from Casablanca to Kabul after 9/11. The response we actually made, while undoubtedly flawed in some respects, was mild compared to what the Romans would have done.
We can, however, learn some lessons from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Some day, our preeminence in the world will end. We may pray, with Tertullian, that that dayis far distant, but nothing on this planet lasts forever, and eventually America will be surpassed militarily, politically, and economically. We can only hope to use our time for good, not ill. We should also realize that we can lengthen the duration of our civilization only by the inculcation of virtues in the citizenry, not by any quick technological fixes. In the short term, the biggest, meanest dog gets the most food, but in the long run virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, in this world as in the next. I should add that this holds true only in the life of nations, not in the life of individuals. Virtuous individuals sometimes suffer in this world, while the wicked sometimes prosper. But in the life of nations, in the end, virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. We need to heed this warning.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Excerpts and Articles
Studying The Early Christians: The Introduction to We Look For the Kingdom | Carl J. Sommer
Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen
Are We at The End or The Beginning? | Dr. Glenn Olson
A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies | Kenneth D. Whitehead
Meeting The Real Mary Magdalene | An Interview with Amy Welborn
Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code | Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
Carl J. Sommer holds a Master's Degree in Historical Theology. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and two children.
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