Christmas season is almost here, and I think some perspective might be in order.
How did plastic lawn displays of Jesus, Mary and Joseph with light bulbs in their back become such a non-negotiable sign of Christian identity?
As someone who knows ancient Rome fairly well from “an archaeological point of view,” let me state: No ancient Roman ever set up illuminated plastic sheep or shepherds in their front yards as an homage to Jesus’ birth. Not in the first century A.D. and not in the fifth. And the only straw anywhere near a Roman courthouse was the rhetorical flourish of a few bald men in togas. For almost three centuries after the death of Jesus, Christians are impossible to find—archaeologically.
Why? For starters, their absence has nothing to do with living the age before Thomas Edison. We should also set aside our notions about the “invisibility” of early Christians being due to their lack of financial resources. The Christian call to care for the poor may be one of the religion’s most ethically admirable teachings, reiterated most recently by the Jesuit pope Francis (Full disclosure: I teach at a Jesuit university). But not all early Christians were the disenfranchised peasants we often make them out to be.
Many members of the movement were wealthy (or moderately wealthy), hosting gatherings in the houses they owned. By the end of the second century A.D., one group was even chastised by a local bishop for celebrating their fellowship meal with expensive tableware and fancy sauces.
The reason we have never been able to find Christian “stuff”? It’s not that they couldn’t afford buying anything while strolling the Forum. Many early Christians went about their daily lives “in the closet” or among allies “in-the-know.” Hence, no public manager scenes, no angels harking the arrival of the Good News, no crucifixes—not before the fifth century. (I talk more about them in my forthcoming book). Early Christians made choices.
And among the many choices they made was to find a plan that would win them greater rights—like the right to practice their faith openly, without fearing jail. Many other Christians fought this long struggle for acceptance—”coming out” to their friends and family in the four hundred years after Jesus’ death.
Many of these Christians must have looked at their “martyred” friends and scratched their heads. Why was it that some people always seemed over zealous to draw lines in the sand? That’s an important question, too, albeit one for another time.
(Revised November 14, 2014)