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Non-Christian View of Early Christians

...To non-Christian Romans, the Christians, or Nazarenes as they were called, were merely another sect of the Jews, as their religion was merely a modernised version of Judaism. And this new cult, strongly nationalistic as well as messianic in content, was carried all over the Mediterrean world by merchant travellers from Palestine to the Jewish communities in Alexandria, Athens, Carthage, Rome, and elsewhere. Moreover, the attraction of the story of the persecuted rabbi called Jesus was undoubtedly political as well as spiritual, particularly after the massacre and enslavement of the Jews following the capture of Jerusalem in AD 70. By AD 70, in fact, the persecutions of Rome and the ultimate defeat of the Jews in their long war for independence must have driven many of them into the camp of their Christianised co-nationals who apppeared to be the only hope of a successful policy of civil disobedience by passive resistance.

At first, all this talk of a son of God born to a virgin and crucified as a criminal was a matter of considerable bewilderment to educated non-Christians like Gaius Plinius Secundus who, as Governor of Bithynia at the beginning of the second century AD, had plenty of opportunity of studying the Nazarenes at close quarters. His bewilderment is apparent in a communication he wrote to Emperor Trajan in AD 112:

The Christians affirm that their only crime was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then re-assemble to partake of food--but food of an ordinary and innocent kind*...I judged it necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.

*[footnote: The description of 'food of the ordinary kind' is a reference to the rumours that the Christians sacrificed and then ate new-born infants at their secret rites. The non-Christians were obviously puzzled by what they thought of as ritualistic cannibalism, even though the eating of the Man-God's flesh and the drinking of his blood was only symbolic.]

Some twenty years later the emperor Hadrian had this to say of the Egyptian Christians in a letter to the consul Servianus:

As for Egypt, which you were praising to me, my dear Servianus, I have found its people of mob of lightweight gossipers. The Christians appear to worship the Egyptian God Serapis whom all the Greeks call Pluto; and there is not one of their priests who does not claim to be either a magician or soothsayer. The very Patriarch himself is said by some to worship Serapis, by some to worship Christ. Their claim to worship the one and only true God is meaningless, since this God is common to the Christians, Jews, and men of every race and religion.

Hadrian's confusion as to which god the Christians were worshipping, whether Serapis or Christ, is understandable since the former deity, a Hellenised version of the old god Osiris, was a sort of god of life-in-death, a concept which has obvious affinity with the doctrine of the Resurrection. Moreover, the Greek or Alexandrian version of Serapis as a mystic figure, crowned and bearded and regally enthroned, was so like the representations of the Greek Zeus or the Roman Jupiter or the Hebrew Jehovah or the new God, Jesus Christ, that it was difficult for a sophisticated pagan to differentiate between them.
source: James Wellard, Desert Pilgrimage
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