Early Christianity

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Hellenistic and Roman Context of Early Christianity

Hellenistic and Roman Context of Early Christianity


In the first century AD, when the apostles Peter and Paul came to Rome, the Christian community in Rome was still small, perhaps as few as some hundreds or a thousand followers at best. Probably the best source of knowledge about that period comes from the Bible itself and in particular "Acts" and Paul's letter to the Romans ("The Epistles"). (Esler, 2004)

History: Hellenistic and Roman Context

After the Crucifixion of Jesus the Christian church was centered in Jerusalem, in an "upper room" perhaps where the Cenacle is today and, according to Paul, the "pillars" of the Church were "James, Peter and John." While its historical accuracy is disputed by some, the major primary source for the Apostolic Age (c.30-c.100) is the Acts of the Apostles. Following the so called "Great Commission", said to have been issued by the resurrected Jesus, the missionary activity of the Christian Apostles (the Twelve, the Seventy, Paul of Tarsus, and others), spread Christianity to cities throughout the Hellenistic world, such as Alexandria and Antioch, and also to Rome and even beyond the Roman Empire.

It is interesting to remember that both saint Peter and saint Paul were initially Jews but that Paul had the privilege of being a Roman citizen whilst Peter was not. Paul was in Rome because his own people back in Judaea had condemned him for impiety (against the laws of Moses) and having brought Gentiles (non Jews) into the Temple (Latourette, 1953). At first he defended himself successfully but in the end he was forced to claim his right of appeal to the emperor as a Roman citizen in order to avoid punishment. He was shipped off to Rome to await judgement and first time round he seems to have got away with it, but the second proved to be fatal. His assertion of obeying another king called "Jesus Christ" rather than Nero was considered to be sufficient justification for him to be sentenced to death. (Latourette, 1953)

It is said that both Peter and Paul died on the same day of the year 64AD, during Nero's persecution of the Christians. The two saints are also said to have met on the road to execution and to have embraced in a final farewell. The reality is that Peter was probably executed together with many others whilst Paul, as a Roman citizen, had the privilege of being beheaded more or less in private at a location now known as Tre Fontane (three fountains). (Esler, 2004)

Myth would have it that a water spring appeared on the spot where Paul's severed head fell to the ground. True or not, a large basilica church was built to mark the location of his burial a couple of centuries later (San Paolo fuori le mura - St Paul's outside the walls).

Tertullian wrote a century later that Peter was crucified upside down according to his own wishes, on a spot which is unclear but was probably on the ...
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