CHRISTIANS have an uncomfortable relationship with the Roman Empire and its emperors. On the one hand, the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” mindset casts the Romans as the “baddies” — a welcome bolt-hole for modern Christians, now that sensitivities prompted by the anti-Semitic tinge of some texts leaves the Christian story lacking in proper baddies.
On the other hand, there are elements of the New Testament which encourage quietism rather than hostility to the ruling authorities. These seek to make the triumph of Christian faith, like David against a Roman imperial Goliath, more palatable. This approach was continued by the early Christian apologists, who were keen to trumpet their loyalty to the emperor, and reassure the authorities that the new religion posed no threat.
It is complex work unpicking negative attitudes attached to the Romans, whether as an occupying force, or as purveyors of that source of all evils under the sun, empire. In public, Roman political leaders were critical about the institution of monarchy, and yet in private they were dazzled by its seductive appeal. In a similar way, Christians were negative about the empire, and yet more than happy to appropriate its structures as a way to spread their views, and to claim its participation in their structures in return.
This book builds its argument on the interpretation of a single verse from the New Testament, Philippian 4.22: “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household” (oikia). That argument is a scrupulous demolition job, knocking down centuries of imaginative reconstruction. The bigging-up of that phrase of Paul’s, “the saints of the emperor’s household”, has encouraged the detection of networks of Christians at the heart of government from earliest times.
One maximising reading leads to another, and infects the interpretation of non-textual evidence. The result is an inverted pyramid of reconstructed supposition, balancing on that single point, Philippians 4.22. If it is read without presuppositions about what “the family of the emperor” refers to, it becomes impossible to sustain what Flexsenhar refers to as the fantasy of the “pioneer narrative”. One modern term that came to mind repeatedly as I read was “fake news”. In this context, it means an attitude to evidence which says: “I’ve made up my mind: don’t bother me with the facts.”
Flexsenhar reassesses the evidence of Philippians; he de-romanticises comparative materials from the catacombs. The result is a short, readable, and persuasive masterpiece of deconstruction. Only when we have jettisoned the triumphalist “pioneer narrative” of the early spread of Christianity within the highest levels of society can we hope to understand the less glamorous processes by which it actually did make its way into hearts, minds, and societies.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Christians in Caesar’s Household: The emperors’ slaves in the makings of Christianity
Michael Flexsenhar III
Penn State University £71.95
Church Times Bookshop £64.75