Here’s a good blog post by NT/historical Jesus scholar Larry Hurtado on the issue as to whether Roman-era Christianity was really ‘secretive’ as we often imagine it to be:
It’s definitely an interesting subject, and I enjoyed reading his post, but I honestly don’t believe a word of it. Why couldn’t the notion of early Christians being secretive simply be considered a type of oral history? Perhaps they didn’t write it down and document it because they were secretive? There’s no history explicitly saying they weren’t secretive either, after all. Of course, I have to admit that I find the romanticism of Christians secretly gathering for Mass in the catacombs enormously appealing. It’s sort of like the revolutionaries in Franco-era Spain gathering in their cavern hideouts, or the French Resistance using the Parisian catacombs in WWII.
It would be a fascinating research project, but I don’t think I would even know where to begin!
This is a good book on the subject: amazon.com/We-Look-Kingdom-Everyday-Christians/dp/1586170791
It seems that things oscillated between acceptance and persecution depending on the politics of the emperor. So you can’t say that it was secretive, or open (as the blog suggests) all the time. In reality it went back and forth. The points the blog makes are from open periods. But as soon as that emperor died, the next one was a different story.
Well, that’s the problem - it’s just a romantic image. In reality, the catacombs not exactly the best places to meet or live in: they’re underground, they’re public knowledge (obviously, since they were cemeteries), and (not to mention) much of the vast catacombs you see today actually date from the 4th-5th centuries, after the persecutions have more or less ended. (Catacomb burial continued to be popular among Roman Christians until the 6th century.) Whenever Christians went into the catacombs it was to bury their dead, or to hold memorial services and meals in memory of the deceased (which was something also practiced by non-Christians.) For regular worship they have houses or any other nook and cranny to meet in: as time passed, you actually had churches built for this specific purpose.
And it’s not like Christians all over the Empire had catacombs to hide in, or even needed to hide in one: for the first two centuries, Christian persecutions were at first sporadic, local affairs. So while Christians may be actively hunted by the local governor in one area, the governor of another area might think that Christians are harmless (or a relatively minor nuisance) and generally leave them be. In those days, lynch mobs and feuds with rival sects were more fatal to Christians than the courts. Christians did wound up at court for a variety of reasons, but the outcome isn’t always martyrdom. (It didn’t help that there were actually fanatics who were actively keen on being martyred and went to lengths to get themselves killed. There were actually local magistrates who were so fed up with this that they simply refused to sentence them or give them trial at all.) Whenever persecution did arise in those days, it was mostly because Christians were scapegoated as being the cause of some natural disaster or national unrest - interpreted as being caused by a failure to give due honor to the (Roman) gods. And even then, it was mostly the general public who sought their blood - local mobs often forced the hands of reluctant local magistrates.
It was only around the 250s to AD 313 (yes, just before Constantine) that you have the full-scale Empire-wide persecutions, where the emperors really made an effort to launch a smear campaign against Christians, and Christians (especially the leading clergymen and public figures) and churches - yes, there were already churches back then - were actively targeted. But even then, the enactment of the decree was still left in the hands of local governors. Some simply ignored it or only enacted it when absolutely necessary.
Fr. Larry Richards, in his talk “The Mass Explained” talks about how all unbaptized catechumens were dismissed from Mass before the consecration (even as we do today with the scrutinies during Lent. That is because the Eucharist was so damning to those who used it to betray them to the pagan authorities.
So…there was indeed a secretive aspect to the early church, but whether the catacombs were a high traffic scene for the early church is not really a big deal to me. There were many early church tombs in some, and scientific dating has been known to be less than spot on accurate, so …
Christianity and especially Catholicism has been secretive in many different times and different places due to various persecutions. I can think of my own Irish Catholic ancestors who actually developed the Irish Penal Rosary Chaplet to help them practice their faith with less fear of apprehension. Patrick, you also know well the story of the Hidden Christians in Japan just a few centuries ago, right?
Hey, thanks for taking the time to write that. I have a really strong interest in the early Christians, so I appreciate the information. So would you say that they were just secretive if they happened to live in an area with a more dangerous local environment, but that in most times and places they could generally be open as long as they were low key and prudent about it? If that’s true, which does reasonable, then writers and historians have been off the mark for probably a millennia. I just say that because early Christians being portrayed as secretive seems so widespread - novels and folk tales and legends and everything else. Also, even if there meetings and masses weren’t entirely secret, I have to believe that they were at the very least private. Because groups communicating secrets amongst themselves using art and symbolism is a universal phenomenon, going back to at least the ancient Egyptians and probably a lot further. So when you see artifacts and whatnot depicting fish and anchors and eight-spoked wheels and different crosses and everything else, it just seems obvious they were used strictly amongst, maybe “initiates” isn’t the right word, but amongst people in the know. That seems to suggest at least a certain level of secrecy. I don’t know, I suppose the fact that the desert fathers packed up and left town might actually suggest the opposite; that they felt too exposed and not secret enough.
I’ll be pondering this, you can be sure!
The early Christians did practice something that Blessed John Henry Newman referred to as ‘economy.’ This was partly reflected in the exclusion of the non-baptized from the Eucharistic part of Mass and partly in the way that early apologists couched their arguments. In, I think, Apologia pro Vita Sua Newman identifies a number of early apologetic arguments which advance the case for Christianity in bold terms but carefully refrained from sketching in the details of the sacred mysteries. By ‘economy’ he meant that apologists argued alll that they needed to argue for the matter in hand but no more than they needed to argue. This secrecy proceeded less from a fear of persecution than from a fear that the mysteries would be profaned or sacrilegiously counterfeited if ‘cast before swine.’ That is they could only be understood by those who had already come to the faith.
There was someone on the comments on that blog post who pointed out that the dismissal of the catechumens may be more motivated by the sanctity of the Eucharist: it was not so much to keep the rite a secret per se, but because it was considered to be holy - too holy for the unbaptized to lay their eyes on. “Holy things are for the holy.”
Actually, the idea of early Christians being this sort of secret society that meets in the bowels of Rome dates no earlier than the 18th-19th century, when the catacombs of Rome were rediscovered. Archaeologists and explorers at that time found stuff like abandoned plates and utensils inside those tombs (these were originally from the ritual commemorative picnics held at the tombs), which led them to imagine that the early Christians hid or even lived there. Our current image of the early Christians actually owes more to 19th century novels like Quo Vadis or Fabiola than actual fact. Whenever Christians went into the catacombs it was to bury the dead and to commemorate them. They can’t hide or even live there because everyone knew where these burial places are (which kinda defeats the purpose of hiding), not to mention that the conditions are not really healthy down there.
It’s not just Christians that used the catacombs, really; Jews and pagans also did. Simply speaking, the catacombs were for the most part, cheap cemeteries. They were places where people who did not have enough money to buy land for tombs buried their dead (and most Christians and Jews at that time belonged to the lower classes or were slaves); not to mention were also a solution to overcrowding and land shortage. Pagan, Jewish and Christian burials actually coexisted side-by-side. In fact, it is even suggested that catacombs were a Jewish invention that was subsequently adopted by their Christian and pagan neighbors (since the earliest catacombs in Rome were actually Jewish, predating the Christian ones by about a century). Rather than practice cremation as the Romans traditionally did, the Jews simply brought their custom of burying the dead with them; Christians followed suit. Soon, even non-Christians began practicing inhumation than cremation.
We can actually divide the early Christian period (AD 50-313) into three rough stages. At the first stage (50-circa 150), Christians would have mostly met in private houses belonging to individual members. By the second stage (ca. 150-250), Christians were building what we could call ‘house churches’: houses that were renovated and converted into places of worship. The third stage (250-313) saw the introduction of larger buildings and halls (both private and public) as church buildings. Of course, this is just a rough picture, and the development was not felt in all areas: so while during the third stage, certain communities were meeting for worship in these large public halls, other Christians were still using house churches. It’s not just house churches: Christians, like Jews, are also known to meet in open places, markets and hired halls.
You might find it interesting that the earliest surviving structure to be ever identified as a church dates from the mid-3rd century, located at this desert city in Syria called Dura-Europos. It’s of the house church type, and seems to have been used for only a decade or two before the city was abandoned after its conquest by the Sassanid Persians. In fact, it is our only undisputed surviving example of a house church that dates before Constantine, the other possible examples - Peter’s house at Capernaum, the double church at Aquileia, the titular churches at Rome - being disputed.
Also, even if there meetings and masses weren’t entirely secret, I have to believe that they were at the very least private. Because groups communicating secrets amongst themselves using art and symbolism is a universal phenomenon, going back to at least the ancient Egyptians and probably a lot further. So when you see artifacts and whatnot depicting fish and anchors and eight-spoked wheels and different crosses and everything else, it just seems obvious they were used strictly amongst, maybe “initiates” isn’t the right word, but amongst people in the know. That seems to suggest at least a certain level of secrecy.
Larry actually addressed this.
But (I was asked), what about the fish symbol, or the anchor? Weren’t these hidden means of signifying Christian faith, e.g., the latter a covert reference to Jesus’ cross (the cross-bar of the anchor forming a disguised cross)? Well, in a word, no. Instead, it appears that these and other items reflect the early Christian tendency to appropriate various symbols, images, and expressions from the Roman-era environment, then assigning to them new Christian meanings. Behind this was the early Christian attitude that their beliefs were prefigured in the creation, in culture, in the prior intellectual history. So, they boldly made these sorts of things their own.
The fish-acrostic illustrates this: The ordinary Greek word for “fish” (ΙΧΘΥϹ) seized upon and read as a kind of short-hand statement of Christian faith: Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ (“Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour”). As for the anchor, it appears that in this and other phenomena, Christians saw their cross-symbol anticipated, reflected, and affirmed. Early Christians such as Justin also pointed to the shape of the masts of ships, and the T-shape of the human brow and nose, as other reflections of the cross-symbol. This wasn’t being covert; it was instead a bold (perhaps even audacious) affirmation. (Oh, and by the way, another notion “out there” in some scholarly circles is that we don’t have any cross-symbolism or visual references to Jesus’ crucifixion before the 4th/5th century CE. Wrong! That notion simply rests on an incomplete data-set and a certain ideological premise.)
I don’t know, I suppose the fact that the desert fathers packed up and left town might actually suggest the opposite; that they felt too exposed and not secret enough.
Complete monasticism actually started just after the persecutions ended. The fathers went into the desert not so much out of secrecy but more due to a desire to avoid society and achieve union with God in near-total isolation. But even before St. Anthony (the first desert hermit we know of), there were already ascetics who preferred living on the edge of cities and other inhabited places - separate from everyday life but not completely cut off from civilization.
Christians were calumniated as child-eaters and all sorts of heinous accusations, which appalled and scandalized even well-meaning pagans. So it was obvious that the Sacred Mysteries were not to be casually discussed. It wasn’t secrecy so much as discretion.
Building on this, I doubt that persecutions were a motivator for St. Anthony of the Desert, Evagrios, et al. The desert father’s were not generally secretive and welcomed visitors and pilgrims who sincerely wanted to learn the way to holiness.
It is important to remember that the Essene Jews were more or less ascetics long before Christ and that the Buddhists were were climbing mountains in Nepal to establish monasteries 800 years before Jesus. The desire to leave the world behind is part of human nature. Some desire it more than others and act on it. Monks and hermits are usually not running away from something but responding to an inner need for silence and solitude.
I have a book called “The Early Christians” that consists of writings by and about Christians in the early days, and I didn’t get the sense of them being especially secretive.
Discreet, and surely in times of persecution more careful, but they also shared the gospel and brought others into the fold, and were obvious enough to attract both admiration and condemnation of those around them.
You bring up a good point, the difference between discretion and secrecy.
From the comments:
(James Ernest) This (the concealment or not of Christian identity) seems to be a separate question–but maybe related?–from the “disciplina arcani” or esotericism in general (the concealment of some Christian doctrines and practices from non-Christian eyes, or claims that core teaching [possibly deviant teachings] are derived from nonpublic tradition. Some of the textual evidence for the disciplina arcani is signaled in the old Catholic Encyclopedia article online at newadvent.org/cathen/05032a.htm.
(larryhurtado) I think we have to distinguish between the holding of “esoteric” teachings and the supposedly covert or secretive Christianity of popular imagination. There is evidence that sometime in the early centuries only those taught Christian faith were permitted to be baptized and to partake of eucharist. But there’s no evidence I know of that early Christians tried to cloak their Christian allegiance, met secretly to avoid notice, etc.