I apologize for a long gap between postings in this series on What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? It has been a very challenging couple of months and I am writing these from scratch as we go along. Hopefully from now one I will be able to post a new segment each week until the series is complete.
What impact did Jesus’ teaching and example have on the church? A whole lot, right from the beginning. When reading the New Testament, it is surprising how many women were in leadership from the first. Paul mentions a co-worker named Apphia in the second verse of Philemon. Nympha was the head of one of the churches in Colossia (Col 4:15). Priscilla is not only part of an evangelistic/teaching team (Priscilla and Aquila), she is usually mentioned first before her husband, which in Greek would suggest she was the leader or primary teacher. Phoebe, a deacon (the normal term for that church office, she is not called a “deaconess”), is the one delegated by Paul to deliver and explain his epic letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1). The same letter makes mention of Junia, a female name, who was “renowned among the apostles” (Rom 16:7), so a major figure in the church, whether or not Paul is saying she is an apostle herself (somewhat ambiguous in the Greek—episȇmoi en tois apostolois). Lydia became the leader of the house church in Philippi (Acts 16:40). Euodia and Syntyche are described as “fellow strugglers” (Greek: sunȇblȇsan) with Paul in the preaching of the gospel. One does not have to read far into the attitudes and practices of the Greco-Roman world to realize that this is a dramatic shift at the time.
But the impact of Jesus’ teachings and practice was not limited to the treatment of women. Early Christians would collect and adopt exposed infants, raising them in their own homes. During the time of persecution from the Empire (100 to early 300s AD) this was the only way they could show the value that God places on each person, including unwanted babies. But when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, many of the teachings of Jesus became institutionalized by the Christian emperors.
Emperor Constantine the Great (co-ruler from 306-324 AD, sole ruler from 324-337) began to favor Christianity in 312-313. When He was in a position to do so, he followed the implications of Jesus’ teaching by outlawing the branding of slaves and crucifixion. He also encouraged the establishment of orphanages to help care for abandoned children. Constantine’s son Constantius (337-361 AD) ordered the segregation male and female prisoners, ending a practice subject to great abuse of women. Valentinian (364-375), at last, abolished infanticide as an acceptable practice in the Empire. That decree would later on be re-affirmed by Justinian the Great (527-565). While abortion was never practiced by the early church and was condemned by the church fathers Athenagoras (circa 133-190) and Tertullian (circa 155-220), it was not abolished by the Christian emperors until the time of Justinian.
In spite of the influence of Jesus in many aspects of the Empire, another practice that the Christian emperors did not give up for a long time was the cruel sports in the arena, where people fought to the death for the entertainment of the crowds. Then on January 1, 404 AD, the gladiatorial games came screeching to a halt. A Christian monk named Telemachus was visiting Rome and got swept into the Colosseum by the crowd for a gladiatorial spectacle in the presence of the Emperor Honorius (395-423). When he realized the gladiators were fighting to the death, the small man ran out into the arena and attempted to separate the gladiators and convince them to stop fighting. The crowd began to hiss at this interference, so one of the gladiators ran him through with a sword. The audience gazed at the scene in horror and began to leave the arena. This turn in popular sentiment enabled Honorius to abolish the games from that day forward. But it was a single man, inspired by Jesus, who played the key role in ending these cruel spectacles. Would that have happened if Jesus had not been born?