Sinners and Saints: The Real Story of Early Christianity

Sinners and Saints: The Real Story of Early Christianity

by Derek Cooper




Where most books dance around the distasteful details of the church's past, this one puts a spotlight on the negative and positive alike. With one ear attuned to the early church and another to contemporary culture, this book addresses the growing concerns both Christians and non-Christians have about how transparent the church has been about its roots. This book offers a forthright depiction of early Christianity, beginning with the apostles and ending after the time of Augustine.

Sinners and Saints is the first of a four-volume series that humanizes the history of Christianity by honestly examining the actions, doctrines, decisions, groups, movements, and practices of past Christians. This book's assessment helps the reader accurately understand Christianity's background and recognize how it continues to shape the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780825444074
Publisher: Kregel Publications
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Series: Real Church History Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Derek Cooper is associate professor of world Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary. In addition to organizing international trips through MEJDI Tours, he is the author of numerous books, including Introduction to World Christian History, Exploring Church History, and Christianity and World Religions.

Read an Excerpt



Despite dreamy landscapes cascading across contemporary Christmas Cards, there was nothing romantic about life in the ancient world. Life in the biblical past was laced with death, disease, and destitution. While best-selling American author Joel Osteen encourages us to "live our best life now," many ancient Christians were simply trying to survive. The average life expectancy, after all, was in the thirties, girls were married off to older men they scarcely knew and were likely pregnant by the age of thirteen, and they delivered their babies on dirt floors in their squalid one-room tenements. There were no systems of welfare to provide for the poor, no retirement homes to accommodate the elderly, and no way to post pictures online from one's vacation at the beach.

Truth is, the closer one gets to the "time of Jesus" or to the "age of the Bible," the closer one gets to malnutrition, persecution, privation, patriarchy, slavery, trauma, inequality, demonic possession, rampant poverty, and a lifetime of public toilets. The apostle Paul captured the spirit of his age well when he wrote: "I desire to depart [from this world]" (Phil. 1:23). And there's little wonder why the last lines of the Bible are "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20). The early Christians ached to be rid of the death-filled, heart-rending, and back-breaking world of the Bible.


Because our tendency to romanticize the biblical and early Christian past is so rooted in our thinking, we are poised to resist this startling portrayal. We may think to ourselves, Was life really that bad? You tell me: How does it sound to be constantly battling tape worms, to be steadily suffering from malaria, or to be always wondering when your next meal would come? How does it sound to put your children to work before their tenth birthday, to be unable to read or write, or to have no way to advance your career? As much as we prefer this not to be true, such was life during the time of the Bible. Defying our expectations, archaeology has people were routinely missing teeth, that they were not getting enough protein, and that delousing — as in the stripping of lice from one's hair with a comb —"may have been a daily routine for many people."

Many of the things we take for granted in our convenience-laden lives were simply unattainable for most Christians: soap, sewage, dentistry, security, privacy, mobility, legal protection, pension, public education, electricity, kitchens, chimneys, even adequate access to food and water. And we can forget about paid vacation, emergency rooms, and three square meals a day. Bread, that high-carb temptation so often avoided by eaters today, was the staple of one's diet, while a good cut of beef was only available at the butcher's shop adjoining a pagan temple. Either way, according to historians, "The overwhelming majority of the population under Roman imperialism lived near the subsistence level." This indicates that most Christians in the Roman Empire were just managing to scrounge up enough food each day to survive. Even among the house churches that Paul led in the homes of aristocratic Christians, it's likely that most of the saints assembled there "were poor, very poor, or desperately poor."


In addition to being paralyzed by poverty, early Christianity was also an utterly urban affair. Though most people in the ancient world lived in the countryside — naturally enough, as farming land was the only way to produce food — many early Christians still lived in the city. As one scholar explains, "peasants or country folk were not involved in the [Christian] movement until the late third or early fourth century." This means that Christians today have to constantly resist the temptation to visualize a biblical spirituality of sheep grazing along a meadow. To the contrary, ancient Christianity was lived out in the hustle and bustle of city life where prostitutes were for hire, pagan temples were on every street corner, and public gym classes were conducted in the nude. We might consider the destination of Paul's biblical letters in order to form a more historically accurate image: Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Thessalonica were large, pagan, impoverished, and overcrowded cities. Ancient Rome, for instance, was more densely populated than modern Mumbai. Thus when Paul preached through this "Eternal City," we have to imagine his Roman toga caked in a crust of mud, trash, and excrement. As classical historian Mary Beard explains, Paul's Rome presented "squalid living conditions for most of the population."

The cities in which Paul preached were also ones where odors assaulted one's sense of smell and sights arrested one's sense of decency. Paganism was evident on literally every street corner, and demonic possession was equally widespread. In such urban environments as the early Christian lived, whole families often lived in an unhygienic one-room tenement offering no heating, no running water, and no privacy. In the absence of public sanitation, many families defecated in pots that were tossed onto the street from an upstairs window. It was not at all uncommon for workers to live and labor in the same cramped space with other families. Some households even slept in shifts to accommodate all the people in the "crowded, poorly ventilated, and generally unhealthy conditions" in which so many Christians would have lived. Because there was no space for a kitchen, and because cooking was a fire hazard among the island of poorly constructed apartments, most meals were eaten in the streets at the equivalent of fast-food joints called popinae in Latin or thermopolia in Greek. There were no sidewalks, no streetlamps, and no patrolmen.

Raising a child in the ancient city was no walk in the park. Although the birth of a child today is often an occasion of celebration, it was a source of great anxiety in antiquity, even among wealthy families that could afford the best medical treatment. Countless children died every year from lack of basic medical care, and childbirth "was always the biggest killer of young adult women," "from senators' wives to slaves." Tombstones of young children and their young mothers littered the Roman Empire, leaving us a trail of tears visible to this day. On one tombstone found in ancient Rome, the inscription of a deceased four-year old girl named Ampliata attempts to offer comfort to her bewailing mother: Noli dolere, mamma, faciendum fuit — "Don't be sad, mommy, it had to happen."

In addition to constant exposure to death, children were likewise exposed to sex at a young age, as there was virtually no privacy among adults in their one-bedroom tenements. What's more, prostitution was not a private affair, roped off from the eyes of the innocent and carried out in a dark alley way. On the contrary, "it was a dominant institution, flourishing in the light of day." Prostitution was state approved, modestly taxed, and Living in the socially acceptable. Back then, a hotel bill that included lodging, food, and sex was nothing out of the ordinary. Children were regularly exposed to nude statues and artwork forever garnering the streets, walls, and temples of every Roman city. And sexually explicit images cluttered walls and filled the minds of the young. Children would have been forced to begin work at a very young age, and very few of them would have received an education. Many children were also exposed (a common practice in the ancient world where children were left out in the elements), or sold into slavery. And at least half of all children did not even survive into adulthood.


If I have been painting the world of early Christianity with too dark and stark a brushstroke, that's because this realistic portrait is rarely acknowledged in churches, classrooms, and textbooks. It's certainly not true that all early Christians were like characters in the movie Annie, but they lived much poorer and more primitive lives than we want to admit. For the sake of argument, however, we can reconstruct what life would have been like for the fabulously wealthy. Rather than constituting the more than ninety-five percent of Roman inhabitants who worked like a dog just to make ends meet, here follows the life of a true blueblood aristocrat living among the top five percent of society. (Although there were some wealthy Christians in the church from the beginning, as even the New Testament indicates, their percentages were low until the third and fourth centuries.)

As a Roman aristocrat, one's day generally revolved around bathing, eating, and accepting accolades. At some point in the day, after leading a prayer to the household gods and after receiving guests who are in his debt, a Roman patronus (patron) would swagger from his domus (large home) to the public bath house in his neatly pressed toga — clothing only allowed to be worn (of course, in a man-dominated world) by male Roman citizens. Several of his slaves and perhaps dozens of toadies, called "clients," would accompany him to demonstrate to everyone in the overcrowded streets just how important he was. (As strange as that sounds, this, in fact, was part of their duty as a "client.") At the public bathhouse, completely naked, the patron would lounge and converse with other rich people for hours as one of his slaves scrubbed his back with a shell while another guarded his clothing. In the afternoon, our patronus would return to his home, perhaps after a little time at the forum, for an elaborate meal in his triclinium (dining hall) with honored guests. The triclinium contained three couches that could accommodate up to nine people, who all lay down on their left elbows and ate with their right hands from a common dish in the middle of the room served by various slaves.

After dinner and over a glass of wine with his fellow aristocrats, the conversation might turn from gladiatorial races to the merits of religion. Because he would be an intimate acquaintance, and because it is well established that conversion largely took place in the ancient world (as today) through social networks, his friend lounging next to him may confide that he has recently become a Christian believer, and that he would like his friend to attend a worship service with him. The wealthy man might demur, but will consent after a few more drinks — it is Tuscan wine, after all. He eventually decides that the Christian life is for him, and seeks to learn what is required for what we call today "church membership." According to an early document called the Apostolic Tradition, he may get more than he bargained for.


While many churches today give Christian goody bags for visitors containing packets of hot cocoa, logo-laden coffee mugs, and flashlights studded with adages such as "May the light of Christ shine on you," early Christians preferred the subtle tactic of cross examination. As the third-century document the Apostolic Tradition put it:

New converts to the faith, who are to be admitted as hearers of the word, shall first be brought to the teachers before the people assemble. And they shall be examined as to their reason for embracing the faith ... Inquiry shall then be made as to the nature of their life; whether a man has a wife or is a slave, etc.

If this man chooses to be a Christian after undergoing cross-examination without receiving chocolaty treats, he may have to change careers — though, due to his high status, he may be entitled to continue bathing and eating all day so long as he served as the patron of the local church and pulled strings for his new Christian clients when necessary.

According to the Apostolic Tradition, "Inquiry shall likewise be made about the professions and trades of those who are brought to be admitted to the faith." To save ourselves from suspense, people would need to check the Roman Want Ads if they wanted to become a Christian while simultaneously being: a "sculptor or painter," "actor or pantomimist," "charioteer," "gladiator or trainer of gladiators," "military commander or civic magistrate," "[somebody] who does things not to be named [perhaps the modern equivalent of someone who wears socks with sandals]," "magician," "enchanter," "astrologer," "diviner," "soothsayer," or, in case that was not clear enough, "a user of magic." Each of these professions or careers was prohibited by Christian churches. Last but not least, the profession of teaching — of young children at any rate — was highly discouraged: "A teacher of young children had best desist, but if he has no other occupation, he may be permitted to continue." Because teaching in the ancient world was so intertwined with pagan history, beliefs, and rituals, it was best to avoid it altogether.


With such a long list of unacceptable careers, one wonders what kinds of prospects were available for converts. Here the evidence is ambiguous, but it's best not to get one's hopes up. About ninety percent of Christians were illiterate. That's right — perhaps less than ten percent of Christians could read or write in the early centuries of the church. But even if they could read, early Christians could hardly have afforded the books and scribes necessary to maintain a library — and if they suffered from near- or far-sightedness, the books would have been worthless since glasses would not be invented for more than a thousand years. Prohibitions as found in the made matters more difficult for Christians who aspired to become Roman white-collar workers by denying teaching opportunities to adults and learning opportunities to children.

Writing in the second half of the second century, Christian apologist Athenagoras of Athens conceded that the church was disproportionally full of "uneducated persons ... artisans, and old women."

Although the feisty Christian author Tertullian boasted at the end of the second century that Christians had risen to every sector of society save the Roman priesthood, his contemporary Origen conceded that many Christians were "wool-workers ... cobblers ... laundry-workers and the most illiterate yokels [imaginable]." In all likelihood, many Christians during the first couple of centuries "were handworkers." Which is to say that many Christians were uneducated and illiterate "craftspeople, artisans, and small traders." For such workers, other than festival days, they toiled seven days of week, as there were no Sundays off from work until Constantine became emperor in the early fourth century. For these Christians, work began at dawn and ended at dusk. It was not generally safe to be outside alone at dark (and there were no lamp posts to light the streets), so many people would return to their tiny and mice-infested flats for the night unless business required otherwise. Their meals would have been low in calories and fat, but not because they were watching their figures — such was all they could afford.


Excerpted from "Sinners and Saints"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Derek Cooper.
Excerpted by permission of Kregel Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 7

Introduction-Getting Real with Christianity's Past 8

1 Living in the Real World-Daily Life 17

2 Leading with a Limp-Flawed Leadership 31

3 Marching toward Death-Martyrs and Saints 46

4 Going to Church-Faith and Practice 61

5 Arguing with Pagans and Jews-Apologetics 75

6 Drawing a Family Tree-Theology and Ecclesiology 91

7 Reading in the Forbidden Section-The Other Christian Bible 107

8 Serving God and Money 123

9 Putting Sex on Trial-Gender and Religion 139

10 Converting the Nations-Mission and Society 155

Conclusion-The Iron and Rust Age of Christianity 169

Index 175

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