Road to Damascus
Andrew Marr’s History of the World – Word and Sword
Rome was ripe for spiritual revolution. And it started on the very edge of the Empire, when an ordinary man had a very extraordinary change of heart. Jerusalem the year 36 A.D.
Saul was doing well for himself supplying tents to the Roman army. He was a local contractor, a Roman citizen and a devout Jew. On this particular day, there was a man called Stephen who’d been causing trouble here in the market. He’d been saying that the son of a carpenter, who’d been crucified just a few years earlier was the son of God.
Among those watching, nobody was more hardline than Saul, he said himself “he was known among the Jews of his generation for his enthusiasm for the traditions of his ancestors and to say that Christ was the Messiah was a blasphemy”.
For blasphemy there was only one punishment. Saul watched as Stephen was killed. Stoning is still used as a punishment for blasphemy in some parts of the world today.
Stephen had just become the first Christian martyr. Did his horrible death make Saul think again or feel squeamish, certainly not, it encouraged him to join the persecution.
He was seen reading threats and murder towards the followers of Jesus. And with the permission of the high priest he now set off to hunt some more of them down in Damascus.
But, his manhunt was stopped dead in its tracks. According to the Bible Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of Jesus telling him to stop his persecution of Christians. He came to – blind.
In Damascus he went for three days without food or drink. A Christian called Ananias laid his hands on him and it said the scales fell from Saul’s eyes.
What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus sounds a bit like a desert hallucination but, the voice he heard changed his life. The persecutor got himself baptised to the faith of the people he’d been persecuting, got rid of his old Jewish name Saul, and he became Paul. And he gave himself an almost crazily ambitious job which was to carry news of the new faith not simply to Jews but to Greeks, to Romans, to Egyptians, to anyone who would listen, because for him this was one God and one set of rules for everybody on the Earth.
Paul started by heading south into the Arabian desert. He was still a travelling salesman but, now he was selling a message that would change the history of religion. Up until Paul, the followers of Jesus Christ had all been Jewish. The story of the man from Galilee had been a local event but Paul’s burning need to convert convinced thousands of non-Jews that Jesus had come to save everyone Jew or pagan, slave or free man.
Power of the Word
Today, there are, perhaps, 50 million Jews in the world but, because of the evangelising conditions begun by Paul, the number of Christians is 2 billion. The largest religion ever known.
Paul went on the road endlessly. He was arrested, he was thrown into prison. He was whipped, he was shipwrecked, he suffered thirst and starvation. He said he was beset by pagans, Jews, brigands and wild beasts.
This was the power of the word carried around the world at the pace of one man’s battle.
Paul’s journey came to an end at the centre of the Earth – Rome. He was arrested for starting a riot while preaching about Jesus in a Jewish temple. Now he was prepared to use his own death as a spiritual weapon to shape the whole empire – martyrdom.
It’s said that in Rome, Paul was beheaded. He would normally face a far more agonising death of crucifixion but Paul was a Roman citizen and Rome didn’t crucify their own. Except, of course, if Paul was no longer their own.
All around the Mediterranean world, little groups of these mysterious new sects, the Christians were appearing and beginning to spread.
The execution of Christians was turned into mass entertainment all across the Empire from the Coliseum in Rome to provincial theatres in North Africa.
On the morning of March 7 203 a small group of prisoners was led into the arena at Carthage. Among them was a young woman called Vibia Perpetua. As a Christian she’d been condemned to death for the amusement of the crowd. Perpetua’s is one of the few female voices to come down to us from the ancient world. It was preserved from an account she wrote from the filth and darkness of a Roman jail.
The Execution of Vibia Perpetua
Vibia Perpetua “We were put into prison. I was terrified. I’d never been put in such a dark hole. It was crowded, the heat was stifling and I was tortured with worry for my baby.”
These don’t seem to be the words of a historian or a priest, telling us about Perpetua we think these are the young woman’s words from her own mouth at a very tough time indeed because her father has driven himself almost insane pleading with her to recant and save her life. Her husband had cleared off and in prison she is left with her baby son.
Vibia Perpetua “My baby was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother and brother about the child. And I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me.”
The night before her execution, Perpetua had an extraordinary vision of what would happen to her.
Vibia Perpetua “I gazed upon an immense crowd who watched in amazement then a horrible looking Egyptian came at me with his batons to fight with me. And there came to me, as my helpers, handsome young men. I was stripped and became a man. Then my helpers began to rub me with oil. And I saw that Egyptian rolling in the dust. And we began to fight. He tried to grab hold of my feet while I struck at his face with my heels. And I was lifted up in the air and began to thrust at him as if spurning the Earth. I joined my hands and took hold upon his head and he fell on his face and I trod upon his head. The people began to shout and my supporters to exalt. Then I awoke and realised I was not to fight with beasts but against the devil.”
Dreams like this carry a revolutionary Christian message – ordinary people matter they have the arena of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This is a rare glimpse inside the mind of an early Christian martyr. Perpetua’s extraordinary dream is the last thing that we have in her own words but her final confrontation with Rome came the following day when she was led into the arena with another young woman called Felicitas. Watching was a fellow Christian and we have that eye-witness account of what followed.
Witness “The people demanded they be brought forward. The rose and went towards the place they would be martyred. They remained still and were put to the sword in silence. Perpetua screamed as she was struck on the bone. Then she took the hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat.”
The Spread of Christianity
For the Christians, this was less about death than victory over death. The Romans found this cult of martyrdom strange and confusing but they did see something they valued which was to suffer bravely was to win great honour and so Perpetua had taken a humiliating public death and turned it into a kind of victory for faith.
The promise of heaven attracted more converts than Rome could possibly kill. Within a hundred years of Perpetua’s death, Christianity has spread right across the Roman world: shopkeepers, administrators, merchants and then finally in 337 the Emperor Constantine, a man who had come to power by military coup and was an enthusiastic political assassin announced his conversion. Christianity would never be the same again.
Constantine was the first person to make Christianity a fighting religion. Before, Christians hadn’t even been supposed to join the military they were, like Perpetua, pacifists. Now, the cross became a sword. The Roman response to spiritual revolt was in the end, just so Roman, pragmatic, shrewd. They reached out and they assimilated even this revolutionary cult and they made it Roman. It’s hard to know whether to admire this or despise it.
The merger between Christianity and worldly power would long survive the Roman Empire. It’s a basic foundation of the western world.