Christianity stood apart when it came to other religions in ancient Rome. It alone emphasized on beliefs and doctrines. It seems strange, but in ancient Roman religions, it did not matter what a person believed. Religion was not about what one thought or believed about the gods. What really mattered was prayer and sacrifice. And, Christianity checked both these boxes.
Religions in Ancient Rome
On one level, when it came to other religions in ancient Rome, one had to believe that gods exist, but there were no doctrines, no orthodoxy, no heresy, no set of beliefs.
The Greek and Roman myths did not contain stories that had to be believed. One could personally think just about anything about the gods, and it wouldn’t matter so long as one was involved with the prayers and sacrifices.
There were no creeds to be said. No beliefs to affirm. No doctrines to hold on to. It was all about practice. That changed with Christianity.
Christianity and Cultic Practices
There were plenty of cultic practices within Christianity, of course. They had baptism and Eucharist, and prayer and worship, but also central to Christianity were religious beliefs. It deeply mattered what people believed.
People had to believe that there was only one God, that Christ was his son, that he died for the sins of the world, that he had been raised from the dead and so on and so forth. The beliefs really mattered.
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Basis for Ethics
Other beliefs became equally important. Christians came to emphasize proper teaching unlike anything else in religious antiquity. Moreover, Christians emphasized ethics as part of their religion, not just as part of social life or philosophy.
Ancient pagans were no more immoral than modern Christians, but their basis for ethics were almost never religious. Pagan cults did not insist on ethical codes or rules of behavior. They insisted on practices.
Ethics could be a matter of government or about how one wanted to behave in society. And if anybody wanted to think deeply about ethics, they can always turn to philosophy.
Strict Christian Ethical Codes
Christians probably inherited their insistence on proper ethical behavior from the Jews, whose law included not only requirements for worshiping God, but also for living in community together.
Christians, therefore, early on developed strict ethical codes that needed to be followed in order to maintain a right standing with God. And many of the early Christian authors took pride in their rigorous ethics, unlike anything we have in any pagan religion.
Gospel of Matthew
Clearly embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, is the thought that it isn’t just our actions that matter, but also our attitudes. One is not only not supposed to murder, one is not supposed to get angry, commit adultery or lust.
Christians also had scriptures. Jews, of course, were distinctive in having a sacred book, the Jewish Bible that the Christians took over as the Old Testament. However, Christians read the Jewish Bible differently. They saw, in that book, predictions of Jesus.
Christians also started producing their own writings which came to be considered authoritative. So, by the 2nd century, we have Christians claiming that some of the earlier writings, such as, the writings of Paul or the writings of some of the gospels, were just as important as the scriptures of the Jews.
Hence, they came up with the idea of a New Testament to parallel the Old Testament that they had inherited.
Day of Resurrection
Christians had community. Pagan cultic practices happened periodically, and, thus, weren’t regular events. They didn’t happen every week and they didn’t involve people coming together for fellowship—regular community meetings to meet, talk, share, encourage, and support.
Christians did have that. Again, it was drawn probably from their experience of Jews in synagogues. The earliest Christians were accustomed to weekly worship on Sabbath in the synagogue and that got transferred then over to the Christian habit, not of meeting on Sabbath Saturday, but on the day of resurrection, Sunday.
Christian Weekly Meetings
And so, Christians held weekly meetings. At these meetings, they would read scripture, which originally would mean reading the Hebrew Bible. They would have read it in Greek probably throughout most Christian lands because Christians were scattered throughout the world where Greek was the main language.
They would read their scriptures in Greek, and they would talk about them. They would pray, they would admonish each other, they would hear sermons, they would have a Eucharist, they would have baptisms, and so forth. This would all be within the community.
No Shared History or Bloodline
Interestingly, one difference from Jews was that, for the Christians, these connections in the community were not based on a shared history, bloodline or cultural heritage. These were people who had been gentiles who had converted from a wide range of places and a wide range of beliefs.
The community for Christians actually came from their agreed upon practices, beliefs, and understandings about what it meant to be human, what kind of common commitments they could have.
Thus, clearly, in the Roman world of antiquity, while sharing space with other religions, Christianity successfully developed into its own entity. Christianity was not completely unlike all other religions in the Roman Empire, of course. For it to be recognizable, it had to share some characteristics. And yet, it was distinctive enough to triumph over the others and take over the Western world.
Common Questions about Why Christianity Was Different from Other Religions in Ancient Rome
There were plenty of cultic practices within Christianity. They had baptism and Eucharist, and practices related to prayer and worship.
Christians read the Jewish Bible differently. They saw, in that book, predictions of Jesus.
Christians held weekly meetings where they would read scripture, which originally would mean reading the Hebrew Bible.