To Roman pagans, Judaism was a solvent of the bonds linking religion, household, and polity. Tacitus wrote, “Those who come over to their religion . . . have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at nought parents, children, and brethren” (quoted by Stephen C. Barton, Discipleship and Family Ties in Mark and Matthew, 2). Stephen Barton observes that Tacitus makes an “assumption about the strength of the bond between cult, polity and household, leading to the inevitable conclusion that transfer of allegiance to the exclusive cult of the Jews places political and domestic ties under direct threat.”
Christians faced the same charge: “in describing the persecution of the Christians in Rome by Nero at the time of the fire of 64 CE, Tacitus says that they were convicted, ‘not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind (odio humani generis).’ This refers to the Christians’ contumacious refusal to worship any god but their own, an exclusiveness described by the Greeks as ‘atheism’ and which was seen by the Romans as a direct threat to the ordo pax deorum and to their religious, civic and domestic institutions” (2).
Pliny reacted similarly to the spread of the church: “Although Pliny makes no explicit comment about the effect of conversion on family ties, he does express a concern at the rapid spread of the cult among persons both young and old, both men and women, among persons of varying social status, and among the rural districts as well as in the city. Such categories have an obvious household dimension; and it is clear that Pliny sees himself as a guardian of traditional loyalties in the domestic as well as in the political and cultic sphere” (2-3).
It might seem that this is another of many Roman calumnies against the early church, similar to charges of atheism, incest, and cannibalism. But, as Barton notes, that isn’t the whole story. Jesus Himself is the source of this ambivalence toward family ties. He argues that “the implications of discipleship for family ties are a major concern in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. In particular, it will be seen that discipleship of Jesus poses a threat to family and household ties, since it involves the disciple—every disciple—in a quite fundamental transfer of primary allegiance and commitment. This is something which is recognized by the earliest evangelist, Mark, and is taken up in his all-pervasive passion christology and his vision of cross-bearing discipleship. It is something which is confirmed by the testimony of Matthew also: for Matthew not only takes over (and modifies) the Marcan material, but also expands it considerably by the incorporation of additional Jesus tradition, in such a way that the family-ties motif serves Matthew’s concern to convey the primary reality of the kingdom of heaven, the authority of Jesus’ call to mission, the cost of missionary discipleship, and the meaning of membership of the Christian brotherhood now that the break with the synagogue is taking place” (20).
Summarizing Mark’s treatment of this theme, Barton writes, “Jesus brought into being a new community based, not on ties of blood and heredity, but a voluntary association, open in a quite novel way to anyone who repents, believes in the gospel (1.15), and does the will of God (3.35). Jesus’ own family were blind to what God was doing in him and attempted to restrain him. Even worse, scribes from Jerusalem sought to undermine his divine authority by accusing him of demonic possession. For Mark’s reader, the message is that the familial and official opposition experienced by Jesus is to be the expectation of members of Jesus’ new family, as well” (85).
No wonder Christianity spooked Tacitus.