Christianity has frequently been at the forefront of major social movements, challenging accepted practices and inviting social transformation. Christian beliefs were essential in such dramatic movements as the 18th and 19th century abolitionists with their challenge of slavery, in the political formation of the United States which built itself upon a religious and philosophical critique of the divine right of kings, and in the push for public education with the common school movement following the second awakening in the early 1800s. In each of these, and in many other social movements, Christianity played a decisive role. In its early history, however, the pattern of Christianity and social movements was quite different.
 With each of these social movements from the last few centuries, reevaluation of Christian scripture and beliefs was employed to challenge dominant cultural mores and to demand change. This demand was possible because the society that was being challenged shared a devotion to common bodies of scripture, belief and theology. Each of these social movements occurred within a culture where Christianity was the dominant force, and where minority appeal put in terms of shared ideas could inspire radical change for individuals and for the culture as a whole.
 Christians did not hold such a dominant place in the first few centuries CE. They were not the majority, and held little real power in society until Constantine's reign (312-337 CE) at the earliest. They lived instead on the margins, first as varieties within early Judaism with apocalyptic and messianic emphases, and then, thanks to the missionary work of Paul and others, as small communities in many cities scattered throughout the Empire. The urban profile of early Christianity grew in the first centuries, and it is within the cities of the Roman Empire that Christianity experienced much of its early growth and where it was called upon to respond to societal needs.1
 The dominant culture of the day was Greco-Roman, and it is within this milieu that Christianity found its place and to which it made its appeal. Because early Christianity was a minority rather than a majority position, early Christianity can in its entirety be thought of as a social movement, with every practice that set Christians apart from the rest of Greco-Roman society a critique and challenge built upon their particular perspectives. The practices that set Christians apart, however, do not necessarily match up with what we might expect, particularly from the modern critiques that Christianity provides and the social movements that it later empowers. Christians for instance continued to be slave holders, and while there are examples of Christian individuals freeing their slaves, the general practice among Christians remained for many centuries that set forth by Paul and reiterated by Augustine of accepting slavery as a social institution.2 While slaves were active members of the early Christian churches, they attained a spiritual equality in the community that had little impact on their official status as slaves. Indeed far from challenging the institution of slavery, early Christians could employ 'slavery' as a positive metaphor to describe their new relationship with and obligations towards God.3 It is important to note that ancient slavery does not accord with our modern expectations of slavery. The lives of slaves varied greatly in antiquity. The extremes ranged from Cicero's relatively well-treated legal assistant Tiro and most of the Greek pedagogues to the short and miserable lives of slaves in mines and at the oars of ships.4 Social mobility was remarkably high in the Roman Empire, with many slaves able to hope to gain freedom within their lifetime. Particularly during turbulent and dramatic times such as those of Julius Caesar or Augustus, slaves could rise to attain significant power as freedmen.5 Nor, of course, was slavery linked primarily to ethnic designations, but rather resulted typically from military conquest or economic destitution. Slaves in the ancient world may have often had better lives than the poorer classes of free people. Still, it is striking that the early Christians offer little negative critique of this practice of treating humans as property, a practice that formed the economic basis upon which the whole of the Empire built itself.6
 Similarly, any notions of Christian equality seem to apply in limited ways to women. While women played important roles in many of the earliest Christian communities and their remarkable examples continue to inspire individuals up until modern times, Christian communities in general moved to reduce the role of women in leadership as early as the 2nd century CE. Already by the time of the Montanists, women filling prominent leadership roles was both remarkable and problematic in the eyes of what was emerging as Christian 'orthodoxy.' Where women did continue as leaders, it was typically within the rich variety of Christianity among groups like the Montanists and the Gnostics that did not ultimately win out. While the issue is far more complex, and the distinctions are important, it is probably simplest to observe that women acted in important roles throughout religious life in the Greco-Roman world. Jewish, Christian, and pagan women all made vital contributions to religious life, and the recovery of their voices in current scholarship is of immense value. However, despite early leadership roles, Christian women rarely enjoyed more freedoms than their other religious counterparts in the centuries that followed. Indeed, with the growing interpretation of Eve's sin as central to the Fall, with women cast as tempters in the ascetic struggle to control the desires of the body, and with salvation for women through child birth emphasized in contradistinction to virgin's betrothed to Christ, powerful Christian women were increasingly pushed to the margins by the emerging orthodoxy.7 With women, early Christians again appeared to miss an opportunity to challenge and transform their society, instead further entrenching and legitimizing the social inequalities of the ancient world.
 Nor was public education a major societal emphasis among the budding Christian communities. Public primary and secondary education was an important aspect of civic life and built largely upon the Greek model, which had been further adapted and codified by the Romans.8 Jewish education of the period was also constructed upon this Greek model and is likely connected to the early cultural influence of Hellenism. The major differences between the early stages of Greco-Roman and Jewish education were in the choices of texts that were employed to teach literacy and in the use of synagogues in place of gymnasia as loci of instruction.9 Early Christian education seems to have taken place primarily within the standard Greco-Roman schools.10 With advanced education that focused more heavily on textual interpretation, rhetoric, and philosophical schools, there were significant opportunities for variation. While Christians at the advanced levels did develop their own methods of interpretation and distinctive literary forms the debt to Greco-Roman approaches and styles of interpretation remains large throughout these early centuries. It is striking that as late as the 4th century CE prominent Christians were still being trained in the classical model of Greco-Roman education and attending even their advanced training alongside the great pagan minds of the day. It is only quite late, with the ban passed by Justinian (529 CE) forbidding pagans to teach, that Christians were forced to take on a more prominent role in education.11
 So what social differences actually did set early Christians apart? They clearly were distinctive, so much so that despite their small numbers Christians start appearing in Greco-Roman sources from the period even while they are still a very small minority. Setting aside some of the more common pagan critiques of Christians as immoral cannibals who were misanthropic subversives, we find Christians noted particularly for their sharing of possessions, extremes of self-restraint, disregard for death, treatment of one another as brothers and sisters, and care for the poor.12 The sharing of possessions provides one of the most intriguing social aspects of early Christianity. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus proclaimed a care for those in need that often took on economic dimensions. Within the canonical texts there are a number of memorable examples of the early communities collecting and sharing resources including the rather disturbing example of Ananias and his wife holding back proceeds from their property sale to their own demise (Acts 5:1-11).13 Extra-canonically, we find communities living with shared resources in the Didache. Early Agape feasts filled a role not just as a celebration of Christian community and beliefs but were feasts feeding the community. Describing Christians in his own day, Tertullian could boldly proclaim that Christians shared all things, noting their wives as the only significant exception. This distinctive practice of shared resources, which did represent a radical social movement built upon Christian beliefs, diminished in the later centuries. Already by the time Constantine is making Christianity a legitimate religion in the Roman Empire, the economic profile of Christian communities was far closer to our modern separations. This profoundly challenging economic aspect of early Christian social organization continues up to our present day but has been largely relegated to specialized communities such as monasteries.14
 Christian extremes of self-restraint and their disregard for death were also particularly noteworthy in the ancient world, if not unique.15 Virginity was held up as a virtue among Christians, particularly for early Christian women, while ascetic practices embodied more extreme versions of the self-restraint and denial to which all Christians were encouraged. Christian ascetics living lives of extreme renunciation in the Egyptian desert served as ideals of the Christian life - ideals that even Greco-Roman philosophers could find intriguing. Martyrs provided another ideal, and truly were the heroes of the early church to which Christians looked in admiration and whom pagans regarded with bafflement. Martyrs would only cede their place at the center of Christian life and self-conception with the removal of persecution in the 4th C. CE, to be partially replaced by the white martyrs of Christian ascetics and their slightly more restrained monastic counterparts. Martyrs remained though, firmly entrenched in the memory of the church, their feast days providing major occasions for local celebration and their relics consecrating nearly every important religious site. Martyrdom accounts preserve a window into this vital aspect of early Christian life. Indeed, few primary sources are as effective as martyrdoms in overwhelming modern readers through their visceral detail and in removing readers from their own context and placing them into a very different social and religious world view.16
 Another aspect that set Christians apart from their Greco-Roman contemporaries was their care for the poor. Christian care for the poor took many forms including providing food generally, and caring specifically for widows and orphans.17 Christians were also remarkable for burying the poor.18 This burial of the poor which is typically dealt with only in passing, is worth considering at some length because it offers useful insight into the social needs and preoccupations of Greco-Roman culture and the Christian response. With burial of the poor we again find ourselves on ground that is very different from our modern culture and expectations. Burial and care for the dead was of great importance throughout the ancient world.19 Indeed, burial was so important that the Egyptians, for instance, could lavish the wealth and labor of an entire nation for many years towards the burial of a single pharaoh. It is thanks to these cultural preoccupations that we have the remarkable monuments of the pyramids (roughly 3200-2800 BCE), and the extravagant grave goods of Tutankhamen (ca.1300 BCE) which are currently touring our country once again to the amazement of all who encounter them. It is striking to realize that these extravagant grave goods are only a rush job for a minor pharaoh who would otherwise have little remembrance in history. At the well-documented community of Deir el Medina where a small enclave of skilled workmen lived and labored on the Egyptian royal tombs, workmen risked significant reprimand to moonlight and lavish attention on their own tombs. Foremen from Deir el Medinaeven abused their power to force their work crews to beautify the private tombs they were building for themselves.20 The popular modern adage 'you can't take it with you' would have found little appeal in the ancient world, where the resources devoted to burials confound even our modern obsessions with accumulating unnecessary material possessions. Nor were the Egyptians alone in this preoccupation. The Egyptians were merely remarkable for their extreme concerns over proper burial, and for the wealth of resources that they could devote to the dead. Greeks exhibited similar concern for lavish grave goods, with the golden remains of the Mycenaen shaft graves (ca.1600-1500 BCE) prominently displayed at the National Museum in Athens providing a rich counterpoint to Egyptian remains (figures 1-3).
 While these particular examples are quite early relative to Christianity, the importance placed on burial, grave goods, and care for the dead persists throughout Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Sizeable burial monuments celebrated and lamented the lives of the deceased, often including in addition to any artistic elements lengthy inscriptions that detailed the lives of the dead in the words of the living. These monuments surrounded every ancient city, lining the roads to proclaim the stories of the dead to passersby in words and images. In the classical period these monuments are well exemplified by the Kerameikos at Athens and the numerous grave monuments that fill the first floor of the National Museum (figures 4 and 5). Even the simplest of ancient graves included grave goods, and much of what we have preserved and can infer about daily life is possible thanks to these remains. Grave objects provide a haunting reminder of the real individuals that peopled the ancient world, and it is hard to encounter such objects as the Fayum portraits or the grave remains of a child with its simple toys and not be moved (figure 6).
 While burials for pharaohs and kings were the concern of entire nations, for most individuals care for the dead depended on families. Care for the dead was one of the most fundamental aspects of filial piety and obligation. This familial duty is well expressed in the extreme with the dramatic and tragic events of the 6th C. BCE play Antigone, where young Antigone embarks upon a courageous and ultimately destructive challenge to Creon and the governing powers of Thebes to win proper burial for her treasonous brother. Among Egyptians the ceremony of the 'opening of the mouth' which was to be performed upon the statue of the deceased was similarly the duty of surviving family members. Romans also displayed due piety towards their ancestors and emphasized care for the deceased as an essential aspect of familial responsibility. It was the duty of family members to eulogize the dead and to evoke their sense of loss for all who heard.21 Among prominent families, masks made of wax (imagines) that preserved the features of ancestors were treasured possessions to be kept in household wooden shrines and brought out for paid actors to wear at familial funeral processions.22 Offerings also continued for the deceased long after burial. Particular festivals such as the Parentalia included remembrance of the dead, and the death day of individual family members was often remembered with a visit to the tomb and accompanied by offerings or a meal.23 Due honor towards ancestors particularly in the forms of the lares and penates was also at the center of domestic cult.24
 Concern for burial and care for the dead was a significant preoccupation throughout the ancient world. It also represented a significant urban problem and societal need. Despite the importance placed on familial responsibility, this critical stage of ancient life could not always be answered by family members alone, particularly in an increasingly cosmopolitan world with individuals often living far from their familial homes and among the poorer classes with limited resources. In light of such concerns, groups often banned together in the cities of the ancient world to form small collegia, or clubs. While these clubs formed around a range of issues including religious belief and practice, as dining clubs, or as trade organizations, many of them included in their bylaws great specificity about providing for proper burial of their members.25 These charters detail a range of concerns, but the lengthy treatments addressing burial and the sizeable amount of total funds allocated for this purpose clarifies the incredible importance they attached to the burial of their members in good standing.26 Early Christians share many features in common with these clubs, not least among them a concern for burial.27
 If Christians only cared for burying their own they would be very similar to these other clubs and the cultural expectations of the day, providing a social net in case families failed in their burial obligations. However, Christians provided for burial for the urban poor more generally, and do not seem to have limited this care solely to their own members.28 This care for burying others was particularly clear in the extremes, such as when plague struck a city and Christians cared for the sick but also for the burial of those afflicted.29 For an ancient world where the treatment of the dead mattered deeply this was no small issue. Indeed, so often when we think of the needs of the urban poor in relation to Christianity today we think of the needs of the living…for food, employment, healthcare, safety. But within the context of the ancient world Christian care for the dead responded to one of the most profoundly felt needs of the poor and represented a remarkable social movement in response to the surrounding culture.
 In Christian burial of the urban poor there are at least two interesting lessons. The first is that where Christianity has inspired social movements it has done so out of its beliefs but also in response to very particular cultural contexts. It is important to remember that these contexts change. While it is a mark of the strength of the Christian tradition(s) that it can respond to the specific societal needs of so many different contexts, it is important not to blur these distinct contexts in a desire to see simple continuity. The second lesson worth noting is the challenge and critique that this particular social aspect of the ancient world and early Christianity can offer to our own death-denying culture. The extremes of ancient emphasis on death, burial, and care for the dead are quite foreign to us today. While Christianity continues to try to integrate death as a critical life stage for both the community and individuals, Christianity does not fully challenge our current cultural obsession with denying and obscuring our own mortality.30 In a cultural context such as the United States in the twenty-first century, where a significant majority self-identify as Christians, this failure to fully connect death to our daily lives is puzzling. Our culture is saturated with false promises of immortality, whether in such forms as plastic surgery which attempts to deny the aging process or in improvements in medicine that hold out the tantalizing possibility of longer and longer lives of continued activity and virility. This denial of mortality and the aging process has important cultural and individual consequences. Our society is prone to marginalize the elderly rather than to revere them and incorporate them into family and community life, much to our own shame and loss. For individuals, failure to use death as a measure of life impoverishes the way we conceive of our lives on a daily basis. Where the good life is delineated so often by how much income one makes or the importance of one's job, the preoccupation with death in the ancient world offers an interesting curative to our this-worldly cultural focus. Early Christians not only cared for the dead, they incorporated the dead into their lives. The stories of the martyrs and their bloody deaths lovingly told offered a measure by which one tried to live life. Early Christians cherished and gazed upon the martyrs' physical remains with pious adoration. It is no accident that burial locations like the catacombs at Rome preserve for us such a rich visual expression of the life of early Christianity and that so many early churches were built upon sites of martyrdoms and upon martyrs' remains.
 In an ancient world preoccupied with death, Christians
incorporated their own blessed dead at the center of their lives.
Early Christians also responded by stepping outside of societal
expectations and the dominant culture by caring for the proper
burial of people who were not their own. In a modern world where
Christians are now responsible for the dominant culture this
emphasis on death and burial as an integral aspect of life and
social responsibility seems to have somehow been lost along the
way. While contexts can and must change and the strength of a
tradition is in part measured by its ability to respond to new
needs, one cannot help but wonder if something important has been
forgotten in this particular case and question how our own cultural
preoccupations and responses to the end of life will be viewed by
1 Wayne Meeks' The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) remains a highly instructive introduction to Christianity and its early placement in the life of Greco-Roman cities.
5 There are many examples of slaves rising during this period to positions of prominence. Near and dear to my heart, and my current dissertation work is Zoilos, an Augustan freedman who returns to his native city of Aphrodisias with significant wealth. Zoilos is commemorated in several inscriptions throughout the city for his significant funding of building activity. He is also granted a sizeable tomb with beautiful relief panels, many of which are preserved.
9 Marrou remains one of the best treatments of Jewish education in antiquity. H.I. Marrou. A History of Education in Antiquity, translated by George Lamb (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press,  c. 1956).
10 Despite the problems associated with doing so, particularly with the reverence payed to pagan idols, Tertullian describes Christians as attending pagan schools (De Idolatria 10).
11 There are important exceptions of Christians involved in education, especially at the more advanced levels. Origen and Clement are particularly prominent as heads of the school in Alexandria. The role of these teachers was particularly important in developing methods of reading and interpreting Christian and Jewish scripture, and in making sense of Christianity within the dominant Greco-Roman cultural language. However, even as late as the Life of Isidore, which describes the schooling and adventures of a young pagan who ultimately converts to Christianity, the school at Alexandria remained a hotbed for debate between pagan and Christian teachers and students. This ban of Justinian against pagan teachers is also typically connected to the closing of the school in Athens in 529 CE, a date that fits well with the archaeological evidence (see Alison Frantz).
13 Other examples of passages emphasizing sharing one's resources include Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 13.3 and Hebrews 13.16.
14 The issue of economics within the early churches is both fascinating and complex, and while this might serve as a brief introduction it is in no way complete. Economics are particularly closely tied to the running of the large Greco-Roman household (oikos), the structure of the polis, and the structural organization of early Christian communities. The topic is worthy of ongoing and sustained treatment that is not possible here. It is one of many aspects of early Christianity that warrants ongoing study and more than a few dissertations and monographs addressing its many aspects.
16 Many accounts are preserved and they are widely available. My personal favorites for martyrdom accounts would include those of Polycarp and Perpetua and Felicitas.
17 For care of widows and orphans see Hermas Similitudes 9, and Barnabas 20. For care for the poor generally with alms see 2 Clement 16.
18 Cf. Aristides' Apology 15.
19 There are many works which deal extensively with ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian attitudes towards death, burial and care for the dead. Among works on Greek attitudes see Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985); Ian Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Emily Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). For Roman and Christian times, see especially J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996) and A.C. Rush, Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1941).
20 For the workers at Deir el Medina see Morris BierBrier, The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs (American University in Cairo Press, 1989) and Leonard Lesko, ed. Pharaoh's Workers: The Villagers of Deir el Medina (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994).
21 There are many examples of the depth of loss felt by Greeks and Romans at the death of a loved one. Often formulaic, inscriptions on burial monuments are all the more poignant when they break from these forms to express the overwhelming grief, love, and loss felt with the death of a family member. More extended writings also remain such as those of Cicero in his personal writings which exhibit the rawness of his inconsolable grief at the death of Tullia.
22 This practice is well described in Polybius, History of the World 6.53-6.54.3.
23 For the Parentalia see H.H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 74-76. This festival particularly honored dead parents and included a visit to their tombs and simple offerings made by the family.
25 Politics could also provide a reason to form such groups. Roman authorities proved particularly concerned about the potential political dimensions of some of these groups and the possibility of treasonous cabals. We see these political concerns with such groups in many places including the Pliny/Trajan correspondence.
27 For a brief treatment of collegia and their relationship to and differences from early Christianity see Wayne Meeks' The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 77-80.
28 Concern for burying outsiders also seems to have been an issue for earlier Judaism. In Joshua, for instance, there is concern for burying both Israelites and non-Israelites (Joshua 8:29 and 10:26). Burial of the poor also seems to be an issue for contemporary Judaism, see Josephus' Apion 2.
29 In 252 CE, for instance, when Carthage was struck by a plague Cyprian called upon Christians to care for the sick and bury the dead.
30 The Greek Orthodox Church provides a fascinating
example of a modern Christian tradition that emphasizes death and
care for the dead much more strongly than its western counterparts.
Many elements more familiar from the ancient world persist. The
dead are incorporated much more clearly into the community. There
is also a specific time of remembrance and mourning for familial
survivors and the larger community. The ritual process of death and
care for the dead remain far more integrated and central aspects of
the religious tradition.
© January 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 1