Did Fake News Affect the Development of Christian Culture?

We hear a lot of fake news, big and small. It should be no surprise then that fake news has real world consequences. One recent example in the United States is the fake news surrounding vaccinations and the belief that they cause autism. As a result, unvaccinated children are getting the measles virus unnecessarily. Social media, for all its benefits exacerbated the spread of fake news. This is not to imply though, that fake news is new. One famous example occurred near the end of the 19th century when Mark Twain was declared, “dying in poverty” and rumors had spread about his death. Mark Twain responded with, “The report of my death was an exaggeration” in the New York journal and advertiser.

We should not expect ancient faith traditions, like Christianity, to be immune to fake news. It’s seems more likely that fake news would have a larger impact due to the difficulty of dispelling it. I don’t know what the ancient equivalent of “Snopes” might be, but I think it’s likely there wasn’t one. Christianity was, at least in some ways, disruptive to societal family norms. We can see this in 1 Corinthians 7:12-13,

“…if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.”

Paul recognizes that an unbelieving spouse may want to leave their believing wife or husband. This is understandable given the problems Christianity may have created within the family. Let’s talk about the problems that might arise from Christian practice. First off, religion in antiquity was more a public activity than a private one. Christian worship however, happened in people’s homes. Bringing worship into the private sphere. This put stress on marital relationships and on communities. It’s probably easy to imagine what kind of fake news might crop up in this situation.

Gossip like this probably abounded: What’s that guy doing, going to that woman’s house late at night? What do those Christians do over there in private? How come his wife doesn’t submit to her husband’s gods? Why don’t Christians worship in public, could they be fornicating over there? I hear they eat babies.

This isn’t to imply that promiscuity was not the norm for the greater Greco-Roman world, it was. Rather there were societal ideals that were held up and against groups that threaten the culture’s view of themselves and threatened traditional family structures. Early Christians, especially women, because of their position in an honor/shame society, could threaten this view. There is an interesting story titled, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” from the 2nd or early 3rd century. It depicts a young betrothed woman, named Thecla, who foregoes marriage to live an ascetic lifestyle. According to this story, Paul teaches her to remain celibate and she embraces the lifestyle to the chagrin of her family and future husband. In the story, Thecla’s mother is beside herself for what Paul has done to her, and the local community attempts to burn her alive as an example. While in the New Testament, Paul attacks asceticism, this story draws attention to how society might react to Christianity. In a letter to Trajan from Pliny the Younger, he mentions torturing Christians who refuse to deny their faith. As a result of the proceedings, accusations and an anonymous list of names surface intended on weeding out Christians. Both Pliny the Younger and Trajan, in his response, seem to doubt the trustworthiness of these accusations. They understood some of it was fake news. Despite that Piny still feels the need to torture some possible Christians to discover the truth. The fact that citizens were accusing people of being Christians, would undoubtedly have affected the Christian routine. Another example is an excerpt from Marcus Cornelius Fronto in the work, “Octavius” by a Christian named Minucius Felix in the early 3rd century. This excerpt attacked Christians for loving people too quickly, calling each other brother and sister, hiding in secret, and copulating in random unions. He calls it a religion of lusts. The fact that this takes place in the private space makes it worse because the private sphere was a place of protection for women and children. These types of accusations would put Christians in difficult social situations. If even a small amount of this is happening in the 1st century that could be the reason for passages like, Titus 2:7-8

“Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.”

The underlying issue may not be to stop specific inappropriate behaviors but rather to prevent outsiders from maligning God’s word and bringing increased scrutiny onto believers.

There is an interesting comparison, brought up by Margaret McDonald, in her book, “Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion; The Power of Hysterical Women.” McDonald compares the account of a 4th century Christian author named Epiphanius of Cyprus with Marcus Cornelius Fronto’s excerpt which we mentioned previously. Epiphanius attacks some enemy Christians by claiming that he was invited to sleep with men’s wives after feasting, and Christians ate their children. Are these accusations similar because both are trying to discredit an enemy group? Some of both Fronto’s excerpt and Epiphanius’ attack point to actual events, such as the agape feast, private sphere of worship, the presence of men, women, and children at worship but the extreme degree of sexual immorality read more like rumors and fake news.

1 Peter 3:1-2 may be another example of a scripture trying to avoid bad reputations and curtail fake news. Peter writes, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”

Women married to unbelieving husbands are obviously in a difficult position. What will her husband think of her because of how some people talk about Christianity? Peter instructs these women to be gentle, quiet, and not extravagant in their attire. His instructions coincide with the expected cultural norms for women. He says this so that their husbands might also become believers, but it also serves to protect Christians, especially Christian women, from the affect of fake news.

Paul and Peter are trying to help believers live a life of faith in such a way that it overcomes fake news and rumors. They apply the principles they see in Christ in such a way that unbelieving people in the Greco-Roman culture will find it appealing rather than destructive to traditional family values. The dangers of Fake News are real, and no belief system is immune from its effects. Especially in our own day, we can see how misinformation changes people’s behavior and puts people at risk. We should give people the benefit of the doubt rather than jump on the rumor band wagon. We hurt and malign people with fake news and the church is worse off for it.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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