Christianity in Ancient Rome

The First Three Centuries

Bernard Green (2010)


Bernard Green bases his book on lectures he gave at Oxford University over several years.  However, he comes to his subject as a Benedictine monk of the Ampleforth monastic community. These two facts bring a richness or a tone that is, yes, academically faithful yet, at the same time, an insider’s point of view, a Judeo-Christian empathy not often experienced in academic articles.  The combination makes this a very readable text for any non-historian as for anyone who is not a scholar.


Green divides his overview into 5 segments that flow seamlessly together: Origins, Community, Persecution, Catacombs and Constantine.

The first segment traces the coming of Jewish people to Rome, including Peter and Paul; the brief time Christians were mostly Jewish immigrants; the growth of the infant Christian community through the influx of gentiles and the split that developed between the two faiths.

The second segment looks at the unfolding of the question of orthodoxy versus heresy as the now-gentile community worked to clarify within itself how Christians were to live and worship without the Jewish Law to guide them. They also had to clarify core beliefs and interpretations: who was Christ? How did he relate to God the Father, etc. The infant church could only feel her way to answers. Each ‘doctrine,’ every idea put forth divided the church, creating losers and winners and with many leaders regularly switching sides. As well, there was lots of physical violence and death reeked by one Christian in power upon another. Orthodoxy is only and always the voice of the winner.

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The third segment focuses again on the relationship of the Christian community with the political powers that were Rome. Christians were persecuted because they would not accommodate their understanding of God with that of the Roman state. Christianity was therefore an unacceptable challenge to the state. Official and legal attitudes towards Christians were ambiguous at best. But Christianity had no national identity or laws. However they avoided the sacrifices made to ensure Rome’s right relationship with the Roman goddesses and gods and that was the dilemma for the authorities. If someone did not do their civic/religious duty to ensure the city’s right relationship with the Holy, the city and empire’s very life, was at stake. To be a Christian was to commit civil treason and thus Christians were putting the entire city and empire at highest risk. Natural disasters, military defeat, and political upheaval, economic failures were the results. Of course Christians were persecuted –everyone’s life depended upon rightful persecuted. The real question is why the Romans did not persecute Christians far more.

The segment on the Catacombs is a must read! Being buried near one another or near a martyr was a new thought for the Empire. Further, the earliest Christian art is that of the catacombs. It shows the extent to which the infant church accommodated itself to the Roman religious devotion all around. Far more names were non-biblical, for example. The catacomb inscriptions number some 40,000. About ¾ of a million people (not all Christian!) were buried there, that is set, to sleep there until Christ’s return. Belief in resurrection shaped everything the earliest Christians thought and believed.

The final segment “Constantine” covers the Great Persecution interwoven with the gradual dissolution of the Tetrarchy at the helm of the city and empire. The Christian church emerged from it bruised, shaken and very divided. The wounded church gratefully and humbly received Constantine’s lavish basilicas.

The author sums up the early Christian experience this way:

The second century had seen Christians struggling to define what Christianity was [and was not]. The third century was the age they learned how to live in the pagan city. The fourth century would be the age when Christian learned how to make the city Christian….A tightly-knit community can have long memories.” (238)




In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, I wonder if we have yet learned any of the many lessons from the first three centuries.

Of course, if we do not know our faith's history well, we are condemned to repeat it………



Spirit into Sound   The Magic of Music

Mickey Hart and Fredric Lieberman, 1999


Mickey Hart was the drummer for the Grateful Dead for a number of years. But he wanted to understand drumming at a much deeper, spiritual level. So began his long personal quest which is  described  in earlier books.  In Spirit into Sound, he and composer Lieberman, offer a wide variety of quota tions and sayings that he and Lieberman came across while writing Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum.


The dedication of this book is interesting.  Mickey  names first of all his mother who was his first drum teacher and then drummers like Hamza El-Din, and mythologists like Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith and various friends of the 'Zone.'  Fred names John Cage, Yoko One and Charles Seeger et al  "whose love of learning was infectious, and whose dedication to scholarship, inspiring" (4). At a time like ours when most people see universities as a ticket to a job, statements like this are so welcomed and life-giving. His preface certainly reflects his attitude. 

God is Sound

God is Sound

The many quotations the writers share with us are divided into four sections: Music and Musicians, Music and Society: The Global Tuning Fork, Music and Spirit and fourthly, Music and the Cosmos: The Sound of God. I jumped first to the fourth section and have savored its brief yet poignant quotations and personal comments over and over again.  Like, " 'God is Sound,'....the original one, the sustaining one, the source of all cosmic and human energy." (164). Now, that's an image of God I am drawn to and a God with whom I could yearn to commune.  Or, "music becomes a new language, the language of God."


The little book concludes with an Epilogue that is equally insightful as all of the citations.  It begins "The ancient world knew well the many powers of music..In modern Western civilization, music has become a commodity." (194)  Our civilization is paying an enormous price for allowing music to change that way. May our drumming -alone and in our groups- help reverse such a crass and shameful change.



The Way of the Pulse

John Diamond, M.D. 1999


A medical doctor of both complementary and modern medicine and of psychiatry, John Diamond turns, in this text, to music and, in particular, to drumming. Throughout his medical practice, the author came to appreciate more and more the "Life Energy" of each patient.  So, for example, instead of emphasizing the diagnosis of his patients, he focused as well on their Creativity as a way to health and wholeness. He now encourages anyone  who comes to him seeking to improve their lives to find the Way of the Pulse through drumming!

These are some pretty familiar ideas for our drum groups. The healing side of drumming has always been important to Layne and over the years she has taught her share of medical personnel, including doctors. In this book, John uses drumming as a metaphor for the Pulse of life and the joy and love that result in our finding it. And he has written meditation- like brief pieces with lots of white space to encourage a slow, thoughtful and gentle reading.

Here are some of his words which will doubtlessly resonate with any drummer in our groups:


The drum takes us back to the womb, to the world of of all instruments, the drum is the most basic, the most archaic and     (potentially) the most loving. (9)

The drummer is a sculptor, fashioning in sound the particular pulse forms of each piece. (14)

A pulse rate of sixty per minute is not one per second, but sixty measured over a minute. (29)

Feel the soul of your drum. Go into it. Every instrument is different -a unique soul, waiting to be invited to sing.  (77)

    My only 'lament' about this little book is that the writer did not know the Biblical frame drum, the drum played for Holy Presence, worship and pastoral care.  He is referring, instead, to a modern drum set. If he had learned to play the Biblical frame drum instead, all his thoughts would go even deeper






    Music and Sound in the Healing Arts:

     an energy approach

    Dr. John Beaulieu (1987, 1995) 

    Yes, this is an older book.  Yet the good news is that you can purchase a copy second hand and at a great price.  The book is worth it!  

    The author is a major innovator in the field of sound therapy and healing and the "groundbreaking" in this book. He begins it with the statement that "music is the appreciation of sound. All sounds are potentially music" (13). 

    So, even as a beginner,  the sound of your drum is already music!  

    Biblical drumming, as we study and practice it, lets us experience how music has the power to bypass our intellectual control of our perceptions. A frame drummer often over-thinks the pattern she is attempting, or the stepping, or the pulse. Yet once she softens, listens and lets herself feel the pulse, she can play that pattern. As long as her intellect is the only aspect of her being that she is using,  she will not feel the pulse, the pattern, the rhythm and will not be able to play it. Trust me!  I have been there and ever so often go there when I am pushing my limits.

    What we listen to we can become! 

    What we listen to we can become! 

    Beaulieu sums up the reality of  this fact simply saying that "we can actually become the music," (14) because "through listening, we have the ability to seek out and enter sound." (15)  Our whole body resonates with the sounds we listen to. We can become the music we listen to.

    This ability (that  we all have) results from a huge shift in humanity's perception of reality. Once we valued the mind over the body.  But now we have learned that life just isn't that way:  As the writer cites  Fritjof Capra, "the universe is no longer seen as a machine made up of a multitude of objects, but rather as a harmonious 'organic' whole whose parts are only defined through their interrelations." (22) Ancient musicians, doctors and philosophers knew it.. In Beaulieu's own words, he expresses it this way , "Once I was able to let go of the idea that spirit and body were separate, the writings of these ancient doctors began to make sense....their insights can help create a new model for living today." (8)

    Just how far Beaulieu has developed this model is evident in his website -






    Holy Misogyny

    Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter

    April D. DeConnick   2011

    When the author’s son was 5 years old, he asked, “Mom, where is Lady God?” This book is his  mother’s skilled and caring reply, although she clarifies this book is waiting, “until he is old enough to understand the answers” to his question. (xiii)


    The author is the professor of Biblical studies in Rice University and her chapter titles reflect this specialization. They are evoking and engaging. Some examples follow:  Where did God the mother go? Why was the spirit neutered? Did Jesus think sex is a sin? Did Paul silence women? Because the Bible tells us so?


    In each chapter she researches every available ancient text on the subject and includes a side bar that she calls “Digging Deeper.” The side bar includes comments on a question emerging from her exploration and further readings are suggested. One example is from a  chapter on marriage, where “Digging Deeper” asks “A male woman?"  The reader is invited to explore  a beautiful and curious ancient mosaic.


    Two conclusions are very clear by the end of this careful, thorough study. First,  it was a significant loss, and a great tragedy, that Christianity lost sight of the female aspect of God (2). We and our Christian faith today  are all the poorer for it .



    The second conclusion is the result of this loss.  A “bogus, yet sacralized, representation” (147) of church history controls women today. This bogus representation also controls the men of our day, our children, our cultural, religious, and political developments, our social structures, our family dynamics -and a whole lot more!. As the author rightfully documents in her final section, this 'sacralized' control is  not only in the Roman Catholic tradition but in too many other denominations and religious traditions as well.


    In the Iron Age, men knew that only women could bleed repeatedly and not die; they knew that only women could give birth. For these reasons, the female body was held in high regard, an image of the divine.


    Thus, women were the link between the family, village, and God, between humanity and divinity. It was the woman’s vocational responsibility to maintain a faithful, healthy relationship with the Holy.



    On this one relationship depended all of life: the sowing, harvesting and processing enough food, the surviving of endless wars, the birthing and raising of enough children, the healing from illness and injury, the times of joy and hope…..yes, all of life and all of death. That is why the frame drum was so significant: it enable the woman to maintain her deep spiritual life and the spiritual well-being of the family and village as she prayed, made offerings and worshiped at her home shrine and at the village shrine.


    Joshua Michael (Creative Commons PD)

    Joshua Michael (Creative Commons PD)

    The woman had this essential vocation because of her society's valuing of the female body. Many ancient traditions shared the same value of women. Tragically, the same cannot be said for early Christianity and is not the case in Christian faith today. Biblical interpretation, theology, church history, denominational policies or beliefs and much more have all unfolded through the lens of a devalued female body. As the author writes, “the crux of the matter is [still] the female body itself.”(147)







    Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries

    Deborah F. Sawyer, 1996, digital 2004

    Three parts make up this text:  a) wmen's daily and social lives in ancient Rome, Judaism and  earliest Christianity;  b) women's religious lives in narratives of ancient Greece and Rome; and c) religion and gender.  The author teaches "Women and Religion"  at Lancaster University and so this book is a rich, deep banquet.

    Goddess Cybele holding her sacred frame drum and her libation bowl

    Goddess Cybele holding her sacred frame drum and her libation bowl

      Sawyer challenges us with  two excellent  questions. Are women sisters in Christ? or only daughters of Eve? And, instead of  having fixed ideas  about what  'woman' is and is not, what happens when we accept a fluid definition of 'woman,' an understanding that is  always debatable, not pre-defined? 

    The ideal 'woman' in ancient Greece was fixed: she  belonged in the kitchen and inner world of her house, and only there. Her husband and, in time, her sons went outside, dined with friends, had political power, and worked beyond the walls of their home.  Ancient Roman society went through a number of changes in their understanding of 'woman.' At the time of the first Christians,  Roman women could exercise a great deal of public and political power.  Both of these streams of thought worked for and against the place of a woman in earliest Christianity until its institutionalization.

     Judaism brought a third stream into that current of thought. This stream carried within its story a long agrarian history where women were the key portal to the Holy. Their religious role was absolutely essential for the very life of the household and its tiny village. Yet this agrarian life evolved  into small towns like Jerusalem and into cities like Rome. At the time of the earliest Christians, Judaism was in transition adjusting  to the events of history such as the destruction of the temple and the changes that came with urban living.

      In addition to emerging with the differences of these three streams, Christianity emerged in an Empire, "born in its midst and destined to determine the identity of that Empire" (41). Questions, discussions and disagreements marked every Christian's thinking, brought them together and split them apart. The understanding of 'woman' was necessarily front and centre and, definitely not pre-fixed.  And as the archeologist's do their scholarly work today, we can discern between  texts written about women by men of that era and the evidence we now have of the women's actual lives. 

    Today, we are not the era of global exploration; that was Sir Francis Drake's time We are not moving through the industrial revolution; that was Dickens' time.  We are not the society shaped by Al Capone and  Winston Churchill. Our setting is one of  shifting, sorting and seeking as was that of the earliest Christians.  Today women are shaping religion for themselves in every denomination. Let us not limit our thinking with one vision of 'woman'.  Eve is cleansed "of the world's sinful conscience, and can be seen  as a means of [new and faithful] enlightenment" (159).




    Frame Drums in the Medieval Iberian Peninsula

    by Mauricio Molina, 2006
    (available through ProQuest  &  Edition Reichenberger)


    What a tremendous  find this is!

    Imagine: our humble frame drums are the subject of a doctoral degree granted by The City University of New York!  

    A list of 72 illustrations of frame drumming was provided in the thesis but these not included in the ProQuest edition. Some of these illustrations we know of but many, many of his 'finds'  are new to me.

    At least, I know what to suggest should any of you be going to Spain or Portugal! I have a 4 page list to send you before you leave and to search for and study in the near future.

    Even without the illustrations, I read this thesis with great interest.

    Molina begins with a brief overview of the frame drum in antiquity and its uses there in both sacred (in temples, worship, religious processions, pilgrimages and sacred dances) and secular (social gatherings, etc) realms. He acknowledges the grain sieve as the origin of the frame drum and points out that in parts of North Africa, the word for 'sieve' was used specifically as the word for 'frame drum.'


    He summarizes the drum's roles in Greco-Roman contexts and Christian antiquity. Highlights of this chapter include:

    • how preference was given to the round frame drum, occasionally with skin of both sides of the drum, although there are many instances of the square and rectangular frame drums whose tone would not be as resonant and rich as that of a round drum;


    • the writer's statement that "Since musical instruments, particularly the frame drums, had been fundamental elements of religious rituals for centuries, the new devotees of Christianity probably had the propensity to incorporate them into their new Christian worship out of tradition, even after their repudiation by the Christian leaders."
    •  the early Church Fathers suggestion that a capella singing of the Psalms could replace the frame drumming in worship .

    The church authorities' problem was that the frame drum appears so frequently in Scripture at key religious moments in Israelite life. Could church authorities explain their statements in a positive way? Mostly, they decided that the drum was a symbol of the old religious order and thus had to be set aside for the new religious order of the Christian Church.

    However,  the frame drum took on even more interesting symbolism as the years went by.  Made of wood and stretched skin the drum came to symbolize the death of our flesh and the believers' self giving or self renunciation. By the year 1000, Bruno of Cologne  even went so far as to say that because the frame drum symbolizes the mortification of our flesh, its sound is "a sweet song dedicated to the Lord." Hmmmm.

    Further, because the skin of the drum is nailed to the wood, the frame drum became the symbol of the death of Christ who was nailed to the wooden cross. Our drum was a symbol of Christ on the cross! 100 years after Bruno of Cologne, Rupert of Deutz wrote: "our [emphasis mine] David [that is, Jesus] played the frame drum as he hung from the cross." So,  over time, our drum became the symbol of the forgiveness of human sins as well as ancient reverence, worship, and piety,then of Jesus Christ, and of divine justice. How wonderful is that?!

    In the Iberian Peninsula, frame drumming was deeply influenced by the Arab culture and  today shares patterns and rhythms with modern North African frame drums. Thus the Iberian drum tradition is closer to the frame drum of ancient Palestine than frame drumming of Europe or North America. Even when other parts of Europe abandoned the  frame drum as an instrument of our worship practices and our faith,  the frame drum continued to be used by medieval Iberian Christian, Jewish and Muslim women for religious reasons. Molina explores what these drums were likely made of, how they might have been played, how they were manipulated for misogynist and anti-Semitic purposes,  the social functions of the drum, when they were played for planting, harvesting, funerals, weddings, baptisms, and circumcisions. The frame drums were also played to welcome hajj pilgrims home from Mecca, and to mark military battles won.  All of this very interesting: so much of the ancient frame drum continued right through medieval Iberia and some of that into our own day!


     The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings

    Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, 1989

    This is a book well worth finding and reading -carefully .

    Although its title would seem to not be our focus as Biblical drummers, this text helped me most, of all texts I've read, to cherish and to cultivate the spiritual depth of our frame drumming.  Written by Yaya Diallo and translated and edited by Mitchel Hall, it is the work of two deep spiritually minded men. It opens us to the Minianka of Mali, their daily life, their ancestors, their celebrations, their educating of youth, their  view of human life and of the divine.

    Mali  was Yaya Diallo's first home so he opens that rich view from the inside, with an alert and perceptive mind. Musicians in his village live up to the highest moral standards because of the power entrusted to them through music. They are the people of knowledge for the village, "the voice of the man who knows through the drum"  (3). Musicians are observers who watch for and experience the 'invisible' village. They watch for the significance of small gestures and large, and perceive the inner aspects and struggles of individuals and of the village  (99); they are also responsible for the religious beliefs of the people, the history of each family and of the spirits, trees and animals (101).

    Here is a taste of how the author's people value drumming:

    • "a technically skilled player can impress a lot of listeners without touching on what is deepest...."  103
    • "Rapid playing ...represents only a stage through which a musician passes." 103
    • "Music is not in our blood; we need to put it there through  practice and training." 104
    • "I find the musicians here [in Canada- Yaya Diallo lives in Montreal] not conscious enough of the invisible effects of their music... ."  117
    • "Once the musician has played the music, he commits it to memory through inner listening and visualization." 137
    • "[Drumming is] my nature, not ...talent." 185
    • "When you are sincerely playing the drums are in touch with very deep currents of reality. You drum your knowledge...The music emanates the truth you feel and know." 199
    • "Each instrument is a universe to be discovered each day..." 199


    Woven in and around drum wisdom like this is the reader's personal visit with Yaya Diallo's family and neighbours, his teachers, his very life in his natal village. The reader sees and feels how drums enable the daily labour required for the very life of the village. The reader hears the drums played 3 days and 3 nights with no breaks (except to re-heat your drum when it softens too much from the playing), no solos, no improvisations when someone dies. The reader lives with the village and so comes to look at drums and our frame drumming from an entirely new spiritual perspective.


    Patakin, World Tales of Drums and Drummers

    Nina Jaffe,  1994 & 2001


    Nina Jaffe is an award winning professor, writer, and percussion player. Her academic expertise is world folklore. So, this is an unusual book and CD. The CD provides an oral telling of the book. This is a very helpful addition as the speaker, Nina Jaffe, speaks and plays the patterns shared in the text and then goes on to tell each story.

    Instead of a writer’s drum techniques or a drummer’s autobiography or a focus on the spirituality of drumming, Nina Jaffe takes the reader into the world of oral tradition. This is a marvelous world. Life is not linear. All is possible. All is metaphorical for today’s deep questions. Learning comes in unexpected ways.

    The writer selected the stories from all five continents. It is a delight to let yourself be transported into them.  

    Of special interest to readers of this website is the chapter entitled “Jewish / Biblical Legend.” Layne Redmond’s book provides the scholarly details. Nina Jaffe supports Layne’s research acknowledging that the tar is played throughout the Middle East, that it comes from ancient kingdoms like Mesopotamia, and that mostly women played them as part of temple rituals. Jaffe also acknowledges that the rhythms heard today in the Middle East may well be very similar to those of the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians.

    After  introductory comments, Jaffe shares the story of Miriam from Miriam’s point of view when the ancient Hebrews were fleeing Egypt, crossing Red Sea with Moses, Aaron and all the people.  The version in Patakin follows the biblical account while bringing that terse version truly alive. With the CD, we hear Miriam’s stream of consciousness as she prepares to leave her slave house. And we hear how central the people’s voices were - rising higher than even Moses’ uplifted staff;  and only then did the waters part.

    Two wonderfully revealing details come on the last page. When the Hebrew people are safe on the other side of the sea and they see the Egyptians carried off by the roiling waters, Miriam almost begins to sing again. Almost. But prophetess that she is, she hears within her self the Holy Voice challenging her joy while others of God’s children are drowning. Ouch! Who is drowning today?

    A Miriam cup with jingles

    A Miriam cup with jingles

    In the last paragraph of the chapter, we learn the frame drum is now called tof  Miriam. Each time someone hears a tof Miriam play, powerful memories can flood back of Miriam's days so long ago, especially during the annual Passover celebration. The writer thus brings Miriam fully into contemporary Passover celebrations where, in many homes, Miriam’s cup is set on the festive table, alongside Elijah’s.

    These stories are suitable for reading during a Sunday School class, or for sermon illustration, personal meditation and group discussions.   However, most of all the telling of this Jewish/Biblical Legend speaks loudly for all tof and frame drummers today.

    Let us all listen for Miriam!