As Christians around the world enter the holiest weekend of the year, non-Christians as well should be grateful for the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As I show in my book, Christianity and the World: Essays Philosophical, Historical, and Cultural (Stairway Press 2017), there isn’t a facet of 21st century human life, particularly life in Western civilization, that doesn’t bear the impress of the religion that has informed the collective consciousness of European peoples for the last two millennia.
As the Reverend D. James Kennedy puts it, Jesus of Nazareth is “the greatest man who ever lived” and “has changed virtually every aspect of human life [.]” He adds that “its humble origins” aside, “the Church has made more changes on earth for the good than any other movement or force in history.”
This is undeniably true.
Rodney Stark is a sociologist of religion who informs us that in the Greco-Roman period into which Jesus entered, it was “legal” and “morally accepted…by all social classes” for parents to abandon “unwanted female infants and deformed male infants [.]” It was also endemic. No more than six of 600 families reared more than one daughter.
Stark alludes to a letter written from a Greek man to his pregnant wife in which the man directs his wife to “take good care of our baby son” until he returns home. However, if she gives birth to a girl, then she is to “discard it.”
That throughout the Roman Empire there were as many as 140 males for every 100 females reveals just how pervasive were the practices of infanticide and abortion vis-à-vis girls.
Things weren’t much better for women in Athens. It is worth quoting Stark at length:
"Girls received little or no education. Typically, Athenian females were married at puberty and often before. Under Athenian law a woman was classified as a child, regardless of age, and therefore was the legal property of some man at all stages of in her life. Males could divorce by simply ordering a wife out of the household. Moreover, if a woman was seduced or raped, her husband was legally compelled to divorce her. If a woman wanted a divorce, she had to have her father or some other man bring her case before a judge. Finally, Athenian women could own property, but control of the property was always vested in the male to whom she ‘belonged.’”
Christianity, in glaring contrast, proscribed abortion and infanticide for all human beings, a move that accounts for the precipitously lower female mortality rate than that which existed in the pagan world. And Christianity’s transformation of marriage into a sacrament—“So they are no longer two, but one flesh,” as Jesus said—supplies history with the most resounding affirmation of the moral equality of men and women that hadn’t been seen before or since.
Widows too benefited greatly from Christianity. In the classical world widows faced harsh legal and social sanctions if they waited more than a couple of years to remarry. If a widow was wealthy, her resources would come under the ownership of her new husband. Christians, though, respected widowhood. And they didn’t just talk the talk: Affluent widows were permitted to keep their inheritances while the church community took care of those who were of more modest means.
Anthony Esolen summarizes the Christian view of women. Christians, he tells us, “did not expose baby girls (or boys, either). They did not divorce their wives. They shunned sexual practices that put them and their spouses at risk. They honored women who defied emperors, centurions and soldiers to witness to the faith.”
The earliest Christian church consisted of as many, if not slightly more, women than it did men, a fact that earned for it the contempt of Romans who regarded it as “a religion for women.”
Of course, it is not just women whose lot in the world had been immeasurably improved courtesy of the emergence of Christianity. So too had that of children been elevated. While it was especially common for ancients to abandon and/or directly kill female infants, male children, specifically those who were born with deformities of one sort or other, were also frequently left to die. And those children who made it beyond infancy remained wholly at the mercies of their parents.
In Rome, for instance, the paterfamilias, the father of the household, possessed near total authority over the life and limb of the members of his family. At one juncture, it was lawful for him to even kill his children. The annals of Roman history contain stories of men like Torquatus (“The Man with the Neck Chain”) and Lucius Junius Brutus, men who ordered the deaths of their adult sons who defied orders in battle and who were regarded as heroes.
The parent-child relationship was conceived quite differently within the Christian vision. The world’s first orphanages, nurseries, and foundling homes arose courtesy of Christians. From its inception, Christianity forbade child abandonment, infanticide, and abortion. It even proscribed birth control. Christians saw themselves as commissioned to attend to the poor and the needy—irrespectively of age.
In the medieval era, every parish town eventually had a set of arrangements that made provisions for orphans, and in 18th century England, a devout, seafaring Christian philanthropist by the name of Thomas Coram established the first foundling hospital, a home devised for the purpose of the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted children.” It was also during the 18th century that Ursuline nuns founded the first “orphan asylum” in North America.
That children—all children—are entitled to an education is also an idea unique to Christianity. In the United States, for example, Catholic nuns have rightly been recognized as “pioneers” in education and “the country’s first professional elementary school teachers,” and the Framers of the Constitution were unequivocal in expressing their belief that elementary schools were needed to supply to children an education in the Christian prerequisites for ordered liberty.
For certain, despite all of the nonsense regarding the alleged “oppression” of Christianity espoused by its contemporary enemies, the lives of women and children have been improved unimaginably from what they were in a pre-Christian universe. These are two critical ways in which the entrance of Jesus into world history fundamentally changed the course of that history.
In future articles, I will reveal other respects in which He dramatically changed the world for the better.