This is the second part of a 13-episode German documentary mini-series, covering the history of Christianity from its beginnings to the modern-day. Although it’s a German production, the narration is in English. It was filmed at many different holy and historic sites. In this episode, the locations used are mostly throughout Rome, which gives a good frame of reference for those of us who haven’t been able to visit this part of the world.
Shackles of Power talks of the persecution of early Christians and tells the stories through a series of reenactments and using statues and paintings of this early time. The story is told of how these early martyrs helped Christianity survive when other beliefs around at the time did not. Early Christians were unwilling to take part in defending the Roman Empire, something that drew the wrath of those in power.
Despite having to be practiced behind closed doors in Rome, Christianity began to spread like wildfire in the ancient capital of 1,000,000 people where there were believed to be about 30,000 believers, a somewhat insignificant number. When scrolls were replaced by codex, essentially the first books, it made it easier for texts to be copied and distributed. By the end of the third century, it was estimated that ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Christian.
As Rome’s domination of the world began to waver, Christians were both embraced for the promises their belief offered and blamed for the fate about to befall the Empire. Christians were accused of conducting orgies and ritual child murders. When Decius became Emperor, he forced every citizen to make a declaration of faith and Christians were arrested for refusing to participate in public sacrifice enforced by sacrificial commissions. The sentence for those arrested was eventual death.
Many of the Christian images which developed during this time period are also talked about as a secret code that believers would know about, such as the fish, and the lettering ICTHS as symbols for Christ.
Early Christians had believed that the end of the world was imminent. However, as the centuries passed they had to learn how to live and many became soldiers in the Empire. The message that there was a better life after death landed on fertile ground with peasants and former slaves who were convinced to fight for Emperor Constantine who claimed to have seen a celestial apparition that was the monogram of Christ. This is what changed Christianity from an underground movement to a state religion.
Shackles of Power discusses why women were excluded from much of the modern texts. They played important roles in the early Christian faith, leading many to believe they were manipulated out of Biblical texts. The earliest copies of some of these texts show that some of the apostles in Rome were indeed women, but the names were later changed to be that of men.
2000 Years of Christianity is a historical examination of the Christian religion, not a validation or examination of the beliefs themselves. In Shackles of Power, a church in Rome is excavated underneath to give access to what is believed to be the home of one of the early believers of the faith. An early martyr’s own words are read of her time in prison prior to her death sentence because of her faith. This is using the physical and historic evidence to show the path Christianity has taken through the centuries, not just the legends that have grown around it.
Sometimes Shackles of Power does seem to get a bit lost in what it is trying to convey, as it goes off on a long tangent about locating the Ostia Church that Constantine had constructed. It’s five-minute sequence about the detection and archaeological excavation of the site. While it’s interesting, it could have been a lot shorter, especially considering each episode in this series is about forty minutes in length.
As I listened to all that the Christians were blamed for in the early days of the faith in Rome, it reminded me so much of what we hear now spewing forth from the very preachers who claim to represent this faith, often on national television and in the headlines of newspapers. Christians were blamed for droughts, earthquakes, civil war, epidemics, and just about every misfortune that occurred during the time. Thinking back to some of the venom I heard following Hurricane Katrina, it sounds all too similar.
I also found it interesting that it confirmed a belief I’ve long held that much that political and social structure dictated some of what is in the Bible. Literalists will not appreciate learning that the oldest texts, copied throughout the years, have sometimes been manipulated by the political and social structure of the time for those with their own agenda. Does this make my faith waver? No, not at all. But the evidence is given where it shows how a chapter in Romans listing names and the earliest texts pieced together in museums shows a feminine version of the name that appears in modern texts as decidedly masculine.
Friedrich Klutsch is the writer and director of the series. From what I can find about him, he’s been involved with a lot of religious documentaries in his native Germany.
I think Shackles of Power is a really great way to learn about the history of the faith, something that a lot of Christians really don’t know much about. Of course, the challenges to the Bible will upset Bible literalists. I was really fascinated to learn about the early history of my faith and separate legend from historical fact.
” Declaration – About the Papyrus collection and some of the information contained in it
” Catacombs – About the early Christian catacombs and the meeting rooms contained near the entrance. It is interesting to learn that there were no images of the cross at these early burial sites.
” Planetarium – This attempts to talk about what Constantine might have been seeing in the sky when he claimed to have had the celestial apparition. The explanation, although scientific, does give me pause to wonder how that particular configuration of stars and planets appeared just at that time.
” Book List
Previous episode of the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode I – From Jesus to Christ
Next episode of the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode III: Separate Ways