Photo by Tony Cece

Monday, September 9, 2013

Roman Holiday: Students Experience Early Christian History

School of Divinity student David Hunter
poses in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Photo courtesy of David Hunter
By Amanda Morad
August 29, 2013

Regent University students spend their summers in all kinds of places, embarking on all kinds of exciting adventures. This July, the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) sponsored a group of 12 students who spent seven days in Rome exploring early Christianity.

"The [point] of this trip is to ask this big question: what was it about early Christians that they were able to go to the heart of the beast, the Roman Empire, and in the midst of extraordinary persecution and challenges were able not only to survive and thrive, but to ultimately overcome the whole empire?" said Dr. Corné Bekker, professor in CAS and the trip's leader.

Looking at the first 300 years of the Christian Church, the team visited multiple historic sites each day, taking in the ancient past first-hand as they discussed how the early Christians lived.

"We would look at issues such as, how did the early Christians view truth? How did they consider life? What were their beliefs about death? How did they transmit their message? How did they organize churches?" Bekker said. He conducted onsite lectures and led group discussions at each location, up to four a day.

Sites included the burial place of the Apostle Paul; the Catacombs; Circus Maximus and the Stadium of Hadrian, where early Christians were martyred; the Pantheon, Coliseum and Roman Forum; and the prison where both Apostles Paul and Peter were kept before they were killed.

The group stayed in the historically-significant area of Trasevere, now a wealthy and thriving sector, but once a very poor part of the city where Jews and early Christians lived. On this world stage where so much of the New Testament played out, students also had the option of taking courses for credit while on the trip.

"It's one thing to read, for instance, Ignatius of Antioch where he writes about his impending death," Bekker explained. "To stand on the historical site where this person died for their faith is something quite different." For School of Divinity student David Hunter, the visit to the Catacombs of San Calisto had the most impact. "The sheer number of burials there was humbling; to know that so many martyrs were buried in those underground tunnels was a tremendous faith boost," Hunter explained. "We learned that many of those early Church Christians worshiped in those same tombs—then we heard singing in the catacombs!

"We saw a Polish church celebrating mass and heard their singing voices ring through the tunnels, and it took me back to the first century when the early Church worshiped there as well. It was a spiritual and mysteriously enchanting experience."

The group of undergraduate, master's level and Ph.D. students trekked through 12-hour days, collecting experiences that will last them all a lifetime.

"Every day there was a particular event where students were able to consider what true Christianity meant in the context of this overwhelming presence of the Roman Empire," Bekker said. "The early Christians had literally no buildings, no power, no privilege, no prestige, no money, no wealth, but they had faith, and that ultimately is what overcame the Roman Empire; faith that taught these Christians not only how to live, but how to die."

Plans for future trips to Rome and other sites around the world that will enable students to further explore the foundations of their Christian faith are underway.

Learn more about the College of Arts & Sciences.

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