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Tales from the Catacombs

How Nero and other scoundrels actually helped the early Church

Funny and informative is the best way to describe this worthy book. A Church history scholar, Mike Aquilina is determined to wipe the dust from the past to make it accessible to the modern reader. He does so with particular aplomb in Villains of the Early Church (And How They Made Us Better Christians). Chapter by chapter, he tells the stories of well-known villains who betrayed or persecuted the Church (Judas, Nero) as well as lesser-known ones (Valentinus, Celsus). Aquilina describes a lively period, when doctrine was taken seriously even by the man in the street and declensions, conjugations and translations from Greek to Latin could spell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. You will also learn about Judas’s wife and the chickens who came back to life.

How Nero and other scoundrels actually helped the early Church

Why should we care about villains from so long ago? Do they have a message for us today?

Mike Aquilina: Mark Twain supposedly said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And there’s a pattern to its rhymes. In every generation, the Church faces “villains” — heretics within its ranks or persecutors outside. The early Church faced both and managed to triumph in spite of the challenges. In fact, I think it’s more accurate to say they triumphed because of the challenges. They show us how we should respond in our own day, and how we can profit from apparent setbacks.

Besides, everybody loves stories that have heroes and villains. The heroes in our story, the Church Fathers, were masters of rhetoric — and they aimed their fiercest insults at the villains of their time. It makes for fun and often funny reading.

I do think this is my funniest book. When I recorded the audio version, I laughed so hard at the jokes that we had to spend an extra day recording. I hope readers have as much fun, especially in the chapters on Nero and Nestorius, but also Simon Magus and Valentinus and …

The book cover has a striking portrait of indulgent, decadent Nero. Why tell the stories of non-Christians?

Mike Aquilina: The great African Christian Tertullian said it well in the first full Christian century: “The blood of martyrs is seed.” The Church thrives on adversity. We experience interior growth when we share in the lot of our Master, who was rejected, condemned, tortured, mocked, and declared a failure. St. Augustine was grateful to the heretics for shaking the Church out of its complacency and forcing the best minds to contemplate the mysteries and express them with greater clarity. Our enemies do us favors when they attack us most fiercely. They sharpen us. It’s easy to forget that when we’re suffering their attacks. History can be encouraging and instructive.

To tell a compelling tale, you weave together the canonical Gospels with the Apocrypha and pious legends. What will serious scholars think?

Mike Aquilina: Even the most critical scholars recognize the historical value of legendary material. The apocryphal gospels probably tell us little that is factual about the life of Jesus — but they reveal much about what later Christians thought about Jesus, the Apostles, and the early heretics and persecutors. They offer us a history of the mind at the time. For that reason alone, they’re extremely valuable.

Find out more at Villains of the Early Church (Emmaus Road).