Persecution in the Early Church
As the New Testament writers and others make clear the possibility of persecution was an everyday experience for many early Christians from the earliest, a condition which still persists in many places. This document considers how and why this occurs and why it ceased. Introduction All the major figures described by Luke in the Book of Acts, Peter, Stephen and Paul, came under trial – before both Jewish and Roman courts and none recanted. From the earliest time Christians were prepared to lay down their earthly lives rather than acknowledge anyone else as Lord in the place of their Savior Jesus.
The literal definition for ‘martyr’ is witness, but it soon acquired a new and more exalted meaning. Professor William Frend in his 2008 book ‘Martyrdom and Persecution in the early Church’ links it back to the Jewish mind, familiar with stories such as Daniel who refused to bow down except to God and with, in more recent times, the Maccabean revolt. His argument is that such ideas as the Christian concept of martyrdom could only spring from Jewish ideology.
But one has to consider that although the Church obviously had Jewish roots, it quickly gained a majority membership of those outside the Jewish fold. In the Message Bible, Acts 10 , we read the words of Peter:- It’s Gods own truth. Nothing could be plainer: God plays no favourites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from – if you wan t God and are ready to do as he says , the door is open. Frend also claims that such was their faith and devotion Christians not only accepted martyrdom, but actually welcomed it as a means of ensuring a more rapid access to heaven.
Hadn’t Jesus himself said ( Luke 6 v 22, 23) :- Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult You, and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. Reasons for persecution and the requirement that all conform to certain behavior are various – the need for political stability, lack of understanding, fear of the unknown, a threat to their trade, a perceived threat to accepted religious values among others.
For the purposes of this document the period covered is from the foundation of the church to the nationalisation of the church by Constantine in the early years of the fourth century, a period by which Christian ideas and standards had thoroughly pervaded society at all levels to such an extent that even in the 21st century there are still many countries in the world where standards are judged by Christian values even among those who do not share in its faith. Why and How Did Persecution Occur?
A number of factors need to be considered such as the background to the persecutions, and the reasons for them . The background is the Roman Empire with its very different thought patterns to those of the Christians which led to many misunderstandings. The lack of understanding was a case of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. Because of misunderstandings about the nature of the communion service rumours spread from about the time of Nero that the Christians practised cannibalism.
A letter, probably from the 2nd century, known as the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus attempts to explain Christianity – those who do not worship gods of metal. The writer describes them as looking down on the world and as distinct from Judaism and how by their language, clothing etc they do not distinguish themselves from the fellow citizens. He describes how they are insulted, but love all. In chapter 5 he says :- Those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. As far as the authorities were concerned persecution was not active in most instances i. e.
they did not go out to persecute people, but rather reacted to concerns. Judaism had been recognized as a legitimate religion ‘religio licita’ or legal entity in the time of Julius Caesar and so had obtained a privileged position under him and his successors It had even at one time been fashionable to take up the Jewish faith. At first Christians were accepted by the Romans as being members of a Jewish sect . Persecution came in the first instance from purely Jewish sources as recorded in the book o f Acts, but was seen by the Romans as mere infighting between rival factions.
Later, when the Empire was shaking on its foundations preserving all things Roman was felt to be important and those bought before the courts would first of all be asked to recant, that is to deny their faith. What they wanted of them according to Ittai Gradel was:- Not any specific belief, cosmology, reasoning or philosophy. Simply an action – Sacrifice …….. Sacrifice….. was the natural way to acknowledge the vastly superior power of the gods: sacrifice was the core element in divine worship.
When they did not comply retribution followed. There were three main periods of persecution:- 1) From the Ascension of Christ until the Great Fire of C. E. 64 for which Nero blamed the Christians 2) From then until 250 C. E. 3) From 251 C. E. until 313 C. E. This latter was under the emperorship of Decius who even had the then pope executed. So against the Christians was Decius that he is quoted as having said “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop in Rome.
” The first persecutions were sporadic and localized – a reaction to particular situations. Then they became more systematic as the rulers of the empire saw their values and power under threat. Persecutions Recorded in the Book of Acts In John 15 v 20 Jesus had explained to his followers:-If they persecuted me ; they will persecute you also. ’ and so it proved with incidents such as Peter and John being called before the Sanhedrin, ( Acts 4 and 5) ; the stoning of Stephen ( Acts 7) and in chapter 8 we read of the church being scattered because of the persecution.
The Jewish leaders were aware of how the Romans tolerated their practices because they were seen as relatively harmless and it made life simpler to ignore them, but the Sanhedrin also knew that if the authorities saw a threat things would change rapidly and they would no longer be able to continue as they were, leaders of society known by all for their piety – this self interest blinded them to how special Jesus really was. The incidents recorded in the book of Acts are just a few of the many instances record. There is another factor here – blasphemy.
This was much more important than a Western 21st century mind can conceive, a demeaning of the God of Israel. If the Jews really thought Jesus and his followers were blasphemous then they would have felt obliged to deal with the matter. The New Testament persecution was actually a positive move as far as the spreading of the gospel was concerned as wherever the followers of ‘The Way’ went they talked about the Saviour. The stories of Peter and Paul are examples of how, with the example of Christ before them and the hope of eternal life in heaven, even extreme persecution did not in any way deter them.
Rather, Acts 5 v 41,42 :- The apostle left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. Other Instances of Persecution Because of Belief There were of course many other acts of persecution beyond the pages of the scriptures. Christopher Bryan in his 2005 book ‘Render to Caesar’ quotes Esler, who when referring to the Book of Acts says :-
The general impression communicated by this politically sensitive material is that Jesus and his followers did not contravene Roman law and were therefore not a threat to the Empire. Instead the blame goes, at least in part, on the weakness of officials who bowed too readily to pressure from groups such as the Sanhedrin or the Ephesian mob. Often these were carried out in the name of officialdom of some kind as in the case of the Scillitan Martyrs. These were a group in Carthage ( North Africa) probably in July 180.
They state plainly that they pay heed to the emperor and even pray for him, but because they refused to give up Christianity they were executed. The record of their trial, originally in Latin, includes these words from the actual trial transcript:- Saturninus the proconsul read out the decree from the tablet: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda and the rest having confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, since after opportunity offered them of returning to the custom of the Romans they have obstinately persisted, it is determined that they be put to the sword.
Speratus said: We give thanks to God. Nartzalus said: To-day we are martyrs in heaven; thanks be to God. If these people, and others like them, were living good and honest lives, why were there such strong reactions? They were perceived as a threat. The Sanhedrin probably saw that if Jesus was proclaimed as the Messiah the ruling Romans would see Judaism as a threat to the stability of their empire. This after all wasn’t so long after the Maccabean revolt of 165 – 135 B. C. E,. when Jewish independence had been seen as something worth fighting and even dying for.
When Paul was in Athens ( Acts 17 ) Paul spoke long and often about ‘the Unknown God’, someone who would upset their traditional beliefs. In Ephesus and in Philippi ( Acts 16 and19) it is trade which is threatened – in the first place the slave girls owners realized that she would no longer be a money spinner for them and in Ephesus the whole guild of silver smiths relied for the majority of their income on worship of Diana of the Ephesians – something that was threatened by news of a new faith without idols and images.
As for the Romans, in his essay of February 2000,’The Roman Persecution of Christians’ Neil Manzullo, speaking of an empire under threat and to some extent in decline, says this:- From the perspective of a typical Roman emperor, Christianity threatened to lay waste to traditional Roman values and practices, to sabotage the very basis for Roman power, to pervert what was Rome. Suetonius, the Roman historian, referred to Christians as ‘a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief” which gives the impression he considered that they caused trouble deliberately.
Manzullo quotes others who saw them as perverse, irrational, malicious and harmful. This perhaps seems strange to us today until one considers the quite similar reactions new ideas, religious and otherwise, can cause in the modern world. In the modern mind it is perhaps Nero who is most associated with persecution, but other emperors were equally involved. In his 8th book Eusabius, the first to attempt a history of the church, and who would later become a close friend of the new emperor Constantine describes the martyrs of Palestine in the early years of the 4th century. :-
It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Xanthicus, which is called April by the Romans, about the time of the feast of our Savior’s passion, while Flavianus was governor of the province of Palestine, that letters were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom.
The main problem seems to have been the refusal of Christians to conform by performing emperor worship and in many cases actively condemning the practice claiming that there was only one true Lord worthy of worship. The final period of great persecution has been described by Micheal Grant :- As never before, the motive of the Great Persecution which began in 303 was the total extirpation of Christianity: it was a struggle to the death between the old and new orders. Whether or not they really were a threat they were certainly perceived as such.
Tracy Strong in her 1999 article relates how, after a catastrophic fire in Cappadocia, Pliny the Elder wrote to Trajan asking that the townspeople be allowed to set up a volunteer fire brigade permitted to establish a volunteer fire brigade. The request was denied because such a group would not be under imperial control. Trajan claimed that and such fires were less dangerous then were such societies. The Christian churches of course were self governing , however much their members might be under imperial control in other areas of their lives.
Marcus Aurelius, a second century emperor was persuaded that all the problems in his empire, famine, earthquakes, fires and plagues, had Christian origins so came out strongly against them. According to The Books and Writers’ web page ‘Marcus Aurelius’ he considered the Christians to be fanatics. He was devoted to Roman religion and wrote:- How lovely the soul that is prepared – when its hour comes to slough off this flesh – for extinctions, dispersion, or survival! But this readiness should result from a personal decision, not from sheer contrariness like the Christians.
. Conclusion The persecutions eventually faded away as new emperors either Christian, or at least in sympathy, appeared on the throne. Christianity gradually came to be seen as a stabilizing force rather than as a threat. It became a major religion rather than a mere minority sect, so much so that in 312 the Emperor Constantine became a convert to the new faith after seeing his victory in battle as a response to prayer for help. Cary and Scullard in their 1975 book ‘a History of Rome’ state :-
In 313 he [Constantine, the first Christian emperor] met his ally Licinius at Milan and won him over to a policy of complete toleration; this policy may not have been formally expressed in a so-called ? Edict of Milan’, but it was none the less real and effective: freedom of worship was granted to all subjects of the Empire, East and West alike, and the Christian Churches were recognized as legal corporations. The edit, a letter written by Constantine and Licinius in 313 C. E.
is doubted in authenticity by some. The English translation states :- When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred;
Whether or not this is authentic something certainly happened at that time that had far reaching and long lasting effects. Richard Todd in his 1977 essay ‘Constantine and the Christian Empire’ comments that this then :-Propelled church and state into a new age for which neither was prepared. During the next three centuries the western Roman Empire would virtually disappear under the repeated blows it received from the marauding German tribes. By the time of Gregory the Great as pope in 590 -604 he could claim great authority over western Christian lands as there was no other real power to oppose this – not until the Reformation.
References Bible, New International Version, (Toronto, Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) Cary, M. and Scullard, H. H. A History of Rome, page 547, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc. , 1975). Esler, P. Community and Gospel in Luke –Acts (Cambridge, Cambridge University press, 1997) Frend,W. H. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, ( Cambridge, James Clarke and Company, 2008) Gradel, I. Emperor Worship and Roman Religion( Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors. page 180, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985). Peterson, E. Acts 10, The Message, ( Colorado Springs, Navpress 2002)
Todd ,R. Constantine and the Christian Empire, page 130, A History of Christianity, A Lion Handbook, ( Hertfordshire, Lion Publishing,1977) Electronic Sources Bryan, C. Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church and the Roman Superpower, ( Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, Questia Online Library, available from http://www. questia. com/read/113637256? title=Render%20to%20Caesar%3a%20%20Jesus%2c%20the%20Early%20Church%2c%20and%20the%20Roman%20Superpower accessed 10th February 2009 Eusabius, Book 8 , Martyrs of Palestine, New Advent available from http://www.
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