Roman Persecution of the Early Christians

By Brad Holst '91

Greek and Roman History

Writing Objective: Write a paper which in some way addresses the issue of the Roman persecution of the early Christians in the period before Constantine. Use the primary and secondary source material in your Kajan anthology, Robert Walker’s discussion in his volume, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, and whatever other primary and secondary sources you find relevant.

As the Roman Empire evolved, it extended its influence over vast areas of land and multifarious cultures. Considering the diversity of her constituents, the five century pre-eminence of Rome, in the Mediterranean and beyond, must be recognized as a truly incredible political accomplishment. It has long been acknowledged that the tremendous success which the Romans experienced in holding together an empire consisting of such varied peoples was in great part due to their policy of tolerance towards the ‘eccentricities’ of their many subjects. From Spain to Armenia, Gaul to Egypt, the subjects of the Roman state were allowed to think and act as they wished—so long as they respected the ultimate sovereignty of the Romans. In other words, the Romans made concessions, but not in the sphere of political power.

Working from the general hypothesis of tolerance, then, many have wondered just why it was that Christians were singled out in the early stages of the Church’s development (first 150 years of the common era for this paper) and subjected to Roman persecution. Admittedly, the persecutions of this early stage in the history of Christianity were far from systematic and in no way could be termed pogroms; however, when one considers that in the early second century, “the total number of Christians within the empire was probably less than fifty thousand, an infinitessimal number in a society comprising sixty million” (Wilken, 30), it seems fairly obvious that the Romans must have had some specific rationale for acting at all against such a minute segment of Roman society. The objective of this analysis, therefore, is to show not that the Romans attempted to slow the growth of the early Christian movement, for that is beyond question, but rather that Rome was justified politically in doing so. The extant sources indicate that the early Christian Church—a rapidly expanding grass-roots movement which cut across cultural and national boundaries—was indeed a threat to the political stability of the Roman state.

The followers of Jesus were, in the earliest stages of Christian history, primarily Jewish. Christianity was, indeed, a reform movement from within Judaism which had not disregarded Jewish scripture and svmbol but had rather reinterpreted them. Some of the same themes (i.e. messianism) are encountered in both the Christian and Jewish movements of the Early Roman Empire. Yet the Jews and Christians were at a very early stage perceived as distinct groups by the Romans. One question which must be addressed, then, is: on what was this differing perception (and the treatment which derived from it) based?

Early Christianity had its roots, primarily, in the words and actions of Jesus and Paul. Which of these was the true founder of Christianity remains a topic of debate, but regardless of what side one comes down on, it is clear that Christianity was butting heads with the Romans from its inception. Both Jesus and Paul had overt confrontations with the Romans and were ultimately removed from the public sphere by an act of Rome. Roman sentiments towards Christianity might, therefore, be traced back to these individuals. It might be helpful, then, to begin by gleaning what one can from the Biblical documents about the historical Jesus.

Jesus seems to have been a lower middle class Jew who tended to spend much time with and display great compassion for the lower classes in first century Palestine. Of possible importance for this analysis is the observation that the boundaries of this group which Jesus chose to associate with were extended beyond the traditional Jewish boundaries of family (“who is my mother…”) and even nation (Samaritan woman). Furthermore, Jesus’ message revolved around an imminent theme which he often referred to as the “kingdom of God”—a concept which appears to have quite revolutionary connotations (i.e. the last will be first and the first last). What one encounters here is a man who apparently identified quite closely with the populous, and vice-versa. No wonder people sought to make him into the Messiah. And no wonder the Romans executed him in a manner reserved for political offenses. Jesus obviously did, if nothing else, offend the Jewish leaders, thereby disturbing the delicate religio-political balance which the Romans were endeavoring to preserve in chronically troublesome Palestine. The Romans had practical political reasons for wanting Jesus dead.

In trying to assess Paul’s relationship to the Romans, one must look to the account of his career as found in the Acts of the Apostles. Here one encounters a driven arguer who seems to offend wherever he goes—Greeks in Philippi and Athens, Jews in Thessalonica and Corinth, etc. Implicit in the previous sentence, furthermore, is possibly the most offensive aspect of Paul’s (if not the whole Christian movement’s) character. Paul strove to proselytize not only Jews but Gentiles as well. The boundary of mutual respect and religious toleration, fundamental to the Roman state, was transgressed when Paul preached “Christ crucified” indiscriminately to the various constituents of the Roman empire. Paul, then, via his confrontational conversion tactics, was also a challenge to the perpetuation of the Pax Romana. He too, therefore, was of necessity effectively removed from the scene by the Romans.

The earliest figures in the rise of Christianity, it seems, had already piled up two strikes for the movement in its relationship with Rome. These must not be disregarded; however, one must still examine the early Christian communities themselves in order discover what in them was possibly offensive to Rome. For despite the value of the precedents of Jesus and Paul in helping one to understand early Christianity vis-a-vis Rome, history indicates that, in ruling the provinces, the Romans tended to address each case individually and in a very pragmatic fashion. The object was to preserve the peace. In other words, it does not seem that any sort of ‘witch hunt’ was instigated, at least at this time, against the Christians. Each instance was handled separately. The source for analyzing the Roman perception of Christians will mainly be Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan concerning the Christians he encountered in Pontus early in the second century.

“In his letter to the emperor Trajan, Pliny used two terms to characterize the Christians, ‘superstition’ (superstitio) and ‘political club’ (hetaeria)” (Wilken, 32). The first, superstition, might be seen as primarily as a term of condescension. The Romans were traditionally a people who prided themselves on their religion. In the words of Polybius (ca. 150 B.C.), “the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is, in my opinion, the nature of their religious convictions” (quoted from Frend, 77). Most foreign ideas concerning religion were termed superstition and thought inferior by the Romans. Christianity was, then, in the eyes of the Romans, undeniably a superstition. The mere fact that the Christians were different, however, does not seem sufficient reason for any direct persecutions of these individuals. The fact that they scorned and criticized the Gods of others (in the spirit of Paul) may have provided some justification in the eyes of Rome for intervening in an attempt to calm this sect down; however, if this was the only reason, surely the exclusiveness of the Jews would have surely been rewarded with persecution as well. It follows from the fact that Trajan instructed Pliny not to seek the Christians out in order to punish them further that it was not on the basis of superstition alone that the Romans found offense with Christianity.

Of greater import to this investigation, perhaps, is the understanding that the Romans had of the tie between the state religion (leader cult and Roman deities) and imperial stability. This relationship is conveyed quite clearly in a statement which Dio Cassius put in the mouth of Maecenas, a contemporary of Augustus: “Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should abhor and punish not merely for the sake of the gods (for if a man despises these he will not pay honour to any other being), but because such men by bringing in new divinities in the place of old, persuade many to adopt foreign practices from which spring up conspiracies, factions and cabals which are not profitable to monarchy. Do not therefore permit anyone to be an atheist or a sorcerer.” The spread of superstitions had political ramifications for the empire. It was true that the Romans tolerated other forms of religiosity in the empire, but only as long as they were clearly no challenge to the state religion which served the political function of reconciling the diversity of East and West under Roman rule.

The terms superstitio and hetaeria, as applied to the early Christian communities, henceforth begin to overlap. A group which adhered to a superstition, and furthermore, challenged the sovereignty of Rome in its practice of that superstition was indeed a political club of sorts. If the hetaeria was constituted of a disproportionate number of people from the lower classes (which early Christianity, in keeping with the precedent of Jesus, apparently was) and, more importantly, was not limited exclusively to any particular ethnic or cultural group, then the threat which it posed in the eyes of Rome was understandably large. Christianity had indeed, as mentioned above, gone far beyond being a Jewish sect by proselytizing Jews and Gentiles alike. The rapidly expanding Christian movement had a grass-roots character which cut across cultural and national boundaries, thereby threatening the political stability of the Roman state from below. In all this it seems that the Christian communities were being consistent with Jesus and Paul—at least in their encounters with the Romans.

Apparently even the Christians saw themselves in some sort of political light. They had undoubtedly adopted the messianic ideal from the Jews and were expecting Jesus to return soon to usher in the kingdom of God in place of the kingdom of Rome. This somewhat apocalyptic vision provided hope for the oppressed lower class masses who were seeking organizational opportunities at this time in the Roman provinces—one can uncerstand, therefore, why Christianity had considerable success among these people. Messianism also helps to explain the lack of concern for this-worldly politics (i.e. Roman politics) which Tacitus described as “hatred against mankind”. Even more indicative, however, of the self-perception of the Christians as being at least in some ways political was the term which they chose to apply to their organization— ecclesia. In the Greco-Roman world, ecclesia was unequivocally a political term which referred to the popular assembly of a city. The Christians must have known the meaning of the term when they consciously made the decision to refer to themselves as the ecclesia of God.

It is time to return, then, to the distinction between the Jews and the Christians which prompted the Romans to deal with these groups separately. First of all, one notices a similarity in the rhetoric used by the Jews who clashed with Rome (in A.D. 64-70 and 132-5) and that of the early Christians. It seems that the messianic language * which had earned the Jews trouble with the Romans was now being used by the Christians. The use of this language by either group was obviously threatening to Rome. Yet while the Jews had a basically theocratic outlook, it was different from that of the Christians because it was limited to Palestine. In contrast, the Christian kingdom of God encompassed the entire world. This willingness to recruit the peoples of the entire empire (through proselytizing) for what promised to be a revolutionary new kingdom was undoubtedly more threatening to the Romans. In addition, it seems the early Christians were predominantly lower class citizens (even more so than the Jews) who, in banding together in small groups, further offended the political sensibilities of the Romans. Rome, as one can see in the response of Trajan to Pliny, was paranoid about the threat which any such organization in the provinces posed to Roman rule—”If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them or whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club (hetaeria^ (Wilken, 12). The Christians, it seemed, fit the political club description quite well.

What, then, motivated the Romans to persecute religious sects (especially the Christians) during the Early Empire? One can assume that it was not merely caprice on the part of the pragmatic Roman rulership. Furthermore, it seems that it was not merely Christianity’s distinction as a superstition which led to Roman pressure—otherwise the persecution would have been more systematic. Rome perceived Christianity as a political threat. Superstition may have served as a flag which enabled the Romans to identify who was a Christian, but it was the Christian communities’ acts, or anticipated acts, as hetaeria which primarily gave impetus to the Roman reaction. Rome had precedents to work from—Jesus, Paul, the Bacchae, the Jews. In the end, then, the Romans had practical political reasons for persecuting the Christians, and they acted on those reasons—not, however, very systematically, possibly because they did not perceive the political threat to be a large one. As the wheels of history rolled on, however, it became quite clear that the threat was large. In retrospect, it seems the failure of the Romans to deal effectively with the rising star of Christianity while it was still low on the horizon eventually led to its rising to such a height that it had to be incorporated into the empire if the empire itself was not to be outshone.