Early Christianity: Part IV-How The Seeds of Persecution Were Sown

Casting Lots is one story of early Christianity-the writing of the Gospel of Luke.  In my novel, the era is one wherein Christians, if not accepted, were at least tolerated.  This is historically accurate.  Apparently before 64 AD, Christians did not encounter persecution at the hands of the Romans.  With the Great Fire of July 19, 64 AD, Nero, who laid blame upon Christians for the fire, unleashed what appears to be a latent antagonism against Christians, which with the passage of time not only grew in nature, but also, and more importantly, became institutionalized.  Yet, as we have previously discussed, it was not until 112 AD when Pliny the Younger as governor of Bithynia-Pontus wrote to Emperor Trajan that persecution institutionalized.  How did persecution become widespread?

Beyond the causes which we have discussed before, we can not overlook he door which Nero opened: Christians made good scapegoats. As scapegoats, Christians were almost ideal victims-their religions forbid them to fight back.  Ordinary Romans could blame things on Christians and thereby gain their goods or their jobs.

When a society blames a scapegoat for societal ills, the scapegoat focuses the society upon that one group as being the cause of all ills. Hence, Romans blamed Christians for such things as a drought, “there is no rain because of the Christians.”  Tertullian wrote: “If the Tiber overflows, or the Niles doesn’t, if there is a drought or an earthquake, a famine, or a pestilence, at once the cry goes up: ‘Christians to the lions!'”  Blaming Christians allowed the authorities to appease the crowds for problems that were the failure of the government or otherwise.  Hence, if the grain ships did not arrive on time, the Christians were to blame.  In addition, it became a defense against being charged with a crime.  When Apuleius in 158 or 159 was brought to trial in Sabratha in North Africa, his defense was that his accusers were Christians and therefore were not to be believed.

This view builds the anger and resentment against the group.  Romans labeled Christians in the second century AD as being ‘scum,’ ‘nothing but dung’, ‘perpetrators of hypocrisy’, ‘no better than dog or goat worshippers at their worst,’ and ‘people who go out of their way to insult the Emperor’.

It  was one small step to then deprecate the founder of Christianity: Jesus.  The diminishment of Jesus not only enhanced the scapegoat nature of Christians, but also enhanced the feelings of superiority of Romans.   Of Jesus himself, Romans cast him as being ‘an evil doer,’ a ‘sorcerer,’ and most damning of all ‘an author of rebellion and insurrection’. If Jesus was ‘an author of rebellion and insurrection’, then those who believed in him were liable to practice insurrection-the great fear of societal upheaval rears its ugly head.

The climate for persecution of the Christians almost seems to have been carefully laid. There was anti-Christian propaganda.  Christianity was “[F]or hysterical women, children, and idiots…”  It was a religion for ‘slaves’ or others in society who were clearly inferior and not to be emulated.

In my next blog, we will look at the anti-Christian propaganda and the Christian reply thereto.

Early Christianity: Part III

Having explained how Pliny the Younger began to put Christians on trial does not answer the question why did the Romans so fear the Christians?  Christianity could have been viewed as an offshoot of Judaism, which had preferential treatment within the Empire, even though the Jews had been shown by this time to be a rebellious people.  So how did Christianity become so feared by Romans that they resorted to extreme measures against Christianity?

There appears to be at least five factors at work here and intertwined together.  First, Romans were adamantly opposed to any secret society, club, esoteric group, or cabal, which were lumped under the term hetaira.  Second, Romans had grave fears about any religious belief which was foreign or alien, which were encompassed by the term superstitio.  Third, the Romans were notoriously conservative; they were genuinely mistrustful of anything new or innovative, particularly as  pertains to religion.  Fourth, the Christians were obstinate in their beliefs.  Fifth, the Christian beliefs touched on class issues, being a religion of the slaves and the poor people; it also touched upon gender issues, for Christianity was a religion which appealed to women.  Let us examine each of these factors in greater depth.

Secret societies were mistrusted because they could form the basis for opposition to the Roman government.  No matter how one felt about Gaius Julius Caesar, it was clear that a secret cabal had brought about his assassination and the downfall of his counsulship and dictatorship.  Trajan, at one point, opposed the request by Pliny the Younger when he was governor of Pontus and Bithynia to form a fire brigade.  This opposition appears to be rooted in this fear of cabals.  On the other hand, the Christian apologist, Tertullian, clearly disputes this factors as being the prime factor in the Roman oppression of Christianity.

Tacitus once identified Judaism as an example of a superstition which ran counter to the official religion of Rome.  Suetonius later supplanted Judaism with Christianity.  Why?  Christianity was at its very base diametrically opposed to the official religion of Rome.  Christianity had nothing but contempt for the pantheon of gods; it held the oracles as being virtually demonic; Christianity was opposed to martial glory and killing, the hallmarks of Rome’s world viewpoint.  Romans believed that their social and civic authority rested upon and was given by the Olympian gods.  Denial of the traditional gods was tantamount to civil unrest and chaos.  Thus, the fear of superstitions was the fear of the unraveling of society.  The new God offended the old gods.  Further, the Christians who refused to worship the old gods were seen as atheistic.

That Romans were a conservative lot is well known.  They hated things that were new and different.  The official religion permeated society.  A drinking party could not go on unless there was a dedication to Bacchus.  The new religion, with its emphasis that there was only one God and that there were no other gods, was very different from the other cults.  Mithraism simply said that Mithras was the main god to be worship; it did not say that there were no other gods.

It was this emphasis that there was only one God and that there were no other gods, which made the Christians seem obstinate. Being obstinate, however equated with being contumacia, that is being defiant of authority.  This was the same as being in disobedience to the legitimate authority.  This raised the specter that Christians were undermining the government and society.

Adding fuel to this fire was the fact that Christianity spoke to the under classes of Rome: slaves, the poor, and women.  Christianity gave hope to these groups; hope was enough to worry the Roman elite.  If the masses cried for more and hoped that they could get it, then perchance Roman society would fall apart.  Christianity promised salvation; it promised an afterlife.  Even if its promises were about the afterlife, it was changing the lives of women in the h here and now.  Women were regarded with great favor in the early Christian community.  This too was threatening.  Women might not be able to convince their husbands, but they could teach their children.  If the children of Rome were being taught this new religion, then what would happen to the old ways?  Women were especially attracted to the doctrines of love, as well as the Church’s attitude regarding sexual relations which were for procreation-a major relief from the rampant prurient and lasciviousness of elite Roman males.

In short Christianity threaten Roman society at virtually every level: Christians refused to acknowledge the gods; they refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the gods; they looked forward to the end of the world; their God had been crucified as a criminal under Rome; they said all men were equals; they said that all things were possible with their God.

We will conclude this study in our next blog.

Early Christianity: Part II

There is a gap in the archival records of Rome from the time of the Great Fire, July 19, 64AD, until the reign of Trajan, concerning the legal status and governmental treatment of Romans who were Christians, although there was some persecution of the Christians during the reign of Domitian. 

Around 112 AD, Pliny the Younger (for more information concerning Pliny the Younger, see this Blog, A Brief Review of The Historicity of Jesus, Part IV, published July 7, 2014) was the Governor of Bithynia-Pontus. The local Greek population brought numerous charges against people they claimed were Christians.  Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan detailing these complaints, what he had done to date, and seeking guidance as to how he should try Christians. Pliny wrote in Epistulae X.96:

“The method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”

Pliny then detailed the practices of Christians:

“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.”

In order to determine whether the accused was a Christian, assuming that they denied being a Christian, Pliny required them to pray, offer incense, and wine to images of Trajan and the gods.  In addition, they had to, and curse Christ, which Pliny said true Christians are unable to do.  If they did this, then they were free to go.  In addition, accused who were at one point Christians but had quit the religion, who also followed this procedure and were then free to go.

There is no precedent, in the surviving archival records of Rome, for the actions which Pliny the Younger took.  That is there is no law, rescript, or senatus consultum that makes Christianity a criminal offence.  Prior to this, Christians had been tried under the general laws of criminal behavior and were convicted only when they had committed a proscribed crime.  Christianity, at this time, was not a proscribed cult in Rome.

Pliny the Younger’s procedure became the ‘gold standard’ as to the determination the determination of the guilt or innocence of a person being accused of being a Christian.  Thus, it was Pliny the Younger, who, in essence, codified the persecution of Christians for being Christians.

This practice, which Trajan sanctioned, literally made being a Christian the offense.  What was the real underlying offense? It was refusal to honor the gods, because a true Christian would not pray to the gods or offer up sacrifice to the gods. The penalty for offense to the gods was death.  It did not matter who the Christian was, how he or she fit into the society, nor did it matter what specific act, if any he or she had committed.  Refusal to worship the gods was the crucial offense; death was the penalty.  Thus a person who renounced Christianity, but who had committed a crime, by renouncing Christianity was spared the death penalty and was set free.  A Christian, who had not committed a crime, but who refused to renounce Christianity, was put to death. 

In our next post, we will review why the Romans feared and persecuted the Christians.

Early Christianity: Introductory Comments

Early Christianity is an area which holds many challenges for the historian.  First, there is the debate as to whether the Gospels are historical documents, followed closely by whether the Gospels are reliable historical documents.  Second, some attack the pagan sources as being forgeries or later interpolations by Christian authors.  Third, early Christianity is attacked as being a derivative of Stoicism.

In this monograph concerning early Christianity, I will not deal with the first two issues, although in some of my other monographs on this blog I have looked into the question to a slight degree of whether certain pagan documents might have been forged or altered by later Christian authors.

This review of early Christianity will look at Stoicism and its similarities to Christianity, as well as analyzing why Romans reacted to early Christians as they did.  Finally, this monograph will analyze some of the reasons why Christianity spread  even in the face of opposition from the Rome government.

Turning first to Stoicism, superficially there appears to be much in common between Christianity and this philosophy.  Stoicism taught that one should love one’s neighbor.  This love should grow out of the Stoics desire to become united with all things on earth.  As one becomes more united with things on earth, the Stoic has charity for the things of the earth and, therefore, love of neighbor should follow.  In Christianity, love of neighbor grows out of the law of love.  Because God loves us, we should love all facets and all creatures of his creation.

Likewise too, Stoicism teaches about Logos. In fact, Stoicism is the first system to introduce the concept of Logos.  To the Stoic, Logos meant the rational principle by which the universe exists-it was a pantheistic concept, by which  the universe was planned, or that gave order to the universe, as well as being the source of human reason and intelligence.  In the hands of some, such as Philo of Jerusalem, it became amorphous:  it was the ideal world of which our world was but a mere copy; it was wisdom personified.  In this later meaning, the word Logos became identified with the High Priest himself.

In Christianity, Logos was Jesus before he became a human.  In John’s Gospel, the author formulates this as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”

So although early Christianity may have used the word Logos, it meant something entirely different from the Stoics. Stoicism and Christianity do not provide the same answer to the questions of the universe: what are life and death and what is the nature of God?

Early Christianity spread due to the work of St. Paul.  In the late 40’s or early 50’s AD, St. Paul, after debate in Jerusalem set out to spread the word to gentiles, bringing what had been a Jewish Sect onto the world stage as a separate religion.  Although there are some indications that the were Christians in Rome in the 40’s AD, by July 19, 64 AD, Christians were so numerous in Rome that could readily blame the fire that devastated Rome upon the Christians.   They were a readily identifiable group that were known to most Romans.  How do we know this?

Tacitus wrote about the fire in his Annals:

“…Now started the most terrible and destructive fire which Rome had ever experienced. It began in the Circus, where it adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills. Breaking out in shops selling inflammable goods, and fanned by the wind, the conflagration instantly grew and swept the whole length of the Circus. There were no walled mansions or temples, or any other obstructions, which could arrest it. First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills – but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. The ancient city’s narrow winding streets and irregular blocks encouraged its progress.

Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike – all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed – even districts believed remote proved to be involved. Finally, with no idea where or what to flee, they crowded on to the country roads, or lay in the fields. Some who had lost everything – even their food for the day – could have escaped, but preferred to die. So did others, who had failed to rescue their loved ones. Nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders. Perhaps they had received orders. Or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.

Nero was at Antium. He returned to the city only when the fire was approaching the mansion he had built to link the Gardens of Maecenas to the Palatine. The flames could not be prevented from overwhelming the whole of the Palatine, including his palace. Nevertheless, for the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude. Food was brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was cut to less than ¼ sesterce a pound. Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy.

By the sixth day enormous demolitions had confronted the raging flames with bare ground and open sky, and the fire was finally stamped out at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. But before panic had subsided, or hope revived, flames broke out again in the more open regions of the city. Here there were fewer casualties; but the destruction of temples and pleasure arcades was even worse. This new conflagration caused additional ill-feeling because it started on Tigellinus’ estate in the Aemilian district. For people believed that Nero was ambitious to found a new city to be called after himself.

Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.”

Tacitus continued his Annals by reporting how the conflagration was blamed upon the Christians by Nero:

“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called “Chrestians” by the populace.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in  Judea, first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

In our next section, we will continue our discussion of the Great Fire.