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.