Persistent opposition and persecution

It is one of the commonplaces of history that in its first three centuries Christianity met persistent and often severe persecution, persecution which rose to a crescendo early in the fourth century, but that it spread in spite of opposition and was even strengthened by it. The tradition of martyrdom has entered deep into the Christian consciousness. The faith centres about one who was executed as an alleged threat to the established order and throughout its course it has been punctuated by forcible attempts to curb it. Indeed, with the possible exception of Judaism, Christianity has had more martyrs than has any other religion. Jesus warned those who would follow him that persecution would be their lot, that he would be a source of division and contention, and his words have been amply fulfilled. This is not strange. So radical are the claims of the Gospel, so sweeping are its demands on the faithful, so uncompromising does it render those who yield themselves fully to it, that opposition and even persecution are to be expected.

At the outset, as we have seen, the main persecutors of the Christians were those who held to Judaism and were antagonized by the fashion in which what superficially appeared to be a sect of Judaism was undermining institutions and convictions cherished by that religion. As the separation between Judaism and Christianity became more obvious and as the majority of Christian converts began to be drawn from the Gentiles, while an tagonism between Jews and Christians did not decline, persecution of Christians by Jews was less frequent.

Christians had to face the dislike and active opposition of the pagan population about them. Criticisms were on several grounds but arose very largely on the one hand from the fact that they would not compromise with paganism, but held themselves apart from it and in so doing withdrew from much of current society, and on the other hand because they won converts from that society and so could not but be noticed. To avoid unnecessary publicity and to escape so far as possible the notice of government officials, Christians held their services either secretly or without public announcement. In a broader and a deeper sense the dislike and the persecution which grew out of it and accompanied it were evidence that, as Jesus had said, in the Gospel something had entered the world with which the world was at enmity.

The accusations varied. Because they refused to participate in pagan ceremonies the Christians were dubbed atheists. Through their abstention from much of the community life — the pagan festivals, the public amusements which to Christians were shot through and through with pagan beliefs, practices, and immoralities — they were derided as haters of the human race. They were popularly charged with perpetrating the grossest immoralities in their conventicles. It was said that both sexes met together at night, that a dog was used to extinguish the lights, and that promiscuous intercourse followed. Garbled reports circulated of the central Christian rite, the Eucharist. The fact that it was celebrated only in the presence of believers fed the rumours that Christians regularly sacrificed an infant and consumed its blood and flesh. The circumstance that Christians called one another brother and sister and loved one another on the scantiest acquaintance was regarded as evidence of vice.

More sensible folk probably discounted these reports but were disturbed by the continued growth of an Empire-wide fellowship which, in an age when the political and economic order was obviously shaky, threatened the existing structure of society, for it not only withdrew itself from many of the customs which tied it together, but denounced them as stupid and wicked. Many pagans held that the neglect of the old gods who had made Rome strong was responsible for the disasters which were overtaking the Mediterranean world. Christians replied that they were law-abiding and moral, that they prayed for the Emperor, and that their prayers had reduced the misfortunes which had troubled mankind from long before the time of Christ, but their protestations did not remove the distrust.

Crude and misinformed though many of the criticisms of Christianity were, here was an awareness that a force was entering the world which if given free scope would overturn the existing culture. Dimly, to be sure, and imperfectly, but with an appreciation of the actualities, non-Christians sensed that because of its revolutionary nature, its uncompromising character, and its claim on the allegiance of all mankind, Christianity was more to be feared by the established order than any of its many competitors, not even excepting Judaism.

Some of the educated were more acute in their criticisms on intellectual grounds, but whether they came as near to an appreciation of the central issues is doubtful. Celsus, whose charges written towards the latter part of the second century in his True Discourse we know through the lengthy reply by Origen, said that Christians defied the law by form ing secret associations, that the ethical precepts which they taught were not new but were found in existing philosophies, that their attack on idolatry had in it nothing of novelty but had been long anticipated by one of the Greek philosophers, that Christians disparaged reason and taught: "Do not examine but believe," and that the supposed resurrection appearances of Jesus were in secret and only to those who were predisposed to believe in them. He ridiculed Christians for following the precedent set by Jesus and for saying: "Everyone . . . who is a sinner, who is devoid of understanding, who is a child, and . . . whoever is unfortunate, him will the kingdom of God receive." With something of an awareness of the central amazing message of the Gospel, he scoffed at Christians for asserting that God made all things for the sake of man, that men, created by Him, are like Him, as though bats or ants or worms had believed that God had become a citizen among them alone, that they were like God, and that all things existed for their sake. Porphyry, an early leader of Neoplatonism, pointed out what he held to be some of the discrepancies in the Christian Scriptures. How, he said, can the differences in the various accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus be reconciled? Why, when Jesus foretold the martyr's fate for John and his brother, did John die a natural death? Was Paul not inconsistent when on the one hand he commanded his fellow-Christians to "bless and curse not," and on the other hand bitterly denounced his opponents? These are but typical of the embarrassing questions which the more sophisticated critics put to the Christians.

Christians replied to the attacks on their faith, but they did more. They counterattacked, pointing out the weaknesses in the pagan religions and giving positive reasons for holding to Christianity. Numbers of the writings of these apologists have come down to us. How widely they were circulated among non-Christians and whether they won any converts we do not know, but at least they would confirm the faith of Christians. We find them in the second and third centuries and some were written as late as the fifth century. Of the most famous of the fifth century apologies, the De Civitate Dei, we shall have something more to say in a moment.

Few of the second and third century apologists devoted much attention to the Jews and Judaism. By the time that they wrote, the separation of the Christian community from Judaism was almost complete and Christians were being drawn primarily from paganism. Nor did the apologists pay much attention to the mystery religions. What was said about them was not complimentary, but apparently they did not loom as prominently as rivals of Christianity as has sometimes been supposed.

Negatively the apologists attacked the current paganism. They excoriated the immoralities ascribed to the gods by the current myths, pilloried the follies and inconsistencies in polytheistic worship, and poured scorn on the anthropomorphic conceptions and images of the gods. They did not hesitate to come to grips with the philosophies which were popular with the educated. Indeed, some of the apologists had once sought satisfaction in the study of philosophy and after being disillusioned had turned to Christianity. They pointed out the moral weaknesses of some of the leading philosophers, what they deemed the inconsistencies and contradictions in the writings of Plato, the lack of agreement among the philosophers, and what they believed to be errors in their teaching. Tertullian of Carthage, a lawyer who became a Christian in middle life, held reason, the reliance of the philosophers, to be a false guide to truth. Truth was to be found in the revelation of God in Christ. "It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd," he declared. To him the Gospel was, from the standpoint of philosophy, divine foolishness — as Paul had said long ago — but, as Paul had also implied, wiser than all the philosophers of Greece.

Positively the apologists made much of Jesus and of the Christian belief in God. In contrast with the syncretizing tendencies of the age, they did not attempt to gloss over the contrasts between the Gospel and the non-Christian faiths and philosophies or to suggest a working combination of Christianity with its rivals. Some declared that since Moses antedated the Greek philosophers and that since it fulfilled him and the prophets of Israel, Christianity had that sanction of antiquity for which many, despairing of reason, were asking of religion. They stressed the fashion in which the prophecies of the Jewish scriptures were confirmed by the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They also placed great weight on the moral transformation wrought by the Gospel and contrasted with the pagan society about them the high character of the Christian community, the fashion in which Christians helped one another, and the bringing together in one peaceable fellowship of those of different tribes and customs who had formerly hated one another. They pointed to the fact that Christians prayed for those who persecuted them and sought to share with those who hated them the Gospel and its promise to believers of a joyful reward from God.

In spite of the apologists, persecution by the Roman government was chronic and persistent. The Christian churches were associations which were not legally authorized, and the Roman authorities, always suspicious of organizations which might prove seditious, regarded them with jaundiced eye. Christians were haled before the courts as transgressors of the laws against treason, sacrilege, membership in a foreign cult, and the practice of magic. Since they would not share in the religious rites associated with the imperial cult, they were viewed as hostile to the state. The antagonism was particularly marked, since Christians, revering Christ as Kurios, or lord of the whole earth, often looked upon the Emperor, for whom the same claim was made, as Anti-Christ, while the imperial authorities were hostile to them as those who gave allegiance to a rival of the Emperor. Correspondence which has survived between the Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98-117) and Pliny the Younger, who was serving as imperial legate in Bithynia, in the later Asia Minor, appears to indicate that Christianity was officially proscribed, that if Christians recanted they were to be spared, but that if they persisted in their faith they were to be executed.

Usually ten major persecutions are enumerated, beginning with Nero in the first century and culminating in the one which was inaugurated by Diocletian early in the fourth century. In general they fall into two main chronological groups, the first from Nero to the year 250, in which they were largely local and probably entailed no great loss of life, and the second Empire-wide, determined attempts to extirpate Christianity as a major threat to the common weal.

The most famous of the early persecutions was that in Rome in A.D. 64 associated with the name of the Emperor Nero. Our first detailed account is in the Annals of Tacitus, written perhaps fifty years after the event and therefore not to be accepted without question. It says that Nero, to meet the ugly rumour that a great fire in Rome had been set by his orders, sought to fasten the blame on the Christians. The latter were also accused of hatred of the human race. Some of the Christians, so Tacitus declares, were wrapped in the hides of wild beasts and were then torn to pieces by dogs. Others, fastened to crosses, were set on fire to illuminate a circus which Nero staged for the crowds in his own gardens. Indeed, the pity of the mob was said to have been aroused and turned to criticism of Nero. Tradition, probably reliable, reports that both Peter and Paul suffered death at Rome under Nero, although not necessarily at this time. Peter's remains are supposed now to lie under the high altar in the cathedral which bears his name in what were once the gardens of Nero. It may have been that the persecution of Nero spread to the provinces.

The last book of the New Testament, The Revelation of John, seems to have Rome in mind when it describes "Babylon the great, mother of harlots" as "drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus." The date is uncertain and may well be much later than Nero. If so, it would appear to indicate that persecutions by the imperial government were sufficiently chronic to lead some Christians to regard with horror Rome and what it stood for.

It is only occasionally in the second century and the first half of the third century that we know of express instances of persecution. From early in the second century we have the letters of Ignatius of Antioch written on his way to Rome for execution as a Christian. From a little later in that century we have the famous martyrdom in Smyrna, in Asia Minor, of the aged Polycarp, who may have been the last survivor of those who had talked with the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Shortly before the middle of the second century a Bishop of Rome suffered martyrdom.

Some of the ablest and noblest of the Emperors were numbered among the persecutors. Hadrian (reigned 117-138), to be sure, insisted that those innocent of the charge of being Christians should be protected and commanded that those be punished who brought accusations which they could not prove against alleged Christians, but he did not forbid action against real Christians. Under Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) Christians suffered in Rome, One of the most high-minded and conscientious of all the Emperors, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), heartily disliked Christians, possibly because he thought of them as undermining the structure of civilization which he was labouring to maintain against domestic and foreign threats, and during his reign persecutions occurred, including one in Gaul. Under Commodus, the unworthy son of Marcus Aurelius, persecution, at first continued, was later relaxed because of the intervention of his favourite, Marcia. Indeed, through her intercession a number were released from hard labour in the mines to which they had been condemned for their faith. During the first part of his regime (193211), Septimius Severus was not unfriendly towards Christians, had some of them in his household, and entrusted to a Christian nurse the rearing of his son, Caracalla. However, in 202 he issued an edict forbidding conversions to Judaism or Christianity, and a persecution followed of which we hear a good deal from North Africa and Egypt. It was then that the father of Origen perished in Alexandria, and Origen, in his adolescent ardour desiring to share his fate, was kept from it only by the resourceful action of his mother in hiding his clothes.

We are not certain that any of the persecutions of the first two centuries was Empire-wide. Presumably Christians were always in danger, for their legal status was at best precarious, a local or provincial official might at almost any lime proceed against them, and some action of an Emperor might stiffen the backbone of otherwise lenient authorities. They were chronically regarded with suspicion by large elements in the populace and among the respectable citizens. Their peril was further accentuated by a procedure which gave their possessions to those who brought a successful accusation against them. Confiscation of goods, imprisonment, and torture might overtake them at any time, followed by hard labour in the mines or by execution. Some Christians courted martyrdom. This was partly because it brought honour from their fellow-Christians and was supposed to erase any sins which had been committed. It was also partly because of the devotion of those who were ambitious to share the fate of their Lord. The majority opinion of the Christians, while reverencing true martyrs, was against needlessly seeking arrest. We even read that some churches paid money to officials to insure freedom from molestation. It may well have been that, compared with the total number of Christians, the martyrs were very few.

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Responses

  • bruna
    Who said it is one of the commonplaces of history that in its first three centuries christianity?
    6 years ago

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