Creating Martyrs

Unlike some other Jewish groups, like the Zealots, the Christians viewed the Roman Empire in a reasonably good light.

Christ had commanded his followers to pay their taxes and St. Paul (Rom. 13), who was a Roman citizen, saw obedience to the authorities as divinely ordained.

Since Christians, whether Jewish or not, were initially lumped together with Jews, Romans were generally tolerant of them.

Occasionally, though, Jews would denounce the Christians, claiming that they were perverting Judaism and worshiping no god at all. From the Roman perspective, this sounded like atheism.

Since Christian ceremonies were held in secret, rumors of incest and cannibalism abounded.

Since Christians tended to be the lowest classes, they were not well liked and often suspect.

The first known Roman persecution was that of Nero. Looking for a scapegoat for the fire of Rome in 64 A.D., he settled on the maligned Christians.

Saints Peter and Paul were killed in this persecution, as were many other Roman Christians.

This set a precedent, and being a Christian was soon considered a capital offense. Because Christians refused to worship pagan gods and were generally disowned by Jews, they must therefore be atheists.

Nevertheless, Romans in general stayed out of religious matters, and so persecutions were relatively rare.

Unlike previous emperors, Domitian (81 A.D. - 96 A.D.) considered devotion to his cult a test of loyalty to the Empire. Christians who refused to sacrifice to the genus were executed.

Emperor Trajan (98 A.D. - 117 A.D.) rescinded those orders, although Christianity remained a serious offense.

About 112 A.D., the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, Pliny the Younger, wrote to Trajan for guidance on the problem of Christianity. The letter attests to the widespread success of the faith. It also provides a factual, if schematic, account of the religion's ceremonies.

Trajan confirmed that the impiety of the Christians was punishable by death, but counseled leniency. He did not consider Christians to Domitian be a threat.

In the second century, bad events of all kinds were frequently blamed on the Christians, because their atheism had angered the gods.

Tertullian complained that "if the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low," the remedy is always feeding Christians to the lions.

Christian apologists, such as Justin and Tertullian, rushed to the defense of the religion, seeking to end the persecutions.

Tertullian's Ad nationes was an attempt to turn the tables on the persecutors.

• Christians were accused of infanticide, yet it was the pagans who practiced exposure and abortion, which Christianity forbade.

• Christians were accused of incest, yet it was pagans who held riotous feasts and orgies.

• Christians were condemned for not sacrificing to the genus of the emperor, yet they did pray for him, while the pagans revolted from his rule and sought to murder him.

By the third century, Christianity was no longer a mystery. Stories of bizarre practices were subsiding and most people felt they knew what Christians did and believed, although few approved of it.

In many areas, this led to a reduction or suspension of executions. Most governors practiced a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward Christianity.

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