First to Second Centuries

For Romans, the distinction was not so clear. In the early second-century accounts of imperial reactions to Christians, Jews and Christians often seemed to be conflated, as the testimony of classical writers attests. Suetonius wrote his Lives of the Caesars while serving in the court of Hadrian (117-138 C.E.). In the Lives, Tiberius (36) and Claudius (25.4) expel Jews from Rome, the one in 19 C.E. and the other in 49 C.E., because they fear their proselytizing and the growth of these close communities that refuse to be assimilated (see Primary Documents 1.1-1.2). Nero (16.2) calls Christianity a new, evil superstition (superstitio nova ac malefica). The historian Tacitus who served under Trajan (98-117 C.E.) as a provincial governor has Nero blame the Christians for the great fire of 64 C.E. in Rome. Tacitus's account of the fire reveals the reason that Christians were despised enough to become Nero's scapegoats: they were misanthropes who rejected civic intercourse. For this, Tacitus tells us, the Christians were covered with the skins of beasts and torn apart by dogs, or they were nailed to crosses and set on fire, then used as human torches to light the night (see Primary Documents 1.3-1-4).

Pliny the Younger, who also served Trajan as a provincial governor, corresponded with him about the Christians. In his letter (Epistulae 10.96) to Trajan, Pliny called Christianity a depraved and excessive superstition (superstitio prava et immodica) and described the Christian practices of worship and communion. He was unsure of whether he should punish those denounced to him as Christians, or how; whether he should allow them to recant; or whether they were genuinely conspiratorial and therefore subverting the interests of the state. For Trajan, as for his successor Hadrian, Christianity was no crime as long as Christians participated in the worship of the state gods. Both of these emperors advised their local governors not to accept anonymous denunciations of Christians and to pursue a practice of leniency where possible (see Primary Documents 1.5-1.6).

Among the Flavians, Domitian accused Christians of atheism for refusing to worship him as a god. He also prosecuted members of his family in the imperial court for Judaizing, that is, worshipping and living like Jews but refusing to pay the fiscus Iudaicus, the tax for the Temple in Jerusalem. Many scholars interpret this to mean that those who refused to pay the tax were not really Jews, but seemed to be to those who could not distinguish between Christians and Jews. So while the target of Domitian's wrath seems to have been Jews or their sympathizers, in fact, "Judaizing" may refer to Christians who seem (still) very similar to Jews in their personal conduct and worship.

The second century saw the greatest geographical expansion of the Roman Empire—approximately 1,700,000 square miles—under the famous widespread peace called the pax Romana, "Roman peace." Some fifty to eighty million inhabitants stretching between Spain and the Rhine,

Danube, and Euphrates rivers, and from the Sudan northwest to Scotland lived under Roman rule. This perception of widespread peace inspired many Christian writers to consider the pax Romana as God's plan to ensure that Jesus' word could spread as efficiently as possible to the largest audience. In Rome alone there were estimated to be 1,000,000 people, who were governed by a broadly homogeneous imperial aristocracy. Edward Gibbon wrote in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapter 3) that if anyone were to point to the period in history when the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would certainly point to the period from the death of Domitian (96 C.E.) to the accession of Commodus (180 C.E.). The economic structure of the empire was largely agrarian; there was a uniform currency and cheap labor. The lingua franca, "common language," in the west was Latin and in the east, Greek. Roman citizenship alone was enough to guarantee safe travel, and the general economic prosperity and peace promoted trade all over the empire. In this century, emperor worship was unchecked. Like a god on earth, the emperor governed all provinces, led the army, dispensed justice, and acted as the mediator between the gods and his citizens.

At the same time, the reverence the emperor demanded as due his status caused the Christian communities to erupt into open conflict with the state. To ensure the pax deorum, "peace of the gods," which, in turn, sustained the pax Romana, the emperor's virtus, "noble excellence," and pietas, "piety," had to be properly acknowledged through ritual rites performed by professional priests. Christians refused to do this. They were attacked as atheists who had apostasized from the old religion, the mos maiorum, "customs of the elders," and abandoned the mysteries, the sacrifices, and the initiations; they were said to practice Thyestean feasts (so called from the mythical banquet where Atreus killed his brother Thyestes' children and served them to him) in taking the Eucharist, which they interpreted as the flesh and blood of Jesus; and to indulge in Oedipean intercourse (from the legend of Oedipus who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother) in kissing each other during their worship and referring to each other as "brother" or "sister" or "father." In the first two centuries, Christian apologists (from the Greek apologia, "speech in defense") wrote to counter the charges of cannibalism and incest against their faith.

At times, the Christians seem just as unsure as the pagans and Jews about the details of their religious practices. In many instances these are clarified as orthodox (from the Greek orthodoxia, "right thinking,") after long theological and doctrinal clashes against the opposition, called heresy (from the Greek hairesis, "choice"). We have seen above that Gnosticism, the belief that certain elite people had special knowledge that ensured their salvation, in its varied forms was deemed a Christian heresy almost from its inception. We have also seen mentioned above the idea that God only appeared to be human but that he never really assumed a mortal incarnate existence, a heresy called Docetism (from the Greek dokesis, "disguise").

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