Early Christianity: The Nature of Persecutions

24 Jan

This post will be something I’d classify less as history than sociology with a bit of anthropology thrown in. 1 There’s a reason for this which I hope will also serve as an explanation for why this blog has been silent for so long. To put it bluntly, the way I post is to first write a narrative with the general ideas and concepts I want to cover and then throw a pile of books on my desk and start plugging in references to, hopefully, support what I’m saying (occasionally I’ve discovered that sources were saying something different from what I initially thought but fortunately this is very rare). The writing of the initial narrative is easy. I just chuck words at the page. If that was all I did with a post I’d have a thousand words done in under an hour. The hard work is re-reading and citing the sources and multiple edits to make sure I have the words right. Real historians are trained to get the words right. I am trained this way a little but since most of what I write about in my real job is very different, some of the language rules are too, or at least not as critically important.

Over the past 10 months or so I’ve written several narratives of posts I want to get to but have run out of time to do the hard part. Since about Christmas I have had the time but whenever I sit down to get to it, the thought of the amount of work I’m about to face – typically 4-6 hours, depending on the post – has discouraged me. Regular posting is like many other things; a habit. So here I’m tackling a topic for which there isn’t a lot of textual evidence but relies more on human behavior and the nature of people. It won’t have a couple of dozen sources for me to chase down but is something I think is important for people to think about when reading accounts of the persecution of early Christians. And it’s the first step for me to get back in the habit of posting regularly.

For me, there are two sorts of persecutions that went on prior to 313. One is the larger scale, systematic (though likely less systematic than portrayed) government-initiated forms of suppression. The other is smaller-scale, localized, and sporadic. At some point I hope to tackle the former though each of these persecutions should be studied on its own terms as I don’t think there’s much of a pattern or model. However this post will discuss these smaller events.

If you sat down and read a bunch of Early Christian sources, particularly Apologies, you could be forgiven for thinking that persecution of Christians by the authorities was pretty much a constant state of affairs from the early second century until the Edict of Milan in 313. The unfair treatment of Christians is a prominent, in many cases dominant, theme. This appears not to be the case though of course it’s tough to prove a negative. However Romans were pretty famous for their record-keeping and there is little in the way of textual evidence indicating that persecution against Christians took place very often or that Christianity was something the authorities worried about very much. And while Christians often wrote that their numbers actually increased during persecutions, does anyone really think the religion would have become what it did if the Romans intensely, comprehensively, and systematically tried to shut it down?

One of the best examples of how early persecution, or what Christians called persecution, may have taken place comes from an exchange of letters around 110-112 AD between Pliny the Younger, as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, and the Emperor Trajan. In this exchange, Pliny describes how accusations have been leveled against some as being Christians. He has those accused brought before him and asks if they are Christian. If not, and so long as they sacrifice, they are set free. If they are and they do not repent and offer sacrifice after a couple of opportunities, he has them executed. He seems to consider them to be basically harmless and followers of a debased superstition. Trajan’s reply is to congratulate Pliny and to state that Christians are not to be sought out but if brought before him, they must be punished. 2

So what does the preceding example indicate? First, the Roman government had no particular interest in going after Christians. Yes, being a Christian is illegal but Trajan seems to think his governor has more important things to worry about. While not evident from this exchange, the most important issue to many emperors was peace. As Christians were not engaging in activities threatening that peace, they should be left alone if possible.

Second, this appears to be something of a popular persecution. Christians are brought to the Governor’s attention by an informer. Pliny is then forced to investigate the matter. Why would someone make this sort of accusation? This is where we get into the sociology part of this post and start talking about things there isn’t firm textual evidence for. 3

These sort of popular persecutions seem to me to be based on human nature, particularly the whole concept of “us vs them.” To a traditional Roman, there were several behaviors which would have appeared strange and would have caused Christians to be considered a “them.” 4

The most obvious area of strangeness would have been religious activity. The rank and file Roman appears not to have spent much time in the process of worship. However he/she likely did a few things. Depending on the individual, he/she would have offered prayers to/for the dead, particularly their ancestors. He/she may have offered some form of obeisance or modest gift to images and statues of Roman Gods. He/she would also have been expected to offer prayers and sacrifices for/to the current Roman Emperor. 5 During public religious festivals he/she would have taken part in whatever form the festival took locally including but not limited to; parades and processions, public sacrifice, the feast which included sacrificial meat and; the games.

How was a Christian expected to behave and how would this have appeared to other Romans? Christian worship took place secretly, until the 3rd century in someone’s home, out of sight of the rest of the community. They had secret, mysterious, and possibly evil rites (there are plenty of non-Christian sources claiming that Christians engaged in cannibalism, human sacrifice, mass orgies, etc.). They did not attend what in most communities was the biggest local social event of the year, the festival honoring the local God. 6 They stayed away from the games. They did not sacrifice or offer gifts to the Gods (or buy these items from local shops like everyone else did). They refused free food (sacrificial meat) which everyone else was eager to get. They seemed to ignore paying homage to the Emperor. 7 They hung out with and even worshiped (or so the Romans seem to have thought) the bodies of the dead, something most Romans likely found repulsive. In some places it is likely that they spoke a foreign language. 8

This abnormal behavior would have extended into other aspects of life and culture. Christians did not attend the theatre. Serving in the military was discouraged due to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” They would have stayed out of many shops which sold items for traditional religious worship. As many civic roles had a religious component, they would have tried to avoid these. This must have impacted day-to-day life in areas such as employment, relationships, and possibly even casual conversation. 9

In other words, Christians were weird.

Much of the time this weirdness seems not to have mattered all that much. After all, they weren’t bothering anyone and if they decided they didn’t want free food, that meant there was more for everyone else. But every now and then something happened to get the local community excited. There is an absence of evidence regarding specific instances but it doesn’t take too much imagination to come up with reasonable ideas of what may have happened. Say, for example, there was a local harvest failure. Who was responsible for ensuring that there was a bountiful harvest? Of course people were expected to do their part by working and rewarding the Gods with the sweat of their collective brows but ultimately this depended on the favor of the Gods. How did a community ensure the Gods would look favorably upon it? By proper worship; sacrifices, rites, prayers, other gifts and offerings, etc. Who in the community did not work to gain the favor of the God(s)? Not only that, but if their numbers were large enough who, by their mere presence, despising the Gods, might cause divine anger and retribution?

You can come up with other negative circumstances/events such as disease, fire, floods, raids by barbarians and so on but in essence, if things went bad for a community, Christians became a convenient causal agent. Besides, they were weird which, depending on who you were and your tolerance level probably meant that you thought they were anything from a bit odd to dangerous and heretical agents of evil.

A local magistrate might have tried to hold out for a while but if the local population became enough of a threat to order he might act against the Christian community. This may have taken place in several ways. He might have tried to force them into exile. He may have chosen a few prominent leaders and decided to exile, imprison, or execute them or, as may have happened in Lyons in 177, decided to destroy the entire community. 10 Once the immediate crisis passed, the local authorities would probably ease up on things.

If something big came up and someone in authority was looking for someone to blame, Christians became a nice target. Nero’s blaming and punishment of Christians in the aftermath of the six-day fire of Rome in 64 AD is probably the most famous example. 11 These were not people the rest of the community was very eager to defend.

This characterization of these persecutions as scattered, sporadic, and infrequent is at odds with how they were portrayed by ancient Christian authors. Christians tended to emphasize these (particularly when promoting martyrs and martyrdom) however the lack of textual evidence from Roman sources indicates that, when looking at the entire Roman Empire over a 300-year period, it just didn’t happen all that often. This was a big deal in the Christian psyche, however on an empire-wide scale, or as a habitual state of affairs, the reality of persecution is significantly different from how it was portrayed in the sources.

OK, I still ended up with 11 footnotes and seven sources cited. Look at it this way – I could have cited 20. What can I say; as Marcus Aurelius wrote, it’s my nature.

1 Just so you don’t think I’m completely unqualified to discuss this, while at Cornell I took a bunch of sociology classes along with a couple in anthropology. In fact, if it wouldn’t have looked so weird I probably could have gone with a major in Animal Science and a minor in Sociology if I’d taken a few more core classes. And one of our anthro profs had been a grad student under Margaret Mead so that was cool. This is something I’ve always been interested in – the nature of people and group behavior. But it isn’t history.

2 See Pliny the Younger’s Letters, X.96-97. I was going to quote from them but you can find these two letters here.

3 Interestingly, Pliny references an edict where he outlawed secret brotherhoods. This may have raised awareness of Christians among the local population and led to their subsequent exposure.

4 For more of my thoughts on basic human nature including the concept of “us vs them” see my post, Were Medievals “Just Like Us?” from September, 2013.

5 For the most part emperors were not considered Gods but divinely empowered individuals entrusted by the Gods to ensure the safety and prosperity of the empire. Rives (2007), pp. 148-56 has a nice introductory discussion of how emperors were seen as both human and divine.

6 Here I use the term “local” to mean whatever deity the community believes offered it special protection, not that this was a God which only existed for the community’s benefit. Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, Demeter/Ceres, Minerva, Hermes, and others were commonly believed to be divine patrons of communities.

7 Christian authors often stated that they offered prayers on behalf of the emperor but this would have taken place out of sight of others and of course they ignored images and statues as idols.

8 For example, it is believed that the Christian community in Lyons, Gaul, which was devastated by persecution in 177, may have been a small Greek-speaking group in a Latin community. From Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus” in Foster and Parvis (2012), “It [the Lyon Christian community] was a Greek-speaking community in a Latin-speaking city nestled in the midst of a Celtic-speaking countryside. They would in no small part have been outsiders, strangers in a strange land, alienated culturally as well as religiously from the life of the city around them. And they were, for that reason among others, mistrusted and despised.” p. 15.

9 To be fair, there are plenty of sources indicating that Christians got along fairly well with non-Christians most of the time. When we travel higher up the intellectual hierarchy, Christian and Pagan philosophers often trained at the same school or under the same teacher and remained friends as adults. Then again, this is sort of my whole point with this post – most of the time these differences didn’t much matter.

10 Moss (2012 ), pp. 100-21 provides a detailed description of the persecution as described by Eusebius in the “Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons,” Ecclesiastical History, V.1-4. including why it may not provide an entirely truthful account of events.

11 See Tacitus, Annals, 15.44. Suetonius also discusses Nero punishing Christians but does not link this with the fire.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Moss, Candida R., Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. New Haven: Yale University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-300-15465-8.

Paul Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus? An Introduction to the Man and his Work” in Foster, Paul and Parvis, Sara, ed., Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-8006-9796-9.

Pliny the Younger, P.G. Walsh, trans., Complete Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-953894-2.

Rives, James B., Religion in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4051-0656-6.

Suetonius, Gavorse, ed., Lives of the Twelve Caesars. New York: The Book League of America, Inc. (1937).

Tacitus, Michael Grant, trans., The Annals of Ancient Rome. New York: Barnes and Noble Books (1993). ISBN: 0-88029-024-2.


Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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5 responses to “Early Christianity: The Nature of Persecutions

  1. elendil

    January 29, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks for your post, Curt, I really appreciate your work.

    I have two questions for you:
    Could you recommend me a good history book about the middle ages? (I mean, I’ve found a lot about the topic but how can I be sure they are serious and impartial work?)

    I’m just curious, why are you particularly interested on IV-IX centuries? What do you think about the XII century?

    Well, that makes three questions instead of two ;)


    • Curt Emanuel

      January 31, 2015 at 9:19 pm

      Thanks for the comment. The hard part is finding one book which can do a decent job covering a thousand year period and a geographic region from England to Turkey. Barbara Rosenwein has a nice starter book, A Short History of the Middle Ages. I reviewed it a few years ago. If you want something longer there’s Norman Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages Or Jacque LeGoff’s Medieval Civilization. The problem is, I read those two about 20 years ago – I’d think there’d be something newer but I haven’t read overviews in a while. A problem with Cantor is no footnotes.

      As for why those years, it’s because I’m fascinated with how society restructured itself in Western Europe following the end of the Roman Empire. I have more on that in the About this Blog page. The 12th is fine – there was something of a rediscovery.of philosophy that began to take place, a lot of Church-state power struggles, the Crusades, new forms of literature, etc. It’s just not what I focus on.

      • elendil

        March 20, 2015 at 1:06 pm

        thank you! I’m going to try Norman Cantor’s book.

  2. Larry Swain

    January 2, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    Hey Curt! I’m only a. Year behind my reading! Catching up! True, in the first 250 years of Christianity, persecution was localized and infrequent. Then it was mostly a culture war as Christians first tried to set themselves apart from Judaism, and then to try and earn a respected place in Greco-Roman culture…so those second century writers and apologists are writing chiefly about intellectual matters rather than life or death persecution. It isn’t until the late second century that we really begin to get the first martyr tales. Mid third century we begin to get empire wide action, though again not a lot. Even Origen remarks on how little real persecution there was. But once Diocletian starts his anti foreign religion crusades, the Christians and the Manichaeans really got it. And it is after that “great persecution” that left such a mark on the Christian psyche, one we still see today with nonsense like the war on Christmas, that we get the martyrologies, the persecution tales,the cult of martyred saints and so on. Through the lens of Diocletians persecution, Christian history was rewritten.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 3, 2016 at 7:15 am

      Thanks Larry! I’m about a year behind on my blogging. I keep thinking I’ll get back to it and I keep not following through. I have plenty to post about (including Kalamazoo 2015) but finding the time has been an issue.

      I’ve read several books on Christian boundary-making. It’s very interesting comparing Origen/Clement with folks like Tertullian. An interesting question (which I can’t answer): Did Augustine or Eusebius/Lactantius have more impact on the development of Christianity? Since I never expect to read everything Augustine wrote, I doubt I’ll ever be able to answer it (and I’m leaving out Origen, not for what he wrote but for the 4th century anti-Origen “blowback”, plus I haven’t gotten to the Cappadocians yet).

      I really need to quit focusing on early Christianity sometime – there’s enough to keep me going until I die, I think. Heck, at my current pace I could not buy another book and take 4-5 years just to read what I have on my shelves.


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