Saturday, January 19, 2013

Roman Persecution and Christian Response

The early church was a strong witness in the beginning as they laid down their lives for their faith. Their persecution was over a period of about 200 years throughout the second and third centuries. It was not constant but off and on, based on who was emperor or governor at the time. At first, Christians were considered to be just another sect of Judaism which was a protected/sanctioned religion at the time. Gonzalez explains,
The early Christians did not believe that they were following a new religion. They were Jews, and their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced that the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued awaiting his advent. Therefore, the Christian message to Jews was not that they should abandon their Jewishness. On the contrary, now that the messianic age had begun, they were to be better Jews. Likewise, their early proclamation to the Gentiles was not an invitation to accept a newly born religion, but rather to become participants of the promises made to Abraham and his descendents….From the point of view of those Jews who rejected Christianity, this situation was understood in a similar manner. Christianity was not a new religion, but a heretical sect within Judaism…Thus, Romans, Jews, and Christians agreed that what was taking place was a conflict among Jews.[1]

It was not until close to the second century when the Christians started to be persecuted in mass by the Roman Empire.  The attacks on the Christian faith, by the Roman Empire, were based on several popular Roman cultural misconceptions of Christianity and its practices. This was why many church leaders such as Tertullian and others wrote apologies against the Roman culture and government. There were three major slanders against the church which being that they were atheist, cannibals, and participants of incest.
          First, the Romans thought the Christians were atheist. This was not so much because they did not believe in their god’s but because they would not declare Caesar as Lord, worship him or burn incense to the emperor.[2] This refusal to participate in the “emperor cult” was seen as unpatriotic and treasonous,[3] because the cult was a testimony of one’s loyalty toward the emperor.[4] Moreover, Christians do not worship idols and would not make any graven images of God. This for a Roman would be complicated since they were a culture filled with idols.
          The second reason, the Romans eventually grew to hate the Christians was because they believed sensationalized stories of how Christians were performing brutal human sacrifices and were cannibals. This misconception was based on the fact that Christians partook in the Lord’s Supper.  Robert Wilken cites a Cologne papyrus that states,
At this moment another naked man arrived with a purple belt around his loins. He threw the boy’s body on its back, struck it, opened it, removed the heart and placed it over the fire. Then he took the roasted heart off the fire and cut it into halves. He sprinkled it with barley and drenched it with oil. When it was sufficiently prepared, he distributed portions of it to the initiates, and when they were holding them (in their hands), he made them swear an oath by the blood of the heart…[5]

Moreover, in the third century, Minucius Felix, a Latin Apologist, made similar claims.  He just went further by stating, “I shudder to mention it—it is this blood that they lick with thirsty which they seal their covenant…”[6] This would clearly create a negative narrative concerning the entire Christian community.
Finally, the Romans also viewed the Christians as suspicious. The early Christian services were held during the night and no unbelievers were allowed to participate in their agape feast.[7] Plus, Christians also greeted each other with holy kisses. The Roman’s saw these actions possibly as subversive. Around this time, Livy, a well known Roman historian, wrote about the secretive Bacchic cult and their night time lavish wine feast that led to licentiousness. The Romans were appalled by these groups with their meetings and dancing.[8]  Even though this was not talking about Christians, it set a precedent for how Romans would view these types of groups in the future. Again in the second century, Roman leaders would have read Minucius Felix’s views on the Christians, and according to him,
On a special day they gather in a feast with all their children, sisters, mother—all the sexes and all ages. There, flushed with the banquet after such feasting and drinking, they begin to burn with incestuous passions. They provoke a dog tied to the lampstand to leap and bound towards a scrap of food which they have tossed outside the reach of his chain. By this means the light is overturned and extinguished, and with it common knowledge of their actions; in the shameless dark with unspeakable lust they copulate in random unions, all equally being guilty of incest, some by deed, but everyone by complicity…[9]

Clearly, it is understandable how Roman society could find Christians of the second and third century repulsive.
          In summary, the Romans persecuted the Christians because they found them to be unloyal subjects to the emperor, divisive and anti-roman culture.  It was under Trajan that secret societies were banned.[10]  Governor Pliny the Younger captured two female Christian ministers and tortured them to find out what happened in the meetings.[11]   Decius was the cruelest; his persecution covered the entire empire and produced the most martyrs. Diocletian’s persecution was the most aggressive. In AD 303, he passed 3 edicts demanding that churches were to be destroyed, Bibles were to be burned, and Christians were to be removed from public office; they were to throw incense to gods or be killed. After this, in 311, the Edict of Toleration was passed, making Christianity a sanctioned religion in the empire.
Christian Response:
The Christians responded to these accusations and the persecution in two ways: by embracing martyrdom, and by writing apologies. Both of these were powerful witnesses to the pagan culture around them. Christians were being executed for not giving up their faith while simultaneously leaders were writing apologies arguing against the common Roman misconceptions of the faith. These are both expressions of believers’ witnessing for Christ Jesus to those who were around them. Martyrdom was not only accepted by many church leaders, they even went so far as to encourage it. For example, Ignatius states,
Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], … Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God]. [12] 

Clearly, Ignatius was holding on to the future promise that he had no reason to fear death, because he knew he would have only “fallen asleep.” Thus, Ignatius embraced death, because he realized there was a future afterwards with God.
Furthermore, the early church saw beyond their lives and realized that God would use them and their deaths to bring more into the faith. Tertullian stated it this way, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.[13] Tertullian continues, “But the Church triumphed through suffering,” and “out of weakness was made strong.”[14] In other words, no matter how much persecution was brought against them Tertullian and the rest of the fathers of faith realized that God was in charge. So if they did die, it was for a greater cause than their individual lives.
Tertullian, also had another reason for strongly supporting martyrdom, which was he believed that Christians needed to earn God’s grace. He believed that Christians should be excited to die for Christ. That once they had embraced the doctrines of Christ, then they would willingly chose to die. To Tertullian, it was the most assured way to have known one would have earned remission for all of his or her sins.[15] Tertullian seemed to have drawn heavily on 2 Timothy 2:11-13 which states,
“It is a trustworthy statement: ‘For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”[16]

This was clearly a parallel to Tertullian’s thought process. He stated, “Seeing he denies Christ in him by denying that he is a Christian, he has denied Christ Himself also.” [17] This was probably why Tertullian found pleasure and excitement though in persecution because it gave the Christian the opportunity to choose Christ, which in turn would make them partakers in grace since martyrdom secures ones forgiveness.
          Another key to these matters was that they had a very reverential fear of God. They realized that God was more worthy to be embraced than the Roman’s who had temporal power over them. In “The Passion of the Sicilian Martyrs”, two martyrs expressed this idea clearly as they were being interrogated by Saturinus, the proconsul. Cittinus said: “We have none other to fear, save only our Lord God, who is in heaven,” and then Donata said, “Honour to César as Cesar: but fear to God.”[18] In other words, they did not fear what the local politicians could do to them. They would show them honor because God expected that of them. But they would not reject Christ. This was a beautiful expression of their reverential fear for God.
          During those persecutions, there were several apologists who wrote clear arguments responding to the Roman misconceptions of the church. One of those apologist was the philosopher Athenagoras. In his book, “Please for the Christians,” he countered the three misconceptions against the Christians. First, he argued that Christians were not atheist. He started,
[I]s it not absurd to apply the name of atheism? …while we have such incentives to piety—in the established order, the universal harmony, the magnitude, the colour, the form, the arrangement of the world—with reason might our reputation for impiety, as well as the cause of our being thus harassed, be charged on ourselves. But, since our doctrine acknowledges one God, the Maker of this universe, who is Himself uncreated (for that which is does not come to be, but that which is not) but has made all things by the Logos which is from Him, we are treated unreasonably in both respects, in that we are both defamed and persecuted.[19]

In other words, Athenagoras came out and said that they believed in God, the one true preexistent God. Then, he went on further to defend the Christian God as the one and only true God, and why it would have been illogical for believers to reject Jesus Christ.[20]
Next, Athenagoras challenged the second misconception about the church being cannibalistic. He was very clear that the body was not meant for anything other than burial, and that it was not meant to be eaten by any animal period. He stated, “But what need is there to speak of bodies not allotted to be the food of any animal, and destined only for a burial in the earth in honour of nature, since the Maker of the world has not alloted any animal whatsoever as food.”[21] In fact, he started this section off with “but what need is there to speak of bodies” as if he was wondering why he even had to bring it up. At the end of the chapter, he even argued the only reason someone would disagree with this would be if they were “half brutes.”
Finally, he challenged the moral behaviors of the believers when it came to the love feast and the claims that they were rampant with sexual immorality. First, Athenagoras defended the morality of the church and their feast and the holy kiss. He argued that the laws of man were not what they followed, since any evil person could evade them; instead Christians were to follow a higher law of loving everyone as himself.[22]  Moreover, like Tertullian, Athenagoras seemed to think one could lose their salvation. Thus, it was important to make sure one did not break any major laws ordained by God. This is clearly seen when he was writing about the greeting with a holy kiss, “Therefore the kiss, or rather the salutation, should be given with the greatest care, since, if there be mixed with it the least defilement of thought, it excludes us from eternal life.”[23] Hence, these early believers took their faith and their actions very seriously to the point where they were willing to die. Finally, he went on the offensive with a more polemic tone showing the hypocrisy within the Roman Empire.
          In conclusion, the Christians during the first and second century had shown great courage. The American church could learn several things from this early church. First, that they were not ashamed of Christ or the Gospel; this was because of a reverential fear they had for God and his Son Jesus Christ. Moreover, we see a group of Christians who did not just live in their culture but who also challenged it daily by the way they lived and by the writings they published. Sadly, many Americans today in our religious and safe society do not realize how blessed they are to live here. Moreover, the American church today seems to overemphasize the present state of life by doing all they can to save and preserve their life and legacy. The real focus should be on God and his will for each believer. The early church seemed to have understood that it showed by them living out in their daily lives what Peter stated in his epistle,
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them; glorify God in the day of visitation.(NASB 1Peter 2:11).

Clearly, the American church could learn to forgo the present pleasures of this world and spend more time in God’s Word, grow in maturity, live moral and excellent lives as we are waiting for that day of Christ return. In the end, believers must learn to look beyond the present age, time, and space because life is but a vapor, and live for Christ as the early church did.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day.( Peabody: Prince Press, 2010 )31-32.

[2] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 41.

[3] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church: The Story of emergent Christianity from the Apostolic Age to the Dividing of the Ways between the Greek East and the Latin West.(New York: Penguin,1993) 24.

[4] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity,(Grand Rapids:Eerdmans,1993) 185.

[5] Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them,(New Haven: Yale University Press,1984). 18.

[6] Wilken, The Christians, 18-19.

[7] Love feast are meals where all the members of the church would eat together and take the Lords supper (1 Cor 11:20-21; 2Pt 2:13; Jude 12). 

[8] Wilken, The Christians, 17.

[9] Wilken, The Christians, 19.

[10] Gonzalez, The Christian Story, 40.

[11] Gonzalez, The Christian Story, 40.
[12] Ignatius of Antioch, "The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans", in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus ( ed. Alexander Roberts et al.;Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 75.
[13] Tertullian, "The Apology", trans. S. Thelwall, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian ( ed. Alexander Roberts et al.;Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 55.
[14] Tertullian, "The Apology", 60.
[15]For example, Tertullian states, “For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? and when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fullness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood? For that secures the remission of all offences.”  (Tertullian, "The Apology", 1885, 55).

[16] All scripture is from NASB unless stated.

[17] Tertullian, "Scorpiace", trans. Peter Holmes, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian ( ed. Alexander Roberts et al.;Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 642.
[18] "Introduction to the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs", in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume IX: The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgil and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement (Complete Text), Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I-X, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, II, and X-XIV ( ed. Allan Menzies;New York: Christian Literature Company, 1897), 285.
[19] Athenagoras, "A Plea for the Christians", trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) ( ed. Alexander Roberts et al.;Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 131.
[20] Athenagoras makes two strong arguments first he states that they are do not know the truth about God because they have not learned it from God, but their own knowledge.  For example, “they have not been found competent fully to apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself; hence they came each to his own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world.” (Athenagoras, "A Plea for the Christians", 131). In other words, Athenagoras exposed the fact that the romans have created God’s of their own design. 
And then second, he gives a clear argument for why believers should not reject God. His argument is based on the fact the believers have the Holy Spirit and therefore can understand God and believe in him. Therefore, since we know the truth of God and have the Spirit it would be illogical to reject him for the opinion of mere men. For instance, Athenagoras states, “But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the Spirit of God. And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God (τὸὂντως θει̂ον), that it would be irrational for us to cease to believe in the Spirit from God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments, and to give heed to mere human opinions.” (Athenagoras, "A Plea for the Christians", 131).

[21] Athenagoras, "On the Resurrection of the Dead", trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) ( ed. Alexander Roberts et al.;Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 153.
[22] Athenagoras, "A Plea for the Christians", trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) ( ed. Alexander Roberts et al.;Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 146.

[23] Athenagoras, "A Plea for the Christians", 146.

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