The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church. -Tertullian
This article is an introductory look at the persecution of the early church. The Jewish social setting and subsequent persecution of the Christians by the Jews will be looked at first, followed by the Roman social setting and persecution of the Christians by the Romans.
PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS BY JEWS – IN JERUSALEM
Jewish Scholars point to the rejection of the Torah as the basis of the conflict between Christians and Jews, while many Christian scholars have pointed to the rejection of the Messiah as the basis of the conflict.1 A closer look at the complex social setting of Jerusalem during the first century will reveal a much more complex set of events.
Judaism of the first century was composed of eight very different groups of Jews. In the same way that it would be a gross misrepresentation to lump Mormons, Muslims and Atheists in the same category, so it would be likewise inaccurate to lump Jews of this time period into one category, simply based on their national or ethnic identity. Here is a brief overview of the various groups, focusing on the political aspects of their identity, since politics were at a fever pitch in this complex and struggling nation:
Sadducees: This was a group of wealthy Jews who controlled the Temple, which enabled them to continuously generate the financial resources to remain in power. While not completely embracing their Roman occupiers, they sided with the Romans to help themselves remain in power over the temple.
Am Ha- ‘aretz: The people of the land. These were the segment of the common peasant population, which paid little attention to the observance of the Torah and seemed to shun the study of the Torah.2 This group would have included any Jews who proclaimed atheism and by and large held little political power.
Scribes: Literally translated as one who can write. These were the scholars of their day.
Essences: A sect which separated themselves from the cities, observing extreme purity and piety in the deserts, awaiting a sure eschaton to come in their generation, which would remove the foreign invaders from Judah and establish a new order.
Zealots and Sicarii: The Sicarii were the terrorists of their day. They would hide small knives under their garments and in the midst of busy crowds stab specific offenders. Politically they served to stir up sentiments of war against those they opposed.3
Hellenized Jews: An ever-growing population of Jews who were embracing the new order of Hellenism to the exclusion of Judaism. The reasons for this transformation were numerous, chief of which were financial and political gains that came with embracing and trading in Hellenized areas.
Pharisees: The people who were most focused on Torah worship and observing with rigid detail not only the laws of the Torah, but also the laws created to build a fence around the Torah. This group of people felt great pressure from multiple directions. They had the Sadducees controlling the temple, the Hellenized world enticing Jews to view Judaism as the old way, Hellenism as the wave of the future and the Roman government oppressing them. They were holding on to a belief that seemed to be fading away in this complex and changing world.
Going back to the initial arguments of why the Jews persecuted the Christians, Jewish scholars who point to the lack of Torah worship as the basis for the conflict discount the fact that many groups in this world were not observing the Torah, with little to no persecution being directed at them. Paul was said to have observed the Torah worship when in the company of Jews, but he still faced persecution.4 In addition, records found in the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of an anti-ritualistic sentiment within the Jewish population. Christian scholars who point to the rejection of the Messiah as the basis of the conflict fail to recognize than the Essences and other obscure sects used messiah language and some even claimed to be a messiah, yet there is no record of directed persecutions among those groups. To better understand what could have caused the persecution of the Christians within Jerusalem, the record of Christian activity in Acts must be observed.
In the first seven chapters of Acts, during the Apostles’ witness to Jerusalem, the Apostles were found in the temple preaching. Those in attendance of such sermons would have been the Sadducees and Pharisees. The message of a new kingdom reserved only for those who professed Christ would have angered the Sadducees by threatening their power hold on the temple. As much as they would have desired freedom from foreign invaders their link with the Romans helped to keep them in power and thus the Christian message was an affront to their capital. Likewise, the same message would have been even more distasteful to the Pharisees. It would have struck the same already raw nerve of the invading Hellenism in that Christianity, like Hellenism, demoted the very symbols of their ethic solidarity of purity, food laws, Sabbath and circumcision. Judaism was once again being portrayed as obsolete by yet another new philosophy in the new, enlightened world.
It was not merely the message of the Christians that resulted in persecution, but the combination of the wrong message to the wrong people at the wrong time. Had the Christians been preaching their message to groups such as the Hellenized Jews or the Am Ha- ‘aretz they would have probably been met with either acceptance or at worst disinterest. However, their choice of groups and venues ignited a powder keg that was already set to explode. Josephus observed this great hatred and unrest poised to strike back at the Hellenistic and Roman threats. In his autobiography he talks about his effort to defuse an impending revolt:
I perceived that innovations had already begun, and that there were a great many very much elevated in hopes of a revolt from the Romans…. [I] Persuaded them to change their minds…and this I said with vehenement exhortation, because I foresaw that the end of such a war would be most unfortunate to us. But I could not persuade them; for the madness of desperate men was quite too hard for me.5
Needless to say, “loving your enemies” was not met with the greatest enthusiasm.
So the motivation for the persecution of the Jews in Jerusalem changes, based on which group is being addressed. The Sadducees were fighting to maintain the established order, the Pharisees were fighting against the degeneration of the Torah worship and many others were poised to invoke a revolution against the Roman invaders. There was no one reason for the persecution, but rather a complex web of cause and effect relationships.
In the eyes of the Roman government Christianity, which at this time had no official title, was seen as merely another religious segment within Judaism. With so many sects within the Jewish community, it is easy to see how Romans viewed Christians as merely one more peculiarity in a nation of peculiar people and religious beliefs. So the Jews had very little recourse in turning to the Romans to persecute Christians. This resulted in the trial and stoning of Stephen without help from the Roman authorities.6 While it was unusual for Jews to execute capital punishment under the Roman governance, it was not unheard of. In John’s account of the trial before Pilot, Pilot tells the Jews to judge him themselves. They respond that it is not lawful for them to put anyone to death.7 However, in the context of them demanding Jesus be put to death, the comment by Pilot seems to suggest they were known for doing just such a thing, on occasion.
Before the stoning of Stephen, the Christians were living in Jerusalem, worshiping and praying in the temple daily. After the beginning of the Christian persecution in Jerusalem, they were forced out and subsequently began to travel to other cities, spreading the gospel to the Diaspora Jews first and the Gentiles second. It must also be noted here that the persecution of Christians by the Jews was not a unified effort. It was largely the Pharisees and the Sadducees who pressed for the persecutions.
PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS BY JEWS – IN THE ROMAN WORLD
Unlike the Jews of Jerusalem who viewed the Romans solely in terms of an enemy occupation, the Jews of the Diaspora had learned to co-exist with the Romans in a tense truce, having lived in many of the Roman cities for generations. The Roman Pagans had accepted the Jewish people as a reality and each group had their own butchers and did their own separate sacrifices for their meats to be sold in the marketplace. The Jews in the Roman Diaspora had also attained a measure of wealth and influence in the Roman world.8
When Paul would arrive at a new city he would first go to the synagogue and preach to the Diaspora Jews. The Jews who rejected his message were often the ones who would go to the Roman authorities to incite them against Paul. This union of Roman and Jewish persecution of Christians is seen in Acts 14. In that story, the Jews go to the Roman authorities to seek Roman action, subsequently resulting in the punishment of stoning, which was the Jewish form of capital punishment.9
Jews who rejected the message of Paul, desired both to disassociate themselves and to prejudice authorities, portraying Christians as dangerous revolutionaries. It was a mass-conversion in Antioch when Christians first received a nickname differentiating themselves from their Jewish counterparts.10 This differentiation opened a new era of persecution from a Roman world that gave no such religious immunities to Christians, as it had for the Jews.
ROMAN PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS
It was not long before Christians became a recognizable and particularly detested segment of the Roman world. By 64 AD they were already so set that Nero was able to use them as a likely scapegoat in his Smokey the Bear campaign, which will be discussed in the next section.11
The problem with converted Christians is the way in which they broke from the social norms that were vastly important in the Roman world. From arranged marriages to well prepared dinner banquets for select guests, political positioning of families was key to survival in this world. However, when friends or political acquaintances converted to Christianity they would withdraw almost entirely from the political structure. They refused to partake in the festivals and games, rejecting the gods, which they felt kept their nation strong for so long. They rejected the divinity of the Emperor–a sin that the gods would not allow go unpunished for long. They even refused to partake in joyous sexual ritual prostitution and lively drinking bouts. In addition, some of the Christians refused the meat from the markets, because it was routine for the cuts to be part of the sacrificial system. And most personal, they refused invitations to dine with other long time friends and families. These kill-joys were shunning their former political alliances and beginning to make enemies out of one time allies and friends.12
The difficulty for Christians only compounded as the tensions leading to the persecutions grew. For Jewish Christians the temptation to fall back to their safe Jewish roots in which they were raised also held the lure of being able to once again claim Jewish religious legal immunity. Gentile Christians had no natural link to this religion with its’ roots in Judaism and no political power to protect or aid them or their families. The fact that the Christian church was able to survive was nothing short of a miracle.13
And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast…having…ten horns…drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.14
The ten persecutions of the Christians spanning from 64 AD to 313 AD was ascribed by the fourth century Christian church as the ten horns of the beast in Revelation and by the ten plagues seen in Egypt.15 The persecutions, each with varying motives and reasons, all share the same peculiar markings in that while the persecutions were historically verifiable, no recorded laws have survived that specify reasons for the persecutions. As the persecutions evolved from one generation to the next, the subsequent generation seemed to use the past persecutions as edict enough for continuing or reigniting them. For example, in response to Pliny on how to deal with and prosecute Christians, Emperor Trajan writes, “No general rule can be laid out in fixed terms.” However, he does say unequivocally, “Certain accusations published anonymously should not be entertained on any charge. For they both set a very bad precedence and are alien to the spirit of our age.” Pliny was content in sentencing Christians to death for simply being too stubborn in their holding to Christianity in the face of certain death.16
Stemming from the second persecution under Domitian, the charge of refusing to worship the Imperial Cult seemed to be the first and great charge against the Christians. Some have argued that atheism was the charge against Christians; however, atheism in and of itself was not a crime in the Roman Empire. If, though, Christianity was held to with such stubbornness that one refused to pay alms to the Imperial Cult, then the subject was in violation of law. However, the worship of the Imperial Cult was not an issue until the reign of Domitian who, unlike his predecessors, forced the people to address him as their “Lord and their God” during his lifetime, and not after–when Caesars ascended to the level of a god. Domitian even had coins made bearing his likeness that read “father of the gods.”17
THE TEN PERSECUTIONS
1. Persecution under Nero 67 AD — Nero burned a great portion of Rome in a fire that lasted nine days. When word got out that Nero started the fire an uproar forced him to find a scapegoat and so he blamed Christians. During this first great persecution of the Christians Nero started a trend that lasted throughout all ten of the persecutions in that he devised new and increasingly gruesome punishments, including sewing animal skins to Christians and releasing wild dogs to eat them alive. He also put shirts dipped in wax on some of the Christians and then lit them on fire, using them to illuminate his gardens for his invited guests. His acts were so heinous that even the Romans felt sorrow toward the Christians. Paul and Peter died in this first round of persecution.18
2. Persecution under Domitian 81 AD — Known for cruelty, he killed his brother and many senators, some due to his hatred of them and others to simply confiscate their lands. He also ordered the death of the entire lineage of David. His persecution of Christians stemmed from their refusal to worship him as a god, something most emperors up to this point refused to accept. Among those killed during this persecution was Simeon, the Bishop of Jerusalem. He tried to boil John alive, but when he miraculously survived he was banished to Patmos. Timothy was beaten by a crowd of people on their way to celebrate a pagan feast. He was beaten so badly that he died from his wounds two days later. During the persecution, if any famine pestilence or earthquake happened, the blame was laid on the Christians.19
3. Persecution under Trajan 108 AD — Much the same continued regarding Imperial Cult worship during Trajan’s reign. Ignatius was the most famous of the martyrs of this persecution.20
4. Persecution under Marcus Aurelius Antonius 162 AD — So brutal were the means by which these martyrs were persecuted that it is said the Pagan onlookers would shutter with horror at the sights and some became converts at, “A faith which inspired such fortitude.” Polycarp and Justin Martyr were given crowns of martyrdom during this persecution.21
5. Persecution commencing with Severus 192 AD — The age of Tertullian, who said that if the Christians removed themselves from Rome at this time, it would have suffered a great depopulation. In a reversal of the source of the persecutions a Christian healed Emperor Severus of a sickness, but the multitudes demanded the execution of Christians and the reapplication of the defunct Imperial Cult laws to apply to Christians. Many who suffered martyrdom under this persecution fell during games at the amphitheaters. Leonidus, father of Origen was beheaded during this persecution.22
6. Persecution under Maximus 235 AD — In Cappadocia the president Seremianus did all he could to exterminate the Christians from that province. During this time Christians were martyred without trial and their bodies were cast into pits as many as 50 or 60 at a time.23
7. Persecution under Decius 249 AD — There were two causes of this persecution. First, Decius hated his predecessor Philip, who was deemed a Christian and second he was jealous of the rampant growth of Christianity, causing the heathen temples to decrease in attendance. By this time many schisms in the Church body had formed and the persecution was met by a divided Church. Fabian, Bishop of Rome was entrusted by Philip to care for his treasure. When Decius seized it and found less than he expected he had Fabian decapitated–the first martyrdom of this persecution. Many soon followed with yet another new set of imaginative deaths to befall those refusing to renounce Christ. Of note, Origen, like his father before him, was sentenced to death. He was thrown in prison where his feet were pierced and his legs were stretched for several days. He was threatened by fire and tortured with long, slow pains such as these for days upon days. However, before any death could befall him, Emperor Decius died and his successor Gallus engaged in a war with the Goths, leaving the Christians with a respite. Origen, having been given a release, retired to his home and died of natural causes five years later. During the reign of Gallus a plague broke out in the empire. So Gallus ordered sacrifices be made by all in the empire. When Christians refused the magistrates had many of them put to death.24
8. Persecution under Valerian 257 AD — This emperor likewise invented new and distasteful ways of persecuting Christians. Most interesting, however, was the turn of events that marked the end of this, one of the greatest persecutions of the church. Sapor, the King of Persia, captured Valerian and literally used him as a footstool when he mounted his horses. After subjecting him to be a slave in his kingdom for eight years the Persian king then had Valerian’s eyes put out. Still seeking more gruesome ways to torment him, he had Valerian flayed alive and then rubbed with salt until he died.25
9. Persecution under Aurelian 274 AD — The reign of Aurelian, though not this persecution, was short-lived as his own servants put him to death. However, the following emperors who replaced him (and subsequently were likewise met with quick ends) continued the persecution.26
10. Persecution under Diocletian 303 AD — Commonly called the Era of martyrs. Christians were increasing and becoming wealthy. On February 23, 303 Diocletian set forth his work to extinguish Christianity in one day. Watching on from on high the churches were raided, razed to the ground, and the documents burned. Not satisfied with just this, he purposely burned a portion of the city so that he could blame the Christians and further his cause. Countless Christians were martyred in an endless number of ways. The entire city of Phrygia, known for all of its inhabitants being Christian, was burned to the ground with all the people of the city dying in the fire. The torture and martyrdom was so severe that several pagan governors accused the Imperial Court with impropriety. Because of this, some Christians escaped death, but not before having their ears cut off, right eyes poked out, noses slit, limbs dislocated with such severity that they were rendered useless, and finally branded with red-hot irons.27
One final item of note: The persecution of the Christians was not a continuing event in the Roman Empire. With some expected exceptions, the time in between these distinct persecutions was rather peaceful for the Church. With each new emperor however, they were met with new uncertainties.
In conclusion, the reasons for the various persecutions of the Christians were as varied and complex as the world in which the early church lived. It is a mistake to oversimplify the issue in an effort to categorize it. As has been documented, Christians suffered persecution from both Jews and Gentiles. The reasons for the persecutions varied with each group, as well as from within each group. There is much speculation as to the motives and reasons behind the persecutions. However, there are very few surviving documents, legal or otherwise, which express the grounds for such persecutions, other than the fact that they were simply, “Christians.”
Fox, John. Fox’ Book of Martyrs. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.
Hare, Douglas R. A. The Theme of Jewish persecution of the Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by William Whiston. Philadelphia, PA: Henry T. Coates & CO.
Roetzel, Calvin. The World That Shaped the New Testament. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Whittaker, Molly. Jews & Christians: Graeco-Roman Views. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Workman, Herbert. Persecution in the Early Church. London: The Epworth Press, 1923.
Christian and Pagan Primary Sources Speaking of the Persecution
This information is taken largely from Molly Whittaker’s Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views. See the Works Cited Page for more details. This is not intended as an exhaustive list.
I Peter 4:12-16
Early Christian Sources:
Ignatius Letter to Romans 5.1
Martydom of Polycarp 1-19
Justin martyr Apology 2.9-20
Acts of Justin
Letter of the Gallican Church
Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs
Origen Celsum 1.9
Origen Celsum 1.28
Origen Celsum 2.55
Origen Celsum 3.12
Origen Celsum 3.55
Origen Celsum 5.14
Origen Celsum 7.9
Origen Celsum 8.24
Origen Celsum 8.67-9
Origen Celsum 1.28
Galen Reference 6 (Pg. 15)
Lucian On the Death of Peregrinus 333-8; 341
Alexander the False Prophet 232.25; 244.38-245
Tertullian Apology 50
Tacitus Ann. 13.32.3-5
Tacitus Ann. 15.44.2-8
Life of Nero 16
Pliny Letter 10.96.1-10
Pliny Letter 10.97
1. Douglas R. A. Hare, The Theme of Jewish persecution of the Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 2.
2. Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament, (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 59f.
3. Ibid, 57ff.
4. Hare, 6f.
5. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Philadelphia, PA: Henry T. Coates & CO.), 3.
6. Molly Whittaker, Jews & Christians: Graeco-Roman Views, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 133.
7. John 18:31
8. Whittaker, 133
9. Whittaker also notes similar incidents in 13:42-50, 17:1-9, 10-14, (Whittaker, 133).
10. Acts 11:19-26
11. Whittaker, 134.
12. Ibid, 133f.
13. Ibid, 133.
14. Revelations 17:3, 6.
15. Herbert B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, (London: The Epworth Press, 1923), 9.
16. Wittaker, 134.
17. Roetzel, 113f.
18. John Fox, Fox’ Book of Martyrs, (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 5f.
19. Ibid, 6f.
20. Ibid, 7f.
21. Ibid, 8ff.
22. Ibid, 12f.
23. Ibid, 14.
24. Ibid, 14ff.
25. Ibid, 18ff.
26. Ibid, 22ff.
27. Ibid, 24ff.
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