Persecution and martyrdom were central to the experience of the early Christians.
Early Persecution of Christianity
The crucifixion of Christ was around the year 30 AD, and the religion of Christianity began as a small messianic movement within Palestine, but it quickly spread out across the Roman Empire.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of persecution in the story of Christianity. The phenomenon of martyrdom is fundamental to the early Christian experience and mindset. It was real – not an exaggeration, as some scholars have claimed.
Martyr is a Greek word that means “witness.” Martyrdom is evident in the book of Acts, which portrays the martyrdom of Stephen, the first (or “proto”) martyr. Stephen’s martyrdom, and all martyrdom, is influenced by the fact that they worship someone who was crucified by the Romans. Jesus Christ himself set the precedent of dying for the faith.
The martyrdom of Stephen is an influential model on the idea that, at the moment of death, the martyr is given grace. The martyrdom of Stephen would have taken place sometime in the 30s AD. Notice that that the first martyr was executed by the Jews of Jerusalem. Early Christianity was too small to be noticed by the Romans; it primarily caused tensions within Judaism.
The earliest known episode of persecution took place under the reign of Nero. The religion of Christianity had already spread to the city of Rome by the early 60s AD. We know this because Paul writes a letter to a Christian community at Rome, and both Peter and Paul are drawn to Rome.
In late 64 AD, there was a great fire at Rome. We know about this event from Tacitus, a Roman source. The enormous fire destroyed huge swathes of Rome. At the time, the emperor Nero was building an enormous palace complex, the Golden House; the common people of Rome came to suspect that Nero himself had set the fire in order to make room for his palace. In desperate need for a scapegoat, Nero laid the blame on a new movement: Christianity.
This is recounted by Tacitus:
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Tacitus, The Annals 15.44)
This passage is revealing for two reasons:
It shows that there were already some Christians in Rome, and that their presence was large enough to merit a place as scapegoats.
There is no sign that the Christians were arrested for their religious beliefs; it is an episode of scapegoating.
The Christian community was growing; it was becoming an Ekklesia, a church. Ekklesia doesn’t mean a physical building. In fact, early Christians meet in houses, like the one at Duro-Europos. In the earliest decades of Christianity, they met in relatively unstructured communities.
The Christian community developed institutions over time, in phases, in response to circumstances. You can think of three phases in the story of Christianity during imperial period:
The Phase of the Open Road (30-70 AD)
The Phase of the First Institutions (70-100 AD)
The Search for Orthodoxy (100-312 AD)
During the life of Jesus, the church had limited visible institutions. The word “church” appears only once in the Gospel of Matthew. Peter will be the rock of his church and the keys to the kingdom of God (Matthew 16:18). This declaration is significant because Peter traveled to Rome and died there – quite possibly in the year 64 AD during the persecution of Nero. In the Open Road Phase, Christianity was spreading around the Roman Empire through the apostles’ preaching. This we know principally from the Acts and Paul’s letter. It was a period of apocalyptic fervor in which the Christians expected the end times to come soon. In this Open Road Phase, the nature of authority in the early Christian community was relatively unformed. Think of the first controversy: the Gentile controversy. How was it resolved? Through a meeting of early church figures: James, Peter, and Paul. There was no institution to decide such questions of doctrine. The authority on these matters was left to the people who had known Jesus.
However, in the 60s and 70s AD, something crucial happened in the history of Christianity: the people who had known Jesus began to die. Think of how traumatic that must have been for the early Christians. The leading authorities of the early church, who had gained their authority by personally knowing Jesus, began to die off. The gospels are the written memories of the apostles as they began to die.
Leadership began to splinter when those who were close to Jesus started to die. There came a need to establish institutions, structure, and authority. You can see the growth of institutions in the New Testament in texts like 1 Timothy which show the transition from a community scattered around the Mediterranean to an institutional church. A sign indicating this phenomenon is the fact that you see a much clearer and stronger version of institutional leadership. Offices such as the Episcopos, the bishop, are mentioned. We see other offices, deacons, and the office of elder (presbyteros).
In this period, we see the beginning of Christian institutions, though there is certainly no divide between clergy and laity at the local level. To be an overseer, a bishop, a deacon, or a presbyter does not make you a lifelong preacher. It merely means you are the one with authority in your community.
Around 100 AD, while the church was continuing to grow, tremendous disputes arose within the church over Christian orthodoxy. The second and third century church continued to debate the nature of Christianity, defining such questions as “What is orthodoxy?” Even as the church grew, and in many ways because it grew, there were continual challenges in the search for orthodoxy.
The book of Revelation was probably written around the year 95 AD. Even in this book, the growth of Christian communities is present. Think about the list of churches in Asia. This book also shows the rise of persecution against the Christians. At some moment between the year 64 AD and the very end of the first century, the growth of Christian communities rose to the attention of the Roman empire. It became a problem that the Roman empire was willing to address. The Book of Revelation witnessed this fact.
The persecution of Christians is corroborated in other texts of the period, including non-Christian texts such as the letters of Pliny the Younger. His letters are prominent texts. Pliny was a senator and administrator who worked for the Roman emperor Trajan. Around the year 112 AD, Pliny was sent as a high-ranking governor to the province of Bithynia. Pliny later wrote letters to Trajan about the persecution of Christians. He discusses the kinds of issue that a Roman governor would face when entering a new province. He wrote to the emperor precisely because he did not know what to do with the Christians.
“I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.”
Is it punishable simply to be recognized as a Christian? Pliny does not know. He continues,
“Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”
Pliny also mentions that he takes deaconesses who were slaves, and he tortured them. He writes that many persons, of every age, sex, and class, are in danger of these accusations.
“For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.”
Pliny suggests that the followers of Christianity are incredibly diverse.
We have the letter that Trajan wrote back: “do not accept anonymous accusations… but if someone makes a facial [in person] accusation, then try the person and see if they will sacrifice.”
It is an extraordinary series of letters. The Roman governor doesn’t know what to do, but he has the sense that Christianity is somehow illegal. Furthermore, he is perfectly willing to give Christians the death penalty.
The persecution of the Christians continued in the second century. The Romans were broadly tolerant – in fact, most polytheists are – but the Romans began to persecute Christianity. There are a couple reasons as to why this occurred:
Part of the answer is that Christianity had become distinct enough from Judaism, and was therefore excluded from the Jewish dispensation allowing them to practice their religion. The Jews had this right because their religion was ancient. Christianity was new. Nothing is more dangerous than innovation. How could something new come in religion? Novelty in religion is anathema and antithetical to the Roman mind.
Think about what the Christians were worshipping: a Palestinian peasant given the death penalty. They worshipped this figure, but they refused to sacrifice to the emperor.
Christianity was spreading. Pliny says that all persons of every sex, age, and class are becoming Christians. Christianity was growing at such a rate that it was becoming threatening.
Polytheism is a community religion, and the Christians practiced their religion outside the community. There was no separation of church and state, so the Christians acted against the state by not partaking in the public religion. Christians refused to worship the Roman gods, among whom were the deified emperors.
The Romans came to despise this religion of slaves and women that refused to submit to Roman public religion. The Roman gods blessed the empire and grew crops. Who was to blame when natural disasters occurred? Tertullian, an early church father, writes that Christians are blamed instantly at every natural disaster. Christians were blamed when the Roman gods punished society, because the Christians were disrupting the peace of the gods. We know of one episode of persecution in 177 AD when some churches in Gaul were attacked because an outbreak of plague. The Christians were not systematically persecuted, but they were especially vulnerable in these periodic moments of persecution.
Tertullian says that the call to throw Christians to lions arises at every disaster. Execution was part of the culture of public spectacle. The Romans loved public spectacles, especially violent games. They loved to watch as people were killed in entertaining ways – including by animals. It is impossible to understand the early Christian mindset without knowledge of this experience.
Martyr means “witness.” Christians were willing to die in front of great crowds as witnesses for Christ. Tertullian writes that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” When Christians were publicly executed, the audience did not always react with applause. Many saw these Christians as courageous. And if they were willing to die in horrible ways for their faith, what did that say about their faith? What better way could there be to spread the religion? Romans tried to humiliate and kill Christians, but it only made Christianity stronger.
The martyrs were the heroes of the early church. They were the ones who kept alive the tradition of Jesus and the Apostles who had died before them. This attitude permeates early Christian literature. One example is the martyrdom of Perpetua – an extraordinary text, and one of the earliest pieces of martyr literature. It details her arrest and her execution, celebrating her bravery and sacrifice. Part of it appears to be her journal, and it gives an intimate account of the mentality of a martyr: the decisions they had to make in order to witness for their faith.
Martyrdom would have a lot of staying power within Christianity. In many respects, it is due to the glory of the martyrs that later Christians increasingly turned to asceticism as a method of “self-persecution” – so that they could live as their heroes had. However, in the first and second centuries, the age of the martyrs was ongoing.