Early Christian Martyrdoms: Persecution in the Roman Empire

In the book of Acts (5: 34-39), Luke records the prescient words of a Pharisee called Gamaliel, who had questioned the wisdom of the persecution of Peter and other apostles:

“But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’”

Did Christianity die down, as predicted by Gamaliel, or did the faith grow in number based upon its Godly inspiration? Historians offer the answer: by 300 A.D., Christianity had between five and six million adherents (Wawro, 2008). Following legalization in 313 A.D. by Constantine, Christianity grew even more dramatically. By 350 A.D., Christians numbered over 33 million (Wawro, 2008).  “In terms of world-historical significance, few developments can rival the enduring impact of the triumph of Christianity within the Roman world” (Bryant, 1993, p. 303).

Christian Persecution

Yet life was not easy for early Christians. In the New Testament, numerous reports by authors such as Luke and Paul document early Christian persecution. Acts 7: 54-60 documents the stoning of Stephen, while Acts 12:2 documents the way Herod Agrippa put James, the brother of John, to death by the sword. Paul was also stoned, beaten, jailed, which he documented in his New Testament books. His beheading by Nero was documented by Origen, Tertullian, and Dionysius of Corinth (Habermas & Licona, 2004). The martyrdom of Jesus’ half- brother James was documented by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria (Habermas & Licona, 2004). Peter was crucified upside down, as confirmed by Eusebius, the first church historian, in his book “Ecclesiastical History” and also by Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen.

While we have significant documentation of the earliest Christian martyrs, documentation of those who were persecuted in the next generations prior to the legalization of Christianity is less prevalent. The intention of the present blog is to draw from the academic literature to shed more light on the early years of Christianity.

The Roman Empire

In Annals (15:44), Tacitus documented the way that Nero singled out Christians to blame for the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. Tacitus stated that Christians were singled out for their “hatred of the human race” and “abominations.” According to Tacitus, Nero punished Christians by nailing them to crosses, burning them as torches for light after sundown, and covering them in animal skins so they could be eaten by dogs. “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.”

“Nero’s mass executions had in any event set a precedent, and thereafter the mere fact of ‘being a Christian’ was sufficient for state officials to impose capital punishment. This situation is strikingly illustrated in the famous correspondence between Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger  (61 – 113 A.D.), the provincial governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor in A.D. 112 (Bryant, 1993, p. 314).”

In his Letters (to Emperor Trajan 10:96-97), Pliny the Younger states: “It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? 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. And 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.

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.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.”

Trajan responded: “You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

According to Bryant (1993, p. 314), “Tertullian provides the classic summary, observing that the pagans take the Christians to be the cause of every public disaster, of every misfortune of the people; if the Tiber reaches the walls or if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or if the earth does, if there is famine or a pestilence, at once the cry goes up: ‘Christians to the lion’. (Apology 40.1-2).

The Roman Colosseum

“The first Christian martyrs to be thrown to the wild beasts died in the arena of the Colosseum and, because of these martyrs, who succeeded the gladiators, the Colosseum was venerated greatly during the Middle Ages. It was considered to be a monument consecrated to the martyrdom of the early Christians. Only for that reason was it saved and for the same reason the vast structure, partially in ruins but still impressive in character, is still revered by many in the civilized world” (Rutledge, 1940).

“Immediately after registering Marcus Aurelius’ succession to Antoninus Pius [in 161 A.D.], Eusebius reports that, at the time discussed, there were great persecutions in Asia (IV, 14, io-i5, I) and that Polycarp was one of the martyrs of these persecutions…. Before telling the story of Polycarp’s arrest, torture, and execution Eusebius makes references to ‘the other martyrs’ with a summary characterization and some gory details of the barbarous treatment of these victims in this round of anti-Christian violence in Smyrna. For Polycarp was the twelfth martyr in this city, all the other martyrs being from Philadelphia (IV, 15, 45). Apart from Polycarp, Eusebius mentions only one other martyr by name, Germanicus (IV, I5,5 (Keresztes, 1968, p. 322).”

“According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, it was the noonday crowd [at the Colosseum] that reacted ‘with uncontrollable wrath’ when [Bishop] Polycarp confessed to being a Christian. They first cried out to Philip the Asiarch to let a lion lose on Polycarp, but Philip could not do that, for the morning hunts were closed. Then the crowd cried out ‘with one mind that he should burn Polycarp alive’” (Thompson, 2002, p. 33)…. “Polycarp gazed directly at the crowd as he said ‘Away with the atheists’” (Mart. Pol. 9.2 cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 43). He was soon burned at the stake.

“Among the martyrs at Lyons was Sanctus, whose ‘body bore witness to his sufferings, being all one bruise and one wound, stretched and distorted out of any recognizably human shape; but Christ suffering in him achieved great glory, overwhelming the Adversary, and showing as an example to all the others that nothing is to be feared where the Father’s love is, nothing painful where we find Christ’s glory.’ The slave girl, Blandina, after being tortured, was ‘hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts that were let loose on her. She seemed to hang there in the form of a cross … and with their physical eyes they [the other martyrs] saw in the person of their sister him who was crucified for them.’” (Mart. Pol. 1.2 cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 48).

Roman Emperor Decius (201 – 251 A.D.) instituted what was considered to be the first organized persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire (Scarre, 1995). Prior to Decius, persecutions of Christians had been more sporadic and local. Decius required that all citizens to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor in the presence of a Roman magistrate. The magistrate then issued a signed and witnessed certificate. Refusal to make this sacrifice resulted in the martyrdoms of some Christians, such as Babylas of Antioch, Alexander of Jerusalem, and Pope Fabian. Others, such as Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, went into hiding (Chapman, 2013). The next Emperor Gallienus paid less attention to Christianity, so the laws went into abeyance.

They were resurrected again with Diocletian, who came into office in 284. In 303, Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts that rescinded Christians’ legal rights and required compliance with traditional Pagan religious practices.

That ended when Constantine came into office in 306 A.D. Constantine restored Christians to full legal equality and returned property to them that had been confiscated. In 313 A.D., he signed the Edict of Milan, which offered Christians a comprehensive acceptance. Constantine himself had converted to Christianity when he had a vision of a Christian symbol, which helped him to win a battle and his seat as the Roman Emperor. Thank God for Constantine!

What is truly amazing about Christianity is the fact that the movement not only survived early Christian persecution, but thrived despite such persecution. Building from the words of Gamaliel, let us note that no one could put an end to Christianity, even though many, such as Nero, Decius, and Diocletian, tried. How is it possible that a small Jewish sect led by a humble carpenter, several fishermen, a tent maker, and a tax collector could spur a movement that had between five and six million followers while still illegal in 300 A.D.? Nothing is impossible with God.

Christianity is now the most widespread religion in the world with over two billion followers. It is the only religion that is not centered around the location of its origin. And it is the only religion with an active, personal Lord who loves and forgives His children.

Thank you for your time.

References

Bryant, J.M. (1993). The sect-church dynamic and Christian expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, penitential discipline, and schism in sociological perspective. The British Journal of Sociology, 44(2): 303-339.

Chapman, J. (2013). St. Cyprian of Carthage. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 4. Robert Appleton Company, 1908.

Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Keresztes, P. (1968). Marcus Aurelius a persecutor? The Harvard Theological Review, 61(3): 321-341.

Rutledge, H.T. (1940). Restoring Rome’s Colosseum. Scientific American, 162(3): 150-151.

Scarre, C. (1995). Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: the reign-by-reign record of the rulers of Imperial Rome. Thames & Hudson.

Thompson, L.L. (2002). The martyrdom of Polycarp: Death in the Roman games. The Journal of Religion, 82(1): 27-52.

Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Elanora Heights, Australia: Millennium House.

 

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